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Title: Alf's Button
Author: Darlington, W. A.
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 "Alf's Button" ***

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ALF'S BUTTON

BY W. A. DARLINGTON

[Illustration: Decoration]

NEW YORK
FREDERICK A. STOKES COMPANY
PUBLISHERS


_First published in America by_ FREDERICK A. STOKES COMPANY
_in 1920_



FOREWORD


It is a curious fact that since the death of the late lamented Aladdin,
nothing seems to have been heard of his wonderful Lamp. Mr. Arthur
Collins and other students of ancient lore have been able, after
patient research, to reconstruct for us the man Aladdin in his habit as
he lived and to place before our eyes a faithful picture of his times.
Alike in literature and on the stage the Lamp plays an all-important
part; and this makes it all the more strange that its subsequent
history should have been so entirely lost.

I myself incline to the theory that Aladdin allowed the secret of his
talisman to die with him, and that his widow disposed of an object
whose presence in her husband's collection of articles of "bigotry and
virtue" she had always resented, for what it would fetch. Its tradition
once broken, we cannot suppose that an old battered lamp bearing on
one portion of its surface a half-effaced inscription in forgotten
characters would attract much attention as an _objet d'art_. In fact,
it would be without value or interest except to a scholar learned
enough to interpret the inscription aforesaid--which may be rendered in
our tongue "Rub Lightly."

All this, however, is mere conjecture. It is based on my knowledge,
accidentally gained, that a lamp of this description formed part of a
job lot of "assorted curios" acquired by the Government with a view
to subsequent reissue in the form of buttons for soldiers' tunics.
This fact, taken in conjunction with the unusual events I am about to
relate, does lend a certain color to the theory which I support; but of
solid proof I can of course offer nothing.

Some of Alf Higgins' adventures have previously appeared in _The
Passing Show_. The Editor of that paper, by the interest he showed in
Alf, has incurred the grave responsibility of encouraging me to write
this book about him.



CONTENTS

CHAPTER                                         PAGE
      FOREWORD                                   iii

   I. ALF HIGGINS, RUNNER                          1

  II. ALF CLEANS HIS BUTTONS                      13

 III. THE MIRACLE OF THE PLANES                   23

  IV. THE MISGUIDED ZEAL OF EUSTACE               36

   V. EUSTACE FETCHES BEER                        49

  VI. ISOBEL'S "DREAM"                            62

 VII. EUSTACE ORDERS A BATH                       80

VIII. BLIGHTY FOR TWO                             97

  IX. LIEUTENANT DONALDSON BECOMES SUSPICIOUS    115

   X. EUSTACE BLUNDERS AGAIN                     133

  XI. THE VICAR'S WIFE OUTRAGED                  149

 XII. ALF RECEIVES                               167

XIII. P. C. JOBLING INVESTIGATES                 191

 XIV. MR. FARR'S MISGUIDED ZEAL                  206

  XV. THE CAPTURE OF MASTER BOBBY                229

 XVI. MRS. GRANT'S DIPLOMACY                     246

XVII. THE FATE OF THE BUTTON                     263


Copyright 1919 by Frederick A. Stokes Company



ALF'S BUTTON



CHAPTER I

ALF HIGGINS, RUNNER


"Very well, sergeant-major, I think that's the lot. As far as we know,
we'll take over the front line from the 4th Battalion in two days'
time. I want you to warn all the men who aren't coming up with us that
they are to go to the Transport lines to-morrow."

Captain Richards, commanding "C" Company of the 5th Battalion,
Middlesex Fusiliers, rose to his feet, snapped shut his company
roll-book and stretched himself. Sergeant-Major French, slipping a
similar though less immaculate roll-book into his breast pocket, also
rose to his feet (nearly bumping his tin-hatted head against the roof
of the dug-out as he did so) and saluted.

"Very good, sir. Good night."

"Good night, French. Oh--one moment. I'd forgotten. I want one extra
runner for Company Headquarters. Can you give me an intelligent man?"

The C.S.M. considered.

"There's only 'Iggins, sir," he said, in rather a dubious tone. "You
know the man, sir--in Mr. Allen's platoon."

Captain Richards laughed.

"You can't call him intelligent, can you?"

"No, sir. But nearly every man in the company's fixed with a job, sir.
'Iggins ain't very bright, an' 'e won't do no more than you tell 'im.
But 'e won't do no less, neither. 'E's a good soldier, and what 'e's
told to do, 'e does. I don't think we can spare anybody better, sir."

"All right. Send him down to see me."

Richards was left to his thoughts, though he was not alone. From
somewhere in the dim recesses of the dug-out came the sound of deep
regular breathing, showing where Lieutenant Donaldson was making
the most of an opportunity for rest. The remaining two officers of
"C" Company had been out all day reconnoitering the piece of front
line in which they were to relieve the 4th Battalion, and had not
yet returned. Richards found himself wishing that they would appear.
For one thing, he wanted his dinner; and for another, he was just a
shade anxious, though he would not for worlds have admitted it. Of
course, reconnoitering was always a long job, and there had not been
much shelling going on during the day. Besides, Denis Allen--senior
subaltern of the battalion and next on the list for command of a
company--was far too old a hand to run into unnecessary danger. On the
other hand, little Shaw had only just come out from England; this was
his first time in the line, and he was just the type of keen young
thing to do something foolish out of ignorance or bravado.

Richards himself, with Donaldson and the sergeant-major, had been over
the trenches the day before. It is not usual for all the officers of
a relieving company to see the ground for themselves; but this was a
piece of line quite new to the Home Counties' Territorial Division, of
which the Middlesex Fusiliers' Brigade formed part. The authorities
therefore had deemed it advisable to use even more care than usual.

It was bitterly cold. The Great Frost of January and February,
1917--the coldest spring that France had known for a period of
years variously estimated at twenty-one, a hundred and eight, and
intermediately--was still in being. Richards turned up the collar of
his British warm and longed for soup. He was just considering the
advisability of shouting to the servants to serve his dinner at once,
when there came a trampling on the stairs, a metallic clang, and some
picturesque cursing. A moment later, Denis Allen emerged from the
gloom, followed by little Shaw.

"Thank God for my tin hat," said Denis piously. "That's about the only
thing it's good for. I'd have brained myself long ago on these stairs
without it."

He divested himself of the article in question, as also of his
equipment, glasses and trench coat; these he piled upon the recumbent
form of Donaldson, bringing that warrior to a sudden and profane
wakefulness.

"Here," said Allen to Shaw, "we have the company commander sitting at
home in luxurious idleness, while we poor blighters do his work for him
outside in the cold. If you've drunk all the whisky, Dickie, there's
going to be a mutiny. I'm simply perishing. Where's the dinner?"

"Here, sir," said Private Corder, the senior servant, entering with the
soup.

"Bless you, Corder. May your shadow never grow less."

"No, sir. Please, sir, Private 'Iggins wants to see you, sir."

"Me?" said Richards. "Oh, yes, of course. Send him down in a minute,
but give me time to finish the soup first."

He warmed his fingers round the steaming mug.

"Well, Denis," he went on. "How did you like the front trenches?"

"Fine. Best lot I've seen. Top-hole duck-boards, good dug-outs, quiet
bit of line. Couldn't be better, except for the cold. Shaw here was
most impressed, and said he'd like to have shown his mother round them."

Second-Lieutenant Shaw grinned.

"Well, she gets the wind up rather, you see," he explained. "I think
she imagines the front line with a perpetual barrage playing on it
like a garden hose. I must say I didn't expect to see it _quite_ so
peaceful myself. Or so clean and tidy."

"Ah, that's the frost. I tell you, we've been grousing enough lately
about being here for the hardest frost within memory, but you've got
to remember that it does keep the water frozen up in the trench walls.
Let's pray the frost doesn't break while we're in the line."

Allen looked suddenly grave.

"I did notice a trickle of water here and there to-day," he said.
"Dickie, I'm afraid we're in for a thaw. We shall be wading up in
gum-boots in two days, you'll see. Here comes Higgins."

A nondescript private, with a straggling mustache and a pair of round,
childish blue eyes, came into the light and saluted.

"Oh, Higgins," said Captain Richards, "you're to join Company
Headquarters as a runner. D'you know the job?"

"Yes, sir. Carryin' messages."

"Yes. Well, now, I was only told to-day that I'd to have an extra one,
otherwise you'd have been sent up with the rest to look round. However,
you'd better take my trench map away with you and study the lie of the
land from it. You can read a map, I suppose?"

"No, sir."

"Not at all?"

"No, sir."

"Good Heavens, I asked for an intell--however, there's nobody else.
That will do, then, Higgins. Report to me before we move off, and do
your best."

"Yes, sir."

Private Alfred Higgins departed, marveling at the strange chance that
had elevated him to this responsible post. He was not sure whether
he was pleased or otherwise. A runner's is a business admitting of
startling variations. In a quiet sector of the line there may be no
messages to take, or at least no shells to dodge in the process; but in
a lively part of the front the runner's job is the most consistently
perilous of all. Besides this, Alf Higgins had always considered it
the wisest plan to steer carefully clear of those in authority. As a
runner, he would be in constant personal touch with his officer.

He returned to his mates with mixed feelings, and confided his news
to his bosom pal, Bill Grant, who deeply offended him by roaring with
laughter at the mere idea.

As for Sergeant Lees, Lieutenant Allen's second in command of No. 9
Platoon, he seemed to regard Higgins' latest employment as marking the
beginning of the end.

"If 'Iggins is a bright, intelligent man for a runner," he remarked
bitterly, "I may be a blinkin' brigadier yet."

Lieutenant Allen's gloomy weather predictions duly came to pass. When
the battalion moved up the thaw had begun in earnest. The water so
long imprisoned streamed out of the walls of the trenches, and the
disgusted men found themselves committed to wading five miles through
communication trenches already a foot deep in water. This water grew
visibly deeper as they went forward, till progress became difficult
and most exhausting. Richards, plugging along doggedly in front of his
company with the guide from the 4th Battalion, looked at his watch when
they had covered half the distance and found that they were already an
hour overdue. He hated being late with a relief, but greater speed was
impossible. As the flow of water increased, the sides of the trenches
began to fall in; the earth thus mixed with the water thickened it to a
consistency which might be likened to very rich soup, and the pace grew
slower still.

Now and then a dark cavern would yawn suddenly beside them, and a
ghostly glimmer in the bowels of the earth would show an inhabited
dug-out; and as the relieving party squelched slowly past, the water
in the trench would be forced above the level of the dug-out entrance,
and would flow thundering down the staircase like a miniature Niagara.
Terrible objurgations from beneath would express the inmost thoughts
of some weary warrior rudely awakened from sleep by the impact of a
cold wave of muddy water against the back of his neck. Sympathetic, but
powerless to avoid continuous repetition of the offense, the company
plodded on.

At last, four hours behind the time fixed, a husky voice out of the
darkness informed Richards that he had reached his destination.

Some time elapsed before everything had been satisfactorily handed over
and explained to the incoming company, but at last the 4th men splashed
thankfully off--to cause another series of Niagaras to descend upon
the indignant warrior aforesaid--leaving Captain Richards entirely
responsible for several hundred yards of the British front.

It was at this point, when the Company Headquarters went off to their
comparatively dry dug-out, leaving the rest of the company to their
miserable vigil on the surface, that Private Higgins realized that the
runner's lot can be a very happy one.

This opinion grew more and more pronounced as time went on. Officers
relieved each other in the front line, coming off duty covered with
wet clay nearly to the waist and scraping their breeches clean
with their knives before lying down to snatch a little rest; while
he--Higgins--lay warm and dry, with nothing to do but eat and sleep.

All was quiet up above; both armies were far too much occupied
with their own discomforts to think about adding to those of their
adversaries. Possibly, thought Higgins in a flash of foolish optimism,
his whole four days might be spent in a dry dug-out, eating and
sleeping. But he must have omitted to touch wood, for at this point he
heard his name called.

Captain Richards was holding in his hand a paper which the signaler had
just handed to him.

"Higgins," he ordered. "Take this up to Mr. Donaldson in the front line
at once, and bring back an answer. It's a report on the condition of
the front line dug-outs. Understand?"

"Yessir!"

"Are your gum-boots all right?"

"Yessir!"

"Right! Carry on!"

Higgins clambered up the steps to the surface. Before he stepped
over the dam which had been constructed round the dug-out entrance,
he glanced round. The complicated canal system, which had been the
trenches, looked even more forbidding by day than it had the previous
night, and the water looked horribly cold. But there was nothing to be
gained by waiting, and he waded off up a communication trench. Very
soon he found himself in difficulties. The trench walls had continued
to fall in, with the consequence that in places the thick soup had
become glue. Once or twice he felt his foot sticking in the viscous
stuff that had collected over the duck-boards, and had to struggle hard
before he could release himself. Suddenly, without warning, he struck
an even worse patch. Both feet were seized and held as in a vise. He
fought hard, but only sank deeper. At last, quite exhausted, he felt
his feet reach the duck-boards; and, thankful that at least he could
sink no lower, he settled down with stoical resignation to wait till
some one should come.

But an hour went by, and nothing happened; Higgins began to be hungry.
Possibly, he thought, this particular trench had been found impassable,
and traffic directed through other channels, in which case he might
never be found. Appalled by this idea, he lifted up his voice.

"Hi!" he yelled. "'Elp!"

For sole answer, a German "fish-tail" whirred overhead and burst with
great violence not far away. His own side remained as quiet as the
grave.

Higgins began to lose his head.

"'Elp! 'Elp!" he bawled, a note of panic in his voice.

"There now, duckie!" came in soothing accents from round the corner in
front of him. "Mummie's comin'! What the 'ell's the matter?"

A gum-booted, leather-jerkined private came slowly into view.

"Why," he exclaimed, "it's old Alf! Thought you was on G.H.Q. staff,
'elpin' 'Aig, Alf. What's all the row about?"

"Bringin' a message up to the orficer, an' I got stuck. Been 'ere
hours, I 'ave."

"Stuck in the 'Glue-Pot,' that's what you 'ave, ole son," said Private
Bill Grant cheerfully. "You must 'ave been a mug to use this way.
Every one's usin' number One-Eight-Oh now; it's deeper, but not so
sticky. The officer brought that message up 'isself when 'e came on
dooty. They was sayin' some nice things about you, I don't think.
You're in for it, you are, when you gets out o' that."

Higgins was past caring.

"'Ere, Bill, can't you pull me out?" he pleaded.

"Not if I knows it. That's the Glue-Pot you're in. If I started pullin'
you out, I'd get stuck there meself, that's all. You'll 'ave to stop
till arter dark, an' we'll come along over the top and 'ave yer out
with a rope. So long."

The unfeeling Bill kissed his not over-clean hand and disappeared round
the corner. Silence--broken occasionally by the sharp crack of a rifle
bullet or the explosion of a casual shell--settled down once more.
Higgins sank into a kind of stupor....

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

"Hist!" said a slightly dramatic voice above him, and he woke to a
consciousness that darkness had fallen, and that the rescue party was
at hand.

"That you, sergeant?" he asked joyfully.

"Not so loud, you blinkin' fool!" whispered Sergeant Lees fervently.
"It ain't daylight now. The Boche 'as the wind up proper, an' if 'e
'ears you there'll be 'ell on. Catch 'old o' this rope. Now then, lads,
ready? 'Eave!"

Higgins felt the rope tighten. Then came an almost intolerable strain
on his body as the six panting figures up above opposed their joint
strength to the passive resistance of his firmly-embedded gum-boots.
Something had to give somewhere. That something turned out to be
Higgins' old pair of braces, which had been forced to undertake the
support of the said boots in addition to their usual responsibility.
They snapped suddenly. The tug-of-war party collapsed in a heap, and
Alf shot into the air like a cork from a champagne-bottle (leaving
his trousers behind him) and fell again into the trench beside his
tenantless and immovable boots.

He owed it to the quick wit of Sergeant Lees that he did not become
bogged once more. His legs were already sinking in the ooze of the
Glue-Pot when the sergeant leaned over, seized him by the coat collar
and dragged him up by main force, just as his jacket split along its
whole length with a rending sound. A Boche machine-gunner, much alarmed
at the highly unusual sounds proceeding from the British lines, began
to enquire into the matter. The shell-hole into which Alf rolled for
safety happened to be full of filthy water, icy cold.



CHAPTER II

ALF CLEANS HIS BUTTONS


When the battalion moved out of the line the appearance of Private
Higgins could not be described as smart. The only person who attempted
to describe it at all was the company sergeant-major; he did it rather
well.

Higgins did not spend the remainder of his tour of duty in the
condition of indecorous discomfort in which he was hauled from the
Glue-Pot. On crawling out of his shell-hole, he first rescued his
trousers with some difficulty from inside his derelict thigh-boots, and
then made his way to the dressing-station--a large dug-out--where he
was dried and his torn jacket was roughly repaired. For the rest of his
time he wore the felt-lined leather jerkin which he had forgotten to
take with him on his former adventure; but as luck would have it he was
not required on any further errand.

The battalion left its trenches--handed over thankfully to the North
Surreys--about midnight, eight days after it had moved in. Its numbers,
in spite of the mildness of Fritz, had been sadly depleted. All
precautions notwithstanding, a large number of men had succumbed to
trench feet, and the remainder could scarcely do more than crawl. They
made their way painfully as far as the reserve trenches, and next day
they reached a village some miles behind the line, where they found
themselves in quite comfortable billets--the men in huts, the officers
in farms and cottages. The hut allotted to "C" Company contained a
complicated erection in wood and wire-netting, which provided two tiers
of bedsteads down almost the entire length of each side. There was,
however, a small space at one end, screened off with waterproof sheets;
this was appropriated to the joint use of the C.S.M. and the C.Q.M.S.

As soon as the battalion was settled in, the usual business began
of repairing the ravages of the trenches and transforming a crew of
ragged, bearded scaramouches back into self-respecting members of a
smart regiment.

Captain Richards paraded his company in front of its billet, and
surveyed it more in sorrow than in anger. He himself and his officers
had managed, in some wonderful way, to turn themselves out as spotless
as if they had just strolled in from Piccadilly. But they had the
advantage over the men of carrying spare suits of clothes in their
valises, and of possessing servants.

"Well, 'C' Company," remarked its Commander. "The quartermaster is
going to take you in hand this afternoon, and I don't envy him his job.
You'll hand in your tin hats and your jerkins, and you'll draw service
caps, badges and shoulder-titles. Those of you who need new things must
take the opportunity of getting them. Private Higgins, for instance,
needs a new tunic."

There was a roar of laughter, for Higgins' misadventure in the
communication trench was the company's latest family joke.

"I see," continued Richards, grinning, "that he's mended his old
one with a piece of rope. Well, that won't do for me after to-day.
To-morrow I expect to see the company something like itself. March 'em
off, Sergeant-Major French; I'll be coming along shortly."

Clothing parade was a lengthy business. Most of the battalion seemed
to need clothes, and the quartermaster's overworked staff appeared
to regard each new application as a personal insult. At last Higgins
obtained his new tunic, and started back to his billet with this
and his other issues. On the way he passed a small cottage marked
"Estaminet"; he entered and indulged in a miniature orgy of very light
French beer.

It was getting late when he reached the billet, and in order to make
the most of the fading light he sat down outside the hut to bring the
buttons of his new jacket to a condition fit to be inspected by C.S.M.
French on the following morning.

He made an excellent job of the top button and then, recharging his
tooth-brush (presented to him for quite another purpose by a paternal
government) with polish, he prepared to tackle the second. But the
instant he touched it there was a sudden roaring sound, and a strange
hot wind sprang up, tossing into the air a swirling column of dust
which half choked Alf and wholly blinded him. He dropped tooth-brush,
polish and tunic to the ground and clapped his hands to his agonized
eyes.

The wind died down again as suddenly as it had come, and the swirling
dust settled; and there came to Alf, still struggling to empty his
streaming eyes of pieces of grit, an eerie sense that he was not alone.
Some presence was beside him--something that he must clear his eyes and
look at, yet dreaded to see.

Suddenly a sepulchral voice spoke.

"What wouldst thou have?" it said.

Alf felt that he must _see_, or go mad. With his two hands he opened
an inflamed eye--and with great difficulty restrained himself from
uttering a loud yell of terror. He was confronted by a huge and hideous
being of a type he had believed to exist only in the disordered
imaginations of story-tellers. The being, seeing that he had Alf's
undivided--even petrified--attention, bowed impressively.

"What wouldst thou have?" he repeated in a deep, booming voice. "I am
ready to obey thee as thy slave, and the slave of any who have that
Button in their possession; I, and the other slaves of the Button."

"Gawd!" exclaimed Alf, in horror. "Strike me pink!"

The strange being looked surprised, but bowed yet lower.

"To be stricken pink? Verily my Lord's request is strange!
Nevertheless, his wish is my command."

He disappeared.

Alf stared open-mouthed at the spot where the apparition had stood.
Then in a sudden panic at what he took to be the effect of French beer
after the enforced abstemiousness of the trenches, he rushed into the
hut and rolled himself up in his blanket. He felt at once aggrieved
and frightened; for he was not drunk nor even exhilarated, and yet he
had got to the far more advanced stage of "seeing things." He gave no
answer to any enquiries after his health nor any other sign of life
until the orderly sergeant came round at _réveillé_ next morning.

"Now then, 'Iggins, show a leg," said the N.C.O.

Higgins had been awake for some time. He felt all right, and had
already assured himself by a cautious glance round that he was no
longer seeing demons. He sat up, and flung his blankets cheerfully from
him.

"Right-o, sergeant," he said.

The sergeant's eyes bulged. All that could be seen of Higgins--his
face, hands and the part of his neck and chest not covered by his
shirt--was one glorious shade of salmon-pink, shining and glossy as if
from the application of a coat of Mr. Aspinall's best enamel.

"Come out o' that, quick!" said Sergeant Anderson, retreating hastily.
"Corporal Spink, take this man along to the M.O. at once--don't wait
for sick parade. It's measles and scarlet fever and smallpox and
nettlerash all mixed up, you've got, me lad. 'Ere, keep yer distance."

The regimental M.O., nonplused and frightened, at once got into touch
with the Field Ambulance and had Higgins--now in the last stage of
panic and convinced that his end was near--removed to a Casualty
Clearing Station. Then he descended on "C" Company's billet with some
pungent form of chemical disinfectant, and rendered that erstwhile
happy home utterly uninhabitable. The company, spluttering and
swearing, tumbled out and ate its breakfast shivering in the open. If
threats and curses could kill, Alf would have been a dead man fifty
times over.

On his arrival at the C.C.S. his clothes were taken from him, and he
was isolated for observation in a small ward; and a keen young medical
practitioner named Browne--temporary captain in the R.A.M.C.--undertook
his extraordinary case.

On finding that he did not immediately die, Alf recovered his normal
spirits, and for a week he thoroughly enjoyed himself. He was a public
character--all the medical officers within reach came and shook their
heads over him. He felt perfectly well; his pulse and temperature were
from the first normal; but his hue remained undimmed. An old doctor
who chanced to arrive when Higgins was having his midday meal, got out
his notebook and entered "Abnormally voracious appetite" as a salient
symptom of the new disease; but this was a mistake. In fact, no further
symptoms of any kind developed; and in the end Captain Browne, in
despair, determined to give up the case and to send Alf to see a noted
skin-specialist at the Base.

Accordingly Higgins' clothes (smelling strongly of some distressing
fumigatory) were brought to him, and he was told to get ready for his
journey. Observing with displeasure that the effect of fumigation had
been to turn his brasswork nearly black, he produced cleaning materials
and got to work to remedy this.

At the first touch he gave to his second button, once more that awful
apparition arose before him, and the same sepulchral voice was heard.

"What wouldst thou have? I am ready to serve thee as thy slave, and the
slave of any who have that Button in their possession; I, and the other
slaves of the Button."

Alf's mind was whirling. He had by now half forgotten his previous
sight of this supernatural visitor, or rather had accounted for it
satisfactorily in his mind. But no theory of intoxication could hold
good on this occasion, for Alf's only drink for the past week had been
tea. The emotion uppermost in his mind, however, was fear that the
doctor might come in and find the being there. He therefore sat up in
bed and gasped out:

"'Op it!"

With a puzzled expression on his hideous countenance, the being began
slowly and with obvious reluctance to disappear. He seemed to be
doubting the evidence of his ears.

"'Ere, I say," called out Alf suddenly, as an idea struck him. "Arf a
mo'!"

The being, who was still just visible as a faint murkiness in the
atmosphere, took shape again with alacrity.

"What wouldst thou have?" he began once more. "I am ready to obey thee
as thy slave and the slave...."

"Yes," interrupted Alf, who was in terror of the possible advent of the
doctor. "You said all that before. What I want to know is, was it you
that turned me this ruddy color?"

"Verily, O Master, the color is not the color of blood; and indeed,
with thine own lips thou didst command me to strike thee pink!"

"Lumme!" said Alf, light breaking in upon him at last. "Well, if that's
your idea of a joke, it ain't mine, that's all. You can just blinkin'
well think again, if you want to make _me_ laugh. See?"

"Thy wish," said the Spirit, to whom Alf's idiomatic speech was just
so much gibberish, "is my command. What wouldst thou have? I am ready
to obey...."

"Stop it," said Alf in acute apprehension, his eye on the door. "Didn't
you 'ear what I said? Put me right, for the Lord's sake, and then 'op
it, quick. I can 'ear the doc. comin'."

Captain Browne entered. He was in a very despondent frame of mind.
He was a keen and ambitious young man, and his failure to make any
impression on Higgins' condition had been a great blow to his pride.
Sorely against his will he was now about to own himself defeated.

He closed the door behind him.

There was an instant's pause. Then the officer, without a change of
countenance, spoke quietly.

"Ah!" he said. "Then my last treatment _has_ had the effect I hoped
for. It's a cure. You needn't go to the Base, after all."

The cure of Higgins' malady brought to Captain Browne much honor and
renown. He became the first and sole authority on what came to be known
as "Browne's Disease"; several thoughtful essays from his pen appeared
in the foremost medical journals, detailing the course of the disease,
the method of its cure, and the mental processes which had led to the
evolution of that cure. He was asked to contribute an article on the
same subject to a medical encyclopædia. Finally, he was mentioned in
dispatches.

An order from the distant heights of the surgeon-general's staff was
circulated to all medical officers, ordering them to forward weekly a
return of the number of men under their care suffering from Browne's
Disease. But neither they nor the distinguished inventor himself could
find any. This was the more unfortunate because, if only he had been
able to find another authentic case of the malady, he might have looked
forward to Harley Street and a fashionable practice after the war. But
in any case, his name, if not his fortune, was made.

As for Alf, he returned at once to his battalion, where he gave
unsatisfactory answers to all questions. He was a man of little
imagination, but it seemed that he was now in his own case beginning
to link up cause with effect. At all events he refrained for as long
as possible from cleaning his second tunic-button, and might have been
seen now and again regarding it with awe not unmixed with alarm.



CHAPTER III

THE MIRACLE OF THE PLANES


When Alf reached the 5th Battalion once more, he found it transformed.
All signs of trench life had disappeared, and the men were recovering
their swing and swagger. True, they looked a little harassed, but that
was only natural seeing that they were in the middle of one of the
periods of strenuous activity humorously known to those in authority as
"rest."

His mates accepted Alf's reappearance among them without
surprise--almost without comment. The fact that he had been in hospital
suffering from a hitherto unknown disease did not excite them at all.
Such men as did mention the matter took it for granted that he had had
some new form of "trench fever." (Every malady developed at the front
which is not immediately recognizable is disposed of by popular rumor
under this convenient heading.)

This particular "rest" was expected to last still another fortnight
when Higgins reported. The first week was to be devoted to a stiff
training program, while the second was to embrace an equally energetic
period of athletic competitions and games. Within an hour of his
arrival the disgusted private found himself swooped upon by various
enthusiasts and engaged to go into strict training at once, with a
view to representing the platoon at football and the company in a
cross-country race the following week. Practice games and trial runs
were arranged to dovetail into each other with devilish ingenuity,
until Alf began to consider the advisability of rubbing this mysterious
button of his and obtaining a relapse.

He was unimaginative, and the vast possibilities latent in the magic
button had not even begun to unfold themselves before his mind. One of
his chief characteristics was a reluctance to mix himself up in matters
he did not understand. He felt that in meddling twice already with
supernatural and probably diabolical powers he had been very lucky to
get off scot free; and the mere idea of ever encountering that fearsome
being again filled him with apprehension. He avoided touching the
mysterious button at all, either for cleaning or any other purpose.

But this state of things could not last. Lieutenant Allen was no
martinet, but it was not many days before he stopped before Alf on
parade and surveyed him with disfavor.

"This won't do, Higgins," he said. "Your brasswork is a disgrace. Look
at that button! You will clean that up the moment you get off parade
this morning, and I'll have a look at it this afternoon. See?"

"Yessir!" said Higgins dutifully. But he did not see in the least what
was to be done. He could not leave his button untouched after what the
officer had said, and he did not dare to clean it. In his efforts to
solve this problem, he went through his drill movements with an air of
preoccupation which excited Sergeant Lees to the verge of apoplexy. But
he had his reward in an idea of--for him--surpassing brilliance.

Army custom decrees that when a soldier in uniform goes into mourning,
he shall proclaim the fact to the world by covering the second button
of his tunic with crepe, or some other black material. Obviously, then,
Higgins' easiest way out of his dilemma was to kill some non-existent
relative. His difficulty thus settled, he began to apply his mind to
the business in hand just in time to save the sergeant's sanity.

The parade finished, Higgins set out to find C.Q.M.S. Piper. That
important personage was conferring deeply with the company commander
on some subject connected with the issue of rum, and Higgins had to
wait; as bad luck would have it, by the time the conference was ended
Sergeant-Major French had come up and was standing within easy earshot.
Alf tried to pitch his voice so that the sergeant-major should not
overhear him, and only succeeded in defeating his own end by becoming
completely inaudible.

"Quarters," he said, "can you give me a ee oh ack uff?"

"Now then, my lad!" roared Piper, in a voice which commanded the
instant attention of everybody in the hut, "don't whisper sweet
nothings to me. Spit it out! What d'yer want? Piece o' what?"

Amid general interest the defeated strategist repeated his request.

"Bit of black stuff, Quarters."

"Bit o' black stuff? What for?"

"To go into mourning. My uncle's dead."

"Ho!" intervened C.S.M. French, suddenly waking to the full
significance of Higgins' request. "Yer uncle's dead, is 'e? 'Ow d'yer
know that?"

"I 'ad a letter this mornin', major."

"Ho! Well now, that's funny; because there 'asn't been no bloomin'
mail in since Friday. An' as for mournin', your bloomin' button's gone
into mournin' already, without needin' no black stuff. I never saw
nothing like it! Now, look 'ere, 'Iggins, I 'eard Mr. Allen tickin'
you off about it, this mornin', and it looks to me as if you're tryin'
on a bit of a game. Yer uncle may be dead or 'e may not, but before
the quartermaster gives yer a bit o' black, you've gotter show me that
button so bright that I can see me blinkin' face in it. Now, get a move
on!"

There was no help for it. The button had to be cleaned, this once at
any rate. Afterwards Higgins could mourn his uncle without ceasing, and
spirits from the vasty deep need no longer form an essential part of
his matutinal preparations for parade.

As soon as dinners had been dished out, Higgins put on his kit, took
his rifle, and slipped away to a quiet spot where a small mound
screened him from observation from the camp, though it did not prevent
him from keeping a look-out. There was still a full hour before parade.
He sat down, and after a moment or two spent in summoning his courage
he produced his button-stick and began to polish his button. He did not
even look up when a sepulchral voice gave evidence that the dreaded
Being had appeared.

"What wouldst thou have? I am ready to serve thee as thy slave, and
the slave of any that have that Button in their possession; I, and the
other slaves of the Button."

Alf continued polishing for dear life. After a moment's pause the voice
spoke again.

"Great Master," it said. "Behold, thy slave is present."

But the great Master, perspiring freely with terror, averted his
head and polished on. He had some wild hope that the spirit might
realize that the summons he had obeyed was involuntary and, so to
speak, unofficial, and would go away. The spirit, on the other hand,
apparently took his master's behavior as being simply an exhibition of
despotism; this was quite according to Oriental tradition, and greatly
impressed him, so that when he spoke a third time his voice was humble
and servile to a degree.

"O Master, Lord of Power," he said, "since thou dost not deign to
acknowledge the presence of thy slave, but dost continue the summons
whereby thy slave came hither, is it thy will that the other slaves of
the Button, who are seven thousand in number, should be brought before
thee?"

It is doubtful whether Higgins fully comprehended this rather involved
sentence; but he understood enough to realize that unless he made up
his mind to talk with this being he was threatened with the appearance
of seven thousand other devils, quite possibly worse than the first. He
dropped his button-stick hastily. "No," he said anxiously; "you'll do."

He turned and faced his slave and was astonished to find that his fear
had passed. The mysterious being was much more terrible in anticipation
than in reality; and the servility of his speech and bearing had
unmistakably shown that he regarded Alf with respect almost amounting
to reverence. Alf, his breast swelling with a new and very pleasant
sense of self-importance, decided to take this opportunity of coming to
some kind of understanding with his new follower.

"Look 'ere, chum," he said affably, "you an' me's got to 'ave a little
talk. Now, just tell me, 'ow do I come to be your master?"

"Lord, I am chief of the slaves of the Button that was aforetime the
Lamp. Whosoever may be Lord of the Button, him do I serve and perform
all his will; I, and the other slaves of the Button."

"Lumme!" commented Alf, much impressed. "An' where was yer last place?"

"Master?" said the spirit, uncomprehending.

"'Oo didst you--thou--serve before you come to me?" interpreted the
Master.

"The great prince Aladdin."

"Don't know 'im. Prince 'oo?"

"Aladdin."

"What--the pantomime feller? Lor', you must be gettin' on in years!
Well, now, did this chap give yer a reference?"

The spirit looked puzzled, and Alf decided that in Aladdin's time
servants could not have had characters. He continued his catechism.

"An' what's yer name, mate?"

"Abdulkindeelilajeeb was I aforetime, O Master, but now I am called
Abdulzirrilajeeb."

"Gorblimey," said Alf blankly. "You don't expect me to do that when I
speaks to yer, I 'ope!" Then after a pause he added, "I shall call yer
Eustace."

The djinn looked pleased.

"In truth, O possessor of wisdom, it is a lordly name."

"'Tis well," replied the possessor of wisdom with a melodramatic wave
of the hand. "Now, tell me. Yer always poppin' up an' askin' for
orders--what is it you want to do? What's yer partickler line?"

"My Lord hath but to command," said the newly-christened Eustace with
superb simplicity.

"Garn, what a whopper!" Alf snorted incredulously. He had an ingrained
dislike of "swank" in any form; and he looked about him at once,
seeking some impossible task with which he might upset this complacent
creature's vanity.

His imagination failed utterly to respond to the sudden strain placed
upon it. His eye wandered round the unedifying landscape and found no
source of inspiration. In despair he glanced up at the skies, and there
he found the idea he sought.

High in the air above the British lines--so high that they were only
just visible--were two aeroplanes. That they were Boche and Briton,
engaged in a duel, was plain; but which was which it was impossible to
make out. No doubt an expert would have known at once by a dozen signs;
but Alf's data for distinguishing friend from foe in the air began and
ended with the official markings--the tricolor rings of the Allies
or the German black cross painted on the wings of the machines. When
these signs were not visible he worked, as did most of his mates, on
the rough principle that if an aeroplane dropped bombs on you it was
certainly a Boche, while if it refrained it was probably British.

He directed the djinn's attention aloft.

"Now then," he said in triumphant tones. "See them two airyplanes up
there? Well, if yer so bloomin' clever, 'op up and bring down the Boche
one to me 'ere."

Eustace disappeared immediately, and Alf, incredulous though he was
that anything out of the ordinary was going to happen, gazed up at
the two tiny machines, still diving and circling in their attempts to
out-maneuver one another.

The duel was, however, nearing an end. As Alf gazed, one of the two
suddenly turned tail and fled. The other gave chase, and seemed on the
very point of victory, when suddenly the pursuing plane seemed to check
in mid-air and began to descend.

Even to Alf's untutored eye there was something uncanny in that
descent. The machine neither nosedived nor came down in the usual
graceful spirals. Instead it sank slowly and very steadily straight
downwards, in defiance of all known laws of aeronautics, directly
towards the spot where Alf was standing.

Alf, petrified with astonishment, stood staring at the machine as it
grew larger and more distinct. It was all true, then! The djinn had,
it seemed, all the powers that he claimed. In a few moments Private
Higgins would be in sole possession of a complete German aeroplane.
For the first time in his career, military glory was in his grasp.
He had had no thought, when he had given his command to Eustace, of
anything but the difficulty of the task; but now he had a sudden joyous
vision of the kudos he would gain when he should march the crew of his
approaching captive into the company lines at the point of his bayonet.

He unslung his rifle, loaded it and fixed the bayonet. Then, assuming
the "On Guard" position, he looked up once more at the machine, now
only a few hundred feet above him; and he gave a gasp of horror.

