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Title: A Poached Peerage
Author: Magnay, William
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A Poached Peerage" ***

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[Frontispiece: "'I have a prior and a stronger claim on Mr. Gage,' said
Lalage, with calm determination." (Page 171.)]



A POACHED PEERAGE


BY

SIR WILLIAM MAGNAY, BART.


  AUTHOR OF
  "FAUCONBERG," "THE RED CHANCELLOR,"
  "A PRINCE OF LOVERS," ETC.



"There is a third party to all our bargains"



_ILLUSTRATED_



LONDON

WARD, LOCK & CO., LIMITED

1909



CONTENTS


  CHAPTER I
  CHAPTER II
  CHAPTER III
  CHAPTER IV
  CHAPTER V
  CHAPTER VI
  CHAPTER VII
  CHAPTER VIII
  CHAPTER IX
  CHAPTER X
  CHAPTER XI
  CHAPTER XII
  CHAPTER XIII
  CHAPTER XIV
  CHAPTER XV
  CHAPTER XVI
  CHAPTER XVII
  CHAPTER XVIII
  CHAPTER XIX
  CHAPTER XX
  CHAPTER XXI
  CHAPTER XXII
  CHAPTER XXIII
  CHAPTER XXIV
  CHAPTER XXV
  CHAPTER XXVI
  CHAPTER XXVII
  CHAPTER XXVIII
  CHAPTER XXIX
  CHAPTER XXX
  CHAPTER XXXI
  CHAPTER XXXII
  CHAPTER XXXIII
  CHAPTER XXXIV
  CHAPTER XXXV
  CHAPTER XXXVI
  CHAPTER XXXVII
  CHAPTER XXXVIII
  CHAPTER XXXIX
  CHAPTER XL
  CHAPTER XLI
  CHAPTER XLII



CHAPTER I

A pretty girl looked out of the low-silled coffee-room window of the
_Quorn Arms_ at Great Bunbury, and threw a glance of roguish invitation
at a watchful young man who was pretending to be busy in the courtyard.
Then she disappeared.  The young man lost no time in throwing down his
broom, and, with a manifestly assumed air of indifference, approached
the window.  He looked in warily, then glanced round behind him, and
next moment had thrown his leg over the sill and was in the room.  The
girl, with her back to the window, was polishing a brass candlestick
with a vigour which suggested that the occupation left no room for less
material thoughts.  Also that she was, for a smart young woman,
strangely unobservant of the fact that a man had entered by the window,
until an arm round her waist brought the fact to her notice.  Even then
she did not start or cry out, merely disengaging herself from the
expected caress by a self-possessed and apparently well practised twist.

"I can't stop a moment, Tom," she remarked coolly; "only I saw you
outside.  Father's in the bar."

"And I've been hanging about a good half-hour to see you, Mercy," her
swain declared impressively.  "I say, as time's short, don't let's
waste it.  Give us a kiss."

For answer Miss Mercy Popkiss turned her head aside at a right angle as
though suddenly attracted by something in the street.  An attitude of
preoccupation does not, however, necessarily imply refusal; under
certain circumstances it even stands for an invitation.  As such Mr.
Thomas Sparrow unhesitatingly regarded it.

"One more," he pleaded coaxingly, as Miss Popkiss bent away from his
somewhat ravenous embrace.

"Wait a bit," she said.  "I've something to tell you.  I'm going to
leave here."

"What, leave the _Quorn Arms_?" exclaimed Mr. Sparrow blankly.

"Yes, truly.  I'm going to be still-room maid at the Towers.  You see,"
she went on to explain cheerfully, "father doesn't like my being here,
having to wait on the riff-raff as well as the gentry.  He says it is
not the best training for a young lady; and when father says a thing,
that thing's settled.  They are all swells at the Towers; lords and
ladies and toffs from London.  It will be fine."

But Mr. Sparrow was far from sharing her jubilation.  "The Towers!" he
exclaimed disconsolately.  "Why, they be four mile off, or more.
You'll forget me, Mercy, among all them fine folk; lords, flunkeys and
valets and butlers and swells like that, with their dashin' London
ways."

"Oh, don't you look so silly," the girl remonstrated archly.  "Noblemen
and butlers and all that sort aren't anything particular to me.  If
you'd smarten yourself up a bit instead of looking like a ploughman,
you might get a place there too.  Especially now the new Lord Quorn is
coming home and Colonel Hemyock will have to turn out."

Mr. Sparrow perked up a little.  "Ah," he observed with an air of
indifferentism to the warmer subject, "Lord Quorn; he that has been
found in Australy.  I suppose when her ladyship turns out you'll be off
to London with her."

"Time enough to think about that when she goes," Miss Popkiss returned
evasively.  "Lordship or no lordship, he can't turn her out before her
time's up.  And then it might suit me to stay on with him.  I wonder
what he'll be like," she added, with a significant touch of feminine
interest.

Mr. Sparrow's prosaic face grew dark.  "Oh, Mercy," he cried, gloomily
wrathful, "if I was to see another man, lord or lout, making love to
you, I'd smash him."

Her words having produced what was precisely the desired effect, Miss
Popkiss proceeded to tone it down with a provocative smile.  "You can
think of smashing when you see it, Tom.  And, I say----"

"Yes, dear?" said Tom, inwardly despising himself for being so easily
mollified.

"I--I hear father in the bar," she suggested significantly.

Mr. Sparrow took the hint and another kiss.  Perhaps his ruffled
feelings were responsible for its being a louder osculation than
prudence dictated.  Anyhow an approaching voice croaked--

"Mercy!  Mercy!  What are you after?"

"Quick, Tom," the girl directed in a hurried whisper, "slip out of the
window."

Mr. Sparrow was already there, with a foot over the sill.  Its passage
to the ground was, however, prevented by the substantial back of some
one who was crouching outside the window.  The disconcerted Philander
swiftly drew his leg back again as though it had been stung, and made a
slinking rush for the table under which he crept just as Popkiss
_père_, his rotund face coruscating with suspicion, filled the doorway.

"What are you up to, I ask you?" he demanded of his daughter with what
seemed unnecessary vehemence as his small eyes roved in puffy cunning
round the room.

"Polishing the candlesticks, father," she answered coolly.  "Is there
anything else you would prefer me to do?"

Not being ready with a suggestion, Mr. Popkiss merely fell back upon a
snort of sagacity, and turned his portly person preparatory to waddling
back to the bar.  "Come here, I want you," he commanded vaguely by an
after-thought, in the hope that by the time he had reached his beery
citadel a task might suggest itself to his sluggish invention.

"All right, father," Miss Popkiss replied cheerily, as with more
clatter than was absolutely necessary, she replaced the candlestick on
its shelf.  Then she took a round-about route to the door, preferring
it possibly on account of the variety its closer view of the courtyard
afforded.  As she was about to pause at the window the man crouching
outside suddenly raised himself and looked in with a knowing grin.
Miss Popkiss, suppressing a start, deftly changed the amorous look she
had prepared into one of haughty displeasure, and swept in a fine
carriage of scorn from the room.  Whereupon the man surmounted the sill
and entered.

He was a curiously nondescript sort of person, with a short, round
face, a short nose, short hair, short beard, short arms, short fingers
and short legs.  His manner also was short, even jerky.  He looked
round the room with a sharpness and vigilance which seemed quite thrown
away upon its commonplace and unsuspicious contents, and absolutely
futile in that they failed to detect Mr. Sparrow who lay snug
underneath the table.  But then self-constituted keenness is usually
ignorant of what is going on under its nose.

"No stranger about," the man muttered.  Then he took a telegram from
the side pocket of his light overcoat, where it had lain as though
ready to his hand for consultation.  "My wire from the Yard is
explicit.  Yet," he mused, as he methodically folded the telegram and
dropped it back into his pocket, "if he left the train at Faxfleet he
ought to be here by this.  It might take him an hour and a half, or two
hours.  I must find out."  He walked softly towards the door.  "Better
not let old Popkiss see me," he murmured, "he talks too much.  But," he
chuckled knowingly, "there's the pretty daughter, if I can catch her
that's the dodge; I don't know what Sarah would say, but it's all in
the way of business."  From which observation it is plain that æsthetic
shortcomings do not necessarily prevent a man from fancying himself
irresistible.

Peeping cautiously through the doorway he saw Miss Mercy alone in the
bar, perfunctorily at work upon a task of supererogation which the
paternal wisdom had set her.

"Hist!" he signalled, and when she looked up in disdain he beckoned
mysteriously and withdrew.

Miss Popkiss, in no amiable humour, was forced as a matter of business
to follow him.  "What is your order, sir?" she inquired, with a toss of
the head.  But the man signed to her to come nearer still with such an
air of mysterious importance that she was forced to drop something of
her haughty manner.  "I did not see you come in, sir," she remarked
casually, as a first step toward affability.

For reply the man gave a knowing jerk of the head and indicated the
window with his thumb.  "Hope you are well this morning, my dear," her
observed inconsequentially.  "It is quite a pleasure to see any one
looking so pretty and blooming."

Ignoring the incongruity between the guest's mysterious prelude and his
crudely outspoken appreciation of her charms, Miss Popkiss was not
above accepting the tribute to her good looks.  "Oh, sir," she said
with a touch of protest just sufficient to maintain her propriety; and
so waited for the order to which the compliment would have been a
natural preamble.

The guest pursed his lips and kept his small eyes on her with
business-like admiration.  "Very busy, eh?" he suggested, absurdly
enough, since he appeared to be the only customer in the house.  "Any
one fresh staying here?" he asked with an obvious affectation of
indifference.

"No, we've had no one fresh to-day, sir," Miss Popkiss answered,
beginning to lose interest in the colloquy.

"Oh," said the man, blinking his eyes suspiciously.  "Are you quite
sure?  No one been here to-day?"

His manner was so exaggerated in its significance that Miss Popkiss,
with Mr. Sparrow's clandestine visit fresh in her mind, grew uneasy
under it.  "No, sir," she answered, a trifle unconvincingly.  "Who
should there have been?"

A triumphant gleam shot through her questioner's eyes.  He dropped his
cross-examiner's manner and said confidentially, "I thought I saw some
one come in just now."

So it was Tom.  Miss Popkiss flushed a little guiltily.

"By the door?" she suggested evasively.

"Or by the window," he hazarded, with noncommittal sagacity.

Miss Popkiss concluded that further equivocation was futile.

"Well, sir, and if you did, what about it?" she demanded defiantly.

Her cross-examiner saw that he had made a lucky hit.  "Oh," he
answered, assuming a careless manner "I only looked in to warn you, in
case he has been making up to you, that he is a bad lot, a wrong 'un
altogether; so don't you have anything to do with him."

Had the speaker's searching little eyes not been attracted elsewhere
they must have noticed a peculiar agitation of the table-cloth greater
than the draught would account for.

"Why, you don't mean to say he makes love to any one else," Miss
Popkiss asked, between wrath and jealousy.

"Dozens, dozens," the visitor replied cheerfully.  "Every girl he
meets.  All that sort do."

"Two can play at that game," the lady commented resentfully.

"Yes," he agreed waggishly: "it takes two to play it properly.  Now,
look here, my dear," he added with an abrupt return to business; "I'll
talk to him.  You just tell me where he is."

"Oh, no, sir," Miss Popkiss returned resolutely; "you just leave him to
me.  I'll do the talking."

But her interviewer did not seem content, for reasons of his own, that
the matter should be taken out of his hands.

"Now just let me see him, there's a dear," he urged coaxingly.  "Do,
there's a little darling," he pleaded, becoming somewhat unreasonably
affectionate.  "I'll put some salt on his tail."

"Please, no; I'd rather you didn't, sir," returned Miss Popkiss with
decision, as though feeling quite competent to perform the condimentary
operation herself.

"All in the way of business," the visitor persisted, rubbing his stubby
hands together with anticipatory gusto.  Then, before the young lady
could realize it, one of the stumpy arms had stolen round her waist.
"Give me a kiss and tell me where to find him, and I'll knock the
stuffing out of the rascal," he whispered insinuatingly.

But Miss Popkiss was not so easily got round.  "Don't, sir!  What would
father say?" she protested with a vigour which was likewise included in
the action with which she released herself; an action performed with
such adroitness as to give the impression that this was owed to its
being frequently called for.

"Where is he, my sweetie?" persisted the curious one, in no wise
abashed by his repulse.

Next moment the question was answered by a crash, as the table was
overturned, and there rose, struggling with the hampering folds of its
cover, the irate form of Mr. Thomas Sparrow.



CHAPTER II

With a vicious kick at the encumbering and undignified table-cover, Mr.
Sparrow, green with passion, advanced upon his supposed traducer, who
backed away in a composite attitude of protest, authority, and
apprehension.

"Oh, Tom!" cried Miss Popkiss ruefully, but Mr. Sparrow had no eyes for
her just then.

"Scoundrel, am I?  Rascal, am I?" he hissed at the retreating stranger.
"I'll show you.  I'll give you----"

The other man had backed, by an oversight, into the corner and stood at
bay, with an ugly look in his eyes and a thick-set hand stretched out
in front of him.  "Don't you touch me," he exclaimed warningly, "an
officer of the law in the execution of his duty."

The words had a certain effect on Mr. Sparrow, since his threatening
fist remained in the air.  "What do you want wi' me?" he demanded, with
a quiver in his voice which was, perhaps, not altogether the result of
righteous anger.

"You are Percy Peckover?" the man suggested.

"You are a liar!" was the ready retort.  "I am Thomas Sparrow."

"Yes," corroborated Miss Popkiss, with a remorseful sob; "he is my Tom
Sparrow."

The other man began to look doubtful; then he pulled the telegram from
his pocket and unfolded it with legal deliberation.  "Stop a bit," he
said brusquely.  "Five foot seven," he glanced up uncompromisingly at
the ruffled Sparrow--"You're five foot nine----"

"And a half," put in the person under review.

The other took no notice of the correction, but proceeded with his
comparison.  "Pale--you are brick-dust; oval face--yours is round
enough; dark moustache"; he moved his head quizzingly from side to side
as though looking for something not easily distinguishable: "yours is
sandy--what there is of it----"

Miss Popkiss gave an hysterical giggle, and Mr. Sparrow, words
evidently failing him, merely gurgled and showed his teeth in a
discomfited grin.

"Flash dress," read on the detective, outwardly ignoring the effect of
his blunt differentiation, "yours is agricultural and shabby."

"Shabby?" Sparrow cried furiously.  It was early closing day, and he
had been at pains to smarten himself up in his best; added to which he
would at any time have deprecated personal criticism in the presence of
Miss Popkiss.

But all the apology he got from his tormentor was the terse summing up,
as the telegram was refolded, "Description don't tally.  You can go."

Gathering that it was no half-forgotten peccadillo that had risen
against him, Mr. Sparrow resumed his boldness and eased the curb upon
his wrath.  "Go?" he cried witheringly.  "How about the stuffing?  I'll
go for you!"

He proceeded to do so in such unmistakable fashion that the arm of the
law (being in this case one that was at a disadvantage in the essential
of reach) found itself inadequate for its own protection, and was fain
to invoke lay assistance which forthwith appeared in the portly form of
Host Popkiss.

"Hullo! hullo!" cried that worthy, his high-pitched croak sounding
above the scuffle.  "What's the matter?  I won't have no row on my
licensed premises," he protested in fussy indignation, proceeding to
separate the combatants with a vigour which made up in authority what
it lacked in physique.  "Why, Mr. Doutfire!" he exclaimed in horrified
amazement as he recognised Sparrow's victim.

"Yes, me, Mr. Popkiss," gasped that gentleman, keeping a vicious eye on
his late assailant.  "Will you deal with this party, or shall I?"  As
he spoke he produced and exhibited with a significance which was not
lost upon Mr. Sparrow, a pair of highly-polished handcuffs, of a more
elegant make than the usual vulgar "darbies" which festoon the
blankness of a police-station wall; in effect these were of a pattern
_de luxe_.  None the less had they the immediate effect of calming the
aggressive Sparrow; to whom, with the severity of the outraged licensee
of a highly respectable house of entertainment, Mr. Popkiss now
addressed himself.

"What have you come in here for?  In my coffee-room?"

"I did not come for to be insulted," answered Mr. Sparrow sullenly, as
preferring a negative handling of an awkward question.

But Mr. Popkiss held on to the positive.  "I ask you what you did come
for," he insisted, his severe eye suggesting how much more weight his
tone might have carried had his bones carried less.

"He was under the table."  Mr. Doutfire made the statement without
heat, as though content to let the bare and damning fact speak for
itself.

"Most irregular," said Popkiss weakly, at a loss exactly what to do,
and wishing, but for the slur on his house, that the law's
representative would take the matter out of his hands.  "Look here," he
went on, with an ill-timed and coldly received wink at the detective,
"if you want to play under the table, stop at home and play under your
own; if I catch you under mine or anywhere on my premises where there
is no call for you to be, I'll pull your wing feathers out, Mr.
Sparrow.  Now, hop off."

Under other circumstances Mr. Sparrow might have been ready with a more
or less pertinent rejoinder to the stout inn-keeper's _brutum fulmen_;
as it was, with the glittering symbols of durance dangling before his
fascinated eyes, he was glad enough to find himself in a position to
depart even with his repartee unspoken.

"Mercy," commanded her father, dropping the jocular element in his
severity; "go into the bar, I'll talk to you presently."

And Miss Popkiss, with the uneasy conviction that she had made a fool
of herself, was glad to obey.

"Now, Mr. D., what gives us the pleasure of seeing you here to-day?"
inquired the host, lapsing without an effort into affability.  "I
didn't notice you come in."

"No," replied Doutfire, as he dropped the minatory tokens of his office
into his pocket; "I made free of the window--just in the way of
business, you understand.  Fact is," he continued in a more
confidential tone and with a quite unnecessary repetition of his trick
of glancing round the room in search of impossible eavesdroppers, "I've
had a wire from town.  You are likely to have a queer customer to-day."

The fat face of Mr. Popkiss showed no tangible sign of the effect the
news had on him.  "What, coming here, to this house?" he asked
futilely.  "For Bunbury Races to-morrow, I suppose?"

"Maybe," Mr. Doutfire agreed, in the tone of one who could say more if
he chose, "young swell-mob, I reckon.  Travelled by nine-thirty train
from Waterloo, alighted at Faxfleet and inquired the way here.  I was
ten minutes late at the station and got a lift on here, calculating to
overtake him.  He must have gone by the fields."

"What has he done, Mr. D.?" Popkiss inquired huskily.

"Serious case; counterfeit coin," Mr. Doutfire answered with
importance.  "One of a flash gang.  Now look here," he said with a
touch of authority, "The party I want is sure to turn up soon.  Don't
you allow yourself to do anything calculated to rouse that party's
suspicions: serve him with what he calls for, and leave the rest to me."

"I'd better leave the bill to you as he pays in wrong money, eh?"
suggested Mr. Popkiss, with true trade waggishness, and becoming purple
with enjoyment of his own joke.

Mr. Doutfire permitted himself no more than a faint smile.  "Treasury
won't see you out of pocket, Mr. Popkiss," he declared with importance,
as one fully competent to answer for the liberality of that notoriously
niggardly office.  Then, as having settled the point, he thrust his
hand into his trouser pockets and strutted complacently to the window.
"I hope to make a neat job of it this time," he announced.

"Ah, you're a cute one, you are, Mr. D.," said Popkiss knowingly.

"Well," assented Doutfire, still looking out of the window and rattling
the money in his pockets, "I flatter myself I have done a few pretty
things in my time.  Yes," he continued introspectively, "I've got a
good bit of the fox in me--natural and acquired in the profession"--he
turned suddenly on his heel, confronting Mr. Popkiss--"only in the way
of business, mind you."

The sudden _volte face_ so startled the worthy host that all he could
put forward by way of comment was the trite formula, "You'll have a
glass of me, Mr. D.?"

Possibly Mr. Doutfire took the offer as a tribute to his professional
sagacity; all the same, he declined it.  "No, thank you.  Must keep my
head clear.  Can't drink."

"What, not in the way of business?" chuckled Mr. Popkiss with another
sub-apoplectic seizure.  "One glass," he urged, perhaps wishing, in the
ticklish position of proprietor of licensed premises to stand well with
the representatives of the law.

"Well, just a small one," Mr. Doutfire consented, in a tone which
suggested that the blandishments of all the publicans in England should
not persuade him to exceed his modicum or his duty.

As they turned towards the bar, Mercy met them.  "Father," she said
breathlessly, "the carriage from the Towers has just driven into the
yard.  Colonel Hemyock is asking for you."

"Eh?  All right," exclaimed Popkiss, turning down his cuffs in a
flurry.  "Here, Mercy,"--he ran back--"draw Mr. Doutfire a glass of
anything he fancies."  And so he bustled out, a quivering jelly of
importance and servility, into the courtyard.



CHAPTER III

Colonel Hemyock, the temporary tenant of Staplewick Towers, was a
somewhat blatant specimen of a retired military man with an unbounded
sense of his personal dignity and importance, which sense he derived
from an aristocratic wife.  Never in this world was there anybody more
starchily dignified than the gallant Colonel looked as he sat bolt
upright in his phaeton; a tall, thin, thread-paper of a man, with his
sharp aquiline nose, and brushed out white whiskers, whiskers of which
not a hair was ever seen out of line.  But that was all.  For the rest
he might have been a figure from Madame Tussaud's with a phonograph
inside.

As behind the horseman is said to be invariably seated Black Care, so
behind the gallant driver of that phaeton were sitting the Colonel's
two-fold cares, his two daughters.  People who affected to know
everything--and such are occasionally met with in the country--asserted
that it was with a view to getting her daughters off that the scheming
Lady Agatha Hemyock had insisted on the family's taking up its abode at
the missing Lord Quorn's somewhat derelict place.  And the policy had
not been entirely without result.

But now with the discovery of the new peer the tenancy came to an end.
It was simply left for the Hemyocks to close it pleasantly, and, some
critics said, designingly, by entertaining the new owner for a few
days, introducing him to his property, such as it was, and the Misses
Ethel and Dagmar Hemyock, such as they were, and then leaving him to
his own devices, and the result of theirs.

"Ah--ah, Popkiss," Colonel Hemyock said in his high, thin voice,
acknowledging the bustling innkeeper's salute with a limited flourish
of his whip.  "I just looked in to say that--ah--Lord Quorn" (he spoke
the name with absurd emphasis, shaping his mouth into an O twice as he
pronounced it) "is expected to arrive here this afternoon."

So impressed was Mr. Popkiss by the stiff and immaculate Colonel's
pomposity that all he could ejaculate was, "Dear me, Colonel!  Lord
Quorn?"

"Yes," responded the Colonel freezingly, as he stared straight in front
of him over his horses' ears; "his lordship has just arrived from
Australia."

"I have heard something of it, Colonel," said Mr. Popkiss, regaining
his composure; perhaps because his noble visitor suggested by his
attitude that he admitted him to no more human fellowship than the
mounting block in the yard.  "The late peer's cousin, is he not,
Colonel?  I trust you will not be giving up the Towers?" he added
hypocritically, since the Hemyock establishment could hardly be said to
bring two-and-sixpence per annum into the coffers of the _Quorn Arms
Hotel_.

"I--ah, don't know," the buckram personage answered, still staring
foolishly over his horses' heads.  "Anyhow, his lordship will stay at
the Towers for some time as my guest."

"Curious; in his own house, Colonel," fatuously remarked Mr. Popkiss,
as feeling called to make some comment on the situation.

"It is my place as long as I pay for it," snapped the Colonel loftily.

"Certainly, Colonel; no doubt, Colonel; I beg pardon, Colonel," Popkiss
protested abjectly.

A few heavy drops suddenly came pattering down on the glass roof of the
yard.

"It is going to rain," Colonel Hemyock observed in a tone of irritated
surprise at the outrage.  "We shan't get over to Babbleton this
afternoon."  This to his daughters, who looked, in anticipation of harm
to their finery, more discontented, if possible, than before.  "We had
better put up till Quorn arrives.  You can wait here and I will look in
at the club."

There was a waiting-room adjoining the archway for the accommodation of
the county people who put up their carriages at the _Quorn Arms_ while
they shopped in the town.  Shown in, with much obsequiousness, by Host
Popkiss, the Misses Ethel and Dagmar Hemyock here proposed to spend a
tedious and highly uninteresting half-hour.  The prospect did not tend
to lessen the grievance they entertained against the world in general
and certain unappreciative persons of the male sex in particular.

"I wonder," observed Ethel, taking up and throwing down again the
current number of the _Bunbury Bulletin_, "if father finds Sharnbrook
at the club, whether he will have the sense to let him know we are
here."

"It strikes me ignorance is bliss in Sharnbrook's case," replied Dagmar
cuttingly, as she stood at the window, peevishly regarding the rain.

"Oh, shut up, Dagmar," her sister returned, with a surprising lack of
dignity in one so highly born.  "If it clears up we might take him over
to Babbleton with us."

"If he'll come," said Dagmar sarcastically.

"He must come," Ethel declared emphatically.

"He has fought shy of us since he proposed to you," Dagmar remarked
maliciously.

"And was accepted," put in Ethel decisively.

"Trust you," sneered her sister.  "He has the bad taste to put down the
proposal to the champagne.  Mrs. Wyrley-Byrde told mother so."

"All right," snapped Ethel.  "Not even father's champagne ever made any
man propose to you."

"A man," retorted Dagmar pointedly, "requires to be in his sober senses
to appreciate me.  And if he proposed under the influence of Heidsieck,
I should not accept him."

"Oh, wouldn't you?" returned Ethel with somewhat over-emphasized
incredulity.  "Anyhow, I am not going to let John Arbuthnot Sharnbrook
slip through my fingers."

"Trust you," Dagmar laughed scornfully.  "You'll hold him as tight as
he was when he proposed to you."

"As he says he was," Ethel corrected.

"As he must have been," Dagmar maintained unfeelingly.  "After all,"
the amiable young lady continued, with a yawn, "who is John Arbuthnot
Sharnbrook that he should be exempt from matrimony?  Better men than he
have submitted to it.  Julius Caesar was married--and----"

"And Alexander the Great," Ethel supplied as her sister paused for
another notable victim of the marriage tie.

"Yes, I think he was," pursued Dagmar indifferently.

"If he wasn't, he----" she yawned again.  "And Maryborough, and Edward
the Black Prince were married men."

"So was Henry the Eighth," observed Ethel sententiously.

"Certainly.  And Napoleon, and pretty well everybody worth mentioning,
and heaps not worth it.  And who, pray, is John Arbuthnot Sharnbrook
that he should cry off and plead Mumm?  Nobody!"

"He has four thousand a year," Ethel remarked in mitigation of her
recalcitrant suitor's total extinction.

"And a pretty taste in fox terriers," supplemented Dagmar, with an air
of making every possible point in the unhappy Sharnbrook's favour.  "If
he jilts you----"

"Impossible," Ethel cried heroically.

"Fish have been known to wriggle back into the water after they were
hooked, played and landed," Dagmar observed sagaciously.  She turned to
the window.  "Here he comes," she remarked coolly.  "I advise you to
fling him a little farther from the bank."  She raised her voice to
greet the half-hearted Philander.  "Here we are, Mr. Sharnbrook.  Come
in!"

Mr. Sharnbrook thereupon came in, somewhat with an air of looking as
though he would much rather not.  He was a florid young man, of no
strikingly apparent intellectual powers: he had straw-coloured hair
parted in the middle, and a downy moustache to match.  Apart from an
aggressive riding suit his appearance was diffident to the verge of
chronic apology.

"Left off raining," he remarked, in a vain desire to meet his enemies
in the open.

"Has it?" replied Dagmar, indifferently doubtful.  "Fancy your finding
us here," she added disingenuously.

"Quite a surprise," he observed, with equal dissimulation.

"A pleasant surprise, I should hope.  Aren't you going to speak to
Ethel?"

Thus prompted, Mr. Sharnbrook was fain to advance and greet the lady
whom for the last week he had been dodging.  "How do you do?" he said
with timid cordiality.

"How awfully gushing," laughed the voluble Miss Dagmar.  "Of course,
I'm in the way," she added significantly.  "All right; I'll look out of
the window."

"Oh, not at all," protested the miserable Sharnbrook.  "Please don't."

"Oh, but I shall," she insisted.  "I am interested in that delightful
old market woman who has just driven in.  Tell me when I may turn
round."

"Now," said Sharnbrook, desperately bold.

"Dagmar, don't be absurd," protested her sister, with a provocative
glance at her jibbing lover.

"I can't see behind me," Dagmar observed casually.

"None of your tricks, Dagmar," said Ethel, facing the wretched young
man, and then turning her head as though to look at her sister, which
manoeuvre had the intended effect of giving John Arbuthnot Sharnbrook a
magnificent oscillatory opportunity.

But though the way was plain the will was absent.  "No, no," protested
the gentleman, hanging off; "I'm up to her game.  You won't catch me,
Miss Dagmar.  She has only got to turn her head," he pointed out
confidentially to Ethel.

"Oh, she won't--just yet," the lady murmured softly.  "She had better
not," she added, with a meaning smile.

"We had better not," suggested the harried Sharnbrook at his wits' end,
desperately determined not to compromise himself before a witness.

"Oh, just as you please," returned Miss Ethel, with a disgusted toss of
her head.  "If you are so frightened."

"Oh, well," he urged feebly; "I don't want to make a fool of myself."

"Oh, it is not necessary," the disappointed maiden returned with scorn.
"You may look, Dagmar."

"I didn't see anything," remarked that lady, with a malicious twinkle
in her sharp eyes.

"No," said Sharnbrook, manifestly relieved; "I don't see how you could.
So the new Lord Quorn is coming down to the Towers," he added, eager to
change the subject.

"Yes," replied Dagmar glibly, wickedly rejoicing at Ethel's
discomfiture.  "We are expecting him now.  Of course we haven't an idea
what he is like.  Frightfully colonial, no doubt."

"We've heard nothing of Lady Quorn," remarked Ethel, determined not to
be behindhand in chatter, and so show her indifference to the love
passage that did not come off.

Sharnbrook gave a smile of superior knowledge.

"There is no Lady Quorn," he said.

The effect of his announcement was startling.  "No Lady Quorn?" the
eager sisters cried in chorus, their expressions indicating design
tempered with incredulity.

"Quorn's a bachelor," Sharnbrook maintained, beginning to see light
behind the dark cloud which for the past fortnight had hung over him.

Miss Ethel turned to her sister with indignant reproach.  "Dagmar!  You
said he was married."

"I--I understood father to say he was," that disingenuous young lady
replied unblushingly.

Ethel, well acquainted with her sister's resourcefulness, turned from
her in evident disgust.  "Are you quite sure, Mr. Sharnbrook?" she
inquired with purposeful determination to clutch the truth.

"I saw it in the paper," the now brightening youth answered.  "There
certainly was a report that he was married, or engaged, or something of
that sort; but it turns out to be a mistake.  He's a young chap, about
thirty."

"How interesting!" Ethel murmured.

"Is he good-looking?" Dagmar inquired, with a suggestion of
appropriating the new-found peer if he should be fortunate enough to
touch her standard of beauty.

"Can't say," Sharnbrook smirked.  "Sure to be if he's a lord," he
added, with cheap sarcasm.

Dagmar crossed to Ethel and slapped her on the shoulder.  "My chance,
my dear; you're booked," she said in a determined undertone.

Ethel gave a repudiatory "Pooh!" and pushed her away.  Dagmar walked
serenely to the window.  "I wonder if that is his lordship coming up
the street?" she exclaimed suddenly.

Ethel ran to the window.  "Where?  Which?"

There was no one in view at the moment who could be supposed by any
stretch of imagination to come up to even an unconventional idea of a
peer of the realm, nevertheless the sanguine Dagmar pushed her sister
away.  The first sight of the waiting coronet was for her alone.
"Never you mind, Ethel," she said roughly, "I am quite competent to
look out for him.  You amuse yourself with Mr. Sharnbrook."

Mr. Sharnbrook meanwhile was experiencing some difficulty in arranging
a decent veil over his satisfaction.  "By Jove, they've jumped at
Quorn," he told himself gleefully.  "If only--I say, Ethel," he said
with sudden affection, to test the new phase of the situation.

Ethel pushed away the arm which had recklessly found its way round her,
until lately inviting, waist.

"Don't be absurd, Mr. Sharnbrook," she protested snappishly.

"I shouldn't have been absurd just now," he retorted pointedly.

"You didn't take your chance, and you've lost it."  The fact that she
turned haughtily away prevented her seeing an uncomplimentary look of
joyful relief in her recalcitrant lover's face.  If only this Lord
Quorn were a decent fellow and would back him up.

"What a time father is at that stupid club," Dagmar exclaimed
impatiently.  "And we have got to go to Babbleton.  We've no excuse for
not going now the rain has so provokingly stopped."

"Let's go and rout father out, and get back soon," Ethel suggested, not
a whit behind her in eagerness.

"Come along, then, dear," said Dagmar, giving a preparatory look at
herself in the glass.  "Aren't you going to take your young man with
us?" she added with a view to her sister's annoyance.

"Oh, you don't want to come, do you, Mr. Sharnbrook?" Ethel said with a
somewhat obvious lack of cordiality.

"To Babbleton?  Not exactly," replied the wary Sharnbrook with so much
fervour that Dagmar laughed unpleasantly.  His principal desire now was
to get into the middle of a ten-acre field and sing a pæan.

"Come on, then, Dagmar," his _soi-disante fiancée_ said with a toss of
the head.

Dagmar drew back, however.  "Say good-bye to your dear Jack," she
suggested with ill-timed humour.  "I won't look."

Ethel's face, under the fun, made Sharnbrook rejoice more than ever at
the chance which, properly worked, might obviate any claim on his part
to that ungratifying physiognomy.  "Dagmar!  How absurd you are; Mr.
Sharnbrook does not appreciate the joke."

"Indeed!" her sister retorted in a voice which might, without violating
the fitness of things, have been pitched somewhat lower.  "I thought he
was the only person who tried to see a joke in your engagement."

"Ethel!"  He called her back mischievously, secure in his good fortune.
"I was going to Carter's about a ring."

"Oh," she replied with a not very gracious nod, "that can wait.  Catch
me," she said to herself as she hurried after Dagmar, "catch me wearing
an engagement ring while there is a bachelor peer in the house."

"Quorn's the man to save me," Sharnbrook murmured jubilantly as he
strolled into the yard to see the designing fair ones off.

Mercy ran in to have a sight of her new mistresses from the window.  A
groom with a gold band round a weather-beaten hat, who looked as though
he occasionally sought distraction from the monotony of stable-work in
the more Arcadian occupation of gardening, came by, touching his hat to
the ladies, then signing more familiarly to the landlord's daughter
that he had a communication for her.

"Oh, Miss Popkiss," he said, as she opened the window.  "Mrs. Dixon
will be glad if you will come to the Towers to-morrow, as the other
young lady is leaving to-night.  One of our chaps will be in town and
he'll drive you over."

"Very well, Mr. Tootal," she said archly.  "I'll be ready."

Mr. Tootal glanced round and dropped from an official to a confidential
tone.  "I think you'll like us," he ventured to predict.  "Our people
are rather frauds, and stiff as boot-tops, but Lord Quorn is coming to
stay, and we've hopes we shall wake up.  Well, I mustn't keep old
Wax-work waiting.  O revoire."  With a wink and an amorous flourish
suggestive of future blandishments, Mr. Tootal ran off, while Miss
Popkiss turned to the glass and contemplated her charms with much
satisfaction.  The magnificent possibilities of a life in a novel
sphere were before her, and she meant to make the most of her chances.
And, after all, as she told herself with her head held critically on
one side, there is no knowing what a pretty girl may do if only she
sets her mind to it.

So engrossed was she in the contemplation of her face and its probable
effect upon the denizens of Staplewick Towers that she did not hear her
father's approach.

"Do you hear, Mercy?" he cried in a tone of testy importance.  "We are
to have a distinguished visitor?"

"A distinguished visitor?" she repeated rather disdainfully.  "Mr.
Gillions, the big commercial, I suppose.  It is about his time."

So far as an expansively fat face can express anything, that of Host
Popkiss indicated withering scorn at such a suggestion.  "Gillions!
Commercial!" he repeated, in croaking contempt of even that potentate
of the road.  "I tell you the new Lord Quorn is going to stop here on
his way to the Towers."

Miss Popkiss at once became interested.  "When is he coming?" she asked
with all the animation her father could desire.

"To-day," he spluttered,--"any minute.  So just get things a bit smart,
and let's show his lordship our best face," and he bustled off.

"Lord Quorn!  Our best face!"  Miss Popkiss, with the nearest approach
to a flutter of which her free and easy nature was capable, yet found
time for another glance in the mirror.  The result was clearly
encouraging.  "It's the only one I've got," she observed knowingly;
"but I guess it will do."

Not being, however, quite satisfied in her mind as to the rival effects
of pink ribbons in her cap, or blue, she ran off to her room to
institute a comparison, thereby just failing to notice the entrance of
a strange guest.



CHAPTER IV

The man who, avoiding the bar, made his way straight into the
coffee-room, entered with an air in which jauntiness and limpness were
curiously combined.  His get-up showed that curious caricature of the
prevailing fashion which dressy young men of depraved, or at least
untutored, judgment are prone to affect, and was, from his patent
leather boots to his aggressive diamond tie-pin, in singular contrast
to his dusty and rather forlorn appearance.  His clothes, in spite of
their over-smart cut, had the stale, creased look of garments that have
been worn for several days continuously.  They were, indeed, in keeping
with the wearer's hunted look, resembling in character the coat of a
fox after a stiff run.

With a half yawn, half sigh of exhaustion, the man dropped into a
wooden armchair, and flicked with his partridge cane a bell on the
table by him.

"Heigho!  My last fling.  Now for a good one," he muttered.

Miss Popkiss, more than usually on the alert, and postponing for the
moment the respective claims of blue and pink, lost no time in
presenting herself.

"Well, my dear, what have you got in the house?" the man inquired,
pulling himself together and speaking jauntily, partly from policy,
partly from the natural instinct ever roused by the propinquity of a
pretty girl.

"Nice cold sirloin, sir," Mercy answered mechanically, regarding the
new guest with expectant eyes.

"Beef?  Is that the best you can do?" he asked, with a dissatisfied
laugh.

"Fowl, sir," Miss Popkiss suggested in a preoccupied tone, trying to
adjust the customer's appearance and manner with her preconceived ideas
of the peerage.

"Fowl; that's better.  No game?"

"Game's not in season, sir."

He gave a loud mirthless laugh to cover his mistake.  "No, I suppose
not in the country," he retorted with cockney wit.  "Now, look here, my
dear," he went on, impressively tapping her arm with the crook of his
stick; "to cut it short, I want the best dinner you can serve me;
regardless of expense, several courses--as many as you like--you
understand?  Tell cook to do her best, and to hurry up with it."

"Yes, sir," responded Miss Popkiss, having now little doubt as to the
guest's identity.  "Will you take anything to drink, sir?" she asked,
lingeringly, calculating the social advantage to be derived from being
the first in the place to see the long-lost and newly-found Lord Quorn.

"Will I take anything to drink?"  He whistled scornfully at the
suggestion of a doubt in the matter.  "Where's your wine-list?"

Miss Popkiss roused herself from her contemplation, and brought it.

The guest ran his fingers quickly down the column devoted not to the
brands but to their prices.  "Look here.  A bottle of number eleven and
a bottle of twenty-four pop."

The oldest port-wine and the most expensive champagne.  The order
settled any lingering doubt in Miss Popkiss' mind.  "Anything else,
sir?" she asked with an excess of assiduity as she took back the list.

The half-admiring attention with which she was observing him could not
fail by this to have its effect upon the visitor.  "Well," he answered,
with a leer, which was evidently intended to be killing.  "I shouldn't
mind a sip of something--just to keep me going."

If his words were equivocal, his manner left their meaning
unmistakable.  Nevertheless Miss Popkiss made a spirited attempt to
ignore it.  "I suppose you mean a bitters, sir?" she suggested
disingenuously.

The guest went through an exaggerated pantomime of scrutinizing the
lady's tempting lips.  "No; they look anything but bitter," he
returned, waggishly amorous.

"A glass of dry sherry, sir?  What number would you like?"  Miss
Popkiss hastily ran to where she had replaced the wine-list, and with
the same movement took the opportunity of looking out of the window.
Mr. Thomas Sparrow was not in evidence: in fact, the yard seemed empty.
Satisfied of this she took the list demurely to the still leering guest.

"Number four," he said, with a world of cheap blandishment in his
winking eyes.

"Number four?"  Miss Popkiss nearly succeeded in a look of
mystification.  "Number four is a claret, sir."

"That's more like the colour," he replied significantly.  "Here!"  He
took a step to her, disregarding her feeble attempt to hold the
wine-list as a barrier between them.  "Don't you know what make four?"

"What, sir?" she asked with a giggle now; preferring his working out of
the arithmetical problem as likely to be more racy than her own.

"Why"--taking the obnoxious wine-list with one hand, and slipping the
other round her waist--"four is two and two together, like this."  And
he followed up the proposition by oscular demonstration.

"Oh, my lord!  Don't do so, my lord!" Miss Popkiss affected to protest,
without, however, raising her voice to a pitch that would reach the
bar, or making more than the most perfunctory efforts to release
herself from the encircling arm.

"That's a good sample," he grinned amorously.  "I should like a dozen."

There was no doubt about him, Miss Popkiss concluded, the episode
entirely falling in with her preconception of aristocratic ways.  "Oh,"
she giggled, "you are a naughty nobleman."  Then, releasing herself,
this time by a business-like effort, she ran off, doubtless with the
idea, after the manner of her kind, of doling out her favours and
spreading the lordly caresses over as long a period as circumstances
permitted.

Perhaps it was as well; for, scarcely had she turned her back on the
dusty Philander when the lips which had just been pressed to hers
opened wide in a very unromantic yawn.  Then their owner threw himself
wearily back into the chair and laughed languidly.  "Nobleman!" he
murmured, with a puff of amused scorn at the provincial greenness.
"And she called me my lord when I kissed her."  The idea seemed to
tickle him in spite of his weariness.  "She knows their ways," he
commented languidly as he took out a silver cigarette-case, flashily
enamelled with a spirited representation of men's three popular vices
in combination, and lighted up.  "Is it my appearance, or the swagger
dinner I have ordered, or both?" he murmured, dropping now to a rueful
tone.  Opposite to him, filling up the space between the windows, was a
long mirror.  With what was evidently characteristic conceit, the young
man put himself into a photographic attitude, with the cigarette held
effectively after the fashion he had noted in certain royal and
theatrical portraits, and regarded himself with rueful complacency.
"Percy Peckover, my boy," he murmured, "you are going to deprive the
world of an ornament.  There is plenty of fun in the world, but not for
you; so the sooner you are out of it the better.  Ah!" he continued
with a shudder, "that young woman little thinks that the warm lips just
pressed to hers will soon be cold."  With a quick, almost despairing
action, he put the cigarette in his mouth and then drew a small phial
from his pocket.  "Yes," he said under his breath; "this will do the
business in a jiffy."  He shivered, and, as though to pull himself
together, puffed vigorously at the cigarette.  "By George, I should
hope so," he muttered grimly.  "Ekin would not play me a trick.  Yes,"
he rambled on reminiscently, "I said--didn't I?--now, mind, no pain,
Ekin, old man.  None of your strychnines or antimonies.  You've got the
whole shop to choose from; let me just go off to sleep and wake no
more.  Yes, there were tears in poor old Tom's eyes; he was so upset he
could hardly give me the bottle, telling me to rely on his professional
skill.  Let's see; he said, 'mix it in a glass of anything you like,
and you'll drop off as comfortable as an Archbishop.'"  He took out the
stopper and sniffed at the phial.  "It smells like Westminster Abbey,"
he said with the irrepressible jocularity of his type.  "Well, it's
better than----" he shuddered at the unspoken alternative.  "It only
wants a little courage; just five seconds' pluck," he told himself, as
he slipped the phial back into his waistcoat pocket.  "The champagne
will give me that.  'Ang the future, let me fair enjoy myself for the
few moments that are left me."

He lighted a fresh cigarette, got up and stood admiringly before the
mirror, pulled down his soiled cuffs, settled his necktie, setting the
diamond pin straight, smoothed his hair with a hand that seemed to
tremble, then turned away with an exclamation of impatience, and stood
looking vacantly out of the window.  The feeble humours of the inn-yard
seemed to amuse him: anyhow, he did not notice Mr. and Miss Popkiss who
had come to the door and stayed there regarding him with intense
curiosity and satisfaction.



CHAPTER V

"There he is, father; I'm sure it is Lord Quorn."

Perhaps it was the recollection of the procedure which had led her to
that conclusion that surprised her into the laugh, not so low but that
it reached the object of their attention.

He turned quickly, suspiciously, and, seeing the two interested faces,
in an instant had assumed his air of jaunty swagger.  "Well, landlord;
is my dinner coming to-day, or are you waiting for the chicken to
hatch?"

Popkiss advanced, purple and radiant, laughing his best laugh at the
lordly joke.  Mr. Popkiss, as became an innkeeper who knew his
business, had a series of nicely graduated tokens of appreciation, from
the superior half smile with which he discounted the poor wit of the
yokel who was good but for a pint of small beer and took a whole
evening to discuss it, through the qualified guffaw with which he
stamped with his approval the heavy jokes of his regular market-day
customers, up to the apoplectic and wheezy roar with which he would
greet the sallies of a really important guest, whose bill bade fair to
overrun the shilling column.  Twice in one short hour had he, Samuel
Popkiss, been on speaking terms with different members of the upper
classes; small wonder was it that all thought of Mr. Doutfire's
expected "party" had been centrifugally dispersed by the whirl in which
he found his brain.

"Ha! ha!" he chuckled, rubbing his hands as he advanced with his best
reception manner.  "No, sir, that is to say, my lord, dinner is just
ready, and I think we shall please you," he suggested unctuously.  "You
will want something to keep you up for the last part of your journey
here."

The words sounded full of ominous significance; Mr. Peckover went a
shade paler, while his swagger for an instant sagged visibly, as he
wondered whether his host could have seen him sniffing at the
euthanasia now lying snug in his waistcoat pocket.

Miss Popkiss was busy laying the cloth in a style most effective both
as to the decoration of the table and the showing off of certain
personal graces.  For that young lady's methods of laying a table when
alone and when being--as she hoped--watched during the operation were
widely contrasted.

"After so much buffetting about, as I may say," observed Popkiss
genially, as he panted round the table, laying unnecessary forks in
places where their usefulness was not obvious, "you will be glad to
settle down comfortable yonder."

He pointed with a fat hand vaguely and tentatively in the direction of
Staplewick Towers, being perhaps anxious to put beyond doubt the
question of his guest's identity.  Peckover, with, doubtless, the idea
of a somewhat different stronghold in his mind looked quickly towards
the point indicated.  His glance, however, travelled no farther than
the church tower; anyhow, it could hardly have reached the other
landmark which was five miles off.

But the church which shut in his view was enough.  The cigarette
slipped from the lips that parted convulsively with the dropping jaw.
The churchyard!  "Glad he has arranged it," he muttered shakily.

"And you may be sure of a warm welcome from the old gentleman," Popkiss
added, stopping to beam upon his guest in the midst of his superfluous
bustle.

"The devil!" Peckover exclaimed aghast, scrutinizing the expansive face
for a sign of "kidding."

"Oh, yes," maintained Popkiss, proud of the office of herald of welcome
between two august personages; "he has been here already to look for
you, and very anxious he is to carry you off to the place which,
begging pardon, is yours by rights."

This was too much for Peckover, who stood staring at his obese
tormentor utterly bereft of speech.

"Of course," continued Popkiss with a mitigating chuckle, "he can't
help showing the cloven hoof sometimes, they say; but he's not so black
as he is painted."

"Come, I'm glad of that," ejaculated Peckover, wide-eyed and staggered.

"But," the landlord observed, as rounding off the subject, "we must, as
I always say, give the devil his due; and as you are going so soon to
make his acquaintance, you will be able to judge for yourself."

Peckover turned away from what he could only consider as a corpulent
and highly objectionable jester, and passed a shaking hand across his
clammy brow.  "I must stop these funniments," he told himself, "if I
want any appetite for my last dinner."  With a supreme effort he pulled
himself together, and faced the fatuously grinning host with a dash of
his native impudence.  "Don't let me keep you, landlord," he said with
a wave of condescension.  "Nothing suits me so well as a pretty girl
waiting on me.  That's the relish for this customer, it beats all your
Worcesters and Harveys."

Popkiss rubbed his puffy hands appreciatively.  "My daughter, sir, that
is, my lord; she shall look after your lordship."  Then in a tone of
deferential confidence, he added, "She will follow later on where you
are going to."

"The deuce she will!" cried the guest, now fairly bewildered.  "What
has she been up to?"

The rotund landlord, not quite seeing the appropriateness of the
inquiry, and perhaps feeling that it was a form of snubbing for undue
familiarity, abruptly changed the subject.  "I hope you'll like your
dinner, my lord," he said with unctuous confidence as he waddled
towards the door.  "I know one thing," he chuckled.

"What's that?" Peckover asked half apprehensively.

"Your lordship won't want any supper."  With which parting and
equivocal witticism the expansive joker vanished.

"Whew!  There he goes again," gasped Peckover, dropping limply into the
nearest chair.  "He has made me tremble all over."  He gave a wild
glance at the grey church tower looming--frowning, it seemed--cold and
depressing.  "George!  I've a good mind to stop alive and risk it."

The entrance of Miss Popkiss with an array of dishes which might have
elucidated the landlord's parting remark, and with a new bow in her
hair, brought the guest up to attention again.  Hungry, tired and
especially thirsty, he lost no time in falling to, and so intent was he
upon the good cheer before him that for a time the Hebe became
aggrieved at the thought that the extra attention to her personal
appearance had been thrown away, and the aid of curling tongs and smart
ribbon been invoked to no purpose.  However, with the second glass of
champagne, the guest manifestly began to take more interest in things
in general and of the expectant handmaiden in particular.

"Ah!" he exclaimed with a lengthy expiration of quasi-content, as Miss
Popkiss deftly and with a flourish of the bangle on the wrist that was
more in evidence, removed the fish and set the fowl before him.  "I'm
beginning to feel better."  He tossed off another glass of champagne.
"I say, my dear, your father is a cheerful person.  His conversation is
enough to make a boiled cod-fish shiver."

"Yes, sir--my lord," responded Miss Popkiss, abandoning the discussion
of the parental characteristics in favour of a subject of more
immediate interest, namely, herself; "it is a bit dullish here.  That's
why I am leaving."

"Oh, you are leaving?" remarked Peckover, taking as polite an interest
in the statement as was consistent with having his mouth full.

"Yes," she informed him.  "I am going to the place you are bound for."

The bubbling glass was half-way to his eager lips, but he set it down
again.  "The devil you are?" he exclaimed.

"It must at least be as lively as this," Miss Popkiss hazarded, with a
pretty affectation of ennui.

"A good deal more so," the guest declared, pausing in his eating to
stare blankly in front of him in utter mystification.  The result of
his hazy cogitation was that if the people of the inn were labouring
under some absurd delusion it would be as well not to disturb it.
"Well, there's no accounting for tastes," he remarked, falling back on
that non-committal, if unoriginal aphorism, and redirecting his
attention to the roast chicken.

"Some folks," gossiped Miss Popkiss, by way of a running conversational
accompaniment to the dinner, "who don't fancy the place, would say it
was out of the frying pan into the fire."

Number twenty-four had steadied the guest's nerves.  "Yes," he agreed
grimly, "most people would say that.  Now," he muttered, "she's at it.
What's that?" he inquired, pointing with his knife to a side dish.

"Curry, sir--my lord," the waitress answered, moving the dish towards
him.  "Curried goose, my lord."

He gave her a suspicious glance, and then pushed the dish away.  There
seemed too much of the personal and anticipatory element in the pungent
dainty.

"Oh, it's not very hot," she protested, with the ready word for the
credit of the cuisine.  "Nothing like what you may find it elsewhere."

These jokes, it seemed to the guest, if jokes they were, grew
monotonous, while their bad taste was undeniable.  As a cockney
sybarite in a cheap way, he liked to have a good-looking waitress to
chatter to while dining, as he liked to chaff a barmaid over a "small
scotch and polly", or a gin and ginger beer; but this was not the sort
of thing the occasion seemed to call for.  Accordingly he proceeded to
eat and drink in silence.  After all, the one solid tangible
fact--presumably the last--that the world held for him, was the
first-class dinner he was recklessly enjoying.

Piqued by her failure to maintain the interest she had so auspiciously
begun to excite in the distinguished guest, Miss Popkiss turned in a
huff to the window, and affected a melancholy interest in the heavy
shower which had come on, to be roused suddenly from her air of
indifference to things in general and the preoccupied gourmandizer in
particular by catching sight of the adventurous Mr. Thomas Sparrow
sheltering under a lean-to a few feet from the window.  Evidently on
the watch, he came quickly to the window, heedless of the downpour.
Miss Popkiss, with a guilty conscience, received him graciously; put
her finger to her lip and pointed with an air of importance to the
still voracious Peckover.  Sparrow looked, and his damp face clouded
with jealous doubt.  "Lord Quorn," whispered Miss Popkiss behind her
hand.  Even if Mr. Sparrow had seen that affectionate passage he could
scarcely expect his sweetheart to withhold an occasional kiss from a
real, if newly discovered, peer of the realm.

Whatever attraction a noble _bon-vivant_ might have had for Mr. Sparrow
at any other time, he was just then in too close proximity to a
gutter-spout and a tempting pair of lips to devote more than a critical
glance and a nod of surprised comprehension to the person indicated.
Then, eager to catch the fleeting opportunity, he put forth a moist
hand, pulled Miss Popkiss a thought nearer to him, and so steadying her
for the operation and obviating a possible retreat, he kissed her.

Whether caused by the unusual electricity in the air or the eager hurry
with which it was performed, the osculation created more noise than is
considered desirable by well-bred lovers.  Peckover, dining steadily,
silently, jumped round, uncertain for the moment whether the report was
that of a drawn cork, or some trick of the neglected waitress to
attract his attention.  He was alert enough and man of the world enough
to comprehend the situation; indeed, had he been aware that a man was
so near it would never have been in question.  As it was he turned just
in time to see Mr. Sparrow's gratified countenance drawing back into
the unsympathetic rain.  The sight gave him an uneasy thrill.

"Hullo!" he cried sharply.  "Who was that?"

"Only a friend of mine," answered Miss Popkiss, with an air of showing
herself not dependent for amatory attentions upon casual customers.

Her manner scarcely reassured the visitor.  "It wasn't--I mean--" he
stammered uneasily, "he looked like a policeman."

"Oh, no, sir; how could you think so, sir!" Miss Popkiss protested with
a touch of offended dignity.

"I thought I heard a kiss," Peckover suggested, still unsatisfied.

"Other people can kiss besides the police," Miss Popkiss declared, with
a toss of the head, too exasperated by the banal suggestion to deny the
act.