On the underside of the wings, now plain to the view, were painted
the familiar rings of red, white and blue. Eustace, even less skilled
than his master, had brought down the wrong machine. Instead of saving
a British airman from destruction Alf had only deprived him of a
well-earned victory at the moment of triumph. The German, rejoicing
at his incredible escape and marveling, no doubt, at his opponent's
inexplicable collapse, was now out of sight and in safety above his
own lines; while the Briton was just dropping ignominiously to earth,
helpless in the grip of a muddle-headed spirit out of an Oriental fairy
tale.

Higgins stood rooted to the spot as the 'plane came to earth beside
him; out of it climbed two R.F.C. officers, both puzzled and
exceedingly angry. They subjected their machine to an exhaustive
examination and then stared at each other blankly.

"Not a thing wrong, Tony. It's uncanny!"

"Uncanny!" The young pilot was almost weeping with mortification. "To
have that chap von Hoffmeister in my hands--the chap who's been the
thorn in our flesh this last month--and then be done in by--by a bally
miracle. It's damnable!"

Alf's knees trembled beneath him. He came guiltily to attention,
wondering if the airmen could suspect his complicity in the affair.

The pilot's feelings suddenly boiled over again.

"My God!" he said thickly, "I'd like to kill somebody for this!"

Unconsciously he fixed Alf with a baleful glare.

"I'm--I'm sorry, sir," quavered Private Higgins, losing his head
completely.

The observer laughed mirthlessly.

"Well," he said to Alf. "It wasn't _your_ fault, anyway. Come on, Tony,
let's see if we can't find a mess somewhere. You'll feel better after
a whisky. Not ..." he concluded, exploding in his turn, "that I don't
think it's the rottenest bit of luck that ever happened."

"All right," said the pilot. "Here, you'll stand by the machine, will
you? I'll tell 'em in the camp that I ordered you to."

"Yessir!" said Alf, saluting; and he thankfully watched them go towards
the camp.

As soon as they were out of sight, Alf rubbed his button. The djinn
appeared, wearing a self-satisfied smirk at the striking proof of his
powers his new master had just received.

"What wouldst thou have? I am ready to obey thee as thy...."

"Cut out the song an' dance, yer blinkin' fool," said Alf fiercely.
"See what you gone an' bin an' done. This 'ere's a British
plane--savvy? I told yer to bring a Boche one--them what 'as the black
crosses. I b'lieve yer a bally spy, I do. 'Ere, git out o' me sight!"

The djinn vanished in silence. The instant he was gone Alf began to
regret the lengths to which his tongue had led him. How had he dared to
speak so to a creature possessing unlimited powers? He began to feel
cold with apprehension. What would happen next?

At this point he saw a tremendous commotion in the camp. Men poured out
of the huts and stared skywards, gesticulating and shouting. Alf looked
upwards and saw the cause of their excitement. Fully a dozen German
aeroplanes were converging on Alf from different quarters of the sky,
each one helpless in the grip of the same power that had brought the
British machine to earth.

It was Eustace's wholesale Oriental method of making reparation. One
by one the machines came to earth, until all twelve were arranged in a
neat row beside the original victim. The dazed German crews scrambled
out, looking for somebody to whom to surrender; but first, as was their
duty, they set fire to their machines. There was nobody to prevent
them, for though several hundred British soldiers were on the way at
the double, not one was on the spot.

Alf had fled in panic; he skulked in retirement until the excitement
had died down; his one desire was not to be connected in anybody's mind
with the extraordinary and inexplicable events of that afternoon.

When the German prisoners had been cleared away, and the normal routine
had been restored, he returned to camp and displayed his button to
C.S.M. French. Having received a grudging assent from that worthy, he
drew his "bit o' black" from the quartermaster-sergeant, and draped it
over his talisman. As he put the last stitch in place he made a mental
resolve that it would be long before he would meddle again with a magic
productive of such uncomfortable adventures.



CHAPTER IV

THE MISGUIDED ZEAL OF EUSTACE


The word "rest" as used at the front has been described as being purely
a technical term, bearing no relation whatever to the other word of
the same name. Certainly during the last fortnight of this particular
period Alf Higgins and Bill Grant found cause to realize the truth of
this description.

A new brigadier had just been appointed to command the Middlesex
Fusiliers Brigade. He was an upstanding young giant of thirty, and the
main tenets of his creed were fitness and efficiency. In pursuit of the
latter he organized strenuous sham fights over miles of country, and he
urged upon his colonels that only by encouraging athletic contests on a
hitherto unheard of scale could they hope to attain the former.

Alf and Bill were no athletes, but they continued to play football
with more vigor than skill until their platoon was knocked out of the
battalion competition. They bore their defeat with stoicism, hoping
that they would now be allowed to assume the much more accustomed and
congenial rôle of spectators. Instead of this they found themselves
(to their inexpressible indignation) called upon to sustain the
battalion's honor in cross-country runs under the eye of that
speechless but efficient officer Lieutenant Donaldson.

In the evenings, however, they were free to extract what amusement
they could out of life. The pierrot troupe, without which no division
at the front considered itself complete, played to packed houses every
other night in the Y.M.C.A.; while a cinematograph show had been rigged
up in a barn. Each day, also, a limited number of passes to Amiens
entitled such as were favored of Fortune to a blissful day's taste of
civilization.

To the officers, however, it seemed sometimes incredible that any of
the men could patronize these delights at all.

"I believe," said Richards to Allen one evening, "that every man in
this company must write to every relation, friend, acquaintance or
business connection he has in Blighty seven times in the week, just to
spite us!"

The company letters had just come in to be censored. Donaldson had gone
to a Sports Committee meeting, and Shaw, as mess president, was in
Amiens restocking the larder.

"Lord, what a pile!" said Allen, sitting down at the table and
beginning his task. "It's lucky I've no letters of my own to write--or
only a note."

He gave a sigh; the man at the front who has nobody in England to write
to is not to be envied.

"I have, though," said Captain Richards. "My wife'll be thinking I'm
dead if I don't write her a proper letter soon."

He also took a handful of letters and set to work.

"May I come in?" said a voice at the door. "Or are you too busy?"

"Come in, of course, major."

The second-in-command entered, glanced round and took in the situation.

"Don't let me interrupt you," he said politely. "I haven't come to see
_you_ at all, so don't flatter yourselves. I wanted to see Denis's
_Sketch_ and _Tatler_, that's all."

"On my bed, sir," said Allen.

"Thanks."

There was unbroken silence for some minutes. Then the major cast _The
Tatler_ from him with an exclamation of disgust.

"I wish," he said, "that that grinning little idiot would stop
advertising herself for a bit. You can't pick up a picture-paper
without seeing her selling things or dressing up or generally pushing
herself into the limelight. She wants smacking."

Both men at the table looked up.

"Who's the grinning idiot in question, major?"

"Isobel FitzPeter. Here you are--a whole page of her and her bally
bulldog, labeled 'A famous Beauty--and Friend.' Same photograph in _The
Sketch_, called 'Beauty and the Beast'! It makes me sick!"

Allen suddenly got up and went out of the room without a word, very
red in the face. Richards and Major Parker stared after him, the former
very embarrassed, the latter simply surprised.

"What's the matter?" asked the major blankly.

"I expect poor old Denis felt he might have used language unbefitting
your rank if he'd stayed. You see--don't let on to a soul, mind--he's
most frightfully gone on the FitzPeter girl."

"Good God, Dickie, what have I said? D'you mean they're engaged or
anything?"

"Oh, no. I don't believe she knows him at all. He used to play cricket
at her father's place, and they were rather pals then, I believe. But
since she's grown up, they've never met. But you know how it is out
here. If I hadn't had my wife to think about, I'd have gone mad long
ago. Denis doesn't seem to have many feminine belongings of his own,
so he's simply installed this girl as a kind of goddess. He seems to
live for the illustrated papers--simply devours them, and cuts out her
picture. This is all rather confidential, major."

"Of course. Poor old chap. You know, Dickie, I do happen to know the
lady. In peace time she was as nice a kid as you could want to meet.
If Denis hasn't met her since then, I don't wonder at him, because
she's really frightfully pretty. But her head has been utterly turned.
She acts as parlor-maid once a fortnight in a hospital my sister runs
in Kensington, and she's more hindrance than help, because she never
arrives in time, and she's always got some footling reason for wanting
to go early. But her photograph in V.A.D. uniform gets published
about once a fortnight, usually headed 'Nursing the Wounded,' or, 'An
Indefatigable War Worker'! The worst of it is she's got brains if she'd
use them; only she won't. A spoilt, thoughtless little idiot, and as
pretty as they make 'em. Poor old Denis."

At this point Allen returned and resumed his work without a word. The
major fell silent. Richards cast about for some subject to cover the
awkward break in the conversation.

"D'you know when we go back to the line, sir?" he asked at last.

"Not settled. End of the week, I think. Look here, I've interrupted you
fellows quite enough. Give me some of those letters."

"Thanks awfully, sir. You're a sportsman."

By dinner time the pile was finished, and Allen had time to write his
note.


     "DEAR PEGGY," he wrote,--

     "Just a line to tell you I'm still alive, and hoping to remain so.
     You might write to me when you've time. In great haste,

     "Your affectionate cousin,
     "DENIS.

     "P.S. If you happen to see Miss FitzPeter, please give her my kind
     regards."


This missive he addressed to Lady Margaret Clowes, at an address in
Mayfair. She was only a very distant cousin of Allen's, and there was,
on the face of it, no particular reason why he should have written
to her at all. The regularity with which he had recently done so,
therefore, coupled with the unfailing manner in which the postscript
contained a polite message to Isobel FitzPeter, had given away to
Margaret the true state of affairs; and because she liked and admired
her shy cousin, she had contrived to keep his name not too insistently,
and yet quite firmly, before Isobel's mind. She had determined, also,
that when next Allen should come home on leave, she would engineer a
meeting between them.

If he had known this it would have filled him with joy, tempered with
apprehension, for he was not blind to the fact that the Isobel he had
known had developed into a new and rather formidable creature. She
was now a public character, the last word in smartness, and sometimes
rather a loud word at that. He felt that she was removed now to a
sphere beyond his reach, for he was a very humble-minded person.
Altogether, one way and another, he contrived to be acutely miserable
when he had time to think about anything but his work, and he rather
welcomed than otherwise the prospect of going back into the line.

In due course an operation order came through from Battalion
Headquarters, setting forth in minutest detail the times at which
officers' valises would be packed and sent to the transport,
mess-boxes made ready, blankets tied into bundles and delivered to the
quartermaster, billets cleaned and platoons ready to move. When the
time came there was the usual air of hopeless confusion, the accustomed
mutual recriminations between conflicting or overlapping authorities;
and in the end--also as usual--the battalion marched out at the
appointed hour, leaving behind it very little to show that it had ever
been there.

The brigade was to take over the same part of the line it had last
occupied; but in the three weeks' interval that had elapsed since they
had been relieved, Hindenburg had carried out his famous "retirement
according to plan," and our friends found themselves only just entering
the shelled area about the point where, in the days of the Big Thaw,
their front line had been.

The 5th Battalion this time moved straight up into the front line,
where they were comparatively comfortable. The weather was still cold,
but fine; the trenches--originally German property--had turned renegade
and were now serving the British very efficiently against their old
masters. The sector was still very quiet: to all appearance the enemy
had gone away and left no address. Altogether things were very much
pleasanter than last time up.

Alf, after his former fiasco, was no longer a "runner"; but his chum,
Bill Grant, had been selected for this work, so that the two were no
better off than last time, so far as being together was concerned. Alf
felt lonely. None of the other men in his platoon took much interest in
him. He wanted Bill's companionship--his contemptuous patronage of and
his real affection for his slower-witted companion.

His loneliness increased daily, until it became acute; and at last one
day, being on sentry-go in a bay all by himself, he bethought himself
of his Button. His mates were snoring in a dug-out close by; no sign
had been seen from the German trenches all day. He had strained his
eyes across No-Man's-Land until he had begun to feel intolerably drowsy
himself. If something did not happen soon, there was a danger that the
officer or N.C.O. on duty might find him asleep at his post.

Eustace seemed to be his only chance.

He rubbed the Button.

"What wouldst thou have? I am ready...."

"'Op it, quick!" was Alf's startling rejoinder.

Eustace, looking upset, complied. He was beginning to wonder whether he
was being victimized. This new Master of his who gave incomprehensible
orders and then seemed far from pleased when the orders were carried
out, also seemed to have a taste for summoning him merely for the
pleasure of seeing him vanish.

But Alf had a better reason than this. He had heard voices further
along the trench. A moment after Eustace had disappeared, Lieutenant
Shaw came round the traverse with the N.C.O. on duty, in the course of
his tour of inspection along the "C" Company front.

"Alone, Higgins?" asked the officer, with a hint of surprise in his
voice.

"Yessir."

"I thought I heard voices."

"Only me 'ummin', sir."

"I see. All quiet?"

"Yessir! Nothin' doin' at all!"

"Well"--Second-Lieutenant Shaw had not yet shed his youthful pride
at being in the thick of things, and puffed himself out a little and
became most impressive--"you want to keep an extra sharp look-out from
now until we stand-to at dusk. We've an idea that something's going to
happen. Probably Fritz will try a raid. This quiet is very suspicious."

He passed on with the sergeant. As soon as he was well out of earshot,
Alf recalled the spirit, who looked so hurt that his Master felt that
an apology was due to him.

"Sorry, Eustace, but if the orficer 'ad seen you talkin' to me, there'd
'ave been trouble. Civilians ain't allowed in the trenches, 'cept with
a special pass; so when anybody comes, you must 'op it without waitin'
for orders. See?"

Eustace bowed gravely.

"Now, look 'ere," continued Alf, gazing earnestly over the parapet
as he spoke, "I just bin thinkin' about yer. If you could only get
out o' this 'abit o' practical jokin' an' so on, you might be quite a
useful sort o' feller. Now, tell me fair, what can you do? I don't mean
larkin' with airyplanes, but serious things."

"My Lord hath but to command."

"Yes, it's easy enough to say that, but I can't think o' things....
Now, s'posin' ... that is.... Look 'ere, what I really want is
something to keep me safe if the blighted Boche comes over. Now, what
can you show me?"

"Master, I comprehend not thy speech."

"Lumme, I speak plain enough English, I 'ope. I say, what I want is
something to keep me safe if the Boche comes over. The Boche, you know!
Fritz! The 'Un! The fellers across there, you blinkin' image! The
Germans!"

"My Lord desires protection from his enemies."

"That's better, Eustace. Think it out, and you'll get there in time."

"It shall be so. Behold!"

An object appeared in the Spirit's hand.

"Behold, O Lord of Might, the helmet of invisibility. Clad in this thou
canst be seen of no mortal eye. So mayest thou move among the hosts of
the enemy, seeing all, yet seen of none."

"By gum!" commented Alf, much impressed, "that's a bit of all right.
Shouldn't mind doing daylight patrols with that on. Knocks a tin 'at
all to blazes."

He pondered a moment and began to see the disadvantages of the idea.

"The trouble is," he explained, "the orficer seems to think the 'osts
of the enemy is goin' to move about _us_ just now. Where should I be
then? They'd all think I'd 'ad the wind up and 'opped it. An' then, 'ow
about shell-fire? Just bein' invisible won't stop no Perishin' Percies.
What I want is something--well, you know what I mean. Can't you get me
something to keep off the bullets?"

"Verily that can I," said Eustace, with an air suggesting that Alf was
simply wasting his time with niggling details. "Just such a thing as
thou desirest was aforetime in the treasury of the great King Uz; my
spirits shall procure it for thee. Whoso weareth this can come to no
hurt through weapons forged by man."

"That's the ticket, if Mr. What's-'is-name won't be wanting it for
'isself. 'E's probably 'elpin' with this 'ere War somewhere or other."

"Uz hath been dead these many cycles--upon him be peace!" returned
Eustace. He raised his hand, and, with an awesome clang, a cumbrous
suit of armor, complete in every detail, fell into the trench. The
djinn wore an expression of mild triumph. This time, he seemed to
think, even this strange new master of his must be satisfied. He was
not in the least prepared for Alf's reception of his performance.

"Take it away," shrieked Private Higgins, in an agony at the idea of
having to explain away such a phenomenon to his superiors. "Take it
away, you blinkin' fool, and 'op it yerself. What the blazes d'you
think yer doin'? 'Ere, get out of it, quick. Somebody's comin'."

Somebody was.

The whole of Number Nine Platoon, awakened from its slumbers, came
tumbling out of its dug-outs, adjusting its gas masks as it came.
A horrible ghoul, dimly recognizable through the windows of its
respirator as Sergeant Lees, came and gibbered at Alf.

"What's up, sergeant?" asked Alf in amazement.

"Gas!" replied the sergeant, removing his mouthpiece for a moment in
order to speak more clearly. "Why the 'ell ain't you got yer mask on?
Didn't you 'ear the gong?"

Higgins realized with horror what had happened. The clang of the armor
had been mistaken for a gas-gong by a sentry in the next bay, who had
promptly given the alarm. He tried feebly to straighten matters out;
but it was too late now. The word had spread; the Boche, seeing the
commotion in our lines, had sprung to arms; and both armies stood
tense, each convinced that the other was going to make a surprise
attack. A heavy fusillade with rifles and machine guns, rifle grenades
and trench mortars began, and in its turn spread along the lines with
great swiftness. Then somebody put up an S.O.S. flare, and the guns,
which had only been waiting for this invitation, joined in. For the
next few minutes the Messina earthquake or an eruption of Vesuvius
would have been welcomed as quiet interludes by Richards, Allen & Co.

Further back, astonished Staff-Officers were springing to the telephone
to demand by what right this intense but unauthorized warfare was
taking place, and what it was all about, anyway. Further back still,
troops in rest billets looked up from their magazines or their letters
home and thanked Heaven that they were not in the shoes of the poor
blighters in the line.

Then both sides seemed to discover that nothing much was happening
after all, and the whole thing died away as suddenly as it had
begun. But that night the sentries were doubled, and as Higgins
sulkily performed his extra hours of duty, his feelings towards his
well-meaning but tactless familiar were such that he nearly brought his
adventures to an untimely close by cutting off the Button and flinging
it over the parapet.



CHAPTER V

EUSTACE FETCHES BEER


After this sudden burst of excitement had died away, a watchful calm
descended on the front line. "C" Company were relieved next day by "B"
Company, and went into close support. Here they were in a zone more
subjected to shell-fire than in the front line itself; but this worried
them very little, as for the most part they spent their four days
snugly in dug-outs, listening to the occasional dull thud caused by an
explosion up above, and waiting in readiness to turn out at any moment
in the event of a raid. One or two parties were called out to carry
rations up to "B" Company, but the only casualty was a man who was
hit in the arm by a shell-splinter, and departed for "Blighty" openly
exulting in his good fortune.

On the fourth day the battalion was relieved and went back into Brigade
Reserve. Here they were to stay for eight days while the battalion in
the line completed its duty. What might happen after that was a matter
for speculation, known only to Providence--and possibly (though not
very probably) the Staff. Anyhow, the events of so dim and distant a
future were a matter of supreme indifference to the rank and file. It
was enough for them that for a week or so at any rate they would have
deep, warm dug-outs, well back from the line.

As soon as the company settled in, Bill Grant returned to the platoon,
his services as extra runner being no longer required. Alf would have
welcomed him under any circumstances; but on this occasion he was
specially glad to have his pal back again. He was worried and needed
advice. He had, in fact, decided to take Bill into his confidence on
the subject of Eustace, and was now simply waiting for an opportunity
of a private and uninterrupted conversation with him. A _tête-à tête_,
especially if it entails a practical demonstration of oriental magic,
is not the easiest thing on earth for two Tommies in the forward area
to arrange.

A kindly Fate assisted them, however. The particular system of trenches
they were inhabiting, like all systems constructed by that industrious
mole, the Boche, was honeycombed with deep dug-outs--far more than
the 5th Battalion could possibly use. It occurred to the two warriors
that it would be an excellent plan to find a disused and secluded
specimen for their own private use. In such a haven Alf could unfold
his portentous secret without fear of interruption, while Bill, who
objected on principle to being put on working parties and fatigues,
felt that the best safeguard against inclusion in these treats was an
alibi. After a search they discovered a snug retreat in which they
intended to spend as much of their spare time as possible, returning
to their mates only at meal-times and other occasions when their
absence might be noticed.

The afternoon was pleasantly mild, and for the first time the air
seemed to contain a hint of Spring. Instead of retiring underground
they sat in the entrance of their new home quietly smoking. As soon
as their pipes were well alight, Alf broached the subject which was
weighing so heavily on his mind.

"Bill," he asked. "D'yer believe in spirits?"

"Prefer beer."

"Not them sort o' spirits, I don't mean. I mean spooks. D'yer believe
in spooks, Bill?"

"People what sees spooks," said Bill dogmatically, "is liars, or
boozed."

Grant's attitude was unpromising, but Alf was determined to persevere.

"What would yer say if I told yer I'd seen a spook, Bill?" he demanded.

"I'd say you'd 'ad a drop too much," was the uncompromising reply.

"An' if I saw it when I 'adn't 'ad a drop at all?"

Bill turned and regarded him.

"Look 'ere, Alf 'Iggins," he remarked acidly. "Yer worse'n a bloomin'
kid f'r asking yer blighted silly questions. If you got anything to
say, for 'Eaven's sake spit it out an' 'ave done with it."

Thus adjured, Alf plunged into his story, omitting only his adventure
with the aeroplanes, which he considered would be safer hidden even
from Bill.

That gentleman heard him to the end without comment.

"I b'lieve it's up to me to take yer to the M.O.," he said at last
seriously.

Alf was annoyed.

"Don't be a idjit. This is a _real_ spook, I tell yer!"

"Garn! You bin sleepin' on yer back an' dreamt it all. Why, this 'ere
Aladdin you talk about--there never was no sich feller. 'E's just a
bloke in a fairy story."

"Dreamt it!" repeated Alf indignantly. "Dream be blowed. I couldn't
dream meself pink all over, could I?"

"No, but you could catch scarlet fever an' 'ave delirious trimmings
on top of it," said Bill caustically. "But you can't make me see this
blessed spook o' yours, any'ow."

This was a direct challenge, and Alf rubbed his Button. Bill's tin hat
fell off.

"Lor'!" he said, sitting up straight.

"What wouldst thou have?" enquired Eustace. "I am ready to obey thee as
thy slave...."

"'Op it," replied Alf feebly. He had forgotten to think out any excuse
for summoning the djinn, and could think of nothing else to say.
Eustace, his opinion of Alf obviously lower than ever, disappeared.

"Lumme!" said Bill. He smoked in silence for some minutes, deep in
thought.

"Where the 'ell does 'e come from, and what does 'e do?" he asked at
length.

"'Oo?"

"That spook, o' course."

"I dunno. I rubs me Button, an' 'e bounces in an' asks for orders. 'Alf
the time I don't want 'im at all. An' if I do tell 'im to do things, 'e
gets 'em all wrong. 'E don't seem to lave no common sense, some'ow."

Bill was following out some train of thought.

"Look 'ere, Alf," he said. "What can you remember about this feller
Aladdin? What 'appened to 'im in the panto?"

Alf considered.

"There was a bloke sang something about a rose growin' in a garden.
Pathetic it was," he announced after deep thought.

"Blighted fool!" commented Bill with pardonable heat. "I don't mean
_that_. What 'appened to this chap, Aladdin, 'isself?"

"Oh, 'im! A bloomin' girl, 'e was, in the pantomime. I didn't take much
notice what 'appened to 'im--married some one, I think."

"Yes, but 'oo?" asked Bill, with an air of playing his trump card.

"I dunno. Princess Something."

"That's what I remember. An' they 'ad palaces, an' jools, an' money,
an' everything. An' 'ow did they get 'em, eh?"

"I dunno."

Alf was really being very dense. Bill tapped him impressively on the
arm.

"Your spook brought 'em," he said.

"Eustace?"

"That what you call 'im? Yes, 'im."

They gazed at each other, Bill in triumph. Alf in astonishment; at last
the latter found his voice.

"I never thought o' that kind o' thing!" he said.

"No, you're a proper thick-'ed," retorted Grant unkindly. "Now, you
send for 'im an' make 'im do something useful for a change."

"What shall it be?"

"Mine," replied Bill, without hesitation, "is beer. Always was. An'
mind, none o' that Govermint muck neither. Something with a bit o' body
in it."

"Send _'im_ for _beer_?" whispered Alf in horror. He could not have
looked more shocked if Bill had suggested sending the sergeant-major to
buy him a paper. He had an instinctive feeling that Eustace was one to
do things on a grand scale, and would resent being employed as a mere
potman. He rubbed his Button nervously, and avoided Eustace's eye.

"Is it my Lord's desire that his servant should hop it?" asked the
spirit, abandoning his usual formula. He was, he felt, just beginning
to settle down to his new master's ways.

"No," said Alf, fixing his eyes on vacancy. "Bring me two beers,
please, Eustace."

"Two biers, O possessor of wisdom?" repeated the djinn, wondering if
his startled ears could have heard aright.

"Yes. Two beers, I said. And 'urry up."

Eustace bowed low, muttered "Thy wish is my command," and vanished.
Almost immediately afterwards, with a dull thud apiece, two cumbersome
and curiously carved stone sarcophagi fell side by side into the
trench, which they blocked completely. Alf and Bill gazed open-mouthed
first at the two sepulchers and then at one another.

"What the 'ell's this mean?" asked Bill at last.

Alf, mortified beyond measure at the failure of his attempt to impress
his pal, gave a resigned gesture.

"What did I tell yer?" he asked. "That's the kind o' thing 'e's always
doin'! No common sense."

"Well, p'raps 'e misunderstood yer. P'raps 'e thought you wanted...."

"Thought I wanted! Didn't I speak plain English? Ain't 'beer' plain
enough for 'im? 'Ow can 'e 'ave misunderstood 'beer'?"

"Well, p'raps these 'ere things are called 'beer' in 'is language."

Alf snorted.

"I ask yer, do they look like it? No, it's just 'is fat-'eaded way."

He rubbed his Button fiercely.

"Take these blinkin' egg-boxes away, Eustace," he said. "An' pull
yerself together. I asked yer for beer--stuff what you drinks, savvy?"

He made a gesture of drinking. The djinn, with a sudden light of
comprehension in his face, bowed and vanished with the sarcophagi, to
reappear a moment later with an enormous tray on his head. From this he
proceeded to deal out a great number of covered metal plates, exactly
as a conjurer produces strange objects from a top hat. He set them down
in the trench, and with a final flourish brought forth an enormous
silver flagon and two heavily chased goblets. These he placed with the
other things, and disappeared.

"Ah!" said Bill, smacking his lips in anticipation. "This looks more
like it. Bit 'olesale in 'is ways, ain't 'e? Seems to take us for the
Lord Mayor's Banquet."

He lifted the cover from one of the plates and smelt the contents.

"Fish o' some kind," he said dubiously. "Smells funny. Never could
stand them foreign messes."

Alf did likewise to another dish.

"Muck," he said succinctly. "Give me good ole roast beef an' mutton
every time. I likes to know what I'm eatin', I do. Pour the drink out,
Bill."

Thus adjured, Bill filled the goblets and passed one to Alf.

"Good 'ealth!"

"Good 'ealth!" chorused both warriors. Their heads went back in unison;
also in unison, they gave a tremendous splutter of disgust.

"My Gawd!" said Alf thickly, "I'm poisoned! What the 'ell is it?"

"Tastes like a mixture of 'oney an' ink, with a dash o' chlorate
o' lime," said Bill, apparently trying to shake the remains of the
nauseous mixture from the roof of his mouth. "'Ere, 'ave that blinkin'
spook o' yours back again an' tell 'im orf."

Once more Alf rubbed the button and summoned his familiar.

"What wouldst thou have," said Eustace, appearing promptly, but with a
trace of resentment in his face, "I am ready...."

"Stow it!" said Alf. "You're a lot _too_ ready, seems to me. Why d'yer
want to bring us all this bloomin' lay-out? I didn't order no food,
an' if I 'ad I wouldn't 'ave meant un'oly messes like that. You're too
blinkin' 'olesale in yer ways. Take it all away. An' as for drink,
you've 'arf poisoned us with the muck you've brought."

"Lord of might," said Eustace. "These are of the choicest of the meats
and the wines of Arabia."

"Gawd 'elp Arabia, then. An' I asked for beer, B-E-A-R, beer. D'yer
mean to say they don't 'ave it in Arabia?"

Eustace shook his head.

"Poor blighters!" put in Bill. "No wonder they're 'eathens."

"Now, look 'ere, Eustace," said Alf instructively. "Beer is--er--beer
is--well, it's.... I say, Bill, 'ow the 'ell can yer explain beer to
any one as doesn't know what it is?"

"Well," said Bill. "It's brown stuff, made from 'ops an' malt an' such,
an' you get it in Blighty--that's England, you savvy--in barrels. Just
you 'op over there, an' you'll see. Or any one'll tell you."

This lucid explanation sufficed Eustace, for this time he disappeared
with the scorned banquet, and returned in a twinkling with two foaming
tankards.

Alf and Bill smelt the contents with grave suspicion, which changed at
once to a happy foaming smile apiece.

"That's the goods!" said Alf.

"Ah!" said Bill, smacking his lips with deep satisfaction. "Ole Aladdin
knew a thing or two, 'e did. Let's 'ave another o' the same an' drink
'is 'ealth."

"No, Bill. It'll 'urt ole Eustace' feelings. If you was a spook what
could build palaces an' sich in 'arf a tick, would _you_ like to 'ave
to go all the way to 'ell for two bloomin' pints? Besides we've kept
'im on the go pretty fair as it is."

"Make it 'ogs'eds, then."

But Alf was adamant.

"Very well, don't then," said Grant with sudden asperity. "But if yer
won't oblige a pal in a little thing like that, w'y don't yer get on
with it an' _do_ something? Fat lot o' good you done so far with yer
pet devil! W'y, yer mighter stopped the 'ole war by now."

"Might I? 'Ow?"

"Easy enough. All you gotter do is to send ole Eustace over to fetch
the Kaiser 'ere, an' there yer are! Can't yer see it in all the
papers--'Private Alf 'Iggins, V.C.--The 'ero as captured the Kaiser'?"

"Yes, I see meself gettin' it in the neck. I 'ope I knows my place
better'n to go monkeyin' with kings.... Look out, the orficers!"

It was too late for them to gain the sanctuary of their dug-out, and
they rose awkwardly to their feet as Shaw and Donaldson came along the
trench. They had been out on an exploring expedition. Bill and Alf,
seeing that neither Richards nor Allen was present, had hopes that
they would not attract attention; but Donaldson, for all his sleepy
appearance, was quick of eye.

"What's that in your hand, Grant?" he asked.

Bill, cursing inwardly the prying spirit to which he considered the
commissioned ranks much too prone, reluctantly drew from behind him the
tankard from which he had been drinking. Higgins did likewise, and the
officers took one each.

"How awfully interesting," said Shaw. "Where did you find these, Grant?"

"In one of these 'ere dug-outs, sir."

"By Jove, Don!" Shaw turned to his companion. "Fritz does love to do
himself well!"

He broke off in surprise. Donaldson had suddenly thrown off his air of
boredom and was examining his tankard with an alert eye.

"Must be looted stuff," he said. "I'm a bit of an expert in these
things. That's ancient oriental work, worth quite a bit."

"Excuse me, sir," put in Bill suavely. "But if this 'ere is any good to
you as a souvenir, I don't set no partickler store by it."

"Nor me, sir," agreed Alf.

"Want to sell?"

"If you like, sir."

"Can't afford it. I'm not going to do you in. These mugs are probably
worth a good bit."

"That's all right, sir. We'd much rather 'ave ten francs apiece now,
sir. We didn't neither of us get much last time we 'ad a pay."

"Whose fault was that?" asked Shaw.

"I'll give you," Donaldson said, "twenty francs each--all I can manage."

"Thank you, sir."

"And mind, I expect to see some of this sent home when I censor the
letters. I wouldn't give you so much all at once if we were in a place
where we could get beer----"

"Aren't we, though," put in Shaw, pointing to a drop of amber liquid in
the tankard he held. "Smell that!"

Donaldson sniffed.

"Beer, and good beer at that," he pronounced. He looked enquiringly at
the two Tommies. Alf gave himself up for lost, but not so Bill.

"Yes, sir," he said easily. "I noticed that meself."

"I dare say," answered Donaldson grimly. "The point is, can you explain
it?"

Bill's face grew preternaturally innocent.

"I expect, sir, Fritz left the mugs behind 'im in the Big Frost, sir,
an' the drops got froze in. Prob'ly thawed again with the warmth of our
'ands."

Donaldson eyed the propounder of this ingenious theory gravely.

"Probably," he agreed. And relapsing into his customary taciturnity,
he strode off down the trench with his two mugs, little Shaw trotting
behind, still lost in wonder at the sudden discovery of an artistic
side in old Don.

"'E don't believe yer," said Alf apprehensively.

"'Course not. 'E's no fool, isn't Don, for all 'e looks 'arf asleep.
But 'e's a sport, an' 'e likes a good lie. You'll see, 'e'll say no
more about it. Let's 'ave another."

Alf, whose throat was parched with all he had been through, this time
let no consideration for the feelings of Eustace deter him.



CHAPTER VI

ISOBEL'S "DREAM"


For the next day or two Alf found life very hard. Bill's appetite for
beer increased by geometrical progression; and Eustace's possible
indignation at being constantly summoned merely to supply Private Grant
with large bitters filled Alf with the liveliest apprehension. He felt
that Bill--who, under the influence of unlimited liquor, was losing his
moral sense--was not playing the game. He even descended to the level
of intimidating Higgins, when he declared himself unprepared to risk
the djinn's displeasure any longer, by the use of threats.

"Stop me beer, will yer?" said Grant. "Very well, then. We'll just see
what the R.S.M. 'as to say about yer goin's on. 'E won't 'arf tell yer
orf, I don't think!"

The regimental sergeant-major is _ex officio_ the most terrible
individual of a battalion from the point of view of the private
soldier. True, the colonel is greater than he, in that from that
officer the R.S.M. takes his orders; but the colonel--so far as Higgins
and his peers were concerned--was a mere abstraction. The R.S.M.
overshadowed him much as, in the eyes of unimaginative heathens, the
priest overshadows the deity whose minister he is.

The R.S.M. of the 5th Middlesex Fusiliers, too, was a martinet of the
most approved Regular Army type. His horizon was bounded on the one
side by King's Regulations and on the other by the Manual of Military
Law; and if he should become aware that a private of his battalion
was so lost to the meaning of military discipline as to keep an
unauthorized familiar spirit, the only possible result would be an
explosion of wrath too terrible even to contemplate. Of this threat,
therefore, Bill Grant made shameless use; and day by day he became more
bibulous, Eustace more displeased, and Alf more miserable.

Alf racked his rather inadequate brains in the hope that Necessity
would acknowledge her reputed offspring, Invention, and find him a way
out of his troubles. But in the end Bill brought about his own undoing.
He had a lively and, in his cups, a lurid imagination; and by giving it
too free rein, he suggested to Alf a counter-threat.

"'Ow'd it be, ole f'ler," said Bill thickly, on the second day, after
having kept Eustace almost continuously employed for several hours,
"to 'ave old Eustish up again 'n tell 'im to turn the R.Esh.M. into a
rhinosherush?"

To Alf this remark seemed not so much humorous as blasphemous; but it
was also most illuminating. It opened his eyes to an aspect of his new
powers which, left to himself, he would never have thought of.

"Look 'ere, Bill Grant!" he said, in suddenly confident tones. "That'll
be about enough from you, see? Not another drop o' beer do you get till
I says so. 'E's _my_ spook, Eustace is; an' if I 'as any more o' yer
nonsense I'll take an' tell 'im to change _you_ into something. 'Ow'd
yer like to be a--a transport mule, eh?"

Bill, suddenly smitten into something approaching sobriety, had no word
to say. Alf, following up his advantage, continued his harangue.

"Not one drop more do yer get," he reiterated. "Eustace 'as been
gettin' that fed up, I've been expectin' 'im to give me a month's
notice any minute. An' nice we'd look if 'e started playin' monkey
tricks on 'is own. All this beer business, you know; it ain't what 'e's
been brought up to."

"'E can't do nothin', not without you tells 'im," said Bill, with a
certainty he was far from feeling.

"Ah, an' 'ow do we know that? 'E might break loose an' then where'd we
be? I've fair got the wind up, I tell yer. What we wanted to do is to
'umor the blighter."

"'Ow?"

"I dunno. 'Ow'd it be to give 'im something to do as 'e'd really
enjoy--a decent job just to put 'im in a good temper again?"

"Buildin' palaces was 'is old line," mused Bill.

"Aye, but buildin' palaces 'ere would be just a blighted waste o'
time," replied Alf, with strong common sense. "Can't you think o'
nothin' else?"

Bill pondered deeply.

"Tell 'im," he suggested at last, "to bring us a girl. I'm fair sick
for the sight of a pretty face."

"Dunno if that's much good. 'E mayn't care for females."

"Well, it is part of 'is peace-time job, anyway. Don't I tell yer 'e
brought Aladdin a princess?"

"I'll try it. Any'ow, it'll be a change for 'im arter all that beer."

Eustace, it was obvious, approved of the idea. This new command was
completely in accord with his ancient tradition.

"A maid fair as the dawn, great Master! It shall be so!" he said.

"Yes, and"--Alf suddenly remembered a recent abortive attempt to dally
with a pretty French girl in an estaminet, and determined to run no
further risks--"a English one."

"'Ere," put in Bill. "Make it two."

But the djinn had vanished.

"All right, Bill," Higgins said soothingly. "We'll send 'im back for
one for you. Wonder what 'e'll bring for me--one of the 'Ippodrome
chorus, I 'ope."

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Lady Margaret Clowes and Isobel FitzPeter were walking together
along the edge of the Row in Hyde Park. Margaret was wearing the
workman-like, if unbeautiful, Red Cross uniform, for she was a
hard-working V.A.D. at a private hospital. Isobel was a dainty vision,
rivaling the lilies of the field.

"Did I tell you I'd had another letter from my cousin at the front?"
asked Margaret.

"Which one?"

"Denis. Denis Allen. He sent you his kind regards. He's a nice boy. Do
you remember him?"

"Hardly at all. He played cricket at Dunwater once or twice when I
was a child. Really, Peggy, I'm getting fed up with men. Since those
ridiculous papers took to publishing my photograph, every silly boy
I've ever spoken to seems to want me to write to him."

"Why do you let them do it?" asked Margaret.

"I can't stop them writing to me, if they know my address."

"The papers, I mean. It's all very well calling them ridiculous, but
you know that you give them every assistance."

"Rubbish!" Isobel's voice sounded scornful, but a sudden blush gave her
away. Margaret, who had just come off duty after an unusually exacting
spell, was rather out of patience with field-lilies. She returned to
the attack.

"It isn't rubbish. And I don't think you ought to talk about the boys
who write to you as you do. You make me very angry. After all, they are
risking their lives, which is more than you can say."

"Well, how can I? I've often told you I'd love to go to the front,"
Isobel protested.

"Yes--in a spirit of vulgar curiosity, I suppose, just to have a look
round. Iso, I could shake you, you're so self-satisfied, and so futile."

"Well, I think you're horribly rude. If you can't be more amusing, I'm
going home. I've my part to learn for...."

"Oh--look! there's a horse bolting!" interrupted Margaret. She ran to
the railings and watched breathlessly, while the mounted policeman
on duty, who seemed to regard the whole affair as being in the day's
work, caught the runaway and averted what might have been a very nasty
accident. When she turned to speak to her companion, Isobel was no
longer there.

"Temper!" thought Margaret to herself. "I suppose I was rather
cross--but really Isobel's enough to try a saint sometimes. She must
have gone off pretty quickly, too. However...."

Margaret was quite undisturbed--even a little amused at her friend's
departure. She and Isobel often had fierce little quarrels, but these
never had any lasting effect on their friendship. She would see Isobel
to-morrow, and the whole thing would be forgotten. For the present, she
continued her walk alone.

An old gentleman sitting on a seat near by, who had chanced to be
looking at Isobel at the moment when Eustace (having awarded her the
prize in his private beauty competition) swooped down and carried her
off, was the only actual spectator of her disappearance. Doubting the
evidence of his senses, he waited anxiously until Margaret should find
out what had happened; he looked for her to scream or faint, or show
her horror by some emotional upheaval; when she simply walked on as if
nothing out of the ordinary had happened, he was smitten with panic. He
dashed home and went straight to bed.

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Isobel's surprise and alarm when she found herself unexpectedly face to
face with two tinhatted and unwashed Tommies in a subterranean cavern,
lit only by a feeble gleam of daylight from the roof, was obvious;
but she was too well bred to allow her emotions to master her. For a
moment, conscious thought seemed to be suspended in her. Then, as the
objects about her took shape, she decided that she must be dreaming.

At once all sense of fear left her. If it was only a dream, she argued
to herself, it could not matter what happened to her. She waited with a
kind of amused expectancy to see what turn events would take.

Alf and Bill, on the other hand, were not a little disturbed. They
had realized at once that Eustace, in his ignorance, had committed an
awful social solecism. Even the resourceful Bill's imagination boggled
at the idea of explaining to this dainty vision how she came to be
in her present surroundings. They stood before her, embarrassed and
tongue-tied. Alf thought of recalling the djinn and telling him to take
her straight back; but his very real and increasing fear of offending
his familiar forbade. Besides, his visitor was very lovely, and filled
his jaded masculine eye with a lively sense of satisfaction.

After a while the silence became oppressive and Isobel spoke.

"Where am I?" she asked. "Who are you?"

Bill, who had been making a surreptitious and feline toilet in the
gloomy recesses of the dug-out, stepped forward and saluted.

"Don't be frightened, miss," he said soothingly, "but this 'ere's a
dug-out in France, on the Western Front."

"That proves it," said Isobel to herself, with a certain satisfaction.
"It _is_ just a vivid dream. Perhaps it's telepathy or levitation or
something. Anyway, the great point to remember is that I'm not really
here at all."

The two men watched her anxiously. Both had expected her to be
terrified at the news. Her air of unruffled serenity alarmed them,
because neither could understand it.

"Now let me see," she continued her train of thought--"a few minutes
ago, I was in the Park with Peggy--but perhaps I dreamt that, too.
In fact I must have.... I don't remember going to bed, though....
Oh, well, it's no good worrying, it'll be all right when I wake up. A
dug-out?" She echoed Bill's words uncertainly.

"Yes, miss. I'm very sorry, miss. If you please, it's all a mistake. We
didn't mean no 'arm. If you'll just wait a minute, we'll send you back
again to London quite all...."

But Isobel's usual spirit returned to her at this point. Whether this
was dream or miracle, she determined to see it through.

"Send me back?" she said. "No, indeed you shan't! I've always longed to
see the front. They won't let me in real life, and now you're trying to
spoil it in a dream. If you only knew how I've tried to get leave to
come over! It's too absolutely divine for anything--I wouldn't miss it
for worlds. And I'm sure you'll be very kind and show me round, Mr...."

"'Iggins--Private Alfred 'Iggins, 5th Middlesex Fusiliers. An' this is
me pal, Private Grant."

"Pleasetermeacher!" mumbled Bill, saluting.

"Well, you will, won't you?" Isobel smiled at them suddenly and
beseechingly. Alf capitulated.

"'Appy to, miss," replied the infatuated youth. "What is it you wants
to see?"

"Everything. I want to see just how you live and what you do. I want to
see a shell burst, and--oh, everything."

"Better not bother with shells, miss," said Bill grimly; "one might 'it
you."

"Oh, but that doesn't matter in a dream! Is this the way up?"

She climbed up the steep and difficult staircase, gallantly assisted by
Alf. Bill followed gloomily, his mind busy with wondering first what
would happen if a stray long-distance shell did injure Isobel, and
second what Sergeant Lees or any of his superiors would say if he saw
them.

The same thought struck Alf as they reached the trench above.

"Company 'Edquarters is up there," he said, with a jerk of the thumb.
"We'd best go the other way."

Isobel, making shameless play with her eyes, laid a hand for one moment
on Alf's arm.

"What _is_ a Company Headquarters?" she asked. "I want to see it."

A subtle, faint perfume reached Alf's nostrils and thrilled him all
through. Now that she was in the full light of day, he could take
in her exquisite quality. Her clothes, though obviously expensive,
were too plain to suit Bill's untutored eye, but Alf, possessing by
some queer freak of nature an unexpectedly true taste, saw in her the
apotheosis of all that was most admirable in women. By all the laws of
probability his tastes should have been for bright colors and nodding
feathers, but such decorations left him cold, while this girl struck
him dumb. She was simply the embodiment of his ideal.

"Now I'm here," she went on, "I want to see for myself just what you
poor men have to put up with. How awful it must be to live in a trench
like this. And can't you show me a German?"

She smiled up into Alf's face.

That smile galvanized him as before, into a display of rash gallantry.

"So you shall, miss," he said. "Just step along the trench 'ere, and
we'll show you all we can."

Isobel surveyed the trench doubtfully and then looked down at her
delicately shod feet.

"Couldn't we walk along the top?" she asked. "It all seems so quiet and
peaceful--surely there'd be no danger. We must be a long way from the
Germans, aren't we?"

"It's not Fritz, miss," interposed Bill earnestly. "It's our sergeant.
'E mustn't see us with you. A fair terror, 'e is."

"Oh," said Isobel easily, feeling that she could deal with these
dream-people of hers as she pleased. "I'll see you don't get into
trouble. This is _such_ an opportunity--I mustn't waste it ... here's a
flight of steps, if you'll give me your hand again and...."

She reached the top and her voice ceased as suddenly and uncannily
as a voice ceases when it is cut off in the middle of a word on the
telephone. She stood staring dumbly across the old No-Man's-Land,
making in her dainty furs the strangest picture that battle-scarred
strip of land had seen. Alf and Bill, one on each side of her, gazed,
too.

"There ain't much to see 'ere, I'm afraid, miss," said the latter
apologetically. According to his lights, Bill spoke the truth. To his
accustomed eyes there was nothing to be seen worthy of special mention;
but to Isobel--pitch-forked straight from her sheltered, mindless life
into the very heart of the battle area--it was far otherwise.

Her first feeling was that her dream had suddenly turned to horrible
nightmare. Surely nothing but distorted fancy could have produced
the scene before her eyes! It was as though the earth had been
some stricken monster, which had stiffened into death in the very
midst of the maddened writhings of its last agony. For the most
part it was a land without landmarks--a land featureless, but torn
and tortured, poisoned and pulverized, where the eye could find no
certain resting-place and the mind no relief. On every side lay the
same desolate waste, pockmarked with shell-holes, each of which was
half filled with stagnant and stinking water, on the surface of which
was an oozing and fetid scum. Here and there the ragged remains of a
barbed-wire entanglement stood out above the general welter; here and
there--but very rarely--a few scattered stones indicated where once
had stood a cottage; here and there fluttered decayed rags of blue or
khaki or field-gray.... Cartridge-cases, bits of equipment, bully-beef
tins--all kinds of abandoned rubbish were scattered about.

On the right ran the main road--the one feature of the whole pitiful
panorama which still retained some individuality. Once it had been
famous for its avenue of tall trees. Those trees still flanked the
roadway, but now the tallest of them was a ravaged stump standing a
bare four feet above the ground, and the same gun-fire that had smitten
them down had smashed the road itself into a sickly yellow pulp.

Once, no doubt, the road had run between fields green with grass or
young corn; but now it seemed to Isobel beyond imagining that life
could ever again come near to it. Even the vilest weed might shudder
to grow on earth's dead body, mangled and corrupted and shamefully
exposed....

Alf's voice broke the silence.

"It's a bit dull 'ere, miss," he said, with cheerful bathos. "There
ain't much to show yer. But see yon mound over there on the left? That
was a church once, that was. But you can 'unt all day and never find
nothing of the buildin', all except the church bell;--on'y it's too far
to walk in them boots. One of our C.T.'s--communication trenches, I
should say--runs right underneath it."

Isobel gave no answer, unless a sound something between a gulp and a
sob can be so described. Depths seemed to be stirring in her nature
that she had not hitherto been conscious of possessing. She felt
mean and small and bitterly humbled. She had desired to see the
front out of mere heedless curiosity, as a child might wish to visit
a slaughter-house. She had had her desire, and her eyes had seen
unimaginable horrors--horrors which had become so much a commonplace to
the men who passed their lives in this shambles that they apologized
for its lack of greater horrors. Compared with what they had seen,
there was "nothing much" here for her curious eye. Only a strip of
ground fought over a month before--its dead buried, its wounded carried
away to a smiling land where such as she were flattered and praised in
the public press because out of their useless lives they deigned to
devote an occasional hour to those same wounded.

A sudden horror came over her lest she should see a dead man. She
covered her eyes with her hands and gave a convulsive shudder.

"Don't--don't take me over there!" she said, and climbed down the steps
again into the trench.

Bill and Alf, much concerned to understand what could possibly have
upset their visitor, were on the point of following, when there was a
sound of squelching mud, and a figure appeared round the angle of the
trench.

"Lumme!" said Bill's voice in an appalled whisper. "The orficer!" With
one accord the two Tommies turned and fled as their platoon commander
approached.

Lieutenant Allen had been tramping about all the afternoon,
reconnoitering the approaches to the front line in case of trouble.
Muddy and hungry and dog-tired, he was now plodding mechanically back
to his hole in the ground, while his thoughts wandered vaguely and
wistfully to home and his people--and Isobel. At the sound of Bill's
whisper he looked up and stopped dead. Clearly his nerves must be
beginning to give way, for he seemed to see the subject of his thoughts
standing before him in the trench.

"My God!" he exclaimed--"Isobel!"

She stared at the muddy figure before her for a long moment. Then
recognition dawned slowly in her eyes.

"You!" she said at last, and her voice seemed to Allen to hold in it
all that he most longed for in the world.

"Isobel! am I mad or dreaming?"

"Oh," she cried, with a sob--"it's a dream. It must be a dream. If it
isn't, I can't bear it. It's too awful."

The sight of a face she knew had added to the scene the last touch of
horror for her. She stood there, the tears glistening in her eyes,
passionately pitiful, passionately lovely. The pretty fool of _The
Tatler_ pictures had ceased to be, and this glorious woman had risen
like the phoenix from her ashes. Denis held his breath for fear his
vision would fade....

Meanwhile, the two Tommies had regained the shelter of their dug-out
with more speed than grace.

"Quick!" said Bill, in a trembling voice. "'Urry up, or she'll give us
away, for sure. What a mug you was to tell 'er our names."

With a feverish hand, Alf rubbed the Button....

Denis Allen started and rubbed his eyes.

"Isobel!" he said once more. But she was gone.

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Denis leaned against the side of the trench for support. His heart
was thumping against his ribs, and his throat had a strained, parched
feeling. He was very badly scared.

Strange things do happen to men at the front; small hallucinations,
induced by the ceaseless strain on the nerves and senses, are of common
occurrence. The eyes play queer tricks sometimes on sentry-go, so that
a tuft of grass becomes a lurking sniper. Allen himself could remember
one occasion when he had actually seen German infantry advancing
stealthily to the attack, and had given the alarm; only to be severely
told off by an irate Company Commander for having interrupted his
evening meal for nothing.

But this was different. This way madness lay. He had not known that his
nerves had reached this state; he must pull himself together, get back
at once to his dug-out and sleep. If he climbed out of the trench and
went across the open, he would cut off a big corner; accordingly he did
so. Just at this moment a German battery saw fit to drop a long-range
shell at a venture into the British rear lines. It exploded only a few
yards from Denis. He felt a tremendous thump in the chest, and rolled
over, coughing and fighting for breath. Then a black curtain seemed to
shut down over his eyes, and for a few moments he lost consciousness.
Then he was hazily aware of voices, and a hand loosening his collar,
fiddling about with his shirt and finally applying a field-dressing to
a wound high up in his chest. He moved convulsively.

"Lie still, sir," said a voice. "It's Private 'Iggins, sir. Private
Grant's gone for stretcher-bearers. You'll be all right, sir--it's only
a little 'ole. Just lie still."

By the time the stretcher arrived he had more or less come to himself.
He could see once more, and he was conscious only of two things,
namely, that his feet were horribly, cruelly cold, and that he was done
with the front for a time. Slowly and gently he was carried across
the rough ground to the battalion aid-post, where the Battalion M.O.
received him.

"Hullo, Sniggles!" said Denis weakly.

"Well, young man," answered Sniggles, enthusiastically cutting all
Denis's expensive clothing to pieces with a large pair of shears.
"Let's see what they've done to you. Ah!"

He removed the bandage. Denis listened for his verdict, in dread lest
his wound should be serious enough to be fatal, or not serious enough
to give him his heart's desire.

"Shall I be all right?" he asked at last.

"Think so, old man."

"Good. Is it a Blighty one all right?"

"Sniggles" smiled at the eagerness in his tone.

"A Blighty one? I should think it is. A long holiday from the Army for
you, my lad."

Denis gave one grin of pure happiness, and then the haziness came over
him again. He lay for some time waiting for the ambulance. Occasionally
a dim form bent over him; once he heard the colonel's voice speaking
his name. For a second or two his brain cleared, and he understood a
word or two.

" ... sorry to lose him, but he's earned a rest...."

Next, he felt himself lifted and placed, still on his stretcher, in a
motor-ambulance. Most of the officers seemed to be standing about, to
see him off. There was a chorus of "Good-by, old man--and good luck!"
He gave a feeble smile in return, and then his journey began.



CHAPTER VII

EUSTACE ORDERS A BATH


All next day Bill Grant was conscious that Alf was not his usual self.
He seemed strangely preoccupied and absent-minded; and when even
dinner-time failed to arouse him, Bill became seriously alarmed.

As soon as the midday meal was done the two men sought their private
retreat. They lit their pipes and smoked for some time in a silence,
broken at last by a heavy sigh from Alf.

"What's up with yer?" demanded Bill suddenly. "Is it yer stummick?"

"I'm all right," answered Alf in a voice of hopeless dejection.

There was another long silence, once more terminating in a sigh.

"Look 'ere," said Bill, getting up in disgust, "if you feel as bad as
all that, for 'eving's sake 'ave a good cry and get it over, an' let's
'ave the old 'ome 'appy once again. What the 'ell's up?"

Alf did not answer this question, except by asking another.

"Bill," he asked with a forced lightness of tone which quite failed to
conceal the earnestness it covered. "What did yer think of Eustace's
taste in females?"

Bill turned and looked at him with a suddenly comprehending eye. Alf
wriggled uneasily under his gaze.

"So that's it, is it?" commented Bill. "Poor old Alf!" He gave a long
whistle.

"What'd you think of--of 'er, Bill?"

"Well," was the honest reply, "that kind o' fine lady ain't my style at
all. I like a girl as can back-answer yer a bit. But she was a reg'lar
daisy for looks."

Alf heaved another tremendous sigh.

"Gawd!" he exclaimed. "I can't 'elp thinkin' 'ow awful it'd 'ave been
if that shell as 'it Mr. Allen 'ad come over a bit sooner an' done
_'er_ in!"

He fell silent, lost in contemplation of this terrible idea. Bill
was thinking deeply. He fixed a far-away gaze on Alf, reducing that
warrior, very self-conscious in the unaccustomed rôle of love-sick
swain, to the last pitch of embarrassment. When at last Bill came back
to earth his words were startling in the extreme.

"Well," he said casually. "If that's 'ow you feel, why don't you marry
the girl?"

"What?... Me?... Marry 'oo?"

"Eustace's female, whatever 'er name is."

"You're barmy! Might as well tell me to marry a royal princess straight
orf."

"Well, an' why not, if you want to?" Bill was quite unmoved. "Eustace
fixed it up for Aladdin--why not for Alf 'Iggins?"

"Yes, but--Aladdin, 'e was a prince 'isself."

"Not to start with 'e wasn't, an' if you married a princess you'd be a
prince, too. Prince 'Iggins--it'd look fine on a brass plate. Now look
'ere, Alf, my lad, yer just wastin' yer time. You don't seem to 'ave no
idea what a lot you could do with Eustace. If _I_ 'ad a pet spook I'd
use 'im a sight better'n what you do. Why don't you stop the blinkin'
war? Get Kaiser Bill over 'ere, and...."

"Once an' for all," interposed Alf with firmness, "I ain't goin' to
mix meself up in nothing o' that sort. I knows enough to keep clear
o' what's too 'igh for me. I'm a plain man, I am. Besides, Eustace
ain't to be trusted. 'E'd be sure to make a muck of it an' get me into
trouble some'ow."

Bill abandoned this topic for the time being with reluctance; the idea
of kidnaping the Kaiser was the cherished child of his brain. But he
knew that Alf when obstinate was quite impervious to argument; he
therefore returned to the original question.

"Any'ow," he said. "If you want to marry that girl, Eustace'll manage
it for yer. It was 'is job in peace-time--'e'll thank yer for a chance
to get back to it. As I says, Aladdin married a princess, an' 'e wasn't
no great specimen of a man any more'n what you are. I remember 'is
mother was a washerwoman by the name o' Twankey, in the pantomime."

"Really?" asked Alf with sudden interest. "Why, my good ole mother
takes in washin', too."

He seemed much cheered by this striking similarity between himself and
his prototype. For the first time he seemed to realize that Bill's
suggestion might be something more than idle verbiage.

"S'posin' you was me, then," he asked. "'Ow'd you set about the
business? I ain't got no idea of this 'ere game."

"Well, I ain't exactly thought it out meself, but the first thing to
do's to get back to Blighty."

"That does me in for a start," said Alf hopelessly.

"Not a bit. What about our month's re-engagement leave? It's five
years next month since you an' me joined the Terriers, an' the Captain
says 'e's applied for it, an' we'll get it in time. May be a month or
two late, but we'll get it all right. Tell yer what I'll do, though.
There's a ole lady in Blighty what sends me books an' papers an'
things. I'll get 'er to send me the book about Aladdin, an' we'll see
'ow 'e worked the trick. P'raps we'll pick up a 'int or two that way.
But you trust to Eustace an' me. We'll put it all right for you, as
soon as we get our leave."

Accordingly a letter to the old lady in Blighty was composed and
dispatched that same afternoon.

The glittering prospect before him filled Alf with as much apprehension
as elation. The passion inspired in him by Isobel was a desire of the
moth for the star--a distant worship of a goddess who had vouchsafed
him one brief vision of her beauty and had then vanished beyond his ken
forever. But Bill's practical common sense had changed all that. Alf
found himself called upon to readjust his mental horizon, and to gaze
upon a new prospect in which his goddess appeared suddenly changed to
mortal form and proportions.

He could not accustom himself all at once to the new conditions. He
felt sure that there must be "a catch" in the idea somewhere.

"Look 'ere," he said, after profound cogitation. "D'you mean to tell me
as anything that Eustace can do'll make _'er_ walk out with _me_?"

"'Course I do," said Bill confidently. "Look 'ere, now; s'pose you go
to 'er an' say, 'I'm a millionaire, an' I've got palaces an' jools, an'
'orses, an'--oh, everything I want'--d'yer think any female's goin' to
refuse all that, if you was as ugly as sin? Not on yer life. She'll eat
out of yer 'and, you'll see."

But Bill Grant's cynicism failed to convince Alf, who shook his head
despondently. Then, with characteristic philosophy, since none of
these strange and wonderful things could begin to happen to him until
his month's leave (itself only a happy possibility) came through, he
dismissed the whole affair from his mind for the time being.

The battalion finished its turn in the trenches without further
casualties, and once more prepared to move back to rest billets. The
future was uncertain; but it did not seem likely that this respite
would be of long duration. The battle of Arras had begun, and all along
the line there was work to be done. At any moment the division might be
called upon to trek to the Arras district, or to fill some unexpected
gap elsewhere; so Colonel Enderby, on the day before the 5th Battalion
marched out, sent a certain Sergeant Oliver before them with orders
to make arrangements whereby his battalion on leaving the line might
lose no time in making itself clean and tidy once more. To put it more
simply, he told him to rig up some baths.

In "C" Company Lieutenant Allen's disappearance had caused few actual
changes, although Captain Richards missed his cheery help and sound
judgment at every turn. No officer had appeared from England as yet
to fill his place, and No. 9 Platoon was now under the sole charge of
Sergeant Lees, who ruled it with a rod of iron.

On the morning of the move the autocrat was in high good humor.

"Pack yer traps up, boys," he said. "It's good-by to the line to-day.
Please 'Eaven, you'll all get a 'ot bath to-morrow."

"'Ear that, Bill?" asked Alf in delight. "I'm just about fed up with
the line. Think o' gettin' into a billet again!"

"Umph," said Bill. "We won't be any better orf in a billet than in
our dug-out, anyway. On'y thing _I_ wanter get back for is to 'ave
something to drink, since you're so mean with Eustace. If _I_ 'ad a
pet spook I wouldn't be that way, I can tell yer."

"I can't 'elp it," said Alf, resenting the imputation of meanness, but
adamantine in his determination not to risk Eustace's displeasure again.

"Huh!" said Bill. There was a world of meaning in this monosyllable,
and none of it was complimentary to Alf.

The 5th Battalion was far enough back from the front line to be safely
relieved by daylight. In consequence, the relieving battalion arrived
up to time, and Alf and Bill were well on their way by eleven o'clock.
So long as it was in the shelled area, the battalion marched by
platoons, with a space of about a hundred yards between each body and
the next. Once the danger limit was passed, however, it was closed up
again for economy of road space.

At about four-thirty in the afternoon, worn and weary, the men
approached a pleasant village and sighed contentedly to see a little
group of four khaki figures awaiting them. These were the company
quartermaster-sergeants, whose job is to look after the feeding of
their companies at all times and their housing when out of the line.
"Quarters" is by training an autocrat and by hereditary reputation a
scoundrel, but when he is seen waiting to show his men into its happy
but temporary homes at the end of a long march, he is the most popular
man in the company.

As Captain Richards rode in at the head of his cohort, C.Q.M.S. Piper
came up and explained to him what splendid billets he had secured, what
enormous trouble he had had to secure any billets at all, and how well
his own compared with those of the other companies. Along the road,
the other C.Q.M.S.'s might have been seen, each giving his own company
commander precisely similar information. Each platoon was then settled
into its particular mud barn by its own officer, while little Shaw, as
subaltern of the day (otherwise known as Orderly Dog), bustled round to
the traveling cookers to ascertain from the sergeant cook how soon a
hot meal would be forthcoming.

When this repast was over Alf and Bill found themselves told off as
units in a blanket-carrying party, after which they turned in and slept
the sleep of the thoroughly unjust for about twelve hours.

Next morning, after breakfast, Captain Richards paraded his company,
and as usual after coming out of the line, lectured them on their
appearance.

"However," he concluded, "you'll have no excuse if you turn up
to-morrow dirty. Sergeant Oliver has got some baths going in the back
yard of the 'Rayon d'Or' in Aberfeldy Street; and you'll go down there
by sections, beginning at ten o'clock. And I'll hold a dam' strict
inspection at half-past three--so look out!"

In due course, Corporal Greenstock paraded his section, containing
Privates Higgins and Grant, and marched it down Dunoon Street, through
Piccadilly Circus into Aberfeldy Street. There in a cloud of steam
they found Sergeant Oliver, whose military career at the front was
divided between improvising baths for the battalion when it came out
of the line, and supplying facilities for the drying of socks when in
it. The bath on this occasion was an enormous wooden tub, capable of
holding four men at a time. The sergeant and his satellites were busy
keeping a veritable furnace going beneath a boiler which several gloomy
defaulters constantly refilled from a well nearby. One clean fill of
water was the allowance for each section, and by the time the water was
emptied out it had become only less thick than the mud of the trenches
they had just left.

The whole arrangement reflected the greatest credit on Sergeant Oliver,
considering that when he had arrived at the "Rayon d'Or" neither tub
nor boiler had been there. Whence and by whose permission they had been
procured were questions which the colonel had carefully refrained from
asking. But the sybaritic soul of Bill Grant clamored for something
better still. He drew Alf on one side and whispered. Alf shook his
head. Bill became more earnest; Higgins hesitated--and was lost. Both
men slipped quietly out of the bath-house while Corporal Greenstock,
taking the best of the water by right of seniority, was performing his
ablutions.

It was a very quiet village, sparsely inhabited. Alf and Bill soon
found a large farmyard in which, remote from public view, stood a
dilapidated barn.

"This'll do fine!" said Bill. "There's nobody living in the
'ouse--we'll be as safe as the Pay Corps 'ere."

"I don't know," objected Alf. "What about that 'aystack in the loft?
That must belong to some one."

"Well, 'ooever it belongs to, they don't live 'ere, an' we can keep a
look-out in case any one comes. Go on, ring up ole Eustace. You won't
find a better place."

Alf rubbed his Button.

"See that barn, Eustace?" he asked, before the djinn had time to begin
his usual formula. "Well, put us a real nice bath inside it."

"O Master, behold, it is done!"

Eustace vanished, looking pleased. "Real nice baths" were entirely in
accordance with the Aladdin tradition.

The two Tommies turned towards the barn, and stood lost in amazement.
The building was outwardly as dilapidated as before, but inside it was
all light and color and perfumed magnificence. Marble pillars veiled
by silken hangings stood just inside the broken mud walls, and through
the hangings could be seen just so much as to hint at further splendors
beyond.

"Lumme!" said Alf, as soon as he could speak. "Why is 'e always so
blinkin' 'olesale? 'E'll be givin' the 'ole show away, one o' these
days. What's to be done now, Bill? 'Ave 'im come back again an' make
'im clear away the 'ole caboodle, I s'pose?"

"I s'pose so," said Bill reluctantly. "I s'pose so. Seems a pity, but
... 'ullo!"

He broke off.

The silken hangings had been suddenly drawn back by two enormous
negroes, clad in sumptuous and glittering uniforms; a spacious hall was
thus revealed, in which a crowd of beautiful female slaves in marvelous
though rather scanty oriental draperies was waiting.

"Goo' Lord! The 'Ippodrome Chorus!" said Grant in an awed voice, his
protests forgotten. The most beautiful of the slaves came forward, and
paused just inside the pillared entrance, a smile of invitation upon
her lips.

"'Ere," said Bill. "This is goin' to be a bit of all right. We mustn't
miss this. One of us'll 'ave to keep guard while the other 'as 'is
bath. Toss for 'oo goes first, see?--You call!"

"'Eads," said Alf.

"Tails it is," replied Bill with great satisfaction. "I'm goin' to bath
first. 'Arf an hour each, see?"

He entered the building, and the slaves clustered about him. Then the
negroes drew the curtains, and Alf saw him no more.

Bill, highly gratified by his reception, was led through the entrance
hall into another lofty chamber, wonderfully built of different-colored
marbles. From one end of this chamber came the pleasant sound of
running water, where a little fountain flowed into a bath sunk into
the floor, and entered by a flight of marble steps. By some invisible
device sufficient water was allowed to flow out to keep the bath always
full to a uniform depth. From it arose a faint cloud of steam, fragrant
and scented.

The leader of the slaves led Bill to a divan and bowed profoundly.

"Thank you, my dear," said Bill. "This'll do me a treat. Now, if you'll
just take yer friends away and wait outside, I'll be with yer in 'arf a
tick."

But the lady seemed neither to understand him nor to have any intention
of going. She signed to two of her following, who came forward and
unlaced Grant's boots. She herself began daintily to unbutton his tunic.

This was too much for the scandalized Bill.

"'Ere," he said, leaping suddenly to his feet. "This 'as gone far
enough. None of yer disrespectable foreign ways for me! Why, I've never
been washed by a female since my old mother used to give me a bath when
I was a nipper! 'Ere, 'op it--skedaddle!"

Bill's remarks were not understood, but his gesture of dismissal was
unmistakable. The slaves made each a low obeisance and retired; the
face of the leader wore so obvious an air of pained astonishment that
Bill felt he owed her some kind of reparation.

"It's all right, Alice," he called. "Wait outside for me, an' I'll let
yer brush me 'air arterwards."

Left alone, Bill undressed; he examined with profound suspicion the
silver bowls of rich unguents which stood at one end of the bath; and
then, extracting from his tunic-pocket a weary-looking cake of soap, he
plunged into the water and prepared to give himself up to the enjoyment
of the most luxurious moment that life had yet afforded him.

Meanwhile Alf, keeping watch outside, had begun to find time hang heavy
on his hands. The farmyard was utterly deserted--only in the building
into which he had seen Bill disappear was there any sign of life. He
lounged into the road, cursing the fate which had given Bill the first
choice, and wondering whether after all the chance of discovery was
great enough to make his lonely vigil worth while. He debated this
point for some time, and had almost made up his mind to chance it and
join Bill forthwith, when he heard his name called.

"'Ere! 'Iggins!"

He looked up the road apprehensively. Two men of his own section had
turned a corner and were bearing down upon him. Panic-stricken, he
dashed into the farmyard and shouted for Bill. There was no response.
Feverishly he felt for his Button and rubbed it.

"Eustace," he said in a trembling voice, "cart all that away--quick!
An' then 'op it yerself. Look slippy!"

Bill Grant had just felt the warm, soft water close over his body--had
just begun to realize a delicious sense of lightness and rest which
pervaded his whole frame--when everything about him seemed to fade into
smoke and disappear. The marble bath, the stately hall, the water, the
silken hangings, all vanished in a flash, and he found himself, naked
and cold, lying on the cobbled floor of an exceedingly well-ventilated
French barn. Worst of all, his clothes had disappeared with the rest.

Outside in the yard he could see Alf signing to him in the greatest
agitation; he made a dash for the haystack in the loft, and had just
reached its sanctuary when he heard voices below him. Peeping through a
crack in the loft floor he could see Denham and Walls, the two privates
whose untimely appearance had upset Alf so completely.

"Corp'ril sent us for yer, Alf," explained Walls. "Says we got to bring
yer back under escort for bilkin' yer bath."

"He also wished us to secure Grant," added Private Denham, a youth who
was cultivating a refined accent with a view to subsequent application
for a commission.

"Well, 'e ain't 'ere, me lord," answered Alf shortly. "I'll come right
away. I was just comin', any'ow."

Unaware of the tragic loss of Bill's clothes, Alf was only anxious to
get his captors away from the spot and to give his pal a chance of
appearing clothed again and in his right mind as soon as might be.

Bill heard their voices die away, and despairingly reviewed his
position. The hay, with which he was obliged to cover himself for
warmth, tickled his bare body cruelly. He was too far from his billet
to think of trying to return there in his present condition, even if
modesty had allowed. His clothes were irretrievably lost until Alf
should come back that way, bringing the Button. Until Higgins realized
that something was wrong and came in search of him, Bill must remain an
outcast, naked and ashamed. He made himself a nest in the softest part
of the hay and settled himself down to wait.

After a time he dozed off; he was recalled to himself by the sound of
a footstep below. It paused at the bottom of the ladder leading to the
loft.

"Alf!" said Bill in a stage whisper.

"_Qui va la?_" answered a strange voice--an old, quavery voice,
apparently female. Bill curled himself into his nest of hay and lay
perfectly still. The owner of the voice, having listened for some time,
apparently decided that Bill's greeting had been a delusion of the
senses and began painfully and wheezily to climb the ladder. Through a
layer of hay, Bill's eye commanded the loft door. His visitor was an
elderly Frenchwoman with a pitch-fork, evidently the owner of the hay.

She began to fork the hay down with surprising vigor for one so frail.
Bill lay close as a maggot in a nut; but unfortunately, at her sixth
prod, the old lady dug her weapon into one of the tenderest parts of
his undraped anatomy, and Bill sprang up with an eldritch scream. Naked
as he was, and festooned and bristling with hay, he was a startling
apparition. The old Frenchwoman gave forth a yell as if all the devils
in hell were after her, and clambered down the ladder with the speed of
a cat. By some miracle she preserved her footing till she was halfway
down the ladder; but then her feet slipped and she shot ignominiously
on to her own hay. Bill thought for a moment that she had hurt herself;
but a second later he heard her wooden shoes on the cobbles outside as
she took to her heels and ran for her life.

Bill, shivering, returned gloomily to his hay. The fat was in the fire
now, without a doubt. Even if she did not inform the colonel, the old
lady was sure to alarm the villagers; and what they might do to him
Bill hardly dared imagine. He lay shivering with cold and fright. After
a time he seemed to hear stealthy footsteps. He determined that his
only chance was to give himself up and throw himself on the mercy of
his captors. He stood up, and shook himself free of the hay.

A voice below spoke--Alf's voice.

"Bill!" it said.

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Half an hour later Bill stood before Sergeant Lees.

"Ho," said that autocrat. "'Ere you are. Bilked yer bath, you 'ave, so
I 'ear, an' missed the Captain's inspection; an' the British soldier's
first dooty is to be clean."

"I got a better bath in the village, sergeant. Didn't think you'd
mind," said Bill desperately.

"Ho, did yer? Don't seem to 'ave done yer much good. 'Ave yer seen
yerself?"

The sergeant handed him a shaving-mirror. Grant studied his features in
silence. His adventures in the hay had completely destroyed the effects
of his bath. His face was streaked and mottled with black dust till he
looked like a dissipated nigger.

"No, my lad," said the sergeant grimly. "That yarn's like you--it
don't wash. You'll report to Sergeant Oliver to-morrer an' act as
bath-orderly for the rest o' the week."



CHAPTER VIII

BLIGHTY FOR TWO


Grant's appointment to the menial position of bath-orderly plunged him
into a state of savage gloom. His duties were arduous and his hours
long; and as he spent even his free time in morose silence, he soon
made Alf as miserable as himself. Gradually the week wore away until at
last the sentence was served, and Bill was once more a free man.

But his punishment seemed to have soured his whole outlook on life;
even now he continued sullenly aloof till at last even the easy-going
Alf felt himself constrained to remonstrate.

"Look 'ere, Bill," he said. "What's up?"

"Fed up!" growled Bill.