Peckover began to think it was all right.  "So they can, my poppet, so
they can," he exclaimed more cheerfully, regarding the young lady with
a leer which owed much of its _empressement_ to the champagne.  As it
occurred to him that a little philandering might form a not unpleasing
diversion between the courses, he rose with the leer intensified and
approached Miss Popkiss with the recognizable intent of sharing with
Mr. Sparrow the charmer's osculatory liberality.

But the young lady was astute enough to realize the unseasonableness of
what at another time she would have welcomed.  Accordingly she
retreated before Peckover's advance, taking care to keep to that side
of the room least visible from the window.  "Oh, sir, no, sir; I'd
rather you didn't, my lord," she protested, in quite a virtuous fluster.

But Peckover's knowledge of human character did not incline him to
believe in the coyness that will sometimes try to stiffen the market
for notoriously cheap kisses.  He manoeuvred Miss Popkiss into a corner
and then pounced upon her.

Whether it was that Mr. Thomas Sparrow, waiting discontentedly in the
rain, had had his suspicions aroused as to the real sentiments existing
at the moment between his lady-love and the noble customer, or whether
he was merely anxious, now that the intervening attraction was removed,
to take a more curious and leisurely survey of the interesting addition
to the peerage, anyhow, he again, in a lull of the storm, sidled to the
window and looked in.  Not seeing the guest where he expected to find
him, he boldly put his head in the window and glanced round the room.
To observe in a corner, Miss Popkiss, coyly--or as it seemed to him,
invitingly--protestant, at bay before Peckover, who was making a
playful feint attack upon her with his serviette preparatory to getting
to close quarters.

Whatever effect the sight had upon Mr. Sparrow, words utterly failed
him to give adequate expression to it.  All he could emit was a choked
half-cry, half-growl of rage and warning.  At the sound Peckover gave a
great jump and for the moment stood scared and paralysed.  Miss
Popkiss, profiting by the respite, gave a scream just loud enough to
justify herself and preserve her character for fidelity without
arousing her father, and fled from the room, possibly to avoid awkward
explanations.  Peckover stood, staring blankly at the wrathful Sparrow,
who, emboldened by his rival's limp attitude, shook his fist at him
viciously.

"All right, my lord!  Wait till I get at you, my lord!" he foamed.

His air was so menacing that when Peckover found his voice the first
use he put it to was to call, "Landlord!"

Throughout the vocabulary he could not have chosen a word which would
have had a more immediate and electric effect on the qualified
aggressiveness of Mr. Sparrow.  That love-sick functionary seemed
instantly to collapse and recede from the window which had been the
frame round a picture of rustic fury.  Only with his retreat, certain
words, like Parthian arrows, floated in from the storm to Peckover's
hypersensitized ears.

"Wait till you come outside, my noble lord.  I'll teach you to dance."

"You'll be very clever if you do," their object commented grimly as
with a sigh of relief he turned to the smilingly inquisitive face of
the landlord who had now appeared.



CHAPTER VI

"Did you call, my lord?" was, considering the tone of the summons, Host
Popkiss' unnecessary enquiry.

"My lord!" repeated Peckover irritably.  "How you country fellows do a
joke to death.  Yes; I did call.  Who was that absurd person intruding
through the window?"

Mr. Popkiss went to the window with what promptness his bulk would
allow and looked blankly out into the rain-swept courtyard.  "I don't
see any one," he said.

"I can't eat my dinner with a Jack-in-the-box fooling behind me,"
Peckover complained suspiciously.

"No, certainly not," the host agreed with professional severity.  "It
must have been Doutfire."  Satisfied with the conjecture he went up
confidentially to his guest.  "I'll tell you, my lord.  It might have
been Mr. Doutfire, our detective from Long Rixon."

Peckover with an effort arrested his jaw in the act of falling, and
snapped it to with a rattle of the teeth.

"De--detective?"

"Yes," Popkiss explained, with a touch of importance, as one who, in
his responsible calling, is permitted to share the Treasury secrets;
"he is expecting a chap down here that is wanted by the London police.
He missed him at Faxfleet railway station, and has now gone back to
Rixon, but if he don't hear of him there he is coming back here again.
He is a clever man, is our Mr. Doutfire," he proceeded, warming with
local pride and at the same time justifying any eccentric methods to
which the eminent officer of the law might have thought proper to
descend; "cleverest man in these parts by a long chalk, and we are a
bit proud of him."

So full of admiration and pride was Host Popkiss that he failed to take
notice of his guest's ghastly face.

"Thank you, that will do," said Peckover hurriedly, with an effort to
appear loftily satisfied.  "If it is only the detective, I don't mind."
His one and feverish desire now was to be left alone.  The crisis was
at hand, and it must be faced without witnesses.

As Popkiss with corpulent strut left the room, somewhat disgusted at
having failed to excite interest in the artful Doutfire, Peckover went
hastily to the door and shut it upon the retreating mass of licensed
importance.  Then he turned, almost in a state of collapse.  The
champagne bottle caught his eye; he staggered to the table, poured out
a glass blindly, and swallowed it.  "It's all up," he muttered in a
hoarse whisper.  "It has come to amen.  That was not the detective, but
he's not far off.  Clever man: back directly."  He laughed miserably,
then subsided limply into the chair, and sat with his head resting on
his clammy hands.  He was caught.  If the local police, headed by the
nailing Mr. Doutfire, had got wind of his presence in the neighbourhood
there was clearly no escape but one.  "Ugh!"  He shuddered as in
imagination he heard handcuffs click and felt the cold embrace of the
steel round his wrists.  He sat there with head erect now, his hands
pressed against his cheeks, his eyes staring fascinated by the scenes
which his imagination, coloured by the study of police reports,
pictured before him: he saw the magistrate committing him; then himself
in the dock at the Old Bailey; the Treasury counsel unfolding a black
case against him, his flash pals, the real culprits, grinning at his
misery from the gallery; the jury shaking their uncompromising heads in
all a small tradesman's Pharisaical virtuousness; he heard the verdict,
guilty; he saw the judge, unrelenting and terrible in scarlet and
ermine, mouthing at him before coming to the point--five years, ten,
fifteen!  He started up trembling, with beads standing on his forehead
and with despairing eyes.  "I couldn't stand it!" he moaned.  "I'll
never go through it.  They shan't take me alive."

Feverishly he felt for his pocket, in his agitation missing the opening
more than once.  He took out the phial, gave an apprehensive glance
round at the window, emptied the contents into the glass and filled it
up with champagne.  Then, with the means of escape ready to his hand,
he seemed to steady himself.  "Now," he said, with a grim smile; "five
seconds' courage, and I can snap my fingers at 'em all.  It's only like
a sleeping draught."  He raised the glass to his lips, held it there
for two or three seconds, and then set it down.  Perhaps there was no
hurry for five minutes.

"Now, I'm going off," he soliloquized dreamily.  "I wish I'd had a
fairer fling while I was at it.  It has been a poor, middle-class
rollick after all," he continued ruefully.  "It's too late now.  But I
should like to have done the real swell, if only for a week; gone in
for thousands instead of a few paltry pounds; Belgravia instead of
Camden Town; Monte Carlo instead of Herne Bay and Yarmouth;
high-steppers; Hurlingham; Henley; a real lady or two mashed on me
instead of--ah, well, she wasn't so bad; it wasn't her fault she wasn't
class: she'll be the only one to be sorry.  Champagne," he took up the
glass, "I might have had this sort all along if I'd had the nerve."

Suddenly recollecting, he set down the glass hastily.  "I forgot."
Curiously he seemed to shudder at his narrow escape.  Then, as though
impatient with his temporizing, "Bah! let me get it over," he muttered,
and lifted the glass again, only to set it down once more.  "I wonder,"
he said, as making an excuse for delay, "what the bill for this little
dinner comes to.  Poor Fatty will have to apply to my executors.
Wonder if he will see a joke there."  He laughed at his touch of
Cockneyfied humour.  Then relapsed into the morbid state.  "Will the
pretty little daughter be sorry?  Perhaps.  Not she; no one will.  The
sooner I'm off the hooks the better.  Here goes for the last time."  He
took up the glass.  "I'll count three, and then toss it off."  He shut
his eyes, hesitated a moment, then began.  "One, two, thr----"

The glass was but waiting for the last word to leave his lips when the
door opened with an impatient, unceremonious burst, and a man came in,
flinging it to behind him.  Another dusty, worn-out man, who stared for
a moment at Peckover, and then, turning a chair from the table, just
let himself fall into it.



CHAPTER VII

Peckover, arrested in his intent, had opened his eyes, and now stood
staring half dazed at the new-comer.

"Hullo!" yawned that person genially.

"Eh?" ejaculated Peckover hazily, eyeing him with suspicion, and not
quite able to realize the situation.

"Excuse me if I disturb you," said the man, with another tremendous
yawn.  "If I don't sit down somewhere I shall drop on the floor."

Peckover told himself that this was scarcely the detective, and even if
he were his condition gave colour to a wild hope of escape.

"Tired?"  The superfluous question was put tentatively.

"You bet."

"Dry?"

"Always."

"Have a glass of fizz?"  In Peckover's situation even that unusual
hospitality was a matter of indifference.

"Thanks," answered the man, smothering a third yawn in recognition of
his fellow-guest's civility.  "You are a brick.  Got more than you care
to drink there?" he added to qualify his somewhat grabbing acceptance
of the offer.

"Yes," answered Peckover with grim significance.  Then checking himself
as he was about to offer the drugged glass to the stranger, he
exclaimed hastily, "Oh, that won't do."

"Short of glasses?" said the other accommodatingly.  "I don't mind a
tumbler to save time."  He spun one across to Peckover who emptied the
remains of the bottle into it.  The stranger poured the wine down his
throat without the action of swallowing.  "Ah, that's better!" he
declared with a great sigh of enjoyment.

"Walked too far?" Peckover suggested listlessly.  "Not used to it,
p'raps?"

"Got out of the way of it," the man explained.  "Three months aboard
ship."

"Australia?" Peckover suggested.

The stranger nodded.  "That's it.  Come from London this morning.  Got
out at Faxfleet to walk over here.  Lost my way in the woods."

"Didn't come straight, then?"  Peckover had an indistinct recollection
of having seen this fellow at the station, but had been too much
flurried to take more than passing notice of him.  Were they companions
in bad luck, he wondered.  "Have a glass of port," he said, warming
towards his fellow-guest.

"Your wine?  Thanks.  Good chap.  Crime to refuse old crusted, eh?"  He
emptied the glass which Peckover promptly refilled.  Then put on a
mysteriously significant look.  "No, I didn't come straight here, and
for a good reason."  He sank his voice.  "Fact is, I'm dodging a
bush-ranger."

"What?" exclaimed Peckover, disinclined to take the statement seriously.

The stranger pulled his chair close up to his companion, and tapped him
with his forefinger on the knee.  "Look here," he said confidently.
"You don't belong to these parts?  Nothing of the chawbacon about you.
Town man?"

"Slightly," answered Peckover, with a chastened pride in the
undisputable claim.

The other grasped his hand.  "I can trust you?"  Peckover, recovering
from the cold thrill which the somewhat demonstrative clasp occasioned,
nodded impressively.  "You are a smart Londoner," the stranger
continued, "I'll tell you my situation, and get your advice.  Mind,
though, it's a dead secret."

"It soon will be with me," thought Peckover miserably, as he assured
his companion on the point.

Host Popkiss, glancing in at the door, saw the two in close confidence,
and with the cocksureness usual with men of limited sagacity concluded
that the "party" wanted by Mr. Doutfire had arrived and was trying the
confidence trick on the new-fledged member of the peerage.  And having
so settled it, he strolled out to keep a watchful eye for the detective.

"It's downright romantic," the thirsty stranger was saying with an
apologetic smile.  "Now, you wouldn't think it to look at me, but I'm a
peer of the realm."

"Jehoshaphat!" commented Peckover, more frank than polite.

"Just the remark I made when I heard I was Lord Quorn," said the other
pleasantly.  "Been sheep-farming in New South Wales for the last twelve
years.  Not much luck of any sort, though, till the other day.  Got a
letter to say distant cousin dead, and I had succeeded to the title.
Not much trimming with it, they tell me.  Bit of tumble-down family
property near here, Staplewick Towers, let to some grand lady."  He
pulled out a letter and looked at the signature.  "Lady Agatha Hemyock,
that's it," he said, exhibiting the letter as documentary evidence of
his veracity.  "So I have just trotted down to take stock."

"And where does the bush-ranger come in?" was Peckover's not unnatural
inquiry.

Lord Quorn wagged his head knowingly, and drank off another glass of
port-wine without apology, as though the privilege of being made the
recipient of a peer's confidences was in itself ample payment for the
refreshment in question.  "Out there," the vague wave of his hand was
understood to be towards New South Wales, "I used up my spare time
flirting with a fine woman who had a figure and a will of her own.  She
would not have me, though; refused me more than once: but hearing one
fine day that she had said no to a real live lord she felt pretty sick.
However, I wasn't going to give her another chance; not likely, seeing
that, besides being somewhat off her, I knew I could have my pick over
here.  Thereupon she accuses me of playing the giddy deceiver, and
threatens to bring me to book for breach of promise.  Well, I smiled at
that, but it rather sent me up a tree when she trotted out her brother,
the bush-ranger."

"My eye!" observed Peckover, interested in spite of himself.  "Fighting
man, eh?"

Lord Quorn nodded seriously.  "I saw him for the first time over here
with her last night.  A desperate chap, I tell you," he went on
anxiously, "who will stick at nothing--except your favourite vital part
with a bowie knife."

His auditor made a wry face to evince his sympathetic attention.

"He keeps on show," Quorn continued, growing more and more dismally in
earnest, "fire-irons he has snapped, gun-barrels he has tied in knots,
crown pieces he has bitten through, eyes he has gouged out, preserved
in spirits of wine, and pickled ears he has wrung off just for fun.
I'm not exactly a coward, but what can you do against a man whose
favourite pastime is twisting bullocks' heads off, and squeezing
cannonballs out of shape."

Peckover drew down the corners of his mouth and shook his head, finding
himself fully in accord with the other's policy of non-resistance.
"Awkward customer to tackle," was all the encouragement he could
suggest.

"Awkward!" repeated Lord Quorn in impatient contempt for the inadequate
adjective, "You'd be the one to feel awkward with your nose divided in
two, and your left ear in a piccalilli bottle on an amateur
bush-ranger's mantelpiece.  Oh, I know," he continued in an exasperated
tone, anticipating a trite and obvious piece of advice, "I could have
the law of him, but there is precious small satisfaction in seeing a
man go to prison out of your one remaining eye, and to know that when
he comes out it will come out too.  Got any more liquor?"

His apprehensive indignation left no room for the common courtesies of
even coffee-room life, he was seething with the angry sense of
impotence before this critical and grievous position.

Peckover emptied the bottle into his glass.  "The last," he said, in a
tone of sympathetic gloom; "and you're quite welcome."

"Good Samaritan!" was Lord Quorn's casual acknowledgment as he tossed
it off.  "Fact is," he proceeded to explain by way of tardy apology,
"though I'm a swell and all that I am cleared out just now.  Drew a
tidy sum for my travelling exes, but spent a few days in London, and a
few pounds--you know what that means?"

Peckover nodded a rakish appreciation.

"Well," Quorn resumed darkly, "who should I clap eyes on last night at
the play but my Australian girl and her infernal brother.  Followed me
over, and on my track like an insurance agent.  Luckily she didn't see
me, and he doesn't know me by sight.  Thinks I, best thing to do is to
make a bolt down here and lie low till that bush-whacking nuisance eats
his head off in London and has to go back to his happy hunting grounds.
So, first thing to-day, sent a wire to Lady What's-her-name, and then
found only just enough cash left in my pocket for third class to
Faxfleet.  So I've tramped over.  That's the chronicle."

"You've given your friends the slip?" Peckover suggested encouragingly.

"Hope so," replied Quorn, doubtfully.  "But they'll track me like
kangaroo hunters.  A woman has a fine scent for a title; a coronet is
like a red herring.  But I say," he broke off, as though a trifle
ashamed of having monopolized the interest of the colloquy; "what does
a smart chap like you want in this dead-alive hole?  You are not in a
mess?"

Peckover's expression swiftly changed from altruistic interest to
lugubrious self-pity.  "I am, though," he replied.  "Got Scotland Yard
after me.  Don't be afraid," he protested hastily, as Lord Quorn's eyes
opened wide with suspicion and he gave himself a slight, but
significant, set-back in his chair; "I'm only half a criminal: the
victim of circumstances.  Look here, confidence for confidence.  I'll
tell you all about it."



CHAPTER VIII

"You may rely on my keeping my mouth shut," said Lord Quorn, giving a
tremendous yawn which for the moment seemed to cast a doubt upon his
ability in that direction.

"It doesn't much matter," Peckover responded mournfully.  "Well," he
proceeded, with a touch of chastened self-glorification, "you must know
I've been flinging myself about in London."

"Painting the town red, eh?"

"Painting myself black, more like it," he retorted.  "Very pleasant,
though, while it lasted.  You see," he explained conceitedly, "I always
had ideas above my position, and some time back I thought I'd emerge
from the grub state and do a bit of butterflying."

Quorn nodded; so far in sympathy.

"But," continued Peckover, "to be a butterfly in town you want a lot of
dust on your wings; and when it comes to dressing a bit toffish,
treating your friends, especially the ladies--and they've been my
ruin"--he interjected with complacent self-reproach--"doing the Halls
regular, and tooling your best girl out to Richmond or the Welsh Harp
of a Sunday, why, five-and-thirty bob a week don't go far."

Lord Quorn shook his head sleepily, as being in complete, if drowsy,
accord with the estimate.

"That figure," Peckover declared impressively, "was my blessed screw
at--well, at an eminent firm of auctioneers.  Things were looking a bit
bluish, a writ or two out against me, my tailor showed me no mercy, but
his patience got shorter even than his thirteen bob trousers, in which,
though too tight, as usual, I was ready to skip, when Jimmy Cutbush, a
friend of mine in the racing world, put me on to a good thing which
came off.  Jimmy drew my winnings and paid them over to me, promising
plenty more tips of the same sort, till I began to understand how
Rothschild feels; but, what do you think?"

Lord Quorn was obviously not thinking anything worth mentioning just
then, but, roused by the intensity with which the question was put, he
rattled his ideas together and replied, "Ah, what?"

"Cutbush drew good money," said Peckover, knitting his brows, and
throwing into the statement all the impressiveness which a
five-and-thirty shilling clerk and voluptuary has at command, "and paid
me in bad; and there was I, swaggering about and paying my way, with a
lot of wrong 'uns in my pocket.  That was pretty steep, eh?"

Words failed Lord Quorn, in his present condition, adequately to
characterize the situation; he contented himself by receiving it with
an absurd grimace which was intended as an effective substitute for
verbal comment.

"Well," pursued his companion, accepting the distortion of feature in
the spirit in which it was produced, "day before yesterday I drove down
to Kempton to round proper on my pal, having likewise backed Cockalorum
for the Great Comet Stakes."

"Did that come off?" Quorn inquired with an effort.

"No, but his jockey did, and landed me in a nice hole.  Then when I
tackled Cutbush, all he had to say was to call me a Juggins, and ask me
what I took him for.  'Well,' I says naturally, 'I've won this oof, and
can't spend it'; 'well,' he says,'buy a moneybox and save it.'  Then,
as if that wasn't enough, as I was driving home, rather down in my
luck, I had the misfortune to run over a noble duke in Piccadilly.  His
Grace was in the middle of the road, looking for his balance, but of
course the police took his side--a duke is never drunk, only deaf.
Having left them my name and address, as well as my blessing, I drove
on, when suddenly my beast of a horse took it into his head to say his
prayers; result, both knees damaged.  When I left the stables, after a
little friction with the proprietor, my landlady meets me and says I
had better not go home, as the police have been waiting for me all day.
Now you know why I am here."

Inspirited by realizing that his companion's personal narrative had
come to an end, Lord Quorn was able to rouse himself.  "Hanged if you
aren't worse off than I am," he declared with a yawn.  "Don't think I'd
change place with you.  Rather run the risk of being chawed up by that
bush-devil.  Well, what are you going to do?" he asked, with lethargic
sympathy.  "Slip across the water?"

For a moment Peckover debated with himself whether he should declare
his expedient.  To conclude that it would serve no practical end.  "Oh,
I've got a proper way out of my troubles," he answered enigmatically.

"Glad to hear it," Quorn replied indifferently.  "They are rather
unkind to people who enter into competition with the Mint, aren't they?
Well," he concluded, taken with a fresh access of yawning, "I hope
you'll give 'em the slip.  Wish I could help you, but," he added
waggishly, as giving a cheerful wind-up to the somewhat depressing
mutual confidences; "you see it is more than I can do at present to
help myself."

To drive home his double meaning he reversed the empty bottle, and then
began sleepily to fill his pipe, humming a comic song the while.

"He's cut out for a lord," was Peckover's mental comment as he sat
watching his companion with some contempt.  He was perhaps a little
disgusted and disappointed that the story of his chapter of ill-luck
and present critical position should have had no deeper or more lasting
effect upon the man who had been so glad of his hospitality.  Peer or
no peer, he might know better than to sing "Peculiar Julia" by way of
dirge for one whose minutes of life, or at any rate, liberty, was
numbered.  So he sat in disgust, watching the drowsy nobleman strike a
match, and being too sleepy to apply it to his pipe, hold it, nodding,
till the flame touched his fingers and brought him to with a start and
a smothered word of objurgation.  "A pretty addition to the peerage,"
he muttered with a sneer.  "Lord Quorn, indeed!  A fellow who hadn't
the sense to keep awake when he had a lighted match in his hand.  And
here was Percy Peckover--"  Suddenly a circumstance which the
companionship had driven out of his mind recurred to him.  Both the
landlord and his daughter had called him my lord.  It had seemed a
feeble provincial joke, but it was now in a flash made intelligible.
"Of course," he exclaimed under his breath as he started up at the
thought, "I understand now.  They have been taking me for him.  That's
what they meant by their silly my-lording.  And if that's the case, why
shouldn't they go on taking him for me!  If they only would till I can
get clear out of this, I might give that precious detective the slip
and get clean away."

With eyes full of the hopeful project he stood looking at the noble
slumberer, then suddenly turned and tip-toed to the door.

Quiet as it was, the movement half roused Quorn.  "Jul-i-ah, Jul-i-ah!
Why are you so very pecu-li-ah?" he sang sleepily.

Peckover stopped and looked back.  "I'll try it," he muttered.  "It's a
bold stroke, but--where's that mug of a landlord?"  He opened the door
softly, and stole out.

A sudden gust caught the window, and the rattle woke Quorn with a
start.  He sat up, staring round stupidly, and found himself alone and
thirsty with a full glass of champagne on the table before him.  He
stared at it, then round the room again.

"Gone?" he exclaimed.  "Flash little coiner chap gone?  Sin to waste
good liquor."  With the word he took up the wine and tossed it off;
then set down the glass with a wry face.  "Queer brand!" he ejaculated.
"Faugh!  Filthy stuff--or else----"  He got up with a shiver of
disgust, and faced the doorway just in time to see his late companion
peep in.  "I say, Mr. Ooff-merchant!" he called out, pointing to the
empty glass, "What's the matter with this stuff?"

Occupied with the strange chance of escape, Peckover had for the moment
forgotten all about his drugged wine.  As his eye followed Quorn's
unsteady finger, he went cold, and his knees knocked together.  In a
flash he saw his effective way of escape cut off and--what was
worse--his own predicament intensified a thousand-fold.  "You've never
drunk that?" he gasped, when his dry tongue could articulate.

"I have though," Quorn replied, regarding him with fearful suspicion.

Peckover clasped his head and staggered forward.  "You're a dead man,"
he exclaimed hoarsely.

"Scott!  What do you mean?" cried Quorn, going pale.

"It was--doctored," stammered the other, hardly knowing what he said.

"Poison?" demanded Quorn in a horrified tone, clutching fiercely at
Peckover who dodged, as frightened as he.

Then he gave a laugh of desperation.  "Well, yes, if you like to call
it so.  It's as good as murder," he assured himself in a woeful
whisper.  "What am I to do?"  He ran to the window, but was arrested by
a cry from his companion, and turned to see him collapse in a chair.
"Here, wake up!  Stand up!  You'll be all right," he cried, desperately
shaking him.

"Oh, I do feel queer," muttered Quorn.  The irises of his eyes seemed
to turn up into his head, and he fell forward on the table insensible,
with his too liberal entertainer standing over him aghast.

What was he to do?  If he called for help, everything would come out,
and he would be taken red-handed.

"He's done for, poor fellow," he told himself in a terrified whisper,
trembling in every joint.  "He's a dead man.  I'd better follow him."
He caught up the fatal glass, but it was empty.  "Not a drop left.  Ah,
there will be another sort of drop for me," he whispered through his
chattering teeth.  "What shall I do?"  Then his face sensibly
brightened as the idea of his desperate expedient, which had been
frightened away, came back to him.  "Ah, that's it!" he muttered.
"That's my only chance.  They think I'm Lord Quorn.  Now is my real tip
to be Lord Quorn.  No one here knows him, and he's not so very unlike
Percy Peckover.  Quick!"  He ran to the window and pulled the curtains
across; then hurried back and began feverishly searching the lifeless
man's pockets.

"Any papers to identify him?  Ah!"  He pulled out a packet of letters,
and transferred them to his own pocket, replacing them by some bills
and a writ.

[Illustration: "He pulled out a packet of letters, and transferred them
to his own pocket."]

"That's it," he muttered.  "They're of no use to him now, and may save
an innocent man from the gallows."  He set the empty phial into Quorn's
limp hand.  "There!" he exclaimed, as with a long drawn sigh of
desperate relief he surveyed the position.  "Percy Peckover is dead.
Long live Lord Quorn!  It's a fair desperate shift; but I can't be
worse off than I was, and I may be better."



CHAPTER IX

The shuffling of feet sounded outside the door, and Peckover had just
time to throw himself into a chair at some distance from Lord Quorn and
snatch up a newspaper when the landlord came in accompanied by Mr.
Doutfire.

With a well simulated yawn, Peckover threw down the paper wearily and
nodded at Popkiss.  "Any one from the Towers yet, landlord?" he asked
in his best off-hand style.

"Not yet, my lord," the host answered, ceremoniously important, to
impress Mr. Doutfire and to show that official that he was not the only
eminent personage of his acquaintance.

Peckover yawned again, and affected to consult his Waterbury with as
much flourish as was consistent with the necessity for concealing the
fact that it was not a hundred guinea repeater.

"Beg pardon, my lord," observed Popkiss, indicating the renowned
representative of the law who already had a severe and suspicious eye
upon the collapsed form at the farther end of the room; "this is the
gentleman I spoke to you about."

"Oh, ah, good evening," Peckover said, acknowledging the interesting
introduction as airily as the critical nature of the situation
permitted.

Having dealt with the social side of the detective's presence, Mr.
Popkiss' fat face became stern as he proceeded to justify it from a
business point of view.

"Is that your man?" he observed, somewhat superfluously, indicating
Quorn.

The alert Doutfire already within pouncing distance of his quarry was
unfolding the telegram.  "Five foot seven."  Quorn's doubled-up
attitude made an accurate estimate of his inches somewhat difficult and
untrustworthy.  Mr. Doutfire, glanced under the table, taking in his
legs, allowed for turnings and swiftly added the measurement to the
body and head, mentally straightened out for the purpose.  The total
was evidently not inconsistent with the official dimension, since he
passed on.  "Dark hair," he nodded, availing himself of a certain
latitude which the somewhat vague adjective allowed.  "Slight
moustache," Quorn's was clipped like to a toothbrush, and the
description held.  "Flash dress."  For a moment Mr. Doutfire looked
doubtful.  With all a true police official's desire to make description
tally, it was plain that a very considerable point would have to be
stretched before that Colonial get-up could be classed as flashy.  In
search of some hidden evidence of the toff in apparel, Mr. Doutfire
drew aside the lappel of Quorn's coat.  Some papers sticking half-way
out of the breast pocket were thus disclosed.  Deftly Mr. Doutfire
whipped them out, glanced at them, and a gleam of satisfaction shot
across his face.  "My man," he announced, with a touch of pardonable
triumph which thrillingly communicated itself to Peckover, whose
principal employment during the process of identification had been to
keep his teeth from chattering.  "Here!  Wake up, my man!" the
detective cried, roughly shaking the irresponsive form.  "Wake up,
Peckover, you're wanted."  Then suddenly as he turned the limp body
over, his face fell from complacency to blank disappointment.  "Why,
burn me, Popkiss," he exclaimed savagely, "if I don't think he has
given me the slip."

"What?" cried that worthy, as resenting his implied complicity in the
fiasco.  "Not dead?" he added, with as much awe as a quadruple chin can
express.

"Or next door," replied Doutfire, clinging to the shadow of a hope
which experience belied.

"Next door," echoed Popkiss, losing the man in the innkeeper.  "I wish
he was.  I don't want no suicide in my respectable house."

"Well, you've got it, Popkiss," retorted Doutfire, as he picked up and
sniffed at the phial which had fallen from the lifeless hand.  "Poison,
if I know anything.  Send for a doctor."

The exigency of the situation roused Mr. Popkiss' sluggish faculties
into prompt action.  "Here, Mercy!" he bawled.  "Mercy!  Quick!  Run
for Dr. Barton directly.  Gentleman taken bad."

"Now Mr. D.," he proceeded, puffing with excitement, when Miss Mercy,
in a state of disgust at the contingencies to which licensed premises
are liable, had gone off through the rain with such haste as was
compatible with due care for her personal appearance, "if you don't
want to ruin me, for heaven's sake keep this unfortunate business as
quiet as you can."

"Certainly, Mr. Popkiss," the detective replied, assuming at once the
mastery of the situation, "certainly, so far, that is, as is compatible
with the due requirements of the law."

"Can't you take him out of here?" Peckover suggested, as he began to
feel the strain on his nerves.

"Ah, we might do that, Mr. D., with your permission," the landlord
begged submissively.  All his importance was gone now; the last five
minutes had turned him into a fat, abject slave, ready to grovel at any
man's feet.

"Don't care to move him till the doctor arrives," objected Doutfire,
less by way of conforming with legal procedure than of asserting his
authority.  Mr. Popkiss had thrown open an inner door.  "Only just
through here, Mr. D.," he whined spasmodically.  "Nice snug little
room; better for the doctor and--and all parties," he urged.
"Gentleman, I mean nobleman there," he sank his wheezy voice and jerked
his head towards Peckover; "Lord Quorn, on his way to the Towers.  Very
distressing for his lordship as it is for me.  You'll oblige an old
friend, Mr. D.!"

The appeal was so abject that Mr. Doutfire felt he was losing nothing
of his importance by yielding.  "Lend a hand, then," he said, having
first judicially inspected the room in question.  Between them, with
much puffing and wheezy mutterings, they carried out the limp form, and
as the door closed upon them Peckover's air of lofty indifference fell
from him as a garment, and resting his elbows on his knees and bowing
his head on his hands he collapsed into a state of utter fear and
misery.



CHAPTER X

From this flaccid condition he was roused by a somewhat obstreperous
knocking and whistling in the passage dividing the coffee-room from the
bar.  In a moment he had sprung up and run to the window, which he
threw open, and stood there ready to bolt through it if necessary.

"What ho!  Anybody alive here?" a voice called out.  "Hi, yi!  Where do
I come in?"

As the invocation and inquiry seemed reassuring.  Peckover turned back
into the room as the door opened and a man in a dripping mackintosh
appeared looking in.

"Hullo!" he exclaimed.  "I can't find anybody worth mentioning.  Bar
empty as a mortuary chapel.  Young lady in the cellar hiding from the
thunderstorm, eh?  You don't happen to be the proprietor of the
establishment?"

"Not exactly," Peckover answered, wondering what kind of customer he
had come across now.

"That's near enough," said the man in the mackintosh.  "You're alive at
any rate.  Well, somebody has looked after you all right," he remarked,
eyeing the remains of Peckover's last dinner.

"Oh, yes, I've dined," Peckover replied loftily.

"You bet.  Like a lord," assented the stranger cheerfully.  "By the
way"--he scrutinized him curiously, much to that gentleman's
uneasiness--"by the way, you don't by any chance happen to be a lord?"

Something in the man's manner suggested a reason for the inquiry other
than mere chaff.  "Suppose I am?" returned Peckover, with his best
attempt at an enigmatical smile.  The newcomer stared at him as though
unable to make up his mind to risk a question, and as he hesitated, the
dripping mackintosh made a circle of water round him.  "Well, if you
are----" he stopped, and abruptly changed the subject.  "Staying here?"
he asked; "or just waiting till the rain stops?"

"That's it," Peckover answered, scarcely knowing how to take the fellow.

"Far to go?"

"Few miles, I'm waiting for the carriage," said Peckover casually,
remembering what Quorn had told him.

"H'm!"  The man looked at him as though stoked to blowing-off point
with curiosity.  "Not going Staplewick Towers way?"

The problem as to whether it were better to say yes or no was too
complex for Peckover's present state of mind.

"That's my way," he declared, and chanced it.

The stranger's face brightened with anticipation.  "Going to the
Towers, perhaps?" he asked with hopeful persistence.  Peckover nodded
in as non-committal a fashion as he could command.  "Why," cried the
other, "I do believe I'm in luck after all.  You hinted just now you
might be a lord.  You don't tell me you are Lord Quorn?"

"You've guessed it."

With another word the stranger turned and walked energetically to some
pegs at the end of the room, unbuttoned the humid mackintosh and hung
it up; also his hat.  Then, with business-like action, he came back and
favoured the astonished Peckover with a long stare of gratified
curiosity.  "Excuse me," he said, "but it's more than curious that the
man I have been hunting all the week should run across me like this."

Instantly Peckover remembered Quorn's amateur bush-ranger.

"You're from New South Wales?" he faltered.

"Wrong," the other declared cheerfully.  "You're not quite as good at
guessing as yours truly.  I'm from Tasmania, I'm proud and happy to
say."

It struck Peckover that the dapper, well-knit man with the keen
hustler's face set in straight black hair could hardly be Quorn's
bully.  He could not quite imagine the man before him spending even his
leisure time in trying feats of strength on his long-suffering
neighbours who chanced to displease him, to say nothing of cattle and
fire-irons.

Just then Mr. Popkiss appeared, and approached Peckover with a mien of
deferential apology.  "Beg pardon, my lord," he said confidentially,
"but I'm glad to say that Dr. Barton has had that unfortunate mishap
removed to his surgery, which is a great relief to me, and I must
apologize to your lordship for the unpleasantness occurring on my
respectable premises.  We've never had anything of the kind occur
before."

"Oh, you couldn't help it," Peckover replied graciously, his wits more
keenly about him.  "He ought to have known better, but people, I
believe, are very careless about these matters.  I didn't see what the
poor fellow was up to."

"No, my lord; naturally, my lord."

"Now, landlord, since you've seen fit to come to light, bring us a
bottle of your best champagne," directed the stranger.

Mr. Popkiss, who had been inclined to disregard the new customer, at
once became exceedingly attentive and bustled off on his errand, since
a hungry guest is worth twenty full ones.

No sooner was he gone than the man drew his chair up to Peckover's and
said quietly: "Now that I know I'm really right and you are Lord Quorn,
I've got a proposal, a genuine business proposition to make to you."

"Have you?" replied Peckover, wondering what in the world was coming,
and cursing Popkiss who came in just then with the wine and so delayed
the explanation of the mystery.

The stranger's quick eye had caught the similarity of the labels on the
bottles.  "Why you've been having one of the best too," he remarked.
Then added in an undertone as the fussy Popkiss left them, "I thought
in your case the title didn't carry exactly a million with it."

"No, not exactly," Peckover replied equivocally.  "But I don't see what
business that is of yours," he added by an afterthought, to maintain
his dignity.

"You will directly, though," the other retorted.  "Till then I beg to
apologize.  Now look here," he touched glasses with his companion,
"luck; and may we both get what we want, which is assured if we come to
terms."  They emptied their glasses, and the stranger, refilling them,
leant forward to whispering distance.

"No time to lose, if this matter is to go through," he said in a
business-like undertone.  "So I won't beat about the bush.  This fat
publican"--he jerked his head backwards towards the bar--"knows you are
Lord Quorn.  Does any one else know it in these parts?"

The question was put so purposefully that Peckover had no hesitation in
answering it frankly.  "No one but the barmaid.  I've not been here
more than two hours."

"That's all right.  Now for my proposition."  He drew up yet an inch or
two closer to Peckover.  "First of all it is necessary for me to state
I am a rich man; well, practically a millionaire."

Peckover pushed back his own chair.  "I say; no room for the confidence
trick here, old man," he exclaimed suspiciously.  "Try next door."

"Pouf!" the stranger contemptuously blew away the suggestion.
"'Confidence trick?'  It's the other way on.  It is I who am going to
place the confidence in your lordship.  Now, look.  Here is my proposal
in a word.  You're a poor man, or at least a poor peer; I'm a rich man.
We are both of us practically unknown over here.  I want you to sell me
your title."

"What?" cried Peckover in amazement.

"Don't make a noise," said the other quietly.  "If this transaction is
to go through, as, if you are not a fool, it will, the less attention
we call to ourselves for the moment the better.  Just hear what I've
got to say.  My name is Gage.  Come into property down under from my
father.  Now I'm, as I say, a millionaire.  But the devil of being a
millionaire is, when you are nobody in particular but a millionaire,
that you don't and can't get value for your money."

"Ah!"  Peckover nodded sagaciously as he began to comprehend.

"Now," pursued Mr. Gage, "an ordinary person would imagine that a man
with an income nearer forty than thirty thousand could have for the
asking--and the paying for--the best of everything this world has to
offer.  All rot.  An outsider like myself with the income I have
mentioned doesn't have nearly such a good time as a smart young sprig
of good family, who's been born and bred in the swim, can get with a
beggarly fifteen hundred a year."

"That's right enough," Peckover assented with an air of endorsing from
experience that profound truth.

Mr. Gage took out a coin and laid it on the table.  "There's a
sovereign," he said, tapping it impressively, while his companion eyed
it covetously.  "There it is.  Coin of the realm.  Value fixed and
accepted all the world over, you'd say.  Yet it's a strange thing, as
society is constituted, that, according to the value to be got out of
it, to one man it will be worth, say, five and thirty shillings, and to
another about six and sixpence.  You follow me?"

Mr. Peckover intimated by a knowing nod that not only did he follow the
argument, but that, as a member of the aristocracy, he was prepared to
back it by getting the enhanced value from the coin in question.

"The reason is," continued Mr. Gage, "that when you are what what's
called an outsider you have to pay, and pay double and treble for
everything.  And when you've paid, and paid till you're sick of
shelling out, you find you haven't got half what, if you'd only been
'class,' you'd have got gratis for nothing."

"That's so," Peckover assented dogmatically.

"The millionaire business has been overdone," Gage proceeded, warming
feelingly as he got into the swing of his grievance.  "Men like myself
have been in too much of a hurry to buy up all the cake in the
universe, consequently the price has gone up for it, and now, instead
of a good substantial slice for a reasonable sum, we get only a few
crumbs at famine prices."

"No doubt," Peckover agreed, getting impatient of the preamble and
anxious to come to the gist of the offer.

"The fact is," Gage went on, hammering one fist on the other
emphatically, "money by itself is a delusion and a daily eye-opener.
Money with a title like yours is quite another pair of shoes.  If you
reckon its purchasing power, and that's what justifies its existence,
the golden sovereign in a millionaire's pocket dwindles to the size of
a threepenny bit, and in a peer's it expands to the size of this."  He
held up a dinner plate.

"Inconveniently bulky," observed Peckover with a grin.

"That's merely my illustration of the fact," said Gage severely, as
deprecating cheap witticism in business discussions.  "Anyhow, I am
content to put up with the inconvenience.  I want to have a good time.
Fate has given me money with one hand and with the other prevents my
getting value for it.  I don't want to waste time in building up a
social position for myself; I want one ready-made, now; when I can
enjoy it.  You want to have a good time, a better time than you'll get
living on an empty title which means starving at Staplewick Towers.
You're just the man I have been looking out for.  When I heard of your
being found in Australia, I determined to do business with you if I
could catch you soon enough, before you got known."

"Well, what do you propose?" Peckover asked, a vista of escape and the
enjoyment of a snatched opulence opening before him.

"I propose," Gage replied impressively, "that you should allow me to
assume the title, the identity and privileges of Lord Quorn.  After
all, you did not expect to come into it; you are a backblocksman, like
myself; only my father made it pay, and you hadn't begun to when you
were sent for to join the House of Lords.  So far as any one outside
our two skins is concerned it doesn't matter a rush whether you are
Lord Quorn, or I.  So far as the British constitution goes there's no
divine right about you, visible at least to the naked eye, that I don't
possess.  You don't feel anything like it inside, do you?"

"Can't say I do," answered Peckover, with more instant conviction than
the other could possibly give him credit for.

"No," resumed Gage; "we are of the same make, I guess; and if it suits
us to make a fair exchange, why nobody's hurt."

"Just so," assented Peckover.  "Well, what's your offer?"

"Four thousand a year, paid monthly, as long as you let me hold the
title undisputed."

Four thousand a year!  It was as much as the
thirty-five-shillings-a-week clerk could do to refrain from an
astounded whistle at his luck.  But he did repress it, and, shrewdly
grappling with the overwhelming proposition, replied, after what seemed
a calculating pause, "Make it five thou., and it's a bargain."

Five thousand had been the figure of Mr. Gage's willingness; only, in
accordance with a well-established business method, he had offered less
than he was ready to give.

"All right," he replied.  "Five thousand while I'm Lord Quorn.  We
shan't need a written contract.  It will be as much to your interest to
keep quiet as it will be mine to write you a cheque on the--let's
see--the ninth of every month.  So that's settled, eh?"  He refilled
the glasses.

"Yes, my lord, that's settled," responded Peckover with a grin, and
feeling happier than at any time during the past twenty-four hours.
"Here's health and the best of luck to your lordship."



CHAPTER XI

"I don't quite see ourselves bluffing all and sundry that you are Lord
Quorn," Peckover said doubtfully, as they finished the bottle.

"My good sir," replied Gage, "I don't see how we can help taking them
in if we make up our minds to do it.  Just think; what man is there
alive who could really, logically prove his own identity if he were put
to it.  Not one of us.  We are just accepted by the world as William
White and Henry Black, John Thompson or Thomas Johnson; and in most
cases correctly so.  In one case in ten thousand the world makes a big
mistake, but it doesn't count for much."

"Suppose not," observed Peckover, wondering whether he would not have
plenty of enforced leisure for counting if the world should find out
its mistake about him.

"Very few people know us over here," argued Gage; "and the few who do
can be easily bluffed, if it comes to that.  If we both swear to the
same thing, who can stand against us?"

"No, that's right enough," Peckover agreed.

"Now I've been thinking," continued Gage, "that it won't do for us to
part company till this little arrangement of ours can run along without
pushing.  You must come over to these Towers with me and see how the
land lies.  We shall want to spend some money, at least I shall, so you
had better be a rich friend I picked up on the voyage, and we can
pretend the ready comes out of your pocket."

"But only Lord Quorn is asked," Peckover objected.

"Oh," replied Gage, "a rich man is always sure of a welcome.  He may be
expected to pay for it, but there it is, all ready for him, if he asks
for it cheque-book in hand."

"I see."

"Perhaps it may not be a very genuine article; a sort of rolled-gold
welcome for which you are expected to pay as though it were twenty-two
carat all through.  But it will wear long enough for our purposes, and
the adulteration won't be all on their side."

Host Popkiss looked in.  "Rain clearing off, my lord," he announced.
"I expect Colonel Hemyock will be here directly to welcome your
lordship."

"All right, landlord," replied Gage.  "In the meantime my friend and I
are quite comfortable here."

Popkiss stared at him, in mind to resent what he considered an
irreverent liberty.

"Still, I shan't be sorry to find myself at the Towers," Gage observed
casually.

This was rather more than Popkiss could stand.  He did not approve of
casual customers (even if they ordered champagne) playing unseemly
jokes with noble guests in his coffee-room.  "Beg pardon, sir," he said
with puffing severity, "I was addressing myself to Lord Quorn."

"Then," returned Gage, "you were addressing yourself to me."

In consequence of the superincumbent fat which circumvallated them Mr.
Popkiss could not open his eyes very wide, but, as far as the muffling
flesh permitted, his spacious face was understood to express an
electrifying astonishment amounting almost to incredulity.  "Lord
Quorn?  You, sir?" he gasped.

"Look here, my venerable joker."  Peckover beckoned the bewildered
Popkiss to him by a backward jerk of the head. "You've been tying
yourself up in the wrong bag all the afternoon.  I've let you go on
because I never spoil a good joke, but now my friend and
fellow-traveller, Lord Quorn, has appeared, it is about time your folly
was pointed out to you."

"I'm sure I'm very sorry, my lord," the discomfited Popkiss apologized.
"But as this gentleman did not deny it when I addressed him as my lord,
and as we were expecting your lordship to honour my poor house, why,
the mistake was only natural."

"That's all right," replied Gage.

"You're forgiven," grinned Peckover.

Wheels sounded under the archway of the courtyard, and Popkiss was glad
to bustle out.  "I had my doubts about him all the time," he told
himself in extenuation of his error.  "If I'd seen them both together
at first I should ha' known at once that 'tother was the lord."

Meanwhile the two confederates were laughing at each other over the
success of the first step on the path that promised to be so pleasant
for both.

They composed their faces as the door was thrown open and Colonel
Hemyock and the Misses Ethel and Dagmar Hemyock, accompanied by John
Arbuthnot Sharnbrook, were ushered in with breathless ceremony by the
egregious Popkiss.

"Lord Quorn?" the Colonel inquired in a tone of pompous cordiality.

Popkiss unctuously indicated Gage, who came forward with plausible
aplomb.

Then the ladies were presented, and Sharnbrook noticed gleefully the
dead-set that lurked in their eyes.  His escape, he told himself, was
now assured.

"May I present my friend, Mr. Percival Gage?" the supposititious Lord
Quorn said, as, taking the permission for granted, he brought up
Peckover, whom, however, the Hemyock trio regarded a trifle doubtfully.
"Made a fine position for himself out in our part of the world," Gage
continued half confidentially, "and has come over to the old country to
enjoy the fruits of his good fortune."

The ladies instantly thawed.  The golden sun easily gets through
snobbery's thin coating of ice.  They looked at his aggressive diamond,
excused his vulgar flashiness on the ground of Colonial ignorance, and
received his advances with as much gush as was left over from the
lavish expenditure on the _soi-disant_ Lord Quorn.

"A millionaire," Gage observed to the colonel, sinking his confidential
tone yet a little.  The highly starched Colonel became almost limp
under such a shower of good fortune.

"I--ah--hope Mr. Gage will do us the honour of staying at Staplewick,"
he said, and there was no doubt that he meant it.  "Lady Agatha will be
charmed.  Any friend of Lord Quorn's will be more than welcome."

So after a few more flourishes, it was settled.  Mr. Gage's luggage had
unfortunately gone astray, but his costume would be excused that
evening by Lady Agatha, and next day a complete outfit, the visitor
declared, would be a mere question of the resources of Great Bunbury.

Presently the neglected but chuckling John Arbuthnot Sharnbrook was
noticed, and casually, as a matter of grace, introduced.  He lost no
time in getting on easy terms with his prospective deliverer.

"I'm the tenant of your shooting, Lord Quorn."

"Hope you get good sport?" Gage replied politely.

"Birds thick as cabbages," Sharnbrook assured him.  "I hope you will
come out with me and see for yourself.  Of course you and your friend
shoot?"

"I should just think we did," Peckover chipped in with an eagerness due
to the near realization of one of the dreams of his life.  Hitherto his
shooting had taken place under cover at the rate of seven shoots for
six-pence, and the presentation of a cocoa-nut if by luck or
markmanship he rang the bell.

That so bucolic and provoking a person as Sharnbrook at present clothed
in the contempt woven of familiarity should be allowed to monopolize
the distinguished guests by his stupid sporting chatter was
intolerable.  Accordingly he was promptly snubbed and thrust aside.
Then, amid much smirking and exhibition of the best side of everybody's
face, a move was made for the phaeton.  Gage surreptitiously slipped a
bank note into Peckover's hand, with which, and with a grand flourish,
that unexpected plutocrat settled the somewhat exorbitant demands of
Mr. Popkiss, and bestowed a liberal guerdon, accompanied by a wink, on
Miss Mercy.  Then with what excitement and the nearest approach to
cheers a country town on a wet evening can furnish the distinguished
party drove off to Staplewick Towers.



CHAPTER XII

"It is too bad of you, Ethel.  I do wish you would mind your own
business and confine your attentions to either old Sharnbrook or Lord
Quorn.  The way you try to flirt with Mr. Gage is disgraceful.  Even
you ought to be ashamed of it."

"My dear Dagmar," her sister replied blandly, "Sharnbrook is, as you
always said, after finding he preferred me to you, an idiot.  Only fit
to be a keeper at the Zoo, or curator of a Natural History museum.
Four thousand a year is utterly wasted on him."

"No reason why it should, or should not, be wasted on his wife,"
returned Dagmar shrewdly.

"Lord Quorn," pursued Ethel, "falls to you by right.  A coronet, when
he can afford one, will no doubt suit your style of beauty."

"Thank you," retorted Dagmar, "I happen to prefer reality to mere show.
Quorn hasn't a penny to speak of, Mr. Gage is as rich as anybody need
be."

"He is hopelessly vulgar, and has an unhappy knack of making himself
ridiculous," Ethel argued.

"All millionaires are vulgar and absurd," her sister rejoined.  "It is
expected of them.  People wouldn't believe in their money if they
didn't bound and make fools of themselves.  Mother says Mr. Gage's
vulgarity is as good as an auditor's certificate--whatever that may be.
And if he has taken a tremendous fancy to me----"

Dagmar flared up.  "What conceited impudence!  You want everybody.  You
are the elder and Lord Quorn properly falls to you.  Failing him,
Sharnbrook."

"John Arbuthnot," said Ethel dreamily, "has the bad taste not to be
very keen, and Gage is."

"Quorn's all right," Dagmar suggested.

"Then you have him, dear," her sister retorted.  "Plain Percy Gage is
good enough for me."

As Ethel was clearly holding to her point, and that not a point of
honour, Dagmar saw that a mere appeal to her better feelings was
futile.  "Tell you what it is, my dear," she said, changing her
tactics.  "If you go on like this we shall lose Quorn and the
millionaire bounder and old Sharnbrook into the bargain.  We must have
the coronet and the million in the family."

"All right," Ethel agreed, after a few moments' calculation.  "Let's
compromise and give each other a fair chance with Gage.  Suppose we
take it in turns to bring him to the scratch."  She took a pack of
cards from a box.  "Cut for first innings.  First knave; two out of
three."

"Why knave?" Dagmar objected, "Gage is more of a f--the other thing."

"Perhaps," Ethel agreed.  "Anyhow, the knave is the nearest approach to
him in a pack of cards' catalogue of humanity."

They began to cut with business-like eagerness.  Presently Ethel held
up the desired card.  "Hurrah!  Knave!" she cried exultingly.

From the amiable Miss Dagmar's protracted lips came the sound of an
exclamation not unlike that which profane men are said to utter when
the last match is puffed out with the pipe still unlighted.  "Two out
of three," she insisted, and with the next turn cut a knave also.  But
fate favoured Ethel, who cut the third.

"My first try," she cried.

"Wish you joy of Gage," said Dagmar spitefully.

"Now, Dagmar," her sister protested, "it's a bargain.  Half an hour of
uninterrupted running."

"All right," replied Dagmar hopefully.  "Then I relieve guard, and you
turn out.  I take up the running and so on alternately, till one of us
lands him."  "Which shall not be so very long first," she promised
herself.

"Let's find out where he is."  Ethel, with business-like promptitude,
sprang to the bell and rang it.  "Of course," she observed
complacently, "whichever of us does not bag Gage will have the
reversion of Quorn or old Sharnbrook."

"Of course," Dagmar agreed with a suggested determination that the
privilege in question should not be hers.  "Fancy Sharnbrook!  Ferrets
in one's bedroom."

"Rats where you least expect them," Ethel chimed in, hilarious at what
she was resolved should be her sister's fate.

"That idiotic one-legged partridge," cried Dagmar.

"Pet mice asleep in your boots," responded Ethel.

"Pattern of the carpet undecipherable for fox-terriers."

"Wouldn't I put my foot down on them," declared Ethel grimly.  "Is Mr.
Gage visible yet, Bisgood?" she inquired of the butler who now appeared.

A very faint film of suppressed amusement seemed to spread over the
well regulated face of Mr. Bisgood.  "Mr. Gage went out riding this
morning," he answered woodenly.  "His lordship accompanied him."

"Have they returned?"

Again the haze of enjoyment seemed to blur the suave features.  "No,
miss," Bisgood answered, and there might have been detected a slight,
ever so slight, catch in the unctuous voice; "Mr. Gage did not get far.
Harlequin was rather fresh."

"Did--did anything go wrong?"  It was Dagmar who asked the question.

This time there was no doubt about the abnormal expression on the
butler's sleek face.  "Well, miss," he replied, with an apologetic
grin, "I believe Mr. Gage came off."

Without trusting his dignity to carry him through any elaboration of
the bare and pointed statement, Bisgood, turned abruptly from the room.

Miss Ethel tried to laugh off a certain sense of annoyance.  Till she
had tried and failed Gage was more or less her property.  "Poor Gage,"
she exclaimed.  "Fancy his taking a toss.  I hope he has not damaged
himself.  That brute Harlequin!"

"Now, Dagmar, dear, honour between--knaves.  You will take Quorn and
Sharnbrook off while I have my innings, won't you?  I'll do as much for
you."

"All right," she answered, still rather sulky.  "But mind, no unfair
advantage.  No running me down, or falling into his arms."

"No, no," Ethel assured her; "that's a last resort.  We may have to
toss for that later on."

"There's mother coming across the lawn," Dagmar remarked with a yawn of
indifference.  "You had better be off and console the noble sportsman."

And as the fair Ethel vanished through the door, Lady Agatha Hemyock
came in by the French window.  She was a woman of somewhat stately
presence, acquired by long practice of standing on ceremony and on her
dignity.  Her face was well set off by white hair dressed straight up
from her forehead, pompadour fashion, which had the effect of bringing
into rather aggressive prominence her sharp physiognomy which she could
make, when she chose, the vehicle of a gamut of remarkable expressions.
In French phrase, her face jumped at you; nevertheless, had not the
nose been rather too long and too sharp she would have been as
good-looking as she was wily.  Among her ladyship's more prominent
accomplishments was an interesting trick of carrying on a conversation
with one person while she listened to everything else that was being
said in the room; a feat difficult of successful execution, and one
which has a tendency to depreciate the performer's popularity.

"Where's Ethel?" Lady Agatha inquired sharply, after a preliminary
glance round the room to make sure they were alone.

"Gone after Mr. Gage," Dagmar informed her, still sore from the
consciousness of a lost chance.

"How provoking of her," exclaimed her mother, "when I particularly want
her to look after Quorn."

"Just what I tell her," said Dagmar resentfully.

"Mr. Gage," Lady Agatha declared, "will keep.  He is a fool, and is to
be secured whenever we choose to bring him to the point.  Quorn
is--er--not such a fool, and if the coronet is to come into the family
it is essential that he should be looked after.  He ought to have the
choice of you."

"No money, mother."

"Perhaps not.  But a nice old place and an aristocratic position."

"You've got most of that, mother," Dagmar observed shrewdly, "and you
are discontented enough."

"Well, you can't both marry Mr. Gage," Lady Agatha argued, ignoring the
personal citation.  "And if you don't take care, the one he does not
choose will lose Quorn as well."

"Well, for a peer and a millionaire," Dagmar observed decidedly, "they
are the most hopeless specimens.  Neither being in the least like what
he ought to be, I should prefer the money.  It is the only thing here
that looks like what it is."

"I am thinking of your position, my dear," her mother replied
insinuatingly.  "Millionaires are getting so common and unpopular."

"Peers are common enough," Dagmar retorted.  "They made a dozen--and
such a dozen--the other day."

"Not old ones," rejoined Lady Agatha.  "Quorn's peerage is centuries
old, and improves with time."

"But I don't," returned her daughter pointedly.  "And the idea of my
descendants swaggering about with a coronet wherever they can put it,
in the year 2147 doesn't amuse or comfort me at all, or reconcile me to
the fact that nobody, without being told, would take Quorn for a peer,
even if he dressed every day in robes and coronet, always supposing he
could afford that somewhat expensive get-up."

"After all, a peerage is above money, my dear," Lady Agatha urged.

"Yes," was the quick reply, "it ought to be above it, and have the
money underneath to support it.  No, I prefer to take my chance of
cutting out Ethel, and buying a peerage with some of Gage's money."

Lady Agatha shrugged.  She could not bring herself to let Quorn slip
through their fingers when they had him in hand.  "There is as much
difference between an old title and a new one as between new wine and
old," she asserted dogmatically.

"Granted, mother," Dagmar assented cheerfully.  "But when some idiot
has pulled the cork out, causing the strength and the flavour to
evaporate, and the dust has got in, the old is worse than the new."

"You are most provoking and disappointing, Dagmar," Lady Agatha
exclaimed, losing patience.  "To think that the Quorn coronet should go
begging."

"That's exactly what the owner will have to do, it strikes me," the
undutiful one retorted.  "And it is what I don't intend to do while
Messrs. Gage and Sharnbrook are handy and bachelors.  Here's Ethel.
Hurrah!  She doesn't look all over a winner.  My turn," she said with a
snap, as that discomfited-looking young lady came in.

"That it isn't," Ethel flung back in a reciprocally pleasant tone.  "I
haven't seen the man yet."

Dagmar's look would hardly have been accepted as a testimonial to her
sister's veracity.  The statement, nevertheless, was true.  Ethel had
raced all over the grounds in pursuit of her quarry, but had just
missed striking the trail; the object of her hunt having contrarily
appeared in the drive as the fair huntress, after drawing it blank,
moved off hungrily to the park on the other side of the house, whence
having prowled herself tired, she had at length come in, spent and out
of breath and patience.

Noting her amiable state of mind, Lady Agatha, prompted by experience,
prepared to withdraw, with a Parthian shot which took the form of the
sarcastic expression of a thoughtful hope that, in case of possible
accidents, the pair of charmers were not entirely losing sight of the
existence and eligibility of a certain John Arbuthnot Sharnbrook, nor
were permitting him to ignore theirs.


"You haven't hurt the horse?" Gage inquired, as he and his confederate
walked towards the house together.  "Sorry now I didn't think of
stopping to see what happened."

"Hurt him?" Peckover exclaimed, resenting the question as making light
of his own peril.  "Never had a chance.  It took all my time to see he
didn't hurt me.  Hurt the brute?  I should like to," he continued
wrathfully reminiscent.  "I'd teach him the difference between a
quadruped and a gentleman."

"How did you come to take him on?" asked Gage.

"Take him on?  He took me on," returned the discomfited equestrian.
"All right, I'll remember that groom, Wilkins, or rather, I won't
remember him.  'Just throw your leg over Harlequin, sir,' he says, 'and
take him over the turf!'  Now, old man, I should describe that animal,
from a safe distance, as an inferior plater; but when I got up my
feeling of contempt changed to one of respect--it usually does.  On
foot I'm pretty familiar with horses; once on their back I feel as
though I had not been properly introduced.  Well, I mounted in best
jockey style; I haven't shelled out for the saddling paddock for
nothing.  'Me up,' says I, just waking him up with the whip.  Next
moment it was me--down, and instead of putting him over the turf, he
very nearly put me under it.  I don't think you could have passed a
five-pound note between his hind hoof and my front teeth.  His near
plate was so near that my jaw was almost off."

"Good job it wasn't," observed Gage, wondering how much such a
catastrophe would have affected his enjoyment of the pleasures of the
peerage.

"You're right.  Well, the fellows were grinning; so, thinks I, if the
horse won't be beaten, no more will I.  So I ups into the pigskin
again, and tries the soothing system."

"Did that do better?"

"Slightly.  The animal began to feel quite comfortable, and after a bit
sat down."

"Sat down?" laughed Gage.  "What became of you?"

"Well, I don't know," answered Peckover, with rueful humour, "whether
it has ever struck you, in Tasmania or elsewhere, that it is a
difficult thing for a horse and its rider both to sit down at the same
time.  You see, there is no back to the saddle, so I just slid down
over the tail, with as much side as I could put on, and then footed it
off.  It's all very well for you to laugh, my lord," he remonstrated,
as the other man's guffaws grew exasperating, "but it would take you
all your time to keep your back stiff when the horse under you is
sitting up like a cat, and the back of his head trying to play the
castanets with your front teeth.  Harlequin?  He's a regular pantomime
rally."

"I shouldn't wonder," suggested Gage, "if he was called Harlequin,
because he'll jump through anything."

"Dare say!" replied Peckover dryly.  "No doubt he'd have tried jumping
through a brick wall if I'd stayed there long enough.  No, thank you.
I prefer seeing these little funniments from the top of the Grand
Stand, not from the top of the performer."



CHAPTER XIII

"Can't say I notice much family likeness, old man."  Peckover had been
enjoying the novelty of a contemplative cigarette in the ancestral
picture gallery of the Quorns, and was there surprised by Gage who had
stood for a while silently comparing the portraits of dead and gone
Quorns, in all stages of costume and self-consciousness, with the
cheap, up-to-date cockney swell who sprawled in a great chair of state
before them.  "I guess they didn't pick you out in Australia by the
family mug."

Peckover gave a short awkward laugh.  "I should hope not," he replied,
recovering his mental balance.  "If I thought I was anything like that
tuppence-coloured Johnnie I'd go and hang myself."  He pointed to a
depressing portrait labelled, "Everard, fourth Baron Quorn."  "Good old
Everard," he went on.  "I've no use for a nose like that, nor for the
dial of that old juggins in the Dutch oven--what's his name?
Marmaduke.  He'd only have to take the top off the pepper-castor to
give the enemy a shock.  Useful face that to fall back on, and it looks
as though some one had been falling back on it."  And he flicked the
ash off his cigarette scornfully at the doughty warrior.

"We don't run to beauty, do we?" Gage remarked.  "At least we didn't
till quite recently," he corrected politely.

"Fact is," said Peckover, "the old crowd were an over-rated lot.
Making allowances for bad workmanship on the painters' side, we should
have no use for them except on the Fifth of November.  They are fair
frauds.  What do you think of a man who wears a steel lounge suit like
that?"  He flung the end of his cigarette, having lighted a fresh one,
at the nearest suit of armour.

"Well, it covered up his deficiencies," observed Gage.

"Yes," said Peckover, "it's about as clever as wrapping a twopenny
smoke in silver-foil."

Gage gave a look round the gallery as though to see that they were
alone, and then sat down beside his friend.  "Tell you what it is, old
man," he said seriously; "to change the subject, we must do something
to make things hum a bit more for me.  I became my lord to get some fun
out of it, but as things are, it strikes me that I've got the empty
title, and you're having all the fun."

"What do you mean?"

"Why," Gage proceeded, "what's my position here?  I'm Lord Quorn with a
million of money; but because Lord Q. is known to have next to nothing
a year, nobody looks at me.  You're supposed to be the millionaire and
every one runs after you."

"Is that my fault?" Peckover asked pertinently.

"I don't say it is," Gage returned.  "It suited our purpose to fix it
so.  But it don't work.  There must be a change.  I don't pay five
thousand a year to stand out in the cold on the bleak eminence of an
impoverished peerage, looking on and seeing every girl in the place
tumbling into your arms."

"One can have too much of that sort of tumbling," Peckover remarked
sententiously.  "And----"

"Well, I'd like a little of it," snapped Gage, "and I'm going to have
it."

"That's reasonable," Peckover agreed.  "What do you propose?"

"Well," answered Gage, "I've thought it out, and it's simple enough.
I've got to find an excuse for spending my money, or, rather for having
money to spend.  I've a plan.  I'm going to save your life."

"What?"  Peckover jumped a foot away and turned a suspicious and
alarmed face on his companion.  "What--what do you mean?"

"Just what I say," the other replied quietly.  "I've got to save your
life----"

"What from?" Peckover inquired apprehensively.

"Drowning, for choice," was the cool answer.  "Then in common gratitude
you will make over to me a sum sufficient to give me a handsome income.
See?"

Peckover looked immeasurably relieved.  "I see that much," he replied.
"But how are you going to save me from drowning?"

"Well, that presents no difficulty.  We are going fishing on the lake,
and you are going to over-balance yourself in your excitement and slip
overboard."

"Oh, am I?"  Peckover looked uneasily doubtful.  "I don't see where the
excitement about fishing comes in."

"That's a detail."

"Then I can't swim," Peckover objected.

"All the more reason for my jumping in to save you."

"But supposing you don't save me?"

"I'm bound to save you.  If I'm not going to rescue you, there is no
point in your getting wet."

"If you are not going to rescue me there's no point in my getting
drowned," Peckover returned, with misgiving.

"I shall work it all right," Gage assured him.  "Never let go of you.
You're too precious."

"I don't know.  It would be worth five thousand a year to you to let me
dive to the bottom and stay there."

"I'm neither a fool nor a murderer," Gage declared.

"Not much catch in taking a cold bath with your clothes on," Peckover
remarked, with an uneasy shiver.  "However, I suppose I must do it."

"Yes," said Gage, "after all it's the most feasible form of
life-saving, combining as it does the minimum of risk with the maximum
of effectiveness."

So it was arranged, and the next afternoon the confederates, dressed
for the occasion in their oldest clothes, went fishing on the lake.
Peckover, whilst ostensibly instituting inquiries as to the best pools
for sport, had cunningly obtained information as to the depth of the
water at various spots, and it was at one of the shallowest that he
insisted on having the punt moored.

"What's the good of my pretending to save your precious life in four
foot six of water," Gage expostulated in a disgusted tone, as he
pointed to the watermark on the punt pole.  "We shall be taken for
blithering idiots."

"That won't matter," returned Peckover stolidly.  "It's better than
being blithering idiots, and dead ones at that."

"We shall give the show away."

"Better than giving a peerage and a million away," Peckover retorted.
"Life's too comfortable just now for us to run any risks.  Besides
who's going to remember how shallow the water is; and it stands to
reason that if we could keep our breathing apparatus above water by
just standing up, we shouldn't be such fools as to want any swimming
and life-saving."

So Gage had to submit, which he did with a better grace when he
reflected that there might, after all, be some risk in saving a
panic-stricken lover of life in really deep water.

The two fishermen made a great fuss over their sport, angling as
probably no one in this world had ever angled before, and in a manner
calculated not to take in the most unsophisticated fish that ever swam.
What their proceedings, however, lacked in method, they made up in
exuberance; never before had two such showy fishermen sat in a punt.
Naturally their intention was to emphasize, generally, their existence,
more particularly their presence in the punt on the lake, and
incidentally their designs upon the fish.  To their satisfaction they
saw that they were not without observers.  The farmer, to whom the
grazing of the park was let, had luckily put in an appearance to
inspect his sheep, accompanied by a semi-sporting person who might,
however, have been, and indeed was, a butcher from Bunbury in quest of
raw material.  Presently two women came in sight, crossing the park by
a right of way which skirted the lake.

The moment was propitious.

"Old man," said Gage, "this is grand.  We're in luck for an audience.
Now, over you topple; only, do it artistically, or you will have your
dip for nothing."

Peckover threw a distasteful glance at the weed-grown water, and then
his eye roved from the haggling fanner and butcher to the chattering
pair of villagers.  "Almost too much of an audience," he objected, with
a view to postponing his immersion as long as possible.

"Rats!  Can't be too many for our purpose," Gage returned impatiently.
"We've got to make a business of it, if it's to do any good.  Over you
go.  The water won't be any damper for you than it will be for me."

"You can swim," observed Peckover with something suspiciously like a
chattering of the teeth.

"What odds does that make in four foot six of water?"

"Beastly weedy hole," remarked the unwilling adventurer.

"All the better.  Makes it look more dangerous, and keeps people from
seeing how shallow it is."

"I believe," said Peckover, with an admirable air of conviction, "there
is an out-sized pike under those weeds.  I just saw his scales glisten."

"Then you'll astonish him, that's all," was the unsympathetic reply.
"Any one would think it was a crocodile or a shark by the funk you're
in.  Now, are you going over?  Not knowing the treat that's in store
for them these people aren't likely to wait all day.  They'll be past
directly.  Stand up and swing your line out."  Nerving himself to the
disagreeable task, Peckover stood up, and began swinging the rod round
his head.

"That'll do," said Gage, with a show of directing his attention
elsewhere.  "Now, over!  That'll do with the rod.  They'll think you
mad.  Over, you fool!"

Thus adjured, Peckover took the plunge, if plunge it can be called.
Dropping the whirling rod on the placid surface of the lake, he
suddenly stooped, nervously clutched the gunwale of the punt and,
assisted surreptitiously in the manoeuvre by Gage's left foot, tamely
rolled over the side.  His despairing shout, which had been agreed
upon, was smothered by the shock of the cold water and the utterer's
general preoccupation.  It therefore remained for Gage to do the
shouting, which duty he performed with a vigour out of proportion to
the apparent exigences of the case.



CHAPTER XIV

For the dripping Peckover was still holding tenaciously on to the side
of the punt, with a fixity of purpose which no mere considerations of
stage effect seemed likely to dispose him to relax.  Added to this,
there was more of his body above the surface of the water than appeared
quite consistent with the idea of imminent and deadly peril; this was
accounted for by the fact that he was standing, miserably enough, on
the bottom of the lake.

"Get down!  Let go of the punt!  D'ye hear?" commanded Gage, in an
exasperated undertone.  "What's the good of hanging on there like a
fool?  Get down, will you?  Duck that idiotic mug of yours under water,
or how am I to go after you?"

"I--d--d--daren't," chattered Peckover: "my feet are slipping or
sinking or something; it's dashed deep mud at the bottom."

"I wish your head was in it instead of your feet," retorted his
prospective heroic rescuer, all the while making a fine show of bustle,
for which, however, as viewed from the shore there was no obvious need.
"Will you get down, before I knock you under?"

As he spoke Gage was surreptitiously jabbing at Peckover's fingers,
and, incidentally, at his face with the butt-end of his rod.  This
somewhat drastic method of enforcing his orders and ensuring the
vraisemblance of the performance was perhaps justified by the manifest
absurdity and uselessness of his taking a showy and heroic dive in
order to rescue a man who was, to the spectator's eye, holding
comfortably on to a substantial punt with his breathing organs high out
of the water.  As matters--that is to say, Peckover--stood, danger was
the last thing that would suggest itself to the casual onlooker.  The
note at the moment was farcical; it was urgently necessary to change it
to the tragic, even at the expense of loosening a few of Peckover's
front teeth.

That unhappy dissembler, finding the episode of having a brass-capped
butt in forcible contact with the more sensitive and damageable parts
of his physiognomy more than he had bargained for, spluttered forth an
objurgatory remonstrance, and, to cut short the objectionable
attentions, let go, disappearing forthwith under the side of the punt.
Whereupon Gage, uttering a wild and wholly unnecessary shout, poised
himself for a few moments with one foot on the gunwale, and then,
having attracted the attention he desired, took a tremendous dive into
the water.  With such vigour did he go down that he forced his head and
arms into a thick bed of weeds, which demanded for a time his
breathless attention.  On extricating himself from the difficulty, and
coming to the surface, he was much concerned to find that Peckover was
nowhere to be seen.  Instantly he took another superfluous dive, and as
he came up, knocked his head against the bottom of the punt.  Half
dizzy with the blow, he now saw Peckover watching his efforts from the
other side of the craft whither he had worked his way round while the
diving was in progress.

"What are you doing round there, you idiot?" he gasped.  "Get right
down into the water at once and shout for help till I come along and
catch hold of you."

With the word, he struck out manfully and swam round to the other side
of the punt, only to find on arriving there that Peckover had
disappeared.  Whereupon he dived again, only to come up empty-handed
once more, and to see the anxious face watching him, alertly
apprehensive, over the farther gunwale.

"What fool's game is this?" he hissed.

"None of your larks," returned Peckover in a tone of resolute desire
for self-preservation.  The cold water, the weeds and the mud were
beginning to tell upon him; all sense of a practical joke had
evaporated.

Gage looked round.  On the right the farmer and the butcher, on the
left the two women had come down to the margin of the lake and were
watching the proceedings in a silence which betokened some doubt in
their minds as to how they ought to take it.

"Will you get under water and let me come to the rescue?" Gage demanded
with exasperation.

"Not good enough," Peckover replied, and thereupon he began a spirited
effort to climb back into the punt.

"Fool!"  Gage shut his mouth with a snap, and took a vicious dive under
the punt as the shortest cut to his objective.

As he rose, Peckover was half on board.  Without further expostulation
Gage seized the leg which still hung in the water and furiously tried
to drag it down.  Peckover resisted, kicking, and a very pretty
struggle ensued, which taking place, as might be supposed, between a
millionaire and a peer of the Realm, must have given rise to singular
reflections and conjectures in the minds of the onlookers.

Eventually the turn of the position favoured Gage.  The conditions
under which Peckover fought rendered the struggle additionally painful;
by degrees he lost ground and finally was dragged back exhausted into
the water.

"You stupid ass, I've a good mind to shove you under and keep you
there," Gage growled.

His victim could only gasp and shiver.

"What must we look like from the shore?" Gage demanded savagely.

Peckover made no reply, but from his manner it might have been gathered
that his mental attitude on the subject was one of complete
indifference.

"Haven't we had enough of this tommy-rot?" at last he ventured to
suggest.

Gage was maintaining a fine show of keeping afloat in the
four-foot-six.  "I think we have," he returned.  "I'm getting chilly,
so we had better come to business.  Now, will you keep down in the
water when you've quite done advertising the fact that it isn't up to
our shoulders?"

All the response Peckover made was--"Look at the punt!"

Keeping the corner of an eye warily on his companion, Gage turned and
looked.  The distance between them and the punt instead of a few feet
was now some twenty yards.  The cause of this alteration was obvious.
Their struggles had caused the cord which made fast the craft to one of
the poles to become untied and the other pole to work loose.  There was
some wind, under which the punt was now moving at a fair pace over the
lake, dragging one pole with it.

"All right," said Gage, "I'll soon catch it and bring it back."

But Peckover clutched him with the tenacity of despair.  "No, you
don't," he exclaimed, anxiously resolute.  "You don't leave me here.
How am I to get ashore if you don't come back?"

"Walk," answered Gage, trying to free himself.

"Yes, I dare say," Peckover retorted.  "You don't catch me trying it.
It's not the same depth all over.  We're on a bit of a bank here."

"Look at the blamed thing going off," Gage cried.  "Let go!  She'll be
a quarter of a mile away directly."

But Peckover was not to be shaken off.  "You don't go and leave me
here," he insisted wildly, "for any old punt."

The situation was an interesting one, and as such, no doubt the four
spectators acknowledged it.  Their comments, however, had not so far
been directed to the performers.

"What are you going to do?" Peckover asked, still gripping the plunging
Gage.

"Going for a swim," he answered unfeelingly, at the same time making
spirited but futile efforts to dive.

"No, you don't," Peckover returned, restraining his companion's
attempts with all the energy that the chill and unusual element allowed
him.

Gage, kicking and struggling, was at length obliged to desist, after
having furnished a several minutes' novel and exhilarating exhibition
to the puzzled spectators.  Short of actual murderous violence, it was
not possible for him to free himself from the tenacious Peckover.  It
was difficult, he had to own, to do much in the way of natation with a
desperate person hanging like grim death on to his legs, moreover,
Peckover's embrace had a tendency to send Gage's head under water and
to keep it there.  So, exasperated and vindictive as he felt, he had to
compromise.

"Well," he said, veiling his displeasure and sense of defeat with a
cheerless grin, "am I going to save your life or not--before we catch
our death of cold?"

"You've got to," was the dogged reply.  "Five thousand a year is too
good to say good-bye to in the middle of a pond."

"It is all your silly rot that has stuck us here," Gage returned.  "If
you hadn't played the drivelling idiot, the life-saving performance
would have been comfortably over half an hour ago."

"Well, get it over now," retorted Peckover, "as quick as you like, and
no tricks."

"All right; come on," said Gage ill-humouredly.  "Let's hope those
fools won't see through the fake."

"This way," said Peckover, starting off breast-high in the water,
towards the nearest shore, and still holding tightly to his companion.

"You are not going to walk?" Gage exclaimed aghast.

"I'm going to do what I can do best, and I can't swim," Peckover
replied, with a determination which was apparent even through his
shivering.  "We'll have to try this life-saving joke in some other
form.  It's getting a bit stale this way."

Slowly their progress towards the shore, impeded by mud and thick
weeds, began.  They had not noticed that the farmer, actuated by
humanitarian motives or with an eye to reduction of rent, had run off
to an old boat-house, and was now hurrying back with an oar and a coil
of rope.

"All right, my lord!" shouted the butcher, as taking credit for his
friend's action.  The two men, shivering and struggling unromantically
through the jungle of weeds, smiled unpleasantly at the cry.

Suddenly Peckover became aware that the water was up to his chin.
"It's getting deeper," he gasped, trying to hold his companion back.

"Let it," Gage retorted sulkily.  "We've got to get to shore, dead or
alive."

With an energy which suggested his preference for the latter mode of
arrival Peckover threw his arms around Gage and tried to draw him back.
"Try another way," he panted.

"You can.  I'm going straight on.  You should learn to swim," was the
unkind response.  "If you don't let go, not another penny of my money
shall you see," Gage added, beginning to have doubts about his own
ultimate safety in those dreadful weeds.

"You're not going to leave me here to drown?" Peckover remonstrated,
shaking with terror.

"You can go back."

"What's the good of that?"

"I'll fetch a boat."

Water had become so utterly distasteful to Peckover that even the
comparative shallows had no longer the slightest attraction for him.
"What am I to do?" he shrieked.  "Gage, you must save me!"

"Don't feel up to it now; too cold," was the unfeeling reply.

Peckover now found that the extra six inches in the depth of the water
made all the difference when it came to a struggle.  The margin below
the breathing point was too small to permit of a sustained effort.
Gage struck out, and Peckover, choosing what a momentary consideration
suggested as the lesser of the two evils, let go his hold and stayed
behind where at least his mouth was above water.

What the four people on the bank now saw was this.  The supposed Lord
Quorn leaving his companion, and energetically striking out for the
shore, while the head which was all that was visible of the pretended
millionaire remained a weird and ghastly object on the green expanse of
water.  To add to the interest of the scene, Peckover, finding the mud
on which he stood, had a tendency to give way beneath him, was forced,
as he gradually sank, to keep jumping, with the object of maintaining
his head well above water.  That the situation had grown critical was
now fairly apparent, and it became borne in upon the farmer and his
friend that heroic measures were indicated.

Directed by the butcher, who assumed an important (and dry)
superintendence of the operations, the farmer now waded to the tops of
his gaiters into the lake, and flung out the oar with the rope attached
towards the wildly struggling Gage.

"There you are, my lord.  Lay 'old!" shouted the butcher.  "Then you
can go back for the gentleman.  You'll 'ave to get a little farther
out, Mr. Purvis; the rope's a bit short."

"Wish you'd come and lend a hand yourself, Mr. Fanning, instead o'
telling me what any fool can see," Mr. Purvis called back testily, as
the water lapped over the rim of his gaiters.

"You're all right, Mr. Purvis," Mr. Fanning cried encouragingly,
ignoring the invitation.  "Pull the oar in and throw it out again to
his lordship."

"Thought you could swim, Fanning," observed Mr. Purvis, wrestling
uncomfortably with the difficulties of the situation.

"Never," Mr. Fanning protested promptly and mendaciously.  "Wish I
could.  Now, out with it!  Take care of his lordship's 'ead."

Once more the oar hurtled through the air, and fell this time within a
yard of Gage's blanched face.  Making a desperate and supreme effort,
he seized it, and, once sure of the timely support, clung to it panting
and exhausted.  As he rested there, his feet naturally sank till they
met with an obstruction.  Moving them about to clear himself, Gage
found that they had touched the bottom; he forthwith stood up and
disclosed the fact that he had been swimming for his life in three feet
of water.

"Look to the other gentleman, Mr. Purvis," directed Mr. Fanning from
his post of high and dry observation.

Mr. Purvis and Gage accordingly directed dubious glances at the bobbing
head of the unhappy Peckover.

"If your lordship would swim out with the oar to the gentleman," Purvis
suggested, "I can pull you both in."

"I dare say," returned Gage with chattering teeth.  "I'm not going
back, the fun doesn't pay for the trouble.  You wade out as far as you
can and throw the oar to him, and let your friend hold the rope.  Hi!"
he called, to the complacent Mr. Fanning, "come here and catch hold.
Hurry up or there'll be an inquest."

The dictatorial Mr. Fanning's expansive face, together with his
self-centred spirits, fell at the invitation.  "Sorry I can't swim, my
lord," he objected, advancing along the margin with dry and lagging
steps.

"No one wants you to," retorted Gage as he heavily emerged, dripping
and pitiful from the water.  "Go in, and hold the rope," he commanded,
"or my friend will be drowned."

And indeed Peckover's sharp cries, uttered so as to fill the
opportunities when his mouth was above water, gave colour to the
statement.

Mr. Fanning, perhaps by the nature of his trade, rendered somewhat
indifferent to the question of life and death where he was not
personally concerned, had been congratulating himself on being well out
of the affair; and now the order coming as it did from so important a
personage and customer as Lord Quorn, was neither pleasant nor to be
disregarded.  Personal discomfort was a thing to be endured by him only
in other people, and now as he waded reluctantly into the water he
resolved to avenge his outraged feelings and damp extremities by an
extra penny a pound all round on his future deliveries at Staplewick
Towers.

"Now throw me the end of the rope, Mr. Purvis," he commanded when the
water reached half-way up his calves.

"You must come right out, Mr. Fanning," was the peremptory reply, "or
we shall never reach the gentleman."

Accordingly Mr. Fanning, standing between a cross fire of admonishment
and objurgation, was fain to advance till waist-deep.

Encouraged by the recently indicated shallowness of the water, Mr.
Purvis now went boldly forward, as much with the idea of exhibiting
superior prowess compared with Mr. Fanning, as of ingratiating himself
with the lord of Staplewick.  The resoluteness of the proceeding,
however, had the effect of demonstrating its own superfluity, for as
Mr. Purvis pushed forward he sank no deeper in the water and was able
to approach waist-deep within the oar's length of Peckover who, it
appeared, had unfortunately come upon a hole and, in his fright, stayed
there.  Clutching the end of the oar he was pulled out into safety,
not, however, without a great show of superfluous energy on the part of
Mr. Purvis, who wished to make the most of his effort and have the
greatest possible return for his ruined breeches and gaiters; and so
the three, rescuers and rescued, stumbled with mixed feelings to the
shore.



CHAPTER XV

The most tangible result of the aquatic performance was that Gage,
through his long immersion, caught a bad chill, and had to take to his
bed.  Peckover, who was none the worse for the trying twenty minutes
(having probably been too frightened to think of catching cold), was
summoned to his lordship's bedroom, and there passed a particularly
uncomfortable quarter of an hour.

"It is all your idiotic fault that I'm stuck away here," the patient
declared wrathfully.  "That ass of a doctor says he won't let me get up
for a week.  A fine lot of fun I'm getting out of the title up to now.
And I'm paying you a hundred pounds for a week in bed.  As though it
matters when I'm between the blankets whether I'm a lord or a
solicitor's clerk.  A peerage only counts when you've got your boots
on."

"I'm very sorry, old man," said Peckover contritely.  "But I don't see
that you can blame me."

"I do blame you," Gage burst out.  "Why couldn't you do as I told you,
instead of dodging about like a fool and nearly bringing us both to our
death!"

"You might make allowances," urged Peckover, "for a chap's feelings,
when he finds himself for the first time in cold water with his clothes
on."

"Bah!" Gage returned scornfully.  "You've no pluck.  And you spoilt the
whole show.  Well, it will have to stand, anyhow; I'm not going to let
you make a fool of me again, whatever you may do with yourself.  Now
perhaps you will put your mind to carrying through the dry land part of
the trick.  If you don't I'll chuck you back your beggarly title, and
get on without it.  It hasn't done much for me yet."

"What do you want me to do?"

"While I'm lying here," Gage answered in an aggrieved tone, "you've got
to make the most of the rescue.  I reckon neither of us wants to play
the joke over again."

"Not me," Peckover agreed heartily.

"Well, then, the least you can do is to make out what a splendid rescue
it was, and that I'm a first-class hero, and that you're going to
recognize the fact by making over to me a big slice of your fortune.
D'you see?  If I'm not a hero there can be no point in your solid
admiration and gratitude.  So rub it well in."

"All right," Peckover promised.

"You may as well," Gage proceeded, "send for the lawyer chap from
Bunbury and have a deed drawn up, settling, say, a couple of hundred
thousand on me, it won't mean much as between you and me, but it will
impress the local public; and I tell you I mean to have a good bit of
glory to pay for this beastly cold.  Now, do it at once and do it with
a snap, or I shall find a better use for five thousand a year than a
cold-catching title."

Thus admonished, Peckover carried out his instructions with a will, and
in a very few hours the _soi-disant_ Lord Quorn's heroic act promised
fair to be an undying tradition for the country-side.  In fact,
Peckover, in his anxiety to retain his desirable income, rather overdid
the business, and so much so that one or two cynical spirits were
goaded into making question whether the life so saved was really, apart
from the income it might have left behind, quite worth the value its
owner evidently set upon it.  Still, that mattered nothing to Peckover,
who was not thin-skinned, at least on dry land.

The _Bunbury Bulletin_ devoted a column and three quarters to the
"Romantic and Heroic Incident at Staplewick Park," and told its
breathless readers in unusually and adjectively gorgeous language how a
distinguished young Colonial of immense wealth was the guest with the
newly succeeded Lord Quorn at Staplewick Towers, temporarily in the
occupation of Colonel and Lady Agatha Hemyock; how he had, while
fishing in the justly celebrated and admired lake in the beautiful
park, overbalanced himself in making a cast, had fallen into deep
water, and he being in imminent risk of drowning, how the gallant young
nobleman, worthy descendant of a line of heroes and otherwise
distinguished ancestors, had plunged in and with great difficulty and
after unheard-of exertions rescued his friend.  The writer having fully
described the occurrence, with a minuteness of detail only possible
from the pen of one who was not there, proceeded to give the respective
lineage and achievements of rescued and rescuer, while the interstices
in the thrilling narrative were filled up with topographical,
historical and picturesque notes by way of local colour; items which
were kept ready for use in the event of anything worthy of description
happening at Staplewick, from a chimney on fire to a royal visit.

Great as was the sensation which the highly coloured account created,
it may be safely asserted that by none was it read with more consuming
interest than by Mr. Purvis, the farmer, and Mr. Fanning, the butcher.
Their traditional and rooted belief in the infallibility of the
newspaper press received a shock from which it never recovered.  But
when their astonished perusal reached the last and most sensational
paragraph, in which it was stated "on the best authority" that the
grateful millionaire had, as a mark of his esteem, admiration and
gratitude, settled a considerable fortune, "a sum which, it was an open
secret, might be represented by a two and five noughts," on his
deliverer, their sensations became of a complicated character that
defied analysis.  Anyhow, the result was that they met to discuss the
matter, and the outcome of the meeting was that next morning they
proceeded to the Towers and sought an interview with the supposititious
millionaire.

Peckover felt somewhat uncomfortable when the visitors were announced.
In his exuberance in making the most of a sham rescue he had overlooked
the spectators, or at least had regarded them as negligible factors in
the episode.

After a few words of disingenuous congratulation, Mr. Fanning came to
the point.  He and Mr. Purvis had seen it stated, doubtless correctly,
in the local paper that Mr. Gage had in his gratitude, etc., rewarded
his purported rescuer in more than princely fashion.  And Mr. Fanning
and Mr. Purvis, whilst not withholding their meed of admiration from
his lordship, whose illness they deplored, and who had, they generously
admitted, done the best he could, were anxious to know where they came
in, and could only say that it was hard for them to express in words
their joint and several disappointment at being mentioned in connexion
with the affair only in the roles of casual spectators.  Whereas, Mr.
Fanning urged with a suggestion of latent heat, it was they who brought
the accident to its comparatively happy termination; but for them and
the parts they played, he, Mr. Fanning, did not think they would that
day be having the pleasure of addressing Mr. Gage, or at any rate he,
Mr. Gage, the advantage of being in a position to listen to them; the
depressing inference being obvious.

As Peckover had by this time come to take a more comfortable and even
jocular view of the affair, he was not inclined to give more notice to
the claim than seeing in it evidence that the bogus rescue had deceived
its witnesses.  Moreover, as a Cockney, he had not much opinion of or
consideration for the feelings of a farmer and a country butcher.

"Oh, I don't think you did much," he replied off-handedly.

"Begging your pardon, sir," Mr. Fanning maintained, "we did everything,
if the lives of yourself and his lordship count for anything."

"You didn't risk your lives," Peckover argued.

"We did, begging your pardon, sir."

"What, in three feet six inches of water?"

"How," urged Mr. Fanning, "were we to know the depth?  We were prepared
to go much deeper."

"I dare say," returned Peckover incredulously.  "But as you didn't that
doesn't come into the account.  You did a lot of shouting, I admit, and
nearly knocked my head off by flinging that infernal oar at me as
though you thought you were harpooning a whale.  Well, what do you
want?"

Mr. Fanning's face was lowering, and that of Mr. Purvis was overspread
by a foolish grin of disappointment.  Certainly matters were not
turning out as they had anticipated on their walk to the Towers.  They
were being rudely awakened from their dreams of returning to their
respective homes rich men.

Mr. Fanning paused for a moment, as collecting, so to say, his routed
forces for a final charge.  "Well, sir," he said, bluntly now and with
a note of repressed indignation; "putting myself aside for the moment,
I should like to ask, seeing what you are doing for his lordship,
whether my friend Mr. Purvis' efforts on your behalf are not to meet
with suitable recognition.  It was Mr. Purvis who, with me, kept our
presence of mind when matters looked black; it was Mr. Purvis who,
under my direction, ran with splendid promptitude to the boathouse; it
was Mr. Purvis who fetched out all there was to fetch, the oar and the
rope, and, under my directions, lashed the one to the other; it was Mr.
Purvis who, at my suggestion, and at imminent risk to himself, first
made sure of his lordship when his lordship was totally exhausted.
Yes."

Mr. Fanning paused, and drew a murrey-coloured handkerchief lightly
across his heated brow.  Mr. Purvis, with the reticence of conscious
desert, stood eyeing Peckover with an expression which suggested, that
if that unsympathetic person was not duly impressed by the catalogue of
his achievements, he ought to be, and that if he, Purvis, failed to
obtain due reward for the same he would be content to leave his claim
to the judgment of posterity, but at the same time would much prefer an
immediate and more material recognition.

"It was Mr. Purvis," resumed the butcher, "accompanied and assisted by
your humble servant, who at considerable risk, I may say, great risk,
since I am no swimmer----"

"Nor ain't I," interjaculated Purvis, thankfully, as looking to his
ignorance to increase the figure of his recompense.

"Anyhow," continued Fanning, rather put off his eloquence by the
interruption, "we risked it.  We risked it.  And we are husbands of
wives and fathers of families."

Mr. Fanning, who was said to be in the habit of knocking his wife about
after an evening at the _Pigeons_, became, for a butcher, almost
touching, and Mr. Purvis, whose wife ruled him with a copper-stick on
the rare occasions when her tongue failed, experienced no difficulty in
looking intensely married.

"It was Mr. Purvis, guided and sustained by me, who pushed out for you,
sir, and----"

"It was Mr. Purvis, directed by you, who nearly sliced the top of my
head off," Peckover interposed flippantly.

"Your rescue," pursued Fanning, ignoring the interruption, "was no
light matter.  It was the stiffest job I've ever been concerned in,
though I must say I never expected to have to bring the fact home to
the gentleman most interested in it."

"Well," said Peckover curtly, "what did you expect?"

"Leave it to you, sir," Purvis replied promptly, shrewdly fearing the
effect his friend's verbosity might have upon the ultimate figure.

But Mr. Fanning would have his say.  "Putting aside, sir, the risk of
life we ran, to say nothing of the most valuable existence which it has
been our privilege to prolong, I may mention that I was wearing on the
occasion a bran new pair of boots which are now good for nothing, quite
ruined, sir; I had on likewise my best market-day gaiters and breeches
ditto; added to which the tails of my coat and the sleeves were so
saturated that my missus can do nothing with 'em.  And I believe I am
correct in stating that Mr. Purvis' wearing apparel was greatly
deteriorated."

He turned towards Purvis for corroboration.  That worthy man gave an
assenting nod.  "Ain't been able to get into my breeches since, nor my
boots, nor my gaiters," he asserted painfully.

Peckover made a rapid calculation based on the price-tickets he had
studied during the luncheon hour in the windows of various
establishments in Cheapside.  "All right," he said graciously, "I shall
be happy to present you with five pounds apiece; that is one pound
seventeen for the damage and three guineas each for your trouble."

For a few moments a sepulchral silence reigned in the room.  Then Mr.
Fanning's mouth slowly opened, as though the machinery, brought to a
sudden stop, was just set going again.  But all he could say was:

"Five pounds apiece?"

So profound was his emotion that for the moment Peckover was at a loss
as to the real effect of his offer.

"As a mark of my high appreciation of your services, and taking into
consideration that we did not know the depth of water was only three
foot six, I shall be pleased to make it guineas," Peckover announced,
in as grand a manner as he knew how to assume.

Mr. Fanning threw up his hands and turned to Mr. Purvis, an incarnation
of despair.  "Five guineas!  Five!" he gasped.

"The gentleman's joking," was all Purvis could say.

"No, I really mean it," said Peckover with princely condescension.  "I
absolutely refuse to reward your services at any lower figure, however
much less your modesty may feel them to be really worth.  I said five
guineas and I mean five guineas, and not a shilling less than five
guineas apiece shall you have."

Mr. Fanning was now reduced to a state of abject helplessness.  "Five
guineas! five guineas!" was his cry.  "While the man who had to be
rescued himself--by us, by us--gets a sum running into six figures.
It's something to be a lord."

"A poor look-out for respectable farmers and tradesmen," put in Purvis.

"What," demanded Peckover, in well-feigned surprise, "aren't you
satisfied?"

"Not exactly," Fanning answered feelingly.

"Well," returned Peckover, "I consider five guineas very good pay for
ten minutes' work in preventing two gentlemen from drowning in three
foot six of water."

"It's an insult," Fanning maintained.

"Oh, well," retorted Peckover, "I won't insult you.  Good-day."

But neither Mr. Fanning nor Mr. Purvis had any intention of leaving
heroism to be its own reward.  They made a simultaneous movement to
intercept their insulter as he moved towards the door.

"Don't misunderstand us, sir," said Fanning, tempering with a nice
sense of dignity his demand for justice.  "We are poor men, and if five
guineas apiece is really all you are disposed to offer us, why, our
duty to our families is to accept it."

"Ah, I thought you'd come to your senses," observed Peckover with a
grin.  "Five guineas isn't to be sneezed at."

"I've done a lot of sneezing for it," replied Fanning, "and so has Mr.
Purvis.  We both got bad colds from the wetting."

"Well, you can't expect me to pay you for having a cold in the head,"
returned Peckover, with more flippancy than justice.  "Here's your
bonus."

He took out the money and paid them, with the full intention of
recovering the same from his friend and patron upstairs.  Messrs.
Fanning and Purvis received the inadequate solatium in a due spirit of
protest.  The crackle of the notes in their bucolic fingers woke them
from their dreams of affluence, and as they gazed with sorrow on the
legend thereon the fact was established that five, not five thousand,
was the figure at which their heroism was assessed, and that if justice
was to be found in the world her habitat was not Staplewick Towers.

With the departure of the dissatisfied pair Peckover threw himself into
a chair and laughed for some minutes as he recalled, one after another,
the salient points of the serio-comic interview.  He had his
limitations and deficiencies, but a certain sense of humour was not
among them, and the logical consequence of that magnificently absurd
rescue and reward appealed to it strongly.

"Oh, I'm in for a fine time at last," he chuckled, in unrestrained
enjoyment of his new state of existence.  "What a bit of luck!  I'm
going to be in clover for the rest of my days.  Tal ra, ra!  It's
immense!"  He jumped up and began, in pure joyousness, to dance a
double shuffle.  In the midst of his saltatory abandon he suddenly
stopped.  The light in the room had become sensibly diminished.
Pirouetting round to the window to ascertain the cause, he saw bulking
therein the huge figure of a man who was watching his caperings with a
threatening eye.



CHAPTER XVI

The man who, with his burly form filling up the window, stood looking
in with grim amusement at Peckover's performance, was a great
round-faced, bullet-headed fellow of six feet two, whose massive
proportions, coupled with his juvenile countenance and somewhat vacuous
expression, gave him the appearance of a fat schoolboy seen through a
magnifying-glass.  He was dressed in a Norfolk suit of leather, which
by its amplitude of cut made the wearer look even a bigger man than
Nature had intended him to be.

For some seconds the two stood staring at each other in a sort of
stupefied silence.  Then Peckover, somewhat nervously, remarked,
"Hullo!"

"Keeping warm?" the substantial apparition enquired, drawing back the
corners of his wide mouth in a sarcastic grin.

"Foot asleep," was the ready explanation, given with a certain
apprehensive quaver.

"I see."  The stranger accepted the statement for what it was worth.
"This is Staplewick Towers?" The question was put in a tone of settled
conviction that only an answer in the affirmative would be deemed
worthy of credence.

"Yes.  Front door round to the left," said Peckover perking up.

"Thanks," returned the intruder significantly.  "I'll try that way when
I leave."  He took a step in to the room and stared round him curiously.

"Awkward member!" was Peckover's muttered comment, duly impressed by
the other's size, which made the furniture look small.  "You wish to
see Colonel Hemyock?"

"Not particularly," returned the stranger gruffly, "I want Lord Quorn."

"Lord Quorn!"  Peckover caught up his face in the act of falling.
"Pressing business?" he inquired politely.

"Very."

"Any message?"

"No."  The man's voice was unnecessarily, objectionably loud, Peckover
thought.  "You would not care to take what I've come all the way from
Australia to give him," he added with unpleasant significance, as he
twirled a thick crop, just missing a statuette by half an inch.

So the complication which Peckover had feared but of which his good
fortune and the zest of his new life had made him forgetful, had
arrived.  In a moment the particularly awkward truth flashed upon him,
that this was the dreaded bully from Australia, the brother of the
would-be Lady Quorn.

The idea put his thoughts in such a whirl that he was not ready with
any reply.  His hesitation seemed to have the effect of exasperating
the quick-tempered visitor.

"Where is this nobleman?" he roared, with sneering emphasis on the
substantive.

Peckover, with the income of a Cabinet Minister at stake, was rapidly
running over expedients for meeting the monstrous emergency.  To put
him off for the moment and send for the police seemed the most feasible
way.

"Lord Quorn?" he replied.  "Oh, he's about."

"He won't be about much after I have done with him," was the grim
retort.  Suddenly stooping forward and looking viciously round the
room, the unpleasant visitor carelessly threw his crop away over his
shoulder and caught up the poker.  "Look here!" he bellowed.  "His
lordship's right leg."  With the word he made a furious effort and
snapped the poker in halves.  "See?" he panted, throwing the pieces
down so near Peckover's feet that the impressed observer sprang
eighteen inches into the air.  "How will his lordship like that?" he
asked loudly.

It occurred to Peckover that, considering the poor fellow's situation,
the tampering with his noble limbs would not be likely to affect him
much, and he said so.

The strong man stared at him in incredulous exasperation that the
performance had missed its intended effect.  "What?  He's not a big
chap, is he?" he demanded.

"No," Peckover answered, "I--I mean he is so devoid of feeling."

The visitor caught up his crop and flourished it.  "My poor sister is
not, though," he roared, with a violence which even his possibly just
resentment scarcely seemed to justify.  "He promised to marry her, and
then ran off.  But we are on his track.  Yes, I've got my
broken-hearted sister waiting outside in the garden."

Peckover felt that he must have a few minutes' solitude in which to
think out the solution of the awkward problem.  "Hadn't you better go
and fetch her in, while I tell Lord Quorn?" he suggested.

"I will," was the answer, given with a violent suddenness which made
Peckover start.  "And when I catch sight of his lordship," added the
amiable zealot, "I'll astonish him.  I'll--I'll make him jump."

"You'll astonish a good many people besides if you do," murmured
Peckover dryly, as the bully flung off through the window.  Here was a
pretty situation.  Was the good time he was enjoying and promising
himself to turn into ash like a pipe of tobacco?  Already the
_soi-disant_ Lord Quorn was complaining--and with some justice--that he
was not having much fun for his money.  Would he be likely to continue
paying five thousand a year for the privilege of marrying an
undesirable colonial maiden with the alternative of having his arms and
legs snapped, possibly his nose slit and his eyes gouged out, if he
refused?  Not likely.  Nor that he would care to wear the title when he
found it carried so little fun and so many inconveniences with it.  But
what was he, Percy Peckover, to do?  The situation baffled him.
Temporize was all he could think of; temporize till he could hit on
some expedient for ridding the position of this awkward element which
threatened to spoil it.  It was certainly exasperating just when he had
settled down into a good thing to have to return to the hard world of
work which he hated, poverty which he loathed, and his own identity of
which he stood in terror.  But this great noisy bully--ugh! how he
would like to----

His bitter meditations were interrupted by footsteps on the path and
next moment the _bête noire_ reappeared, this time with the lady.  The
first anxious glance at her did nothing to dissipate Peckover's
apprehensions.  A fine woman she was certainly, according to the
popular acceptation of the term--tall and massive, but coarse and
off-hand almost to vulgarity.  She had challenging black eyes, a nose
which the most casual glance could never overlook, and a determined
mouth and jaw.  Her hair was cut short like a man's, and in her hand
she swung a substantial ash stick which she seemed quite capable of
using to enforce any argument which verbal persuasion had failed to
drive home.  As to her dress, it was of masculine cut, the skirt being
deeply edged with leather.  Altogether she was a formidable and
workmanlike young woman.

Peckover had taken the precaution to latch the French window.  Finding
it did not yield to his heavy hand, the gentleman from Australia
applied his boot to it and burst it open.

"This rotten window sticks," he remarked by way of apology.  "Come in,
Lalage.  Mind the glass.  This," he said aggressively to Peckover, "is
my poor deceived sister, Miss Lalage Leo.  My name is Carnaby Leo.
Now, where's Lord Quorn?"

"In bed," answered Peckover manfully.

"What?" roared Mr. Leo.

"You need not shout," Peckover suggested, fearful that the noise might
reach other ears and occasion complications.  "We had an accident on
the lake the other day, and he has been in bed ever since."

"We've heard of it," said Miss Leo, speaking for the first time.  Her
tone was as downright and masculine as her appearance.  "And are you
the rich young man who was rescued from drowning?"

"I am."

Brother and sister exchanged glances, and the glances, Peckover told
himself, foretold a further complication.

"Lord Quorn is very seriously ill," he said impressively.  "Took a bad
chill, and is suffering from congestion and--and fever.  It is quite
impossible that you should see him for at least a fortnight, if he
isn't dead by that date."

"I'll see him, dead or alive," shouted Mr. Leo, who was making a tour
of inspection round the apartment.

"Be calm, Carnaby," said his sister casually.

"It would kill him," observed Peckover, with conviction.

"Killing's too good for him," returned Carnaby, loudly.

"Hush, Carnaby!" the lady commanded.

"He is delirious," said Peckover, warming to his work.

"I'll bring him to his senses," growled Leo.

"Better leave him to me for the present," suggested Miss Leo.

"He wouldn't recognize you, or you him," said Peckover, for once
touching upon the truth.

"I'll soon let him know who we are," bellowed Mr. Leo, "and what we
are--and what he is."

"Impossible, while he's in this state," Peckover maintained.  "If you
kill him----"

"Good job too!" Mr. Leo interpolated.

"He won't be much good for matrimonial purposes."

"True," Miss Leo admitted.

Peckover had noticed with some discomfort that of late her eyes had
rested on him with increasing interest.  He was always typically alive
to the slightest sign of female attraction to himself, but this
particular attention did not produce in him the usual sportive
complacency.  The situation was becoming tense.  The very complexity of
his position took from Peckover his usual volubility.  Then he
bethought himself of certain alcoholic sustenance which he and Gage
kept in a closed cabinet in order to be able to indulge in it at
uncanonical hours without the fuss of ringing and ordering drinks.
_Noblesse oblige_, the new-fangled peer had observed in reference to
his obligation to hide the evidence of irregular refreshment.

"Have a drink?" he suggested, as he whipped out a decanter of derelict
sherry which a foraging tour of the cellars had discovered.

Mr. Carnaby Leo's interest in his surroundings seemed to deepen at the
suggestion.  "I will," he promptly responded, as he swooped down upon
the wine.  "Sherry!"  He pronounced the word with a contortion of his
fat face which might be construed into an indication of preference for
some other beverage not immediately forthcoming; but he drank it,
gulping down a glass at a swallow, nevertheless.

Suddenly Miss Leo turned to Peckover.  "You are not married?" she
demanded with startling significance.

"Not yet," he answered, blanching.

"Engaged?"

She stood over him breathing a fell design, her black eyes transfixing
him, and seeming to wither his flippant courage to the very root.
Still he made a feebly desperate effort to stave it off.  "Not quite.
Almost.  Practically," he stammered.

"That's a trifle," the lady returned with masterful decisiveness.
"Easily got over."  Then to his relief she turned her blighting gaze
from him and directed it meditatively to the expanse of park beyond the
window.  "I think," she said musingly, "that in any event I see my way
out."

"Yes, that is the best way out," murmured Peckover as loudly as he
dared, following her gaze.

But she ignored the rash speech, and for some moments the silence was
broken only by the smacking of Mr. Leo's lips as he endeavoured to
impart gusto into his occupation.

Peckover, dreading the next words, was about to call attention to the
beauty of the landscape when Miss Leo suddenly turned upon him, and, as
though struck by an exceptionally brilliant idea, said--"In the event
of my not being Lady Quorn, why should I not marry you?"

"Oh, bother!"  Peckover was startled into the expression of
disagreement.  "Why should you?" he objected manfully.

"If I set my mind upon it," she said, with a dangerous look in her eye.

"Please take it off," he protested.  "Lord Quorn is my friend; he saved
my life, I could not be so base as to rob him of you."

"No," the lady replied dryly, "you wouldn't if I wanted him.  But I'm
not so sure about it.  Anyhow, in case the poor fellow doesn't get
better, why, he couldn't complain."

"No, that would be my work," Peckover reflected anxiously.

"Weak stuff, this," exclaimed Mr. Leo.  "Brandy neat is my sauce.
Can't taste sherry."

"It's not for want of trying," Peckover thought, as he noticed the
almost empty decanter, but he did not say so.

"Isn't he a fine fellow?" murmured Miss Leo, with an unwelcome approach
to affectionate confidence.  "Be nice to him and he'll soon take to
you."

"He has soon taken to the sherry," was Peckover's mental commentary.

"Strong as a lion," said Lalage, waxing enthusiastic.

"And thirsty as a dozen," Peckover told himself.

"Carnaby, dear," his sister called sweetly, "I want you and Mr. Gage to
be great friends.  We are so already," she added caressingly to the
unhappy Peckover; "more than friends, eh?"

"Don't seem to have lost much time," was her brother's not unnatural
comment as he leered at their victim.

Peckover felt that if he did not take a firm stand at once he was lost.
"I quite agree with you," he replied boldly, addressing himself to the
still thirsty Mr. Leo and ignoring the lady's blandishments.  "There is
no need to be in such a deuce of a hurry.  You see"--he took courage to
face his would-be enslaver--"I never set eyes on you till ten minutes
ago."

Miss Leo's face changed swiftly from affection to resentment.
"Carnaby," she exclaimed, as an ill-boding light flashed from her eyes,
"do you hear that?"

Carnaby, disturbed in his employment of draining the last drops out of
the decanter, responded loudly, and, it seemed a trifle perfunctorily,
"Never set eyes?  All right.  I'll take them out for you, and reset
them directly."

"But I'm not the man you want," Peckover protested.

"Nobody," roared Leo, "will want you much after I've shaken hands with
you."

"I want Lord Quorn," Miss Leo declared resolutely.  "Failing Lord
Quorn, I'll take you."

"Well, but----" Peckover began to expostulate, when Mr. Leo rolled up
and stopped him.

"Now, look here, my pretty dickey-bird," he explained grimly, "I'm
gentle up to a point, because my sweet sister doesn't like bloodshed.
That poker," he pointed to the broken steel, "was his lordship's right
arm; here is yours."

He caught up the shovel, and with a quick movement snapped it, throwing
the pieces back into the fender with emphatic and dismaying clatter.

"Would you mind listening to me?" urged Peckover, regarding the
object-lesson as unpleasantly superfluous.

But the man of strength disregarded his appeal.  "I shan't hurt you
yet," he declared with an under-lying threat, as he caught up the tongs
and flourished them.  He opened and closed them with a snap several
times uncomfortably near Peckover's nose.  "Both legs," he exclaimed,
as, putting forth a mighty effort, he twisted and broke them, throwing
them down with the same provoking clangour.

"I tell you," Peckover declared desperately, "this house is not mine.
It is not even at this moment Lord Quorn's.  It is let furnished.  I
wish you would not interfere with the fire-irons."

"I'm not particular," Leo returned.  "Can't stop to go into the
ownership of fire-irons.  You've seen what I'm capable of; now send 'em
up to his lordship with my compliments."

"Lord Quorn is not at home here at present," Peckover insisted.

"A lord," said Lalage, "is at home anywhere."

The thought of the real Lord Quorn crossed Peckover's mind.