"Fed up? Well, o' course you're fed up. Ain't we all fed up? But that
ain't no reason for goin' on like this. You might be a lot worse off.
'Ere we are, back from the line an' in billets in a nice little village
with shops an' estaminets an' ... an' baths."

"If you wants one in the 'ear-'ole," said Bill, rising wrathfully,
"you've on'y got to say 'bath' to me again. An' look 'ere, I never 'ad
no use for sermons any'ow. Get on to the 'ymn."

Alf regarded him helplessly. Bill simply stared straight before him
with a queer glint in his eyes.

"Look 'ere," said Higgins at last, deciding to stretch a point for the
sake of a quiet life. "Shall I get Eustace to fetch yer a pint?"

"No."

"It'd do yer good."

"No, I tell yer. Keep yer blinkin' Eustace an' yer blinkin' beer, an'
f'r 'Eaven's sake leave me alone. I'm fed up with the 'ole boilin'
of yer--sick of it. Sick o' the War, an' this ruddy country, an'
everything. I wants to get 'ome to Blighty, an', oh Gawd! to think I'll
'ave to wait another two months."

Alf was silent and sympathetic; he could remember times when he had
been helpless in the grip of just such a desperate angry longing to
escape from France and all that it stood for. An idea struck him.

"Couldn't Eustace ...?" he began.

"No. D'you think I 'aven't sense enough to think o' that meself? This
is one o' them times when Eustace ain't no blinkin' use at all--unless
you've got enough guts to send 'im over to get ole Kaiser Bill 'ere,
an...."

"Well, I won't," said Alf obstinately. "I told you before. An' I don't
see why Eustace can't take you over to Blighty all right. 'E brought
that young lady over 'ere."

"Because," said Bill, with the air of one explaining truisms to a
wrong-headed child, "if we asks Eustace to take us 'ome, what 'appens?
We're deserters. Sooner or later we'd get found out an' shot. 'Tain't
worth it. I should 'ave thought even you could 'ave understood that."

With this Parthian shot he stalked heavily away, leaving Alf
disconsolate. But as soon as he was alone he began to ponder Alf's
scorned suggestion. Was there not some way in which Eustace could be
employed to take Bill and Alf home for a space without subjecting them
to the risk of subsequent execution? He turned the question over in his
restless mind, but in vain; and as a result his temper at bed-time was
even less equable than before. Alf was glad to roll himself up in his
blanket and go to sleep.

But Bill could not sleep. Long after "lights out," he lay awake,
thinking and brooding over his problem; and his longing for Blighty
grew sharper till it was almost more than he could bear. But he knew
that until he could find some way of circumventing his difficulties he
must continue, like the cat in the adage, to let "I dare not" wait upon
"I would."

At last, just as daylight began to appear, a new idea struck him. It
was a scheme of masterly simplicity in which his tired brain could
detect no flaw. He leant over and shook the dimly visible form of Alf,
who woke in astonishment and was about to give tongue when Bill's huge
hand was clapped over his mouth, and Bill's voice spoke fiercely in
his ear.

"Quiet, you fool!"

"Wasermarrer?" enquired Alf thickly, as soon as the hand was removed.

"I got it!" whispered Bill triumphantly.

"Got what?"

"I knows 'ow we can work it."

There was a pause, as Alf allowed this to sink in. "Work what?" he
asked at last.

"Wake up, you fat'ed, an' listen. It's a transfer we want."

"A what?"

"A _transfer_!"

"Do we?"

Bill's overtried nerves snapped suddenly.

"If it wasn't for the row it'd make, I'd dot yer one," he hissed
fiercely. "'Ere, put yer things on quiet an' slip outside, an' I'll
tell yer there."

A few moments later, in the dim first light of dawn, Bill unfolded his
scheme.

"If we tells Eustace to transfer us to the Reserve Battalion 'ome in
Blighty, that ain't desertion, because we'd still be soldierin', see.
An' it's about time you and me 'ad a little go o' soldierin' at 'ome,
for a change like. Oh, it's a real brainy notion, Alf. Can't think why
I never thought of it before."

Alf, still half-asleep, had only the vaguest conception of the meaning
of the magic word "transfer" and still less of the formalities
attaching thereto; but such was his trust in the acumen and the
military knowledge of his mate that he accepted the statement without
reserve. Acting under Bill's instructions he rubbed his Button.
Instantly Eustace appeared with his usual formula.

"We want to be transferred," said Alf. "To the Reserve Battalion in
Blighty--at once, please."

"Lord!" answered the djinn, "I hear and obey."

He advanced on the two privates who, expecting to feel themselves
borne with appalling swiftness through the air, closed their eyes
apprehensively; but nothing seemed to happen, and they opened them
again.

"Lumme!" said Alf in astonishment. "Good ole Eustace!"

The scene before them had changed with the suddenness of a
cinematograph film. The dawn was still just breaking, but instead of
the cheerless plains of France they saw the wooded hills and trim
hedges of an English landscape. They were standing on a country road
beside a camp of wooden huts. Not far away the spire of a church
and the chimneys of a few houses rising above the drifting morning
mist showed where a village stood; and as they tried to gather their
wits together they heard a sound to which their ears had long been
strangers--the distant rumble of an express train.

"Good ole Eustace--an' good ole Blighty!" said Bill softly. "Come on,
Alf. There's a sentry at the gate. We'll report to 'im."

The sentry at once handed them over to the sergeant of the guard, who
produced a piece of paper and a stubby pencil.

"Nice time o' day to come in, I don't think," he observed severely.
"Overstayed yer week-end leave, I s'pose. Where's your passes?"

"We 'aven't got no passes, sergeant. We've...."

"Names, please," interrupted the catechist. "1287 'Iggins A. an' 2312
Grant W. Which comp'ny?"

"'C' Comp'ny, 5th M.F., B.E.F."

"Yes, yes," said the sergeant with heavy sarcasm. "You can say yer
alphabet arterwards. An' I don't want yer past 'istory, neither. This
ain't the B.E.F. an' I want to know which comp'ny you belong to 'ere."

"We dunno, sergeant. We been transferred from the B.E.F. an' we're just
reportin'."

"What, at this time o' day, an' without any kit? All right, you
needn't trouble to tell me any more. You tell it all to the C.O. when
'e sees you. 'E'll 'arf skin yer, I expect, for rollin' in at this
time, because the last train for 'ere gets in at eight o'clock in the
evening."

Alf and Bill sat in the guard-room, their first elation rather dashed.
Once more things were turning out unexpectedly difficult. They were
indeed back in Blighty, but were to be half-skinned as a result. If on
top of this Eustace managed to make any mistake in the transfer, they
might reasonably expect to be completely flayed by the colonel, who
had the reputation (which had reached the brigade in France by means
of the drafts he sent out to it) of being a fire-eater. Bill began to
regret bitterly his impulsiveness in leaving the technical details of
his scheme to Eustace; but he realized that it was now too late to do
anything. He and Alf would be kept under strict surveillance until the
time of their interview with the C.O., and there would be no possible
chance of summoning Eustace and ascertaining just what he had done.

They decided to do nothing, and to hope for the best. Even a guard-room
in Blighty seemed to them at that moment preferable to their billet in
France.

Soon after breakfast the hour for the inquisition arrived and the
two friends found themselves side by side "on the mat" before the
great man, who was physically a very little man. Colonel Watts was
a "dug-out." Some time before the war broke out he had retired from
a very long and incredibly undistinguished military career with the
rank of major, and had devoted himself to bullying his meek wife and
generally making her life a misery. When the war began the gallant
major, much to Mrs. Watts' relief, applied for and obtained command of
a New Army battalion. Unfortunately, however, he managed to quarrel so
violently with all his immediate superiors and most of his colleagues
that the divisional general refused to take him to the front. Shortly
before the division sailed for France the little man returned raging
to Tunbridge Wells, discharged all his wife's servants, poisoned her
dog, and proceeded to vent all his accumulated spleen on the poor lady
herself. Eventually, only just in time to save Mrs. Watts' sanity, he
was offered the command of the Territorial reserve battalion of the
Middlesex Fusiliers, a post which he had held ever since.

He sat behind a very large table, with Captain Sandeman, his adjutant,
standing beside him. Alf and Bill were marched in by the regimental
sergeant-major, an unctuous person very different from the martinet who
controlled the 5th Battalion at the front.

"Private Higgins, sir, and Private Grant," he announced--as who should
say, "Mr. and Mrs. Platt-Harcourt, my lady!"

"Higgins!" repeated the Colonel, gazing ferociously at Alf from under
his beetling eyebrows. "Higgins! Higgins!!"

"Yessir!" said Alf, thinking that confirmation was being required.

"Be quiet!" roared Colonel Watts, with such suddenness that Alf took a
step backwards in alarm. "And stand still!"

"Stand still, man, and only speak when you are spoken to," said the
oily voice of the R.S.M. in Alf's ear.

The colonel fixed the unfortunate Alf with a protruding eye, and
continued his baleful glare until his victim was on the very verge of
crying out. His one idea seemed to be to intimidate Alf; he paid no
attention whatever to Bill, who was standing stiffly to attention, his
eyes fixed in a lack-luster stare on the wall above the adjutant's head.

"Well?" the C.O. ground out at last between his teeth. The
sergeant-major gave a consequential little cough and signed to the
sergeant of the guard to give his evidence.

"These men arrived 'ere, sir, in the early hours of this mornin',
about four o'clock, and failed to give any satisfactory account of
themselves. They 'ad no kit, sir, an' no passes. They state that they
'ave been transferred to us from the Expeditionary Force, sir, but they
'ave no papers to prove it."

"Good God!" shouted the colonel. "This is disgraceful. More
incompetence! If I've written one letter complaining of this kind of
thing I've written a dozen. Men come here without papers, without kit,
without orders, and expect us to look after 'em. The Army in France is
one mass of incompetent fools, in my opinion. It's a scandal, Sandeman."

The adjutant said nothing. The C.O. hardly seemed to expect him to, for
he swept on without a pause.

"If I'd my way, I'd scrap the whole lot of 'em, and have a few men who
know their jobs put in instead. No papers, no nothing. Disgraceful!
Where's your kit, man?"

Alf, finding that this question also was addressed to him, and having
no reply ready, merely gaped.

"Speak up!" bawled the Colonel.

"L--l--lost it, sir."

The C.O. dashed his pen violently on to his desk, where it stuck
quivering on its point, turned round in his chair and silently eyed his
adjutant for ten palpitating seconds.

"D'ye hear that, Sandeman? He's lost it. Good God! What are we coming
to?... The Government has fitted him out with a complete set of kit and
he's lost it ... and how," he vociferated, turning round once more with
such unexpected speed that Alf once more gave back a pace. "How d'you
mean to tell me you lost it, eh?"

But Alf's inventive powers were exhausted, and Bill judged it time, at
whatever risk to life and limb, to take a speaking part in the little
drama.

"Overboard, sir, in the Channel," he said, without removing his eye
from the wall. "Off of a ship," he added as an afterthought, in order
that there should be no misunderstanding possible.

Colonel Watts appeared to regard this as the last straw. For a moment
he seemed unable to articulate at all, and the hue of his countenance
deepened through successive shades till it finally arrived at a
congested purple. He hammered on his desk with his fist.

"I will not have my valuable time wasted in this way!" he roared.
"Bring these men before me to-morrow, sergeant-major, and if I can't
get a coherent account of them from some one, there'll be trouble.
Incompetent fools!"

He puffed passionately out of the orderly-room and slammed the door,
leaving it uncertain whether his last remark was addressed only to
Alf and Bill, or whether it was not rather intended to include the
adjutant, the R.S.M., the sergeant of the guard and the impassive
privates acting as prisoners' escort. He was to be heard faintly
outside in unkind criticism of the sentry's method of presenting arms.
Then there was silence, and a general feeling as though the sun had
come out.

"Prisoners and escort," began the R.S.M. "Right-TURN!
Quick...."

"Wait, sergeant-major," said Captain Sandeman quietly. "I want to ask
these men a question or two. Send the escort off."

Bill's heart sank. Captain Sandeman had lost the air of passive
indifference which he wore as protective armor in the presence of
Colonel Watts. He looked horribly intelligent and wide-awake.

"Now, listen to me," he said. "I don't understand your case at all. Are
you rejoining from hospital?"

"No, sir. From the front. Transferred, sir."

"But why? And where are your papers?"

"Didn't 'ave no papers, sir. We was just told to report 'ere. The
papers is comin' by post, I think, sir."

"Um. Which is your battalion, and company?"

"The fifth, sir--'C' Comp'ny."

Bill was beginning to realize that Eustace had, in his muddle-headed
way, landed them in a very tight corner. He would have lied had he
dared; but he knew that there must be scores of men serving now with
the Reserve who had known both himself and Alf at the front.

"That's Captain Richards' company, isn't it?"

"Yessir. But the Captain went away on a course yesterday, sir, and
Lieutenant Donaldson is in command now."

"_Yesterday?_ How d'you know that?"

Bill had seen his slip as soon as he made it.

"I 'eard 'e was goin' before I left, sir," he answered readily.

"Um. And you don't know why you've been sent back?"

"No, sir."

Captain Sandeman became suddenly stern.

"There is something very irregular about the whole business," he said.
"I don't see how you can possibly have got across the Channel in any
legitimate way without papers. The whole thing looks most fishy, and it
seems to me that you two men are asking for very serious trouble. Now,
I warn you, I give you an opportunity now of telling me all about it;
but if you persist in that story about being transferred without any
papers, I'll have to keep you safe here till I can find out the truth
from Mr. Donaldson. Now, what have you to say?"

"Nothing, sir," said Bill quickly. For one moment he was afraid that
Alf was going to lose his head and tell the incredible truth; he shot a
glance of warning at his mate, who subsided; and the adjutant waited in
vain for an answer to his appeal.

"Very well," he said. "Put 'em in the cells, sergeant-major."

The two unfortunates were accordingly marched away and were once more
handed over to the sergeant of the guard.

"Cells for these two beauties, an' keep 'em safe, or it'll be worse for
you. Deserters they look like. It's a court-martial case."

Alf quaked at this realization of his worse fears, while even Bill
looked concerned.

"I've on'y one cell, sir," said the sergeant of the guard.

"Very well. Shove 'em in together. Can't be helped."

The R.S.M. went off.

The instant the key turned on the two men, Alf produced the Button and
rubbed it.

"What wouldst thou have?" began Eustace, his deep voice reverberating
round the little cell. "I am...."

"Stop it--they'll 'ear you!"

"They 'ave 'eard 'im," whispered Bill. "Quick, Alf."

The sergeant, who had heard the rumbling voice, was already fumbling
with the stiff lock.

"Take us away," whispered Alf in trembling tones. "Anywhere out of
'ere. QUICK!"

Before the sergeant had opened the door the whole camp had faded from
their view, and the two found themselves in a desolate waste, faced by
a very puzzled and indignant djinn.

"Lumme, that was a near squeak!" gasped Alf.

"Yes," said Bill. He addressed Eustace in heated tones. "What the 'ell
did you want to go an' land us in a mess like that for? Didn't Mr.
'Iggins say as plain as print it was a transfer we wanted. Don't you
know nothing at all?"

"It's always the same," put in Alf parenthetically. "No common sense.
Too slap-dash an' 'olesale."

But Eustace was ignorant of the nature of his offense. He was conscious
only that he had had to be called in at a desperate crisis to rescue
his master from danger. He was full of indignation at such sacrilege.

"Lord!" he said. "Command me that I should go to that impious one and
instantly reduce him to ashes--both him and his family and all that are
about him. Ill beseemeth it that any should lay impious hands upon the
Lord of the Button, and live."

"'E's a bloodthirsty customer, ain't 'e?" said Bill in awed admiration.
"Talk about 'olesale! Look 'ere, Eustace, you'll be getting us into
'orrible trouble if you don't look out. What was it you wanted to
do--reduce the R.S.M. to ashes? We're in a bad enough 'ole as it is,
but that would fair put the lid on. You wants to be a little more up
to date. Me an' Mr. 'Iggins is on'y privates, you know; an' if we get
monkeyin' with sergeant-majors there'll be 'ell on for all of us."

"Verily," said the djinn in perplexed tones, "I do not understand thy
speech. Ill beseemeth it that any man should presume to order the
comings and the goings of the Lord of the Button. Bid me abase this
proud upstart, and thou shalt rule in his stead."

"No, thank you," said Alf. "I don't want to be no bloomin' orficer. I'm
a plain man, I am. You see, Eustace, it's like this. In this 'ere war,
every one's fightin'--soldiers an' civilians an' all. Now, I'm not a
soldier by trade--fruit and vegetable salesman I am. So I 'as to obey
the orficers an' the sergeants, 'cos they knows the job. If they'd come
into the fruit an' vegetables not knowin' a carrot from a crisantlemum,
they'd 'ave 'ad to obey me. See?"

"I don't think!" put in Bill. "Look 'ere, Eustace, your job's to get
us out o' this 'ere mess. Just through yer bloomin' ignorance you're
landed us in a proper 'ole. 'Ere we are; we've deserted from the
front, an' we've broken arrest in the Reserve Battalion. 'Ow are we
goin' to get out o' that, eh?"

Alf made a tentative suggestion, his mind on Colonel Watts.

"Better go back to France, 'adn't we?"

"I sh'd think we _'ad_." Bill's hopeless nostalgia of the day before
was entirely forgotten. "Why, I'd sooner stay in France the rest o' the
war than serve under that blighter we was before this mornin'. 'E was a
corker."

"But if we're deserters," said Alf dismally, "'ow can we go back?
Wouldn't they shoot us?"

Bill looked at his watch.

"Why, it's on'y ten o'clock now," he said. "They'd find we was gone at
revally, so we've on'y been away about four hours. What's four hours
when the battalion's restin'? They can't do much to us."

"Might stop our leave."

"True for you. So they might. Now, what can we ...? I got it. 'Ere,
Eustace, put us down about 'arf a mile from the camp in France, will
you? Alf, you tell 'im. 'E won't do it for me."

Alf complied. The familiar flat landscape reappeared before them and
they welcomed it almost with joy.

"Now," said Bill impressively, "tell 'im to 'op over into the Boche
lines an' bring us a prisoner. An' mind, none of 'is 'olesale ways!
'E'll bring a 'ole army corps over if you don't look out, an' then we'd
look silly. Just one, tell 'im--a officer."

In a moment a fat and haughty-looking German officer stood beside them.
When he saw the khaki tunics, his hand went to his side, but the two
Tommies flung themselves upon him.

"Get 'is revolver, Alf," panted Bill. "That's the ticket. Now then,
'ands up, Fritz. You come with us. You're our blinkin' alibi."

"What are you?" asked the Boche, in excellent English. "You have, I
suppose, escaped from your cage. I warn you, you English dogs, to be
more respectful to your superiors. When you are caught it shall go hard
with you. That a common English swine shall call _me_ Fritz."

"Nothin' to what you'll be called in a minute if you don't be'ave. Alf,
I b'lieve the pore blighter thinks 'e's still in 'is own lines. What a
sell for 'im."

"Come on, Bochie," said Alf, his finger on the trigger of the revolver.
"Quick march."

"I will not move," declared the prisoner sullenly. "You cannot escape.
There are men of mine on every side. Give me the revolver and I will
see that you are not punished--much."

"Thank you for nothing," said Bill. "These 'ere are the British lines
you're in, Fritz dear, an' you're our prisoner--see?"

The German, who still failed to grasp the situation, broke into a
torrent of abuse and threats.

"Ain't 'e the little gentleman," said Alf in admiration.

Bill suddenly lost patience.

"'Ere," he said. "Let's kill 'im an' get another one. I can't stand
'ere arguin' all day. For one thing, the longer we stays away the
bigger row we gets into. Now, Fritz, take yer choice. Will you come
quiet, or will you 'ave a nice cheap funeral?"

The German, seeing that Bill was in earnest, and believing that his
rescue could not be long delayed, marched stiffly off with a very
bad grace. His astonishment was pitiable when he found himself being
marched through little knots and groups of staring figures in khaki to
a British camp. His bombastic air disappeared, and his knees sagged
under him.

"Thought you'd 'ave a shock before long, Fritz," said Bill. "Comes o'
not believin' a gentleman's word. Step lively, now. We're just 'ome,
an' I want you to look yer best. After this," he added in an undertone
to Alf, "they can't say very much to us, anyway."

Bill was right. In the excitement caused by their dramatic return, the
authorities forgot to make any inquiry into the unauthorized absence of
the heroes of the hour.



CHAPTER IX

LIEUTENANT DONALDSON BECOMES SUSPICIOUS


Some days later, Lieutenant Donaldson was sitting in "C" Company
officers' billet, when the battalion intelligence officer entered.

"Hallo," said Donaldson. "You look worried. What's up?"

"I am worried. I wish you'd point out to your company what a nuisance
they make themselves to their superiors when they go capturing Boche
officers in the rest area. Ask 'em to think twice in future. It'd save
trouble if they'd kill the next one they find and bury him on the spot."

"Why, what's up?"

"Well, the Staff's very anxious to know what this particular chap was
doing and how he got there. I do see their point, you know. They take
the highly reasonable view that as prisoners are not usually captured
miles behind the lines in full uniform, this chap must have been up to
some extra special form of devilry. The presumption is that he'd been
spying, but they can't get a word of sense out of the man himself. He
pretends not to know how he got into our lines. And the queer thing is
that we found papers on him dated the same day as his capture--routine
orders and so on--which tally with papers of the same date on other
prisoners taken in the usual way. The thing's uncanny, because it's so
senseless."

"Have you noticed," said Lieutenant Donaldson reflectively, "that
there've been one or two things out of the ordinary that have happened
in this battalion lately?"

"I know. And the colonel wants it stopped. Says it'll give the
battalion a bad name."

"Perhaps we've a family ghost," suggested Donaldson. "Anyway, I don't
see how it hurts _you_."

"Me? The Staff seem to think I'm entirely responsible for the whole
thing. They want to know--in writing--why I didn't get a full biography
of the blighter when he was brought in--as if he was any more likely
to unbosom himself to me than to the people who caught him. And now,
to give me a chance of recovery of my prestige, I suppose, I've to see
Higgins and Grant and find out anything I can from them. Could you have
'em sent for?"

"Of course."

"The officer's compliments to 'is conquerin' 'eroes," said Sergeant
Lees when the message arrived, "an' would they favor 'im with their
company for a quiet chat?"

Ever since Alf and Bill's exploit had shed brilliant if unexpected
luster on their platoon, Sergeant Lees had unbent with them and assumed
a heavy jocularity. This was his method of indicating that he was
pleased with them, but it filled Alf with grave forebodings. Bill,
on the other hand, took what the gods gave and basked in the brief
sunshine of the sergeant's smile. On this occasion, however, he basked
too openly and the sun went in.

"Well," he answered in languid, aristocratic tones. "If Don feels 'e'd
like to see us, I s'pose we might as well drop round for a minute or
two, eh, Alfred?"

"'Ere," said the sergeant, who held that a joke was only a joke so long
as the right person made it, "none o' that. Clean yourselves up an'
report to the officers' billet immediate."

"Come in," called Lieutenant Donaldson, as Bill knocked on the door.
"Stand easy. Now, Grant and Higgins. I haven't had a chance of
congratulating you on what you did the other day."

"That wasn't nothing, sir--on'y luck, that was," murmured Bill, and Alf
shuffled his feet sympathetically. Each had an uncomfortable feeling
that he was obtaining credit on false pretenses.

"However," continued the company commander, "what I want you to do
now is to tell the intelligence officer just how it all happened, and
answer his questions."

He was looking at Higgins as he spoke, and could not help being struck
with the expression of horrified apprehension that flitted across
those ingenuous features. He said nothing, however, but while the
intelligence officer was catechizing them he kept his sleepy-looking
but most observant eyes more than ordinarily wide open.

"And that's all you can tell me?" asked the I.O., after he had asked
a dozen questions and received nothing but the most unsatisfactory of
replies.

"Yes, sir. The Boche, 'e didn't tell us nothing. 'E comes down the
road, an' we jumps out on 'im. 'Iggins 'ere grabs 'is pistol, an' we
marches 'im 'ome. That's all."

"Did you question him at all?"

"No, sir."

"Why not? You didn't expect to see a Boche officer there, did you?"

"No, sir."

"Then why didn't you question him?"

Bill looked about him for inspiration, and got it.

"I thought, sir, as 'ow we ought to leave all that to you."

Lieutenant Donaldson watched the relief overflow Alf's countenance, and
wondered what all this could mean.

"That's what the Staff seem to think, too," sighed the I.O., getting
sadly to his feet. "Well, if that's all you can tell me, I'll be off. I
hope it'll pacify the blighters. I can see myself getting shot at dawn
over this business. So long, Donaldson."

He went out. Higgins and Grant saluted and were about to follow, when
Donaldson, taking a letter from his pocket, stopped them.

"I've had a most curious letter," he said slowly, "from the Reserve
Battalion." He looked up sharply as he spoke, and saw sheer panic
terror gazing at him from Alf's eyes. "Captain Sandeman writes to ask
if you two men are here or whether by any chance you have deserted. He
gives your names and numbers correctly, and a description of you both,
and says that these two men reported to his battalion and then broke
out of the guard-room and mysteriously disappeared."

He looked sharply from one to the other. Alf was trembling visibly;
Bill was trying to look unconcerned, but with little success.

"Now, listen to me," said Lieutenant Donaldson, in the most impressive
voice he could summon. "Understand this. I've had my eye on you two men
for some time, and this little game of yours has got to stop. I shall
say no more now, but the next time...."

He glanced once more at Alf, and saw that the effects of his remarks
were good.

"Now go," he said, "and remember, be very careful in future. You're
both due for your month's leave in a short time, and it would be a pity
to spoil it. That's all."

As the two saluted and shambled out their officer gave a rueful laugh.

"Now, I'd give a good deal," he said to himself, "to know just exactly
what I was talking about just now, and what they thought I meant."

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

"What are we goin' to do now, Bill?" asked Alf miserably, as soon as
they had left the company commander's presence.

"Do?" said Bill, who had recovered his balance to some extent. "Why,
nothin'. What d'you want to do?"

"Well, it's all up, ain't it, now 'e knows all about it?"

"Rats!" said Bill contemptuously. "'Ow can 'e know all about it? I told
you before that Don's no fool, but 'e ain't such a bloomin' conjurer as
all that. 'E's just noticed that there's something funny about me an'
you, that's all; an' 'e's got both eyes wide open now waitin' for next
time. Well, there ain't got to be no next time, that's all."

"You mean I'll 'ave to throw the Button away?"

"_What!_ Throw it away? You're barmy." Bill glared at his pal.

"Well, what do I do?"

"I tell yer. Do nothing."

"Nothing at all? Keep the Button, an' ..."

"O' course you keep the Button, you blinkin' idjit. Does Don know
anything about yer blinkin' Button? It's my belief Don don't know a
thing--'e's just bluffin' us. But all you 'ave to do is to leave the
Button alone till we get our leave. No more Eustace till we're safe
'ome; but if you chuck the Button away, Alf 'Iggins, I'll 'arf kill
you. But I'd give a good bit, I would, to know 'ow much Donaldson
really knows."

Next day the news came through that the brigade was not after all to be
sent to another part of the front; instead, it moved up once more for
a tour of duty in the well-known sector. The attention of both sides
at this time was concentrated on the great battle going on at Arras,
and the remainder of the front was quiet but watchful. On the brigade's
frontage nothing more strenuous happened than a continuous but not
very intense bombardment, and though the division on their right made
a trench-raid, the Middlesex Fusiliers were not called upon for any
exciting work.

During all this period Alf and Bill were as conspicuous by their
presence among their mates as they had formerly been by their absence.
Whenever wiring-parties and similar delights were required, their names
were usually the first on Sergeant Lees' list, while fatigues of every
kind became to them a hobby.

"It's a queer thing," the sergeant observed caustically to the company
sergeant-major one day, after he had fallen in a working-party for
Lieutenant Donaldson's inspection, and had heard the officer comment
favorably on the appearance of Privates Higgins and Grant, "what good
soldiers all our scally-wags seem to 'ave become, now that there's a
chance of gettin' a leave. They'll eat out o' me 'and now, but you see
what'll 'appen as soon as they've 'ad their leave. More trouble they'll
be 'n a bagful o' monkeys."

The two were feeling the monotony of their return to the ordinary
existence of the front very bitterly.

"Takes all the spice out o' life, not bein' able to do things with
Eustace," said Bill, quite forgetting that he had managed to infuse
quite a considerable amount of spice into his life in the days before
the coming of the djinn. "If our leave don't come through soon I shall
go clean barmy, I b'lieve."

At last the longed-for moment arrived. They were both officially
informed that their reëngagement leave of twenty-eight days was duly
sanctioned and that, barring accidents, they would depart in one week's
time.

"A week?" sighed Alf dolefully. "We may both be pushin' up the daisies
in a week from now."

"That's what I like about you, Higgins, you're so cheerful," said
Corporal Greenstock, who overheard this remark. "Anyhow, if you want
to start daisypushing this journey you'll have to hurry. We're being
relieved to-night." He passed on.

"A week is little enough, too," said Bill suddenly, "for all we got to
do."

"What d'you mean?"

"We got to settle up about this 'ere marriage o' yours, to begin with.
Why, we don't even know the bloomin' girl's name, yet."

Alf grinned sheepishly.

"I do," he said. He extracted from his pocket a bulky and dilapidated
pocket-book, from the dusky recesses of which he produced a wad of
paper. He unfolded this and smoothed out its many creases, when it
disclosed itself as a page torn from the last number of _The Sketch_
which had reached the battalion. It was headed "A Paradise for Wounded
Heroes." The first photograph showed Alf's wonderful visitor in nurse's
uniform, and beneath it was written, "Miss Isobel FitzPeter, the famous
society beauty. She has now left Town altogether and is devoting
herself entirely to the Convalescent Home for Officers which she has
established at her father's beautiful place, Dunwater Park, of which
we give pictures below. Miss FitzPeter has taken entire charge of the
administrative work of the Home. We congratulate the fortunate few
whose lucky stars will lead them into the care of so fair a pair of
hands."

"Umph!" said Bill, when he had inwardly digested this. "So that's 'oo
she is! Well, I must say I thought she might 'ave been Lady Something.
Why, she ain't even a 'honorable.' You'd better change your mind, Alf,
before you get too far. Sure you wouldn't like a princess? Eustace'll
get one for you as easy as wink."

But Alf shook his head; he had been thankful to find that the lady of
his dreams moved in no more rarefied an atmosphere. It had made her a
little more accessible.

Bill continued his study of the page in his hand.

"'Dunwater Park, from the South,'" he read. "Nice little villa
enough--'bout the size o' Buckingham Palace. You won't 'ave to turn
the kids out of their bedroom when I come week-endin' with you an' the
missus there, will you?"

Alf gave a nervous snigger.

"'Dunwater Park, from the North-West,'" pursued Bill. "Yes, it's a
big place, but we'll make Eustace put one up for us as'll beat this
all to nothing. What's this? 'Group of officers at present under Miss
FitzPeter's care.' Look 'appy enough, don't they? Why ain't she in it?
If I'd been 'er, I'd 'ave planked meself down in the middle of that
photo, I would. 'Ullo, 'ere's one 'oo looks like our Mr. Allen."

"P'raps it is 'im."

"They don't put names, so we can't tell. Ever 'ad yer photo in the
papers, Alf?"

"No. 'Ow could I?"

"Well, they 'ave lots o' silly things in sometimes. Any'ow, once you've
married this girl and got a big 'ouse you'll 'ave yer photo in once a
day, an' twice on Sundays. 'Oo's this ole cock at the bottom o' the
page? 'Sir Edward FitzPeter.' That's 'er pa. If I'd been you I'd 'ave
'ad a lord, but you never was proud, was you, Alf?"

"Bill," answered Higgins seriously, "it ain't no good."

"What ain't no good?"

"My marryin' 'er. It--it ain't right. She's too 'igh up for me.
She--she ought to 'ave a gentleman."

"Lumme," said Bill scornfully, "you ain't goin' to get cold feet now,
are you? 'Ere you are, the richest man in the 'ole world once you get
'ome, an' you go an' get the wind up because some bloomin' girl without
even a Hon before 'er name is too 'igh for you."

"'Oo's the richest man in the world?"

"You are, o' course. Don't you ever sit down an' think out what you can
do with that Button o' yours? Lumme, if _I_ 'ad it.... 'Ere, just as a
test like, tell Eustace to bring you a thousand quid!"

"Not me. We said we wouldn't...."

"Right you are--my mistake," conceded Bill. "Well, you can take it from
me it'll be all right."

"Eustace generally mucks it some'ow."

"Ah, but that's because we been giving 'im things to do as 'e's not
used to. But this weddin' business an' the 'ouse an' so on'll be easy
to 'im; he's done it all before for Aladdin. If only that ole lady'd
send me that book what I asked 'er for, we'd know better what Eustace
can do. But if she don't get a move on it'll be too late."

But next day, when the company reached its billet, a mail arrived, in
which was a bulky package addressed to Mr. William Grant, Pte. The old
lady had not failed her protégé. The parcel contained an aged copy of
the _Arabian Nights_, leather bound and smelling faintly of camphor.
Between two pages of the book had been slipped a letter.


     "DEAR WILLIAM GRANT," it ran.

     "I can so well imagine how the hearts of our dear boys in the
     trenches must yearn for the simple stories of their childhood. I
     have been unable to obtain for you a separate edition of the story
     you desire, so I send you a complete edition which belonged to
     my poor brother. It was one of his most cherished treasures, and
     I have always preserved it in memory of him; but I am sure that
     he could have wished nothing better than that his book should be
     instrumental in adding to the happiness of our brave soldiers.
     That it may bring you some cheer in the midst of your terrible
     troubles is the earnest wish of

     "Yours most truly,
     "SOPHIA BROWNE."


"I call that pathetic, I do," said Alf.

"Pore ole girl," said Bill. "Seems a shame, don't it?"

"Tell you what," Alf suggested, "we'll keep it nice an' clean an' send
it 'er back when we've done with it. Don't seem fair, do it, not to?"

"Well, you ain't started very well, 'ave you?"

"What d'yer mean?"

Bill leant forward and laid his finger on the open page, whose slightly
yellowed surface was now adorned with a smudgy impress of Alf Higgins'
unwashed thumb.

For the rest of that day Bill devoted himself sternly to study. He
found the story of Aladdin very long and full of irrelevant detail, but
by night his task was ended.

"Nice people they was in them times," he said, as he shut the book.
"Kill you as soon as look at you. Alf, 'ere's a bit of advice for you.
Whatever you do, mind you never send Eustace birds-nestin' for you."

"Birds-nestin'?"

"Yes. Seems it's the one thing 'e can't stick. Aladdin nearly upset
the apple-cart that way. 'E asked for a rook's egg and Eustace turned
nasty. Read for yourself."

Alf plodded painfully through the passage.

"Do R-O-C spell 'rook'?" he asked finally.

"'Course it do," said Bill. "So now we'll 'ave to be careful. 'Tain't
the kind o' thing a sensible bloke would ask for any'ow, but people do
get silly fancies."

"What else do the book say?"

"Just what I told you. There's on'y one thing in this world you can't
'ave, my lad, an' that's this bloomin' rook's egg. Eustace'll rig you
up a 'ouse in 'arf a tick as'll make Windsor Castle look like workmen's
dwellin's. You've on'y got to say the word, an' there it is. So what we
'ave to do is to 'ave a real tip-top palace stuck down somewhere near
this Ditchwater Park."

"But 'ow can we?"

"'Ow d'yer mean? Eustace'll do it."

"Yes, but if we go plantin' palaces on other people's ground we'll get
sent to clink, or something. Then we'd look silly."

"Good for you, Alf. That's true. In the book Aladdin got a bit o' land
from 'is girl's father, an' built 'is 'appy 'ome on that. We can't do
that. That ole boy in your picture don't look that sort. No, I'll tell
you what--we'll 'ave to take a 'ouse--one of these 'ere big 'ouses in
the country like the one your girl lives in, an' we'll let Eustace do
it all up. Arter all, if we went an' told Eustace to build us a palace
all in a night we'd 'ave the police an' the newspapers an' I don't know
what else on our tracks."

"There mayn't be no big 'ouse goin' in 'er neighbor'ood."

"Well, we'll 'ave to send Eustace over an' find out."

"Send Eustace?" inquired Alf vaguely.

"We'll 'ave to. We got no time to waste."

"But the officer said...."

"I know what 'e said as well as you do; an' I'm no more wishful to get
my leave stopped than what you are. But after all, where's the 'arm? We
never been found out yet, an' it won't take 'arf a tick, an' I know a
place where we'll never get spotted."

Reluctantly Alf was persuaded to Bill's retreat--a disused dug-out--and
there, in much trepidation, he summoned Eustace. He produced _The
Sketch_ cutting once more from his pocket-book, and Bill explained to
the djinn what was wanted.

"Mr. 'Iggins wants to marry that young lady you introduced 'im to,
Eustace," Grant explained.

"Verily," replied the djinn, "the maid is of a fairness surpassing even
the Princess Badralbudour, the bride of the Prince Aladdin."