"Fine thing to be a lord," he reflected bitterly.  "That poor chap has
missed this fun."  Then seeing Carnaby evidently on the look-out for
fresh worlds, or, rather, domestic implements, to conquer, he turned
desperately to Lalage.  "I say," he proposed seriously, "can't we
compromise this?"

The words, or at least one of them caught the ear of her brother, on
whom possibly the sherry was beginning to take effect.  "Compromise,
you wombat?" he bawled.  "Compromise my beautiful sister?"

"No, no, Carnaby," protested the beautiful one in question, with a look
at Peckover which gave unmistakable point to her words, "how absurd you
are."

"Compromise my precious sister, you slink!"

"No, no," Peckover objected, getting quite reckless between the two
fires; "not your precious sister.  How absurd you are!"

Next instant the giant had sprung at him and had him in his grip.
"Absurd?  Am I?  I'll wring your neck!"

"I mean settle," Peckover explained in a shriek.

"I'll settle you," was the retort, emphasized by a tightening grip.

"I mean settle with money," gasped the tortured one, hoping the magic
word might have a relaxing effect upon the stricture.

But whatever might have been its effect upon his tormentor's mind when
unclouded by alcohol, it had now the reverse of the desired result.
"Money!" he cried in maudlin indignation as he threw him off, "what is
money where the honour of my lovely Lalage is concerned?"

Peckover had come to the inevitable conclusion that it would be worth
his while to make some pecuniary sacrifice in order to get out of the
difficulty.  He would do well to jettison part of the cargo of his ship
which had seemed to be coming home so nicely.

"You see," he explained, "much as my friend Quorn may admire your
sister, he will be bound to marry a rich girl to support his title."

"A peer wants a lot of keeping up, I suppose," growled Mr. Leo, taking
out another bottle from the cabinet and shaking it viciously,
demonstrating by his action that a bush-bully requires a certain amount
of keeping-up as well.

"It stands to reason," Peckover replied.  "Now," he added
insinuatingly, "if a hundred pounds----"

The words were scarcely out of his mouth when he was sorry he had
uttered them.  There was an explosion, a smash, and the little table
with its contents was lying on the floor broken by a thump from the
mighty fist.

"Hundred devils!" Mr. Leo roared.



CHAPTER XVII

So far as he dared, Peckover began to lose his temper.  "I wish you
would not smash things," he ventured to remonstrate.  "I'll take your
word for your muscle."

"My muscle prefers to speak for itself," was the retort.

"It need not talk with such a deuced lot of emphasis," Peckover
rejoined.  "What do you say," he added, returning to business, "to two
hundred pounds?"

"Don't you wish I may take it?" exclaimed the fair Lalage with infinite
scorn.

"You can't expect any more," Peckover urged.  "Lord Quorn is a very
poor man."

"Is he?" Lalage asked, becoming thoughtful.

"Certainly he is.  Really not worth looking after.  Now," he added,
coaxingly.  "Can't you put a fair price on your journey?"

"What price my glorious sister's broken heart?" bellowed Mr. Leo,
truculently maudlin.

"Damaged goods half price," was Peckover's inaudible reply.

"Eh, you scallywag?"  The big man advanced upon him threateningly.
"Let me go into figures with your beautiful Lord Quorn.  Once before a
man played the fool with Lalage, and we got five thousand pounds out of
his executors."

"Executors?" repeated Peckover, interested in spite of more urgent
considerations.  "Poor fellow died then?"

"Yes, you see Carnaby called upon him," Lalage explained sweetly.

"Now," proceeded Mr. Leo, always with unnecessary volume of tone,
"before I proceed to extremities, I should like to know from you, as
his lordship's friend, how we stand."

It occurred to Peckover that the chances were that either he or both
would stand on two stumps before long if the weather did not change.
"Name your own sum for the return ticket," he said desperately.

Mr. Leo walked up and placed his hands upon Peckover's shoulders with
such energy that the smaller man wondered he did not collapse into his
boots.  "Does he mean it?" he cried, glaring tipsily into Peckover's
contorted face.  "Not he!  Look at his eye; it's shifty."

The victim considered he might esteem himself lucky if the feature in
question did not shift out of his head forthwith.

"We must take time," said Lalage, laying a repressing hand on her
brother's arm.

"We'll stay a week or two with you," Mr. Leo declared; "till his
lordship has decided whether he will remain on above ground or not."

It occurred to Peckover that the property would be considerably out of
repair by that time, but he recognized that a refusal was at the moment
quite out of the question.  Then, as Mr. Leo, having given him a
preliminary shake, released him from his clutch by sending him
backwards with uncalled-for violence against a floor lamp which was not
improved by the contact, the door opened and Miss Ethel Hemyock looked
in.  "Oh, Mr. Gage, I have only just got rid of poor Mr. Sharnbrook."

The young lady came in with a smile for Peckover and a doubtful glance
at the strangers.  Perhaps Miss Leo's appearance suggested to her
ignorance that she had not much to fear from that quarter in the way of
rivalry; anyhow, her look changed to one of easy graciousness as
Peckover, awkwardly enough, introduced them.

"Let me present some Australian friends of mine," he said.

"Very great friends," added Lalage, with a significant smile.

"More than friends; brothers, eh, Gage, my boy," put in Carnaby taking
the cue from his sister, and accompanying the words with a slap which
nearly dislocated Peckover's shoulder.

"Oh," said Miss Ethel, rather drawing back, and looking enquiringly at
Peckover.

"So pleased to know all your friends, dear," observed Lalage with
mischievous significance.  "I am sure we shall be great friends,
Miss--Miss----"

"Ethel Hemyock," the young lady supplied frigidly, the word "dear"
having congealed her.

Lady Agatha and Dagmar came in.  The hostess' look of enquiry at the
sight of the abnormal visitors was cut short by Ethel's anxious
enquiry.  "Where is Mr. Sharnbrook?"

The tone suggested to her mother's sharp ears that something was wrong.

"Mr. Sharnbrook has just gone."

"He is staying to luncheon?"

"No," Dagmar answered.  "Mother did not ask him."

"He must!" Ethel exclaimed, making for the door.

"Ethel!" Dagmar cried, as she sprang after her.

Lady Agatha, scenting mischief, turned to Peckover.  "Will you present
your--friends?" she said coldly.

Peckover, roused from the natural preoccupation induced by his
position, did so.  "Miss Leo, Mr. Leo----"

"Friends from the Bush?" Lady Agatha enquired superciliously, eyeing
through her "witherers" Lalage's short hair and short dress.

"Yes--just so," Peckover answered in his confusion.

"What?" roared Carnaby.  "Bush?  I'll bush you!"

"Carnaby," his sister remonstrated, "be calm.  Yes, we are just from
Australia."

"Friends of Mr. Gage's?" Lady Agatha enquired, in a tone of disgusted
resignation.

"Friends of Lord Quorn," Peckover corrected swiftly.

"And of Mr. Gage's, I should hope," Lalage added with an embarrassing
show of affectionate insistence.

"Ah!" said Lady Agatha, transferring her attention and her glasses to
Carnaby, "Lord Quorn's former sheep partner, perhaps?"

"What?" shouted the worthy fellow, more bellicose than usual under the
influence of the sherry.  "Sheep partner?"

"It is not necessary," observed Lady Agatha with cutting distinctness,
"to speak so loud.  I am not aware that any one in the room is deaf."

"What," demanded Carnaby of Peckover in a roaring whisper, "does the
old lady mean by calling me a sheep partner?"

"Hush!  It's all right," he replied.  "She thinks you are an Australian
swell--a mutton-king."

"Mutton king?" Carnaby bawled, raising his arm as though to pulverize
his insulter.

The evidences of his strength had meanwhile attracted Lady Agatha's
attention.  "Are you," she asked severely, "the person who has been
taking liberties with the fire-irons?"

"Yes," answered Carnaby with justifiable pride.  "I just snapped them
to amuse this little wombat."  Then, as a brilliant afterthought, he
suggested--"Shall I ring for some more and show you how it is done?"

"By no means," was the frigid answer.  "I should very much object to be
shown anything of the sort.  And I must request you, if your friends
need amusement, to choose some other method of providing it."

"All right, don't be alarmed," replied Carnaby, on whom her grand tone
was quite wasted.  "Winter's coming on and I won't reduce the stock;
I've got something more interesting to break than fire-irons."

"By the way," Lady Agatha observed, "we saw a strange and not very
prepossessing person in the shrubbery by the drive just now.  Was he by
any chance a friend of yours?"

"Not likely, ma'am," Carnaby answered, "unless it was Lord Quorn, and
this little wallaby tells us he is in bed."

"It was not Lord Quorn," said Lady Agatha.

The Misses Ethel and Dagmar came in breathless, with Sharnbrook between
them, looking as a pick-pocket might under escort of two policemen.

"We caught him, mother, at the drive gate.  I told him how sorry you
were you had let him go when you meant to insist upon his staying to
luncheon."

"Of course," Lady Agatha corroborated, conveniently ignoring the fact
that she had practically sent him off as having no further use for him.
"Mr. Sharnbrook might have known we never could be so inhospitable."

Sharnbrook gave an enquiring glance at Peckover, who could only
helplessly reply by a sign directing his attention to Miss Leo, at
sight of whom hope gave way to despair in the Sharnbrook bosom.
Bisgood announced luncheon.  Lady Agatha's look at Peckover said as
plainly as speech--"What are you going to do with these impossible
people?"  And under the look he felt more limp and nonplussed than ever.

Under the circumstances Peckover was actually relieved when the tension
of the situation was snapped by a loud exclamation of satisfaction from
Carnaby.  "Lunch!  Good!  I'm all there!"  With a stride he placed
himself by Lady Agatha's side, and offered her his arm with what might
be supposed to stand in the Bush for the grand manner.  Ignoring his
arm, Lady Agatha crossed her own and walked stiffly and resentfully
from the room.  By no means abashed, Carnaby looked round and pounced
upon Dagmar, who, having lost Sharnbrook in a struggle for him with her
sister, was also disappointed of getting Peckover, whom Miss Leo had
taken prompt care to annex.  But Carnaby was hardly acceptable, even as
a consolation prize.  Dagmar drew back and made a sudden dart after her
mother leaving the rest to follow in various degrees of discontent.

"Oh, mother," she exclaimed breathless with indignation, "what
appalling people!  We had better keep an eye on the silver.  Do you
know, I saw that horrid man again in the shrubbery just now."

As the last of the party were pressing through the library door "that
horrid man" came up to the window and looked furtively in.  It was none
other than Lord Quorn, the real Lord Quorn; he who had drunk Peckover's
drugged champagne at the _Quorn Arms_ at Great Bunbury.



CHAPTER XVIII

"I've  had enough of this, I'm going to get up," Mr. Gage, the
_soi-disant_ Lord Quorn, declared, as Peckover after luncheon devoted a
few minutes of his present complicated existence to visit that
impatient patient.

"No, you don't."

"Won't I?" was the querulous rejoinder.  "Why not?  The doctor's gone,
and----"

"There's something worse than the doctor come," said Peckover with a
long face.

"I don't know what's worse than the doctor, unless it's the
undertaker," returned Gage.

"Well, I do," said Peckover feelingly.  "A most unfortunate thing has
happened.  A girl who I was a bit sweet on out there has followed me
over."

Gage whistled.  "Then our game's all up.  Of course she'll know you are
Quorn and I am not."

"No," replied Peckover subtly.  "I have made it all right about that.
Told her there was a mistake and I was not the rightful heir."

"That was smart of you," Gage said with gloomy approval.  "Well, what's
the trouble, then.  The lady doesn't expect me to marry her, does she?"

"Yes," answered Peckover with intensity, "she does."

"What?"  Gage nearly landed out of bed in his surprise.  "Me?"  Then
laughed incredulously.

"She says she has come six thousand miles to be Lady Quorn and she is
going to be Lady Quorn."

"The deuce she is.  How is she going to manage that?"

"By force."

"What?" Gage shouted.  "Marry me by force?"

"Yes," answered Peckover seriously.  "You see, she has brought her
brother with her, a dare-devil rampaging brute of a bush-ranger, six
foot three tall, and broad in proportion, who sticks at nothing but
your favourite vital part with a bowie knife."

"I'd like to see him," Gage observed scornfully

"You will, if you get out of bed and come downstairs," returned
Peckover impressively.  "Also you will have an opportunity of remarking
the havoc he has made with the fire-irons."

"What?  Fire-irons?"

"He has been snapping a few pokers and tongs just to show what he will
do with you when he catches you."

"What absurd rot," Gage said with rising exasperation.  "I never had
anything to do with the brute's sister."

"But you have got to marry her," rejoined Peckover quite seriously, "or
take the consequences."

"Oh, have I?"

"Yes; you had better stop in bed."

"Had I?" Gage exclaimed, flinging off the clothes.  "I rather think
I'll get up and hand the ruffian over to the police, as you don't seem
to have the _nous_ to do it."

"Not I," returned Peckover shrewdly.  "Not quite such a fool.  Once
open police-court proceedings, and our little arrangement will come out
and be spoilt, even if nothing else happens."

"Well, what are we to do?" Gage demanded, recognizing the weight of his
friend's objection.

"You stop in bed," said Peckover, with an air of authority based upon
expediency.

"D----d if I do," Gage retorted.

"If you don't, you'll have to," replied Peckover with truth underlying
paradox.  "A fortnight of the downy is better than six months of the
plank."

"What, stop here for a fortnight?" Gage cried wrathfully.  "It's a
regular take in.  A rollicking time I'm having for my money;
cold-shouldered, half-drowned, and now tucked up in this beastly bed
for weeks.  Where does Lord Quorn come in?"

"Lord Quorn," observed Peckover sententiously, "will go out if Mr.
Carnaby Leo gets hold of him.  He has got a museum at home of pickled
ears, and eyes and noses, et cetera, of which he has deprived certain
parties who didn't do as he told them.  After all," he added
persuasively, "it is better to stop in bed with the schedule of your
features complete than to get up for a rollick and find some of the
items missing."

"Why the devil didn't you tell me you'd been playing the fool with a
bush-ranger's sister?" Gage snapped savagely.  "I wouldn't have looked
at you or your title.  You've got my money under false pretences."

"You never gave me time to go into my past history," was the plausible
reply.  "You might have known when you took over a peerage you were
letting yourself in for something of the sort.  You know it's a way we
have."

"A pretty brilliant way, to get tangled up with bush-rangers," sneered
Gage.

"He didn't come on the scene till an hour ago.  I suppose, by the way,"
he suggested mischievously, "you would not care to marry her, and so
see your way to getting out of bed without damage?"

"Marry ten thousand devils!  That's not my idea of fun."

"Lalage is a fine figure of a woman," Peckover continued.  "Make an
imposing Lady Quorn.  Fine mover; takes the drawing-room in three,
including anything that stands in the way.  The coronet would suit her
better if she'd let her hair grow."

"Crops her hair short?" Gage enquired, in a tone of infinite disgust at
the picture.

Peckover nodded.  "Bit too much of the dragoon for our taste, my boy.
You stop in bed, and let me try to get rid of them."

"I won't stop in bed," returned Gage.  "Where are these brutes?"

"Sent 'em down to _The Pigeons_," Peckover answered.  "Lady Agatha
wouldn't have 'em in the house.  Don't blame her.  Their manners aren't
exactly Vere de Vere.  Things were a bit awkward at lunch.  Carnaby,
the beauty, had been mixing his liquors and fell asleep with his ugly
head in the salad bowl, and the tomato which Lalage aimed at him to
wake him up, missed, and spattered on Bisgood's shirt-front.  Lady Aggy
wasn't pleased."

"It's all very well," said Gage sulkily, "but I'm going to get up.  The
woman can't make me marry her against my will, nor can the great ox,
her brother."

"No," Peckover agreed, "but he can have a good try for it, and the
process might not be pleasant."

"I never heard such nonsense."

"No; I wouldn't have believed it," said Peckover, "if I hadn't had the
fellow's dukes round my windpipe.  He is just a buffalo in trousers.
And if you get up, and shy at the sister, who is a hyæna in petticoats,
you'll know it; that is, if he leaves you in a state to know anything."

"A pretty abominable treat you've let me in for," said Gage sourly.
"But I'm not going to stay in this four-poster.  You've got to go and
square this at once.  Ask them what they'll take to go back."

"I've offered them a couple of hundred," Peckover replied, "and got
nearly strangled for my trouble."

"Couple of hundred!" said Gage contemptuously.  "You'll have to make it
thousands and take it out of your five."

"Oh, I say!" the other protested.

"All right; if you don't," Gage declared resolutely, "I'll chuck the
title and leave you and your friends to fight it out among yourselves.
If she means Lord Quorn she shall have him, but not me, my boy.  And
I'm not going to stop between the sheets for any bush-ranger in
Australia or out of it.  So there!"



CHAPTER XIX

After Lord Quorn--supposed to be Percy Peckover--had been carried to
Dr. Barton's surgery, he lay for several days in a state of now total,
now semi, unconsciousness.  The astute Mr. Doutfire, pluming himself on
his neat capture, hovered about the unfortunate peer, drank whisky and
water with the much-bored medico, and discussed over sundry cigars the
chances of the patient's slipping through his fingers into the next
world.  The object of his solicitude did slip through them, though not
quite so far as that.  And it happened in this wise.

When Doutfire was not himself on guard (to the accompaniment of
nicotine sedatives and alcoholic tonics) he took care to post a
constable about the doctor's premises with instructions to keep a sharp
look-out for any sign of activity on the part of the lethargic
criminal.  Then suddenly the police authorities of Bunbury and district
were thrown into a state of excitement by the news of a daring burglary
which had taken place at Mansetter Park, the seat of Sir James
Rumbelow, the importance of which crime was heightened by the fact that
the stout baronet, roused from his post-prandial nap by the news, had
unwisely attempted to pursue the thieves, who had by that time got four
or five miles' start, and had cut short the chase, so far as he was
concerned, by tripping over a croquet-hoop on the lawn and thereby
severely injuring himself.

It was clearly a case that called for the utmost activity on the part
of the representatives of the law; the Bunbury police force was on its
mettle, and the fussy Mr. Doutfire became in a moment the incarnation
of bustling importance.  The comatose culprit at Dr. Barton's was
forgotten in the gravity of Sir James Rumbelow's stolen plate and
broken nose.  And it so happened when the detective was reminded of him
it was by a communication from headquarters announcing that Peckover's
associate, Cutbush, had been arrested, and he had volunteered a
statement which made it appear that there might not be much of a case
against his dupe.  Under the circumstances, Mr. Doutfire felt little
hesitation in withdrawing the guard and drafting him into the Mansetter
district, especially as the doctor assured him that he might be under
no uneasiness as to the likelihood of the patient's being in a
condition to get up and walk about.

Nevertheless, that is exactly what Lord Quorn did.  Suddenly waking
from a lethargic sleep, he stretched himself, sat up, looked round in a
dazed fashion, and after a futile attempt to remember who and where he
was, feeling an irresistible longing for fresh air, he got up, shuffled
into his clothes, and walked unnoticed into the street.

It was market day; the noise and the bustle worried him, and in his
weak state the jostling of the yokels was more than he could stand.  So
he turned into one of the quieter streets and thence wandered off into
the country, his mind still a blank as to what had recently happened to
him.  Although the fresh air revived him and was grateful after the
drug-laden atmosphere of the doctor's dispensary, yet it did not quite
drive the fumes from his brain, and his existence and identity were, as
he strolled on, as much a puzzle to him as ever.

"Have a lift?" asked a good-natured farmer, overtaking him on the dusty
road, and noticing his dragging footsteps.  Quorn mechanically got into
the cart, in his aimless, drifting state of mind; all he knew was he
had begun to feel tired and wanted to get right away from the place
whence he had come.

"Going far?" inquired the farmer, as they bowled along.

"Far as you like," was the dull answer.

The farmer stared at him, and then proceeded to cross-examine him, with
the result that he came to the conclusion that he had picked up an
escaped lunatic.  With this idea he resolved to set his passenger down
at the first village they came to, which happened to be Staplewick.
Finding Quorn had no money, the good fellow took out a coin and gave it
him, in lieu, as it were, of taking him further, and drove off in a
state of cogitation.

Naturally Quorn had been set down opposite an inn, the sight of which,
combined with the touch of the silver in his hand, told him he was
hungry and more especially thirsty.  He went in and called for
refreshment, and then took his seat in a room which had already two
occupants.  They were no others than Messrs. Fanning and Purvis, who,
after their discomfiture at the Towers had dropped in at _The Pigeons_
to discuss their all-absorbing grievance.

Until Quorn's hunger and thirst were appeased he paid little attention
to his companions, but when he had pushed his plate away and lighted up
the churchwarden pipe that the house afforded, he fell to listening
lazily to the unrestrained emphasis of their remarks.

"Fi'pun note!  Fi'pun note!" exclaimed Mr. Fanning almost tragically.
"And his blooming lordship, who didn't do nothin' more in the water
than a cat would 'a done, smothered with wealth, just because 'e
'appens to 'ave a 'andle to his name.  Mean, I call it; low mean."

"That it is," agreed Purvis.  "And 'im adding insult to injury telling
us to get a noo rig-out, and keep the change for our trouble.  Noo
rig-out?  I'll wear my old boots and breeches down to the last nail and
stitch first."

"Right!" exclaimed Fanning, with an energy which ignored the æsthetic
considerations which such a proceeding would involve.  "Fi'pun note!"
he repeated, relapsing into his now chronic state of truculent
grievance.  "Fi'pun note for us poor deserving 'eroes, and two hundred
thousand quid for that bit of gilt gingerbread, Lord Quorn."

"What?"

In a flash of enlightenment the real Lord Quorn jumped from his seat,
and stood staring at the two men with distended eyes.  "By Gum!  You
said Lord Quorn?"

"I did," Fanning declared, half defiantly, as not quite sure whether he
had not opened his mouth rather too wide and too often.  "I said Lord
Quorn, and I meant Lord Quorn, but my grievance ain't agin 'is
lordship.  I blame no man for takin' wot's offered.  Wot I blame and
'ate and detest is the meanness of those 'oo call themselves gents and
reward a man not accordin' to the services rendered, but accordin' to
persition in life."

The trenchant pronouncement was entirely wasted on the person to whom
it was addressed.

"Lord Quorn!"

He had started to his feet with a great cry of self-recognition.  The
word seemed to have pierced the mist of oblivion which clouded his
brain, and the incidents of the last hour of his former waking
existence came thronging to his memory.  Lord Quorn?  Why, of course,
he was Lord Quorn; although exactly what had happened to him in
consequence he could not make out.  "Lord Quorn?" he demanded eagerly
of the astonished pair of grievance-nursers.  "What about him?"

"Do you know his lordship?" Fanning asked suspiciously.

"I ought to."

"Well, then," said the butcher resentfully, "you know the man who has
earnt two 'undred thousand quid quicker and easier than any man ever
did before.  Look 'ere!"  Determined to speak his mind to his lordship
through his acquaintance, Fanning jumped up and tapped Quorn
impressively on the chest to emphasize his story.  "Wot do you think o'
this, mister?  Lord Quorn and a rich millionaire friend of 'is--I won't
call 'im a gentleman--goes out fishin' on the lake.  They fools
themselves overboard into the water, and is within an ace of drownin'.
This gentleman," indicating Purvis who sat stolidly blinking with
conscious merit, "and me, goes to the rescue, and at the risk of our
lives pulls 'em out when they were just at the last gasp.  What
'appens?  My nobleman persuades 'is friend that it was 'e 'oo saved 'is
life, and ignores what me and this gentleman done.  Again wot 'appens?
Millionaire, 'oo, in my opinion ain't fit to own two and sixpence, ups
and settles a couple of 'undred thousand sov'rins on his lordship, and
when me and this gentleman who 'ad risked our lives and ruined our best
suit of clothes 'appens to ask where we comes in--what do you
think?--'ee fobs us off with a beggarly fi'pun note."

"I wouldn't have taken it," Quorn commented wonderingly, as he
recovered from the extra hard slap with which the last words were
driven home.

Mr. Fanning waggled his greasy head knowingly.  "P'raps you wouldn't,
mister.  But you didn't catch me nor this gentleman playin' into 'is
'ands by refusin' it."

"That accounts for it," said Quorn, following his own train of thought
rather than Mr. Fanning's biassed narrative.  "That accounts for it.
I've been half drowned.  Funny I don't remember anything about it."

"You?" exclaimed Mr. Fanning.

"According to your story," Quorn maintained.

Mr. Fanning turned a glance on Mr. Purvis which suggested a grave doubt
as to their companion's sobriety.  "Oh," he replied sarcastically, "and
'oo may you be?"

"Well," answered Quorn deliberately, "I rather think I'm Lord Quorn."

Again Mr. Fanning's glance sought Mr. Purvis', and this time it
indicated a diagnosis of more serious mental trouble than mere alcohol
would account for.

"Oh, you think that, do you?" he returned with gentle banter.  "Then,"
he added mischievously, "I should recommend your lordship goin' up to
the Towers 'ere, and turnin' out the party 'oo is at present occupyin'
your position."

"Oh?"  Quorn started up as a fresh puzzle took hold of his mind.  "Is
that so?"

Instead of replying directly to his questioner, Mr. Fanning turned to
his friend, and somewhat exasperatingly repeated the enquiry to him.
"Is that so, Mr. Purvis?"  Then with an exaggerated wink, he added,
"Yes, no doubt about it, there's a screw loose somewheres."

Quorn stared at him for a moment, and then turned to the door.  "What's
the name of the place?" he asked over his shoulder.

"Your lordship's residence?" grinned Fanning.  "Staplewick Towers."
And as the door shut upon their late companion the two aggrieved heroes
indulged in the first merriment they had found the heart for since it
had been borne in upon them that their gallantry was held so cheap.



CHAPTER XX

Staplewick Towers.  That was the name of the place, his own, that he
had been on his way to see.  He would soon get the answer to the
riddle.  As to his having been nearly drowned, it could not have been
he.  The last thing he remembered was drinking the drugged wine at the
_Quorn Arms_.  Surely he had not gone through an active existence
between that and his waking up in the doctor's surgery.  He argued the
probabilities with himself as he hastened eagerly towards the Towers
which loomed grey and real enough before him.  Confident now of his
position he walked through the lodge gates with an air of ownership,
and made his way up the drive until he saw a little way in front of him
several people.  The sight checked his hurry.  It suddenly occurred to
him that it would be a good plan and amusing to lie low and just see
what was really going on before declaring himself.  One thing was
certain.  He was not the Lord Quorn who had been rewarded with a
fortune for pretending to have saved a millionaire's life.  That was
too good to be true; he only wished it were.  Then who was the other
Lord Quorn, and what devil's game could they be playing?

So he turned off the drive and slunk along behind the shrubs which
fringed it, lurking in the bushes until he could see his way clear to
get up to the house.  He was seen, as has been shown, but the observers
were too intent on their own ends to take more than casual notice of
him.

Presently, however, he got his chance, and was able to make his way
unseen to the library windows.  He peeped through, and the first person
his eyes lighted on was Percy Peckover.

In an instant some idea of the real state of affairs flashed upon him;
and his hazy guess was not far from being correct.  Fired with
indignation and a furious desire to put an instant stop to the
nefarious game that was being played, he put forth his hand to open the
window.  Before he could do so a figure advanced from a side of the
room which was hidden from him, and with a sickening shock he
recognized his former flame, Miss Lalage Leo.  Behind her loomed now
the unmistakable form of the great bully whom he had never actually
met, but had learned to regard with the enhanced terror which the
unknown inspires, and from which the present glimpse detracted nothing.
Happily the frightened face was not noticed by any of the party who
were setting their faces resolutely towards the dining-room.  So Quorn,
as he recovered from the shock of the forgotten terror, was able to
move back unobserved and slip away to a quiet spot where he could
review his deplorable situation.


After luncheon and Peckover's interview with Gage, he and Sharnbrook
had a somewhat uncomfortable half-hour together over a cigar.  Lady
Agatha had proved herself equal to what had seemed the impossible task
of bundling the Leos out of the house.  But then Carnaby was in a state
of comparative helplessness, and Lalage, although she would have liked
to stay and, perhaps, smoke a cigar with the object of her matrimonial
intentions, was disarmed by the superior style and the strength of Lady
Agatha's grand manner.  It was something quite outside her experience,
and, for the time at any rate, it paralysed any tendency to opposition
and insistence on her part.  So she went off with her clumsy,
staggering brother, and with a promise, unacceptable, but not to be
ignored, to return very soon and keep a business eye upon Lord Quorn
and Mr. Gage.

"Whew!  That's a good riddance," Peckover exclaimed, with a great puff
of relief as he lighted a big cigar and dropped into an easy chair.
"I've had some uncomfortable meals in my time, but that bangs the lot."

"Nice let-in for me," said Sharnbrook ruefully.  "I'm back in their
clutches again, just when I was congratulating myself you had got me
out."

"Well, I couldn't foresee this volcanic eruption," replied Peckover
apologetically.

"No," Sharnbrook admitted.  "You did your best to draw them off.  They
are nailers, and their staying power is wonderful.  But, I say, you are
never going to marry that----?"  He jerked his head backwards in the
direction Miss Leo was last seen taking.

"Not if I know it," Peckover answered feelingly.  "I'm going to
compromise----"

"What?"

"I mean compromise any claim she may have on me; pay her off."

"I see.  But how on earth did you ever get nuts on her?" Sharnbrook
inquired wonderingly.

"How, indeed?" thought Peckover.  "Well, you see," he answered, "out
there the girls aren't enough to go round.  You're lucky if you see one
in a month, and somehow, when you do see her you don't care to lose
sight of her.  Where there's only one, that one's the best.  Over here
Lalage suffers by comparison."

"You bet she does," assented Sharnbrook with more warmth than gallantry.

"Out there," Peckover declared, "she was unique."

"So she is here," said Sharnbrook with conviction.  "Well, if you are
going to square matters with her otherwise than on a matrimonial basis,
you might call the fisher-girls off me again before I'm quite landed."

"All right," assented Peckover who had now quite recovered his spirits.
"I'll do anything to oblige, especially when there's a little fun
attached to the job."

At that moment Miss Ethel's voice was heard singing in the corridor
leading to the picture gallery.

"She's coming after me," Sharnbrook exclaimed in an agitated whisper.

"Slip out," said Peckover, "and leave me to do my best for you."

Sharnbrook gave him a nod of gratitude and ran off by the opposite
door, just as Miss Ethel, keen on the scent, looked in.

"Do come in, Miss Ethel," Peckover besought her, with an earnestness
not to be ignored.

"I was looking for Mr. Sharnbrook," she replied coldly.

"He has just gone out that way," said Peckover indicating the other
door.

"Did he see Dagmar?" Miss Ethel inquired jealously, crossing the room
with determined steps.

Peckover sprang to intercept her.  "Don't run away from me, Miss Ethel.
I know you must be annoyed by those vulgar people who intruded here
just now----"

"I should think so," said Ethel haughtily, trying to pass.

"But," urged Peckover, "you won't be troubled by them again.  I'm
paying their fares back to Australia; so that will settle them--out
there."

Ethel suddenly appeared to be somewhat less desirous of reaching the
door.  "Oh?" she said slowly.  "And are you going with them?"

"Not if I know it.  Old England's the place for my money."

"Not going to marry the--the lady?" she asked breathlessly.

"Do I look like it?" he replied insinuatingly.  "Now, don't trouble
about them, or about that silly old Sharnbrook, who prefers to go off
and buy his fifty-ninth fox-terrier to waiting for you.  Let's sit down
and have a nice cosy chat."

The invitation was, under the circumstances, hardly to be resisted,
whatever short work the young lady might, under others, have made of
it.  As they took their seats side by side, Peckover stretched out his
arm behind the lady to arrange a cushion for her--and let it stay there.

For as many seconds as probability allowed Ethel affected to be unaware
of the caressing attitude.  Then suddenly she seemed to wake up to the
fact that her companion's arm was round her shoulders, upon which she
leant forward to allow him to withdraw it.

But Peckover was not keen on taking hints when they ran counter to his
amusements.  "Isn't it comfortable?" he asked.

"Your arm."

"My arm's all right," he assured her cheerfully.  "Do lean back.  Hope
I'm not in the way.  Of course if you'd rather I went and sat at the
other end of the gallery I'll do so.  Only it will be a bit slow."

"Mr. Gage, how absurd you are."

"Yes," he agreed, "the suggestion is rather far-fetched.  We may as
well keep within kissing distance, mayn't we?"

"Oh, but it is not proper," Ethel protested.

"Kissing?" he asked in surprise, "I think it is proper; if you are
going in for a proper time.  Why not?"

"It is," she answered demurely, "between some people."

"People who know how to make the time pass?" he suggested.

"People who are--engaged," she said, with as much indifference to the
immediate and personal application as she could assume.

"Well," he rejoined flippantly, "you are engaged, and I may be."

"Mr. Gage!"  She turned on him indignantly.  "I am not engaged."

"Not to Sharnbrook?"

"Mr. Gage, how absurd you are."

"I hope so.  Are you engaged?" he asked significantly.

"Whether I am engaged or free," she answered, "it is all the same to
you."

"No," he returned, "if you were a little more free it would be quite
different."

"Would it?" she asked, with a provocative glance at his face.

"Wouldn't it?  Like this."  He closed his arm round her and tried to
draw her to him.

"Oh, Mr. Gage, you don't mean it," she protested, holding back.

"Come!" he said.  "One kiss."

"Oh, no.  It wouldn't be right," she still objected.  Then she sighed.
"Poor Jack!"

"Ah, poor fellow," Peckover said, with a hardly suppressed grin.  "Poor
old Sharnbrook."

"He is very fond of me," she said, regretfully.  "But of course if I
can't care for him as much as I ought to--I don't know what the poor
fellow will do."

"Give me something handsome, I hope," was Peckover's thought.  "Ethel,"
he whispered, and this time did get something like a kiss.

"Percy, it is wrong of you," she murmured.

"I know it is," he admitted, drawing in a breath as of pain.  "Poor old
Sharnbrook; and he thinks I'm his friend.  He'll never give you up," he
added with conviction.

For an instant Miss Ethel's look suggested that that matter might be
safely left in her hands to bring to a satisfactory conclusion.  But it
swiftly passed away, and she said, "Jack Sharnbrook is a good fellow.
He will not stand in the way of my happiness."

"That he won't, I'll go bail," said Peckover to himself.  "Ethel!" he
murmured caressingly.

"Oh, Mr. Gage," she returned, in half-yielding protest.  "Percy,
darling," he suggested, drawing her to him for another kiss.

"You must wait," she objected, "till we are engaged."

"We Gages never wait," he assured her softly.  "It's a tradition in the
family.  No.  We don't hang about for the mistletoe to grow."

Nevertheless the present representative of that impatient race had to
postpone his endearments, for the door opened softly and Miss Dagmar's
scandalized voice cried, "Oh, Ethel!" making the fond pair start aside
with electric unanimity.

"Bother it," Peckover muttered, putting on the air of self-conscious
indifference usual in such contretemps.

"All right, Miss Dagmar," said Ethel through her teeth.

"Hope we haven't disturbed you," exclaimed Sharnbrook who had followed
Dagmar into the room.

Peckover jumped up and went to him.  "Got a cigarette?" he asked in a
loud voice, adding in a whisper, "Don't look so pleased, old man; or
you'll spoil everything."

Sharnbrook took the hint at once.  "Don't speak to me, Mr. Gage," he
cried resentfully.

"You've not lost any time," Dagmar sarcastically remarked to her sister.

"No, dear," Ethel replied with feline sweetness.

"He belongs to that appalling woman from Australia," said Dagmar
confidently.  "She'll hold him.  Don't you wish you may get him."

"I've got him," Ethel declared.

"She's ready to break it off," whispered Peckover to Sharnbrook.
"Don't be too eager.  Pretend to be broken-hearted."

The other nodded.  "Mr. Gage," he said, with a fine show of dignified
feeling, "I find I am mistaken in you."

"That you are," Peckover muttered aside through the corner of his mouth.

"How do you do the broken-hearted?" Sharnbrook enquired in a whisper,
seeing the ladies were occupied in reciprocating sarcasms.

"Don't make too much noise," Peckover instructed him, in the same tone.
"Think you are feeling sick; that it's your wedding-day with Ethel.
Fancy you've missed a pheasant and shot your best dog."

"But I should make a noise," the pupil objected.

"Well, mug a bit," said Peckover, with a model grimace suggestive of
the wrong horse winning.

"Oh, don't speak to me!" Sharnbrook shouted, as the ladies seemed to
tire of their mutual repartees.

"That's it," murmured Peckover.  "Don't let her go too easily."

"I--I have something to say to you, Ethel," Sharnbrook declared with a
sob in his voice.

"Oh, Jack," she exclaimed, with a pretty imitation of remorseful
distress.

"Come round the garden with me, if it be for the last time," said
Sharnbrook, his tones quivering with emotion.

"Too loud," whispered Peckover critically as the jilted swain passed
him.

"Oh, Jack," cried Ethel, the distress in her voice counterbalanced by
the look of triumph she threw at her sister, "don't look so miserable.
I couldn't help it."

Sharnbrook gave vent to an explosive, window-rattling sigh as, with a
wicked half-grin at his deliverer, he held open the door.  The fickle
Ethel, as she prepared to pass out, put her shapely hand to her
treacherous lips and contrived to waft a kiss to her latest lover.  And
she did this without detracting in any appreciable degree from the
contrite expression with which she successfully veiled her sense of
triumph.  Which shewed that, up to a point, she was a clever girl, or
at least a credit to her maternal up-bringing.



CHAPTER XXI

It was, however, unfortunate that Miss Ethel had to leave her lover and
her sister together.  Peckover, baulked of a kiss in one direction, was
by no means above trying for one in another; and, while Ethel was
getting off with the old love, thought he might as well utilize the
opportunity in getting on with the new.  And Miss Dagmar, save in the
matter of temper, was quite as interesting an object for his attentions
as her sister.  What was considerably more to the point, her manner
suggested that she was even more susceptible to his fascinations than
Ethel.

"Well," he observed with a leer, "while they are settling their
differences we've got to amuse ourselves, eh?"

A wild desire to cut her sister out on the spot took possession of Miss
Dagmar.  Lord Quorn was for the time out of the question, and even if
he were available, she was certain that she would give herself a far
better time by marrying the richer man.

"How shall we do that, Mr. Gage?" she asked, with an archly provocative
glance at him.

"Well," responded Peckover, by no means at a loss, "suppose we try how
much we can get to like one another in ten minutes."

"I'm afraid----" she began, when suddenly she became aware that his arm
was round her waist.

"Don't be afraid, Dagmar," he entreated.

"I am," she returned, releasing herself.  "I'm afraid you are a
deceiver."

"Oh, no," he protested, far from displeased, however, at the accusation.

"You have just been making love to Ethel."

"Nothing to speak of," he assured her lightly.  "You see," he added,
more amorously, "I did not know you cared for me."

"Oh, Mr. Gage!"

"I didn't," he maintained, wilfully misunderstanding her protest.  "I
dare say I ought to have, but I didn't."

"And now"--she laughed meaningly--"you think you have discovered my
secret?"

The last word nearly brought a whistle to Peckover's lips, but he
suppressed it in time.  "Yes," he urged, "if I am right, if I have
discovered it----" he paused to get a look at her face, and something
more.

"Yes?" she murmured.

"Let's make the most of it," he suggested.  "Give me a kiss."

"Oh, no, it wouldn't be proper," she objected, holding back.

"Quite proper," he assured her.  "There's nobody looking."

"I don't quite see," said Dagmar thoughtfully, "how the fact that
nobody is looking makes it proper."

"Well," argued Peckover, "if nobody is looking I don't see how it
matters whether it is proper or not."

"But it does," she maintained, holding off.

"So long as it's agreeable to both parties," he urged; "we've no one to
please but ourselves.  Of course," he added airily, "if you've any
rooted objection to kissing----"

"It is," said Dagmar hastily, "a question of what is right and what is
wrong."

Peckover began to think this was dry work.  "You think kissing wrong,
then?" he suggested.

"Unjustifiable kissing," Dagmar declared.

"Unjustifiable?" Peckover repeated, with the suspicion of a yawn.
"Seems to me if both parties don't object the act is justified."

Dagmar glanced reflectively at the clock and calculated how many
minutes more remained to bring him to the point.  "Not necessarily,"
she rejoined with provocative archness.  "There are certain people who
may kiss each other, and the rest may not."

"That's no reason why they shouldn't try," argued Peckover, warming
again under the influence of the fetching glance.  "That's just where
the fun comes in.  You ought to kiss your mother and your grandmother
or your sister, or your aunt, or your----"

"Or your fiancée," Dagmar supplied quietly yet promptly.

"Naturally," he agreed, "but that doesn't count."

"Doesn't it?" Dagmar enquired in a tone of surprise.

"You see, it's expected of you," he explained.  "There's--much more of
a catch, the poets tell us, in the unexpected."

Dagmar was beginning to grow desperate.  Ethel's next (and nearly due)
innings might hold the unexpected for her.  "There are some things,"
she observed demurely, "which are made much more delightful by being
looked forward to."

"That's right enough," he assented, catching an inviting gleam from her
eyes.  "But it's poor fun looking forward to a thing you aren't going
to get.  You know what I'm looking forward to?"  He pointed the
question with a leer.

"Oh, Mr. Gage," she protested artlessly, "how can I know?"

"By my teaching you," he answered promptly putting forth an endearing
arm, which, however the lady deftly avoided.

"No, no," she declared, as bewitchingly as her limitations allowed.
"It is not right, as we are."

It was a pretty broad hint, but the sands of opportunity were running
low, and Miss Dagmar meant business.

"As we are?" the philanderer echoed, with a short laugh of
discomfiture.  "No, it's certainly not right or even possible when we
are so far apart."

Dagmar fancied she caught the hateful sound of her sister's voice.
"That's what I mean," she said, covering her desperation that a touch
of demureness.  "We might be close enough to----"

"Right!" Peckover exclaimed eagerly, making a spring towards her.

On this occasion she did not seek to elude his grasp, possibly
considering that the time for that was past.  She contented herself
with keeping her inviting cheek at a tantalizingly safe distance from
Peckover's lips till he wearied of the struggle.

For that spoilt child of Fortune was not used to opposition about
trifles on the part of the fair sex.  "This is dry work.  What are you
afraid of?" he protested impatiently.

"You really mustn't.  We are not engaged," was the artificially
agitated reply.

"That doesn't matter," he insisted.  "Who'll be any the wiser?"

Matrimony, not wisdom, was Miss Dagmar's concern just then.  "I
couldn't let you," she declared, with a cunning suggestion of duty
overriding inclination.  "I couldn't--unless----"

To her disgust, she found herself suddenly released.  "Oh, all right,"
said Peckover, settling his necktie.  "You shan't, if you don't want
to.  There are other girls about who ain't so particular.  Ethel's not
coy."  And he made for the door.

In an instant she was after him.  "Ethel?" she cried, clutching his arm
in desperation, as she saw the lady in question coming across the lawn.
"You forget Ethel is engaged."  Which speech was, to say the least of
it, rather disloyal.

"What of it?" Peckover demanded off-handedly.  "All the better.  You
allow engaged persons may kiss."

"Yes, each other.  Ethel is engaged to Mr. Sharnbrook."

"Oh, Sharnbrook won't mind," he returned, with more truth than
politeness.

Dagmar's clutch increased in force.  "Mr. Gage," she exclaimed, in
almost horrified protest, "you are never going to be so thoughtless as
to wreck two people's happiness?"

"I wasn't aware of it," he replied, somewhat sarcastically.

"Oh, but you are," she urged vehemently.  "Jack Sharnbrook is wrapped
up in Ethel."

"Finds the wrap a bit too warm to be pleasant," Peckover observed.

"Sooner than see John Sharnbrook's happiness wrecked," the suddenly
emotional and altruistic Miss Dagmar proceeded, "I would make any
sacrifice.  Mr. Gage," the moment was critical, and her grasp now
intense, "you shan't make love to her.  Promise me you won't, and--and
you shall have a kiss, even before we are engaged."

Footsteps sounded on the gravel just outside the window.

"All right," Peckover responded cheerfully.  "I promise to let her
alone if she lets me alone.  I'm not the man to stand in Sharnbrook's
light."

His arm was round her and his lips three inches from hers, when a
vigorous exclamation of disgust from the window made it expedient that
even they should pretend to be engaged in quite another of the varied
but limited number of occupations which necessitate the heads of two
persons being close together.  Nevertheless Dagmar found time, before
the window opened to admit Gage, who had come down for an hour, and
Ethel, to say hurriedly but with none the less fell intent, "Remember
your promise.  You will be true to me, now?"

Miss Ethel, rendered thoughtfully emulative by the evidences of her
sister's progress, contented herself with tossing her head peremptorily
and disdainfully at her treacherous sister.  Further activity on the
part of the young ladies was, however, postponed by the announcement of
tea.  Gage lingered behind to say a word to his friend.

"Beats me," he observed sourly, "what's the matter with this peerage.
Always thought a lord had it all his own way.  Instead of that, the
girls talk about the weather and the flower-beds to me, and they drop
into your arms one after the other."

"They're a bit calculating all the same," Peckover remarked with a
sense of failure.  "I don't know that we might not just as well have
been talking about the weather."

But John Arbuthnot Sharnbrook came in whistling and radiant.



CHAPTER XXII

It was to appear that Mr. Carnaby Leo and his sister were not to be put
off so easily as the confederates imagined.  Encouraged by what they
considered the other side's weakness, and led on by their ignorance of
European ways, they--or rather the lady--grew determined to make out of
their trip a much bigger coup than at first seemed likely to be
forthcoming from what was really nothing but a huge piece of bluff.  It
is true that Lady Agatha, with her unassailable manner, was a serious
obstacle in the path which this enterprising couple proposed to take,
but she, after all, Lalage argued, was but an outside and detached
factor in the affair, an outlying rampart, as it were, in the defence.

Nevertheless the influence of her repellent personality was so great
that neither of the Leos cared to come face to face with her again if
that situation could by any possibility be avoided, and in their
councils of war (in which Lalage tried to teach her thick-witted
brother how to back up her brain by his muscle) the temporary mistress
of Staplewick was never regarded as a negligible quantity.

So it happened that when, in the evening, the Leos resolved to pay
another visit of coercion to the Towers, they took care to enter
unannounced, and to keep out of Lady Agatha's way.  Confident in the
reasonable cause of their presence, they made their way quietly from
the hall along a corridor leading to the picture gallery which seemed
to offer an inviting lurking-place.  As luck would have it, the
gallery, as being somewhat isolated, had been appointed the
trysting-place of Peckover and Miss Ethel.  And it was there that the
arch-deceiver with a cynically expectant smile on his face was awaiting
his lady-love.

The long room had struck chill as he entered it, and he had lighted a
cigarette, if not with the idea of warmth, at least to keep his nerves
in order.  "Quiet," he remarked aloud to himself as he glanced with a
little shiver along the line of effigied Quorns before whose canvases
at intervals were arranged, like sentinels, stands of armour.  "Not to
say Madame Tussaudy.  Rum things ancestors.  What a lot some folks seem
to think about 'em.  Can't say I ever troubled about mine.  That
reminds me, I must get up a family history of these Quorn Johnnies, and
impart it to poor old Gage.  It need not," he gave a little knavish
laugh, "be all strictly correct according to 'Ume and Smollett.  Well,
Percy, my boy," he kept talking to himself as though to keep the
silence at bay, "you've dropped into a nice thing.  It's a fine life to
be a rich toff, or the imitation of one--which is quite sufficient for
the general public.  Ethel is a smart little thing; she has come on
wonderfully since those Australian nuisances gave her a fright.  Poor
old Gage!  Strikes me I'm having the fun he's paying for.  Ah, here she
comes."

Footsteps were heard by the door.  He flung away his cigarette, and
went forward as quickly as the semi-darkness would allow him.  "Ethel!"
he whispered.

The figure whom he addressed emerged into the stream of moonlight, and
he saw, to his dismay, Lalage Leo.

"It's me, dear," was her greeting, pleasant, yet with a suggestion of
business behind it.  "Lalage."

"Eh, yes," he stammered, trying to mask his annoyance with a laugh.
"Funny place to meet, isn't it?"

"You and Miss Ethel evidently don't think so," was the obvious retort.
"So you were expecting her?"

"I thought the step was hers," he replied disingenuously.

"Poor girl!  She must have a heavy tread if it is anything like
Carnaby's," Lalage returned pleasantly.

On the hint Peckover looked beyond her and saw the looming figure of
her brother with an irritating grin on his just discernible face.
"Carnaby has got a heavy foot," his sister pursued significantly, "and
he is going to put it down and keep it there.  Eh, Carnaby?"

The objectionable figure lurched forward.  "Point out the spot you want
it planted, Lal," he said truculently, "and down it goes."

Peckover found himself wishing that the abominable extremity had been
planted in the Antipodes and had taken root or, for preference,
withered away there.  "Where?" he asked wearily.

"Where," Miss Leo echoed.  "Why, on your carrying on with these Hemyock
girls.  Carnaby, dear," she made the appeal with a vicious look, not at
her brother but at his intended victim, "you won't see me fooled?"

"But I tell you----" Peckover began, when she snapped him up.

"If you are good enough for other people, you are good enough for me.
So no nonsense."

"Nonsense?" Carnaby roared.  "I'll----"

Lalage thoughtfully turned to shut the door.  "That's it," she
whispered.  "Frighten him a bit."  For it seemed to her that the effect
of the snapped fire-irons was wearing off.  "Tell Mr. Gage," she said
aloud, holding Carnaby in the moonlight with a glittering eye, "what
happened to those three mounted police who went after you."

Owing either to the suddenness of the demand or the spell of his
sister's masterful glare, the small mind which dominated the mass of
muscle seemed paralysed.  "Ah, yes," he responded stupidly.  "Didn't
they!"

Miss Leo for the moment seemed to justify her name; she looked like a
lioness ready to spring, but withheld by considerations of expediency.
"Go on," she whispered through her clenched teeth.  "Carnaby!" she said
more mildly and aloud.  "The three who looked after you in the Bush."

But either the hero's recollection was hazy or invention was not his
strong point.  "Eh?" he said confusedly.  "Yes.  They--they followed me
into the Bush."

"Yes?  Well?" enquired Peckover, curiously.

"And two of them are there now," continued Lalage with a world of
uncomfortable meaning.

"I wish you two were," thought Peckover.  "Tell us all about it," he
said resignedly.

"Go on, Carnaby," his sister commanded.

Whether or not the man of thews and sinews had been keeping up his
constitution injudiciously at the _Three Pigeons_, certain it was that
his brain did not seem in glib working order.  "Ah, yes," he said
slowly, quailing under Lalage's eye, "three mounted constabulary----"
after which thrilling statement he paused.

"Came after you in the Bush," the flippant Peckover ventured to supply.
"Yes, we've heard that."  For the little man saw no chance of ending
the interview till the narrative was concluded.

Mr. Leo, failing to stimulate his imagination to the required point,
fell back upon a more ready and less intellectual form of address.
"I'll eat you in a minute, boots and all," he informed his impatient
listener with an undue amount of emphasis.  Then, as though the
outburst had spurred his invention, he went on, "Three--three mounted
police at me at once.  Three to one----"

"Cowards," commented Peckover warmly.

"I was alone," shouted the son of Mars, now plunging recklessly into
the recital; "no bush-armour; nothing but my fighting-jacket.
They--they----" he stammered and stopped as the trickling stream of
imagination ran dry.  He, however, sought to make up for verbal
shortcomings by fixing Peckover with a stare of the most appalling
ferocity.  Lalage saved the situation by prompting from the darkness
behind him into which she had slipped.  "They came on at the charge,"
he roared, never relaxing his truculent glare at his listener; "one in
front, one on each flank----"

"That's right," whispered Lalage.  "Keep it up."

"And one----" roared the encouraged swashbuckler.

"Thought you said there were only three," objected the irrepressible
Peckover.

"I'll wring any man's neck who interrupts me and puts me off my
stroke," was the savage response, and as the application of the remark
could bear but one interpretation, its object decided that it would be
better to curb his critical faculties before they brought on an
interference with his personal appearance and comfort.

"On they came like a hurricane," roared Carnaby, as the promptings
reached him, "one here in face: one on the right flank, one on--on----"

He stopped with some hazy notion that he had made a mistake.  In his
graphic action illustrating the narrative he had landed himself beyond
ear-shot of his prompter.

"On the left," Peckover supplied sympathetically.  "What's the matter?"
For the reciter seemed confused.

"He has had so many fights that he forgets them," explained Lalage,
emerging from the darkness to the rescue.  "More than the other fellows
do, though.  Go on, you great fool!" she politely adjured the
free-lance under her breath.

Thus incited, Carnaby put on a grimace which would have been nicely
calculated to send an old lady into a fit or an infant into
convulsions, albeit there lay beneath it an abject fear of his sister's
displeasure.  "I'll show you!" he bellowed, while Peckover, with an
uneasy calculation of the means of exit, wondered whether the object
lesson would involve his posing as the inadequate representative of the
unfortunate mounted police.  "First chap," the mighty one proceeded,
with, it must be confessed, a certain tendency to reiteration, "first
chap comes on full gallop in front."  Peckover nodded his absorbed
interest.  "I pull off my boot and dash it in his face."  For an
instant Peckover looked dubious; then realizing his ignorance of
fighting under antipodean conditions, he accepted the statement for
what it was worth.

"Down he goes," the story continued, "tobogganning over the horse's
tail."  Peckover, having without prejudice admitted the premises, could
not resist accepting the conclusion as highly probable.

Suddenly the warrior's hand shot out and grasped him by the shoulder.
"You," he shouted, becoming intoxicated with excitement as the tale of
his prowess grew, "are the second man.  As you pass, I slip under your
arm and catch you a smack on the point of the jaw which puts you to
sleep."

Instantly Peckover covered with both hands the part of his anatomy
referred to, and was understood to intimate that his own powers of
imagination were quite equal to the task of realizing the particular
form of assault which it was unnecessarily proposed to illustrate.

Postponing for the moment the exemplification of the knock-out blow,
Mr. Leo proceeded in spluttering ferocity with his narrative.  "In a
moment I have got hold of the first man's cutlass----" here he caught
up in his excitement a sword which unfortunately hung near, and
flourished it in a fashion not hitherto adopted by any recognized
school of arms.  "I turn, and cry----" he bellowed, when, as luck had
it, his energy led him to catch the weapon, in his terrific swing,
against a suit of armour which was brought toppling over upon him and
thence to the floor with a crash which sounded through the gallery with
startling din.

The effect on the man of doughty deeds was, however, even more than
startling.  He fell forward under the shock of the cold metal, and with
the helmet, thus jerked loose, striking him a smart blow on the head,
his roaring was changed in a moment from truculence to terror.  "Oh!
Oh!" he cried, as he sprawled over a chair, "don't hurt me.  I am only
pretending!"