"Yes. Well, this is 'er 'ouse, see? 'E wants you to take a 'ouse for
'im near by, something after the same style."

"In truth," said Eustace disdainfully, "it is not meet that the Lord
of the Button should dwell in so mean a house. Command me that I build
thee a palace like unto that of Aladdin, or even more richly bedight
still, and it shall be done."

"Palaces ain't the fashion now," returned Bill imperturbably. "This
sort of thing is all the rage. The lady won't like anything else, an'
we 'ave to think of 'er, you know."

"See what you can do, Eustace," said Alf, "an' we'll wait 'ere for you."

"Lord, I hear and obey."

The djinn disappeared, and remained absent for half an hour, when he
materialized once more, wearing a complacent expression.

"Lord," he said, "it is done. When will it please my Lord to see his
dwelling place?"

"'Ave you took a 'ouse already?" asked Alf, aghast.

"Verily, the dwelling is unworthy that the Lord of the Button should
inhabit it; yet is it not less in appearance than the dwelling of thy
bride's father, and assuredly in the magnificence of its interior it
doth far outshine his."

Alf turned despairingly to Bill.

"There 'e goes again. Slapdash an' 'olesale. 'Ow do we know what 'arm
'e's done? 'E's probably mucked up the 'ole show now. I'm getting fed
up."

"Lord," said the djinn, "the dwelling is lacking in nothing that the
most extravagent of monarchs could desire."

"You read the book, Alf," advised Bill. "It'll be all right. If there's
one thing Eustace does know all about, it's 'ouse-furnishin' an'
decoratin'. You wait a week, an' you'll...."

He broke off in the middle of his sentence and listened intently.
Voices were heard above, and then the sound of feet descending the
stairs. Eustace vanished without waiting for orders--he was quickly
becoming accustomed to his new routine. The two men, pocketing their
pipes, retreated to the farthest depths of the dug-out. The footsteps
grew louder, till three figures, dimly silhouetted against the light
from the stairway, entered the dug-out.

"This is the place, sir," said Lieutenant Donaldson's voice. "I noticed
it the other day. It runs quite a long way back, and if Finlay cares to
put his stuff here I'll put a sentry over it."

"Seems all right," said another voice, at the sound of which Bill
clutched Alf's arm. "Let's have a look at it."

Colonel Enderby switched on his pocket torch and cast its faint beam
round, but without disclosing the cowering figures in the corner.

"Well, Finlay," he said at last, "I don't think you'll get a better
bomb-store than this."

"No, sir." The bombing officer switched on his own torch and walked to
the far end, examining the walls for signs of damp. "Seems quite dry,
too. I--Hallo!"

"What's the matter?"

Lieutenant Finlay had found the rays of his torch throwing up into
ghastly relief the open mouth and glassy terrified eyes of Private
Higgins.

"Who are you?" he said sharply. "Come out of that!"

"What's the matter?" repeated the Colonel.

"There's a man here, sir--two men, I mean. Who are you?"

"Privates Grant and Higgins, sir." The two came sheepishly into the
light.

"What?" said Lieutenant Donaldson in tones of thunder. "You two again?
What are you up to _now_?"

"Looking for another German officer, I expect," said the colonel
humorously. "Well, well, we mustn't be too hard on such a remarkable
pair, Mr. Donaldson. But they must understand that this straying from
their platoon must cease."

"Yes, sir." The company commander turned to his two scapegraces. "Clear
out of this," he said in a fierce tone, "and you can thank your lucky
stars that the colonel was here. I'm fed up with you."

The two, returning to their platoon at the double, sought out Sergeant
Lees and volunteered for a carrying party for which that N.C.O. was
just detailing a reluctant squad.

"Cert'nly," said he. "Always ready to oblige, I am. Sure you 'aven't
any little friends you'd like to bring? Very well, then, never say I
didn't do anything for you."



CHAPTER X

EUSTACE BLUNDERS AGAIN


The leave-train, which had been in motion for quite ten minutes,
stopped once more with a jerk, and Bill, curled up in a corner, swore
comprehensively.

"Lord," he said, "if I didn't know it was Blighty I was bound for, I'd
get out an' walk back to my blinkin' battalion."

"Don't seem too anxious to get away from the front, do they?" said a
gunner sitting opposite. "Seems as though the old engine can't bear to
leave it. 'Ullo, we've started again. Bet you we don't go further'n
that little bridge along there."

"It's a bet!" said Bill. "'Ere, Alf, wake up an' 'old the stakes."

With keen interest they watched the bridge coming nearer. At last they
rattled across it in a leisurely manner.

"I win," said Bill. "'And over, Alf."

"On'y just, though," said the gunner with a rueful grin, as the train
stopped once more with a grinding of brakes.

"'Ere, I'm tired o' this bloomin' train. Come out an' stretch yer legs
a bit, Alf."

"Don't get left be'ind," advised the gunner. "I want to win my franc
back."

They sat down by the side of the track.

"Some train!" said Alf, breaking a long silence.

"Perishin'," answered Bill. "But it's a bit better'n doin' them
blinkin' fatigues for the sergeant, eh?"

"You bet!"

The two men had spent a very wearing week. Wherever they went the
cold disapproving eye of Lieutenant Donaldson seemed to be upon them;
and they had been constrained to live a life of painful and laborious
virtue. Sergeant Lees, divining their feelings, had taken shameful
advantage of them with a view (he explained) to keeping them out of
mischief.

As a consequence they had for the past week lived in a giddy social
whirl of ration-parties, carrying-parties and similar entertainments.
But relieved as they were at having started their journey, they were
not beyond chafing at the dilatory methods of the train. At no time did
it travel at much above a walking pace; and it was liable at any time
and for no apparent reason to abandon all attempts to proceed. It would
stand miserably for minutes together, and when it moved on, it did so
without warning--a habit which, in a more energetic train, might have
proved annoying.

"Come on," said Alf suddenly. "Train's starting."

"No 'urry," Bill grunted placidly. He got up, stretched himself and
trotted leisurely along the train till he came to his own carriage, and
swung himself in.

"'Ow about another bet?" said the gunner as they appeared. "A franc we
don't pass that church over there this spasm."

"Righto. But you'll win--it must be 'arf-a-mile from 'ere."

"Well, if we're goin' to get to Blighty at all this week we'll 'ave to
do a 'arf-mile stretch now an' again, you know."

But Bill's prophecy proved correct. Long before the church was reached
he had handed back his newly-won franc to the gunner and, in sheer
irritable restlessness, insisted on the somnolent Alf leaving the train
once more.

"What makes me sick," he said, "is to think of that 'ouse in Blighty
all ready an' waitin' for us, an' beer an' drinks, an' 'ere we are as
dry as a bone in a 'owlin' French desert."

"Tell you what, then," answered Alf, struck with an idea. "What's to
prevent us slippin' away be'ind that bridge an' lettin' the train go on
without us?"

"An' tell Eustace to.... Lumme, you must be wakin' up, Alf. Why, it'll
mean us 'avin' about three days extra leave. Come on!"

They strolled casually along the line without exciting comment or
interest on the part of their fellow-travelers scattered about the
line, and when the train started these were much too busily occupied
in scrambling back to their own places to notice that two of their
number had unostentatiously slipped behind a culvert. The train puffed
off busily; after it had gone a hundred yards or so a head appeared at
one of the windows.

"Keep down," cried Bill. "It's the gunner--wonder what 'e'll do with
our kits?"

The question was hardly out of his mouth before it was answered. The
gunner--obviously a creature of impulse--was seen to push the two packs
and rifles of his late companions out of the window of the train.

"Nice fool 'e'd 'ave looked if we'd been on the train arter all, in
another carriage," said Bill. "Still, p'raps it's just as well to 'ave
the things. Now for Blighty."

Alf removed the black covering which still shrouded his talisman.

"Better wait till the train's out o' sight," said Bill. "She seems to
be gettin' really started at last.... I s'pose there'll be plenty o'
beer in your new 'ouse?"

"If there ain't we'll jolly soon 'ave some. Tell you what, Bill: 'Ow'd
it be to 'ave one room in the 'ouse rigged up as a bar. We c'd 'ave
proper sanded floors, an' a barmaid, an'--an' no closing time. Just for
you an' me, so's we could 'ave a drink any ole time. Make it seem more
'omelike, wouldn't it?"

Bill stared at him in hopeless disgust.

"An' I thought you was beginnin' to think!" he said. "This fair takes
the biscuit. What low ideas you do 'ave! Why whatever'd the wife think,
an' your swell neighbors? You'll 'ave to be'ave like a gentleman, you
know, when you marries a lady."

"'Ow'm I goin' to do that?"

"I'll teach yer. You trust me."

"You! An' 'ow d'you know?"

"I do know. It's easy enough. Never you fear, I'll look after you."

Alf, looking a little skeptical, returned to the subject nearest his
heart.

"Well, then, when'll I be able to get a drink when I'm a gentleman?"

"Why, you can 'ave 'em all day long. You sits in one easy chair an' me
in another, an' a footman brings us whatever we wants."

"Lumme! A footman?"

"O' course. An' then, in the evenin', we 'as a reg'lar slap-up spread
every day of our lives, with your missus in laces an' diamonds: an'
then when she's finished 'er supper she goes off an' leaves us to
finish the drinks."

"'Ow d'you know she will?"

"They always does. 'Aven't you been to no plays, nor read no books?
Lucky you'll 'ave me to keep you straight. 'Ullo, the ole train's
pretty near out o' sight now. 'Adn't we better ...?"

Alf, his hand shaking excitedly, rubbed his Button.

Eustace appeared.

"That 'ouse," said Alf. "It's still all right about that, I s'pose?"

"Master," answered the djinn, "for a week past it hath been prepared
for thine entry. Say but the word and I will transport thee thither."

"Right. Me an' Mr. Grant's quite ready now. On'y just get our kits an'
rifles off the side o' the line first."

"'Ome, John!" added Bill facetiously.

Eustace advanced upon them and they closed their eyes involuntarily.
As before, nothing seemed to happen to them; and yet, when they opened
their eyes again they were standing on the carriage sweep before the
front door of an imposing country-house built of gray stone, overgrown
for the most part with ivy and Virginia creeper. The building seemed
to them vast--immense. It was long and low, and covered a great deal
of space. They gazed about them hurriedly, and received an impression
of great trees and smooth-shaven lawns, ornamental waters and flagged
paths.

Alf gazed about him in awe.

"What do we do next?" he asked in a whisper.

"Ring the bell," answered Bill. "It's yours."

Alf advanced timidly up the steps, but recoiled in alarm as the door
opened unexpectedly. It disclosed an Eastern personage whose clothes
were stiff with gold and dazzling with gems; bowing low, he took
both Alf and Bill respectfully by the hand and led them through the
doorway. Here the personage with another deep obeisance stood aside and
motioned to them to precede him.

They crossed the vestibule towards the great hall which formed the
center of the building, realizing that the whole house was one
glittering mass of shifting barbaric color. In the hall itself stood
slaves in ordered ranks, black and white, male and female, each attired
with magnificence only one degree less than that of the personage
who had received them. The whole crowd stood waiting, silent and
motionless, for their new master to appear.

Bill came first. He sauntered easily into the hall with his hands in
his pockets--that is, as easily as is possible on mosaic pavement to
one wearing ammunition boots--and stood looking about him in a silence
in which a pin's fall would have caused a reverberating crash; then
Alf, who had been wrestling with a demon of shyness in the darkness of
the vestibule, clattered sheepishly across the threshold.

In that instant the silence was shattered into a million pieces. Seven
bands of weird and piercing oriental instruments came simultaneously
into action in seven different keys and, so far as could be discerned
above the frenzied beating of tambours, playing seven different tunes.
Such of the gathering as had no instruments contributed to the joyful
effect by shrieking and howling at the tops of their voices.

Alf--already awed by his surroundings--was quite overwhelmed by this
demonstration. For one moment he seemed to contemplate flight; then,
pulling himself together, he sought the side of his mate.

Bill turned towards him and shouted something, but it was utterly lost
in the hideous din.

"Can't 'ear!" bellowed Alf, and shook his head in confirmation.

Bill's mouth opened and shut in a frenzied manner, and his face turned
purple. He was utterly inaudible. At last, encircling Alf's ear with
his two hands and using them as a trumpet, he bawled with the full
force of his lungs:

"STOP IT!"

Alf leapt away as if he had been shot and began to massage his ear
tenderly. His lips moved fervently, and his eyes held bitter reproach.
The joyous din of welcome continued and swelled. Forgetting his injury
Alf bawled back in the same way:

"'Ow?"

"EUSTACE!" returned Bill impatiently.

Alf's fingers flew to his Button; in the mental paralysis caused by
the awful din he had forgotten the djinn; but the instant his fingers
touched the talisman every sound ceased. It did not die away; it ended
suddenly, as though a giant had stopped his gigantic gramophone in
the midst of a bar. At the same moment the entire assembly, even to
the magnificent major-domo behind them in the vestibule, fell forward
on its face and remained motionless. Alf and Bill--to whom, after
three years at the front, it was second nature to take cover whenever
their neighbors did so without asking questions--groveled likewise
for a moment. Then they rose sheepishly and stared about them in
astonishment. Not a sound or a movement came from the assembly. Then
Alf, whose fingers had paused involuntarily when the noise shut off,
rubbed the Button and the djinn appeared.

"'Ere, Eustace," said Alf with some heat, "what was all that blinkin'
noise about, eh? We can't 'ear ourselves think."

"Lord," said the djinn in pained surprise, "this was a concert of music
in thine honor such as delighted the ear of the great Caliph Haroun
Alraschid."

"Aaron 'oo? Never 'eard of the bloke, but 'e must 'ave 'ad a queer
taste in music. Any'ow there's no need to kick up such a blinkin' row
about it. Very nice of you an' all that, but you're bein' too 'olesale
again. My ears is singin' now--let alone Mr. Grant 'avin' near busted
me ear-drum." He caressed his injured member again.

Eustace, who only half comprehended this harangue, but gathered that
his unaccountable master was once more finding unexpected faults in his
arrangements, said nothing.

"Look 'ere, Alf," suggested Bill suddenly, "'adn't you better let some
o' these pore blighters get up? The blood'll be running into their
'eads something 'orrid."

Alf addressed himself to the prostrate crowds. "'Ere," he said in
diffident tones, "you can get up now." Not a soul moved.

"Squad!" said Bill loudly, in the formula sacred to the use of the army
instructor in physical training. "On the feet--UP!"

The assembly remained prostrate.

"The blinkin' 'eathens don't understand English, that's what it is,"
said Alf with sudden enlightenment. "You tell 'em, Eustace."

The djinn uttered one guttural, staccato syllable. In a moment the
multi-colored crowd had melted away, and the great house began to hum
with life. In every direction slaves could be seen, each engrossed in
his or her duties. Alf, master of all he surveyed, felt for the first
time the full weight of his responsibilities.

"I say, Eustace," he said querulously, "'ow the 'ell am I goin' to look
after a lot o' niggers as don't understand a word I says to 'em? Can't
you get me an English 'ousemaid or two?"

"Can't be got," said Bill. "I read it in a paper t'other day. They
called it the Servant Problem. You be thankful you've got these. An'
very nice too!" he finished, his eyes on two langorous-eyed maidens in
brilliant draperies who were descending the stairs.

"Lord," said Eustace, "none are there of thy speech among the slaves
of the Button. But thy steward"--he indicated the personage who had
welcomed them, now waiting patiently till he should be required
again--"he is skilled in thy tongue, and through him will these thy
servants perform all thy will. His name is Mustapha."

Eustace disappeared.

"Phew!" said Bill, looking about him. "All gold, an' silk, an' marble!
Looks more like one o' them pantomime scenes than a real 'ouse, don't
it? An' all them niggers, an' the girls an' all. An' 'im!"

He indicated once more the major-domo.

"Ain't much furniture about, is there?" said Alf after a pause. "Only
sofas an' things."

"No. That's Eustace an' 'is old-fashioned ideas. Don't matter, though.
Anything we want later on we can send 'im for. What I want now's a
drink. Tell 'im."

"What did Eustace say 'is name was?"

"Mr. Farr, I think. Something like that. Call 'im an' see if 'e
answers."

The major-domo did answer. Before long the two warriors were slaking
their mighty thirst with real beer. Eustace might be slow to learn, but
he seldom forgot a lesson.

"Ah!" said Bill, smacking his lips. "_Now_, I begin to feel something
like. What's the next move? Farr 'ere seems to 'ave something on his
mind. What's up with you? Speak up."

Mustapha, with another obeisance, spoke up.

"If my lord permits, thy slaves await thee that they may bathe thee and
change thy traveling-dress for a garment better befitting thy state.
After this there is prepared for thee a banquet."

"Civvy clothes? That's a bright idea o' yours," replied Bill
condescendingly. "Of course we can't go on wearing these 'ere things.
We'll 'ave another drink--a long 'un, Farr, an' a strong 'un--an' then
you can do what you like."

"While I think of it," said Alf, "p'raps I'd better take the Button off
me tunic; then it can't get lost."

He suited the action to the word, and threaded the talisman on to the
cord which hung round his neck and supported his two identity disks.

The drink was brought. This time it was not beer, but some far more
potent liquid. Its immediate effect on Bill was to stimulate his
imagination.

"What's your name goin' to be, Alf?" he asked suddenly after the first
draught. "I'm goin' to be Mr. Montmorency."

"Why?"

"Well, you don't want anybody recognizing us, do you? If this girl o'
yours knows you're Private Alf 'Iggins of 'Ackney she'll never look at
you. But if you shaves off yer mustache and calls yerself Wentworth,
and dresses yerself like a gentleman--what ho, how about it?"

"You are a one," said Alf admiringly, wiping his lips and then his
eyes. "You think of everything. This stuff don't 'arf tickle you up, do
it? What about you? You 'aven't got a mustache to shave off. Will you
'ave a false one?"

"Eh? Oh, I don't marrer," said Bill thickly.

The effects of the drink--whatever it was--were now the reverse of
stimulating. They were swift and complete. When Mustapha entered a
moment later his lord and his lord's companion were side by side on the
floor in stertorous slumber. At his command a party of slaves entered
and carried the recumbent forms reverently upstairs.

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Next morning Alf was awakened by the sun shining through the latticed
windows and falling in brightly colored patches across his room.
Wherever the light struck there was a glitter almost unbearable to
his heavy eyes. He was lying in a bed of wonderful softness in a
lofty chamber in which everything about him gave the impression of
sumptuousness and luxury. Where the sunlight struck his coverlit it
shimmered and shone and twinkled till he was completely dazzled. It was
made of cloth of gold thickly sewn with diamonds and pearls.

He gazed about with an idiotic expression, for his intellect was still
in abeyance; and he tried without much success to remember where he
was and how he got there. He could recall nothing clearly since he had
fallen asleep in the great hall, still in his worn khaki with the dust
of France upon him. He knew in a dim way that much had happened to him
since then. There were various hazy recollections in his mind: of a
bath, warm and scented, wherein he had lain at ease while other hands
than his had cleansed him; of being clothed in garments more gorgeous
than his imagination could have conceived, and of reclining with Bill
(no less gorgeously clad than himself) on a divan where strange foods
had been brought to them by lustrous-eyed girls; of listening to weird
music and witnessing queer, sinuous dances. Lying here this morning he
could not say whether these things had really happened or whether he
had dreamed them. Only he knew that the effort to think made his head
ache, and that judging by his general condition he must have had a
remarkably "thick" night.

He closed his eyes and dozed uneasily, but was soon awakened by the
sound of stealthy footsteps and the swish of silken draperies. He half
opened his eyes, and, glancing cautiously under lowered lids saw that
his room was gradually filling with people whose one care seemed to be
to avoid waking him. They disposed themselves round the chamber in some
kind of settled order and, with eyes fixed on his recumbent form, stood
waiting. Alf, still wondering what this might mean, suddenly noticed
that quite half of his unexpected visitors were women--just such women
as haunted his hazy recollections of the night before.

Shocked to the depths of his respectable soul, Alf opened his eyes and
sat up. Instantly the entire assemblage prostrated themselves--except
some of the women, who, Alf saw with horror, carried musical
instruments and displayed every sign of being about to play upon them.

Alf clutched his aching head.

"No, no!" he shouted imploringly. "Stop it. Farr--Mr. Farr! Take 'em
away!"

"Lord," said Mustapha, entering and bowing gravely. "I am here."

"Turn them shameless 'ussies out o' my room. What are they doin' 'ere?
I never 'eard o' such goin's on."

"Verily, Lord, they are the ladies of thy household, whose duty it is
to be present at thy _levée_. And these others are ladies skilled in
music, who are about to wish thee good-morrow with a concert of soft
sounds."

"Not if I know it--not while I've got a 'ead on me like this, any'ow.
Clear 'em all out, every last one of 'em--men as well."

Mustapha said a few words to the concourse, which went away saying no
word but looking very much astonished.

"An' now," said Alf, "where's me clothes?"

"Lord, they are here." Mustapha indicated a magnificent garment which
was lying with a jeweled turban on a cushion at the side of the bed.

"Clothes, I said," remarked Alf caustically, "not a blinkin'
dressing-gown--what's that?"

"That" was a bull-like roar in the distance, which repeated itself over
and over again until it at last resolved itself into a call for "Alf."

"'Ere, Bill," bellowed Alf in return.

"Oh! 'Ere you are," said the newly-christened Mr. Montmorency in
wrathful tones as he entered. "Every room I go into seems to be full o'
women. 'Ere, what d'you think o' this?" He displayed the garment he
was wearing--a voluminous coat of some rich shimmering stuff. "Pinched
me clothes, they 'ave, an' left me this ... this...."

Words failed him.

"An' a pair o' pink satin trousers," he concluded with heat. "What's
the game?"

"Dunno. Same 'ere," answered Alf. "Look 'ere, Farr, don't you start
no funny jokes with us. Clear this mess away an' bring us some proper
civvy clothes."

"Same as what a gentleman 'ud wear," added Bill. "Pot 'at, an' gloves,
an' spats, an'--an' so on. An' 'urry up."

"But, Lord," protested Mustapha, "these are garments of the greatest
magnificence, such as the great Caliph Haroun Alraschid delighted to
wear...."

"All right, take 'em to 'im. 'E can 'ave 'em, for all I care. Look
'ere, 'ave you got any ordinary clothes or not?"

"Suits less magnificent have I many, O Master. But as for the hat
called pot, or the spat, I have no knowledge of such. Nevertheless...."

"I see what it is," said Alf disgustedly. "It's just Eustace. 'E's
mucked it again. We'll just 'ave to send for 'im an' tell 'im what sort
of a rig-out we want. Pity 'e can't never get nothing right the first
time, ain't it?"

He sat down on his diamond-studded coverlet and once again summoned his
sorely tried familiar.



CHAPTER XI

THE VICAR'S WIFE OUTRAGED


"Well, Julian," said Mrs. Davies in her most determined tones. "I think
it's your plain duty to call at once."

The Vicar of Denmore sighed, and laid down his paper on the
breakfast-table.

"But, my dear," he protested mildly, "we know nothing of the new people
at the Manor. We don't even know if they have taken possession. If it
is true that extensive alterations are going on, they can hardly be
there yet. Why, it's only a week since they took the place."

"Julian," returned his wife, "there is no use in arguing the point.
It's quite time that all the mystery about the Manor was cleared up.
You know I hate gossip...."

She paused. The vicar took a drink of coffee.

"You know," resumed Mrs. Davies very distinctly, "that I hate
gossip...."

"Of course, of course, my dear," agreed the vicar hastily.

"But it is impossible not to know that the whole neighborhood is
talking. I'm not asking you to pay a ceremonious call. If the people
turn out to be German spies.... The feeling of everybody is that the
sooner somebody finds out just what is happening at the Manor, the
better. And you've got the best excuse."

Mr. Davies got up and walked about the room.

"Really, my dear," he said at last in what was (for him) quite a fierce
tone, "if you're asking me to do this out of mere idle curiosity...."

"Idle fiddlesticks! Do remember there's a war on, Julian. When a great
big house like that suddenly becomes full of people from nobody knows
where, who never seem to come out of the grounds, and who certainly
don't deal with the local tradesmen, what is one to think?"

"That they import their provisions from London," suggested the vicar.

"But they don't. The only London van that comes here is Harrods'--the
FitzPeters deal there, but I know they don't call at the Manor."

"Did Miss FitzPeter tell you that?"

"No. She doesn't seem very interested in the concerns of the village.
She could or would tell me nothing.... But I stopped Harrods' van
in the village and asked the driver. The whole business is most
suspicious. So we think--I think that it's quite time you went up to
the Manor and found out whether they're going to use the Manor pew."

The vicar sighed deeply.

"Very well, my dear," he said with resignation. "Since you insist. But
I fear my talents do not lie very much in the direction of private
detection. What is the nature of the gos ... the--er--tales that are
going about in the village?"

"Oh, just vague and exaggerated rumors. You see, nobody has been
allowed inside the grounds at all. There haven't even been any letters
for the people yet. I was at the post-office yesterday and Mrs. Rudd
was most aggrieved about it. Of course everybody thinks they're spies,
or horrible plotters, or something. Otherwise, why should they behave
like this? Bobby Myers says that he and another boy climbed over the
fence and saw a lot of black men in the garden, but that I do _not_
believe. I have seldom found Bobby truthful."

"I fully expect that I shall find something in the nature of a mare's
nest," said the vicar. "But perhaps I can do some good by reminding
these people that a village is always a hotbed of--that is, that people
will talk, and that...." He broke off, realizing that to express
tactfully just what he wanted to say was beyond his power. "All the
same," he finished, "if there is anything wrong, I am afraid that so
very shortsighted an emissary as I will prove of little use."

"Never mind about that, Julian. I shall do all that part of it--as if I
could trust _you_! You are just my excuse, that's all."

"But, my dear, is it quite usual ...?"

Mrs. Davies snorted.

"Is it usual to shut oneself up as these people are doing--especially
in war-time? Anyhow, usual or not, I'm going. For a whole week there's
been something mysterious going on in that house and I mean to find out
what it is before anything dreadful comes of it. I'll be ready soon
after lunch, Julian."

Later in the day the reluctant clergyman and his far from reluctant
wife turned in at the drive gates of Denmore Manor. They walked along
the thick and somber avenue, at the end of which the trees suddenly
ceased altogether and the drive gave a half-turn before sweeping on to
the house. There was no one visible except a far-away gardener, of whom
so little could be seen that it was quite impossible to judge whether
he were a suspicious-looking character or not. The visitors looked
round them at the smooth, green lawns and the riot of flowers, and the
vicar sighed once more--this time in content.

"I should like to know," observed his wife with asperity, "how many
men of military age it took to do this in a week? Why, the place was
a wilderness. It had not been looked after for two years, and even in
peace-time it took a small army to look after it. However, I suppose
you can get things done even in war-time if you're rich enough and
unpatriotic enough."

She marched resolutely up the steps, evidently more firmly convinced of
the righteousness of her mission than ever, and paused with a hand on
the bell.

"All the windows are barred," she commented darkly, as the lattices
which Eustace's Eastern taste had brought into being struck her
questing eye. "Does _that_ convey nothing to you?"

The vicar, who could not honestly have said that it conveyed anything
very sinister to him, merely looked uncomfortable. Mrs. Davies pulled
the bell-handle. The door opened with embarrassing suddenness to
display two massive negroes, clad in uniforms of startling brightness.
Inside the vestibule could be seen the magnificent Mustapha.

"My goodness!" said Mrs. Davies, shrinking back suddenly. "Blacks!!
Bobby was right."

The major-domo bowed low and with a gesture invited them to enter; but
the lady, who distrusted "blacks" fervently, left her husband to reply.

The vicar beamed vaguely in the direction of the doorway.

"Er--is Mr.--er--that is," he began feebly.

"Enter, O Master," said Mustapha, leading the way inside, "thou and thy
woman with thee."

"Woman, indeed!" muttered Mrs. Davies in outraged tones as she followed
them. "Woman!! A black...."

"My dear," urged the vicar in an earnest undertone. "It's probably only
the Eastern way. I do not suppose he means any disrespect."

"I hope not, indeed.... Good Heavens!"

The newly decorated hall had burst suddenly on Mrs. Davies' vision,
and her injured pride was forgotten in her amazement at the sight. The
vicar, who could only discern a blaze of color, gazed too. Mustapha
moved majestically across the hall and disappeared up the marble
staircase.

"Julian," demanded Mrs. Davies, "are we dreaming? What has happened?"

The vicar, who had now managed to focus his myopic eyes, glanced at the
wall opposite the front door, and gave a wail of anguish and horror.

"The tapestry!" he cried. "The great tapestry. They've taken it down.
How _could_ they?"

He went over to the wall where once the tapestry had been and gazed
forlornly at it as though he hoped by some occult power of thought
concentration to bring it back.

"Well," said Mrs. Davies acidly, "they are at least consistent. You
could hardly expect tapestries to go with this kind of thing." She was
at the foot of the stairs, examining the knob of the heavily gilded
banisters. It was studded with diamonds and completed with an enormous
ruby worth about as much as the house. "Terrible pieces of glass stuck
about everywhere. Dreadful sham orientalism; why, they've even had that
fine old staircase taken down and marble put in instead. It looks more
like a second-class restaurant than...." She wandered off on a tour of
inspection; a moment later her voice was angrily upraised.

"What do you want, you shameless hussy? How dare you touch me? Go away.
Do you hear me? Take your hands off me and go away.... Let me go,
woman.... Julian! Julian!!"

The vicar rushed blindly in the direction of his wife's voice; his
pince-nez fell off and flew wildly at the end of their cord. He
stumbled over a divan, slithered across the marble floor and stood,
panting and peering, at his wife's side. He found her, flushed and
angry, standing at bay before a group of lovely and perplexed but very
scantily clad female slaves, who had approached at Mustapha's command
to conduct her to the women's quarters of the house. As the vicar
arrived, the leader made another attempt to take Mrs. Davies' hand,
and received from the angry lady a stinging smack across the face.
Instantly she and her following prostrated themselves on the floor.

"My dear Hermia!" murmured the vicar.

"Julian," returned Mrs. Davies in a terrible voice, "this is no place
for me, or for you either. Take me home at once. This"--she eyed the
prostrate but shapely forms around her, and shuddered--"is worse than I
could have imagined. I insist on your taking me home at once."

"But really, Hermia," said the vicar mildly, "I am sure this young lady
... perhaps in the East...." The leader of the slaves, taking heart
of grace from the vicar's gentle tones, was rising to her feet; but
meeting a glance of concentrated venom from his wife, she flopped back
once more, appalled.

"East, indeed!" Mrs. Davies laughed scornfully. "Hussies from the
stage, most likely. Of course you'll take their part, Julian. Men are
all alike. I'm only thankful that I came with you to this place."

She swung round to depart and came face to face with Alf, who had
ventured out to receive his first guests. He was in a state of great
trepidation which the sound of Mrs. Davies' angry high-pitched voice
did nothing to allay. It was a transformed Alf. He had compelled
Eustace to take away all the wonderful but highly unusual garments
with which he had stocked his master's wardrobe, and, explaining once
more to his familiar how useless it was to be wholesale without at
the same time being up-to-date, had commanded him to supply instead
modern clothes suited to every requirement of his new position. He
now appeared resplendent in a voluminous frock-coat, gray trousers,
a stand-up collar of inordinate height and patent leather shoes. The
whole effect was completed and rounded off by a very shiny top-hat.

This Alf at once removed. He stood nervously twisting it in his hands.
Mrs. Davies, not knowing quite what to make of him, gave him a menacing
glare.

"Good afternoon!" she said in threatening tones.

"Yes 'm," said Alf feebly.

"You, I suppose, are the butler. Is your master in?"

"Yes 'm ... I'm ... that is, 'e's ... er, I'm 'im," was the lucid
reply. It conveyed nothing whatever to the lady. The vicar, however,
who had realized from the top-hat that he could not be speaking to a
butler, rose to the occasion.

"My name is Davies," he said courteously. "Er--my wife--I have called
to--er--the Manor pew...."

Alf, feeling a shade happier, put his hat on again.

"Sit down, sir," he said. "Won't the lady take a chair--that is
a--er--cushion?"

"I will not," snapped Mrs. Davies fiercely. "I am shocked and
astonished at the things I have seen and the way I have been treated,
and if you are responsible I demand an explanation, Mr.... Mr...."

"Ig ... Wentworth," supplied Alf, remembering at the last moment his
change of name.

Once more he clutched his hat. It seemed to afford him moral support in
dealing with this terrifying lady, and he clung to it for the remainder
of the interview.

"Really, my dear, Mr. Higg-Wentworth can hardly be blamed for an error
on the part of his ... er...."

The vicar's eyes rested with unclerical appreciation on the form of
the recently smacked leader of the slaves. He wondered what her exact
status in the establishment might be. Was she guest or servant? He
decided not to risk it. "I am sure the--ah--young lady acted under a
pure misapprehension."

His wife snorted.

"It is disgraceful, and their clothing is nothing short of immodest.
Please send them away at once."

Alf gave an order to Mustapha, who translated it into Arabic. The
slaves rose and after bowing low to Alf disappeared up the stairs
with much swirling of draperies and jingling of anklets. Mrs. Davies
averted her face, but the vicar's gaze followed them up the stairs
until the last had disappeared.

Alf was feverishly anxious to make things right, and he turned on
Mustapha.

"Look 'ere, Farr," he said sternly, "what's all this mean? Why was them
girls bothering this lady?"

"Lord," said the steward, "verily it was supposed that this man had
brought the woman hither to sell her unto thee, and for that reason...."

"WHAT!" Mrs. Davies' voice and expression were such that
even the imperturbable Mustapha broke off in alarm. Alf stammered out
something unintelligible, but was cut short.

"You need say no more. I have heard and seen _quite_ enough. I am
ashamed to have set foot in such a place as this house has become.
Dreadful!" She swept a glance of regal scorn round the hall. "Let me
tell you, Mr. Higg-Wentworth, or whatever you call yourself, that you
have not heard the last of this, nor those shameless undressed hussies
of yours either. This is a law-abiding English village, where such
things can be stopped I feel sure. I shall go straight to Sir Edward
FitzPeter and see if something cannot be done. Come, Julian."

She stalked out. The vicar, perplexed and unhappy and far from being
convinced that his wife was not making a fool of herself, followed.

Alf watched them out of sight, wondering miserably whether it was
still too late to do something to retrieve the situation; then as
Mrs. Davies disappeared with a jerk round the corner of the drive, he
crammed his hat down on to his head with fierce despair, regardless
of the havoc he was causing to its beautiful nap, and wandered
dispiritedly up the stairs to Bill.

That warrior was far from being dispirited. He was lying on a divan
with an expression of utter content. He was even more gayly clad than
Alf; but he was now taking his ease, and his coat was lying neatly
folded on a cushion near by, revealing to the gaze in all its glory
a waistcoat which would have occupied the place of honor at any
exhibition of futurist art. By his right elbow stood a tiny inlaid
table on which was a foaming flagon of beer. At his feet, looking like
a brilliant, shimmering heap of silk, lay yet another of the army of
female slaves. She lay in an attitude of sinuous ease, but her dark
eyes were fixed on Bill's face with something of the adoring expression
of a faithful dog.

"'Ullo," began Mr. Montmorency (_né_ Grant) with a cheerful grin. "'Ere
you are. 'Ave a drink with me. This 'ere girl"--he jerked an expressive
thumb at his attendant--"she's a fair wonder, she is. Mr. Farr, 'e's
told 'er off special to look after me, an' she don't 'arf take a pride
in 'er work neither. She don't understand a word I say, but it don't
matter. She just fetches me another every time I finish, an' seems to
like me better the more I make 'er do. Never 'ad such a time in all me
little life. Lucy, I call 'er."

"Seems fond o' you," said Alf gloomily.

"She is that. Thinks I'm no end of a nut. Well, 'ow did you get on
with the nobility an' the gentry? 'Oo was it came? None o' your girl's
people, I s'pose."

Alf shook his head.

"That's all up," he said. "None of 'er people won't never come to this
'ouse."

"Rats!" said Bill. "Why, we ain't been 'ere more'n two days, any'ow,
an' 'ere's somebody been to see us already. Why, it's on'y neighborly
for them to look us up. 'Oo was it to-day, any'ow?"

"The parson and 'is wife."

"Very good, for a start," commented Bill.

"'Tisn't good at all," Alf retorted hotly. "I tell you, Bill Grant...."

"Montmorency," inserted Bill in gentle parenthesis.

" ... It's all up."

"What's all up?"

"We are. This place. It won't do. I've--I've mucked it all up, I
s'pose. Comes of you not bein' there."

"That's right. Put it all on to me! I've got to trot round like a
bloomin' nursemaid, 'ave I, to keep you out of mischief. What 'ave you
been an' done, any'ow?

"This 'ere parson's wife, she's a fair terror. She thinks we ain't
respectable, an' she's off to get ole Sir FitzPeter to fire us out of
'ere."

"'E can't."

"No, but it knocks the bottom out o' me gettin' 'is daughter. 'Twasn't
much of a chance before, but it's all up now."

Bill considered.

"Why don't the ole girl think we're respectable?" he asked at last.

"'Cause of the blinkin' silly way Eustace 'as done the place up. An'
she saw a lot o' them girls, an' she didn't like the way they was
dressed."

"Well, I don't know as I'm altogether surprised at that." Bill's eyes
rested thoughtfully on Lucy's bare leg, ornamented with a flashing
anklet. "You couldn't 'ardly expect it, could you? But we can easy
change that, you know. It'll mean you 'avin Eustace up again, but after
all that's 'is look-out. 'E ought to get things right first time. If
'e won't, 'e must take the consequences. You can 'ave all these girls
dressed in nice black dresses, an' caps an' aprons--except my Lucy o'
course. They won't change you, will they, my dear?"

He stirred Lucy gently with his foot, and she sprang up ready to
perform her usual task. Finding her master's flagon still full, she
sank back again into her place with a puzzled but still adoring smile.

"What's the good ..." began Alf.

"An' then," pursued Bill, taking no notice whatever of the
interruption, "we'll 'ave some furniture in, an' about time too. Then
what can the parson's wife 'ave to say, eh?"

"But what ..." began Alf.

"Mind you," Bill continued serenely, "you'll 'ave to tell Eustace just
exactly what you want. It's no good leaving it to 'im--we know 'ow much
good 'is ideas are. Tell 'im what you wants an' see you gets it."

"Yes, but 'ow much good will that do? The ole woman's gone off ravin'
like a blinkin' lunatic, an' once she gets round to ole FitzPeter all
the furniture in the world won't do us no good. 'Ow can we stop 'er
tellin' 'im?"

"Easy enough," said Bill with unabated confidence. "Strike 'er dumb!"

"Eh?" Alf's eyes and mouth opened to their utmost extent.

"Tell Eustace to make 'er dumb. Then she _can't_ tell anybody anything."

"She could write it," said Alf, after consideration.

"Paralyze 'er, then," retorted Bill callously.

"Even then, 'er 'usband'd know. 'Sides, that ain't goin' to do us no
good. The neighbor'ood 'ud be bound to notice it if she came 'ere an'
then went dumb an' paralyzed--specially if we 'ad to do it to the
parson too."

"True for you, Alf--it wouldn't make us what you might call popular."

Bill took a long drink, to assist thought. The faithful Lucy uncurled
herself once more and left the room with the empty flagon.

"Good girl," said Bill, looking after her. "She'd make a fine wife, she
would. I ain't goin' to 'ave no cap an' apron put on my Lucy, Alf; she
can keep out o' the way when there's company about, but I'm goin' to
keep 'er dressed as she is, see?"

"Seems to me," Alf answered crossly, "if you don't 'urry up an' think
what's to be done, you an' your Lucy'll 'ave to part company any'ow.
Once that ole woman gets to Ditchwater Park she'll make these 'ere
parts too 'ot to 'old us. An' she must be 'arf way there by now."

Bill gave a scornful laugh.

"I'm ashamed of you, Alf, gettin' the wind up like that. I am, really.
Tell you what to do. Tell Eustace to fix 'er whenever she tries to talk
or write about us--she an' the parson, too. Then she can't do no 'arm
to anybody! 'Ow's that for a scheme, eh?"

Bill put his thumbs in the armholes of his pictorial waistcoat; Alf
stared in speechless admiration.

"Lumme," he said at last. "You do think o' things. But 'ow d'you know
that Eustace can do it?"

Bill held up the old lady's brother's copy of the _Arabian Nights_.

"I been readin' this," he said, "seems to be just the sort o' thing
they used to like doing in them times. I tell you, I'm glad it's us as
'ave got Eustace an' not the 'Un, because ..."

Fearing that Bill was about to bring up once more his favorite scheme
for using Eustace to kidnap the Kaiser and end the war Alf cut him
short by producing his talisman. Lucy, entering the room at the same
moment with a full tankard of beer for her lord, caught sight of the
Button and instantly prostrated herself. The tankard reached the ground
just before she did, with the result that Lucy's clothes and hair and
Lucy's devout forehead weltered in a foaming pool of wasted beer.

Alf gasped.

"Tripped over the mat, I expect," he volunteered feebly.

"You silly owl," roared Bill, exasperated no less by the discomfort
of his Hebe than by the waste of his drink. "Don't you know yet what
'appens if you bring out the Button in front of the servants? Down they
goes an' down they stays. Put it away, quick, or you'll be drownin' the
girl. 'Ere, Lucy, 'op it an' get dried."

Lucy, dripping with beer, fled, and Alf, looking rather sheepish, once
again produced the Button.

He hesitated.

"You know," he said, "I 'ardly like to--I mean, we 'ad Eustace up on'y
yesterday, you know. If we 'ave 'im again now won't 'e be fed up?"

"Let 'im," said Bill. "S'long as you don't ask 'im for a rook's egg,
'e can't turn nasty. An' any'ow you've got to 'ave 'im to swop the
furniture, so 'e may as well do the two jobs together. And for 'eving's
sake let's 'ave a few tasty pictures on the walls, an' some ornaments
an' things. We want to make the place a bit 'omey."

"'Ave whatever you like," replied Alf. "You knows more about that sort
o' thing than what I do."

He rubbed the Button.

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Meanwhile, as the vicar and his wife had turned into the road at the
Manor gates, the doctor's gardener, one Amos Goodwin, had chanced to be
passing.

Amos was a sociable creature who measured his success in life by the
amount of new and in some cases original gossip he managed to put into
circulation. He was the most prolific purveyor of intimate domestic
scandal in the neighborhood. Certainly he was the indispensable
right-hand man of Mrs. Rudd the post-mistress, supplying her with the
material on which she ran an informal Bureau of Unreliable Information.
Amos had come past the Manor on the off-chance of seeing something
which might suggest a plausible theory about the Manor mystery; but
he was too good a journalist not to prefer to deal in the truth when
he could get it; and the appearance of Mr. and Mrs. Davies actually
leaving the suspicious premises held promise of a real and authentic
"scoop"--if he could only hear what they were saying. He hobbled after
the pair as quickly as he could, his long ear straining forward; but
they swung off down the road at a pace that his rheumatic old legs
could not hope to emulate. All the same, he had his reward; before
she was out of earshot he heard Mrs. Davies' loud and piercing voice,
remarking:

"Well, Julian, all I can say is that _I_ consider the whole place a
perfect scandal. Those black men, and the horrible women--ugh! The
whole place looked more like a scene from 'Chu Chin Chow' than an
English country house. And one thing I consider _most_ suspicious...."

Amos could hear no more. But on his way home he stopped at the post
office.



CHAPTER XII

ALF RECEIVES


That evening a deep peace had settled over Dunwater Park. Except for
two people sunning themselves on the terrace, all the inhabitants of
the hospital had gone to the tennis-court or the golf-links or the
river.

"Oh dear," said Isobel, breaking a long silence. "I suppose I ought to
go and finish the day's work before dinner."

"Don't," urged Denis Allen earnestly.

"But duty calls."

"Let it. And if you're as virtuous as all that, please note that it is
your duty to entertain your guests--meaning me. Tell me the--I say,
there's somebody coming across the lawn."

"Help!" Isobel pulled a face. "My pet aversion."

"Of course," grumbled Allen disconsolately, "this _would_ happen the
very first time I've had you to myself." He sat up and regarded the
approaching couple with malevolence. "Which is your--er--friend? Male
or female?"

"Oh, female. The vicar's rather a dear, but his wife...." She gave an
all-expressive gesture, and rose to be polite to her unwelcome guests.

"This is Mr.... Why, do you know each other?" For the vicar and Allen
had fallen into one another's arms.

"Last time we met," explained the reverend gentleman, "I was bowling
for your father's team and this young man was what is technically known
as taking tea off me."

"I remember," said Isobel. "I was scoring and very busy you kept me."

"Well, well, how splendid to see you again, and recovering your
strength, I hope? And what tremendous luck for you falling into the
hands of friends!"

"I should rather think it was," agreed Allen with enthusiasm.

"No luck about it at all," corrected Isobel. "I heard he was in London,
so of course he had to come here." Allen beamed. "I'd have every
one of my friends here if I could only get hold of them," she added
maliciously; Allen's face fell.

"We must organize some cricket for you," went on the vicar. He was
proceeding to enlarge on this congenial topic when his wife brought him
sternly back to the object of his visit.

"Is Sir Edward in?" she asked Miss FitzPeter. "The vicar and I have
called to see him about...." She broke off her sentence in the middle
with a startling suddenness and seemed to be struggling with herself.
Mr. Davies, not knowing what was the matter, but anxious to cover his
wife's confusion, hurled himself into the breach.

"Yes," he corroborated, "we feel that he ought to be told that...." He
got no further. A comical look of mingled fear and suspicion crossed
his face. Isobel and Allen waited for the sentence to be brought to
some conclusion, but in vain.

"Well," replied Isobel, when it was plain that no more was forthcoming,
"I believe dad is in the library. I--I hope nothing awful has
happened--nobody's dead, or anything, are they?"

The vicar looked distressed.

"Oh, no, no. Nothing of that kind at all--not in the least. I just want
to tell him that...."

Again there was an awkward pause. All four were now plainly embarrassed.

"I'm sorry--perhaps I oughtn't to have asked," Isobel apologized at
last. There was just a touch of stiffness in her tone, and poor Mr.
Davies grew more troubled than ever.

"Not in the least," he protested. "Please don't think that. The whole
matter is simply that.... I mean to say, you see, we...."

A strained silence followed.

"Please come in," Isobel said coldly. "I will see if dad is in."

She and her visitors went into the house, leaving Allen lost in
amazement.

In a moment or two Isobel returned.

"Tell me," Allen asked in a melodramatic stage whisper, "have they
confessed?"

"Not a thing. What can have made them behave like that?"

"I thought it was my presence that was worrying them. After all, if
he's murdered his mother-in-law for her lump sugar he'd hardly like to
tell you about it before a comparative stranger."

"Perhaps," suggested Isobel, "they've come to clear up the mystery of
Denmore Manor."

They both laughed. The Manor Mystery had become a family jest at
Dunwater.

"What's the latest about it?"

"The plot thickens," answered Isobel. "My maid was full of rumors at
teatime. Somebody--I couldn't make out who--has been up to the Manor
and seen black men and, oh, every kind of horror. Martin was quite
breathless with emotion when she told me about it."

"I wonder how much there is in it."

"I'd love to go and find out. Really, you know, it's time some sensible
person went. According to the village these people might be cannibals."

"Perhaps they are."

"Well, whatever they are, I frankly own I'm curious about them."

"Why don't you take me as bodyguard and call on them?"

"No excuse."

"Go and ask 'em for a Red Cross subscription. It's about the only house
in the neighborhood you haven't been to."

"D'you mean it?" Isobel asked eagerly.

"Of course I do. I'm as curious as anybody."

"Righto, then I will. To-morrow morning. Don't say a word to any one,
or dad may object. Meet me at the garage at eleven, and we'll sneak
out. You'll have to look after me like anything. Bring a card-case in
one hand and a revolver in the other; then we'll be ready for anything.
Hallo, dad--your visitors didn't keep you long. What did they want?"

Sir Edward came out on to the terrace and dropped into a chair.

"Mad!" he said meditatively. "Quite mad, so far as I can see."

"Who?"

"Both of 'em."

"But what did they want?"

"That's just it. I don't know. They kept on saying that they wanted to
tell me something I ought to know, but not a thing more would they say."

He walked irritably up and down the terrace. Allen and Isobel looked at
each other.

"In the end," said Sir Edward, "I lost my temper. I practically kicked
'em out, and I've no idea now why they came. I'll go and see Davies
to-morrow, to see if he's recovered his sanity."

He paused in his pacing and faced them.

"By the way," he continued, "Malcolm tells me that he hears in the
village that Denmore is full of black men, and done up like a scene
from 'Chu Chin Chow'--what's the matter?"

Both Allen and Isobel had had a sudden fit of helpless laughter.

"_What_ a set of gossips we all are--go on, dad."

"All I was going to say," pointed out her father huffily, "is that
these people are obviously from the East, and if so I shall be glad to
cultivate their acquaintance. You know how interested I am in the East.
Gossip, indeed!"

He shot into the house, still in a very ruffled condition.

Isobel glanced at her watch.

"Heavens," she said, "I must fly. I've a crow to pick with the
War Office over the telephone before dinner. Don't forget--eleven
to-morrow, and don't tell anybody."

Allen decided that he was not likely to tell any one. The mere feeling
that he and Isobel shared a secret was too precious for that. Every
day he fell more deeply in love with her, and every day he felt more
sure that the spoilt beauty of the illustrated papers had never existed
save in the perverted imaginations of unkind people. On the surface,
he and she had slipped easily into the old intimacy they had enjoyed
once before, when Isobel was a small girl, but every now and then some
chance word or look had awakened a hope in Allen that some deeper bond
was being or had been formed between them.

He lay in his chair pondering these and other imaginings with a pleased
and fatuous smile, until the sight of his fellows returning reminded
him that dinner-time was approaching, and he went in and changed from
his flannels into uniform. That evening they played boisterous and
childish games. Isobel, looking more than usually lovely, was in a
mood of irresponsible gayety; and the patients, catching the infection,
became over-excited to such an extent that the sister-in-charge (who
was making as much noise as any one) had to assume an official demeanor
and threaten to stop the revels. To Allen Isobel hardly spoke a word
the whole evening; and if she was aware of his presence where he sat
in a big arm-chair in a corner of the hall she gave no sign. When ten
o'clock came and sister was shepherding her unruly flock to bed, Isobel
was not there to say good night. Allen went to bed in a state of acute
misery, convinced that Isobel had done this on purpose (which was the
truth) and because she disliked him (which was not the truth). He lay
awake pondering dismally on the incomprehensibility of women.

He came down to breakfast next morning in a state of anxiety, and found
Isobel in the center of a clamorous mob busy dealing out coffee and
tea, while sister dealt with the porridge queue. On his plate was a
folded note, which he opened. Underneath a skull and cross-bones neatly
executed in red ink was a message:


     "Meet me beneath the gnarled oak at eleven. All is prepared.
     Be silent and secret. The password is 'coffee-pot'--A
     FRIEND."


So all was well, after all!

Allen slipped away to the garage at the appointed time, and found
the little car, with which Isobel was accustomed to terrorize the
countryside, being filled with petrol by an aged chauffeur.

"Who goes there?" demanded the car's owner.

"Coffee-pot," answered Allen, in sepulchral tones.

"Pass friend, and all's well. Jump in, and we'll get away quick."

"Not _too_ quick, please. I'm not in the Flying Corps," pleaded Allen.
But Isobel--who had a wide reputation as a fearsome driver--let in the
clutch with a suddenness which nearly sent Allen out over the back of
the car, and they fled down the drive and disappeared amid the cheers
of the few patients who happened to see them. The car went round the
corner on one wheel at a speed which would have meant certain disaster
had any other traffic chanced to be passing. Allen clutched at the
sides of his seat lest sheer centrifugal force should deposit him head
downwards in a ditch.

"It's all right," said Isobel reassuringly, as they gathered speed on
the straight road.

"I'm glad to hear it," answered Allen. "Tell me when you're going to
take another corner. I'm glad I'm not a nerve case."

The landscape streamed past them for a space, till Isobel slowed down.

"Here we are," she said.

They turned into the Manor drive, and a moment later pulled up before
the house.

"I'm so excited. I feel just like a cinema actress," whispered Isobel.

"So'm I. I've got one hand on my revolver and one on my card-case.
Which d'you suppose will be wanted?"

"Neither. You'll have to use the revolver hand to ring the bell with."

"No, I shan't. Somebody's coming. Get ready to fly for your life....
Why, it's an ordinary butler!"

It was Mustapha who was the cause of Allen's disappointed whisper--a
transformed Mustapha, wearing instead of his gorgeous robes the sober
black of the English serving-man, and looking so villainous that Allen
wondered for one moment whether he ought not to have brought his
revolver in real earnest.

"Er--" said Isobel, "is Mr.--er...."

Mustapha, casting one glance of appraising admiration over her, did not
wait for more. Bowing low to Allen he signified by a sign that they
were to await his return, and disappeared round the angle of the house.

"I--I hope it's all right," whispered Isobel a little nervously.

"We can still escape," Allen pointed out.

"No,--I'm going through with it. But--it _was_ a black man!"

"Very," said Allen. "Probably he'd look less of a villain in his native
dress."

"I hope so, I'm sure."

On a lawn at the south side of the house stood two long chairs above
which the blue smoke from two pipes curled heavenwards. On one lay
Bill, with the faithful Lucy still curled up at his feet; on the
other was the _soi-disant_ Mr. Wentworth. Both had changed from the
ceremonious raiment of the previous day, and now appeared in the
rôle of gentlemen of leisure. Bill was gorgeous in a red-and-black
blazer, white trousers, and brown-and-white canvas shoes; but Alf--as
befitted the lord of the Manor--outshone him by far. He had a straw
hat with a gaudy black-and-yellow ribbon; a Norfolk coat in the
bold black-and-white check; and trousers and shoes like Bill's. A
stiffly-starched collar nestled furtively behind a satin tie of
aggressive color and immutable form. But the crowning glory of the
whole get-up was a strange garment--a cross between a cummerbund and a
dress-waistcoat--which encircled his middle and supported a gold albert
watchchain ornamented with many dangling seals.

By the side of each chair stood an inlaid stool bearing each an
enormous flagon of silver. As Mustapha approached the little group, an
arm appeared from each chair, and the two flagons were simultaneously
lifted, were inverted for a space and were replaced simultaneously on
the stools. Bill's voice spoke ecstatically.

"Bit of all right, eh?"

Alf grunted. Not even his consciousness of sartorial perfection could
cheer him up. He was brooding darkly on the probable results of the
liberty he had taken with the Davies family, and was fast working
himself into a panic. All his experience of Eustace's enchantments
filled him with profound misgivings; and in the circumstances Bill's
soulless and unsympathetic delight in the ephemeral pleasures of the
moment infuriated him.

"Cheer up, mate," said Bill. "What's the matter now? Still off it
because the ole lady told you off? You've stopped _'er_ mouth, any'ow."

"Well, an' even if I 'ave, 'ow much better are we then? We might sit
'ere for a year, an' never get nearer doin' anything than we are now.
'Ow are we goin' to get to know a toff like ole Sir FitzPeter, eh? 'Ow
can we.... 'Ullo, Farr, what is it now?"

"Lord, there standeth at thy door one desiring entrance; and verily he
bringeth with him a maiden possessing the rarest beauty, so that if her
mind and attainments be but of a piece with her fairness of face, not
less than ten thousand pieces of gold would be her price."

Alf gaped at him.

"I don't know what the 'ell you think you're talkin' about, Farr," he
said at length. "But bring 'ooever it is along 'ere."

Mustapha bowed and retreated.

"If there's a lady in the case," said Bill, "Lucy 'ad better cut away.
'Ere! skedaddle, Lucy--quick! You ain't dressed for company."

Lucy departed disconsolately for the house, quite unable to understand
why she was thus dismissed. In her lord's honor she had put on her
most striking finery. She had touched up her eyes with kohl, her
cheeks with carmine and her finger-tips with henna. She was comfortably
conscious of looking her best. Why, then, was she dismissed the
Presence?

"'Ere," called Bill after her, "not that way; you'll run right into
'em.... Lumme, 'ere they come.... Why, Alf--it's 'er--your girl ...
an'--an' Lootenant Allen with 'er. 'E'd know me for sure. I'm off."

And while Isobel and Allen were occupied in gazing speechlessly after
Lucy's disappearing form, Bill beat a panic-stricken and precipitate
retreat into the rose-garden. Alf, unnerved almost as much by the
unlooked-for good fortune which brought Isobel to him as by the
embarrassment of having to face his old platoon-commander, turned to
receive his visitors.

"I hope you will excuse us, Mr...."

"Wentworth," supplied Alf. He was getting used to his new name now.

"Mr. Wentworth, for bursting in upon you in this way. I am Miss
FitzPeter, and this is Mr. Allen." Alf, quaking at the knees, shook
hands with his late commander. He felt, in spite of his clean-shaved
upper lip, that nothing could prevent his detection now; but Allen gave
no sign of recognition. Indeed, he hardly looked at Mr. Wentworth's
face at all in his delighted examination of his clothes.

Isobel, struggling with herself, went straight to the point. Only by
doing this, she felt, could she stifle the demon of laughter within
her; and if she chanced to catch Allen's eye nothing could save her.

"I'm afraid I've come on business, Mr. Wentworth. Worse than that, on
begging business. I'm collecting for a Red Cross hospital which is
being started at Anston. It's such a good object and they do need funds
so badly--and I wondered--would you be so kind--anything will do...."

She concluded with her famous smile which had in another life done
yeoman service to the country at flag-days and bazaars. Alf, whose
obfuscated intellect had been groping wildly for a meaning in her
elliptical remarks, suddenly understood. Here was a chance for a
display of his wealth. Fate was indeed playing into his hands.

"Farr," he said, "go an' get some money."

Mustapha, who had all this while been gazing upon Isobel with lively
and increasing satisfaction, was much pleased to find that this lovely
"slave" had found favor in his master's eyes. He went off joyfully
to the house to obey Alf's command, and in a few moments he returned
followed by six female slaves. Isobel and Allen, whose hopes had been
raised by their glimpse of the polychromatic Lucy, were disappointed to
find that these were clad in sober black, relieved only by the neatest
of caps and aprons. But this only threw into greater prominence their
un-English appearance.

Each of the six carried a bulky bag. Mustapha, coming forward, laid a
cloth upon the ground at Allen's feet, and made a sign to the first
slave. She approached, and having (with much crackling of her apron)
made a deep obeisance, poured out upon the cloth a jingling, flashing
stream of gold coins. Then she bowed once more to the earth and retired.

Allen and Isobel, who for three years or so had seen no gold except
an occasional stray half-sovereign, stared as though hypnotized; but
Alf was the most astonished of the three. Nobody seemed capable of
speaking a word. Mustapha, interpreting their silence to mean that the
sum offered was not large enough, signed to the second slave; and the
glittering heap was forthwith doubled.

"But," said Allen at last, recovering his power of speech with an
effort, "we--we can't take this. You know we can't."

"No, sir," agreed Alf unhappily. "It's all a mistake. 'Ere, Farr, this
won't do, you know."

"Verily, master, if thou didst offer to this merchant all the gold that
is in the six bags, it would not be an over-payment; for verily mine
eyes have not looked upon so fair a slave."

He signed once more, and the four remaining bags were emptied on to the
pile.

"Heavens," said Isobel, suddenly realizing Mustapha's meaning, "he
thinks...."

"Yes, confound him, he does," replied Allen indignantly. "Not much
doubt about the Oriental there!" He glanced angrily at the puzzled
Mustapha. "While as for the question of gold-hoarding...."

Alf caught the last word.

"S'welp me, sir," he said earnestly, "I never knew 'e 'ad it, I swear
I didn't. 'Ere, Farr, where the blue blazes did you get all this coin
from? Don't you know there's a war on?"

"Lord," replied Mustapha with pardonable pride, and not comprehending
in the least what the true position was, "this is but the smallest part
of the riches that lie heaped in thy treasury, the full extent whereof
no man may count. Therefore chaffer not with this merchant, but pay him
that which he asks; for in truth the maid is passing fair. Her lips...."

"That'll be about enough from you," roared Allen with sudden fury.
Mustapha, his eulogy checked in mid-surge, retreated a pace or two in
alarm, while Alf, obeying subconsciously the ring of authority in the
tone, came to attention. Luckily, however, his lapse was not noticed;
and he remembered his status as a country gentleman and put his hands
in his pockets.

"'Ere," he said to Mustapha, who was still unequal to the intellectual
pressure of the conversation, "take that stuff back where it came from.
An' look 'ere, Farr, you got to get every last farthing o' gold in the
place changed into notes right off. An' if I catch any more 'oardin'
goin' on...." He broke off and turned to his guests. "If you'll be so
good, miss and sir, as to step into the 'ouse, I'll 'ave it brought to
you in notes."

"Thank you," said Isobel feebly. She followed Alf into the house with
eager anticipation, but at the same time wondering how much more she
could bear without giving way to hysterics.

Since Mrs. Davies' visit Alf and Bill had done their honest best to
introduce into Eustace's exclusively Oriental scheme a touch of that
"'omeyness" which it had so obviously lacked. As a result, the jeweled
magnificence of the original scheme now served as a back-ground to an
impression of solid mid-Victorian comfort. Plush-covered chairs and
sofas now abounded; so did clumsy and top-heavy side-boards, draped
mirrors and lace curtains. Mats of hot, black fur reënforced the
priceless Persian rugs; a stuffed bird in a glass case stood in each
window; and the walls were covered with a choice selection of colored
"presentation plates" in heavily gilded frames. The whole effect was as
though some rather dissipated roysterer, returning from a fancy dress
ball in the robes of a gorgeous caliph, had protected them from the
weather by the addition of a frock-coat.

Isobel, who had expected a stage setting of the "Chu Chin Chow" order,
was utterly unprepared for the improvements. She sat down suddenly on
the nearest plush monstrosity and looked about her. Her mouth was firm,
but her eyes filled gradually with tears; and she knew that if she
looked at Allen she would disgrace herself.

But now, fortunately for both of them, Alf, full of determination not
to let slip this golden opportunity of impressing his lady, bustled out
of the room to summon the much-enduring Eustace and explain to him the
nature and functions of paper currency. Allen and Isobel, watching his
departure anxiously, just managed to preserve their self-control until
he had gone; but then the floods of laughter burst forth irresistibly.
They wallowed breathlessly, feebly wiping their streaming eyes. After
a time Isobel managed to pull herself partially together and to sit
up; but the sight and sound of Allen, who was at full length on a sofa
gasping like a fish and quaking like a jelly, set her off again. It was
a shameless spectacle.

But by the time Alf came back two weak but happy people were gravely
examining the decorations, and were even far enough recovered to be
able to congratulate their host on his taste without a quiver.

"You have been in the East, I suppose, Mr. Wentworth?" asked Isobel.

"I went to Yarmouth once," said Alf.

"Ah, yes. But I mean the Orient. Egypt--Persia--India."

"Oh!" Alf caught the allusion and began to fidget. The conversation
seemed to be taking an awkward turn. "You mean this 'ere?" he asked,
waving a comprehensive hand about him. "I can't say as I've ever been
in them parts meself like, but them as did the 'ouse up for me comes
from there. I 'ad it brought over regardless. Only they didn't 'ave
much furniture, an' no pictures, so I 'ad to order them meself. That's
a nice thing, now." He pointed to a glaring lithograph depicting a
dog of no known breed being mauled by a small child apparently in the
advanced stages of scarlet fever. It was called "Happy Playmates."

"Always been fond o' that from a boy, I 'ave," he said.

"Very nice," agreed Isobel gravely. "What do you think, Denis?" She
slipped a hand inside his arm and gave it a delighted little squeeze.

"Charming!" His voice shook ever so little, but he had completely
regained control of his expression.

Alf judged that the time had arrived to bring his heavy batteries into
action. He produced from his pockets a little bundle of notes, and
handed them to Isobel.

"There, miss," he said in admirably casual tones, "a little something
for your 'orsepital."

"Thank you _so_ much," said Isobel, smiling at him. "It's _most_ kind
of you. Denis, would you ...?"

She glanced at the packet in her hand, and her voice trailed away in
speechless surprise. Then she offered the notes back to Alf.

"Surely," she gasped, "there's some mistake?"

Alf glowed; when Isobel had taken his "little something" so casually
he had for one moment been afraid that his _coup_ had failed--that in
spite of his increasing confidence in Eustace's powers, he had not been
"wholesale" enough; he was thankful to find that this was not so.

"Quite all right, miss," he said jauntily.

"But--but they are thousand-pound notes! I can't--I really can't
allow...."

Allen opened his eyes wide in astonishment.

"If you please, miss," said Alf earnestly, "I shall be most honored if
you'll 'ang on to--I should say keep--the 'ole lot."

Isobel, looking slightly dazed, went through the notes in her hand.
There were ten notes, each for a thousand pounds. She laid them on the
table beside her.

"Thank you very much indeed, Mr. Wentworth," she said, "but really,
it's quite impossible...."

"I can spare it easy. It's nothing to me, I give you my word. If you'd
just take it to oblige me, like, I shall be much obliged. I shall
really."

"But I don't understand why you should want to do this."

Here was a splendid chance of advancing his cause with a telling
compliment. Bill would have taken it, Alf felt, at once; he himself
simply shuffled his feet and went very red.

"It's just to oblige me," he said shamefacedly. "I'd--I'd like you to
'ave it."

Isobel suddenly realized that this eccentric little man meant the money
to be the token of a personal tribute to herself. She took the topmost
note.

"Mr. Wentworth," she said in a gentle voice, "I couldn't possibly take
all that money from any one. It's far more than the fund is trying to
collect, and there are other things which need money so badly. But I
will take this, and thank you most tremendously."

She put out her hand, and Alf, still very red, grasped it so heartily
that she winced. Then he followed his visitors to the front door. As
Isobel cranked up (declining Allen's proffered help with a stern
reminder that he was an invalid) Alf realized that something still
remained to be done. He must not let Isobel go without arranging for a
future meeting. He must strike while the iron was hot.

"Could you--would you an' yer pa step in some day an' 'ave a bit o'
something to eat?" he blurted out.

"I'm sure he'd be delighted," said she impulsively. The little man's
earnestness had quite melted her for the time being, and she committed
Sir Edward without a thought. "He is so interested in everything
that comes from the East. Come to tea with us on Friday and ask him
yourself."

She nodded, and disappeared in a cloud of dust.

Alf watched her out of sight, and turned to find Mustapha at his elbow.

"Farr," he said excitedly, "that's the young lady what I'm going to
marry. I'm goin' to 'ave tea with 'er father on Friday. What d'you
think o' that?"

"Lord," said Mustapha, "all shall be prepared."

Alf dashed upstairs to Bill without considering what it was that
Mustapha was going to prepare.

Bill listened unmoved to his friend's narrative.

"Did Lootenant Allen reckernize you?" he asked at the end.

"No more 'n nothin'. Look 'ere, you don't seem to take it in. I'm goin'
round to tea on Friday."

"I 'eard. What did I tell yer?" asked Bill cynically. "It's all a
matter o' money. All you got to do now is pile on the swank for pa
FitzP., an' you'll be 'is dearly beloved son-in-law before we know
where we are. What oh!"

Bill closed his eyes and seemed to indulge in a beatific vision.
Alf did not share his sublime confidence, but even he felt that the
campaign had now made a really auspicious start.

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

When the car was out of sight of the Manor, Allen once more fell a
victim of paroxysms of laughter.

"Go slow, for Heaven's sake," he gasped, "or I shall fall out."

"Stop it!" Isobel commanded sharply. "Stop it at once. I won't have
that poor little man sneered at. I think he's a dear, so there."

"Cupboard love," Allen retorted, wiping his streaming eyes. "He hasn't
given _me_ a million pounds for the Red Cross and he hasn't asked _me_
to dinner, so I'm free to laugh if I want to. Those clothes ... and
that furniture ...! If I'd caught your eye again I should have had a
fit."

Isobel laughed a little herself.

"Who can he be?" she asked. "It's rather dreadful that a common little
uneducated Cockney like that should have all that money, isn't it? And
did you see his friend, who bolted when we arrived?"

"Yes--a shy bird in gorgeous plumage. D'you know, I'm sure I've seen
that chap Wentworth somewhere before, or some one just like him."

"That's funny. I felt just the same. Who can it be?"

"Wait a bit--it's coming to me. Why, of course, I've got it. If he had
a mustache, he'd be the living image of a silly ass in my platoon,
Higgins by name, and so.... I say, what's the matter?"

The car gave a violent double lurch as Isobel momentarily seemed to
lose control of the steering-wheel. Luckily they were traveling very
slowly. Allen leant across her and stopped the car.

"Iso," he said, unconsciously using the affectionate abbreviation for
the first time, "whatever's the matter? Are you ill? You're as white as
a ghost."

She ignored his question.

"Tell me," she said, "had you really a man in your platoon called
Higgins?"

"Yes--but why ...?"

"And is he really like this Wentworth man?"

"Yes. But you can't have seen him."

"Only--only in a dream."

"What!"

"Oh, I know it sounds mad to you; but I had the most dreadful vivid
dream about being at the front. I was being shown round the trenches by
a couple of Tommies--I'd always said I wanted to see them, you know.
I didn't realize ... it was awful.... One of the two Tommies was just
like Mr. Wentworth, and was called Higgins. The other's name was--wait
a bit--oh, yes, Grant. And then _you_ came into it and.... Denis, don't
look like that!"

"Grant?" echoed he hoarsely. "Why, it must have been.... Iso, shall
I tell you what you said to me when I came round the corner of the
trench?"

Her eyes dilated; she caught at his arm and nodded silently.

"You said, 'It must be a dream. If it isn't, I can't bear it!' Was that
it?"

She nodded again. She could not speak. Allen felt a strange dryness
in his throat. He put his arm round Isobel, and she leant against him
trembling.

"Then--then you disappeared. I thought I must have been seeing things,
but--but...."

"It was real," she whispered. "I _knew_ it was, somehow. That's
why I came here to work--that's why I brought you here. Denis--I'm
frightened. What does it all mean?"

"Mean?" repeated Allen. "My darling, you're shaking like a leaf. What
can it mean but--this?"

They kissed.... Years later, it seemed, Isobel caught sight of Allen's
wrist-watch, and came suddenly back to earth.

"We must simply fly," she said. "Thank Heaven there was nobody on the
road to see us. No, Denis, you mustn't. We must get back.... Oh, well,
then...."

They kissed once more, blissfully unconscious that a pair of youthful
but malicious eyes had been drinking in every detail of the scene,
or that when the car had proceeded on its way--hopelessly late for
lunch--Bobby Myers scrambled out of the hedge and scurried hot-foot to
entrust this precious information to the safe keeping of Mrs. Rudd.
By teatime there was not a soul in the entire neighborhood who had not
heard the news, with the exception of the isolated and deeply suspected
inhabitants of Denmore Manor.



CHAPTER XIII

P.C. JOBLING INVESTIGATES


"Humph," said Mrs. Rudd the post-mistress, "lot o' good the police
force is, I don't think, ain't they?"

The police force shuffled its feet and looked uncomfortable.

"Well, now, auntie," it began mildly, "I don't see 'ow...."

"None o' yer 'Well, now auntie' for me, please. Are you policeman in
this 'ere village or are you not?--answer me that."

"O' course I am."

"Well then, 'ere's a lot o' 'eathen foreign nigger German spies gettin'
ready to murder us all in our beds under our noses, an' 'ere you sit
and do nothin'. I'm ashamed of you, Artie, I am. You go spendin' all
yer time with yer nose in detective stories, an' dreamin' about the
promotion you're goin' to get; an' now you get a real fine chance o'
detectin' something an' runnin' a lot of shady foreigners in, an' all
you do is twiddle yer great silly thumbs an' say, 'Well, now, auntie'!"

"But 'ow _can_ I go to the 'ouse?" wailed the sole representative of
law and order in Denmore miserably. "You can't take a man up 'cause
'e's a foreigner."

"No, worse luck." Mrs. Rudd considered that in any properly-governed
state a law to that effect would have been made long ago. "But you can
take 'im up for 'oardin' food. It ain't for me to teach you yer own
job, Artie Jobling; if I was policeman 'ere I'd pretty soon think out a
way to get into that 'ouse an' 'ave a look round. 'Ow did the ones in
them books o' yours do it?"

"Disguised theirselves gen'rally," said Artie without enthusiasm, "an'
went an' walked out with the maids."

"Well, why don't you do that?"

"I ain't no 'and at disguises," sighed Artie, gazing sadly at his
regulation boots. "I sh'd 'ave all the kids in the village runnin'
arter me."

Mrs. Rudd followed the direction of her nephew's eyes, and forbore to
press the point further.

"Besides," resumed P.C. Jobling after a little reflection, "they say
that the maids in this 'ere 'ouse is niggers, an' none too respectable
at that. 'Orrible things might 'appen."

He brooded darkly on the possibility.

"Well, if you don't do something we shall 'ave 'orrible things
'appening any'ow," said Mrs. Rudd. "Sure as fate we'll all be murdered.
I was saying to-day to Mrs. Green...."

"If I went," interrupted Artie, struck with a new thought, "they might
murder _me_."

"They might," agreed his aunt, "an' they might not. Any'ow, that's what
you're 'ere for, Artie. If anybody in this village is to be murdered it
ought to be you, Artie. It's your plain dooty. If you ain't goin' to
do it, you ought to be in the trenches."

Constable Jobling stared at her without a word. This view of his
mission in life had never been brought to his notice before. Apparently
it disconcerted him no little.

"Lot o' good the police force is when anything does 'appen." Mrs. Rudd
returned with freshness and vigor to her original line of argument.
"An' a lot o' promotion you'll get, my lad. Why, I'd make a better
policeman'n you out o' a turnip-top an' a broom 'andle any day. Why
'ere's Mrs. Green."