But his quicker-witted sister was already at hand to cover his
confusion.  "Carnaby will have his joke," she exclaimed laughing
loudly.  "You see?" she demanded suddenly of Peckover, effectually
dispelling the amusement which was gathering on his face, "he is a man
of action," she continued with grim significance.  "Cares for nobody,
except his sister.  And he won't see her made a fool of."  Then, having
beaten Peckover into retreating from too close an inspection of her
brother's real state of mind, she turned, caught the sprawling fighter
by the collar, and pushed him to his feet.  "Great goose!" she hissed
at him.  "I could strangle you!"

The striking of a clock told Peckover that the time appointed for his
assignation had arrived.  "We'll hear that bloodthirsty anecdote
to-morrow," he said, half trembling at his own temerity.  "It's too
good to be wasted on an audience of one."

"All right, my little wallaby-rat," responded Carnaby in a tone
unpleasantly threatening, and with a valiant attempt to cover his
discomfiture.

"Don't wait," Peckover's apprehension of a coming complication forced
him to say.  "Not much fun in this dark, chilly place.  I'll stop and
pick the tin plates up."

But as he made for the scattered armour, Lalage seized him.  "No, you
don't," she said, with determination that filled her victim with
despair.  "You come with us.  I don't trust you out of my sight."

"Going to meet a girl here?" cried Carnaby, with a quite surprising
flash of intuition.  "I'd like to see him."

"We will," said Lalage, with quiet insistence; "we will see him.
Here!"  She took up a breastplate and helmet.  "Get inside this armour,
Carnaby dear, and we'll just keep an eye on him."

Piece by piece she picked it up and buckled it on him, Carnaby during
the somewhat irksome operation relieving his feelings by addressing
various minatory remarks to the now discomfited Peckover.  "You stir a
foot, and I'll twist it off, my pigeon.  You just mention we're here,
and I'll pull your tongue out, my little magpie.  So you'll play fast
and loose--chrrr Lal, you're pinching me--fast and loose with my
beautiful sister, will you?  You just try it on, my chicken, and it
will be the last article you ever do try on.  I'll flatten you out, and
then swab the floor with you."

With a running fire of such cheering announcements did Mr. Leo relieve
the tedium of his process of adornment.  At length the pieces of armour
were fixed to him.  There were absurd gaps in the covering;
nevertheless, in the semi-darkness there was no manifest difference
between him and the empty suits of mail.

"Now," directed Lalage, as she arranged him on a stand, "you stay there
as still at you can.  And you"--she turned to Peckover--"stir from the
room if you dare.  You just tell the young minx you won't have anything
to do with her, and, if she poaches on other people's preserves there
won't be much sport for her by this day week."

"Yes!"  A husky voice filtered through the vizor of Carnaby's helmet,
as he flourished the sword in his hand.  "If you try fooling I'll cut
your----"

"Hush!" Lalage commanded, as she drew back into the obscurity of a
recess.  "Some one coming."

"Nice evening this evening," muttered Peckover ruefully as the door
softly opened.



CHAPTER XXIII

"Mr. Gage--Percy--are you there?"

"Yes, I'm here," was the lugubrious response.

"Have you been waiting long?" Ethel asked, coming close to him.

"Hours," he declared feelingly, then quickly corrected the statement.
"No, I mean, not long."  Back in the darkness he fancied he could see
the truculent eyes glaring through the bars of the helmet.

"I couldn't get away," Ethel said invitingly.  "Had to dodge Dagmar."

"Ho! she wanted to come too, did she?" Peckover remarked in
desperation.  "The more the merrier."

Ethel drew back with rather a sour look on her expectant face.  "Mr.
Gage, what do you mean?"  Then with characteristic tenacity, she sidled
up to him again.  "Percy, how cold you are," she observed reproachfully.

"Cold?" he returned miserably.  "Yes, it is a bit chilly.  Enough to
give any fellow the shivers.  Chamber of Horrors is a fool to it.  I
mean," he quickly added, as an ominous movement of Carnaby's sword
caught his eye, "the armour strikes cold."

"Of course," said Ethel huffily, "if you would prefer Dagmar, I'll go
and send her to you."

"Oh, no; please don't trouble.  You'll do," he replied, with an
indifference born of desperation.

The lady resolved to try another tack.  "Oh, Mr. Gage," she said, with
a tremor in her voice; "how unkind you are!"

Her face was so close to him that the trial was almost more than he
could stand.  "No, no, not unkind," he denied, looking wildly round for
a way of escape.

"So changed," she insisted.

"No, not changed," he replied equivocally.

"So distant."

"Wish I was--a hundred miles distant," he groaned to himself.  "Can't
help it," he declared, goaded by the consciousness of those four eyes
magnetizing him from the darkness.  "Perhaps I've been too familiar."
"Oh, no," she protested, growing desperate in turn, as the prize of a
millionaire husband seemed slipping from her.  "If I don't mind it
Percy, dear----"

She put out her arms, but he fell back.  "Don't," he exclaimed, the
hateful words almost choking him.  "It isn't proper, you know."

"I'm afraid," she urged forlornly.  "I have been too absurdly proper."

"Oh, no--yes, I mean, no, no."  In his state of mind Peckover found it
impossible to differentiate between what he longed and what he was
forced to say.

"You said to-day it was dry work," Ethel observed caressingly.  "You
may have a sip if you like."

The invitation, reminding him, with a difference, of his Crystal Palace
and Welsh Harp days, was well nigh too much for the well-versed
philander of the suburbs.  "Oh, don't, don't!" he almost shrieked.
"Please go away.  You will drive me mad.  This is awful," he groaned.

"Of course, if you'd rather not----" Ethel suggested with a toss of the
head.

"It's never rather not with me," he protested under his breath.
"Only----"

Accepting his lowered tone as one of endearment and invitation, Ethel,
wondering at his unusual diffidence, drew closer to him.  Mechanically
and most unwillingly, he drew back.  "Well, you need not run away," she
pouted.

From what he could, in the semi-darkness, see of her eyes he fancied he
detected there an intention to spring at him, or at any rate to fall
into his arms.  In tantalizing terror he hastily retreated still
further, and in doing so stumbled against the stand of armour which
just then contained the redoubtable Carnaby, receiving for his
clumsiness a sound cuff from the mailed fist of that truculent spirit.
Luckily, as the episode took place in the shadow, it was not noticed by
the lady who had stopped her pursuit of matrimony and mammon in a not
unjustifiable huff.

"I know," she declared resentfully.  "It's all that horrid Colonial
girl.  How you can like her beats me."

"Oh, she's not bad," was Peckover's reluctant explanation.

"I think," returned Ethel with decision, "she is simply awful.  If that
is Colonial taste, I am sorry for you.  You could never think of
marrying her!"

"I'm afraid so," he blurted out in his woe and confusion.  His guilty
eyes perceived a disquieting movement on the part of the man in armour,
and in turning, ready to flee from the probable onslaught, he saw in
the gloom Lalage's eyes scintillating vengeance.  "I--I mean I hope
so," he corrected, almost in a shriek.

Induced by this strange and contradictory behaviour, Ethel suddenly
made a dart and flung her designing arms round him.  "Oh, Percy," she
cried with an adequate imitation of a sob, "you are not going to throw
me over for that creature?"

"I must," he replied, releasing himself firmly and with what dignity
was possible under the circumstances, "obey the dictates of honour."

Miss Ethel drew back, looking very sold and desperate in the moonlight.
"What a charming brother-in-law you will have!" she exclaimed, panting
with scorn and her late exertion.  "Great lout!  Only fit to guzzle and
smash furniture."

"And," Peckover added miserably to himself, "people who don't agree
with him."

His silence gave rise to a wild hope in the besieging breast that the
defence was wavering.  In a trice, with an improvement upon her former
tentative onslaught, she had thrown herself with greater deadliness of
aim and more convulsive tenacity into his willing, yet unwilling, arms
again.

"Oh, Percy," she howled in a judiciously modulated pitch, "I can't bear
your coldness!  I can't let you go!"

Peckover's situation with those four glaring eyes and those two
matrimonially determined grips upon him was truly deplorable.  "I'm a
dead man," he gasped, as he saw, over Ethel's reckless shoulder, the
awful mail-clad figure raise the sword with grim significance.  "I say;
stop!" he cried, struggling ungallantly to free himself.  "Keep away!
I can't marry you!"

"Mr. Gage!  Do you mean it?"  It was most undignified from both
parties' point of view, but the fact must be chronicled that she
shook--actually shook him.  "Oh, I won't be swindled like this!" she
cried, in the height of exasperation.

Finding that with the obvious intention of being as good as her word,
she, instead of releasing him with scorn, was hugging him tighter in
desperation, he was fain to cry, in a hoarse whisper, "Hush!  Keep off!
We are not alone.  Somebody in the room."

Ethel started back and looked round with a half-indignant,
half-distrustful eye and saw--Dagmar.  That young lady having had her
suspicions aroused by the prolonged absence of her sister and their
eligible guest, who, by the way, was supposed to be cheering the sick
bed of his friend, Lord Quorn, had started off on a search expedition,
and had just then crept pryingly into the picture-gallery.

"Ethel?" she cried with a pounce.  "All alone with Mr. Gage here, of
all places, and in the dark!  This is disgraceful."

"Mr. Gage," Ethel declared calmly, "is going to marry me."

She was quite ready for her sister to join issue on that statement, but
to her surprise the contradiction came from another quarter.

"Mr. Gage is not going to do anything of the sort."  It was Lalage Leo
who, emerging from the obscurity which had shrouded her, uttered the
flat denial.

"There!" said Peckover in uncomfortable justification of his
backwardness, "you see we were not alone."

"No!" cried a loud voice as Carnaby clanked forward.  "Not much."

"Oh, Mr. Gage, how dishonourable," Ethel exclaimed trying to look
scandalized while she resolved how best she could turn the situation to
account.  "Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

"I did tell you not to hug me," Peckover replied bluntly.

"If," suggested Carnaby with a leer, having, after a struggle to a
running accompaniment of murmured strong language, got his helmet off,
"if you want anybody to hug----"

"Oh!" Ethel cried in manifest disgust, as though her demonstrativeness
was regulated by any less material consideration than its object's bank
balance.

"I'll take the armour off," Carnaby assured her, his tone suggesting
that that might make all the difference.

"I will not be treated like this," Ethel exclaimed indignantly, aware
of the necessity for having her position in the complication settled
then and there.  "Mr. Gage is engaged to me."  She seized Peckover's
arm and hung on to it grimly.

"No, to me," Dagmar objected as with a desperation born of an insecure
tenure she clutched his other arm.

Lalage, with mischief in her dark eyes, swooped down upon the trio.
The unhappy Peckover's arms being fast held, the only way that occurred
to him of avoiding the coming assault was to endeavour to sit down on
the floor, in which he succeeded, after a short and spirited attempt on
the part of his captors to defeat the manoeuvre.

"I have a prior and a stronger claim on Mr. Gage," said Lalage with
calm determination; "and I mean to enforce it, eh, Carnaby?"

"Just let me get out of this rotten armour," growled her brother, thus
appealed to.  "I'll----"

"But it's not my fault," urged Peckover plaintively, from his
undignified position on the floor.

His weakness was not, however, shared by the ladies who, having him
fast in their grips, knelt, under the exigences of the situation,
beside him.

"He is engaged to me," Ethel maintained stoutly.

"You are engaged to Sharnbrook," objected Dagmar.

"I am not," she denied loudly and with decision.

"All right!  That's settled," exclaimed a blithe voice from the gloom,
from which next moment the said John Arbuthnot Sharnbrook emerged.



CHAPTER XXIV

The real and resuscitated Lord Quorn had all this while been having a
deplorable time of it.  Driven from the _Three Pigeons_ in consequence
of that hostelry being the abode of the terrible Leos, denied access to
his own home through the same fear, he had betaken himself to a
neighbouring village, and there spent his days, only venturing towards
Staplewick after nightfall, when he would prowl about the Towers like
an uneasy, discontented ghost.  But now the small sum he had been able
to raise on the little jewellery he wore was all but spent, and he was
becoming desperate.  Every day he expected to find that his trackers
from the Antipodes had departed in disgust; every night he was
disappointed.  Surely, thought he, with the false Lord Quorn to all
intents established, what have these nuisances to wait for?  Surely
even the self-and-brother-reliant Lalage can scarcely be stupid enough
to suppose that she had a chance of catching the substituted lord of
Staplewick.  If he has the cleverness and enterprise to fill that
position backed by his friend's money he will hardly be such a rank
idiot as to allow himself to be snapped up by those Australian sharks.

Meanwhile the position for the real owner was drawing to a point when
something would have to be done.  Necessary as it was for him to lie
low, it was yet more necessary for him to live, and his resources were
now about exhausted.

And the other Lord Quorn, he who had, so to speak, bought a title
without a title, was, except so far as nourishment went, in an almost
equally uncomfortable position.  He had vowed that he would get up (his
chill having left him) and he had done so, much to Peckover's annoyance
and apprehension.  That astute person, rendered yet more wily by the
chance of losing a handsome income, and furthermore of being kicked out
of the fairly safe asylum he had found in the Towers, had set himself,
with all the desperate disingenuousness he could summon to his aid, to
work upon the fears and personal considerations of the convalescent.
The consequence was that Gage, obstinate as he was, so far succumbed to
the lurid picture, drawn by his friend, of the certain consequences of
showing himself, that he had to submit with a very ill grace to
confining his perambulations to the more secluded parts of the house
and garden.

He would not have minded this so much had his circumscribed existence
been mitigated by the charm of constant--or even inconstant--female
society.  But the fact was that so long as the rich Mr. Gage,
represented by the strategic Peckover, was more or less free, Lord
Quorn, even with a fair income, the result of his performance in the
lake, was, to these ladies at least, less to be desired than the man of
wealth.  The Misses Hemyock were too familiar with an aristocratic
position for it to have any charms for them.  They were also well
versed in the tricks of keeping up appearances on limited means, which
meant going in for the parade and going without the desirables of life;
in consequence of which their discontented hearts were both rigidly set
upon solid fortune rather than upon empty grandeur; money was what they
hankered after; they were tired of mere social standing.  So Mr. Gage's
yearning was still ungratified, and so he told himself, and his friend,
Peckover, in no measured terms as he rampaged about the more secluded
quarters of the demesne.

Meanwhile the time for the Hemyocks to give up their tenancy of
Staplewick had arrived, and that designing family had left the Towers.
Not to go far, though.  Lady Agatha with an eye to bringing the
business in hand to a happy conclusion, had persuaded some
acquaintances, two elderly sisters, to turn out of the Moat, a house
within half a mile of the Towers, and seek the invigorating air of a
seaside resort for a month or two.  From this point of vantage she
continued to keep an opportunist's eye on the eligible bachelors, whose
position of comparative freedom was now from the lady's point of view
that of a bird who is let out of its cage and allowed to hop and
flutter to the extent permitted by the string attached to its legs.
But the Moat and the _Three Pigeons_, where the enterprising Leos still
lingered in an attitude of doubtfully restrained aggressiveness, were
both marked with a red cross in the minds of Peckover and Gage, to be
given a wide berth in their rambles.

Now a curious chance was to bring about a still more complicated state
of affairs than already existed.  Gage was out riding one afternoon,
exploring the roads and bridle-paths of the neighbourhood alone, for,
since his adventure with Harlequin, Peckover had decided that life on
five thousand a year was too precious to risk on horseback.  He was
jogging along a woodland road, turning over in his mind plans for the
extraction of more fun than he was just then getting out of his
purchased dignity, when suddenly a turn in the way gave him a glimpse
of the well-known figures of the ladies from the Moat who did not
exactly fit in with the distractions he was seeking.  Luckily their
backs were towards him, while the grassy road deadened the sound of his
horse's hoofs.  Quickly he reined up and turned aside into the wood
with the intention of striking a bridle-path, a few hundred yards
ahead, which would bring him to the park and safety.  As he gained the
covert he heard or thought he heard, the would-be charmers giving
tongue in pursuit.  Accordingly he shook up his horse into a smart
trot, hoping to get clear away without apparent rudeness.

Now it is manifestly difficult to ride fast and far through a pathless
wood unscathed.  In his anxiety to press forward Gage had one or two
narrow escapes from being rubbed off by interposing trees.  As he was
being carried away at a smart pace he suddenly had occasion to duck
over the saddle-bow to avoid a low branch.  While in this attitude,
leaning sideways, his horse tripped over an exposed root, plunged
forward and recovered himself, but not before the impetus had shot his
rider out of the saddle.  In trying to save himself Gage somehow
contrived to twist and wedge his foot in the stirrup as he fell.  So he
was dragged along, just able to keep his head from contact with the
ground by the purchase he got from the bridle which he still clutched.
He tried in vain to stop the horse, preferring naturally the society of
the Misses Hemyock to the excitement of that bumping progress; but the
animal was not amenable to snaffle or reason, and the severely
inconvenient mode of getting over the ground continued.

Then suddenly, in his undignified, not to say dangerous, position, Gage
heard a man's voice cry, "Whoa, boy!" the horse swerved inconveniently
for his hanger-on, who became aware as the painful method of equitation
came to a stop, that a man was at his head.  Without unnecessary loss
of time Gage allowed himself to be extricated from his unbecoming
attitude and set on his feet.

"Awkward position to adopt," remarked his rescuer dryly.  "Lucky thing
I happened to be on hand."

"I'm awfully obliged to you," Gage said, gratefully, feeling that his
good time had hung in the balance during those exciting moments.
"Shouldn't wonder if you've saved my life."

He surveyed his preserver inquiringly to gather what manner of man he
was.  A shabby, hungry-looking fellow, who ought to have been more
respectable than his clothes proclaimed.

"I think it's quite likely," was the cool response.

"Horse stumbled when I was off my balance ducking away from a bough,"
Gage thought proper to explain by way of excusing his late pose.

"Ah!  Just so.  Not an easy position to recover from when once you're
well shaken into it," the man commented indifferently; "with the horse
a bit fresh, and the ground not exactly a billiard table.  Lucky I
noticed you, if you happen to be in no particular hurry to hand in your
checks."

"I really am more than grateful to you," Gage protested warmly,
realizing the narrow squeak he had had of losing a big investment.  "I
hope I may be able to prove my gratitude.  Do you belong to these
parts?"

"No.  Not exactly," the man answered gloomily.  "Came down here to get
a place only to find it snapped up by somebody else."

"Ah, the way of the world, I'm afraid," Gage commented sympathetically.
"Well, perhaps I can find you something to do on my place here.  I'm
Lord Quorn."

"Oh, are you?" returned the man in a tone which left Gage a little
doubtful as to his manners.

"I've taken over an old place that wants a deal of looking after to get
it ship-shape," he continued.  "Any experience in land and farming?"

"Plenty," was the prompt answer.

"Then you ought to do for me," Gage said.  "Anyhow I should like to put
something acceptable in your way.  You've done me a service I shan't
easily forget, and I hope you won't do anything to make me want to
regret it.  Now, will it suit your book to take a position on the
Staplewick estate?"

"Just what I was after," replied the stranger in a curiously mechanical
tone.  He seemed strangely preoccupied, even apathetic, but Gage was
not going just then to criticize too closely the man who had saved his
life.

"Come along, then," he said.

The man seemed to rouse himself from a reverie, then laughed oddly.
"Yes, I'll come," he agreed more briskly.  "You shan't find fault with
the way I look after my place."

"We'll talk it over as we go," said Gage, throwing the bridle over his
arm and moving on.


"Full of fun and pretty surprises, the peerage," Gage observed to his
friend later in the afternoon.  "Makes one wonder what the next start
is going to be."

"What's wrong now?" Peckover inquired with a laugh.

"Had a nasty spill, and nearly got sent to bye-bye just as the fun is
beginning."

"Come off?"

Gage answered by an aggrieved nod, as though he held his friend
responsible for the mishap.  "Got my foot caught in the iron and was
dragged ever so far."

"Awkward," Peckover commented.  "Still you can't put that down to the
peerage.  Noblemen's feet don't swell, although their heads may."

"I don't," returned Gage snappishly.  "Only the Quorn title doesn't
seem exactly a mascot."

This was a proposition which the vendor of that equivocal dignity did
not feel himself in a position to traverse.  "How did you get out of
it?" he asked sympathetically.

"The iron?  I shouldn't have been taken out alive, with the brute
bumping me over the ground fit to drive my spine out at the top of my
skull," Gage replied in a victimized tone, "if it hadn't been for a
chap that came along in the nick of time and held him up."

"Lucky," remarked Peckover.  "Going to settle a few hundred thou. on
him?" he inquired playfully.

"Not exactly.  But I'm going to give him a billet on the estate.  Poor
devil, out-at-elbows; superior sort for all that.  Knows all about
farming, he tells me.  He'd better have that glib old thief Treacher's
place at the farm.  Turn him in there, and let him make the best job he
can of it.  He has given me an idea of how he'd work the land, which
seems pretty sensible, and at the worst he can't rob me more than
Treacher has been doing."

"Good idea," Peckover agreed, not wildly interested in the arrangement.

"Yes," said Gage.  "After all, the fellow saved my life.  I owe him a
chance of showing he can be honest as well as useful.  Now, as I'm
considerably bumped about and only fit for a hot bath, I'd be glad if
you'd just trot the fellow down to the farm, give Treacher his notice,
and show his successor how the land lies.  We can put him up somewhere
till Treacher clears out."

"All right," Peckover responded with a yawn.  "Anything to oblige.
Where is the party?"

"He's in the gun-room.  I told Bisgood to get him something to eat.
Poor fellow seemed half starved.  His name's Jenkins.  Treat him
kindly.  He has done us both a service," he added significantly.

"All serene," Peckover assured him with another yawn.  "I'll handle him
tenderly.  In the gun-room, eh?"

As Peckover opened the gun-room door, Gage's preserver was standing
with his back to it, scrutinizing a sporting print.  "Up, Jenkins," was
Peckover's facetious salutation and mode of attracting his attention.
Next moment it was down Peckover, for he staggered back and subsided
helplessly into a low chair as, in the stranger who turned quickly, he
recognized with a gasping cry the real Lord Quorn, whom he had believed
to be lying poisoned and forgotten in Great Bunbury churchyard.



CHAPTER XXV

For several seconds neither man spoke; Peckover, sprawling limply as he
fell, staring with distended, apprehensive eyes at Quorn who, master of
the strange situation, regarded him with a certain grim amusement.

"Hope you are having a good time, Mr.--Gage, is it?--or something else,
which for the moment has slipped my memory?"

Peckover's wits were rapidly recovering from the shock of dispersal
caused by the unexpected bomb which had fallen on them.  "Curious we
should meet again like this," he said with a sickly smile.

"Very," was the pointed response.  "And a trifle awkward, I should
fancy, for you."

"Oh, no," Peckover protested, pulling himself together and assuming the
boldest face he could summon up.  "It wasn't my fault you drank that
doctored wine, which I intended for my own consumption."

"Dare say not," Quorn returned uncompromisingly.  "Admitting for the
sake of argument that was an unfortunate mistake, how about you and
your friend annexing my place and title?"

Peckover's face showed bland surprise.  "Me and my friend taking your
place and title?  What do you mean?"

"Oh," replied Quorn with impatient sarcasm, "we are dense this evening.
It may astonish you, Mr. Alias Gage, but I rather fancy Staplewick Park
and Towers belong to Lord Quorn."

"Who suggested they didn't?" asked Peckover wonderingly.

"I'd like to see the man, that's all," retorted Quorn.  "And," he
resumed, "I'm rather under the impression that I'm Lord Quorn."

"I dare say," was the prompt rejoinder.  "But it doesn't follow you are
that nobleman."

"What?" he roared.

"Don't make a noise," said Peckover, with a touch of dignity; "the
servants aren't used to it."

"I say I am Lord Quorn," the other repeated with less volume but more
intensity.  "And you know it."

"But Lord Quorn says he's Lord Quorn," argued the wily Peckover with
maddening plausibility.  "That's all I know.  I'm not the Heralds'
College."

"You're a pair of frauds," cried Quorn.

"Naturally, if you're the rightful peer," was the bland reply.  "But we
don't know it, nor anybody else."

"Don't they?"

"Except yourself, I was going to say, and a lady and gentleman who have
come all the way from Australia to stick to it--and you."

The hit told.  Quorn's manner visibly weakened.

"What--you've had the nuisances up here--what is their infernal game?"
he asked, darkly apprehensive.

"Simple enough," replied Peckover, beginning to feel the courage he had
hitherto simulated.  "The fair Lalage's game is to be Lady Quorn, or to
know the reason why.  And she has brought over dear old Carnaby as an
extra note of interrogation."

"Oh!  What persevering devils they are," Quorn observed uneasily.  "And
what do they say to your friend who calls himself Lord Quorn?"

"Say?"  Peckover's native smartness was quick to turn the situation to
advantage.  "Why, their idea is that one Lord Quorn's as good as
another and failing one the other will do nicely."

Quorn gave a long whistle.  "Why, you don't mean to say that Lal Leo is
going for your friend?"

"She is, though, by George," was the blunt answer.  "Only, of course,
she hasn't got the hold on him she would have on you.  And that's where
Carnaby comes in."

Quorn looked at him searchingly, but was fain to accept the statement.
Besides which, it tallied with his idea of the Leonine methods.  "Well,
that's a queer go," he said, and then fell into a puzzled silence.
Presently he burst out with a question, not unnatural under the
circumstances.  "Who the devil is the thief who has the cheek to call
himself Lord Quorn?"

Peckover shrugged.  "For aught I know to the contrary he is Lord
Quorn," he replied blandly.

"Rats!" cried the dispossessed one wrathfully.  "It's a put-up job
between you and him."

"My good sir----"

"You know he's not Lord Quorn, and you know I am."

"I've told you already, not being in the know of the Heralds' College,
I'm not in a position to say anything about it."

"Aren't you?" sneered Quorn.  "I know all about it, though.  When I
drank that loaded stuff that sent me to sleep that was your chance, and
you took it."

"Did I?"

"You did.  And I don't blame you.  But I've woke up now."

"Then," rejoined Peckover sarcastically, "since you are so wide-awake,
perhaps you can explain why I didn't take the title myself?"

"I suppose," Quorn replied nastily, "you didn't feel you could fill the
part."

"Of a British nobleman?"  Peckover laughed scornfully.  "Too steady and
respectable, eh?  My highly creditable record wouldn't have stood in my
way if I'd had a chance of nobbling the coronet."

Quorn brought his fist down with a bang on the table.  "D--n it, man,
who is this fellow?"

"Lord Quorn," Peckover maintained.

"Lord Quorn!"  The real man could not find words to express his
disgust.  "How did you pick him up?" he demanded, seeing the
uselessness of arguing the question of identity.

"He picked me up," Peckover replied coolly.

"How?  When?  Where?"

"I'll tell you all about it, if you won't make such a noise," Peckover
said suavely.  "He came to the _Quorn Arms_ just after you had made
that little mistake in the refreshment, and announced himself as Lord
Quorn; and who was I to say he was not Lord Quorn?"

"Funny," remarked Quorn, "that he should have brought you along here."

"Fact is," was the ready explanation, "he was afraid of being caught by
those Hemyock terrors who straightaway began tumbling over one another
to get him.  Brought me along here as a chaperon, or an umbrella, if
you like, and I've made myself useful."

"I see," said Quorn suspiciously.  "And how about being a millionaire?"

"That," replied Peckover, "is how we worked the trick.  Lady Agatha is
a nailer.  She wouldn't have wasted board and lodging on a poor man.
And as a rich chap I can whistle the dear girls off when they get
closer to Quorn than he cares about."

The assumption of the title irritated its real holder.  "Quorn?" he
repeated resentfully.  "I like that.  There's only one Quorn, and I'm
going to show everybody where he is."

"Lalage and all?" was the pertinent objection.

"Oh, confound Lalage!"

"Just so--confound Lalage," was the hearty response, "Only take care
Lalage does not confound you."

For a few moments Quorn preserved an aggrieved and discomfited silence.
"You don't suppose," he said at length, "I am going to stand being
humbugged like this."

"I don't reckon anything about it," replied Peckover with wise
mendacity.  "You two Quorns had better fight it out between yourselves.
Only----"

"Only what?" the other snapped.

"If I were you I should wait until the ring's clear before I put up my
hands."

Quorn stared in front of him in gloomy silence.  "Pretty darned mess it
is," he remarked presently.

"It is.  But it will clear up," said Peckover cheerfully.  "That is if
you give it time."

Quorn made a sour face.  "Nice position for me----"

"If you will go engaging the affections of ladies from the Bush with
short hair and muscular brothers," put in Peckover.  "It's a mercy as
it is that this other claimant cropped up.  He has saved you a lot of
worry."

"So they're after him?" asked Quorn with grim amusement.

"You bet.  He had to stay in bed for a week to keep out of their way.
Lalage has crossed over to be Lady Quorn, and she means business."

"The devil she does!" exclaimed Quorn uneasily.

"Just think," urged Peckover with telling plausibility, "what this
other Quorn has saved you from.  Dear old Carnaby has a rare hankering
after experiments on people's physiognomies; trying how a man looks
with his nose bent, his eye closed, and a tooth or two smudged out.  He
fitted his dooks once round my throat, and I can feel 'em there now."

"What was that for?"

"Just to keep his hand in.  He is uncommonly keen on meeting you, and
he has got a bagful of funniments ready for the occasion."

"Pleasant fellow," ejaculated Quorn ruefully.

"Yes," pursued Peckover, "it's providential this chap, t'other Quorn,
turned up.  And if you take my advice you'll let him sit where he is
till the Leos have eaten their heads off at _The Pigeons_ and turned
the game up."

"Looks as though I'd better," Quorn agreed reluctantly.

"It will be bad enough if Carnaby catches you about as it is,"
continued Peckover, encouraged by the success of his argument.  "He may
do something distinctly unpleasant, but, not being for the moment Lord
Quorn, you won't have to marry old Lalage into the bargain."

"That's something," murmured Quorn.

"Everything, almost," said Peckover cheerfully.  "If you wriggle out of
that matrimonial spring-trap, you won't mind leaving half of your tail
behind.  You may lose a feature or two, but you'll be saved a life-time
of bother."

"To get quit of Lalage would be gratifying," Quorn admitted gloomily.
"But with my nose sliced off----"

"If," urged Peckover encouragingly, "you keep away from the
looking-glass you'll never miss it."

"But other people will," Quorn objected, clearly discomposed by the
idea.

"Well, then," Peckover summed up, "if you don't feel equal to tackling
the gentle Carnaby either as Quorn or Jenkins, you had best lie low
till they cart themselves away.  The other Quorn won't be particular,
since you saved his life, and Treacher doesn't go for a month.  We'll
fix you up a room in one of the lodges, and you can spend your time in
keeping out of Lalage's way.  Give out you are surveying the estate,
which, if it should turn out to be yours, won't be trouble thrown away.
I'll look after you, and back you up.  You can trust me."

"I don't know that I can," was the not unnatural objection.

"Of course you can," Peckover assured him sympathetically.  "Anyhow,
you've got to, unless you want Carnaby to wring you out and swab the
stable yard with you."

"A nice thing," Quorn protested distastefully, "for me to be skulking
about, and playing the understrapper on my own estate."

"Ah, yes," said Peckover sententiously. "We often have to pay for our
fun when we least expect to."


Thus it came to pass that matters shaped themselves to the wily
Peckover's handling, and he was able with native shrewdness to snatch a
fresh reprieve from the threatening exposure.  And it was of manifest
importance for him to do so, since every day's income made an
appreciable addition to the little capital he was amassing.  If only he
could keep the game up for a few months it would be for him, an
independence.  That former income of his, thirty-five shillings a week,
would be his for life, and without working.  No wonder he sharpened his
wits to keep his oddly diversified puppets dallying.

So the unsuspecting Lord Quorn by purchase continued to enjoy his
title, little dreaming of the Jenkinsian volcano at his very door.  So
likewise the chafing and mystified Quorn was assiduously taken in hand
by Peckover and his fears kept up to high-water mark.



CHAPTER XXVI

Lady Ormstork was a practitioner in somewhat the same line of business
as Lady Agatha Hemyock.  Her dealings were however, of a wider scope
and carried out with more histrionic embellishment than those of her
sister schemer who, as may have been gathered, had her hands full with
her two discontented and recalcitrant daughters.  Lady Ormstork had,
she was thankful, and also given to say, no daughter.  But other people
had them.  Also she had no money to speak of, and again other people
had.  So, being a tough and wise lady of tireless energy and a grasping
turn of mind, she set herself to take certain other people's daughters,
for matrimonial objects, be it understood, and at the same time as much
of their money as she had the face--and hers was fairly expansive and
brazen--to ask for.

In pursuance of a scheme which her ladyship had already several times
put in practice with success, she, on hearing certain rumours, ran down
to Great Bunbury, and secured a furnished house on the outskirts of
that somewhat uninteresting borough.

As the upshot of this apparently pointless and fatuous action, it was
one afternoon announced to Gage who was seeking relaxation from the
duties of his position in a game of billiards with his friend Peckover,
that Lady Ormstork and Miss Ulrica Buffkin were in the drawing-room.

"Who the deuce are they, Bisgood?" Gage inquired, in not the best of
humours at being interrupted in a promising run of nursery cannons.

"I don't know, my lord," answered Bisgood stolidly, his air suggesting
that it was his master's business to find out for himself.  "Never
heard of the ladies before."

"What are they like?" asked Peckover, ever on the alert for an
unpleasant surprise.

"Middle-aged lady, sir, and a young one."

"Good-looking?" Gage demanded, weighing the visitors against the joy of
the prettily placed balls by the top pocket.

"The young lady decidedly so, my lord," Bisgood answered with the
dictum of a connoisseur.  "As regards the elder lady opinions might
diff----"

"Oh, bother the old lady.  You can look after her, Percy," said Gage,
putting on his coat.  "I suppose they are ladies, Bisgood?"

"Lady Ormstork, my lord."

"Where's the book?  Let's look her out."

Bisgood fetched Debrett, while Gage brushed his hair and gave an upward
twist to his moustache.

"Yes, here it is, correct enough.  'Harriot, Lady Ormstork, widow of
Henry Fitz-fulke Candlish, fourth Baron Ormstork.'  Come on, old man,"
Gage commanded; and with pricking curiosity concerning Miss Buffkin, he
led the way to the drawing-room.

The first glance told both men that Bisgood had not overstated the
case.  Miss Buffkin had a roguish, voluptuous prettiness which fitted
each man's ideal of feminine beauty.  Indeed it was so long before they
could bring themselves to notice her companion that any other than the
gratified Lady Ormstork would have reasonably shown signs of being
offended.

"Lord Quorn?" the wily peeress inquired sweetly, looking from one to
the other; and for once, perhaps naturally, at fault.

Gage, wrestling with his sudden preoccupation, went forward and shook
hands.  "How do you do?" he inquired tentatively, in a manner from
which no unprejudiced observer would have deduced any deep concern as
to the state of her ladyship's health.

"I must introduce myself."  She opened the conversation winningly, as
the men took chairs opposite to her and kept furtive eyes on the
alluring Ulrica.  "I was a great friend of the late peer's--your
cousin----"  Gage bowed.  "My husband and he were at Eton together and
kept up a life-long friendship."  Lady Ormstork sighed.  The men tried
to look sympathetic and merely found themselves looking at the
beautiful Miss Buffkin to see how she took it.

"We often stayed here," the peeress proceeded in a voice of tender
reminiscence.  "We always loved Staplewick and the--the neighbourhood."

With an effort the men accepted the interesting statement with a duly
chastened glance at the maundering lady.

"So much so," Lady Ormstork continued, dropping with surprising ease
the tone of lament in favour of one which suggested business-like hope,
"that being sadly in need of change of air after the fatigue of the
London season, I suggested, instead of the inevitable Homburg, the
healthy and peaceful paradise of Great Bunbury."

It struck as much of the minds of her listeners as they could afford to
detach from the prepossessing Miss Buffkin that it had never occurred
to them so to regard that unlovely market-town, but they made
allowances for variation in tastes and found it possible to rejoice
that some one, particularly this talkative old peeress, took pleasure
in it.

"It's an interesting old place," Gage agreed, with as much irony as
anything else.

"Nice change after London," Peckover chimed in, with a slight shudder
at the recollection of his first impressions of that unattractive town.
"Don't you think so?" he suddenly asked Miss Buffkin.

The young lady hesitated, and her hesitation could not be said to count
as a testimonial to the grimy place in question.  "It's not exactly
lively," she answered with a smile that disclosed an irreproachable set
of teeth.  "When you've walked up one side of the street and down the
other you are ready, if not anxious, to bid Great Bunbury a life-long
farewell."

"My dearest Ulrica," Lady Ormstork remonstrated, "you have no romance."

"If I had a sackful, Great Bunbury would shake it out of me pretty
quick," her protégée retorted.

"Well," the elder lady resumed almost plaintively, "perhaps it is that
I view it in the light of happier days.  It used to be quite a treat to
drive in from here on a fine afternoon to shop in the quaint little
town."

Both men glanced at Miss Buffkin as inviting a comment.

"The things you buy there aren't much of a treat," she observed dryly.

"And that is why," proceeded Lady Ormstork, ignoring the remark, "my
heart turned towards Great Bunbury and dear old Staplewick, so that I
felt I must come and see it again, even at the risk of being considered
intrusive."

The expression on the two men's faces was calculated to assure her that
so long as she appeared similarly accompanied she need have no fear of
her welcome.

"I'm sure I'm delighted," Gage assured her, with a sly glance at the
fascinating Ulrica.  "I hope you will stay to tea now, and come often,"
he said with real enthusiasm.  "As often as you can."

Lady Ormstork looked deeply grateful; indeed, as though a load of
ungratified longing had been lifted from her shoulders; while Miss
Buffkin seemed, from one cause or another, highly amused.

"Thank you, Lord Quorn, it is most kind," Lady Ormstork replied
gushingly.  "I shall revel in revisiting the dear old haunts.  I warn
you I shall take you at your word, and come very, very often."

"Can't come too often," Gage assured her gaily.  "Hope Miss Buffkin
will come too.  You mustn't leave her moping in Great Bunbury.  We'll
try to get up some fun for her out here."

Lady Ormstork had no intention of leaving the profitable Ulrica behind,
and she intimated as much.  Miss Buffkin, on her part, seemed to find
more than a transitory amusement in the effect she had produced upon
the men.

"Perhaps you would like a turn before tea and look round the gardens,"
Gage suggested, nudging his friend, "Rather untidy, but we are going to
make them trim directly."

"Oh, I should dearly love to see them as they are," the wily old
peeress assured him.  "Untidiness lends itself to romance, does it not?"

"I dare say it does," responded Gage, "and gets interest out of it."

Lady Ormstork was too busy manoeuvring to get hold of Peckover to
notice the joke.  Her game was to throw the new Lord Quorn and the fair
Ulrica together with ultimate profit to herself.

Peckover, it may be stated, was not wildly interested in the dowager
peeress.  Not quite taking in the situation, he had anticipated that
she would hang on to Gage, leaving Miss Buffkin in his willing charge.
But the whole sense of the meeting was against him.  Between the
grasping old lady and the repudiating Gage, he had no chance.

"Go on!" commanded his friend in a peremptory whisper pushing him
towards the peeress.

"Don't you love a winter garden?" that astute dowager enquired sweetly
as she annexed him, and then, without waiting for his predilections on
the horticultural question, proceeded to arrange for "dear Ulrica" to
be personally conducted by Gage.  There was no help for it, and
Peckover resigned himself to the tolerance of aristocratic age and
presumed inanity.

"I can't tell you," Lady Ormstork observed in the cooing tone with
which she smoothed over her designs, "how delighted I am to make the
acquaintance of your friend, the new Lord Quorn, and to revisit dear
old Staplewick.  What a charming fellow he seems."

"Oh, yes; he's a slice of all right," Peckover agreed, wondering whence
the lady had formed that conclusion, since Gage's behaviour had
hitherto shown more signs of being charmed than charming.

"He has," declared Lady Ormstork, "the family likeness.  Particularly
the nose.  I saw the Quorn nose at once."

This was a somewhat trying statement for Peckover, but he manfully
repressed all evidence of agitation.  "Yes," he assented, "he's got the
nose all right, and a bit of the Quorn lip, I'm thinking."

Looking round as it were to verify the comparison, Lady Ormstork was
pleased to see the lagging pair in close and animated conversation.

"Yes, he reminds me of the late peer, particularly when he smiles," she
declared with boldness, considering that she had never set eyes on a
Lord Quorn in her life, nor been until a week before, within fifty
miles of Staplewick.

"Oh, does he?" responded Peckover indifferently, as he suppressed a
yawn.

"It will be so nice to come over here often," pursued Lady Ormstork,
ignoring her companion's preoccupation.  "So delightful for my dear
young friend, Miss Buffkin.  Naturally to a high spirited girl Great
Bunbury is a little dull."

"I should think it would be," Peckover responded.

"Yes," said the lady with a little sigh of relief, "and so it will be
such a pleasant change for her to have, so to speak, the run of this
lovely park."

"I'm sure," Peckover said with emphasis, "Lord Quorn will be delighted
for Miss Buffkin to come here all day and every day."

"How good of him," exclaimed Lady Ormstork, greedily accepting the
suggestion.  "And I shall enjoy it too, more than I can express."

Peckover was silent as he fell gloomily to wondering whether his
desirable lot would be to entertain this suave old lady while his
friend flirted with the fair and lively Ulrica.

"My young friend," proceeded Lady Ormstork, "is a really charming
girl--what a superb Wellingtonia!--Yes, I see a great deal of her.  Her
father is not able to take her about, and so she has become almost like
my own daughter."

"Except that she doesn't exactly take after you in looks," thought
Peckover; but he merely bowed acceptance of her statement.

"You see, her position is quite enviable," the lady continued in her
society voice and drawl, "As an only child she will be immensely rich.
Indeed Ulrica has her separate fortune now.  I'm sure I may confide in
you, Mr.----'

"Gage," Peckover supplied alertly.

"Mr. Gage.  Not one of the Shropshire Gages?"

"Not that I know of," he replied, beating down a sporting instinct to
claim kindred with that highly respectable, if rural, family.

"Ah!  Some of the Worcestershire branch, the Lovel-Gages, were my
greatest friends," said Lady Ormstork regretfully reminiscent.  "You
don't come from Worcestershire?"

"Not straight," he answered.

Lady Ormstork laughed, as she always did when there was the possibility
of a joke being intended.  "Well my dear Mr. Gage, I may tell you in
confidence, as I feel we are going to be very good friends, that one of
the reasons I brought dear Ulrica down to this quiet place was to be
out of the way of certain fortune hunters who were pursuing her with
their attentions."

"I don't wonder," responded Peckover, with a touch of enthusiasm.

"No," the lady agreed.  "Apart from her immense fortune, she is
adorable.  So handsome! and so clever!"

"Yes, she's all that," said Peckover, enviously thinking of what a good
time his friend was having, and regretting for once, that he had let
the title go.

"One person in particular," pursued the dowager, "has given me great
anxiety.  A Spanish duke, of undeniable family, a Grandee of Spain, and
all that sort of thing, don't you know, but very poor, and consequently
most persistent.  You know what these foreigners are."

"Rather," Peckover assured her, in a tone which implied an intimate
acquaintance with the procedure of Spanish Grandees, rich and poor.

"Of course," the lady continued, "--oh, how pretty that peep is!--of
course an alliance with Ulrica would set him, the duke, on his feet
again.  It would enable him to resume his position and live on his
estates like a prince."

"Get a new hat to wear in the royal presence," added Peckover,
remembering that attribute of Spanish Grandees which he had read of in
the "interesting items" column of a weekly paper.

"He is, I believe, devotedly in love with Ulrica, apart from her
fortune," continued his companion.  "And of course from the point of
view of mere rank and grandeur, the alliance would have been quite
desirable.  But, after all, an English girl should marry an Englishman,
that is my feeling and the wish of Ulrica's father; and so we have come
down here to let the storm of the Duke de Salolja's passion blow itself
out."

"I see," said Peckover thoughtfully, wondering how much of the storm
was true, since his last habit of mind was naturally now prone to
suspicion and to look askance at unwarranted confidences.



CHAPTER XXVII

"Well, Percy, my boy, what do you tot them up to come to?" inquired
Gage jovially as they turned from an impressive adieu to their guests
who drove off radiant--at least as far as Lady Ormstork was
concerned--at the success of their visit.

"They're all right," Peckover answered somewhat gloomily.  Considering
the poor time he had had as the medium through which the wily peeress
desired to convey certain information to his friend he could scarcely
be expected to emulate that gentleman's enthusiasm.

"Right?  I should think so," Gage exclaimed with emphasis.  "The girl
is simply scrumptious."

"I dare say," Peckover returned, with a jealous twinge.  "Rather
different from our friends at the Moat, eh?"

"Slightly.  There's no comparison.  She's a real beauty, and full of
fun."

"Oh, you found that out, did you?" Peckover observed curiously.

"Rather.  This is the sort of Lord Quorn I'm paying for."

"She has a lot of money," said Peckover.

"How do you know?"

"The old lady-bird told me so.  Confidential old party.  Good as
admitted they had come down here to have a dash at you."

"Me?" cried Gage, much interested.

"Your title.  Or, rather mine," his friend declared sombrely, so
dismally, indeed, that Gage said--

"Come, you are not going to repent?  This is what I paid for.  I told
you so at the outset."

"Oh, yes," Peckover agreed.  "It's fair enough," and with the image of
Miss Buffkin's commanding beauty in his heart, he darkly resolved to
try whether some of her smiles might not in future be for him.


Lady Ormstork was, as might have been confidently anticipated, as good
as her word.  Almost every day she brought the fair Miss Buffkin to
Staplewick, and on those that were missed the two friends contrived to
find an excuse for calling at Cracknels, as the villa, built by a
retired biscuit baker, was named.  The game was not a very pleasant one
for Peckover, seeing that in it the dowager was invariably his partner,
nevertheless he continued to stick to it doggedly in the hope that his
opportunity for making running with the captivating Ulrica would surely
come.

Accordingly he disguised his feelings and the alertness with which he
waited for an opening to assert his powers of fascination, making
himself the while as agreeable and attentive to the astutely meandering
peeress as the nature of her society talk permitted.

"Lord Quorn and dear Ulrica seem to have taken quite a fancy to one
another," she remarked one afternoon, tactfully leading the way so as
to give a wide berth to a plantation of rhododendrons in the midst of
which she had reason to suspect the other pair of promenaders was
lingering.  "Don't you think so, Mr. Gage?"

"Looks like it," answered Peckover with a sardonic curl of the lip.

"You are his great friend.  He would naturally confide in you,"
observed the lady with a pointed invitation to betray the said
confidence.

"Oh, yes.  He is very far gone," was the somewhat ill-humoured reply.
"No need for him to mention it, so long as I retain my eyesight."

"I am inclined to think," Lady Ormstork observed meditatively, "that
the alliance would not be at all a bad thing."

"No?"  Peckover, smarting under his confederate's good fortune, would
not commit himself to an opinion.

"Don't you think so?" the dowager asked suavely.

"I don't blame old Quorn," Peckover replied, rather crudely.  "As to
whether Ul--Miss Buffkin might not do better is a matter of opinion."

"Possibly she might; or she might do worse," was the sage response.
"After all, Quorn is a charming fellow."

"Oh, yes," his friend assented in a tone so warped that it seemed to
signify, "Oh, no."

"It's a fine old title," said the lady reflectively.

"Title's all right," he agreed equivocally.

"Undeniable," Lady Ormstork maintained.  "But of course, my dear Mr.
Gage, you understand that advantage would weigh nothing with me if
Quorn were not genuinely fond of Ulrica."

"Just so," responded Peckover with a wink at a passing swallow.

"Naturally," she pursued, "you will see my position is a somewhat
delicate one.  It is on that account, my dear Mr. Gage, that I make no
scruple in asking you, a clever man of the world--if I may call you
so----"

"Oh, don't mention it," he replied glibly.

"I'm asking you not to let me be in the dark as to your friend's real
feelings and intentions.  For if I were sure that Quorn had no idea of
proposing I should consider it my duty to take Ulrica away from here at
once."

"He has not expressed any such intention to me," Peckover replied,
brightening a little.

"But surely you think he will, he must?" demanded the lady anxiously.

"Yes, he should by rights," Peckover agreed.  "But he may not be a
marrying man."

Lady Ormstork looked scandalized.  "Every man is a marrying man when he
meets a girl like Ulrica.  Besides, it is the duty of every peer to
marry, or what will become of our old nobility?  Heaven only knows to
whom, as matters stand, the Quorn title will go next."

Peckover had an idea that he could claim to share the knowledge.  "He
ought to come to a firm offer if he means business," he said.

"Our time here is getting short," Lady Ormstork declared significantly.
Not but what she was prepared to grace Great Bunbury with her presence
for a twelvemonth if that were likely to bring off the match.  "As
Ulrica's temporary guardian I cannot allow Quorn to flirt with her
indefinitely if he has no intention of proposing."

"No," Peckover responded promptly, wondering how he could get a look
in.  Then a happy idea struck him.  "Quorn is a shilly-shallying
fellow," he said guilefully.  "Can't make up his mind.  I usually have
to do it for him."

"I wish you would in this instance," the lady exclaimed fervently.

"Well, I think I might," he replied with sudden animation.  "But of
course it won't do for me to tell him straight he ought to propose.
He'd see you working the figure.  No, I've got a more artful plan than
that."

"Oh, you dear Mr. Gage!" cried Lady Ormstork, brightening at the
prospect of an end to her uninteresting sojourn at The Cracknels.  "Do
tell me."

"Easy enough," said Peckover, sparkling likewise; "and highly
effective.  One trial will prove it, or money returned.  Make him
jealous."

"How can we?" asked the dowager with a dubiousness which her companion
did not find altogether complimentary.

"Leave it to me," he replied, his sparkle subsiding to a touch of
huffiness.  "Don't you think I'm equal to it?"

"Oh, yes, indeed, dear Mr. Gage," the lady drawled, eyeing him still
rather doubtfully.

"Don't you make any mistake about it," he protested severely.  "I
always was first favourite with the ladies, and Quorn knows it--to his
cost, I may tell you."

"And you are still friends?" was the astute comment.

"Sworn friends," Peckover replied with much truth.  "I'll prove it by
making up his mind for him to marry the finest girl in England."

"And what is your plan?" Lady Ormstork inquired approvingly.

Rapidly the alert little mind had blocked in the outline of his scheme.
"Let me make the running for a lap or two," he suggested.  "If that
doesn't hurry him up, nothing will.  You come up as usual to-morrow;
I'll slip away from Quorn, meet you, and go off for a stroll with Miss
Ulrica.  You come on to the Hall.  Tell Quorn offhand, when he asks,
what has become of the young lady.  Say she thought she'd prefer a
stroll with me for a change, and if he sits still after that it's odds
against Miss Buffkin being Lady Quorn.  You watch the effect."

Lady Ormstork looked as though she might be safely trusted to keep her
eyes open for it.

Next day things happened as had been arranged.  Peckover made a timely
desertion, and Lady Ormstork arrived at the Towers dignified and alone.

"Not brought Miss Buffkin to-day?" Gage asked, trying to look as though
he had still got the better half of the Cracknels establishment.  "Hope
she's not ill?"

"Oh, dear no," Lady Ormstork answered sweetly.  "She is here.  But we
met your charming friend, Mr. Gage, just by the lodge gates, and dear
Ulrica said she had been cramped up in the fly long enough, so she got
out to stroll up through the park."

Gage evidently experienced some difficulty in looking as pleased as a
host should at the idea of his guest doing what pleases her best.  "I
see," he said, uneasily reflective.  "Shall we walk back and meet them?
It's a lovely day."

"So Ulrica thought," the astutely suave lady responded.  "And the park
looked so tempting.  Yes, a short stroll would be delightful."

Accordingly they made their way down the drive at a pace which, set by
the deliberate old peeress, ill accorded with Gage's impatience.

Naturally Peckover had foreseen this move, and had proposed a
circuitous and covert route to the house.  Ulrica, quite privy to the
scheme, offered no objection.

"Sun's rather hot," Peckover observed, when the carriage with its
guileful occupant had rolled away from them.  "Let's keep under the
trees."

Ulrica laughed, and took without comment the path he indicated.



CHAPTER XXVIII

"This is a real pleasure to me," Peckover remarked, determined to get
on flirting terms without wasting precious time in preliminary
small-talk.

"This lovely day?" Ulrica responded, with an obvious pretence of
misunderstanding his drift.  "Yes, it is quite a treat."

"I meant," he pursued, with a stimulating glance at the fresh, pretty
face, highly provocative now with a roguish smile, "a walk with you.
I've been longing for this moment ever since I first set eyes on you."

Her glance of amused surprise suggested that she thought he was
plunging _in medias res_ with a vengeance.  "Clearly," she commented,
"patience is one of your virtues."

"I don't know about patience," he replied.  "If I've waited a long time
for my chance, it has not been exactly patience, but because I couldn't
get it sooner."

"Everything comes to him who waits," Ulrica observed with a careless
laugh, to show she was not taking him too seriously.

"I hope you don't mind the change?" he suggested.

"In the weather?" she asked mischievously.

"Bother the weather!  No.  From Quorn to me."

"That remains to be seen," she answered.  "So far, I have no objection
to it."

"Same here.  Lady Ormstork is a proper old grandee, but, well,
naturally she's not exactly my idea of an afternoon's fun."

"I dare say not," Ulrica said dryly.

"Now you are," he declared boldly.

She ignored the compliment together with the amorous look which
accompanied it.  "I have often wondered how you and dear old Ormstork
were getting on;" she remarked with self-possessed blandness.  "One
hears of such curious matches nowadays."

For a moment Peckover hardly realized the drift of the remark.  Then he
stopped dead.  "Why, you don't mean to say," he gasped, "you thought I
was making love to the old gal?"

She looked intensely amused at his face of disgust.  "Lady Ormstork is
not bad looking for her age," she suggested wickedly.  "You must admit
she is rather handsome."

"I dare say," he returned, not certain how far she was in earnest.  "It
never occurred to me to take stock of her."

Ulrica kept her countenance steady, but her eyes were dancing.  "Then
your devotion was purely Platonic?" she observed.

"You may call it what you like," he replied, playing for safety.  "As I
wasn't taking any."

"Ah, then, I suppose it was devotion to your friend, Lord Quorn," she
pursued, the corners of her mouth twitching with mischief.  "Of course.
He saved your life, didn't he?  And you--yes; how generous of you."

"Oh, bother my life," Peckover exclaimed with an impatient laugh.  They
had covered a good deal of ground without getting on very far towards
the end he had in view, and any moment now Quorn might run them down.

"I expect poor old Quorn is feeling rather sick by now," he remarked
pointedly, "at your giving him the slip and going off with me."

"You don't think he'll be jealous?" she asked with a laugh.

"Shouldn't be surprised."

"There is no real reason why he should be," she said.

"Nor no reason why he shouldn't be--if you like," he rejoined
insinuatingly.

"I don't understand you, Mr. Gage," she said, looking at the same time
as though she understood him perfectly.

"If you liked me half as well as I like you," he explained bluntly,
under the compelling spur of her charms.

"You think it would matter to Lord Quorn?"

"You ought to know best," he returned.  "I know it would matter a lot
to me.  The question is, which do you prefer?"