The door-latch clicked, and Mrs. Green of the general stores entered.
"'Ere, Maria," said Mrs. Rudd, "I was just tellin' young Artie...."

But young Artie had had enough. He tramped heavily out, slammed the
post-office door behind him, and retired to his own cottage to brood on
the cursed spite which had selected him to minister to times so out of
joint.

For ten days or more the whole village had been in a ferment over the
strange people and stranger doings at the Manor. The fact that neither
the vicar nor his wife, who had been seen to leave the place, could be
induced to say a word of what they had seen, only deepened the dark
and formless suspicions held in the neighborhood. Jobling had had an
increasingly strong idea that the public opinion of him as a smart and
ambitious young member of a distinguished body was gradually changing,
but his outspoken aunt was the first person to put this new feeling
into words and to force the unfortunate policeman to look facts in
the face. He was frightened of the unknown murdering heathens who
might possibly lurk in ambush for him in the grounds of Denmore Manor,
but he was even more frightened of the known and well-tried power of
his aunt's tongue. He sat behind the curtains in his cottage and gave
himself up to melancholy thought.

Before long he saw Mrs. Green, her chat with the post-mistress
concluded, coming up the street. She met with another decrepit old
dame, and the two began to discuss some choice piece of scandal with
great animation. Mrs. Green closed her peroration by pointing at
Jobling's window and shaking her head sorrowfully. The other lady also
shook her head and doddered off up the street, where she could be seen
a few moments later in deep and direful converse with _her_ dearest
friend.

Jobling knew the signs. Unless he did something, and quickly, he was
a marked man. But how _could_ he push himself into a house without a
pretext? Failing the subtle methods of the detective of fiction, what
reason could a large but timid policeman find for penetrating into a
nest of probably dangerous criminals without giving them offense?

The problem remained unsolved all day, and troubled him so much that
at night he found himself attracted to the place by a sort of morbid
fascination. Twice, greatly daring, he walked up and down the strip
of road on which the Manor grounds fronted; and then, turning down an
unfrequented lane, he reached a corner which was the only spot not
actually in the grounds from which the Manor could be seen. He hardly
knew why he had come there, as it was a dark, moonless night, and he
could not expect to see as far as the house. But when he reached the
corner and looked across the fields, the whole building was blazing
with lights, standing out pitilessly against the decorous war-time
gloom. P.C. Jobling heaved a sigh of relief and went home with his
problem solved. He would call on Mr. Wentworth on the morrow and would
point out to him politely, but firmly, that he must not show bright
lights at night. Not even the most murdering of heathens, or the most
heathen of murderers, he felt, could take exception to that.

Next day, however, the prospect looked less bright. He was not quite
so sure that his reception would be peaceable. He pictured himself
penetrating into the fastnesses of the Manor and never again coming
out--never, that is, alive. He decided that he would let his aunt
know where he was going; then he could at least be sure that he would
not die quite unavenged. Then, on second thoughts, he determined to
say nothing about it. If he did, he would be tied down definitely to
a venture of which he disliked the idea more and more. He put on his
helmet and walked majestically through the village, to restore his
self-respect. Unfortunately for his purpose, the first person he met
was Master Bobby Myers, who since his exploit of climbing over the
Manor wall had regarded himself as no small hero.

"Yah!" said Bobby with derision. "'Oo's afraid of niggers?"

Outwardly Jobling did not deign to notice this insult, but it struck
deep all the same. He strode back through the village and burst into
the little post-office.

"Auntie," he said loudly, "I'm goin' up to the Manor to-day to 'ave a
look round."

"An' about time too," replied his aunt in acid tones.

But there were several people present, and it was obvious that P.C.
Jobling's resolution had caused the general opinion to veer round once
again in his favor.

"Good lad," said an aged gentleman. "Find out all you can. Thieves an'
robbers they'll be, I reckon. Tell p'liceman what you 'eard, Mary."

Mary, one of the maids at Dunwater Park, spoke up, pleased at occupying
a position of public importance.

"They're gold hoarders, Mr. Jobling," she said. "The mistress an'
Lootenant Allen was there yesterday an' saw it."

"Ah," put in somebody, "an' where do they get their food from, eh? Not
in the village, nor yet from London. You go an' 'ave a look round,
Artie, an' if you come back all right you'll be made a sergeant."

"Why shouldn't I come back all right?" demanded Artie, with a chill at
his spine. "Miss FitzPeter did."

"She's quality--they wouldn't dare touch _'er_."

P.C. Jobling returned to his cottage in a despondent mood. There was no
going back for him now--he had burnt his boats. All the old ladies of
the village would be on duty behind the curtained windows to see him
start on his quest. Struck with self-compassion he prepared himself
a more than usually lavish meal, just in case it should be his last.
Then he smoked a reflective pipe. The sun was hot, and a comfortable
drowsiness began to steal over him.... His head nodded.... For a
second or two he dozed off.... Then, suddenly wakeful, he put on his
helmet and started out, feeling every inch a hero. The village street
was deserted except for a dog asleep in the very middle of it; but
Jobling knew that he was performing under the eyes of an appraising
and critical public. He walked as jauntily as his official boots would
allow, his head well back and his chest well out.

As soon as he was clear of the village, however, and had reached the
stretch of lonely road leading to the Manor gates, his pace slackened
and his chest deflated suddenly. He began to recall all the wild and
vaguely terrific rumors about the people at Denmore and his heroism
oozed slowly out of his backbone. When he came at last in sight of
the gates themselves, he stopped stock still on the road and wrestled
fiercely with himself.

Supposing he turned tail now, would he ever be able to live it down in
the village? He thought of his aunt's tongue--of Mrs. Green's wicked
old face as she talked to her wicked old crony in the street--of Bobby
Myers' taunt, and he knew that whatever lay before him would be the
lesser of two evils. He reached the gates and paused once more, as
though he could see written above them in letters of fire "All hope
abandon, ye who enter here." Then with shaking knees he passed in and
up the gloomy avenue.

Alf chanced to be looking out of a window overlooking the drive, and
saw him as he turned the corner.

"Lumme!" he called to Bill. "The police!"

"Let 'em," responded Bill lazily. He was lying back on a long chair,
with his beloved flagon beside him; and the indefatigable Lucy, garbed
like Solomon in all his glory, was fanning him with enthusiasm. "Let
'em," he repeated, and closed his eyes happily.

"But look 'ere, what can 'e _want_? An' 'sposin' 'e wants to know 'oo
we are?"

"Tell 'im," said Bill, "Mr. Wentworth an' 'is friend, Mr. Montmorency,
of Denmore Manor."

"But if 'e wants to see our papers?"

Bill sat up with a spasm of energy.

"What's it matter what 'e wants, you chump? You're a blinkin' landowner
now, an' p'licemen don't matter. Be 'aughty with 'im an' kick 'im out."

"_You'd_ better see 'im, Bill."

"Me?" Bill sank back once more on his cushions. "Why should I do yer
dirty work? I'm quite comfortable as I am. See 'im yerself, an' be
'aughty with 'im. Call 'im 'My man'! Probably 'e wants a subscription.
Give 'im 'arf-a-crown. On'y you'd better 'urry down before Mustapha
gets 'old of 'im an' gives 'im a few bags o' gold; that'd put us fair
in the cart. Keep the fan goin', Lucy, my dear."

Alf tore down the stairs and met P.C. Jobling on the steps of the
Manor. Each made great outward show of boldness, but it would be
difficult to say which felt less bold in his heart. There was an
awkward pause.

"W--w--well," said Alf at last, mindful of Bill's advice. "Wh--what can
I do for you--er--my man?"

The words were haughty enough to show the most imposing of policemen
his position in the scheme of things; but the tone in which they were
uttered entirely spoilt their effect. P.C. Jobling took heart of grace
and puffed out his admirably developed chest.

"It is my dooty to inform you, sir, that you 'ave several exceedingly
bright lights showin' from yer 'ouse at nights, contrary to
regulations."

"I'm--I'm sorry," stammered Alf, relieved that the policeman had come
on so trivial an errand, but disturbed at having incurred the notice of
the Law. "If you'll wait 'arf a second I'll 'ave my butler in an' tick
'im orf for it. 'Ere, miss," he said to a dusky but decorously clad
maidservant, "send Mr. Farr. Savvy?"

The maid, catching the name, sped off. P.C. Jobling, feeling now quite
reassured that his life was in no danger, began to sigh (like Alexander
the Great) for fresh worlds to conquer. He knew that if he penetrated
no further than the Manor's outer defenses it would go hard with him
when next he faced his aunt.

He took off his helmet and mopped his moist brow.

"'Ot day, ain't it, sir?" he said.

Alf, whose chief rule in life had been always to keep on the right side
of the law, swallowed the bait whole.

"It is 'ot," he agreed. "'Ow'd a glass o' beer be, eh?"

"You're very kind, sir."

"Not a bit--not a bit, my man." This time the tone was much better.
"Farr," he continued as that functionary appeared. "'Ere's the police
been about the lights. It's quite time as you knew as 'ow we don't 'ave
to show no lights at night. 'Ave 'em covered to-night, or I'll know the
reason why. An' bring this gentleman a pint of beer."

Mustapha bowed gravely and departed. Now was the crafty Jobling's
opportunity.

"Oh, no, sir," he said. "I couldn't let 'im 'ave all that trouble, sir,
I'll go into the kitchen myself, sir."

He was across the hall before Alf recovered his wits. The master of
Denmore was exceedingly proud of his kitchens, but he realized in a
flash that no minion of the law must be allowed to gaze upon them.
The Manor kitchens were of noble proportions--the banqueting hall had
been built to seat 200 people, and the cooking accommodation was on
the same generous scale--but they were none too big for Alf's enormous
retinue. Crowds of dusky workers were ceaselessly engaged on the
preparation of the sumptuous banquets which Messrs. Montmorency and
Wentworth failed dismally to appreciate; and there was an air of bustle
and lavishness and reckless waste about the whole assembly. Butchers
might be seen forever slicing up carcasses of meat; pastry cooks and
confectioners were endlessly intent on the concoction of wonderful
dainties; scullions ceaselessly carried away buckets whose contents
bore witness to an utter disregard of the principles of economy and the
possibility of by-products. Even Alf, who knew that his foodstuffs were
drawn from stocks not under the control of any government official, had
felt a twinge of conscience when he had gazed upon the scene. And now
the round eyes of P.C. Arthur Jobling would be taking in its details;
and if something were not done very quickly, the official notebook of
P.C. Arthur Jobling would be taking those details in to ... and then....

Alf snatched at the Button and rubbed it.

"Eustace," he commanded tersely. "Take that blinkin' policeman out of
the kitchen an' put 'im back where 'e came from."

"Lord, I hear and obey."

Eustace was gone.

"'Ope 'e 'asn't seen too much already," soliloquized Alf. "'Owever,
it's done now, an' I don't suppose 'e'll come back 'ere in a 'urry.
Better be on the safe side, though. Mustapha, tell 'em to be a bit
more careful in the kitchen, will you? If the Food Controller comes
there'll be 'ell on."

Mustapha did not quite get the hang of this remark; but he did gather
that the kitchens under his care were being adversely criticised. He
assumed a tone of deferential remonstrance.

"Lord, thy kitchens are the most lavishly furnished of all the world;
thy larders are stocked from floor to ceiling with all manner of rich
meats, with rare fruits, with spices, with grain of every kind, so that
whoso should see them would say, 'Truly the lord of the Button is a
great Caliph, for what man of lesser rank could make so brave a show.'"

"Well, that's just what I'm grousin' about," said Alf irritably.
"You're just as 'olesale as ole Eustace. Put the stuff away out o'
sight somewhere, or you'll 'ave us all doing time. Step lively now; you
never know 'oo's goin' to pop in on us next."

Mustapha, feeling he was losing his grip of things, went off to execute
this latest strange command of his strange master. Alf went upstairs
again to Bill, feeling rather weak.

As for P.C. Arthur Jobling, in the very act of taking out his official
notebook he found himself sitting once more in the chair in his little
parlor. He rubbed his eyes and blinked around him; then he seized hold
of his own arm and pinched himself--and, leaping to his feet with a
yell, decided he was really awake.

"Gorblimey!" he said to himself. "Must 'ave been a dream! I must 'ave
dropped off arter all. I remember feelin' mazed-like, but I got
up and--no, I can't 'ave, 'cos 'ere I am. Well, well! It was that
life-like I could 'a sworn it 'appened. And 'oardin'! My eye--piles an'
piles o' food there was. P'raps it's a 'int from 'Eaven to tell me what
to look for. Well, if I'm goin' it's high time I started. 'Allo, I must
'ave put me 'elmet on in me sleep!"

He opened the door and stepped into the street. Conscious that he was
performing under critical and appraising eyes, he puffed out his chest
and walked as jauntily as was consistent with dignity--and behind the
curtains there reigned consternation; for while everybody had seen
him start out half-an-hour before, nobody had seen him come back; and
yet here he was, starting out again! When he cleared the village, he
stopped and scratched his head uneasily.

"I'm sure I done all this before," he said uneasily. "That blessed
dream o' mine seems to be with me still."

He turned up the dark avenue, and the eerie feeling deepened. His knees
shook, and he had much ado to prevent his teeth from chattering, but he
went doggedly on, and once more turned the corner.

"By Gum," said Alf blankly, "'ere's that blinkin' copper again. I can't
face 'im again, Bill. You'll 'ave to go."

Bill, who had reached a stage where even his appetite for beer had been
temporarily sated, got up.

"Righto," he said, "anything to oblige. 'E won't find no food _this_
time, any'ow."

He lurched downstairs and met the policeman in the drive. Jobling drew
a breath of relief at finding that he was received by a stranger.

"That settles it," he said to himself. "_'Twas_ on'y a dream. That
black butler ain't to be seen, neither. It is my dooty to inform you,
sir," he went on aloud in measured official tones, "that you 'ave
several exceedingly bright lights showin' from yer 'ouse at nights,
contrary to regulations."

"'Ave I really, ole son?" said Bill breezily. "My mistake! Come right
in, won't you, an' 'ave a drink while I see about it."

Alf, watching at the upper window, watched them disappear, with a
puzzled expression.

"Now, why the 'ell," he asked himself, "does 'e bother to tell the tale
about them lights over again? That's on'y cammyflage, 'cause it _must_
be the food 'e's come about this time. 'E must think we're mugs if 'e
tries to do us with the same yarn twice.... Wonder what's 'appening?"

He gazed moodily out of the window in a state of great suspense. But he
had not long to wait. There came a sound of some one running swiftly in
heavy boots; and P.C. Jobling appeared, with eyes staring in terror,
fleeing down the drive as though pursued by the Furies. Alf watched him
out of sight, and turned in amazement as Bill staggered into the room
and collapsed on his divan, weak with laughter.

"What's 'appened, Bill? What you done?"

"Me? Nothin'. I took 'im an' showed 'im the kitchens, all as bare as a
board--an' just as we turns to come out we meets Mr. Farr comin' in.
The minute the copper sees Farr 'e gives a yell an' about-turns an'
legs it so you couldn't see 'is coat-tails for 'eel-plates! Laugh? I
laughed meself dry. Get me another, Lucy!"

But Alf looked grave.

"I don't like it," he said in a troubled voice. "I do 'ate monkeyin'
about with the p'lice. This ain't goin' to do us no good, you mark my
words!"



CHAPTER XIV

MR. FARR'S MISGUIDED ZEAL


After breakfast on the following Friday Allen approached Isobel
solemnly.

"May I speak to you for one moment, please, Commandant?" he asked, in
portentously official tones.

"Certainly, Mr. Allen," she replied in the same manner. "Come into the
office."

She led the way into the not very tidy sanctum from which she conducted
the voluminous correspondence with various military bodies which formed
a large share in her work in the Dunwater Park Auxiliary Hospital for
Officers. She sat down at her desk and stirred some papers with an air
of importance.

"You find me very busy," she intimated austerely. "But I can give you a
moment. What can I do for you?"

Allen, as befitted one in the presence of authority, came to attention.

"Please," said he humbly, "I want leave to go up to town by the noon
train."

"But Sister's the person who runs the leave department."

"Yes, but she's gone up herself by the early train."

"So she has. Well, what's your reason for this dreadful request?"

"I want," said Allen, his eyes twinkling, "to buy myself an engagement
ring."

Isobel managed to preserve her severity with an effort.

"Really," she replied; "I don't think that is at all a good reason. The
War Office discourages...."

"Very well; then I'll buy you one in the village. I saw a sweet thing
in diamonds and sapphires yesterday--only one-and-six."

"Don't forget that it's to-day that Mr. Wentworth's coming to tea. Are
you going to desert him?"

"I am. I can't behave in his presence."

"Here's your half-fare voucher, then."

"Thank you, darling."

"Hush! Stop it! Go away--some one might come in. Patients mustn't kiss
commandants. It isn't discipline."

"It would be, with some commandants. Well, good luck to the tea-party.
And if Wentworth offers any more thousand-pound notes, just remember
you've me to support now, and accept."

"I do hope he won't do anything awful," said Isobel anxiously. "I asked
him for to-day because I thought there'd be nobody here that mattered,
and of _course_ Lady Anderson _would_ take the opportunity to come and
look round on that exact day."

"Who's she?"

Isobel sighed.

"She is my Hated Rival," she explained. "That is, I'm hers. She also
runs an officers' hospital, and she's coming over to see how I run
mine. She disapproves of me altogether--always has--and now she's
furiously jealous about the hospital, so we _are_ in for a nice time.
She's father's pet aversion, too."

"Thank God I've picked to-day to go to town!" said Allen piously. "I
wish you joy of your day."

She smiled mournfully.

"Get back early and comfort me."

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Alf was not looking forward with pleasure to his afternoon, either. All
the morning a sense of the importance of the impending function weighed
upon his mind; and as the day wore on the more particular problem of
what clothes to wear refused to be either settled or banished.

Immediately after lunch he went to his bedroom and, spreading out his
entire wardrobe before him, spent an hour in an agony of indecision.
Finally he went to Bill and implored his help.

Bill was heavily occupied with his flagon and his handmaid and at first
refused to apply his intellect to the matter at all; but the mere idea
of having to solve the insistent sartorial problem unaided drove Alf
into desperation. He pleaded and threatened until Bill rose in disgust
from his divan and, with Lucy following, went into Alf's room.

"A nursemaid is what you wants, Alf," he said bitterly. "I never see
such a blinkin' kid as you in my life. I should have thought you'd have
known what's what at your age better'n to 'ave to come runnin' to me
about it. 'Owever...."

He sat down on the bed and regarded the wild confusion of clothes with
lofty scorn.

"Well," said Alf--his agitation lending a touch of asperity to his
tone--"instead of talkin' like that, s'spose you get on with it. What
ought I to wear?"

Bill sniffed scornfully.

"Why," he said breezily, "a pot 'at, o' course, and them black things
o' yours. You can't go wrong that way."

"I thought you'd say that," answered Alf dejectedly. "I was 'opin' as
'ow a straw 'at might--them black things is that 'ot I can't 'ardly
breathe. 'Owever, I s'pose yer right."

He began to sort out his garments of ceremony from the pile before him.

"Don't forget your spats," said Bill. He settled himself more
comfortably on the bed. "'Ere, Lucy, my dear, come over 'ere beside me."

"Oh, indeed," said Alf, realizing her presence for the first time. "No,
you don't. I don't 'ave no females in my room while I'm dressing."

"Don't trouble yerself about that," replied Bill airily. "Carry on.
Lucy won't mind."

Alf stared with strong disapprobation at Lucy, who smiled coyly at him
and displayed a large expanse of bare leg.

"No," he agreed in a meaning tone. "Lucy wouldn't mind. I ain't
bothering about Lucy, though. It's me as minds. Tell 'er to 'op it at
once, Bill Grant, an' think shame of yerself. I dunno what the 'ell's
come to yer."

Bill, however unwillingly, was constrained to bow before Alf's outraged
modesty, and Lucy accordingly withdrew. Then Alf proceeded to dress
himself. A struggle with a stiff and terribly high collar made both Alf
himself and his temper exceedingly hot; but at last the operation was
over. He placed his glossy topper on his head and displayed himself for
his friend's inspection.

Bill looked him over minutely and critically.

"Yes," he said at length. "Yes, you looks all right. Seems to me you
wants brightening up some'ow. I know! 'Old on 'arf a mo."

He went out of the room and returned a moment later with something
rolled up in his hand.

"This is what you want to brighten yer up," he said confidently.
"This'll fair knock 'em."

He unrolled the object in his hand. It was his pictorial waistcoat.

Alf looked askance at it.

"I dunno...." he began feebly.

"Put it on, you blinkin' idjit," said the waistcoat's owner with sudden
heat. "Why, it'll make all the difference. Just what you want."

"But perhaps _she_ won't like it," objected the love-sick swain.

"More fool she, if she don't. But she will. I knows what the nobs
likes. You trust me."

Alf, reassured and over-persuaded by Bill's tone of easy confidence,
put on the gorgeous garment, and then, ready at last, he went
downstairs prepared for a very hot and uncomfortable walk to Dunwater.
Bill followed; but finding Lucy waiting for her master outside Alf's
bedroom door with a full flagon in her hand, he with the faithful
damsel disappeared forthwith in the direction of his divan, and was no
more seen.

As Alf opened the front door he started back in surprise and swore
deeply and inexcusably. The drive was full of brightly colored figures.
All his immense retinue seemed to be gathered together waiting for him,
their sober garments laid aside and their richest robes put on. Six
motionless figures mounted on magnificent and gayly caparisoned black
horses formed the center of the group; and a seventh horse, even more
gorgeously bedight, was being led up and down by a coal-black groom.
Alf's heart sank. Somebody had apparently been wholesale once more.

"Farr!" called Alf sharply.

Mustapha came forward. He was clad in garments so encrusted with gems
that they crackled together as he walked. He wore the air of the good
and faithful servant about to receive the praise he knows to be well
merited.

"What the 'ell's all this about?" demanded his master.

"Lord," replied Mustapha, his face radiating a quiet joy, "I have
made all ready. For so great a day it is meet that thou should'st be
surrounded with all magnificence, that the father of the maiden may
know how great is thy wealth and power. Therefore have I caused to be
prepared a concourse of splendor outdoing even that of the great Prince
Aladdin at the time of his betrothal to the Princess Badralbudour--upon
them be peace. Thus shalt thou shine in beauty as the full moon upon
the night of its completion, for verily the like of this gathering hath
not been seen upon earth."

"Umph!" said Alf. He reflected that Mustapha seemed very fond of giving
himself a great deal of trouble for nothing.

"Furthermore," continued Mustapha serenely, "thy steed awaits thee.
For speed and grace he hath not his equal upon earth; black is he as a
raven's wing, and of a mettlesome spirit withal."

Alf glanced at the prancing steed. He had only once in his life been on
horseback. That had been when he had fallen lame on a route march and
had been mounted on Captain Richards' patient and war-weary charger.
This horse, however, seemed different. There was more life about it,
somehow.

He turned to Mustapha.

"Farr," he said, "you may mean well, but there's times when I thinks
you tries to be aggravating. For being a blinkin' fool you 'ave not yer
equal on earth. Now you can just wash the 'ole thing out again--see? I
don't want no circus processions round me. What d'yer take me for?"

Mustapha bowed low and then, as patiently as though he were explaining
to a child, he spoke.

"But, lord, it is thy bodyguard," he remonstrated. "And indeed already
have I dispatched before thee a concourse of incredible richness."

"_What?_" Alf clutched his hat in horror.

"There have gone to the palace of the maiden's father other forty
of thy slaves, twenty white and twenty black. Upon his head each
black slave beareth a bowl of jewels of surpassing worth, while each
white slave as he goes will scatter money amongst the people, that
thy popularity may be great in the land. With them are musicians to
discourse sweet sounds. Even now they pass the outer gate."

At that moment there came, borne faintly down the breeze, the
discordant clash of distant but barbaric music.

"Lumme!" said Alf. He felt wildly for his Button, and, as the whole
concourse fell prostrate on its face at sight of the talisman, he
called up Eustace and gave him excited but definite orders. The music
in the distance stopped suddenly, and at the same time the crowd in the
drive (with the exception of the chastened Mustapha) disappeared into
thin air. Alf, desperately anxious to get away from the house before
any further horrible thing happened, stood not upon the order of his
going, but went at once up the drive full of anxiety lest anybody from
the village had chanced to be passing the gates at the moment when the
band had been so ruthlessly suppressed.

As he turned into the road he saw the massive blue form of P.C. Arthur
Jobling, and his heart missed a beat. But the policeman was a pitiable
sight. His helmet had fallen off and lay in the road beside his
official notebook, and he was gazing from side to side in a horrified
and vacant manner, as though he were searching for something and were
terrified lest he should find it. Alf was reassured.

"Good afternoon--my man," he said jauntily.

Jobling stared at him.

"G--good afternoon, sir," he gulped. "Beggin' yer pardon, sir, but do
you 'appen to 'ave sent a--a sort o' procession like, with a band, out
of 'ere?"

Alf controlled his voice with difficulty, but managed to keep his
jaunty tone.

"Do I look like it?" he said.

Jobling groaned.

"I'm goin' barmy!" he muttered. "Look 'ere, sir, as a great favor,
like, might I ask yer not to tell 'em in the village what I asked yer?"

"Betcher life!" answered Alf cheerily, much relieved at this unexpected
stroke of good fortune. Then, leaving the unfortunate constable to
collect his property and what remained to him of his wits, Alf set
out for Dunwater, growing at every step more convinced that, whatever
clothes might be correct for an afternoon call on a hot day, his
present get-up was hopelessly wrong.

As he passed through the village he found himself the object of much
interest--of an unmistakably hostile kind. On every side unfriendly
faces scowled at him. Knots of people were standing in the street, and
as he passed them he heard a confused medley of remarks not openly
intended for his ear, but evidently to his address.

"Spy!" said somebody.

"German!" supplemented several others.

"Food 'oarder!"

Finally as he passed the post-office Mrs. Rudd's voice might have been
heard through the open door upraised in some denunciation of which
Higgins caught only two words:

" ... Scotland Yard...."

Alf was devoutly thankful when at last the village was passed and the
road to Dunwater lay before him. As he plodded along the hot road he
pondered dully what sinister events those two words "Scotland Yard"
might portend. He was worried for a moment; but then his arrival in
sight of the Dunwater Park gates drove all worries other than those
of etiquette from his mind. What ought he to do when he arrived? What
ought he to say? How did one address baronets? He wanted to make a
really memorable first impression on Isobel's father--but how? Of
course, if he had left himself to be guided by Mustapha's ideas, his
first impression would have been only too memorable.

"Pity ole Farr's so bloomin' 'olesale," mused Alf, "because it wasn't
'arf a bad notion me bringing ole FitzPeter a bit of a present, but
Farr always plasters it on so bloomin' thick.... But lumme, what's to
prevent _me_?... That's a bit of an idea--never thought o' that. I'll
do it."

He glanced cautiously up and down the road. Nobody was in sight. He
climbed through the hedge at the roadside and found himself in a
little, dark wood.

"Just the place," he said to himself. "Now for Eustace."

Unbuttoning his tightly fitting garments, he fished out the Button and
rubbed it....

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Meanwhile, on the lawn at Dunwater Park, strange events had been taking
place. A large party was gathered together, but instead of the merry
gabble of voices and laughter which characterized the tea-hour as a
rule, a solemn silence brooded over the scene. A blight had fallen over
the entire gathering. Light-hearted and empty-headed subalterns, whose
whole duty in the scheme of things had till now been the outpouring of
frothy nonsense, sat mum and miserable. Tea had not yet appeared.

Dominating the scene and acting as a sort of High Priestess of Blight,
was a small, gray-haired woman, sitting bolt upright in a basket-chair,
and gazing about in an acidulated manner. This was Lady Anderson. She
had come over--as Isobel had foreseen--manifestly with the intention
of drawing odious comparisons between her own hospital and Isobel's.
She had brought with her two dispirited patients--a sapper major and
an infantry captain--who were both sitting well on the outskirts of
the group. Sir Edward FitzPeter, upon whom Lady Anderson always had an
infuriating effect, had joined these two, in order, like them, to be as
far away from her ladyship as possible.

A terrible silence fell, which was broken only by a whispered remark
from one of the more irrepressible spirits that he was suffering from
"septic melancholia."

It hardly seemed humanly possible that one person could, unaided, have
reduced this usually lighthearted--not to say boisterous--gathering to
such a pitch of gloom. Sister looked as if she might at any moment give
up the unequal contest and burst into tears.

Isobel looked round her miserable party and sighed. She had spent
a strenuous afternoon with the Wet Blanket, and was weary in body
and mind. Lady Anderson had started by inspecting the ground floor
arrangements of the Hospital, and had with diabolical ingenuity
succeeded in finding or inventing some damning flaw in each;
afterwards, it had been the pleasant duty of Isobel and Sister to
exhibit the more intimate and important domestic machinery, and give
their visitor an opportunity of expressing (under a very thin veil of
acid politeness) her disapprobation of their methods here also.

It was a dreary outlook. The only ray of hope that Isobel could see
was in the knowledge that the infliction could not last much longer.
On her arrival the Wet Blanket had announced that she must leave
early, as it appeared she had promised to go and blight somebody else
that afternoon. But tea had not yet come; and Isobel began to fear
that, if the atmosphere progressed in gloom at its present rate, some
of her more nervous patients would be driven to commit suicide in the
ornamental pond.

At last, when nobody but Isobel herself had made the slightest attempt
to speak for nearly five minutes, Barnby, the butler, appeared with
tea, followed by two maids with trays and cake-stands. He was just
in time to save his mistress from committing the social solecism of
uttering a loud scream. He also furnished Lady Anderson with further
material for acid comment.

Fixing her lorgnette (an instrument of torture with which she did dire
execution) on her nose, she eyed the approaching procession with pained
surprise. Then, turning to Isobel, she informed her:

(1) That in her opinion it was a fundamental error to have tea out of
doors. Men did not like it. At _her_ hospital tea invariably took place
indoors, whatever the weather.

(The two dispirited officers she had brought with her caught one
another's eye at this point and exchanged a wan smile.)

(2) That in her opinion it was a fundamental error to run a hospital
with servants. Men did not like it. At _her_ hospital all the work was
done by V.A.D.'S--so much pleasanter.

(Another wan smile, hardly complimentary to the V.A.D.'s,--was
exchanged.)

"But, of course, dear Miss FitzPeter," concluded the lady; "here they
have you. How could they ask more than _that_?"

She left no room for doubt in the minds of her audience that in her
private opinion one could ask a great deal more than that. At that
moment, any one of the thirty or so people present would cheerfully
have drowned or strangled the speaker, but nobody was bold or rash
enough to engage her in wordy warfare. Isobel, heroically preserving a
dogged society smile, was devoutly thankful that Denis was not there to
do battle for her. He would only have made matters infinitely worse.
As it was she was anxious about Sir Edward, who was fidgeting on his
chair, obviously only prevented from an explosion by his sense of duty
as host.

Fortunately a diversion occurred in the shape of the vicar and his
wife, and Isobel breathed an audible sigh of relief. She had little
love for Mrs. Davies, but on this occasion there was nobody whom she
would more gladly have seen, for she knew that the task of entertaining
Lady Anderson would now be transferred to other and enthusiastic hands.
Mrs. Davies had for Lady Anderson a passionate regard almost amounting
to adulation--a regard which the cantankerous old dame made no attempt
to reciprocate. This fact failed utterly to dash Mrs. Davies; snubs
and slights slid off her back like butter from a hot stove, and she
continued on every possible occasion to absorb large quantities of
blacking from Lady Anderson's shoes with every appearance of delight.

On seeing the little, black-clad figure now she rushed forward, hardly
noticing Isobel at all in her eagerness.

"_Dear_ Lady Anderson," she cooed. "How perfectly _delightful_ to see
you and how _sweet_ you look."

Here one of the patients, a callow second-lieutenant with an imperfect
command of feature, guffawed, and had hastily to simulate a painful
cough. Mrs. Davies' choice of epithet was certainly unfortunate, and
Lady Anderson herself appeared to feel this, for she was more than
ordinarily brusque in her manner.

"Umph!" she said. "Sit down, do."

Mrs. Davies obeyed with alacrity and proceeded to take entire
possession of her idol, sitting very far forward on her chair, bending
her body to a servile curve and prefacing every remark with "Dear
Lady Anderson." This treatment appeared to agree with the lady, for
she ceased for the time being to terrorize the assembled company and
allowed herself to be drawn into a conversation in which, while not
going to the length of being amiable, she did at least refrain from
being actively objectionable. Gradually the gloom cleared, until
something like the usual cheery babble was to be heard.

Over her cup of tea Lady Anderson thawed yet more. A sour smile
appeared on her face.

"Well," she said to the vicar's wife, "and what's the latest bit of
gossip in Denmore?"

Mrs. Davies looked pained.

"_Dear_ Lady Anderson," she gushed reproachfully, "you will have your
little joke! You know how I hate gossip of all kinds."

"Yes," said the old lady dryly, "I know."

"But there is one thing about which I think everybody ought to be told.
The Vicar and I have kept silence until now, because--er--because the
time was not ripe."

Isobel leant forward with interest. At last the meaning of the parson's
mysterious visit of the other day was to be cleared up.

"I refer," continued Mrs. Davies firmly, "to...."

Exactly as she had done on the previous occasion, the speaker stopped
suddenly in the middle of her sentence as though an invisible hand had
been clapped over her mouth.

They waited for a space in suspense.

"Well?" said Lady Anderson at last.

"I refer," began Mrs. Davies once more, uneasily, "to...."

Dead silence again. Lady Anderson showed signs of losing her temper,
never her securest possession at the best of times. The prospect of
incurring the great lady's wrath impelled Mrs. Davies to struggle
with the mysterious ban that seemed to be laid upon her speech. Three
more attempts to explain herself did she make; and when the last of
these had failed a kind of hysteria seemed to seize Mrs. Davies. She
mouthed impotently, gasping like a fish, but no sound came forth. Lady
Anderson stared at her in malevolent amazement, while a monstrous
suspicion grew in her mind.

"Are you ill?" she said sharply. It is hard to explain exactly how
she succeeded in making these words, in themselves innocuous, convey
an insinuation of insobriety; but the fact remains that it was clear
to Isobel and Sister (who fortunately were the only spectators of
the scene, the rest having all unostentatiously edged away from Lady
Anderson's sphere of influence) that no other meaning could have been
intended. Indeed, it penetrated even the bemused brain of Mrs. Davies
herself, and completed her demoralization.

She stretched out a shaking hand.

"_Dear_ Lady Anderson," she began.

"Don't touch me," snapped that lady, at last losing all control of her
rising temper. "I will be charitable, Mrs. Davies, and suppose that you
have got a touch of sunstroke; but in any case I will not remain here
to be made a fool of. Good afternoon, Miss FitzPeter."

"Oh, must you really go?" murmured Isobel, with a feeling that it was
too good to be true, and taking care not to allow enough warmth to
creep into her voice to give Lady Anderson any excuse for changing
her mind. Sir Edward bustled forward to perform the highly congenial
duty of seeing the Wet Blanket off the premises; but she declined his
aid and went off in a raging passion, her two cowed and apprehensive
patients following at her heels.

Meanwhile the Vicar, who had mixed with the crowd and had been happily
engaged in discussing cricket with four or five other enthusiasts,
became aware of his wife's voice calling hysterically for him.

"Julian! Julian! Take me home. Where's my husband?"

"Here, my dear," he said, blundering across chairs and tripping over
feet in his haste. "What is it?"

"Take me home!"

"But...."

"It's all right, Mr. Davies," said the quiet voice of Sister in his
ear. "Your wife has been a little upset by Lady Anderson, and I think
she'll feel better at home."

"Dear, dear!" the Vicar muttered in distress. "How unfortunate!"

He knew that life would be difficult for him if Lady Anderson had
really removed the light of her countenance from his wife, and he
sighed as he took her arm and helped her away. She was trembling
violently and her nerves seemed to have failed her altogether for the
time being.

"Oh dear!" said Isobel, sinking back into her chair and watching the
two receding figures. "What a day! Poor Mrs. Davies will never live
this down, I'm afraid! What's going to happen next, I wonder."

She was not allowed to wonder long. As the Davies family reached the
angle of the house, Barnby appeared; behind him came Alf, perspiring
freely with sheer fright; and behind him again came two enormous and
imperturbable negroes, dressed in robes of shimmering cloth of silver,
and bearing each on his head an enormous chased bowl of gold.

The effect of the little cortège on Mrs. Davies was remarkable. She
uttered a loud scream, tore herself free from her husband and shot
round the corner at a run. The Vicar, who had lost his glasses owing to
the violence of his wife's departure, groped wildly for them and then
disappeared in pursuit.

"I believe they really _are_ mad," said Isobel in an undertone to
Sister. Then she came forward once more to greet her new visitor. But
Sir Edward was before her.

"How do you do!" he said heartily. "I needn't ask if you are Mr.
Wentworth--your escort gives you away! I suppose my daughter told you I
was interested in things oriental. How good of you to think of bringing
these fellows for me to see!"