"Oh, his lordship, of course," she answered mockingly.

"Because he is a lord?"

"Naturally."

"I see," said Peckover catching her tone.  "Is that your own original
idea or Lady Ormstork's?"

"It is certainly Lady Ormstork's," was the evasive answer.

"But not yours.  Not altogether," he urged wickedly.  "You might have
room in your heart for a little fondness for me?"

She laughed.  "Why should I?"

"It would be such a treat," he pleaded.

"You are very, what Lady Ormstork calls, unconventional," she said
quizzingly.

"Does that mean nice?"

"It may."

"You can't tell unless you give a fellow a chance," he said amorously,
as his arm, extended behind her, somewhat unnecessarily, to put aside a
bough, remained there.  "Ulrica!" he murmured.

"Mr. Gage!"

"Percival--Percy," he suggested with empressement.  "Ulrica, time's
short, so don't let's quibble about trifles.  You're the loveliest girl
I've ever set eyes on," he continued with glib passion, "and I'm
desperately in love with you.  I've been dying to tell you so all the
time, but never could till this blessed chance came along.  Ulrica, say
you're a little fond of me, in return."

"Mr. Gage!"  Ulrica's expression was compounded of indignation, scorn
and amusement.  But perhaps the last was the only sentiment that was
genuine.  "It is not necessary," she protested, "to overdo the part
like this."

"The part?"

"Lady Ormstork's little scheme," she said coolly.  "You need not take
the trouble to make it quite so life-like."

"Oh, it's no trouble," he assured her promptly.  "It is a pleasure."

"I understood," she observed laughingly, "that the idea was to put it
into Quorn's head that he ought to be jealous."

"That's it," Peckover replied readily.  "And I'm doing my very best to
give him cause for jealousy."

"It is very spirited of you," she said, with her provocative,
mischievous twinkle.  "But you need not act quite so hard, need you?
At any rate till he sees us."

He made a wry face.  "Not much fun in waiting till he sees us.  It
occurs to me this is a little game it pays to play in earnest.  That
is," he added pointedly, "if both parties are agreeable."

"Ah, that's the question," she said tantalizingly.

"Won't you answer it?" he asked insinuatingly.

"H'm!  I rather like you," she admitted.  "You are breezy."

"Thanks," he replied.  "Then I ought to be in request on a warm day
like this."

"Lord Quorn," she said with provoking irresponsiveness, "is breezy.
But with him it blows from a rather different quarter.  And he is apt
to be a little gusty."

"Ah, yes.  Dare say he would be," Peckover agreed, recalling certain
squally passages in their intercourse.  "Well, after all, a change of
air ought to be grateful.  Does you good."

Ulrica laughed.  "With the wind chopping about there is likely to be a
storm coming."

"Is there?" he returned.  "Then let us take advantage of the fine
weather while it lasts."

He was about to give a practical suggestion of how they might make the
best of the sunny hours, with his arm only prevented from encircling
her waist by a vigorous repulsive action on Ulrica's part, followed by
a suggestion that the conditions did not exactly lend themselves to
waltzing, when suddenly a man emerged from the bushes and stood in
front of them.  It was not the Lord Quorn they were expecting, but the
real Quorn who had sighted them while prowling about the grounds, and
now confronted them with an expression of jealous irritation on his now
chronically aggrieved face.

"Hullo, my cunning little puppet," he exclaimed rudely.  "Enjoying
yourself this fine morning?"

"Trying to," replied Peckover, betwixt resentment and politic
submissiveness.

"That's right," said Quorn with a distinctly objectionable sneer.
"Poaching on the preserves of the person who calls himself Lord Quorn,
it strikes me."

"Who is this rude person?" asked Ulrica, not knowing whether to be
amused or alarmed.

"Oh, he's all right," Peckover assured her uneasily.

"Yes," responded Quorn with dismaying suggestiveness.  "I am
particularly all right.  About the only man on the place who is all
right, it strikes me."

Peckover, reduced to an apprehensive and gloomy silence, noticed that
Quorn's eyes were fixed on Ulrica with a look of unmistakable and more
than passing admiration.  The aggressive manner was softening too,
clearly for the lady's benefit, and indeed Miss Buffkin showed signs of
a temptation to laugh at the embarrassment of her cavalier.

"Right you are," Peckover said, nodding to Quorn as pleasantly as the
situation permitted, and at the same time trying to get a chance of
winking at Ulrica to intimate thereby that she need not take the
new-comer seriously.  "Well, we must be getting up to the Towers now."

But Quorn showed no intention of budging from their path.  His eyes
were still fixed in the same resolute admiration on the fascinating
Ulrica, and it was manifest that the spell of her beauty was holding
him more strongly every moment.

"You run off to the Towers, old man," he ordered Peckover, with a wave
of the arm, while his eyes never left the object of their attraction.
"You're wanted up there at once.  I'll escort the lady."

There was a note of determination in his voice that Peckover had not
noticed before.  Doubtless it was derived from the enchantment of Miss
Buffkin's personality.  Peckover dared not disobey.  Happily a ruse
suggested itself to him.  He nodded to Ulrica; "See you again
presently," and made off down the winding path.

Scarcely had Quorn time to pull himself together in his overmastering
admiration, and frame the preamble of a rough flirtation, when Peckover
came rushing back with apprehensive face.

"Well, what's the matter now?" Quorn demanded, upset by the
interruption.

"Lions on the prowl," Peckover announced in a loud whisper.

"Lions?" cried the exasperated Quorn.  "What do you mean.  You must be
dr----"  Then the meaning flashed upon him, and he grew white.  "Not
Leos?" he demanded hoarsely.

Peckover nodded warningly.  "Both of 'em.  Looking nasty.  They'll be
round the corner in a moment."

Lord Quorn had decided before that moment elapsed not to stay to test
the truth of the statement.  With an exclamation which savoured less of
good manners than of abject, if wrathful, fear, he sprang without a
word of leave-taking or excuse into the bushes and disappeared.

Then Peckover winked at the astounded Miss Buffkin.

"That was clever of you," she remarked with a puzzled laugh.  "How did
you do it?"

"Superior power of intellect," was his somewhat vague and unsatisfying
explanation.  "Mind can start muscle any day.  Never mind that poor
chap.  Where did we leave off?"

"You wouldn't," she replied significantly.  "If I remember rightly."

"No more I won't," Peckover exclaimed, with boldness increased by his
late coup.  "Wasn't I just----?  I don't mind beginning again, if you
don't."

His impudence made her burst out laughing.  "You are absurd.  And you
are not treating your friend well."

"P'raps not," he returned.  "But when I look at you I feel called upon
to treat myself well.  Besides, he'll never miss it."

"Miss what?" she asked, innocently or by design falling into his trap.

"A kiss," he answered.  "You'll let me have one, Ulrica?"

Miss Buffkin was saved the trouble of dealing with the--perhaps
embarrassing--request, by the appearance of Gage, who came up somewhat
heated and resentful, followed by Lady Ormstork, whose face wore the
look which dowager peeresses wear when their plans, matrimonial and
financial, succeed.



CHAPTER XXIX

Gage, _soi-disant_ Quorn, was, to put it mildly, anything but pleased
at Peckover's manoeuvre, Nevertheless he did not take the first
opportunity of proposing to the fascinating Miss Buffkin.  In point of
fact he preferred the role of Philander to that of Benedick.  He was in
no hurry to settle down, however strongly the superb Ulrica might tempt
him to matrimony.  He was more than rich enough to treat her wealth as
a negligible quantity; added to which he desired to taste the sweets of
life as dished up to a bachelor peer, and this was the first of them
which had not turned sour in his mouth.

Naturally he was not going to allow any interference or competition on
the part of his paid confederate, Peckover.  That gentleman, had, he
considered, put off the trappings of nobility for a handsome
consideration, and was in honour bound not to start an opposition
business on his own account, nor to obtain credit in the guise of a
millionaire, within an equitable radius from Staplewick, or, indeed,
from the person, wherever it might be, of the peer by purchase.

The first practice of the scheme not having produced the desired
effect, namely a proposal, it was arranged to repeat it next day; but
Gage was too resentfully wide-awake to be taken in again.  He stuck to
Peckover with all the persistency, and much more than the annoyance, of
his shadow, and finally took care as the hour of their visitors'
arrival drew near to post himself at the point of interceptance; the
wily Peckover remaining at the house in a state of tantalizing
discomfiture.

But Lady Ormstork, who had not lived in vain in a world where even
peeresses play "beat my neighbour," was equal to the occasion, and more
than equal to the suddenly alert Mr. Gage.  Perhaps she had anticipated
his move; anyhow, she was prepared with a prompt counter.

As Gage met the carriage by the lodge, the driver, being either new or
instructed, did not pull up for a hundred yards or so.  Then Lady
Ormstork quickly alighted and the carriage bowled on at a good pace
towards the Towers.

With a wealth of amiability the lady advanced towards Gage who was
hurrying up with a lowering face.

"Where's Miss Buffkin?" he cried in a cold, exasperated voice.

Lady Ormstork held out both hands gushingly.  "So delighted to come
again.  So sweet of you to have us!" she crowed.  "Another quite
heavenly day.  And the dear old park looking more lovely than ever."

"But where's Miss Buffkin?" Gage demanded hoarsely, clutching the old
lady's double-dealing hands and thinking unutterable things.

"Oh, dear Ulrica is rather tired," was the plausibly artless reply.
"She went for a walk to the Scotton Woods this morning.  So she has
gone on in the carriage and will make herself at home till we come.  I
am sure that you, as the soul of hospitality will not mind that."

Mr. Gage looked as though he did mind it very much indeed.  However, he
shut his lips, perhaps to keep back the unspeakable, and began to move
on towards the house.

"The park is truly delightful to-day," exclaimed his companion with
studied rapture.  "The air is simply life-giving.  Do let us stroll up
by the beech avenue, dear Lord Quorn.  It is a sin to hurry indoors on
an afternoon like this.  Ulrica will not mind."

Gage's face suggested thoughts too poignant for words.

"Shall we stroll round by the rhododendron walk?"  Lady Ormstork
suggested with a fine air of ignorance of anything abnormal in the
situation.

"Must go up to the house first," Gage insisted bluntly, his rage being
almost too great for coherent speech.  "Was on my way there when you
drove in.  Just remembered, forgot to give Bisgood an important order."

"Oh, then do let us go by all means," the lady assented graciously, her
heartiness stimulated by a wave of satisfaction in thinking that the
proposal could not be far off now.  "If only you had told us, you might
have got into the carriage and driven up with Ulrica.  What a pity."

Considering the steps she had taken to obviate such a contingency this
was a somewhat bold speech on Lady Ormstork's part.  But the grand
manner carries a certain, if not altogether convincing, plausibility
with it, and disarms rude censoriousness.

So they walked towards the house together; the gracious dowager
finding, as was natural, the slight incline up to the Towers rather
against anything like pace.

"We have had rather a disagreeable surprise to-day," said Lady
Ormstork, summoning back to her side the irritated Gage whose
impatience kept him farther in front of her than politeness might have
dictated.

"Oh?" he responded discouragingly, wishing she would keep her breath
for the pedestrian effort and defer conversation till the Towers and
the elusive Miss Buffkin were reached.

"Yes," she proceeded.  "I think I told you--or was it Mr. Gage?--of a
very persistent suitor of dear Ulrica's, the Duke of Salolja, a fiery
Spaniard, who had been paying her great attention in town last season.
In fact it was mainly to escape his importunities that we came down
here."

"Oh, then you didn't come to see Staplewick?" he observed, between
chafing and chaffing.

"That was my object," the lady maintained with dignity.  "And I brought
dear Ulrica with me to Great Bunbury as to a sanctuary where we could
be safe from the duke.  Judge, then, of our embarrassment when, driving
up the High Street, we saw him coming from the station."

"Awkward, if you've been fed up on him in town and don't want any
more," Gage commented.

"Very.  He proposed five times at least to Ulrica, and would not take a
refusal."

"It's a way they have in Spain, I believe," remarked Gage, wondering
gloomily how this new development might interfere with his amusement.

"Still," continued Lady Ormstork, "as I think I told Mr. Gage, one
cannot have the dear girl forced into a marriage, even with a Spanish
duke, against her inclination.  One cannot blame him, poor man; she is
lovely, and altogether most adorable; but from our point of view why
should she exile herself in Spain for the sake of a man she does not
care for?"

"Why, indeed?" assented Gage, wondering what the odds were on the
Spanish duke's being a creature of the old lady's imagination.

Meanwhile the fatigued Miss Buffkin had come as an agreeable surprise
upon the baffled Peckover, and that alert opportunist had lost no time
in making the most of his good fortune.

"Dear old Ormstork has hooked Quorn down by the lodge," she explained
laughingly.  "But I expect they'll be up here before long by the look
on his face as she fastened on him and he saw me bowling on up here."

"Shouldn't wonder," said Peckover with a grin.  "Well, if we've got to
make him jealous, don't let's lose any time in preliminaries."

"Mr. Gage, you are too absurd," Ulrica remarked as she unwound her
feather victorine.

"Don't see much absurdity in that suggestion, anyhow," he returned.
"What's the good of a chance if you don't take it?"

"We need not exactly act in earnest," she suggested.

"I've always thought that make-believe was poor sport," he rejoined
engagingly.  "We were getting on nicely yesterday; if only----"

"Ah, yes," she continued archly; "there's always an if only----"

"If only," he continued, "Quorn wasn't on our track, we need not be in
such a hurry to say what's uppermost in our minds.  As it is----"

His arm seemed, to her alert eyes, to have a caressing twitch about it.
"Shall we go out into the garden?" she proposed, by a plausible
manoeuvre putting the table between them.

"Too many men about, setting the place straight," he objected
knowingly.  "Safer here, and snugger too, Ulrica!"

"Oh, Mr. Gage!" she expostulated, as by a swift dart he got round to
her side of the table.

"Ulrica," he said seriously, for since yesterday a wild design and hope
had taken possession of him, "Ulrica, need you marry Quorn?  Tell me,
like a dear girl.  You don't love him as much as all that, do you?"

She laughed.  "How do you know?  I'm not going to tell you."

"It's only for the title," he pleaded, feverishly anxious to arrive at
an understanding while the chance lasted.  "That's nothing.  It can be
bought, if you go the right way about it.  Ulrica, I don't believe you
like him as well as you like me.  Tell me you don't.  Tell me the
truth, dearest."

He seized her hands insistently.  There was no doubt about his
earnestness and she could hardly laugh at him now.

"I like you well enough," she answered.

"Darling!" he cried with genuine rapture.  "Then you'll marry me?
Won't you?  Say yes.  You're your own mistress.  Say you'll marry me?"

"How can I?" she laughed evasively.  "I've got to marry Quorn."

"Because he's a lord?"

She nodded.

"Is that all?"

She shrugged.

"You like me best?"

"You're more my sort," she was fain to answer.  "But it is no good."
Then suddenly breaking away she said, "I've just seen another of my
admirers, a real Spanish duke."

"Oh, that chap!  I've heard of him," said Peckover with sovereign
contempt.  "Well, you wouldn't look at him again?"

"I daren't," she replied.  "I was afraid he'd see me."

"You leave him to me," said Peckover in his grand manner.  "I'll settle
the Dook.  I'll slice the top off the Spanish onion.  Ulrica, you'll
have me?  Hang the title.  Have the man you like."

She looked at him.  He was very different from the reckless little
fugitive who had once tried to put an end to his existence at the
_Quorn Arms_.  Prosperity, high living, and a general good time had
transformed him, smartened him up, and, backed by a certain native
shrewdness, made him fairly presentable.  Still----  Ulrica laughed.
Her ideas and original breeding were but middle-class in spite of her
wealth and expensive education.  But for certain successful
speculations on the part of Buffkin _père_ (who knew his striking
limitations, and wisely kept in the background) there would have been
nothing very unequal in the mating of his daughter with Peckover.  And,
after all, in spite of the transmuting power of wealth, of changed
circumstances and surroundings, human nature has always a tendency to
seek and revert to its old level; to find most pleasure and ease in the
society of those who are as it once was.

So it was that she made answer to her eager wooer.  "I like you well
enough, but a rich girl can't choose as she likes."

"I should have thought," he urged, "she can like where she chooses."

"So she can," Ulrica rejoined.  "But she can't marry him."

"I'm just as much a gentleman as Quorn," he argued.  "He happens to
have the title, but I might have had it and fitted the part just as
well as he," he added with hidden truth.

"So you might," she agreed.  "But you haven't got it.  And that makes
all the difference."

"I'll get one if you'll marry me," he pleaded, vaguely optimistic on
the subject.  Then he fancied he heard Gage's voice outside.  "I say,"
he urged with desperate affection, "here they come.  Quick.  If you
love me give me a kiss."

"I don't know that I do," she objected, her voice rising to a half
scream of remonstrance as he clutched her.

"Give me the benefit of the doubt," he insisted drawing her face
towards him.

But before his lips could reach hers, Lady Ormstork's shrill voice
called "Ulrica!"  The handle of the door was turned, and Peckover
sprang guiltily over as much carpet as he could cover from that
interesting take-off, as Gage burst in upon them with a face of
suppressed fury which was not diminished by the obvious suggestiveness
of the attitudes of the conscious pair.



CHAPTER XXX

"Look here, old man," said Gage to Peckover, as they settled down to
their cigars after dinner, "you're not playing the game."

"What about?" his confederate inquired blandly.  He had felt from
Gage's sulky attitude all dinner that something was coming and was
consequently prepared for it.

"Your carrying on with Ulrica Buffkin," was the blunt answer.  "She is
my girl; and you know that as well as I do."

"It's not in our contract that all the girls belong to you," Peckover
suggested gently.

Gage frowned.  "She came for me.  She was after me," he returned in an
exasperated tone.  "That was the arrangement.  And I don't pay you five
thousand a year to interfere in my love affairs."

"It's not my fault," Peckover urged coolly, having drunk champagne
sufficient for a reckless enjoyment of the controversy, "if the girl
fancies a change.  It's your business to make yourself sufficiently
interesting to keep her affection.  If you don't, well, I may as well
take her on as any other fellow."

"Don't you talk a lot of conceited nonsense," retorted Gage, keeping
down his fury with an effort.  "The girl's all right: but she's led by
your infernal monkey tricks into thinking that I'm neglecting her; so
naturally she pretends to take up with you."

"Well, that's one way of looking at it," Peckover observed with vinous
sarcasm.

"It's the only intelligent way," Gage returned.

"From your point of view," his friend rejoined, tossing off a glass of
port wine.

"It's from my point of view that we've got to look at the affair," Gage
said, with rising anger, for the other's coolness and confidence were
more exasperating than his words.  "And," he proceeded, banging his
fist on the table, "my view of the case is, that if you don't stop your
little game and sheer off the Buffkin there's going to be a row."

"I wouldn't," observed Peckover sententiously, "have anything to do
with a girl, however good-looking, for whom my sole attraction was my
title, and who didn't mind showing as much."

"Has she told you that?" Gage snapped.

Peckover shrugged.  "Practically."

"Of course," Gage returned with an ugly mouth, "that's because she's
huffy with me, thinking I'm not so keen on her as I ought to be, and
you are."

"I suppose her feelings don't count," Peckover retorted, being pretty
sure of himself with the fair Ulrica.

"Mine do, at any rate," Gage declared wrathfully.  "I've been humbugged
enough over this precious title.  And as to your expecting me first to
take on your revolting Australian pet and then to give up a girl like
Ulrica Buffkin, why, you don't diagnose my character right, that's all.
This is my show.  I'm paying for it, and I'm going to run it."

"Then," returned Peckover, still cool and unmoved by his friend's
thumping and shouting, "you'd better make it your business to see who
that is prowling round the booth."

Gage's irate eyes followed Peckover's nod to the window.  Outside, just
discernible in the dusk, the figure of a man was moving to and fro.
Gage jumped up and threw open the French window.

"Who are you?  What do you want here?" he demanded in a rough and
unnecessarily loud tone.  Peckover rose and lounged against the
mantelpiece, cigar in mouth, lazily interested in the encounter.

The man outside stopped, turned, brought his heels together, and made a
low bow.  "Have I the honour to address myself to his Excellency the
Lord Quorn?" he asked in a high-pitched voice and foreign accent.

"You have.  What do you want?" was the ill-matching, even brutal, reply.

The man approached the window; then bowed again.  "I have the honour of
the friendship of the most gracious Lady Ormstork," he said.  "As one
who enjoys that privilege, I trust I may not be regarded as a
trespasser."

He spoke with such ceremonious politeness that Gage was shamed into
gulping down his ill-humour and softening his mode of address.  "What
can I do for you?" he inquired.

"I have," said the stranger with another courteous flourish, "already
given myself the high pleasure of surveying your charming park and
castle by moonlight.  It is romantic, it is enchanting.  And now there
but remains to me to crave the honour of a short conference with your
lordship.  Am I permitted, then, to flatter myself that my request is
granted?"

"Oh, yes.  Step in," said Gage, not over cordially.

"Before I so unceremoniously cross the threshold of your window,"
observed the man with another bow, "permit me to announce myself--my
name and condition."  With more flourishes he produced a pocket-book
almost entirely covered with an immense gold coronet and cypher,
extracted therefrom a card of unusual dimensions, and with a deep bow
presented it to Gage, who drew back into the light, glanced at it, and
showed it with a wink to Peckover; that worthy greeting the information
it conveyed with a low whistle of amusement.

"Your friend----?" said the stranger with a low bow to Peckover.

"Mr. Gage."

"Ah?  I have heard of him too.  Mr. Gage, I have the honour."  And he
bowed again.

When at last he resumed an upright position with some prospect of
permanency, the friends could see what manner of man the stranger
looked.  He was small, wiry and rather bald.  His bristling moustache
turned up from under the longest nose and above the most prominent jaw
nearly into the fiercest eyes they had ever seen.  With less
aggressively piercing eyes he would have been rather a comical figure;
as it was, except when he shut them (which he had a trick of doing), or
hid them by bowing, he was no laughing matter.  His jutting chin wore a
closely clipped Vandyck beard, and his clothes were black.

Both men, as they regarded him, tried to persuade themselves that they
were amused, without, however, the result being quite convincing.

"I have the honour," said the stranger, inclining his head and shutting
his eyes, "to request--I do not say, demand--the grace of a few words
with my Lord Quorn and his honourable friend."

"Have a glass of wine?" Gage proposed.

The stranger made a stately gesture of refusal.  "We have a proverb in
my country, Spain," he said, "'The thistle before the fig.'  You are
too kind.  But with your permission I will defer the acceptance of your
gracious hospitality for the present."

"Not a cigar?" Peckover suggested, pushing along the box.

Again the pantomime of refusal.  "At considerable pain to myself, I
must decline--at least till I have done my poor best to make myself
understood," the man replied, with his eyes shut.  "Nevertheless, you
will not impose upon me the heavier penalty of seeing you forego the
enjoyment of your own cigars?"

They bowed, none the less appreciatively that neither man had
entertained the slightest intention of doing so.  But they were
strangely subdued.  Somehow, ridiculous as they assured themselves it
was, the stranger's personality chained and fascinated them.  He was a
little man with an absurd nose, but----  They found themselves staring
at him, drinking in every detail, every flourish, as he drew forward a
chair with a gesture of asking permission, then sat down and faced them
with a quiet mastery of the situation which was horribly disconcerting.
So they waited in a silence, half apprehensive, half quizzical, for him
to begin, not without a shrewd idea of the purport of the approaching
communication.

At length with a preliminary flourish of a ringed hand, and an
effective raising and dropping of the fierce eyes, he began.

"You will have already graciously noted by the acceptance of my poor
card that it is the Duke of Salolja, Hereditary Grand Sword Bearer to
his Most Gracious Majesty the King of Spain, Lord Keeper of the Royal
Vaults, Duke also of Oswalta, Marques of Risposta, with many other
titles and offices, and a Grandee of Spain,"--at the recital of each
succeeding dignity he raised his voice till at the culminating title
the reverberation made the glass rattle--"who has the honour to address
your grace."

Both men bowed, and at the same time did their best not to feel much
smaller than the diminutive duke who held them as an undersized
rattlesnake might fascinate a couple of finches.

"I must begin," said the duke, with what looked like the dangerous calm
of a quiescent volcano, "by craving your grace's most amiable patience
while I touch, very briefly, on a few points which stand out in my
family history, the chronicles of the noble House of Salolja, of which
I have the honour to be the present unworthy representative."

Peckover glanced at Gage and his look said, "Family history.  We've got
hold of a crank," and they both looked less uneasy.

"Families have their characteristics and idiosyncrasies," pursued the
duke, nodding his head to and fro sententiously.  "In my country,
Spain, this is peculiarly the case.  Family tradition is strong, it is
tenacious, inexorable, immovable."  At each succeeding adjective his
voice rose till it reached the climax in an intense scream.  Then he
dropped back quite casually into a conversational tone, and proceeded--

"It is a notorious tradition in my family that we never suffer an
interloper in affairs of the heart."

The faces of his two listeners indicated a realization that he was now
coming to business, and their interest visibly quickened.

"In the year," the duke threw back his head, as though searching for
the date in the ceiling, "1582, my noble ancestor, Alfonzo de Salolja
was pleased to love a Castilian lady of great beauty, Donna Inez de
Madrazo.  A certain vain Hidalgo, one Lopez de Fulano, was rash enough
to cast eyes on her and enter the lists with him.  Alfonzo did not
insult the lady by questioning her preference.  He ran de Fulano
through the heart.  His blood is still to be seen on the Toledo blade
which hangs in my poor palace in Segovia."

He paused to let the anecdote soak in, before pouring out another.  His
audience looked interested, but uncertain in what spirit to take the
recital.

"Nearly a hundred years after that," the duke resumed, chattily
reminiscent, "a rash Frenchman, the Comte de Gaufrage, suffered himself
to indulge a passion for the lovely Donna Astoria de Rivaz y Cortano,
heiress of the de Rivaz lands and wealth.  Duke Miguel de Salolja, who
at that date represented my honoured family, heard of this breach of
punctilio on the morning of the day he had appointed for offering the
fair Astoria his hand and dukedom.  By noon the Comte de Gaufrage was
in Purgatory and Duke Miguel in Paradise."

"Both killed?" asked Gage.

"Cut him out?" suggested Peckover.

"My ancestor," the duke replied in stately tones and with a flash of
the eyes, "did not die till thirty years later.  And," he turned to his
second questioner with a bow and a wave of the hand, "permit me to tell
your Excellency, no duke of the Saloljas ever stooped to 'cut out' as
you term it.  We do not enter into competition.  We have a shorter and
more effectual way.  I may explain that by noon the Comte was in his
coffin, and Duke Miguel accepted by the lady."

The tone seemed to snub their denseness of comprehension.  Peckover
accepted the elucidation with a faint and inept smile.

For a few moments there was silence as the duke sat immobile; confident
in, as it were, the cloak of homicidal tradition in which he had
wrapped himself.

Then with a suddenness which made the two jump (for he was beginning to
get on their nerves) he plunged again into his blood-stained narrative.

"To pass over many like instances of this family trait, and come to
comparatively modern times," he said pleasantly, "it happened to my
great grandfather, Duke Christofero, to commit a deplorable mistake.
He and his neighbour, the Prince de Carmona, unknown to each other,
loved two sisters, the daughters of the Marques de Montalban.  One
night they both determined to serenade their respective lady-loves.
When the duke arrived at the Castle he heard a guitar, and came upon
the unfortunate Prince beneath the windows of the ladies' apartments.
Only when he was drawing his rapier out of the Prince's left lung did
he learn that it was Donna Maria and not Donna Lola for whom the
compliment had been intended.  It was unfortunate; nevertheless it
tends to illustrate the working of the traditional law which governs
our house."

"Oh, yes.  I believe that sort of mistake did often happen in the good
old times," was the not altogether confident remark of Peckover, who
felt he must make a stand against this sanguinary catalogue.

A flash from the duke's remarkable eyes, brought any further tendency
to volubility to a full stop.

"Such occurrences," he said pointedly, "are, pardon me, by no means
confined to bygone times.  The traditions of my house will end only
when my race is a thing of the past.  In the year--to venture with your
courteous permission to resume--in the year 1841, a titled compatriot
of your own, Sir Digby Prior, allowed himself at one of the Escurial
balls the freedom of paying too much attention to my father's
_fiancée_, the sainted lady whose unworthy son I have the honour to be.
Next morning they met on the Buen Retiro Park, from whence in that same
hour Sir Digby was carried with a bullet in his brain.  Yes!"  He
sighed reflectively.  "It is not perhaps a cheerful, or agreeable
record; still it is curious and interesting to trace the same
inevitable characteristic of our blood in almost each succeeding
generation."

"Very," Gage agreed.

"Most singular," Peckover chimed in mechanically, as he tried to fall
into a pose of polite indifference under the duke's eye.

The little man received their appreciative commonplaces with a grave
bow.  "We have now arrived at a point," he said glaring at them, but
speaking with quiet if significant deliberation, "when it becomes my
duty to claim the honour of your unwavering attention."

The request was in the highest degree unnecessary.  Both men were
incapable of greater heed than they were already giving.  "Now it's
coming," was the simultaneous and uneasy thought in their minds.

"But I fear the politeness with which your graces have brought
yourselves to listen to my long preamble has caused your cigars to
extinguish themselves," remarked the duke, with an ambassadorial smile.
"Pray let me have the supreme pleasure of seeing you relight them."



CHAPTER XXXI

"Having now," resumed the duke, when the two men had, with a fine
affectation of nonchalance, but with somewhat unsteady hands, lighted
up again, "taken you through as much of the history of my family as to
persons of your acuteness of perception is necessary, I have the honour
to invite your attention to the moral of my house's story."

His listeners, by this time mentally detached from each other, and held
pitilessly and without respite by those auger-like eyes, puffed
nervously at their now tasteless cigars, and by their apprehensive
silence bade him proceed.

"The present unworthy holder of the dukedom of Salolja," that person
continued, with a deprecatory gesture, "--to leave ancient history
behind us--is for the moment in one of those inexpedient positions to
which his ancestors were occasionally liable, and from which they
invariably took prompt measures to extricate themselves.  In the
province where we hold sway there is a proverb, 'A Sololja's rival
should make his will.'  When one wishes to describe a useless action,
'It is like granting a lease to the rival of a Salolja.'  Meaning that
he does not live to enjoy it.  The phrase is expressive."

"Rather neat," commented Peckover, with an effort.

"Now to come to the point," pursued their tormentor, his fierce eyes in
singular contrast to his bald head and deliberate speech, "the present
Duke of Salolja--to keep the discussion conveniently impersonal--has
made up his mind to contract an alliance with a certain English lady; a
commoner, it is true, but one whose beauty and wealth may claim to make
up, in a measure, for genealogical deficiencies.  The lady's name is
Miss Ulrica Buffkin."

Both hearers nodded an acquaintance with it.

"It has come to the duke's knowledge," continued that same nobleman,
raising his tone to a slightly minatory pitch.  "That another person,
an Englishman, I should say an English nobleman, has, unwittingly I am
ready to allow, been led into paying certain attentions to the lady in
question.  I am sure that to capable and clever men like yourselves it
is not necessary for me to set myself the disagreeable task of pointing
out the inevitable result of such an unwarranted and deplorable
interference should it be persevered in."

He paused, took out a silk pocket-handkerchief embroidered with a
flamboyant coronet and cypher, and passed it lightly across his lips,
never taking his vicious eyes off the two men who had by this, under
the paralysing gaze, assumed the appearance and almost the condition of
a pair of waxworks.

As the lengthening pause seemed to demand a response, Gage with a great
effort roused himself from the Tussaudy rigidity, and, with a desperate
attempt at boldness, replied--

"You might let us know, while we are on the subject."

"No harm in mentioning it," Peckover chipped in with a somewhat ghastly
pretence of a smile.

The little duke thrust back the handkerchief into his breast pocket,
and then threw out his hands expressively.  "I should have imagined,"
he replied, with a transcendentally threatening eye, "that men of the
sagacity and penetration of your graces would have found no difficulty
in deducing from the instances you have just heard with such admirable
patience, the fate in store for any one who is rash enough to enter the
lists with a Duke of Salolja."

His voice, rising with abrupt suddenness, thundered out the last words
with a volume and intensity which made his rivals fairly jump in their
uneasy seats.  Anyhow, the wordy Grandee had come to the point, and the
point had to be faced or run from.

Gage, whose mode of life had kept his nervous system in better order
than his companion's, was the first to reply.

"That's all very well," he said, bracing himself to join issue with the
fiery little Castilian, and assuming a courage he did not feel.  "But
this is a free country; and in these enlightened days you can't run a
man through the body before lunch because your best girl has the good
or bad taste to prefer him."

Fury leapt like a flame in the duke's eyes, but he replied calmly, even
suavely, "Your excellency is wrong.  What is to prevent me?"

"The police," Peckover suggested promptly, trying to catch boldness
from Gage's attitude.

The duke burst into a loud and particularly unpleasant laugh.  "The
police?  Really, your graces compel my amusement.  May I ask you three
questions?"

"Three dozen, if you like," answered Gage unsteadily.

The duke accepted the bounty with a bow.  "Three will suffice."
Whereupon very loudly, "One."  Then in a normal tone, "How many police
have you within a radius of, say, three miles from Staplewick Towers?"

"One or two," Gage was forced to answer rather sheepishly.

The duke bowed, this time with a sarcastic smile.

"Two."  Again the disturbing, superfluous shout.  "How long would it
take you to send for the nearest, supposing you found him at home?"

"Oh, about twenty minutes," Gage tried to reply casually.

Once more the absurdly loud enumeration.  "Three.  And how long do you
consider it would take me to put a bullet through your body?"

Simultaneously with the question a glittering object shone in his hand.
It was the highly polished barrel of a revolver which he had whipped
out casually with a deftness which seemed born of practice, and with
which he now covered his rival.

Both men started to their feet with blanched faces.

"Here, I say!" Peckover remonstrated in ill-concealed terror.

"How long?" sang out the little demon of a duke in his commanding
voice.  "Oblige me by answering the question."

"A second, I suppose," gasped Gage.  "Now please turn that revolver
away."

"That is," proceeded the duke in a tone of satisfaction, "nineteen
minutes and fifty-nine seconds before the policeman arrives."  Still
holding the weapon in his hand, but now pointing to the floor, he rose,
brought his heels together and bowed.  "I trust, milord Quorn and Mr.
Gage, my most honourable friends, that at length we understand one
another."  Then he sat down again, his aggressive eyes moving with
mechanical regularity from one man to the other, since the exigencies
of the moment had sent the friends apart.

But now, throughly roused by the critical situation, Peckover spoke.
"I don't know, my lord dook, whether you are aware that we have strict
laws in this country against murder."

"And," put in Gage, "against carrying firearms without a licence."

The duke laughed scornfully and with superfluous volume.  "Do your
Excellencies think we have no such laws in Spain?  And do your graces
suppose that if the Dukes of Salolja had cared a fig for them the
occurrences which I have narrated to you would have happened?  You hang
a man for what you call murder here.  But have you ever heard of your
English law hanging a Grandee of Spain?  And do you think you would be
allowed to do so?  Pah!"  He snapped his fingers with a noise like the
crack of a whip.  "What is your English law compared with the
immemorial traditions of the Saloljas?  NOTHING!  Shall it stand
between a Salolja and his vengeance, his desire?  NEVER!"

He shouted the answers to the last two of his many questions with
scornful vehemence.  His manner was, no doubt, irritating, and that,
perhaps, accounted for Peckover's boldness.

"You don't bluff us you are above the law," he said, trembling at his
own temerity.  "If we haven't hung a Spanish Grandee as yet, it's
because none of you have killed anybody over here that I remember."

The demon duke grinned and spread out his hands before him, as though
sweeping away a feeble protest.

"My gracious friend, you jump at hasty conclusions.  Who talks of
killing, of murder.  Faugh!  It is a vulgar word.  Accidents happen,
here as in Spain; deplorable, fatal accidents.  Firearms go off, almost
of themselves; it is sad to think how easily they go off.  I could tell
you stories of such miserable fatalities in my own family, but you have
probably heard enough of the ways of the Saloljas for one evening.
Death is very near us always," he continued sententiously.  "So near
that the healthiest of us is only just alive.  Which of us bears a life
worth an hour's purchase?  NONE!  And the man who trifles with a
Salolja cannot call the next moment his own.  There it is.  Accept it
or not, it is the truth, the eternal, bitter, naked truth."

His voice was like a Nasmyth hammer, now pounding, roaring, seeming to
shake the room, now gentle and soft as a shy schoolgirl's.  As he
concluded his speech his tone sank into a solemn hush, indicative of
the awesome inevitable.  For some moments there was silence in the
room, save for the ticking clock.  Then, when the tension had lasted as
long as was desirable, the duke rose, and advancing to the table took
the finest peach in the dish.  The flashing had now faded from his
eyes, and the expression on his face was truculently amiable.

"I sincerely hope I have not wearied your excellencies," he observed.
"It has been most condescending and gracious of you to let me explain
myself at such length.  A veritable poem of a peach; I have not met its
fellow in England.  May I now, since our slight misunderstanding is at
an end, do myself the honour of drinking a glass of wine with your
graces?"

Rousing themselves from the gloomy preoccupation of their discomfiture,
their graces, with a quite futile pretence of ease, hastened to
minister to their undesirable visitor's request.  That worthy proceeded
to toss off a couple of bumpers with a relish commensurate with his
long and thirst-giving harangue.  "If I ask further for one of your
graces' excellent cigars," he suggested with a pleasantness which could
not seem other than grim, "it is as another proof of how unwilling I am
to bear malice.  Ah!"  He lighted the cigar and blew out a long cloud
with evident enjoyment.

"Unlike my ancestors I make allowances," he declared significantly.
"Unlike them again, I never strike without warning.  Yes," he added,
dropping his voice into a genial tone; "it is perhaps well for us that
we did not live, and in the same relations one to another, a hundred,
two hundred years ago.  At least we should not all three be enjoying
these superb cigars."

It was a difficult sentiment for the smarting pair to respond to.
"Just so," was all Peckover, with an awkward laugh, could think of.

"I am ashamed to have stayed so long," said their guest, with an
expressive glance at the clock.  "But it is better to risk missing the
strict punctilio than to have to intrude again.  Your excellency's
house and park are delightful.  I felicitate myself on my visit.  Your
cigars are exquisite.  I take another, in token of our better
understanding, to enjoy on my way to your somewhat depressing Great
Bunbury.  Good-night, milord Quorn.  Good-night, Mr. Gage.  A thousand
compliments and adieux to you both.  May it never be necessary for us
to meet on less amicable terms than those which prevail between us at
present.  Once again my most distinguished homage.  Adieu."

With his heels together he made to each man a most profound bow; then
turned to the window, opened it with a sure touch upon the latch,
turned again, bowed, and disappeared into the night.

For some moments the two men stood staring speechless into the
darkness.  Then their eyes met.

"This is a glorious title," said Gage, clipping out the words with
bitter intensity.  "I am having a ripping time with it.  It's a fine
thing to be alive just now."

"All things considered, it's lucky we are alive," was Peckover's dry
but feeling response.



CHAPTER XXXII

"Tell you what it is, Percival, my boy," said Gage at breakfast next
morning; "I've had about enough of nobility.  Grandeur and aristocracy
have too many inconveniences to suit me.  I've a mind to clear out, and
hand you back this precious title of yours."

Peckover laughed awkwardly.  "Don't do that yet awhile, old man," he
urged.  "You haven't given it a fair trial."

"It has given me one," was the prompt and pointed retort.  "And it
strikes me if I don't look sharp and get out of the peacock's feathers
I shall soon be pecked to death.  That Salolja chap last night was an
eye-opener."

"Unpleasant customer," his friend agreed.

"Unpleasant?  Noisy little devil!"

"Barking dogs don't bite," observed Peckover, but without conviction.

"I wouldn't trust him," returned Gage with the firmness the other's
remark lacked.  "These Spaniards are the very deuce when they're
jealous.  They get simply mad.  And nobody on this earth is safe from a
loose madman if he takes it into his head to go for you.  Our friend,
the duke, meant business."

"Only so long as you interfere between him and Miss Buffkin," Peckover
agreed.

"How was I to know what I was being let in for?" Gage exclaimed in an
aggrieved tone.  "When the old lady mentioned a foreign chap who'd been
dancing after Ulrica I naturally thought it was some monkeyish fellow
who'd squirm if you shook hands too hard, and would cry if you spoke to
him unkindly.  She never gave us a hint she'd got a bald Beelzebub with
a voice that sends you the jumps and a homicidal history that gives you
the shivers--to say nothing of that sickening revolver.  Ugh!  I can
see the gleam of it now, as I've seen it all night.  I was on the point
of trying to get in first shot with a champagne bottle."

"Yes," Peckover admitted; "I've spent a pleasanter five minutes than
when he was playing with the highly polished popper."

"Well, much more of this and I go back to plain Mr. Gage," that
gentleman declared in a disgusted tone.  "They talk of the fierce light
that beats on royalty, but I didn't know the nobility lived in a
set-piece of fire-works with occasional red-fire."

"They can't all of them do it," argued Peckover.

"They are all of 'em liable to it," Gage returned.  "The squibs are
there, only waiting for some little complication to come along and
touch 'em off.  It is getting on my nerves, and I'm wondering where the
next little disturbance is coming from."

It seemed almost in answer to his thought that, just as he had voiced
it, Bisgood announced that Lady Agatha Hemyock was in the drawing-room.
Theirs was a late breakfast; still the call was early.

"That's where it's coming from," Peckover observed with an uneasy grin.

Lady Agatha was sympathetically troubled as she shook hands with them.
Her preliminary business was to ask them down to the Moat to tea that
afternoon; but as the men, exchanging significant glances, gladly
accepted the invitation as affording an asylum from any immediate
complications connected with the Duke of Salolja, they both felt that
something more was coming, and of greater moment than a message which a
note would have adequately conveyed.  They were not long left in doubt.

"I had another object," said Lady Agatha, pursing her lips and looking
unutterably important, "in paying you this unconventional visit.  One
has heard from various sources of the advent of Lady Ormstork to this
neighbourhood.  I have even been informed that the lady in question has
gone so far as to call upon you, which is the reason why the Colonel
thought it would be only neighbourly and friendly to give you a word of
warning."

"Anything wrong," Peckover asked apprehensively.  His nerves had not
recovered from the previous night's disturbance.

Lady Agatha took a letter from her pocket with business-like
deliberation.  "Very wrong--or likely to be," she replied as she slowly
unfolded it, "from what my friend, Lady Bosham tells me.  I happened in
writing to mention Lady Ormstork's name as having taken a furnished
house near here, and my friend writes by return imploring me to have
nothing to do with her.  A most dangerous woman," she added, presumably
quoting from the closely written letter.

Gage and Peckover caught each other's guilty and apprehensive eyes.

"She has," continued their visitor, confident in the effect she had
produced, "I believe, a young person--a young lady nowadays she would
be called--with her.  A Miss Buffkin.  A mysterious Miss Buffkin, given
out as an heiress."

"Isn't she an heiress?" Peckover inquired rather foolishly.

Lady Agatha shrugged.  "Possibly.  That is a matter known only to Lady
Ormstork and Miss Buffkin.  But the more vital question is what are
Lady Ormstork's character and intentions."

It was somewhat a relief to both men to find someone else's intentions
called in question.

"Lady Bosham says," proceeded their visitor, "and indeed one has heard
something of the kind vaguely oneself, that Lady Ormstork is notorious
for getting hold of good-looking girls, often of very doubtful origin,
and finding husbands for them--for a consideration."

Both men expressed a surprise which they could scarcely be said to feel.

"According to Lady Bosham, she is a determined and most unscrupulous
woman," continued Lady Agatha, apparently quoting from the report.
"Once she gets people into her toils they find it no easy matter to
extricate themselves."

It occurred to her hearers that there were other titled spreaders of
nets besides the histrionic Lady Ormstork, but they did not say so.

"Of course," said Lady Agatha, with apologetic plausibility, "it is
perhaps a great liberty which I take in venturing to warn you.  But
being such close neighbours and friends, and knowing you to be,
comparatively speaking, strangers to this country and some of its less
desirable features, we thought it only right to do so."

"Much obliged to you, I'm sure," responded Gage.

"Quite so," added Peckover.

"Of course," Lady Agatha pursued tentatively, "I am unaware how far
this Lady Ormstork," she spoke the name with withering emphasis, "may
have forced her intimacy upon you.  Still, it is better to be
forewarned, even if yours is as yet nothing beyond a formal
acquaintance."

"Just so," Gage agreed with balking irresponsiveness.

"Lady Bosham is very strong on the undesirability of these people's
acquaintance," said Lady Agatha rising.  "She, that is, Lady Ormstork,
is a terrible old woman when once she gets her tentacles fixed on the
victim she has marked down.  But there, I trust I have said enough to
sensible men like yourselves to put you on your guard."

"Quite," replied Gage, wondering where, in it all, the Duke of Salolja
came in.

Lady Agatha took her leave, having made them promise to come early to
the Moat that afternoon.

The promise was faithfully kept, since it seemed expedient to both men
to avoid their friends from The Cracknels, at any rate till they saw
how their Castilian rival was going to be disposed of.

"They are bound to come up this afternoon as usual," Gage observed to
his friend.

"With that Spanish terror after them, shouldn't wonder," said Peckover.
"We're best out of the way."

"Ethel and Dagmar will be poor fun after Ulrica," Gage remarked
gloomily.

"Tell you what it is, my friend," said Peckover.  "The sooner you bring
yourself to consider Ulrica a thing of the past the better chance
you'll have of making old bones.  Ethel and Dagmar may not be all our
fancy painted, but at least they haven't got a blood-thirsty Spanish
nob hanging about them with traditions and a nasty way of talking
polite flummery with a revolver playfully pointed at the vital parts of
your anatomy all the time.  You won't have a ducal freak poking his
long nose in there."

"Well, we had better go down, have a fling with the second quality
beauties and then clear out of the place till things cool down," said
Gage with the air of a man who has made up his mind.

Accordingly, after an early luncheon, they went down to the Moat, and
flirted so recklessly with the not unduly obdurate young ladies, that
Lady Agatha was induced to dismiss from her mind a grand plan she had
been formulating for the recapture of John Arbuthnot Sharnbrook, and
even went so far as to canvass the respective claims of pink and
apple-green in connexion with the general scheme of colour for a double
bevy of bridesmaids.

It was late, as late for safety as they could make it, when Gage and
Peckover returned home, discussing plans for a sudden flight next
morning.

"Lady Ormstork called?" Gage asked Bisgood carelessly, as he turned
into the smoking-room for a cigarette before going up to dress.

"Yes, my lord.  And Miss Buffkin."

"You gave her ladyship my message?"

"Yes, m'lord."

"Did she say anything?"

"Her ladyship said she would wait, my lord, as she had something very
important to tell your lordship."

"Ah," Gage said knowingly.  "Did she wait long?"

"Her ladyship and Miss Buffkin are in the drawing-room, my lord."

The cigarette fell from Gage's parted lips, thrust out by a profane
charge which exploded behind it.

"In the----" he turned helplessly to Peckover.

"Percival, old man, they're waiting for us," he gasped.

"Anybody else?" Peckover inquired of Bisgood, with a vision of a pair
of terrific eyes backed by a bald head and set off in front by a long
nose and a gleaming revolver barrel.

"No one else, sir," Bisgood answered with as much surprise as that
functionary ever permitted himself.

"Better scoot, eh?" suggested Peckover in a panic-stricken whisper, as
the butler left them.

"No.  Let's go and hear what the old bird has to say," Gage replied,
after a few moment's hesitation.  "If any one is equal to tackling that
Spanish nuisance she's the person.  Let's go and hear how she takes it."



CHAPTER XXXIII

Lady Ormstork received them with pleasure tinged with just a shade of
vexation.  "We were so disappointed at not finding you at home to-day
of all days," she exclaimed.  "We heard this morning of an absurd
misunderstanding which we were anxious to set right without delay.  And
we have been waiting nearly four hours."

"You've had tea?" Gage suggested, somewhat beside the point.

"Oh, yes, thank you," Miss Buffkin assured him.

"We heard casually," pursued Lady Ormstork, "that you had gone to call
at the Moat, and naturally expected you would be back soon.  But no
doubt,"--this with a world of spiteful significance--"Lady Agatha
Hemyock made a point of keeping you there as long as she could.  I know
her."

"Of course," said Gage gallantly, ignoring the suggestion, "if we had
known you were waiting we should have been back long ago."

"Not if Lady Agatha knew it," was the tart reply.  "But never mind
about that hateful woman.  I have waited to see you on a more important
subject."

She glanced at Miss Buffkin, who rose with an amused face and sauntered
to the window.  "I'll take a turn among the flowers while you are
telling the tale, Lady Ormstork," she said casually.  "I'm getting a
little tired of it."

Both men looked longingly after her as she strolled across the lawn,
but a consuming anxiety to hear the latest news of the duke curbed the
desire to invent an excuse for making after her.

"The Duke of Salolja, tiresome person," Lady Ormstork began, "called at
The Cracknels this morning, and upset us very much by telling us of a
visit he had the impudence to pay you last evening."

"Yes; we had a pleasant hour of him here," said Gage, grimly
reminiscent.

"He tells me," proceeded the lady in a tone of righteous anger, "that
he has, in the most unwarrantable manner, suggested the existence of an
engagement between himself and dear Ulrica.  Is that so?"

"He suggested that he wasn't going to allow anybody else to be engaged
to her," Peckover replied.

"Most improper!" commented Lady Ormstork.  "And most unwarranted.  Dear
Ulrica detests him.  But he is most absurdly persistent."

"Yes, he's a bit of a nailer," Peckover agreed feelingly.

"Was he very rude?" the lady inquired.

"No, he was polite; the most confoundedly polite cuss I ever
encountered," answered Gage.

"I'm glad to hear that," said Lady Ormstork.  "And so your interview,
preposterous as it was on his part, was quite amicable?"

For a moment neither man felt equal to answering the question.  Then
Peckover said, "Quite amicable, only a touch one-sided.  You see, it
don't exactly pay to be nasty when a fellow's sitting over you with a
revolver."

Lady Ormstork threw up her hands.  "A revolver?  Ridiculous person!
Really--I hope you told the foolish man that that sort of thing was
quite out of date."

"The revolver wasn't though," objected Peckover with a reminiscent
shiver.  "It looked quite new, with all the latest improvements and in
first-class working order."

"Really?" cried the lady incredulously.

"As far as we could judge.  Didn't want any closer inspection.  I'm
content to take a revolver's business capacity for granted."

"But surely," remarked Lady Ormstork with an amused curl of the lip,
"you don't mean to say that you allowed this droll Salolja to alarm
you?"

The men glanced at each other with long faces.

"We weren't exactly sorry when he said good-bye," was Gage's evasive
answer.

"Oh, but this is too absurd," protested the lady.

"The funny side wasn't exactly turned to us last night," said Peckover.

"I have," proceeded Lady Ormstork coolly, "told the duke he is making
himself ridiculous."

"And how did he take it?" Gage inquired with considerable curiosity.

The lady shrugged.  "It is hopeless to argue with that sort of person.
And naturally dear Ulrica is, from every point of view, a girl whom
even a duke would find it difficult to give up hopes of.  But her
father, a man of great discernment and determination would never hear
of such an alliance.  A foreign title does not appeal to him.  So, my
dear Lord Quorn, you need have no fears that Ulrica is in any danger of
becoming Duchesse de Salolja."

This was pretty direct speaking.  "It would be a pity," Gage agreed
warily, "if Miss Buffkin should be coerced into a distasteful marriage."

"There is," replied Lady Ormstork resolutely, "no chance of that.  I
have told the duke so in unmistakable language.  And I also gave him a
piece of my mind with regard to his uncalled-for interference between
Ulrica and yourself.  He had the impudence to suggest that you were at
his bidding ready to break off your understanding with Ulrica and
relinquish her to him.  To him!  To a man whom she detests, I simply
laughed at him, as I hoped you had laughed too."

Gage started up.  "You didn't tell him I was engaged to Ul--to Miss
Buffkin?" he gasped.

"Naturally I did," was the composed answer.

"But--but I'm not," he protested.

Lady Ormstork gave a smile of pitying encouragement.  "My dear Lord
Quorn, you are not going to allow yourself to be frightened out of your
engagement by the bluster of that grotesque little Spaniard?"

"But," he urged wildly.  "Spaniard or no Spaniard, I am not engaged."

Lady Ormstork shrugged.  "Anyhow, Ulrica is under the impression she is
betrothed to you.  I have even gone so far as to inform Mr. Buffkin of
the engagement, being, as you will understand, responsible to him for
Ulrica's well-being.  You cannot in honour even pretend to be induced
by threats to repudiate it.  You have your own reputation as well as
Ulrica's to consider.  That is why I spoke so straight to the duke this
morning."

Her tone was resolute and conclusive.  Gage knew not whether to look
upon it as a well-arranged piece of bluff or as his dying knell.

"It's all very well," he replied wildly.  "I'm very fond of Ulrica and
all that.  But the traditions of the Salolja family have, from time
immemorial, pointed to killing their rivals on sight.  There's not much
use to either of us in my being engaged to Ulrica if I'm to be shot
next minute."

"Even if you anticipated such a contingency," Lady Ormstork replied
coolly, "it would not justify you as an English nobleman in jilting
Ulrica.  It is a point of honour.  You see that, don't you, Mr. Gage?"
she demanded, suddenly turning to the deeply interested Peckover.

"Just so," he answered with a start.  "Only it's poor fun having your
wedding and your funeral on the same day."

"I do not," Lady Ormstork declared, "understand such pusillanimity.
After all," she urged, "you are man to man.  Why should you be more
afraid of the duke than he of you?"

"I've no homicidal traditions in my family," Gage explained.

"A jealous Spaniard is the very devil," supplemented Peckover, whose
experience of foreign temperament was derived from penny serials and
half-crown melodrama.

"Fact is," added Gage, "what I want is a good time, without any fuss or
bother from Spanish dukes or anybody else.  I'm willing to do the right
thing, so far as it can be done without friction."

"A somewhat shallow, not to say unromantic, view of life," was Lady
Ormstork's sarcastic comment.  "I must confess it never struck me that
the Duc de Salolja carried such terror in his absurd person.

"He carries a revolver on his absurd person," was Peckover's pointed
rejoinder.

"Ulrica will under no circumstances be allowed to marry him, even if
she wants to," the lady declared, changing her tone.  "I have announced
to her father that she is going to be Lady Quorn, and am certainly not
going to take upon myself the odium of suggesting that Lord Quorn has
been frightened out of the match by the first ridiculous little
Spaniard who chooses to flourish in his face his family traditions and
a--possibly unloaded--revolver."

"We didn't go into that question," Peckover remarked with a reminiscent
shiver.

"The whole business is too droll," said Lady Ormstork with an amused
smile.  "But of course we cannot submit to the duke's impudent
coercion.  It is, however, easily obviated.  I will take the matter in
hand, since you seem reluctant to do so.  I am responsible for dear
Ulrica's welfare and happiness.  It is my business to see the sweet
girl does not fall a prey to a foreign fortune-hunter.  Yes, dear Lord
Quorn, you may leave the matter with absolute confidence in my hands.
You may depute me, as Mr. Buffkin has already done, to deal with the
Duc de Salolja."

Gage did not receive the assurance in the spirit in which it was so
confidently given.  On the contrary he looked more uncomfortable than
ever.

"All very well," he said, after an embarrassed pause, "but the more you
insist on sticking me up the more he'll feel called on to knock me
down.  Eh, Percival?"

"Right you are," was Peckover's gloomy response.

"I'll take care of that," Lady Ormstork assured him.

"He won't go for you; he'll go for me," urged Gage.

"Not he.  I'll draw him off," said the lady.

"Suppose he won't be drawn off?" suggested Peckover.

"Trust me," replied Lady Ormstork, grandly confident of her powers.
"Diplomacy counts for much."

"Strikes me it will count revolver shots if we aren't careful," said
Gage dryly.

Lady Ormstork drew back her mouth in a pitying smile.

"My dear Lord Quorn!  This is unworthy of you," she declared.  "Do
think of Ulrica.  Have you so little regard for her?  Is not
she--superb creature!--worth a little daring?"

"Certainly," Gage assented doubtfully.

"All you want to do," continued the lady, following up her successful
appeal, "is to show a bold front, and the terrible Duke of Salolja will
run away."

"Think so?" asked Peckover, his secret hopes reviving.

"I am sure of it," said their visitor, rising.  "There, I am certain
you never meant, dear Lord Quorn, to repudiate in earnest your
understanding with the dear girl.  Ulrica will be the loveliest and
most queenly peeress in the kingdom.  And with her immense wealth, the
alliance is most desirable in every way.  Don't give the wretched,
preposterous duke another thought.  Do, like a sensible man, dismiss
him from your mind.  And if he should have the impudence to intrude
here again show him the door and tell him to go back to his own----"

"Perhaps you'll do that for us, Lady Ormstork," said Peckover, whose
restless eyes had been kept on the window.  "There he is."

The others looked round with a start.  There sure enough was the Duke
of Salolja, stalking, with as long strides as his short legs would
allow, across the lawn, obviously in pursuit of the fair Miss Buffkin.



CHAPTER XXXIV

The sight of yesterday's visitor seemed to paralyse both men, and the
grim fascination that had held them before now clutched them again.
Gage, who had, under the influence of Lady Ormstork's bitterly
persuasive tongue, began to pluck up courage, and to view the
magnificent Miss Buffkin once more in a proprietary right, now visibly
wilted.  He even glanced round at the door, as though meditating
flight.  Peckover whistled uncomfortably and tunelessly through his
clenched teeth; a more elaborate expression of feeling he did not feel
equal to.  Then they both glanced somewhat helplessly at Lady Ormstork
in search of some indication of a plan of campaign.

"Actually intruding here again," the lady exclaimed indignantly, as the
duke's purposeful strides took him out of sight behind a hedge of
laurels.  "If I were you, Lord Quorn, I would not hesitate in ordering
him out of your grounds."

Gage did not look the least inclined to act upon the suggestion.  "Oh,
let him walk about there, if he likes," he replied with a weak laugh.

"Walk about?" repeated the lady warmly.  "But he's walking after
Ulrica.  It is not to be tolerated.  I was under the impression that I
had given him his _congé_.  Lord Quorn--Mr. Gage," she turned fiercely
upon Peckover, "as Lord Quorn seems content to endure this intolerable
conduct rather than be man enough to protect his future wife from this
tiresome person, perhaps you will go and intimate to the duke that his
presence is undesirable."

Peckover's reception of the order did not suggest alacrity.  "No affair
of mine," he protested with a resolution born of care for his own skin.
"Don't believe in interfering in other people's business.  My motto
is----"

"Motto!" cried Lady Ormstork scornfully.  "Is chivalry quite dead, that
a lovely girl like dear Ulrica must be persecuted and victimized by an
under-sized desperado, and two Englishmen stand by tamely and allow it?"

Notwithstanding this somewhat pointed appeal, the two Englishmen seemed
still disinclined to sally out and try conclusions with the Spanish
terrorist.  Luckily, however, the argument was diverted by the
appearance on the lawn of three persons, the duke, Miss Buffkin, and
Lord Quorn, all with looks of stress on their faces.

"Ah, here they come," said Lady Ormstork with her teeth set ready for
battle.  "Who, may I ask, is that person with them?" she asked,
lowering her eye-glasses and turning to the men who were for the moment
preoccupied in weighing the merits of the respective courses of
standing their ground or seeking a sanctuary in the wine cellars.

"That?  Oh, that's Jenkins," answered Gage, wondering what he was doing
in the _galère_.

"Jenkins?" Lady Ormstork echoed the name, as though it did not convey
very much to her.

"One of my people," Gage explained, in an agony of indecision as to the
propriety of flight.

By this time the approaching trio had reached the window, inside which
Lady Ormstork stood grimly waiting for them.  Next instant the duke had
thrown it open and was with a flourish and a bow inviting Ulrica to
enter.  A similar though modified pantomime having been gone through in
the case of Lord Quorn the three at length stood inside the room, with
the irate Lady Ormstork facing them, and with Gage and Peckover within
jumping distance of the door.

"Duke," Lady Ormstork's sharp tone rang through the room like a defiant
bugle-call, "this is most extraordinary, not to say unseemly, conduct
on your part."

The representative of the Saloljas was, however, far too busy in
distributing elaborate bows and extravagant greetings all round to be
in a position to give heed at once to the lady's challenge.  In Spain
punctilio gives way to nothing, not even to an angry old lady's
impatience.

Presently when Messrs. Gage and Peckover had been favoured with bows
and compliments into which they were inclined to read their death
warrants, the duke raised the top of his coercive head the whole of his
five feet three inches from the floor and observed blandly--

"Ten million apologies, most noble lady.  I am ashamed to confess I did
not hear the remark you did me the undeserved honour to make."

In no wise disconcerted, the most noble lady repeated the remark,
slightly strengthening the language in which it had originally been
couched.

"Ah--h!"  The duke's grimace and pantomime expressed deprecation with a
more elaborately hideous vim than that feeling had probably ever been
clothed with before.  "Most illustrious lady," he protested, "what
would you have?  The state of my unworthy heart is well known to you.
And the heart excuses everything--everything."

The repetition of the last word had a sinister sound in the ears of
Gage and Peckover.  With its dire comprehensiveness it seemed to
include their lives in its sweeping embrace.

But Lady Ormstork, with sundry material reasons to influence her
judgment, was far from accepting the proposition.  "It does not," she
objected stoutly.  "To force your attentions where they are distasteful
is inexcusable."

"It is," rejoined the duke, with the light of battle in his eyes,
"clearly my duty to render acceptable the homage of my affection."

"It is quite hopeless," declared Lady Ormstork curtly.

"I believe not," insisted the duke with, under the circumstances, an
admirable display of assurance.

Lady Ormstork glanced with equal confidence at her _protégée_.  "Miss
Buffkin will bear me out."

"Yes.  It's no good, duke," said the young lady with discomfiting
promptness.  "You are not my sort."

The duke accepted the verdict with a shrug, and at once proceeded to
misread it.  "The Dukes of Salolja," he said with a touch of defiant
pomposity, "have never permitted inequality of birth to be a bar in
affairs of the heart."

Lady Ormstork had also her personal rules of life.  And one was never
to allow herself to be bluffed out of a possible advantage.  "You
mistake, duke," she said suavely.  "Miss Buffkin wishes delicately to
suggest that she does not return your affection, and therefore, the
alliance you propose is out of the question."

"I can," replied the duke, in no way abashed, "afford to wait for the
return of my affection."

As he glanced significantly round at the three silent men he seemed a
very monument of determination.

"But," Lady Ormstork maintained, "we do not wish you to wait.  There
would be no point in your waiting.  Miss Buffkin has made up her mind
to contract a quite different alliance."

"Ah?"  The duke opened his mouth wide and emitted an exclamation in
tone and mode of utterance worthy of a surprised hyæna.  Then shutting
his mouth and opening his eyes whose light the facial contortion had
absorbed, he added with, to certain of the party at least, disquieting
significance, "Our Spanish proverb says, 'He who buys ground may rest
under it before he can repose above it.'  May I, without offence, ask
the ever gracious Miss Buffkin whether you correctly interpret her
sentiments and intentions?"

The ever gracious Miss Buffkin looked as defiant as her questioner--and
much less polite, as she answered, "That's right enough.  I'm going to
marry an Englishman, for one thing."

"Ah?"  Again the zoological grimace.  "Has the radiant Miss Buffkin
honoured any particular Englishman with her much-to-be coveted
preference?"

The question, accompanied as it was, by a sweeping and minatory glance,
had the immediate effect of making two Englishmen in the room try to
look severely recusant and anti-matrimonial.

And under the influence of that fell glance Gage took a desperate
resolve.

Lady Ormstork, who believed in coming to the point where her own
interests were concerned, answered with bold preciseness, "Certainly.
Miss Buffkin is going to marry Lord Quorn."

At the declaration the duke made a face which raised his bristling
moustache till his eyes glared through a fan-like screen of hair, the
real Lord Quorn uttered an exclamation which conveyed no definite
sentiment, Gage turned the colour of the fruit associated with his
name, and Peckover, trying to persuade himself that the discussion did
not touch him, whistled softly through his teeth.

"Lord Quorn!" repeated the duke in a tone of bland surprise.  "No.
That may have been.  But I fancy, most illustrious lady, you are
mistaken.  Milord Quorn has renounced all pretentions to the lady's
hand."

"Lord Quorn has done nothing of the kind," Lady Ormstork denied stoutly.

The duke turned to Gage, polite yet threatening.  "Doubtless milord
Quorn will do me the honour to confirm what I have stated."

"Lord Quorn," interrupted the old lady, "will do nothing of the sort."

The duke raised himself on tip-toe and fixed the apprehensive Gage with
his fiercest glare.  "Milord Quorn will do so--or lay himself open to
the consequences," he insisted, with a truculent nod of command.

"I--er--of course I--I have no wish to stand in the lady's light," Gage
stammered weakly.

"Light?" echoed Lady Ormstork in a high-pitched voice.  "I fancy, my
dear Lord Quorn, we are the best judges of the quarter the light shines
from."

"It shines," observed the duke with grim imperturbability, "from Spain."

"It shines," retorted the dowager with haughty insistence, "from
Staplewick Towers."

"I am deeply grieved," said the duke, "to sound a discordant note in
the symphony of your distinguished plans.  But I declare that the
adorable Miss Ulrica shall never marry Lord Quorn."

"I say she shall," retorted Lady Ormstork defiantly.

"She shall not--even if a regrettable necessity should dictate that
there be no Lord Quorn for her to marry."

Thus the duel proceeded; the passes growing hotter and keener every
moment.  Miss Buffkin had subsided on a sofa and from her attitude
might have been an uninterested and slightly bored spectator.  And all
the while the three men who looked on said nothing, wisely, perhaps.
But their interest in the encounter was not to be judged by their
silence, as they watched their champion's efforts with mixed feelings.
They were, all three, in love with the beautiful Miss Buffkin, but each
was likewise consumed by an intense regard for his own safety.

"It is not," said Lady Ormstork with dignity--and that aristocratic
matrimonial agent could be very dignified when she chose--"the fashion
among English gentlemen to indulge in absurd threats when their
pretensions are rejected.  In this country we took leave of the Dark
Ages long ago."

"Absurd threats, eh?" the little duke repeated, with a laugh which fell
chill and jarring on, at any rate, Gage's ear.  "We shall see.  Yes, we
shall see--those of us"--he glanced fiercely round the room--"who are
alive next week--how far my threats are vain."

"Ridiculous nonsense!" Lady Ormstork exclaimed with a scornful and
somewhat stagey laugh.

The duke bowed.  "I have the honour, most illustrious lady, to receive
your ultimatum, and to accept it.  It is horribly unfortunate that we
find ourselves diametrically opposed.  But so it is; and I have no more
to say--to you, except to bid you _au revoir_, with my most
distinguished compliments."

He bowed very low to her, then to Ulrica, after which with a kind of
fiendish politeness to each of the three men, taking Gage with marked
intention last.  "Milord Quorn," he said, drawing back his lips till
his moustache stood up like two wings against his cheeks, "I regret
that my friendly hint has not been taken.  You have called the game.  I
shall have the honour of playing it--as," he raised his voice, "as my
honoured and distinguished ancestors have always played it."

"Don't talk nonsense, duke," said Lady Ormstork sharply.

The representative of the distinguished and bloodthirsty Saloljas
raised himself abruptly from a bow he was elaborating, and faced the
lady.  "A Salolja," he said, with as much dignity as a short stature
coupled with a long nose is capable of, "never talks nonsense."

"If you presume," she continued threateningly, "to annoy Lord Quorn----"

"A Salolja," he interrupted, with a significant smile, "never annoys."

"Or threaten--' pursued Lady Ormstork.

"A Salolja," he returned, with a Castilian gesture of deprecation,
"never threatens.  It is only within the last hundred and fifty years
that he has condescended to warn."

"We can warn too," retorted the lady doggedly.  "Warn the police."

The duke looked quite tickled.  "Most gracious lady," he replied,
showing his teeth in a grin from which none of his male listeners
derived any mirth, "you make me smile.  I think the question of your
police we have already analysed, I and the excellent Lord Quorn.  If
your graces have no more notable argument to put forth to arrest the
traditions of the Saloljas I will ask your gracious permission to take
my leave--for the present."

He accompanied the last three words with a glance which boded battle,
murder and sudden death to at least one of his hearers.  Then, with a
sweeping bow, he turned to the door.

"Stop!" cried Gage in a voice resonant with fear.  "You are all making
a mistake.  I am not Lord Quorn!"



CHAPTER XXXV

At the startling declaration the duke swung round and eyed Gage with a
glance that seemed capable of penetrating an inch board.  Lady
Ormstork, surprised for a moment out of her transcendent
self-possession, stared aghast at the object of her designs; Ulrica
looked half astonished and half relieved; Peckover's mien was one of
abject discomfiture; while Quorn's showed grim expectation.

"Not Lord Quorn?" screamed Lady Ormstork incredulously.

"So?  Not Lord Quorn?" repeated the duke, prepared to resume the
aggressive.

"No, I'm not," Gage declared stoutly.  "If I ever was, I've had enough
of it.  But I never was by rights."

"Not Lord Quorn by rights?" gasped Lady Ormstork.

"Never.  At least never no more.  So you'll please to consider me out
of this little complication."

"This," observed the duke, truculently thoughtful, "is very singular."

"Very," Lady Ormstork agreed.  "One would like to have some explanation
of such an extraordinary statement."

"We must know how we stand," said the duke, who had assumed the
attitude of a stunted bravo.

"I tell you," Gage maintained, "I am no more Lord Quorn than you are."

There was a short silence.  Then Lady Ormstork demanded pointedly,
"Then who, may I ask, is Lord Quorn?"

Gage indicated the unwilling Peckover.  "This is Lord Quorn.  I am
plain Peter Gage."

Quorn, the real Quorn, laughed scornfully, and seemed to see light.

Miss Buffkin clapped her hands.  "You Lord Quorn?  How lovely!" she
exclaimed, beaming at Peckover.

"Aha!  So you are Lord Quorn?" cried the duke transferring to that
person his highly undesirable attention.

"No, I'll be hanged if I am," protested the abnegating Peckover.

"You'll be shot if you are," observed Gage half aloud, with a glance at
the highly-stoked little Spaniard, who stood pulling his quill-like
moustaches, and whose unswerving glance confirmed the forecast.

Ulrica had jumped up.  "There, we've settled it already, dear Lady
Ormstork," she cried.  "Isn't it lucky!"

"Lucky?" echoed Lady Ormstork, rather non-plussed.

"Yes," Ulrica assured her.  "We've settled it between ourselves.  I
like him.  He's my sort."

From the duke came a deep, rumbling "Oom!" as a grim commentary on the
reshuffle of the position.

"But I'm not Lord Quorn," Peckover urged vehemently, beginning to be
seriously alarmed.

"You are!" maintained Gage.

"One of you must be," said the duke, as though merely anxious not to
make a mistake in the selection of his victim.

"Not me!"  To such a state of poverty was Peckover's vocabulary reduced.

"Oh, Percival!" Ulrica exclaimed reproachfully.  "Don't deny it."

"He can't," declared Gage, under the influence of the baleful Salolja
eyes and moustaches which dominated the scene.

"May I ask," said Lady Ormstork with dignified severity, "how you came
to call yourself Lord Quorn?"

"Well," replied Gage frankly, "I thought I'd like to see how it felt to
be a lord.  And," he added pointedly, "I don't care much for the
feeling."

"And may I ask," continued the dowager, addressing herself to the
bothered and daunted Peckover, "how it was you came to renounce your
title?"

"I made it worth his while," Gage explained shortly, determined to be
off with the galling honour.

The real Lord Quorn in his corner gave a long whistle of
semi-enlightenment.

"I never had it," protested the unhappy Peckover.

The duke, bristling, took a step forward.  "Lord Quorn!" he snapped his
fingers loudly and contemptuously.  "It is no matter.  You are at least
a suitor of this lady?"

Happily Lady Ormstock saved Peckover from replying to the delicate
suggestion.  "Not unless he is Lord Quorn," she declared resolutely.

"I tell you," cried Peckover desperately, "I am not Lord Quorn."

"Then you are a fraud," Gage asserted roughly.

"I never said I was Lord Quorn," urged Peckover.

"You never said you weren't," rejoined Gage.

The fiery blood of the Saloljas was beginning to weary of these
polemics and to be impatient for its cue.  "It is no matter," he said
with loud, painfully loud, authority.  "I take it"--to Peckover--"that
you are Lord Quorn, and you have, for reasons inexplicable to a Spanish
nobleman been pleased to divest yourself temporarily of your rank.  You
have addressed yourself to this lady--as Lord Quorn or by a humbler
name, it matters not.  I have the honour to request a few words with
your excellency in the garden."

His excellency's countenance expressed a strong disinclination to any
such _al fresco_ conference.  Indeed, so far was he from complying with
the duke's haughty and peremptory invitation that he sat down on a
chair which stood handy.  "Not much," he said vernacularly.  "I'm not
taking any just at present, thanks all the same."  He felt himself
comparatively safe where he was.  Even a Spanish duke of vindictive and
homicidal idiosyncrasies could scarcely have the face to murder him
coolly in a room before four non-accessory witnesses.

Whether the duke realized that the refusal contained a certain
admixture of defiance is uncertain.  Anyhow, he took two strides with
his short legs, and, at uncomfortably close quarters, repeated the
invitation.

But Peckover sat tight.  "I'm not Lord Quorn," he maintained doggedly,
"and I've had as much fresh air as I want for one day."  His complexion
was green with fear.  With the searching fire of those eyes upon him he
felt it was as much as he could do to keep from shrivelling up; still,
what mind panic had left him was dominated by the assurance that once
in the garden it would be all over with his somewhat luridly chequered
career.  The Salolja eyes held him.  He tried to glance round for
encouragement, for a touch of companionship even, at the others in the
room who, however, watched the scene in grim and more or less
embarrassed silence.  But though for a moment his eyes sought them, he
saw nothing, and next instant they were riveted again on the demon
duke, now so near that he could feel his fiery breath.  But he kept his
seat with a drowning man's desperation.

"Will your grace come?" rang out the sharp, staccato tones.  "Or will
it be necessary for me to drag your excellency out by the nose?"

The alternative was not attractive, and its proposer looked quite
capable of putting it into execution.

"I tell you I am not Lord Quorn, and never was," yelled the wretched
Peckover, now simply beside himself.  "If you want him, there he is."
He pointed to the corner where stood the real peer, looking, however,
particularly unlike one, and in a high state of doubt as to the line he
should take.  He compromised with the question by giving, in the first
instance, a loud, derisive laugh.

"Very pretty, Mr. Gage, or whatever your alias is.  So I'm Lord Quorn,
am I, when it suits your book?  That's a rich idea.  Ho! ho! ho!"  And
he laughed again with offensive resonance.

"Who," demanded Lady Ormstork in a tone of disgust, "is this noisy
person?"

"Lord Quorn," was Peckover's prompt reply.

"What?" cried Gage in bewilderment.

"Milord Quorn, eh?" said the duke, transferring his bristling attention
to the latest participant in that questionable distinction.

"Impossible!" exclaimed Lady Ormstork, obviously judging by appearance,
which certainly did not go far to suggest a member of the peerage.

Quorn laughed again, less comfortably this time under the observation
of the duke.  "Of course I'm not," he said, in a tone which lost in the
utterance its original intention of irony.  "How can I be, except in
these gentlemen's imagination?"  For he had a shrewd idea, as things
were going, that, at the moment, the title carried certain unpleasant
contingent liabilities with it.

The duke pursed his face into a quizzical sneer.  "No, I do not think
you are milord Quorn, my good fellow," he concluded, taking Lady
Ormstork's view of the badly groomed object of his scrutiny.

"He is Lord Quorn," Peckover insisted vehemently, "if anybody is."

"Of course," retorted Quorn with withering point, "I am Lord Quorn when
it is necessary."

The duke, manifestly tiring of the question of identity and resolving
(possibly Castilian fashion) to settle the point for himself, was about
to resume his somewhat drastic argument with Peckover when Ulrica
interrupted the genial intention.

"I believe this person is Lord Quorn," she said, with pointed reference
to the real man.  "He told me so himself just now in the garden.  He
said the other was an imposter and advised me to have nothing to do
with him."

"My dear Ulrica!" cried Lady Ormstork, half doubtingly; then turned to
Quorn with a face prepared to beam on the shortest notice.

"What did I tell you?" exclaimed Peckover realizing it was a case of
_sauve qui peut_.

The duke, almost forgetting punctilio in his cumulative exasperation,
turned again to Quorn, resolved to be at definite issue with somebody,
while his jealousy was spurred by Lady Ormstork's evident readiness to
establish as Miss Buffkin's suitor the right Quorn, if only she could
get hold of him.

"So you are Lord Quorn, my fine fellow," he exclaimed with a mock bow
(for, as we know, Quorn was shabby).  "You are eager to pay your
addresses to this adorable lady, and are doubtless prepared to accept
the consequences?"

Quorn, at a loss for a reply, stared stupidly at his fierce
interrogator, while Peckover judged himself sufficiently reprieved to
venture to wink at Gage.

"I don't do anything of the sort," Quorn at length said weakly.

"Oh, Lord Quorn," protested Ulrica mischievously.  "You know you said I
was to marry the right Lord Quorn, and you were the man."

"So?" cried the duke, with fell conviction that he had at last got his
man.  "It is well.  You are Lord Quorn.  _Je l'accepte_.  May I request
the honour of a private word with your illustrious lordship in the
garden?"

"Not exactly," was that illustrious noble's pithy reply to the
invitation.

Of the duke's Castilian stock of patience very little was left.  "It is
necessary," he insisted with a ferocious grin.  "I am not to be denied.
Your grace shall come--now."

"You will not be so absurd as to go, Lord Quorn," put in Lady Ormstork
with time-serving sympathy.

Quorn did not look in the least like committing the absurdity.  He set
his teeth and glared round at the other men in a sort of forlorn hope
of assistance.  But they, though naturally deeply interested, made no
sign.  The conditions were, at the moment, too complex for a clear line
of altruism.

"Your excellency shall come," said the duke through his teeth.  "I am
the Duke of Salolja, and a Grandee of Spain.  I will not be balked."

But the representative of the British aristocracy still hung back.  "I
insist," maintained the Spaniard, darting forward and seizing a
reluctant arm.  The Englishman's counter move was to sit down on a
chair which stood beside him.  Anticipating the move, the duke pulled
him sharply away.  The consequence was that Quorn sat down on the
floor.  Not quite seeing his way to conduct his adversary from that
posture into the garden, the duke was fain, while seeking a feasible
plan, to spurn the lowly nobleman with his foot.

"For shame!" cried Lady Ormstork.

"If you kick me I'll hand you over to the police," said Quorn unhappily
and speaking at a certain disadvantage.

The duke gave a crowing laugh of scorn, a favourite trick of his when
"the force" was mentioned.  "The police!  Hah! hah!  Where are they,
your police?"

The question was answered by Bisgood, who at that juncture opened the
door, and, subduing with difficulty all outward signs of a pardonable
astonishment, announced--

"Detective-Inspector Doutfire from Great Bunbury wishes to speak to
your lordship."



CHAPTER XXXVI

Mr. Doutfire came in close upon Bisgood's announcement, and threw a
severely professional eye round the company.  His manner, in fact,
suggested, in a measure, that he was raiding a gambling den; but then
the suspicious habit had become characteristic with him.  And indeed,
the attitudes of the party might be said to have justified mistrust, or
at any rate an inquisitorial curiosity on his part.  He bowed to Gage
with a nicely adjusted balance between the homage due to a peer of the
Realm and a due regard for the Law whose representative he was and
which boasted itself no respecter of persons.  It is, perhaps, scarcely
necessary to state that Peckover viewed his advent with an uneasy eye.

"Beg pardon, my lord," Doutfire said in his consequential, witness-box
manner, "sorry to intrude upon your lordship, but I considered it my
duty to inform your lordship that a certain suspicious character has
been noticed hanging about the grounds here, and I took it upon myself
to just step up and warn your lordship."

The somewhat tense silence which followed was broken by the duke's
staccato tones.  "So this is milord Quorn, eh, policeman?"

Mr. Doutfire looked not merely scandalized, but ready at a moment's
notice to take the representative of the lordly Saloljas into custody.

"Detective-Inspector is my rank and appellation, sir, begging your
pardon," he said severely.  "With regard to your question, sir, I have
every reason to believe I am right in stating that this gentleman--I
should say nobleman--is Lord Quorn."

"So?  Thank you, detective," said the duke with a bow of acknowledgment
for the information, and a smile for the futility of the police, once
again preparing to focus his traditional aggressiveness upon the
unhappy Gage.

But that gentleman did not propose to sit again.  "It's all a mistake,"
he protested loudly.  "I am not Lord Quorn.  There he is, so far as I
can make out."

He pointed to the real Quorn, who had retained his seat upon the floor,
and whom, owing to his position behind the door, Doutfire's eagle
glance had so far not taken in.  That alert officer now, however, lost
no time in wheeling round and fixing the lowly peer with a glare of
more than suspicion.  "This?" he exclaimed incredulously.  "Why, this,"
he darted his head forward and sideways with the sure air of a master
of the art of criminal indemnification, "this is the party I have just
mentioned to your lordship.  A suspicious character who has given us
the slip as well as a lot of trouble.  A party known to us as Peckover."

"There!" cried Lady Ormstork, turning from the sedentary nobleman with
a face of contemptuous disgust.  "I said it was impossible he could be
Lord Quorn."

"I know him as Peckover," Mr. Doutfire maintained with authority.  "A
party against whom a charge of being in possession of and uttering
counterfeit coin was lately preferred, but which charge the Treasury
has now seen fit to withdraw."

"Oh!"  Peckover's face brightened at the news.  "But he is Lord Quorn,"
he insisted.

Mr. Doutfire, who had been keeping that nobleman under observation with
a wary and scornful eye, looked as though quite unable to reconcile the
statement with its object's position on the floor.  "Do I understand
that he states he is Lord Quorn?" he asked severely, taking out a large
note book with bodily contortions and ominous play with its broad
elastic band.

"On the contrary, I've said nothing of the sort," objected Quorn.  "Did
I?" he added appealing to the company above him.

Mr. Doutfire's look suggested that to his mind that assertion, even if
correct, did not fully account for the suspect's position on the
carpet.  "Well, bring yourself up," he commanded roughly.  "And let us
get at the rights of the question."

Thus bidden, Quorn rose, and faced the officer of the law, defiantly
reticent.

"You shall find out at once which of these gentlemen is Lord Quorn,"
ordered the Duke of Salolja, folding his arms.

"By your leave, sir----" began Doutfire in a tone of trenchant reproof.

"Sir?" cried the duke, speaking very fast and staccato.  "My rank and
appellation are the Duke of Salolja, I am, moreover, a Grandee of
Spain."

Mr. Doutfire covered the hit by a business-like action of putting the
point of a stubby lead pencil in his mouth.  "I'll make a note of
that," he said, to all appearances unmoved by the momentous
announcement.  And he proceeded to do so, taking a subtle revenge by
making the haughty Castilian spell his title, and furthermore
suggesting that his pronounciation of the alphabet was suspiciously
misleading.

"Your grace," he observed sternly, when the elaborate entry had been
made and deliberately revised, "may trust me to take the steps, if any,
necessary to clear up this matter."  He turned from the fuming
Spaniard, and addressed himself pointedly to the rest of the company.
"Do I understand," he asked approaching the extraordinary complication
with an absence of emotion which suggested that the tackling of such
questions was with him an every-day occurrence, "do I understand that
there is some doubt as to the identity of Lord Quorn?"

"Precisely," replied the duke.

Mr. Doutfire by an authoritative wave of his notebook enjoined the
Castilian despot to silence.  "I ask you, sir," he said, pointedly to
Gage, "whether you are or are not Lord Quorn?"

"Not I," was the prompt and comparatively cheerful answer.

Mr. Doutfire accepted it with a suggestion of reserving all comment on
the surprising statement till a later stage.  "Perhaps, then, you will
be good enough to tell me who is," he said.

Gage pointed with his thumb to Peckover.  "If it's not this gentleman,
I don't know who it is," he replied indifferently.

"Nothing of the nobility about me," Peckover declared in answer to
Doutfire's interrogative glance.  "I tell you that is the individual,
over there," indicating Quorn, who was now sufficiently recovered from
the ducal onslaught to laugh jeeringly.

"I like that!" he exclaimed.  "Making me Lord Quorn when it comes
useful."

"You are Peckover?" demanded Mr. Doutfire confidently.

"If you say so," was the reply.

"I do say so," said Doutfire, whose reputation clearly hinged on the
correctness of the statement.

"I knew he was not Lord Quorn," put in Lady Ormstork.

"He told me he was," observed Miss Buffkin.

Mr. Doutfire turned a threateningly suspicious glance on the stolid
Quorn, then pursed his mouth with a pitying smile of non-acceptance as
he shook his head emphatically at the young lady.  "He's Peckover all
right, miss," he assured her.  Then glared at Quorn as though
challenging him to deny it.

And Quorn, although not overburdened with intellect, had sense enough
to recognize that his game just then was to lie low and admit nothing
if he could help it.

"My dear Ulrica," said Lady Ormstork in her superior fashion, "how
could you allow yourself to be taken in by such a transparent pretence?
Does the person look in the least like Lord Quorn?"

"Or any other nobleman?" supplemented Doutfire, with menacing sarcasm.
"Of course," he added, in a more uncompromisingly professional tone,
"if he has been defrauding any of you ladies and gentlemen, under the
false pretence that he is Lord Quorn, I'll take him now to Bunbury
against your preferring a charge against him."

His enquiring look round meeting with no response, save a scornful
smile from Quorn, Doutfire proceeded, eyeing the suspect malevolently,
"I don't know how he comes to be here, in this house, but----"

"He stopped my horse that was running away with me," Gage explained
chivalrously.

"Oh!"  Mr. Doutfire's face hardened, as though that in itself were a
questionable circumstance, and made the doubtful record worse.  "Well,
of course," he continued, not seeing his way to any active measures
under the reprobative circumstances, "if you are satisfied, it is no
business of mine.  I've merely done my duty."

The Duke of Salolja who had endured this discussion with ill concealed
impatience, now spoke again.

"Then it is one of these gentlemen who is really Lord Quorn, eh,
constable?"

"Detective-Inspector, if your grace has no objection," was the
withering correction.  After giving the same time to take effect, he
addressed himself to deal with the question.  "As to which of these
gentlemen is his lordship, I do not, in the absence of any stated
charge or legal reason feel myself called upon to decide.  Speaking
unofficially and without prejudice, I should, if interrogated, incline
to the opinion that this gentleman," he indicated Gage with a passing
and casual wave of his pocket-book on the way to its resting-place in
his coat-tail, "would answer to the description.  But I have no _locus
standi_ in the dispute, and therefore merely express an opinion, as a
matter of courtesy, that if the question of identity should be gone
into, the gentleman by the palm-stand may possibly be found to be Lord
Quorn."  After which impressive and useful dictum he bid the party
"Good evening," and took a somewhat abrupt departure, fearful, perhaps,
of being led into giving an opinion which might at some future time be
inconveniently used against him.

As the door closed on him Lady Ormstork said, in a tone of repressed
and compromising exasperation, "This is altogether a most
extraordinary, unheard-of proceeding.  Perhaps by to-morrow more
sensible counsels will have prevailed, and we shall know who is and who
is not Lord Quorn.  But," she added significantly, "I do not overlook
the fact that each one of you gentlemen, and consequently whichever of
you bears the title, has proposed an alliance between himself and Miss
Buffkin.  Is that not so, Ulrica, dear?"

"Yes; they've all said as much," replied that young lady casually.

"So?"  The Salolja growl reverberated through the room like the first
muttering of thunder.

"And," concluded Lady Ormstork, ignoring the minatory rumble, "Miss
Buffkin will marry whichever of you turns out, when this absurd mystery
is solved, to be Lord Quorn."

"Will she?" observed the duke from the depths of his thickset throat.

"Undoubtedly," was the determined and conclusive reply.  "Come, dear.
We must be getting home."

"I shall," said the duke, suddenly galvanizing himself into his native
politeness, "do myself the distinguished honour of constituting myself
your graces' escort.  Have I the much prized permission?"

"We will give you a lift--without prejudice," replied Lady Ormstork,
with the laudable object of drawing him off from further exercise of
his powers of intimidation upon whichever might be the prospective
bridegroom.

The duke bowed himself into a right angle.  "Your illustrious kindness
transcends my poor deserts.  I am overwhelmed by this distinguished
mark of your favour."  He straightened himself, pivoted on his heels
till he faced the three men, and bowed to them, this time stopping at
an angle of 45°.  "Your excellencies, I shall further do myself the
supreme honour of returning to pursue my enquiry as to which of you I
may have the inestimable privilege of addressing without fear of
contradiction as milord Quorn."

He pivoted again till he faced the door, took a phenomenally long
stride to it, recovered himself, flung it open, and with a ceremonial
which had quite a mediæval flavour about it, and, indeed, had been
probably handed down from one generation of the amiable house of
Salolja to another, conducted the ladies to the hall, leaving the three
men inert with gloomy anticipations.



CHAPTER XXXVII

So paralysed were they that it was not till the crunching of the
carriage wheels on the gravel roused them from their lugubrious stupor
that they found tongue to discuss their situation.

"Nice let-in for my money and trouble," said Gage writhing in the
Nessus shirt of that fatal peerage.

"At any rate you can't blame me for this pleasing little episode,"
returned Peckover dispiritedly.

"I like your swearing you are not the rightful Quorn," said Gage
huffily.

"I'm not, whoever else may be," maintained his late confederate with a
glance at the real man, who met it by an irresponsive glare.

"I only took it for as long as I fancied," urged Gage.

"A bargain's a bargain," observed Peckover.  "You can't take on a title
and give it up as though it were a furnished house."

"Can't I?" his friend rejoined vehemently.  "Anyhow, I mean to.  I've
had too much of it.  I didn't suppose it included Spanish bullies and
Australian bush-rangers."

"You can do as you like about giving it up," retorted Peckover.  "Only
it don't come back to me I promise you.  I didn't sell it on appro."

Quorn, who had been ruminating on the events just past in glowering
silence, looked up quickly.

"Sell?" he demanded suspiciously.  "What do you mean by sell?"

"Mind your own business," returned Gage snappishly.  "That's the worst
of men like you.  You do a fellow a service and then there's no end to
the advantage you take of it.  Thrusting yourself in and talking absurd
rot to the girl.  If you don't keep in your place I shall have to put
you there."

"That's what I'm going to trouble you to do before you're much older,"
retorted Quorn darkly.

Gage looked puzzled.  "What was your reason," he demanded, turning to
Peckover, "for sticking out that he was Lord Quorn?  Were you pulling
that infernal little fire-brand's short leg, or did you mean it?"

Peckover considered a moment, then replied with a nod at Quorn, "You'd
better ask him."

Gage did accordingly ask him.

"Mind your own business," was the unsatisfactory answer.  "If you are
Lord Quorn nobody else can be.  But it would be interesting to know how
you came into the title."

"What the deuce does it matter," Peckover protested.  "That conundrum
will keep.  That little devil will be back here directly.  What we've
got to talk about is how we are going to tackle him."

The suggestion was so profoundly to the point that a depressing silence
fell on the trio.  They all three jumped when Bisgood came in softly to
announce that dinner had been ready half-an-hour.

"Dinner?" cried Gage.  "No dinner for me.  I'm off."

"Don't be silly," Peckover remonstrated.  "We'll have our dinner first.
A bottle of champagne is the stuff to bring us into condition.  Come
on, Jenkins, old man.  You're dining with us to-night."

An exacting afternoon had left the trio in a state so low that
sustenance was imperative, wherefore they went gloomily in to dinner.
The meal was taken hurriedly, and, with regard to the wine, copiously.
So by degrees they began to feel in a less abject state of panic.

"Why did we let that fool of a detective talk himself off the
premises?" said Peckover regretfully.  "Anyhow, we had better have the
local man up here in case that nuisance of a duke tries his 'Come into
the garden, Maud,' again with us."

"What good will that chaw in uniform be against that little devil?"
objected Gage drearily.

"He's somebody," urged Peckover.  "And he's got the law behind him."

"And the traditions of the Saloljas in front of him," rejoined Gage.

Nevertheless, to strengthen the garrison, the local constable was sent
for, and the three resumed their repast with a slightly enhanced
appetite.  They had arrived at the sweets stage, and Peckover was
wondering whether it was the last apple-tart he was destined to taste,
when a clangorous peal at the bell followed by a thundering knock at
the door sent the diners' hearts into their mouths.

"If--if that is the Duke of Salolja," said Gage, sick with fear, to
Bisgood, "show him into the library.  Don't let him--that is, his
grace, come in here."

"Very good, my lord," responded Bisgood, whose imperturbability--and
immunity--he would have given a fortune to possess.

None of the three men could sit quiet.  Gage, after a restless turn
round the table, went to the door and listened.  As he did so a shade
of relief came over his face.  "That's not the little brute's voice,"
he declared hopefully.

"Isn't it?  He has got so many," Peckover said dubiously.  They
scuttled back to their places as the men returned.

"Mr. Carnaby Leo, my lord," Bisgood announced in a tone which suggested
a month's notice on his part.

"Has he gone?"

"No, my lord.  He said he must see your lordship, so I showed him into
the library."

"Miss Leo is not with him?" Quorn asked anxiously.

"No, sir," answered the footman, the great Bisgood declining to notice
the question.

"Better turn the key on him," suggested Peckover.

This unheard-of order Bisgood took upon himself to ignore likewise.  In
the abnormal state of affairs the strain on his dignity was nearly at
breaking point.

A footman who looked like going to put the suggestion into practice was
loftily, but _sotto voce_, rebuked by his superior, and abandoned his
intention.

"I'll go and do it, by Jove," exclaimed Quorn, jumping up and leaving
the room, at which action the scandalized Bisgood made no effort to
hide his disgust.

Quorn returned.  "Got him safe," he said.

"Is the library safe, though?" Peckover suggested shrewdly.

"As if," remarked Gage bitterly, "we hadn't got our hands full without
that great nuisance turning up to complicate matters.  Let's get on
with the wine while we've got any taste left in us," he added, filling
his own glass and sending round the decanters.

As Bisgood and his satellites withdrew, eager to find vent for their
disgust in the servants'-hall, Peckover jumped up.  "An idea!" he
cried, brightening.  "What do you say having this beast, Leo, in, and
passing him off to the duke as Lord Quorn?"

"Not a bad idea," responded Gage, thinking it out.

"Dashed good one," Peckover insisted.

"How can you pass him off," objected Quorn.  "He'll say he is not
Quorn."

"We've all said that," rejoined Peckover shrewdly.  "All the same, one
of us is that noble lord.  We'll tell the duke that he is incog. for
certain private reasons, and let 'em fight it out between themselves."

"If any one can tackle that little spit-fire it's Carnaby," said Gage.

"And if any one can hustle Carnaby it's the duke," added Quorn.

"Whichever way it goes we shall be gainers," observed Gage.  "But how
about Ulrica?"

"Oh, we'll work her into it all right," Peckover replied confidently.
"Let's have the ruffian in and give him some pop."

"Hark!" cried Quorn, holding up his hand.  As Gage opened the door
there came across the hall from the library sounds suggestive of a
domestic tornado.  Their obvious message was that Mr. Carnaby Leo had
discovered, and was resenting, the fact that he was more or less in
durance, and was communicating his state of feelings through the medium
of double-soled boots to the furniture in general and to the mahogany
door in particular.

"Let's buck up, and release the brute before he wrecks the place," said
Peckover; "or he'll have no kick left in him for that Spanish beauty."

He walked boldly to the door, and threw it open.  "Anything wrong?" he
inquired, with what was, under the circumstances, an irritating
blandness.

"Anything wrong?" roared Mr. Leo, lashing out backwards and kicking a
chair, quite futilely, to a remote corner of the room.  "No.  But
there's going to be.  Lock me up, will you, you pair of skunks?"  For
Quorn had withdrawn to a somewhat obscure position.  "I'll teach
you----!"

"The lock's out of order," Peckover explained with admirable
plausibility.  "Slips forward when the door's banged.  See?  We were
just coming to ask you to join us over a bottle of champagne."

The proposal had an immediately mollifying effect on the rampageous
visitor.  "Lead the way, then," he responded thirstily.  "I've got a
word or two to say to you from my sister Lalage, and I can talk better
when the hinges of my voice-box are oiled."

They returned to the dining-room, and Mr. Leo began to pay an
unremitting attention to the lubricant which, according to his
statement, should have conduced to unusual eloquence.  Anyhow, he
spoke, when at last he found time, if not rhetorically, at least to the
point.

"What I've come to say to you scallywags," he began politely, in a tone
which made his hearers look round to be sure the doors were fast shut,
"is that we, me and my sister, splendid girl, have just about had
enough of this shilly-shally nonsense.  We want Lord Quorn, dead or
alive, and, what's more, we mean to have him."

He banged his great fist down on the table and glanced at the three
men.  Gage and Peckover looked politely tolerant, while Quorn regarded
his bugbear now for the first time at close quarters, with an attention
bordering on fright.

"As," proceeded the gentle Carnaby, "I have said before, and say now
for the last time you'll have ears to hear it, I and my beloved sister
have not come ten thousand miles to be made fools of."

Gage and Peckover made sympathetic responses, and Quorn exhibited signs
of marked uneasiness.

"The man," their amiable guest resumed, "who tries to make a fool of us
is a goner."  He caught up a large apple from a dish.  "I take the
skunk in hand like this.  See?"  He twisted the fruit in halves which
he casually threw over his shoulders.  They reached the sideboard,
where one accounted for a tray of liqueur-glasses, while the other took
effect upon the globe and chimney of a tall lamp.

"See?" he repeated, with a certain pride in the rather extravagant
object lesson.  "See?"  He turned suddenly upon the much-impressed
Quorn and thundered the somewhat superfluous question at him.

"Ye-es, I see," he answered, jumping half out of his chair and trying
to look amused.

"Then why the blazes don't you say so?" Carnaby demanded, ignoring the
fact that the comment he looked for was clearly unnecessary.  "Who is
this silly mug?" he added, with evidence of a natural antipathy to
persons who received his feats in presumably unappreciative silence.

"Jenkins," answered Quorn hastily, rattling his wits together.

"Jenkins?" echoed Carnaby in loud scorn.  "He looks it.  Well, now, see
here, Jenkins Esquire, my beauty.  Just fancy yourself for the moment,
if Jenkins is equal to the strain, fancy yourself Lord Quorn.  He's a
skunk, so perhaps it'll come easy to you, Jenkins."

Quorn could but smile uneasily at the pleasantry.

"Now, I should say to you," proceeded his urbane neighbour, making the
most of a happy stroke of innuent personification, "Look here, Quorn,
my dasher, the man, lord or lout, or both, who makes love to my sister,
my lovely Lalage, and engages her affections has got to marry her.
See?"

The uncomfortable personator of himself signified promptly his entire
comprehension.

"If you jib," continued the Antipodean Chesterfield, "if you kick, if
you try to slip out,--well--you've got to settle with the strongest man
for his weight in the continent of Australia; a man, mark you, whose
trade is fighting, against odds for preference, and who means business.
See?"

The fascinated Quorn signed his complete grasp of the speaker's meaning.

"A man, I repeat," Carnaby went on, after seeking fresh ideas in a
further libation, "who sticks at nothing where his honour and the
honour of his family are concerned.  Law?  What's the law to me?
Nothing.  They know that out there.  The law where I came from gives me
a wide berth.  It knows me.  When a slink calls himself a nobleman,
he's got to act as a nobleman, or I'll make him act as a swab and scrub
the place down with him.  See?"

He glared round at his three auditors who were listening to his
edifying account of himself and his proposals with rapt attention.

"I've not seen the man I'm after, unless I see him before me now," Mr.
Leo proceeded, waxing truculent.  "But I presume he has a nose."  This
supposition remaining unchallenged, he took up a banana, and proceeded,
"There it is."  He wrenched off the end of the fruit and tossed it in
the air whence it came down plump into Quorn's forgotten glass of wine.
Ignoring the episode, the pretty fellow continued, "He has, or as a
nobleman, should have, two eyes."

No one had a word to say against the computation.

"Here goes," said Carnaby, accompanying the words by a graphic
illustration (using the remaining portion of the banana for the
purpose) of the latest and most approved method of removing the human
eye without having recourse to a surgical operation.  Then, the
experiment having been brought to an eminently impressive conclusion,
the performer playfully took aim with the residue at a portrait of
Everard, ninth Baron Quorn, and was successful in hitting that nobleman
in the middle of his somewhat vacuous face, and rendering the likeness,
if any, for the time unrecognizable.

Emboldened by the effect produced not only on the face of the family
portrait but on those of his living hearers, Mr. Leo became even more
ruthlessly virulent.

"Lord Quorn!" he cried in thick accents of withering scorn, "If Lord
Quorn or any other man, noble or otherwise, plays fast and loose with
my glorious sister, I'll just take him and twist his head off his
shoulders.  Won't I?"

He glared round as though some one had had the temerity to contradict
him, which, however, was not the case.  His question meeting with no
material response, he next, in pursuance of his pomological method of
illustration, snatched up a pineapple.  "Twist his head off his
shoulders," he repeated somewhat unnecessarily, "like this."  With a
frantic effort he tugged and twisted the cactus-like plume till it came
away from the fruit.

"That's the style," he roared exultingly, "I'll treat any man who gets
in my light or annoys my sister.  See?  I'll scatter his carcass to the
four winds of heaven.  See?"

Suiting the action more or less to the words he flung the fragments
viciously into various corners of the room, where they did more or less
damage, coming in their flight unpleasantly near his interested
audience.  Then turning round with a ferocious action, he heaved the
body of the pine in another direction.  This happened to be towards the
door, which had just opened to admit an addition to the cheerful party.
Next instant a cry of rage made it apparent that the heavy fruit had
struck in the middle of his waistcoat no less a personage than his
Grace the Duke of Salolja.



CHAPTER XXXVIII

The hit was greeted by an offensive laugh of exultation by the thrower,
with a gasp of subdued rage by the receiver of the spinous missile, and
by the rest of the company with various indications of apprehensive
curiosity.

"Now," murmured Peckover through his teeth, "we're going to see
something."

An Englishman, under the same circumstances, would probably have picked
up the weighty fruit and returned the shot.  Not so the little
Castilian, whose dignity was in no direct ratio to his inches.  Quickly
recovering from the discomposing impact, and forcing his sinister
features as far into a smile as his mental attitude would allow, he
bowed ceremoniously, although the full effect of the salutation was
somewhat marred by the fact that, following close on the shot, it had
rather the appearance of a doubling-up caused by physical derangement.
However, he presently straightened himself and regarded the party with
comparative, if delusive, serenity.

"Your excellencies are pleased to be merry to-night," he observed, in a
tone which seemed to promise a speedy end to the merriment.

The duke now addressed himself to Mr. Leo.  "Your grace is an admirable
shot," he observed pleasantly.  "If, that is, my poor person was chosen
as the mark for your grace's aim."  Then suddenly changing his manner
from the courteous to the terrific, till he became five feet three of
incarnate bristling, scintillating ferocity, he added, "I too, as I
shall hope soon to convince your grace, am a tolerable shot, although
not with articles of dessert."

The pug-dogged look of aggressive impudence faded from Carnaby's face,
giving way to an expression of foolish discomfiture.  Nevertheless he
replied, with a not too convincing nod of assurance.  "All right, my
prime bantam, I'll show you something."

But for the moment all he showed his challenger was his back as he
turned and walked to the other end of the table, where he grabbed up a
fistful of cigars.

"Who," asked the duke, suddenly polite again, "may I inquire, is this
distinguished gentleman?"

For reasons best known to himself the distinguished gentleman seemed
inclined to let the question of his identity remain in suspense rather
than hold further communication with the questioner.  Apparently he was
too deeply engrossed in lighting one of his raided cigars to notice the
query.

But here the ever-alert Peckover saw and seized his opportunity.  With
a pantomime of mystery he called the duke aside.

"That's him; Lord Quorn.  The real man and no mistake," he said rapidly
under his breath, "Calls himself Leo, for private reasons, you
understand.  Threatens to kill us if we give him away."

"Oho!  So?"  The duke turned an ominously interested eye on the latest
idea of the interloping nobleman, his mind, meanwhile, rapidly running
over the probabilities of the case.  Mr. Leo, having recovered from his
late upset by the aid of a bumper of old port wine, was now lounging
against the mantel-piece with that easy air of proprietorship which
stature and muscle coupled with low brain power are apt to give.  He
might, indeed, have fitted in very well just then with a foreigner's
idea of a bucolic English milord, and as such his appearance commended
him to the ferocious Spaniard's purpose.  The Duke glanced searchingly
at his informant, however, as though determined to make certain before
turning his polite attentions to the new candidate for a thrill.

"Why did your excellencies one after another call yourselves milord
Quorn?" he demanded pertinently.

"We had to.  He made us," was the ready answer.  "Says he'll twist the
neck of any man who calls him Lord Quorn."

The duke received the information with a grim elevation of his thick
eyebrows.  "So?  We shall see.  But Miss Buffkin?" he asked sharply.
"There is nothing between them?"

Peckover made a grimace which might be understood to signify amusement
at the suggestion.  "Isn't there?" he replied, "when she is brought up
here every day to see him.  That's why he's keeping himself dark," he
added slyly.  "There's another lady in the question; see?  And he's all
for Buffkin."

A roar came from the fireplace.  "What are you mumping about there, you
little rats?  Speak up, and let's hear all about it before I shake it
out of you.  I've got my say to finish when you've done croaking."

The muttered conference therefore ceased.  Peckover resumed his seat,
and the duke turned and regarded Carnaby with an attention which was
doubtless somewhat irritating to that sensitive gentleman.

"What are you staring at, smallbones?" he demanded fiercely as though
lashing himself into a fury to counteract the effect of the Salolja
eye.  "When fools stare at me I scoop their eyes out to teach 'em
better manners."

The duke accepted the interesting statement with a bow.  "Yes?" he
responded appreciatively.

"Yes, I do," maintained Mr. Leo savagely.  "I'm a man, as I've been
telling these scallywags, who stands no nonsense."

Again the duke bowed.  "I applaud your grace," he said.

A horrible suspicion that he was being laughed at seemed to take hold
of the doughty Mr. Leo.  "You applaud my grace, do you?" he cried,
forcing his voice into a sneering squeak.  "Who asked for your
halfpenny opinion?  You keep your sauce to stew that over-grown nose in
when I've pulled it off."

For an instant, at the dire insult, there was a flash of murder in the
duke's eyes.  Then, with an air of storing up what he had received for
cumulative repayment he inquired softly, with his eternal bow, "I have
the distinguished honour of addressing milord Quorn?"

"You're an undersized liar," was the somewhat pointed reply.

"I think not," rejoined the duke confidently, "although it will be my
duty to remember that your grace has called me one.  Lord Quorn----"

"My name's Leo!" came with a roar.

"I believe not," insisted the duke.

"Lord Quorn!  I'd like to catch him!" cried Carnaby.

The duke smiled indulgently, yet with a homicidal preoccupation.  "I
believe," he said coolly, "I have had the good fortune to catch him."

"Where is the skunk?" demanded Mr. Leo, with a noticeable falling off
in the volume of his tone.  It was clear that his opponent's
steadfastness was beginning to tell.

"May I ask," observed the duke, "as a favour, that your grace will not
make so much noise, but will accord your most humble servant the
supreme privilege of saying a few words to you?"  His voice had begun
to come out in bursts, in the fashion which had created such a
disagreeable effect on Gage and Peckover at the first interview.

Mr. Leo, inclined to wilt, made yet a gallant effort to pull himself
together.  "If you want to jaw," he replied with scarcely equal
courtesy, "go into the next room and jaw your jaw off.  You won't spoil
your beauty, for plain reasons.  I'm getting sick of you.  You spoil
the flavour of this cigar."

"I intend to," was the hardly expected retort.  "Although it is a pity,
as it is possibly the last your grace will ever smoke."

The dark eyes were now fixed on his grace with all their scorching
ferocity.  Mr. Leo looked as though the cigar or something else had
indeed disagreed with him.  The three spectators of the duel wanted
only the sense of complete personal immunity to enjoy it hugely.

"I have not the honour of knowing," proceeded the little Spaniard,
holding the big bully in his best rattlesnake fashion, "whether your
grace is aware that I am the Duke of Salolja, and a Grandee of Spain,
the present and, alas, unworthy representative of the noble house of
Salolja, a family which has preserved its traditions and its honour
intact from time immemorial."

The effect of the announcement on Mr. Carnaby Leo was not quite
apparent, except that he seemed in two minds whether to crunch up his
diminutive opponent or to give way to abject terror.  "What's all that
to me?" he returned, in a voice that seemed to be getting rather out of
control.

The duke shrugged.  "It is customary," he explained, "in my country,
that in affairs of honour strict punctilio should be maintained.
Further, I wish to do myself the honour of informing your grace that my
family, the Saloljas, have never permitted an injury or an insult to
pass unavenged."

"Same with me," responded Mr. Leo, addressing himself, however,
possibly for convenience' sake, to the men at the table.

"It is," pursued the duke, intensifying his steady glare, "a matter of
felicitation that our sentiments agree upon the point.  But enough.  I
come, as you British say, to business.  I have the honour to be the
aggrieved party.  Your grace is probably aware that I purpose to ally
myself matrimonially with Miss Ulrica Buffkin?"

The apparent irrelevance of the observation prompted Mr. Leo to pluck
up a little courage.  "No," he answered with a touch of his old manner,
"I don't know, and I don't care."

"So?"  The little man steadied his rage by tugging at his portentous
moustache.  "Your grace refuses then to recognize my pretensions?" he
demanded menacingly.

Mr. Leo gave a stupid laugh.  "You don't," he retorted with clumsy
humour, "expect me to take off my hat to them, do you?"

The duke accepted the defiance with a bow.  "Perhaps not," he returned
viciously.  "So we will leave that affair for the present.  It may be
we shall never arrive so far together.  There are, happily, other
matters which have the precedence."

"What are you mumbling about?" Mr. Leo inquired with characteristic
politeness.

"As I entered the room," continued the duke, ignoring the interruption,
"I was struck on the--breast by a pine-apple thrown by your grace.  Is
it not so?"

Mr. Leo forced a laugh.  "Didn't see you coming," he explained weakly.

The duke drew back a pace with every indication of astonishment.  "Is
it possible then," he demanded severely, "that your grace asks me to
believe that you scatter fruit about your room for amusement?"

"Sometimes," Carnaby replied uncomfortably.

His tormentor waved aside the answer as frivolous.

"Subsequently to that blow which only blood can efface," he resumed
impressively, laying his hand on the spot where the shot took effect,
"your grace was pleased to distinguish my poor self by certain
opprobrious remarks and designations, in the hearing of these
honourable gentlemen.  Your grace permitted yourself to allude
disrespectfully to my stature.  Your grace will understand that the
character and deeds of the Saloljas are not measured by inches," he
added proudly.

"Glad to hear it," Mr. Leo growled rashly.

"Your grace was further led," proceeded the duke, raising his voice
ominously, "to speak in unbecoming terms of my opinion and of my nose.
It is a matter of regret that my judgment and my features do not meet
with your grace's approval, but it is the judgment and it is the nose
with which Heaven has been pleased to endow my poor self, and up to the
present the noble house of Salolja has had no serious cause of
complaint against Heaven in respect to its gifts."

Mr. Leo tried to give sign of amusement, but the laugh stuck somewhere,
and did not reach the surface.

"Your grace," the little demon went on, "also took upon yourself to
cast an aspersion on my veracity.  A Salolja," he continued with
pompous dignity, "does not lie.  No Salolja has cause to lie.  Pride is
truth.  Lying is for slaves and shopkeepers.  Now when a man insults me
it is something to pay for, when in my person he insults the most noble
family of Salolja it is everything.  He shall pay with the last drop of
his blood."

The somewhat one-sided conversation was evidently making for a climax.
The interest of the three men had become breathless.  Mr. Leo,
literally and metaphorically with his back to the wall, realized that
his reputation was about to be put to the touch; also that he was, all
things considered, in a somewhat parlous situation.  His dull brain
became obsessed by a lively regret that he had addressed his diminutive
adversary in terms which were conspicuous by their disregard for the
noble duke's personal dignity.  Still something had now to be done.  He
must assert himself and at once.  The instinct of the coward and the
bully wrestled sharply within him.  But the promptings of fear were not
to be followed, since retreat dignified or otherwise, was out of the
question The tricks of his old trade were the only resource left him,
and so he was forced blindly to fall back on them.



CHAPTER XXXIX

With a prodigious effort Mr. Leo pulled himself together.  "We've had
enough of your lip," he declared in a loud voice.  "I don't jaw, I
fight.  Look here."  He caught up the fire-irons one after another and
went through the rather too familiar business of twisting and snapping
them.  The duke watched the performance with folded arms and a
sarcastic smile.  Mr. Leo, lashing himself into as much of a fine fury
as he could attain, and losing his head in the process, took a silver
goblet from a niche in the overmantel and with a mighty play of muscle
squeezed it out of shape, not altogether to the silent Lord Quorn's
satisfaction.  "That's the way I talk," he cried, with gathering
confidence, as he tossed the shapeless cup on the floor.  "Any man who
argues with me knows what to expect.  It's too late to apologize when
I've snapped your legs and arms for you and dislocated your neck."

The duke intimated politely to his fuming opponent his entire agreement
with the remark.  "I am sorry," he went on suavely, "if I have spoken
in a language which has not appealed to your grace.  Perhaps I may yet
be so fortunate as to be able to make myself better understood."

As he spoke he took a candle from the table, and, flicking off the
shade, set it on the side-board.  Then he pivoted round and stepped ten
paces across the room, turned, whipped out his revolver, took instant
aim and fired.  The candle stood as before, but extinguished.  The duke
advanced and bowed with something, it must be confessed, of the air of
a music-hall performer.  "That," he said quietly, "is how I reply to
your grace's remarks.  I trust I have the good fortune to make myself
understood.  No?"

Quite gratuitously imagining a negative on Mr. Leo's part, which that
redoubtable fighter was far from expressing, the duke made a swift
movement and tore down a rapier which hung as an ornament on the wall.
After making a few passes, which seemed to have Mr. Leo's person for
their ultimate destination, he spitted the shade of another candle,
flung it aside, and drawing back, put himself in fencing attitude, and
lunging furiously, after a grand flourish, just hit the wick and
extinguished it likewise.  Then he favoured his impressed audience with
a deprecating gesture intimating that his exhibition of skill was a
matter of small account, after which, without waiting for comments or
applause, he turned with startling ferocity upon Mr. Leo and in an
unpleasantly resonant tone commanded him to take down the fellow weapon
and defend himself.

Mr. Leo showed no sign of falling in with his desire, but made a
ghastly attempt to laugh the order to scorn and then to treat it with
the contempt due to such an out-of-date proposal.  But as it is
difficult to preserve an attitude of dignified opposition in the
neighbourhood of an aggressive and business-like hornet, so the
Antipodean giant found it impossible to treat the duke with the passive
scorn which prudence dictated.  For the little Castilian had now
arrived at a stage when he considered he might fairly let himself go,
and let himself go he did.

He simply danced like a blood-thirsty Rumpelstilzchen before the
anxious man of muscle, making his sword cut the air as though it were a
riding whip, and describing inconvenient circles and passes with it in
close proximity to the more cherished portions of his unwilling
opponent's anatomy.

Mr. Leo looked very unhappy, and in the deplorable condition of a man
who is consumed by the knowledge that he ought to be very angry and
retaliative, and yet dares not.  As he continued to hang back with a
suggestion in his stupid face of how much he would give to be safe at
_The Pigeons_, the duke's aggressiveness increased to the extent of
prodding the massive frame before him with playful sword thrusts.  This
was more even than the abject Mr. Leo could stand.

For an instant he looked dangerous; then with a roar, of rage or pain
according to the fancy of the audience, he made a snatch at a decanter
with the object of hurling it at his tormentor.  But before he could
raise it for the fling the little rapier came down with a smart flash
upon his wrist and the decanter fell shattered to the floor.

"That your grace's idea of fighting a Grandee of Spain, you abominable
great hulks?" cried the duke viciously.  "You want a lesson, milord,
you foolish breaker of tongs.  When shall you begin to snap my legs and
arms and to screw my neck, you quaint elephant?  You shall go down on
your knees and apologize to me or I will run you through your absurd
body and let the saw-dust run out.  Shall I not, eh? eh? eh?"  He
accompanied each note of interrogation by a stinging slash of the
flexible steel, and Mr. Leo began to look very weary and unwell.

But Lord Quorn's face was beaming as though a load had been taken off
his mind.

For an instant Mr. Leo seemed to be gathering himself together for a
bull-like rush, then the intention died away in helplessness.  "It's
all a mistake, I tell you," he blurted out in a quavering roar.  "The
pine was not intended for you."

"Indeed?  So?" cried the duke incredulously, making the point of his
sword whirl within two inches of the herculean thorax.  "And the
allusions to my nose, the Salolja nose, which is historical, and to my
stature and to my veracity--they were not intended for me?  Eh?"

"If you touch me again with that beastly sword I'll have the police on
to you, duke or no duke," Mr. Leo declared, falling back somewhat
feebly behind the shelter of the law.

It was with some consternation that he noticed that not only the duke,
but the whole party seemed to derive genuine amusement from his threat.

"Ho! ho! ho!" laughed the little terrorist in his window-rattling
tones.  "The police!  How rich!  How exquisite!  When a man insults a
Salolja he does not call in the police, but the undertaker."

Mr. Leo's bronzed face had now that greenish tinge so much the fashion
in modern sculpture.

"How are you going to send for your police?" laughed the duke,
emphasizing his question by a playful prick in Mr. Leo's biceps.
"Before you touch the bell or the door-handle you are a dead man."

Mr. Leo looked as though he reluctantly accepted the probability.

"Now, your grace will go down on your knees, won't you, you absurd
hippopotamus, and make your humble confession and apology for having
treated disrespectfully a Grandee of Spain and a Salolja, before you
pay the penalty of your mistake."

There was a painful flourish of the rapier, and a gentle stab on the
lobe of Mr. Leo's large right ear.  With a howl he went down on his
knees, with another he begged for mercy, and it was a third howl of a
very different character which made the duke and the other men turn to
the window, at which some one stood rattling.

[Illustration: "With a howl he went down on his knees, and with another
he begged for mercy."]

The ever-alert duke opened it, as though nothing unusual were
occurring, giving entrance to Miss Leo, who with a manly stride came in
only to stand dumfounded before the abject spectacle of her brother's
abasement.

"Carnaby!" she cried in a voice calculated to put fire into a lump of
wet clay.  "You great oaf!  What fool's game is this?"

The duke explained.  "It is simply the result of a slight personal
difference between his grace and my humble self."

"Get up, you great booby!" Lalage commanded, naturally thinking that
the slight personal difference between the two men should have reversed
their positions.

"Stay where you are," cried the duke in his most stentorian tones.  And
Mr. Leo stayed.

"Quorn!  At last!"  The cry came in a tone of menacing rapture from
Lalage who had now found time to glance round the table.

"Hold on!" was that nobleman's chilling response, as he rose and
stretched out a fending hand in front of him.

"My Quorn!" repeated Miss Leo with native tenacity.

"Quorn?" cried the duke in a voice of puzzled exasperation, "Quorn
again in that quarter.  I get tired of this Quorn here, Quorn there."

"This is Lord Quorn," Lalage declared with an exultation which,
considering the position her champion occupied at the moment, was
scarcely justified.

"So?  Are you sure?" the duke demanded searchingly.

"Sure?  I knew him in Australia.  I have come over to marry him," was
the convincing answer.

"So?"  The fiery little Castilian turned to Quorn.  "You marry this
lady, eh?"

"No," he returned, ungallantly.  "I'm hanged if I do."

"Carnaby!" cried his sister in a ringing voice.  "You hear that?"

"Yes," said Carnaby impotently from the floor.

"Let the poor fellow alone," recommended Quorn.  "He's a thing of the
past."

But his crow was cut short by the duke.  "So, your grace thinks to
marry Miss Buffkin?"  No answer.  "In spite of your engagement to this
handsome lady?"  The duke's wry face was lost in a grin.  "May I
request once again the honour of a few words with your grace in
private?"

"You may, but you won't get it," was the dogged reply.  "I stop here."

"So?  I believe not," said the duke, turning on his vindictive glare to
the full.  "I have been long enough made a fool of with your different
Lord Quorns.  I am sick of Lord Quorn.  I put him away, and if I make a
mistake--ah!"

He turned swiftly with the cry of an enraged tiger.  Prompted by signs
from his sister, Carnaby had taken advantage of the duke's back being
turned to rise from his undignified position and stealthily approach
his little adversary with the idea of taking him unawares from behind
and trying what muscle would do.  But the Spaniard, whose energies and
faculties were concentrated in a small space, was too wide awake for
him.  With the turn he sprang back and whipping round his rapier
brought it with a swift cut across Carnaby's ample countenance.  As Mr.
Leo roared and danced with pain, and Lalage, throwing her arms round
the duke's, shouted to the three to help her, if they were men, in
disarming the wriggling Grandee, the door was thrown open and Mr.
Doutfire came quickly in, followed by the local constable.



CHAPTER XL

Mr. Doutfire with professional promptitude at once proceeded to adapt
himself to the situation.  He planted himself in business-like fashion
before the wriggling duke, and with a wave of both hands, suggested to
his captor that she should release him.

"Let go, ma'am," he said reassuringly.  "It's all right now.  I'll rake
the fire out."

Thus bidden Miss Leo relaxed her clasp, not however, before Mr.
Doutfire had, with a practised twist, wrenched the sword from the ducal
grasp.

"Now, then," he demanded in a tone of stern reproof, "what's this all
about?  What's the trouble now?"

"You shall not interfere," foamed the duke.  "You are not wanted,
policeman."

"Detective-Inspector is my rank," Mr. Doutfire reminded him with a
touch of severity.  "Looks as though I was wanted," he added with a
curl of the lip and a confident glance round the company.

"You are not," insisted the duke in his fiercest tone and with his most
appalling glare.  "I am the Duke of Salolja, and I tell you you are to
go."

He might as well have glared at the spattered portrait of Everard,
ninth Baron Quorn, on the wall for any effect his eyes produced on the
uncompromising and unimaginative official.

"I should like that corroborated," was all the response he got from Mr.
Doutfire.

"No, don't go!" cried Mr. Leo with a subdued and, painful roar.  "He
has assaulted me, stabbed me, threatened to shoot me.  I give him in
charge.  Take him.  I----"

"Has he got firearms on him?" enquired Mr. Doutfire severely.

For answer the duke whipped out his revolver.  But swift as the action
was, Mr. Doutfire's counter move was quicker.

With practised skill he clutched the dangerous wrist and with a
business-like jerk held it in the air with the revolver pointing to the
ceiling.

"That'll do, my lord duke," he said with playful insistence.  "Better
let me take care of that.  It's a dangerous plaything."

But the duke's characteristic under-estimation of the power of the
British police system prompted him to resist and to struggle violently
to release his hand.  Mr. Doutfire gave a well-understood nod to his
subordinate, and that functionary smartly acting upon it, came behind
the duke and pinioned his arms.  Next moment the revolver was detached
by a knowing professional trick, and was in Mr. Doutfire's pocket.
"You can let go, Tugby," he said with calm authority, and the raging
noble was free to dance and gesticulate in a very tornado of rage.

He was understood to intimate that the insult put upon him, a Duke of
Salolja and a Grandee of Spain, by a mere paltry English policeman, in
not allowing him free vent for his display of _force majeure_ and
homicidal proclivities was one which would not only be the cause of
private and personal bloodshed, but would in all human probability
result in a devastating war between the two Powers, from which the
least unpleasant outcome England could expect would be the loss of
Gibraltar and the bulk of the British fleet.  Mr. Doutfire received the
intelligence with a tolerant stolidity.  Custom had made him impervious
to threats and sceptical of the practical value of vindictive
utterances.  His scornful and unmoved attitude had the effect of
raising to a still higher pitch the rage of the Spanish fire-eater, who
seemed now to have lost all that self-control which before had been so
telling.  He had, in fact, become inebriated with wrath and excitement.

"Scoundrel, villain!" he cried, shaking both fists in the air before
the imperturbable Doutfire.  "You lay your ignoble hands on the Duke of
Salolja!  I will have your life."

"Steady!  Steady!" responded Mr. Doutfire in a tone of gentle warning.

"I shall not steady," roared the duke, whose face had now assumed the
look of the false nose, eyes and moustache of a carnival mask.  "You
shall not defy me.  You shall go this moment, or I will run you through
your wretched body."

With a sudden dart he snatched up the sword from the floor and began a
series of flourishes which threatened seriously to embarrass Mr.
Doutfire.  "Steady, now," commanded that gentleman, but instead of
complying, the duke seemed to be ferociously bent on selecting a
suitable point of impact in the detective's thick-set figure.

"Lay hold, Tugby."

The duke comprehending the order, jumped round swiftly, bringing the
sword point in opposition to Mr. Tugby's advancing tunic.  But the
diversion was enough for Mr. Doutfire's purpose.  He seized the
Spaniard's flourishing arms from behind, then planting his knee in the
small of the ducal back, by way of purchase, he held the heir of all
the Saloljas trussed.

"Take the sword away from him," he ordered his subordinate.  "Now,"
when that was, after a short but fierce struggle, accomplished, "you
had better slip on the bracelets."

Accordingly, with some difficulty and much explosive language the hands
of a Grandee of Spain were, it is sad to relate, for the first time on
record, fastened behind his back by a pair of vulgar English handcuffs,
and the traditions of the Saloljas were, for the moment, rendered a
negligible quantity.

In his violent struggles the duke had stumbled backwards into a low and
deep-seated armchair.  From this he was, from the fact that his hands
were fastened behind him, unable to rise or regain his balance.  All he
could do was to kick furiously and to make loud use of expletives
which, although couched in the Spanish language, were obviously of an
exceedingly florid, even ensanguined, character.  To quiet him and to
prevent possible mischief, Mr. Doutfire and his underling, approaching
the job on either side from behind, each seized a ducal leg, and tucked
it in comparative harmlessness under his arm.  It may be doubted
whether in the long and blood-stained annals of the house of Salolja
any member of that distinguished and ruthless family had ever occupied
quite so undignified a position before.

"Dangerous party to deal with, my lord," remarked the panting Mr.
Doutfire jerkily, owing to the convulsions of the Salolja leg,
addressing himself impartially to the three men, any one of whom might
be Lord Quorn.  "I'm afraid we shall have to see him safe to Bunbury
and give him a night in the cells, in default of bail."

The prisoner laughed in the very impotence of his rage.  "You shall
have your absurd Great Bunbury pulled down about your ears if you do
not instantly release me," he spluttered through his teeth.

"All right, my lord duke," Doutfire returned, with a wink at the
company.  "We'll keep in the middle of the street in case the buildings
should come down on our hats.  Now, when you're ready, sir, we'll make
a move as it's getting late.  Sorry to have to put the bracelets on a
gentleman of your position, but I take the responsibility.  In this
country even dukes have got to behave themselves, and we don't allow
tricks with these dangerous playthings."

He pulled the duke up and set him on his feet, then took up the rapier
and revolver and handed them to his subordinate.

"You shall release me at once," hissed the duke through his wolfish
teeth, "or it will be the worse for you."

"All right.  We'll see about that," replied Mr. Doutfire in the tone he
might use to a naughty child.  "I understand the prisoner threatened
and assaulted you, Mr.----?" he added to Carnaby, producing his note
book.

"Yes," affirmed that valiant gentleman.  "I'm cut and stabbed all over."

"Tut!" cried the prisoner explosively.  "The fellow is a great coward.
He cries if you prick him."

"You will," continued Mr. Doutfire, unheeding the interruption, "charge
the prisoner, I presume, with feloniously cutting and wounding?"

"That's it," replied Mr. Leo, regaining confidence.

"Carnaby, you great fool, why didn't you wring his neck and fling the
little brute into the dust-hole?"

Carnaby failed to impart into his expression any regret that he had not
endeavoured to forestall the suggestion.

"Good job he didn't try it on, ma'am," observed Mr. Doutfire dryly.
"Whether he succeeded or not, in either case it might have been awkward
for him.  You'll attend at 10.30 a.m. to-morrow at the Court House,
Great Bunbury," he added.  "And some of you gentlemen had better be on
hand to give evidence if required."

He nodded to Tugby, and each taking an arm of the speechless duke they
conducted him, with certain indications of unwillingness on his part,
to the door.  This the representative of the Saloljas favoured with a
mighty kick, by way of protest and also doubtless of letting off some
of his compressed rage.  Mr. Doutfire pulled him unceremoniously back,
then, as Tugby opened the door, shot him forwards, and in such
humiliating fashion did the manacled Grandee disappear from the scene
of his brief triumph.

Those who remained were now at liberty to take more precise and less
preoccupied notice of one another.

"So I've got you at last, Lord Quorn," observed Miss Leo with somewhat
menacing satisfaction.

"No, you haven't," objected that person, coolly lighting a fresh cigar."

"Oh, haven't I?" the lady rejoined.  "You hear that, Carnaby dear?"

"Don't worry dear Carnaby," put in Peckover.  "He has got a headache."

Mr. Leo's stony stare of discomfiture did not relax to traverse the
statement.  Mechanically he put forth a great hand and poured himself
out, as in a dream, an overflowing glass of port wine.  He then, still
in a state of mental apathy, sought, with cowed and lacklustre eye, the
cigar-box and absently helped himself--to more of the contents than he
could smoke at once.  But he made no other and more relevant answer to
the bugle-call of his sister's question.  It was felt by the three men
that the legend of his doughty deeds was a myth; as a terrorist he
belonged to ancient history.



CHAPTER XLI

The hour of 10.30 next morning saw the depository of the Salolja
traditions, a defiant and fretful Castilian porcupine with quills
erect, standing in the dock of an occasional court, composed of one
alderman of Great Bunbury (incidentally a family grocer), one
public-spirited local doctor, and a couple of fussy half-pay colonels,
to answer the serious charges of threatening to murder divers of His
Majesty's subjects, and also with feloniously stabbing and wounding
another, to wit, one Carnaby Leo, described somewhat vaguely as of
Australia.

Mr. Doutfire here saw an opportunity for more than regaining some loss
of prestige which he had lately incurred, of course through no fault of
his, but of a cheese-paring Treasury; and moreover for handing his name
down with undying fame in the criminal annals of Great Bunbury.

The Duke of Salolja insisted upon regarding the whole business as
beneath his serious notice.  His line of defence was to maintain a
haughty and contemptuous silence, at the same time to shrivel up his
very common-place judges by focussing upon them in turn his most
ferociously fascinating glare.  Alas!  He misjudged the stuff of which
British parochial authority is composed.  Even if he had succeeded in
terrifying the retired colonels, there was still the florid general
practitioner to reduce to a quite improbable state of collapse, and it
is well known that a family grocer fears nothing in this world--except
another family grocer.

Evidence sufficient to justify a remand was taken, and the prisoner,
who seemed to emit sparks of indignation was told that he would
eventually be sent to Quarter Sessions.  Then in pursuance of a plan
which Peckover had concocted overnight, Gage and Lord Quorn offered
themselves as bail for the duke.  This was, after some demur and
difference of opinion, accepted, the two colonels being dead against
allowing a foreigner of homicidal tendencies to be at large, while the
doctor and the grocer took a higher position and declared themselves in
favour of doing no act that should endanger the _entente cordiale_
between Great Britain and Spain.  So finally, bail was accepted for the
duke's appearance on the following Saturday.

Upon his release from durance his sureties and Peckover sought an
interview with the irate nobleman, and, ignoring certain dark and
direful threats, gently but convincingly hinted to him that the only
way to avoid a considerable term of imprisonment with its incidental
tarnish on the scutcheon of the Saloljas was to lose no time in putting
the English Channel and the republic of France, to say nothing of the
Pyrenees, between himself and the Great Bunbury Bench.  At first the
duke, pulsating with a sense of injury, declared that sooner than run
away from a handful of English shopkeepers, he would put the whole of
the inhabitants of Great Bunbury, as given in the last census return,
to the edge of the sword.  On its being pointed out to him, however,
that his plan, attractive in itself, was deficient in certain elements
of feasibility, he consented to meet the objection by reducing the
number of his intended victims, and intimated that his thirst for blood
might be satisfied by the immolation of the mayor and corporation, the
heads of the fire brigade and the police force, the town clerk, town
crier, the station master and a picked half-dozen of the principal
tradesmen on the altar of his vengeance.

When he was made aware of certain practical objections which stood in
the way of the town of Great Bunbury falling in with this modified
suggestion, the noble Castilian proposed as a last alternative that he
should meet a selected dozen men of the township's best blood in a
suitable arena, and should engage these representatives one after the
other in a duel _à outrance_.  On this proposal being ruled out of
order owing to the deplorably faulty state of the English law, the
duke, glaring and bristling with suppressed vindictiveness, declared
that he must do something to remove the stain that had been cast upon
him and his house; whereupon Peckover suggested that the best thing he
could do to prevent the said stain from spreading would be to disguise
himself as the representative of a firm of Spanish claret merchants,
and take the 1.15 train on the way to Dover.

This plan did not, however, commend itself to the representative of a
Spanish house, whose trade appeared to be, not the bottling, but the
spilling, of claret of a very different type.  "It is very amusing,
very clever of you, gentlemen," he objected in withering scorn.  "You
wish to get me out of the way that you may pay court to Miss Buffkin.
I am not an idiot."

"You'll be a convict this day fortnight if you don't clear out,"
remarked Peckover.  "Great Bunbury is not to be trifled with."

The duke laughed discordantly.  "Great Bunbury!  It makes me laugh."

"You'll have plenty of time for laughing," observed Peckover, "in jail.
You can do a lot of smiling in twelve calendar months if you stick to
it."

The duke snapped his fingers, but he looked uneasy, and the snap wanted
tone.  Perhaps the fingers were clammy.  "I shall not go," he
maintained, "till I have killed some one in Great Bunbury."

"Not good enough," argued Peckover.  "If you kill anybody here you'll
be hanged.  And you couldn't kill anybody worth a duke's being hanged
for.  Why, the best man you could select for the purpose in the town
wouldn't rise above an auctioneer or a brewer.  It wouldn't be a fair
deal."

Still the duke was obstinate.  "I marry the adorable Buffkin," he
declared, "in spite of Great Bunbury."

"All right.  Here she is," said Gage, pointing to an open carriage
which was approaching.

A portmanteau shared the box with the driver.  Inside were three
people, Lady Ormstork, Miss Buffkin and a middle-aged man with
greyish-red hair and a face which partook curiously of the
characteristics of the fox and the sheep.  He was a common-looking
person, and, as such, had the air of being out of place in that company.

Lady Ormstork stopped the carriage and hailed the group on the
pavement.  "My dear Lord Quorn, this is fortunate," she exclaimed,
addressing her remark to the three possible holders of that title, with
a leaning towards Gage.  "What absurd goings on at Staplewick!  How
d'you do, duke?  I always said your wilful ignorance of our English
ideas would land you in trouble.  Well, and how has the ridiculous
business at the Court House gone off?  Laughed out of court, I presume."

As the duke seemed inclined to impart no more precise information than
could be gathered from a bow and a scowl, Peckover answered the
question.  "Remanded on bail."

Lady Ormstork threw up her hands in amused horror.  "A Salolja, a
Grandee of Spain, remanded on bail by a bench of provincial
cheese-mongers!" she cried.  "Really, it is the very acme of the
ridiculous.  It is only fit for a burlesque.  My dearest Ulrica, do
think of it!  Oh, dear me, it is too absurd for comment."  And she went
off in a fit of rather stagey laughter.

"It is no laughing matter--for somebody," hissed the duke darkly.

Lady Ormstork's burst ended with an abruptness which suggested a doubt
as to its genuineness.  "It is really so diverting," she said, "that I
am forgetting to introduce Mr. Buffkin, dear Ulrica's father, to Lord
Quorn."

The inference to be drawn from Mr. Buffkin's demeanour was that he was
not in the habit of being suddenly presented to peers of the realm.
Lord Quorn, however, relieved his embarrassment by seizing his hand
with a cordial grip.  "Glad you've come down," he remarked, with his
eyes on Mr. Buffkin's daughter.

"Pleased to meet your lordship," responded Mr. Buffkin.

Lady Ormstork raised her eye-glasses in diplomatic caution.  "You don't
mean to say you are Lord Quorn, after all?" she asked with a hedging
smile.

"I'm nobody else," was the confident reply.

"He's Lord Quorn right enough," corroborated Peckover, with a chastened
confession of a truth which could no longer be kept in the well.

"How singular," murmured Lady Ormstork, only half convinced and
wondering how, if it turned out to be true, she would stand.

A professional-looking elderly man with a brief bag in his hand who had
been regarding the group with some attention now came forward.

"Lord Quorn?" he said, addressing the peer.

Quorn jumped round.  "What, Powler!" he cried.  "Just the man, in the
nick of time.  Here, you can tell this lady whether I'm Lord Quorn or
not.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is Mr. Powler, my lawyer, of the firm
of Powler, Gaze and Powler, Lincoln's Inn.  Come down to see me, eh?"

"Getting no reply to our letters since your lordship left town, I
thought I would just run down to Staplewick and see how things were
getting on," Mr. Powler explained.  "Yes," he continued, "I am quite
prepared to vouch for the identity of this gentleman as Lord Quorn."

"There!" cried Lady Ormstork, "I always said so.  What a splendid
practical joke, though, to try to take us all in.  How well you played
the part," she said guilefully to Gage.  "Dear Lord Quorn," she
continued gushingly, "this is all most interesting.  May we come up
this afternoon us usual?  Mr. Buffkin is so anxious to see beautiful
Staplewick."

"Come as soon as you like," said Quorn promptly.

"How sweet of you," murmured Lady Ormstork.  "Dear Ulrica would be
sorry to miss her daily ramble in the lovely park.  Wouldn't you, dear?"

"I dare say I should," responded Miss Buffkin indifferently, with a
half grimace at Peckover.

"I have," the duke suddenly burst out, "a word to say to Miss Ulrica.
I do myself the honour of following your distinguished carriage to The
Cracknels."

"Please don't," both ladies protested.  "I fear," the elder continued.
"I cannot, after this _esclandre_, undertake to receive you."

The duke gave a mingled shrug, scowl and bow.  "It plunges me into
despair," he said, with just a suspicion of sarcasm, "to be deprived of
the supreme happiness of milady Ormstork's coveted society.  Perhaps,
though, I may be humbly permitted an interview with the distinguished
Mr. Buffkin?"

Mr. Buffkin, whose distinction required the penetrating eye of the
Spaniard to notice it, and whose conversational powers did not seem to
be of a high order, looked aggressively uncomfortable.  "Is this," he
inquired bluntly, "the Spanish gentleman who has been pestering
Barbara--I mean Ulrica--with his attentions?"

The duke made a prancing step on the pavement.  "Pestering?" he
repeated hoarsely, pulling his moustache with nervous fury.

"That," replied Lady Ormstork uncompromisingly, "is the person; the
Duke of Salolja."

"I have," said the duke, with a flourish, "the honour to desire a
matrimonial alliance with your gracious and adorable daughter."

"No, thank you."  Mr. Buffkin's voice was high-pitched, almost squeaky,
and quite common.  "We don't desire any foreign alliance."

"As Duchesse de Salolja"--began the duke.

"No good," interrupted Mr. Buffkin, with a decisive shake of his very
commercial-looking head.  "Spanish titles are not a line I care to
handle.  I've told Bar--Ulrica she can marry whom she likes, but if
it's a foreigner, duke or fiddler, she'll have to do it on three
hundred a year."

The Salolja lip curled.  "His excellency jests.  The renowned
millionaire Buffkin allows his daughter, the Duchesse de Salolja, three
hundred pounds a year!  It is rich!"

Mr. Buffkin looked particularly irresponsive.  "Who says I am a
millionaire?" he demanded shrilly.  The duke bowed and indicated Lady
Ormstork.  "A _façon de parler_," that lady explained.  "Anyhow, a very
rich man."

"Divide it by ten," said Mr. Buffkin with a twinkle.

The duke looked suddenly chastened, not to say depressed.  "The
glorious Miss Ulrica," he said with an obvious effort, "would be an
inestimable prize without a penny of dowry."

"That's about what she'll have if she marries you," returned Mr.
Buffkin, whose eloquence, if not exactly copious, was considerably to
the point.

"Shall we drive on?" suggested Lady Ormstork.  "_Au revoir_, Lord
Quorn," she gushed.  "Till this afternoon, then.  _Au revoir_, Mr.
Gage."  Not knowing Peckover's name, since the reshuffle, she
discreetly left him out.

But Ulrica's parting nod was for him alone.

As the carriage rolled away up the High Street the duke was the first
to speak.

"What time does that infernal train leave your unsavoury town of Great
Bunbury?" he inquired.



CHAPTER XLII

Sharnbrook had called at Staplewick for an authoritative version of
certain blood-curdling rumours which had reached him, and he stayed to
luncheon.

"Wish I'd known you were having such a thrilling time," he said
regretfully.  "I'd have come up and helped.  Well, I say, with this new
twist of the Quorn title our fair friends at the Moat will get a nasty
shake, eh?  I'm ever so grateful for the way you fellows have relieved
the pressure of the fair dodgers; they've eased off wonderfully of
late, and I've got my wind again."

"Glad to hear it," observed Peckover.  "Always willing to oblige a
sportsman."

"Ah," said Sharnbrook in a gratified tone, "if I'd only known you were
having fits with that little Spanish bantam, I'd have brought along a
rare good bull-dog that would have reduced him to fragments and pulp
inside three minutes.  A nailing beast, knows his business from A to Z
and quite a picture when he's----"

"The little devil of a duke would have put a bullet through him," said
Gage, "and that would have been a pity."

"Yes," Sharnbrook agreed, "that wouldn't have suited me.  I've only had
the beggar a month, and have just got fond of him."

"Even a Spanish bluffer has his uses," observed Gage.  "He has knocked
the stuffing out of Quorn's bush-ranger."

"Yes," said Quorn, "that brute has no more terrors for me; I suppose,
though, I shall have him and Lalage hanging about the place till I can
afford to send them back."

"Better keep the fire-irons out of the way," remarked Peckover.

"I'll send the precious pair back home for you, if you don't get the
Buffkin money," said Gage magnanimously.  "After all, I owe you
something.  I can't say I've had much fun out of your title, and hope
you'll do better with it.  But it has been an experience, and I
certainly shan't hanker after the peerage again."

Quorn thanked him.  "Hope you'll stay on here as long as you fancy," he
said.

Gage shook his head.  "No thanks.  I'm off to-morrow.  Too much Hemyock
about for me.  But I'll run down later and see what you're making of
it."

"What's going to become of you?" he asked Peckover.  "Got anything more
to sell that doesn't belong to you?"

"You can't blame me," Peckover protested.  "I kept to my part of the
bargain as long as you had any use for it.  And I couldn't help it.  If
you hadn't made a bid for the title I should have had to take it on
myself."

"Right you are," responded Gage good-humouredly.  "Well, you had better
come with me and show me round.  You can draw £300 a year as my
secretary."

"I'm your man," said Peckover with alacrity.  "What I don't show you
won't be worth seeing."

Lady Ormstork with Mr. and Miss Buffkin was announced.

The dowager was full of gush.  "Dear Lord Quorn!  What an amusing
incognito!  Quite like the lord of Burleigh.  One can quite understand
your wishing to put people's real affection to the test."

"We won't inquire how the article stood it," Quorn replied bluntly.

"Quite romantic, as dear Ulrica was saying," the lady proceeded, quite
unabashed.  "May we, before going out, look round the picture gallery?
Mr. Buffkin would so like to see the interesting family portraits and
wonderful old armour."

If Mr. Buffkin's expression was meant to be corroborative it was a
distinct failure.  Whatever sentiment might have been read in his
commercial face, a yearning for the satisfying of an artistic curiosity
was not there.

No objection to the proposal being made, the party proceeded to what
Peckover called the ancestral showroom.

"Won't you look after dear Ulrica and show her round?" Lady Ormstork
said pointedly to Quorn when the somewhat dreary gallery was reached.

Quorn, nothing loath, attached himself forthwith to Miss Buffkin, who
had somehow gravitated to the now negligible Peckover.  "Now, Mr.
Peckover," he said bluffly, "you ought to know all about these fifth of
November Johnnies.  Give us a bit of the showman.  Take us round the
effigies, and don't be too long about it."

On account, perhaps, of Miss Buffkin's obvious preference, Peckover was
in higher spirits than his lot seemed to warrant.

"All right," he responded, pulling a ramrod from an ancient gun for use
as a showman's wand.  "Here goes!  Lord Quorn, ladies and gentlemen:
with a view to combining instruction with amusement, I propose to give
you some points concerning these noble effigies with which the spacious
apartment is lined.  True, it is only the outer crusts of these
distinguished warriors and sportsmen that I am able to bring to your
notice.  The kernels are all gone, and the shells are--hem!--left
tenantless.  But, as in these days the tailor makes the man, so we may
say that in olden times the blacksmith made him, from which we may
conclude that we have the best part," he tapped a suit of armour with
his wand, "of the noble house of Quorn remaining with us to this day."

"Hear!  hear!" cried Sharnbrook, with more appreciation than tact,
while Miss Buffkin laughed sympathetically.

"The clockwork has long since run down," continued Peckover finding the
vocabulary of his former vocation coming in usefully; "the striking
gear is out of order, on account of the dust getting into it.  The
hands can point no longer, and the faces have lost their enamel.  But
we have still the cases--some plain, like this,"--he tapped a suit of
plate armour--"some engine turned, like that," pointing to an inlaid
suit, "some with open faces, like this yawner," he rattled his wand in
the cavity of a vizorless helmet, "some hunters, like this prancer,"
indicating an equestrian portrait.  "To begin at the beginning."  He
held up a dilapidated helmet in one hand and in the other a fragment of
armour.  "Sir Guy de Quorn, founder of the family."

There was a laugh from everybody, although Lady Ormstork's was rather
belated, that astute dowager's sense of humour being outweighed by her
concern at seeing that Ulrica was paying more attention to the flippant
little showman than to the more solid worth of Lord Quorn.

"Not much of him remaining," Peckover went on.  "Ladies and gentlemen
of vivid powers of imagination may reconstruct in their minds from
these scanty materials the noble mien, the imposing figure, of this
doughty warrior.  Pass on to Sir Nicholas de Quorn," he pointed to the
suit of armour that stood next, "in a high state of preservation.  A
mighty man of valour, who had the advantage of living in times when he
could knock a man out for sneezing in his presence without being liable
to forty shillings or a month.  Sir Nicholas spent a useful life in
trying his muscle and weight on other people, and was getting his name
up nicely, when unfortunately setting out to attack the castle of an
absent neighbour in a thunderstorm, his lance acted as a lightning
conductor, and he was prematurely cremated.  Notice the aperture
through which the electric fluid tunnelled its way to his knightly
vitals, and the look of blank astonishment with a dash of 'uffiness on
the champion's visage."

The said visage being indeed a blank, this fancy seemed to tickle even
the unimaginative Mr. Buffkin.  Peckover now directed attention to a
weird-looking portrait.  "Sir Penning de Quorn, surnamed the Feckless.
He never did anything distinguished, and only escaped being made
Commander-in-Chief through one of the Royal Family fancying himself in
a cocked hat."  He passed to another canvas.  "Sir Brian de
Quorn--sometimes called the Buffer, as nothing made any impression on
him.  He married four wives, three of whom survived him."

Sharnbrook guffawed, and Lady Ormstork looked scandalized.

"Sir Walter the Willing," proceeded Peckover, working up the showman
business, as he pointed to the next portrait, "a distinguished
advertising politician.  He pushed his way to the front and became a
Cabinet Minister by his imitations of popular jesters, and by dyeing
his raven locks crimson with a secret wash which he purchased from a
bald Crusader who had no further use for it.  When at length the supply
failed and the substitutes he tried to manufacture turned his hair
green, and by their offensive odour left him alone on the Treasury
Bench he was soon sent to the Upper House, becoming first Baron Quorn."

Mr. Buffkin, for an out-of-place, commercial Philistine seemed, to
Peckover's gratification, to be taking in the lecture with genuine
amusement.

Thus stimulated, the showman proceeded, "Harboro' de Quorn," he tapped
a sporting portrait, "second Baron Quorn, and inventor of the Quorn
Hunt.  He induced the noble Normans to abandon the shooting of foxes
which they consented to, owing to gunpowder being in its infancy, guns
taking a quarter of an hour to load and fire, and the wily animal being
hard to hit with a bow and arrow.  He was the first M.F.H., and having
an impediment in his speech he originated the expression, Yoicks!
which, being interpreted, was his bovrilized way of cursing people who
rode over the hounds."

"Good man," ejaculated Sharnbrook.

Peckover, encouraged by Ulrica's animated interest, went on with his
lecture in spite of Lady Ormstork's obvious impatience.  His next
object was a big suit of armour on which he irreverently rattled his
wand.  "We now come to the third Baron, Marmaduke, surnamed the Masher.
His fatal gift of beauty was the cause of some anxiety--to the married
nobility, clergy and gentry of his acquaintance.  He was, as you will
observe, very particular about the cut of his armour and the shape of
his helmet, which was constructed with an extra-size pigeon-hole, in
order that the full extent of his handsome physiognomy might be
utilized to dazzle the doting damsels.  His end, ladies and gentlemen,
was, I regret to say, a somewhat melancholy and unusual one.  While
drinking a stirrup-cup, and trying at the same time to wink over the
brim of the goblet at the young lady behind the bar, a portion of the
pick-me-up went down the wrong way; to correct which mistake his
faithful squire seized a spade and smote him therewith on the back.
The clang of the blow on his armour startled his horse, which took to
bucking, and at the first attempt laid the coughing nobleman in the
ditch.  He never wunk again.  Notice the rectangular impression of the
shovel between the shoulders, also the extra-sized sliding kissing-trap
of the helmet so contrived for the purpose of simplifying the process
of osculation to which he was addicted."

A marked diversion was here created by the entrance at the farther end
of the gallery of Bisgood ushering in the entire Hemyock family.  Their
arrival was not greeted with that cordiality which is usually desirable
and customary; it was, indeed, anything but welcome to any except two
of the party.  As Quorn, followed by the rest, went forward to receive
the visitors, Peckover and Miss Buffkin lingered behind together.

"Like to see the view from the Tower?" he suggested with a grin.
Ulrica laughed and they slipped unnoticed through a covered door.  From
an octagonal chamber a winding stairway led up to the tower.  "Come
along," said Peckover elatedly.

Ulrica with a mischievous laugh followed, and they soon emerged at the
top where floated a tattered flag from a tall staff.

"How lovely," Miss Buffkin exclaimed.

"Never mind the view," said Peckover desperately.  "How do you like the
new Lord Quorn?"

Ulrica pouted.  "I don't see myself Lady Quorn," she answered with a
certain amount of decision.

"No," Peckover agreed with conviction.  "He's not a bad sort, but he
wouldn't be my fancy if I were a pretty girl."

"He's too glumpy for me," Ulrica declared.  "And what's more I'm not
going to have him."

"What'll the guv'nor say?" Peckover asked dubiously.

Miss Buffkin laughed.  "Oh, father won't mind.  You see," she went on
confidentially, "this coronet racket isn't his idea at all.  Not it."

"Yours?"

"Not likely.  It is old Ormstork's.  We ran across her at the Grand
Oceanic at Harrogate.  She hung on to us like a stoat on a rabbit.  We
couldn't make her game out, till one day she asked father what odds he
would lay her that I didn't marry a peer.  And she has been dragging me
about the country ever since, till it has fairly come to pall."

"I should think so," observed Peckover sympathetically.

"I don't know," she continued, "how many noble heads I've been thrown
at.  But somehow I've always managed to rebound, and sometimes hit the
old lady in the eye.  You see, I like a live man, not a stuffed peer,
with about as much soul as a gramaphone."

"I wish I was a peer," he said ruefully.  "I'm alive all right."

"So you are," she agreed, gazing round the depressing park.

"Yes," he said with a wistful touch, "you said you liked me once, when
you thought I was something else."

"What was that?" she inquired naively.

"A rich chap; a millionaire."

"Well, aren't you?" she demanded.

"Not exactly," he answered rather lugubriously.  "That dream's over.
We've been playing a queer game, but it has come to an end sooner than
I expected.  I'm a poor devil again now, and there's all about it."

For a moment Ulrica's violet eyes rested on him sympathetically.  Then
they looked away and seemed to be interested in the distant figure of
Mr. Treacher who was slouching across the landscape.

"If people are poor," she said presently in a low voice from which all
feeling was rigidly excluded, "it doesn't make any difference with me,
when I like them."

Peckover jumped up.  He could do no less.  "Ulrica," he said and his
voice trembled, "you like me?  Yes, you said you did once.  But I can't
hold you to that for I was a regular fraud when I got you to say it."

Miss Buffkin gave a little sigh, and with a lingering glance at the
uninteresting Mr. Treacher, turned towards the stairway.  "All right,"
she said with an affectation of indifference.  "I think I hear some one
climbing after us."

The steps were steep and awkward.  He had to take her hand, and at the
touch his resolution (more honourable than many a better-bred man would
have formed) gave way.  "Ulrica," he said with a diffident tremor, "you
couldn't care for a little nobody like me?"

She was gathering up her skirts for the descent.  "I always rather
liked you," she confessed.

"You wouldn't marry me?"

"What would Lady Ormstork say?" she objected archly.

"Ulrica, you are not fooling me?"

"Not much," she answered.  "By the way, my real name is Barbara.  Only
the old lady thought Ulrica more classy, and so it had to be Ulrica."

In an instant he had sprung to the top step and his arms were round
her.  "Barbara, my darling."

"Hark!" she protested struggling.

From below came Lady Ormstork's insistent call.

"Barbara, quick!  Is it to be?"

"Poor old Ormstork."

"Bother her.  It's your father."

"I think he likes you.  You're rather his sort, and Q. isn't," she said
over her shoulder as she went down the winding stairs.

At the bottom stood Lady Ormstork looking properly scandalized.  Apart
from her charge's escapade, her meeting with Lady Agatha had not been
conducive to serenity.

"My dearest Ulrica," she said sourly, "how absurd of you to hide
yourself away up in that horrid tower.  Lord Quorn is hunting for you
everywhere."

"I'm so glad he hasn't found me yet," was the not very soothing reply.

"Are you mad, girl?" cried the dowager.

"Not yet.  If I marry Quorn you may inquire again."

Lady Ormstork's indignation was so great that she could only glare,
first at Ulrica, then at Peckover.  "Is this," she demanded in her most
withering tones, "the sort of person you prefer to Lord Quorn?"

"All things considered, it is," answered Ulrica boldly.

"You hear that?" screamed the irate dowager to Mr. Buffkin, who had
just appeared in his flight from the embarrassing position of a target
for the shafts of the Hemyock family.  "Your daughter actually refuses
the ennobling alliance which I have been at such pains to arrange for
her."

"I'm not exactly surprised to hear it," was the unsympathetic reply.

"Perhaps you will be to learn that your daughter has the unheard-of
wrongheadedness to prefer a person of this most equivocal description,"
Lady Ormstork indicated Peckover with a contemptuous wave of her
glasses, "to Lord Quorn."

"Ah," said Mr. Buffkin with provoking foolishness.  "I dare say she
prefers some one lively, and I don't blame her."

"But--but," urged Lady Ormstork, almost speechless with discomfiture,
"do you call this person a good match?"

"I should say he matches her better than the lord," was the hopeless
reply.

"That's right, father," observed Miss Buffkin.

Lady Ormstork turned and without another word went into the gallery,
the others following at a safe distance.


The enlightenment of the Hemyock family as to the identity of the real
Lord Quorn had been, for obvious reasons, delayed by the parties most
interested in keeping them in the dark.  But now that the new-found
peer was not to fall to Lady Ormstork's bag, that spiteful dowager
determined to let the cat out of it.

"May I order my carriage, Lord Quorn?" she said in her most distinct
and penetrating tones.  "It is getting late."

As Quorn rose in his lumbering fashion and rang the bell, the Hemyock
girls who had been gaily chattering to Gage became abruptly silent, and
Lady Agatha looked stonily nonplussed.

"Lord Quorn?" she said, with a brave attempt at a successful smile.
"Surely this is not Lord Quorn?"

"I'm nobody else," Quorn assured her bluffly.

"How very singular," said Lady Ormstork icily, "that you should not
have known it."

"Not at all," rejoined Lady Agatha promptly.  "We have for weeks past
understood this gentleman was Lord Quorn."

"I didn't like to contradict you," said Gage on being indicated.

Lady Agatha, for once too dumfounded for speech, could only give a
significant look of appeal to her daughters.  And at the look John
Arbuthnot Sharnbrook, who had taken the precaution to get near the
door, opened it quietly and slipped out.

Meanwhile the brown eyes of Miss Ethel and the black orbs of Miss
Dagmar were fastened searchingly on Lord Quorn, and they transmitted to
their owners the impression that he was not an attractive personage.
In truth there was yet a good deal of the Jenkins about him.  His
clothes looked as though he had been in the habit of going to bed in
them, and his hair cried out for the barber.  For the moment, at any
rate, he was not to be jumped at, and with that conviction the original
impulse to spring was stilled.  Lady Agatha rose, with a lofty ignoring
of Lady Ormstork's exultant smile.

"If," she said to Gage, "you are not Lord Quorn, as you have all along
thought proper to pretend to be, may one ask who you are?"

"I am Peter Gage," he answered with a touch of amusement.

The eyes of Lady Agatha and her daughters met, and all that could be
read in them was an indignant perplexity.

"It is all very extraordinary."  Colonel Hemyock's thin voice sounded
through the room, but his family heeded it not.  Their minds were busy
with the enigma of the position which was too complicated, not to say
suspicious, to be comprehended at once.  Only one thing in all the
business seemed safe, and their minds jumped together to it.  They
recoiled, as by a single impulse, from the unattractive personality of
Lord Quorn, from the doubtful individualities of Gage and Peckover, and
their eyes by common consent sought the spot where their sheet-anchor
had lately rested.

"Sharnbrook!"

"Where is he?"

They ran a dead heat to the door, charged through it, and so out into
the garden.  But John Arbuthnot Sharnbrook's start served him well, and
he was at that moment sprinting homewards down the drive with a canny
smile on his simple face.



Butler & Tanner, The Selwood Printing Works, Frome, and London.



_WORKS BY THE SAME AUTHOR._


THE MASTER SPIRIT

_Liverpool Post_ says:--"The study of the prostrate man giving the best
of his brains to the assistance of Herriard is beyond all praise.  It
is one more variant of the 'double' theory, but it is one of the best
achievements of its kind."

_The Tribune_ says:--"It must be admitted that Sir Wm. Magnay knows
London life better than many novelists, that his men talk like
gentlemen, and that his pictures of society are clever and truthful."

_The Manchester City News_ says:--"This well written and attractive
story outlines a true picture of the vanities and insincerities of
fashionable society in London."

_The Road_ says:--"Few plots in even the best up-to-date novels of
to-day are as strongly drawn as this one, which has all the freshness
of absolute novelty to recommend it."

_The Court Journal_ says:--"The intensely interesting situation is
developed with much ingenuity and power.  It is a capital story, told
with far more literary skill than is usual.  A really fascinating
story."



FAUCONBERG

_The Daily Telegraph_ says:--"Good and well written, readable from
opening chapter to finish."

_The Illustrated Mail_ says:--"The story teems with incident, moves
briskly and as a narrative is very readable."

_The Field_ says:--"The ultimate fate of Fauconberg is always in doubt
from the beginning to the unexpected ending.  The book has grip and
should be a success."

_The Aberdeen Journal_ says:--"From start to finish the story is full
of striking situations and Fauconberg will unfailingly appeal to all
who love a vigorously told narrative."



THE RED CHANCELLOR

_Lloyd's News_ says:--"One of the most readable novels of the adventure
type that we have taken up.  A story full of action with its characters
strongly drawn.  Adventures and hair-breadth escapes abound, the style
is refreshingly crisp, and the book altogether is one that can be most
heartily recommended."

_The King_ says:--"A romance of stirring adventure.  Excitingly
narrated, and the book in every way ought to prove one of the best
reading romances of the season."

_The Swansea Gazette_ says:--"A very thrilling and interesting book,
and commands in every page the reader's attention."

_The Irish Times_ says:--"A most thrilling story, well written and
cleverly put together, the romance is a fascinating one."

_Public Opinion_ says:--"It positively bristles with adventure.  A
capital book, wildly exciting."

_The Daily Telegraph_ says:--"A story which is distinctly good."



THE MYSTERY OF THE UNICORN

An absorbing romance of modern life, depending for its interest quite
as much on its vivid pictures of society as on its more sensational
incidents.  Mr. E. F. Benson and Mr. Robert Hichens have more than once
achieved the same effect in the weaving of stories of tense dramatic
interest, and the present book is a strong and clever specimen of its
class.  Without sacrificing the probabilities the author realizes with
great skill the element of strangeness which often carries the
circumstances of modern life even to the verge of fantasy.  It is an
engrossing story, cleverly set forth.



A PRINCE OF LOVERS

_The World_ says:--"This story is delightful; full of life and
movement, genuine human nature, and the stir of love and grief, good
fortune and evil with so much reality in the persons on the stage that
they enlist sympathy or excite animosity as fully as the author needs
to desire.  The stars which Sir William Magnay has selected and set
shining for us in an atmosphere well suited for their radiance are very
bright and particular indeed."

_The Dundee Courier_ says:--"We commend this book to any one on the
look out for a thrilling, fascinating, and skilfully narrated tale.
Each chapter abounds in exciting situations and daring deeds, one's
anxiety to know what comes next increasing as the story unfolds."

_The Portsmouth Times_ says:--"A brilliant romance crowded with
stirring incident and is never for a moment dull."

_The Morning Leader_ says:--"The story is spirited and exciting and may
be read with pleasure by all who enjoy a stirring romance."

_The Scotsman_ says:--"The story is full of exciting adventures
skilfully narrated.  Swords are whirling in every page and so thrilling
are the incidents that each chapter breeds anxiety to know the events
of the next."

_The Athenæum_ says:--"Sir Wm. Magnay wafts us away to the realms of
pure romance, where the hard facts of a prosaic century are forgotten
in the Hercynian Forest of two hundred years ago.  The princess is
loveliest of the lovely, the villains craftiest of the crafty; gallant
deeds are done and gallant words are spoken, and the whole flows
smoothly on to a happy conclusion, leaving the reader under a debt of
gratitude for a pleasing entertainment."

_The Birmingham Post_ says:--"The reader's enjoyment will be enhanced
by delightful touches of humour which the author has interspersed among
the many exciting and dramatic scenes of a stirring chronicle."

_The Liverpool Post_ says:--"A book that maintains interest at a high
pitch from start to finish, and should command immediate success."



THE MAN OF THE HOUR

_The Aberdeen Free Press_ says:--"Abounds in striking situations and is
dominated throughout by strong dramatic power."

_The Court Journal_ says:--"It is certainly one of the books of the
hour, very interesting and distinctly clever."

_The Dundee Courier_ says:--"The story is admirably constructed and
highly dramatic."

_Vanity Fair_ says:--"A very remarkably good story, told with much
force and lightened by some very humorous observations of life and
people."



COUNT ZARKA

_The Bristol Mercury_ says:--"A magnificent tribute to the author's
power of imagination.  It is well written; the author keeping his
characters in hand with marvellous skill, and works out an intricate
plot to a dramatic conclusion."

_The Yorkshire Herald_ says:--"Full of excitement.  The plot hangs upon
the disappearance of a Prince who has been kidnapped by Count Zarka,
his foe, who condemns him to cruel torture, and imprisons him in a
cunningly devised room in his castle.  The story of the discovery of
the Prince and of the final defeat of Zarka is a stirring one, and
there is a strong love interest throughout the romance, which is
heightened in the scene where the heroine is induced to fight a duel
with swords by Zarka's jealous mistress."

_The World says_:--"Sir William Magnay's novel _Count Zarka_ is a
clever and entertaining story; it affords us glimpses of forest scenery
which we like, and one remarkable departure from beaten tracks, a
woman's duel in earnest."

_The Dundee Courier_ says:--"The story is brightly and thrillingly
told, and holds one through all its three hundred odd pages."





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