He trotted up to the negroes, who executed a wonderful simultaneous
salaam, after which, rising on to one knee, they held out their bowls
towards him. It was beautifully done; the tea-party, who had quite
forgotten the gloom of the earlier proceedings, and were watching
with all their eyes, felt that they ought to applaud. Sir Edward was
delighted.

"Magnificent!" he said. "And what wonderful bowls! I'd no idea anything
so fine survived."

He lifted one bowl with an effort and examined the chasing.

"Marvelous!" he whispered.

Alf, whose former shyness and apprehension had been dispelled like a
cloud of smoke in a strong wind by his kindly reception, made his first
remark.

"They're for you, sir," he said. "A present."

"Nonsense, my dear fellow, I couldn't possibly...."

But Alf was dismissing his two servitors. They understood his gestures,
and went. Sir Edward determined to leave the question of the bowls
until later. The collector's greed was in his heart, and perhaps if the
fellow was as rich as he seemed he'd never miss them.... Ruminating, he
followed Alf to the tea-table, where Isobel was already filling a cup.

Mr. Wentworth, now quite at his ease, showed a strong desire to sit
by his hostess; but she was still too worn out in mind to cope with
another visitor. She introduced him, therefore, to one or two of the
officers about her and delivered him over to them.

Alf was already--owing to the mystery which enveloped him--a local
celebrity; and now he found himself a popular hero. He was borne off
round the grounds by a small crowd of half-admiring, half-amused young
officers, who extracted a great deal of enjoyment from him while
contriving not to hurt his feelings. He found himself on terms with
them such as he could never have dreamed possible in the days when
he had been a mere private with a conviction that the less he had
to do with the commissioned ranks the better for all classes. He was
encouraged to call captains by their simple surnames and to venture on
familiarities with subalterns; and he played a game of extraordinarily
bad billiards which (more to his own astonishment than his opponents')
he won.

When at last he returned to retrieve his top-hat and to take his leave,
he was jubilant. In the past he had been diffident; but gradually his
confidence in himself and his new powers had grown, until now he was
triumphantly sure of himself. Nothing, he felt, could stand in the
way of such a man as he had shown himself to be. Immense riches, in
themselves, need lead a man nowhere; but immense riches combined with
social success--who could resist them? He had been accepted by these
people as an equal and a friend; from that to being accepted by Isobel
as a lover seemed to his excited brain only a step.

In the veranda stood Isobel herself, talking to her father and another
man. With a slight throb of misgiving Alf recognized Lieutenant
Allen. In his usual diffident frame of mind, he would have avoided
an unnecessary meeting with his old platoon-commander; but now,
intoxicated as he was by success, he greeted a spice of risk. He
approached the group. Both Isobel and Allen looked excited--Alf had
never seen his lady look so desirable, or felt her so approachable.

"'Ow do, Allen?" he said with such an air of jaunty familiarity that
the others stared at him in sheer surprise. "Pleased to see you again,
I'm sure. Well, I ought to be toddlin' off. Never 'ad such a time since
I don't know when. But you'll be sure an' bring Miss Is--Miss FitzPeter
round an' 'ave a bit o' something to eat an' a look round the 'ouse,
won't you, sir? 'Ow about to-morrow?"

Sir Edward, still overflowing with loving kindness towards his
neighbor, and having decided that, come what might, he must keep the
bowls, beamed on him.

"Don't go, Mr. Wentworth," he said.

His daughter looked up sharply and shook her head; Mr. Wentworth was
all very well in his way, but she wanted him on her hands no longer,
now that Denis had returned. But her father did not notice her little
pantomime and blundered genially on.

"Those boys have monopolized you so that I've seen nothing of you. Stay
to dinner, won't you, and afterward--if you'd be so kind--I'll get your
expert opinion on a small article I'm writing on Eastern dress and
architecture."

In his joy at the first part of this invitation, Alf hardly listened to
the second; but his sense of propriety intervened for a moment.

"But I didn't ought ... these clothes...." he began.

"Oh, never mind. You'll do splendidly as you are, eh, Iso?"

Thus appealed to, Isobel had only one course open to her.

"Do stay, Mr. Wentworth," she said perfunctorily.

"Delighted, I'm sure," said Alf gallantly. His heart glowed. Here was a
wonderful opportunity. If only he could get rid of Allen, and make some
real impression on Isobel ... how could he get rid of Allen ...?

This question occupied him as he went with them to explore a tangled
wilderness in a part of the garden he had not yet seen. If only he
could tip the wink to Isobel, it ought to be easy for them to slip away
from the intrusive Allen ... could he?

He suddenly found, with some perturbation, that he was alone. He had
been busy with his thoughts and had not noticed which way the others
had gone. He hunted for a time--and fell into the arms of a group of
exuberant youths who insisted on bearing him off to learn clock-golf.

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Meanwhile, Denis and Isobel, panting from their sudden and inexcusable
dash through the tangled undergrowth, had reached a sequestered retreat
known as the Dutch garden. Allen drew from his pocket a small parcel.

"I thought we'd never get rid of the fellow," he said. "I've got it,
darling--a little beauty. Let's see if it fits."



CHAPTER XV

THE CAPTURE OF MASTER BOBBY


As dinner-time approached, Alf found himself left alone while his
companions slipped upstairs to change their flannels for uniform. He
felt rather lonely and out of place. He wandered into the great hall
and sat down in a large leather-covered armchair. But Barnby the butler
was fussing about here, and his disapproving and contemptuous eye fixed
on Alf's clothes was more than the sensitive Mr. Wentworth could bear.
He therefore looked about for a more secluded spot, which he found in a
little alcove behind some palms. Here he could see without being seen,
so that he could give himself up undisturbed to his reflections. He
hoped that Isobel would be the first to appear--then he could seize the
opportunity and see her, for the first time, alone.

But the first person to appear was Denis Allen. He came downstairs
quickly and looked about with an eager air. His face clouded with
disappointment, and he picked up an evening paper and sat down in an
armchair. He had hardly settled, however, when a Vision appeared at the
top of the stair. He threw down his paper and sprang up.

Alf, in his alcove, stared with all his eyes. He had never seen Isobel
in evening dress before, and she quite literally took his breath away.
She had put on her favorite frock for Denis' benefit, and was looking
radiant.

"Lumme!" said Alf softly to himself.

A new feeling began to stir inside him. Up till now he had accepted
his quest of Isobel as one of the strange things which his mad,
uncomfortable new life had brought to him. He had wanted her because
both Bill and Eustace had made him feel that his duty to his new
position demanded it. Now, to his own surprise, he found himself
wanting her for himself. Social differences had suddenly ceased to
count. The triumphant self-confidence of the afternoon was still with
him. He was, for the time, drunk with the heady wine of success, and
all things seemed possible to him.

She paused only for an instant at the stairhead, then she came down
into the hall. Alf gazed and gazed, drinking in the grace of her
movements with eyes that seemed only now for the first time to have
learnt to see.

Alf stood up, trembling, and was on the point of leaving his retreat;
but as Isobel reached the hall Allen took a couple of steps forward and
after a quick glance round to make sure that they were unobserved, he
caught Isobel in his arms and began to kiss her passionately. Alf had
some hazy idea of rescuing beauty in distress; but he caught sight of
Isobel's transfigured face and hastily fell back again into his alcove.
Beauty had no desire to be rescued. Alf, with his house of cards in
fragments about him, saw Isobel slip free of Allen's enthusiastic
embrace.

"You mustn't, darling," she said softly--yet not so softly that Alf
could not hear. "Somebody will be coming. Let's go into the garden."

She picked up a wrap from a chair and led the way out. They passed
within a yard or two of Alf's hiding-place, and he noticed the gleam of
the engagement ring on her finger. What a fool he had been!

If the blow had fallen on the previous day, Alf would have borne it
with stoicism, perhaps with a certain relief. He would have debited the
Button with one more dismal if not unexpected failure, and there the
matter would have ended. But that he should have his hopes dashed to
the ground to-night, just when the prize seemed most worth winning and
almost in his grasp, was a cruel blow.

He sat for some minutes completely dazed and helpless, but at last he
was recalled to earth by the sound of his own name. Two of his new
friends of the afternoon had met in the hall.

"Where's Wentworth?" asked the first. "He isn't anywhere about, is he?
I say, have you seen Philips? He was in the village this afternoon and
he says that some sportsman or other has got the wind up and reported
that Wentworth & Co. are German spies. Scotland Yard is sending some
men down. Isn't it priceless?"

The other man laughed.

"Good Lord! Wentworth, of all people! I say, hadn't we better find the
little man and tell him? He's somewhere about, I expect. Let's try the
smoking-room."

They went off.

Alf sat petrified with horror. Scotland Yard! The very name sent cold
shivers up and down his innocent spine. He must get away quickly
and tell Bill. But what excuse could he give for his unceremonious
departure?

But now Fate, having dealt poor Alf two stunning blows, relented and
gave him the excuse he needed. Sir Edward and Barnby came into the
hall, both looking very agitated.

"Mr. Wentworth was 'ere not long since, sir," said the butler. "I'll go
and...."

"'Ere I am, Sir Edward," said Alf, coming out of his retirement. "Did
you want me?"

"Mr. Wentworth," said Sir Edward gravely; "I am sorry to say that your
presence is urgently needed at the Manor. The village policeman has
called to report that there has been trouble between your men and the
villagers. Perhaps you know that your establishment is for some reason
regarded with deep suspicion in the village? Anyhow, it comes to this:
that the two men who came here with you have disappeared into the Manor
taking with them a youth called Myers as a kind of hostage. He was
throwing stones and I have no doubt he deserved all he got. But the
excitement in the village is intense, because your men--doubtless in
self-defense--drew their scimitars and marched Master Bobby off under
an armed guard. The village is convinced that he's cooked and eaten by
now."

Alf got up; he was deeply grateful to Bobby Myers for giving him this
chance of getting away.

"I'll go now," he said.

"I'm _so_ sorry!"

"Don't mention it."

Alf found his topper and joined P.C. Jobling outside. The two men set
off through the darkness in silence--Alf because he was plunged in
black gloom. Jobling because he was too terrified to speak.

They reached the Manor gates at last and the entire population of the
village seemed to be gathered at the spot in a state of mind bordering
on frenzy.

A raw-boned female fury, brandishing a meat-chopper, recognizable as
Mrs. Myers, mother of the languishing captive, caught sight of Alf
first.

"'Ere 'e is!" she shrieked. "'Ere's the villain as 'as murdered my
Bobby."

"G-arh!" snarled the crowd.

"Spy!" said somebody.

"Kidnaper!" growled somebody else.

"'Ound!" quavered a trembling old voice belonging to a rheumatic and
usually bedridden octogenarian on the outskirts of the crowd.

Alf paused irresolutely. He did not need to be told that he was in
quite an ugly corner. Mrs. Myers came forward, brandishing the meat-ax.
Alf gave back in alarm.

"Where's my Bobby?" she demanded.

"I dunno, mum," said Alf ingratiatingly. "But if you'll just let me
pass I'll go an' get 'im for you."

"Ho, yes! A nice game! No, my man, you'll stay 'ere till I get my Bobby
back, or I'll know the reason why."

P.C. Arthur Jobling came forward in his most official manner.

"Move along there, please," he said. "Make way there; let the gentleman
pass."

There was a scornful laugh.

"You just get out o' the light, Artie Jobling," said the voice of Mrs.
Rudd. "We don't want to 'urt _you_, on'y this murderin' villain 'ere."

Alf felt a crawling sensation in his spine. He was far more frightened
than he had ever been in the trenches. His knees shook and his teeth
showed signs of chattering. On every side of him were menacing eyes and
the crowd seemed to be all round him. Suddenly the whole group, as if
impelled by a common will, took one step towards him. Alf lost the last
small remnants of his nerve. He put down his head; selecting a part of
the crowd as remote as possible from Mrs. Myers and the meat-ax, he
charged blindly with whirling fists. There was a frantic moment's mêlée
while the crowd, taken by surprise, rallied round the affected sector.
But they were too late. Alf had burst through them and was fleeing up
the drive. His cheek was bleeding from a scratch, his knuckles were
torn by rude impact with somebody's teeth and his topper had finally
and irrevocably disappeared. With shrieks of rage the crowd turned and
pursued him, led by Mrs. Myers. Only the octogenarian remained. He
found an outlet for his indignation by reducing Alf's hat to tattered
fragments with his stick. P.C. Jobling, having decided that this was a
matter altogether beyond his power, was pacing majestically towards the
village.

At the corner of the drive the pursuers stopped, daunted. Alf rushed on
with labored breath and heaving chest to the shelter of the house. A
few stones rattled on the drive far short of him--he was thankful that
the assembly consisted mainly of women.

He dashed into the hall. The first thing that met his eye was that bone
of contention, Master Bobby Myers, under the guard of six enormous
negroes with drawn scimitars. Bobby was quite undisturbed. His chief
emotions seemed to be pride at the amount of attention he was receiving
and the wonderful adventure he was living through, and a complacent
anticipation of the important position he would hold as soon as he
escaped from his present predicament and returned to the village.

Alf flung himself on to a cushioned divan to get back his breath. He
was conscious of the presence of Mustapha, who bowed low and appeared
to wish to speak. But Alf also wished to speak.

"'Ere, Farr," he said sharply, "what the 'ell 'ave you been up to this
time, eh? Nice sort o' fool you make of yerself as soon as I turn me
back."

"Lord," returned Mustapha, "verily the people of the land did
attack thy servants as they were returning in peace from the palace
of the father of thy maiden, setting upon them with missiles and
imprecations. Then did thy servants seize upon this boy, for he was
foremost in the throwing of the missiles. If it be thy will, command
thy servants that he be forthwith slain."

"Slain? D'you mean _kill_ 'im? Lumme! No wonder the old lady was a bit
upset. That's what you done for me, Farr--get me chased with a chopper.
Let the boy go at once."

"But, Lord...."

"Let 'im go at once; d'you 'ear me?"

"Lord, I hear and obey."

Mustapha spoke a few words to the negroes, who sheathed their weapons
and stood away from the captive.

Alf jerked his thumb over his shoulder.

"'Op it!" he said, "and think yerself lucky to get off so easy."

Bobby rose to his feet as majestically as his size permitted and
proceeded to the door. He managed to convey the impression that he
attributed his release entirely to his own intimidatory demeanor; but
not until he had made sure that his retreat was not cut off did he
speak. At the door he stopped, placed his right thumb on the point of
his nose and spread out his fingers, at the same time displaying a
large expanse of insolent tongue.

"Yah!" he said--replacing his tongue for the purpose. "You just wait.
You won't 'arf get it in the neck for this. I'll summons yer, see if I
don't. Food-'og!"

He was gone. On the drive his parent received him, with incredulous
joy, as one returned from the tomb, greeting him--to his great
embarrassment--with an unaccustomed kiss. Then, having cuffed him on
the head to restore her self-respect, she led him down to the village,
where Master Bobby found himself occupying a position in the public eye
calculated to swell his head beyond all hope of recovery.

But Bobby's threats and Bobby's taunts were alike immaterial to Alf.
His mind was occupied with greater things. He went upstairs to Bill
and found that sybarite placidly sleeping, while Lucy sat by his head
rhythmically waving a fan. Mr. Montmorency's mouth was open and his
snores reverberated through the room. Alf eyed him with disgust, and
then woke him by the simple but efficacious method of kicking him in
the ribs. He sat up and expostulated.

"What the 'ell ... oh, it's you, is it?... Well, what d'yer mean by it?
An' what's wrong now?"

Alf glared at him morosely.

"A lot you care," he returned. "'Ow much 'elp 'ave you given me over
this job, you blinkin' soaker?"

"If you wants a clip over the ear-'ole," began Bill, with heat, "you
on'y got to go on askin' for it. As for 'elp, I'm waitin' till I'm
needed. What's up now? 'Ave they slung you out o' the 'ouse, or what?
_I_ can't 'elp yer table manners, you know."

"She's engaged."

"'Oo is?"

"'Er--Miss FitzPeter."

"'Oo to?"

"Mr. Allen."

Bill pursed up his lips into a silent whistle.

"Lumme," he said, "I never thought of that."

"No. You just lie 'ere swigging beer an' cuddlin' yer blinkin' Lucy.
I'm fair ashamed to see yer. An' now the 'ole thing's over an' done
with, an' you 'aven't lifted a finger."

"There 'asn't been any need yet," said Bill coolly. "_This_ is where I
come in."

"But it's too late now."

"That's all _you_ know. Why don't you read the book properly? Aladdin,
'e got into a much worse mess than what you 'ave, because 'is girl got
married to the wrong man, instead o' just engaged."

"What did 'e do then?"

"'E told Eustace to make it 'ot for the other man; an' Eustace made
it so 'ot that the other man went an' got divorced from the girl, an'
Aladdin married 'er. It's easier for you, much. Just tell Eustace to
fly off with Lootentant Allen, an' there you are, all plain sailin'
again. 'Ow did you get on with the old bird?"

"Splendid. 'E was all over me," said Alf listlessly.

"There y'are, then. What did I tell yer? Splash a bit more money about
an' 'e's yours, an' so's the girl. Come to yer Uncle Bill when yer in
trouble, me lad, an' 'e'll see you through."

"But what about the girl? 'Ow if she loves 'im? 'Sides, 'e's a nob."

"Let 'er," said Bill cynically. "She'll soon forget 'im when you begins
'andin' out the oof. Women is all alike. I don't believe in 'em meself.
Lucy's the sort for me. I'm thinkin' of marryin' Lucy, I am. She's just
what I want in a wife--she can't answer me back, an' the more beer I
drinks the better she seems to like it. 'Ere, what are you doin'?"

Alf was unbuttoning his waistcoat and shirt. "Gettin' at the Button,"
he said. "Goin' to call up Eustace."

"Good lad," said Bill. "'Arf a tick, though--you know 'ow the Button
upsets Lucy. 'Ere, Lucy--skedaddle--bunk!"

Lucy obediently bunked.

"Now," said Bill. "Let's call the ole blighter up and settle the 'ash
of the feller as 'as engaged 'imself to yer girl, nob or no nob."

Alf rubbed the talisman.

"What wouldst thou have?" said the deep tones of Eustace.

Alf took a deep breath and began to speak rapidly and nervously.

"Eustace," he said, "I want to say that I'm sure you always done yer
best for me, an' I'm grateful for it. If you _'ave_ made some bloomers,
why, we all make bloomers sometimes. An' it's me as 'ave made the
biggest bloomer o' the lot."

"'Ere endeth the second lesson," said Bill derisively. "Get on to
business, you chump."

"But," resumed Alf doggedly, "I been a fool and I ain't goin' on with
it. What I want you to do is to take away everything in this 'ouse as
you've put in it, an' to put back everything as you found 'ere, just as
it was when you took it over."

"I say ..." began Bill loudly.

"Master," said Eustace gravely, "I hear and obey."

He vanished.

Instantly the lights in the room went out. At the same moment the
hum of life which had filled the building stopped dead, and an eerie
stillness fell on the house. The curtains which had veiled the windows
were suddenly no longer there, and the moon shining in filled the room
with a half-light in which Alf could see Bill's figure silhouetted.

The dead silence was broken by a flood of picturesque and disreputable
imprecations from Bill.

"What d'you think yer doin'?" he asked, when he could articulate once
more. "What's the idea? Think you're funny, I s'pose. 'Ere, some one's
pinched me clothes...."

He groped his way to the door and opened it. Alf, suddenly conscious
that he, too, was wearing nothing but the string to which the Button
was suspended, and beginning to fear that Eustace had been once more
disconcertingly "'olesale," followed Bill outside. The moonbeams,
shining through the glass of the roof into the great hall, faintly
lighted up an utterly changed house. At one end of the hall they
revealed the great tapestry whose disappearance had caused the vicar
such acute pain. But there was no sign of life--the place seemed
suddenly haunted and ghostly. The two men retreated hastily into the
room they had just left and tripped over two piles of khaki clothing,
which lay on the floor, neatly folded; by them lay two sets of kit and
two rifles. Otherwise the room was utterly empty.

Alf, without a word, began to dress himself. Bill felt in his tunic
pocket and produced a match. By its light he surveyed the strange room,
trying to take in the meaning of this last act of Alf's.

"But look 'ere," he said stupidly at last; "Lucy's gone."

"Yes--an' a good riddance too. It's you an' your blinkin' Lucy what's
done me in. Get yer clothes on now an' we'll go, too."

"Go? Us?"

Events were moving too quickly for Bill's obfuscated intellect.

"O' course. We still got a fortnight o' our leave left, thank 'Evings.
I'm goin' 'ome."

"But...."

"Shut it, Bill Grant. We got to go, I tell yer. Why they'd 'ave 'arf
killed me in the village just now if they'd 'a caught me. I've 'ad
enough of it. Besides, they're puttin' Scotland Yard on to us."

"But it'll be all _right_, you fat-'ed. Eustace...."

"Don't you talk about Eustace to me."

Alf, dressing in feverish haste, tied his puttee-tapes and put on his
tunic.

"I ain't goin' to 'ave nothing more to do with Eustace, nor no one else
is neither. It ain't right. If you 'ave dealin's with the Devil you're
sure to get it in the neck some'ow."

Bill, who had encountered before the streak of pig-headed obstinacy
which underlay Alf's easy-going nature, realized that no useful purpose
could be served by argument. For a moment the prospect of losing the
life of ease that had been his for the past week tempted him to try
to force Alf by physical violence to countermand his order. Then a
subtler plan occurred to him. Alf had proved himself utterly unworthy
to possess the Button; he, Bill, would wait his chance to get it
from him by fair means or foul and then.... His brain reeled at the
possibilities that opened before him. First, of course, he would send
Eustace over to Germany, kidnap the Kaiser and possibly a selection
of his higher command, and would thus bring the war to a speedy and
triumphant conclusion; after that, he would start out upon a career of
dazzling glory. Meanwhile he must humor Alf.

"Oh, well," he said, in a resigned tone. "P'raps you're right. What you
goin' to do now?"

"First thing is to get clear o' this blinkin' place," said Alf. "If we
get nabbed in this 'ere village, I tell yer straight we'll be damn well
murdered."

Bill gave an uneasy laugh. "They'll never know us in these things," he
said.

He remembered that P.C. Jobling at any rate knew him by sight, and he
felt nervous. "Look 'ere," he suggested, "why not use the Button--just
once more--to get us 'ome?"

Alf's jaw set.

"Never no more," he answered. "You've seen the last of Eustace, you
'ave."

Bill said no more, but inwardly he registered a passionate denial of
Alf's statement.

       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Half an hour later two khaki-clad figures climbed cautiously over a
remote part of the wall which surrounded the Denmore estate, and made
their way with some apprehension along the road towards the village.
When they passed the front gates of the Manor, they were relieved to
find them no longer an object of excitement. The crowd had dispersed.
But in the village street were gesticulating groups discussing not only
the events of the day but also, it seemed, plans of campaign for the
morrow.

"We'll teach 'em--the murderin' villains."

"Seems they think they're in Roosher, but _we'll_ show 'em."

It was plain that the incident of Bobby Myers was not by any means
considered closed. The two figures in the familiar khaki passed through
the groups almost unnoticed; one man, pausing in a lurid description
of what he could do to the villain, Wentworth, on the morrow, nodded
a friendly good-night to Alf, but otherwise the topic of the night
was too absorbing to leave time for dallying with casual Tommies. By
the time they reached the railway-station even Bill felt thankful
that he was not going to be at home to visitors at the Manor on the
morrow. As for Alf, everything that he saw and heard crystallized his
determination never on any account to have further recourse to the
Button. Isobel was almost forgotten--she seemed as far away as a person
seen in a dream. The dream had been vivid enough while it lasted, but
already its edges were becoming blurred and its colors were fading.

By good fortune they were in easy time to catch the last train to
London; but only as they reached the ticket-office did it strike either
warrior that Eustace, when clearing away the rest of his gifts, had
taken also their store of wealth.

"'Ave you any oof, Bill?" asked Alf anxiously.

"I dunno."

They sought in their pockets, each with a vision of a twenty-mile tramp
to London before his eyes. Then they sighed with relief; each had still
the money with which he had started out upon his leave. Alf pushed a
note across the counter.

"This is no good to me," said the female and youthful booking-clerk, in
superior tones, hastily retrieving the tickets she was just handing out.

"What's the matter?"

"French money, isn't it?"

"Lumme, so it is! I never thought o' that, Bill. 'Ave you any English?"

Bill looked hastily through his store and shook his head.

"Look 'ere, miss," he said ingratiatingly. "Can't you let us 'ave the
tickets, as a special case like? We're on leave from the front, an' we
'aven't 'ad no time to get our money changed yet. If you don't let us
'ave the tickets we'll 'ave to walk. An' it is good money, even if it
is French."

The damsel was softened but doubtful.

"I'll ask father," she said.

"Father" turned out to be the station-master. He listened to their
story with manifest incredulity, and fingered the French notes with
skepticism, but finally agreed to accept them in payment of the
fare. But he fixed a rate of exchange which assured that the railway
company--or possibly himself--would gain by the transaction an enormous
and unearned increment.

There was nothing for it but to pay up, and any personal comments they
might have wished to make were cut short by the arrival of the train.
They found an empty compartment and composed themselves joyfully though
illegally with their boots on the seats.

Bill brooded darkly for a time on the affair of the station-master,
till the bitterness of his thoughts forced utterance.

"If Eustace ..." he began.

But Alf, worn out by his varied emotions, was already asleep.



CHAPTER XVI

MRS. GRANT'S DIPLOMACY


A week later Private Bill Grant--late Mr. William Montmorency of
Denmore Manor--was approaching the parental roof of his friend, Alf
Higgins--_ex_ Wentworth. Bill neither looked nor felt happy. Life
during the period since the evacuation of Denmore had been profitless
and stale. True, he had plenty of money in his pocket for a man
in his position; but his trouble was that his position no longer
satisfied him. His home, after the glaring magnificence of Denmore,
seemed cramped and tawdry. The public-houses of Hackney, once palaces
of delight to be dreamed about from exile in a foreign land, were
squalid and stuffy. The liquid they purveyed was--by contrast with the
full-bodied brew supplied by Eustace--tasteless and flat. The barmaids
compared most unfavorably with his lost Lucy in beauty, in their manner
of dressing and in their attitude towards himself. Lucy, for instance,
had never advised him to boil his head.

Bill was, in fact, thoroughly miserable; and he saw no prospect
whatever of any alleviation of his trouble until his leave was over. He
did not see the faintest possibility of obtaining the Button from Alf,
until they were back in France--and he was living in anticipation of
that glorious moment.

He had no very clear idea why he was going to see Alf now. Just at
present, he and his mate were in that state of acute mutual irritation
known as "being on one another's nerves." Alf was still obstinately
determined never again to make use of the Button, and disliked any
reference to the subject; and Bill, impelled by some malignant demon,
seemed unable to keep veiled allusions to it out of his conversation.

To Alf their return to Hackney brought nothing but relief. His brief
spurt of passion for Isobel had been swallowed up in his joy at finding
himself once more free to live his own life, no longer the helpless
puppet of Fate in a station and a way of existence to which he had felt
himself a shrinking stranger. Isobel herself was now more than ever the
figure of a dream. In fact, all the events of that strange time seemed
to him hazy and unreal, until their reality was brought home to him in
an unexpected and startling manner.

Alf had imagined that the Denmore Manor chapter of his life was
definitely and forever closed when he reached Waterloo on the night
of his flight. He had at once started to grow his mustache again, and
already a bristly growth was doing its best to eliminate the last
traces of Alfred Wentworth, Esquire. But Alfred Wentworth had been too
important a personage in his short career for the world to accept so
lightly his disappearance. The papers had taken up the affair, and the
fuss they made of it both surprised and alarmed Alf. To make matters
worse, Mr. Higgins senior--who might be described politically as being
a half-baked semi-socialist--had regarded the whole affair as being in
some obscure way a device of Capital to defraud Labor, and had talked
of nothing else for some days, until Alf's irritation came to a head in
regrettable outbursts of temper.

Bill entered the house on this occasion to find Alf's father reading
aloud from an evening paper and making fierce marginal comments thereon
for the benefit of his wife and son. The former--a stout lady of placid
appearance--was lulling herself peacefully to sleep in a rocking-chair,
soothed by her husband's voice as much as by the motion. Alf was
sitting hunched up in a rickety basket-chair, sucking at an empty pipe.

"'Ullo!" said Alf, not very graciously.

"'Ullo!" returned Bill, as sourly as he.

Mr. Higgins senior, however, was pleased at the prospect of obtaining
an addition to his audience and welcomed his visitor more effusively.

"'Ullo, Grant," he said. "Come and sit down. Wodjer think o' this?" He
smote the paper in his hand. "The country's goin' to ruin under this
'ere gover'mint. Fair makes yer blood boil."

"What does?" asked Bill politely but without interest. Old Higgins'
blood had a habit of boiling on the smallest provocation.

"The 'ole bloomin' business. 'Ere you an Alf 'ere come back on leave to
this country, an' what do you find?"

He paused dramatically. His audience gazed at the fireplace with
complete apathy--except Mrs. Higgins, who emitted a slight snore and
dropped her head upon her ample bosom.

"What do you find, I say?" reiterated her husband.

"Well, what?" Alf asked when the pause had grown too painful to be
borne any longer.

"What? Why, 'eaps of things," returned his sire rather feebly. "It's
all wrong. The country's full o' spies, for one thing. Full of 'em. 'Ow
do we know 'oo's a spy an' 'oo isn't?--tell me that. Look 'ere, at this
'ere Denmore Manor business. We've 'ad the papers full o' that for a
week past, an' not a single arrest made. It's my belief that Capital
won't let 'em make any arrests, that's what I think. Disgustin', I call
it!"

"'Ow d'you know there _was_ spies at Denmore Manor?" asked Alf, in whom
the innocent accusation rankled deeply.

"Didn't it say there was niggers? An' didn't the paper 'ave a picture
o' the little boy as they kidnaped--_'e_ said they was spies, an' _'e_
ought to know, 'e ought. An' yet them blighters is allowed to escape,
an' they must be all over the country now, an' yet nothing's done."

"What's the paper say?" asked Bill calmly.

Mr. Higgins, much pleased, puffed out his chest and read.

"'The mystery of the whereabouts of the late occupants of Denmore Manor
continues to arouse a great deal of public interest. No light has yet
been thrown either on the reason for its occupation or upon the method
whereby these mysterious people have made good their escape. The police
have now a strong clew as to the identity of the ringleaders, and they
are following this up.' And I 'ope to 'Eaven," concluded the reader
piously, "as 'ow it'll come to something. But I'll bet it's a blinkin'
washout. The police is no good."

Alf and Bill stared blankly at one another.

"A strong clew ... they are following it up." The words sounded
ominous. And yet--what _could_ the clew be? Mr. Higgins, continuing
his scathing denunciation of the police, found that he had lost the
attention of his audience. Alf was raising enquiring eyebrows in Bill's
direction, while Bill was shaking his head. He had no idea what the
"clew"--if such existed--might be. The elder Higgins regarded this
pantomime with growing indignation for a moment.

"It don't seem to matter to you much _what_ 'appens," he said coldly at
last. "If _I_ was out at the front, an' came back an' found the country
in this kind o' state, I'd ... I'd...." His vocabulary suddenly proved
unequal to the strain placed upon it, and he tailed off into silence.

"_I_ don't believe they was spies at all," said Alf doggedly.

"Not spies?" His father's voice quivered with righteous indignation.
"Well, what about this 'ere parson, then?--tell me that."

Alf, who had forgotten Mr. Davies' very existence, remembered suddenly,
that in the hurry of departure he had left that unfortunate clergyman
and his wife still laboring under the disability so ruthlessly imposed
upon them. His conscience smote him.

"Why," he asked uneasily, "what's wrong with 'im? 'As 'e being gettin'
into trouble?"

"No, but 'e blinkin' well ought to!"

"What's 'e done?"

"It's what 'e 'asn't done as is the matter. 'E knows something about
this 'ere business. 'E went up to the 'ouse. But 'e won't say a word.
Won't tell the police nothing. Nobody can't get 'im to speak."

"But 'e ain't in no trouble, is 'e?" persisted Alf.

"Trouble? No. They can't touch _'im_. If it was you or me, now, it 'ud
be a case o' the police."

Alf, much relieved, stifled his conscience. The orator continued his
fierce harangue.

"Yer mean to tell me," he demanded, "as 'e couldn't say something if 'e
wanted to? 'E's in league with 'em, that's what 'e is. Not spies? Not
spies? Why, you're as bad as this 'ere Sassiety lady--FitzPeter they
call 'er."

"What's she done?" asked Alf sharply.

"Done? Why, she goes about saying in the paper as she don't believe
they was spies. All cammyflage, that is. What are they, if not
spies?--tell me that. I believe she's mixed up in it 'erself, too. Why,
this 'ere feller Wentworth, 'e went to 'er 'ouse to dinner the very
same night 'e 'ad to clear out. That makes you think a bit, eh? An'
I 'ear she went an' 'ad a talk with 'im in 'is own 'ouse too. It's
all Capital an' 'Idden 'And together. These 'ere Sassiety ladies is no
good. Wrong 'uns, my boy, that's what they are. If I 'ad me way I'd...."

"If I 'ad my way," said Alf with heat, "I'd 'ave people like you
muzzled, I would."

"You ... you ...!"

"'Ow dare you miscall a lady like Miss FitzPeter?"

"Steady, Alf--'old on," said Bill, in an agony lest passion should lead
his friend to indiscretion.

"I tell yer," resumed Alf, still at the top of his voice, waking his
mother from her comfortable nap, "I tell yer that Miss FitzPeter never
'ad nothing to do with no spies, never in 'er 'ole life she didn't, an'
any one 'oo says so is a liar."

"Ho! I'm a liar, am I?" Mr. Higgins leapt to his feet. His wife,
according to her invariable custom when her menfolk quarreled, began to
weep quietly, but persistently. "Get out o' the 'ouse! I ain't goin'
to be called names by no young 'ound like you. Get out of it! An' what
d'you know about 'er, anyway?"

"What do I know?" Alf laughed with scorn. "I know a dam' sight
more'n...."

"Come _on_, Alf!" urged Bill earnestly in his ear, anxious only to get
him away before he made some terrible revelation. Alf allowed himself
to be led into the street, where Bill gave him a "dressing down."

"You blinkin' fool," he said. "What the 'ell d'you want to go an' do
that for? You'll give the 'ole blinkin' show away if you ain't careful.
Nice we should look if any one found out it was us at the Manor!"

"Well," returned Alf, still fermenting, "what's 'e want to go talking
like that for? Spies, indeed! What's 'e know about it?"

"That ain't the question," replied Bill seriously. "What _I_ want to
know is, what's the police know about it. You 'eard what the paper said
about a clew."

"Don't they always say that?"

"Yes, but not so confident as that. If they don't know nothing about
it, they say: 'The police 'as a clew,' an' everybody knows they 'aven't
got nothing o' the sort. But this says: 'A strong clew, what the police
is followin' up.' Did we leave anything be'ind us?"

Rack their brains as they would, they could not remember anything they
had left as a clew. The question worried them considerably. Bill made
once more his suggestion that Eustace could be employed to set things
right, but dropped the idea hastily in face of Alf's reception thereof.

"I expect," he said at last, hopefully, but without real conviction,
"as it's all cammyflage, arter all. There ain't no clew, an' they just
pitched the tale extra strong so's people won't make remarks."

Each man kept an anxious eye on the papers for the next few days, but
nothing more was published concerning the clew; and when the time went
on, and the day before they were due to return to the front arrived
without any more light being thrown on the Manor mystery, they began to
feel more easy.

But that day, as Bill and his mother (a lady as aggressive as Mrs.
Higgins was the reverse) were finishing their dinner there came a heavy
knocking on the door.

Mrs. Grant peeped out of the window to see who her unexpected visitors
might be.

"Two policemen!" she exclaimed in angry alarm. "Is this some o' your
doin's, Bill Grant? What you been up to?"

"Nothin'," said Bill as jauntily as he could for the cold chills that
were chasing one another up and down his backbone. "Nothin' at all."

"I 'ope not," answered his mother grimly. She had seen his expression
at hearing the word "policeman," and she suspected the worst. Whether
or not the police succeeded in extracting anything from him, she was
confident that he had been doing something wrong. She determined that
once the police had been safely got away, Bill would have her to deal
with.

"If you've been doin' anythin'," she went on, "it'll be worse for you.
I'm a respectable woman, I am. Quick, go an' answer the door before the
neighbors see we got the police 'ere."

As Bill went towards the door the knocking was renewed with redoubled
violence. Mrs. Grant could see interested faces at the windows of the
houses opposite, and her temper became worse than ever. She went into
the passage, where Bill had just admitted two large constables.

"Come in 'ere," she said.

They entered.

Under his armpit the larger of the two--a sergeant--bore a book which
Bill at once recognized. It was the old lady's copy of the _Arabian
Nights_--and the "strong clew" of the newspapers. Bill prepared to lie
as he had never lied before.

The smaller policeman--he could not have weighed more than fourteen
stone--produced an indelible pencil and an official notebook. He
laid the latter on the table and moistened the former preparatory to
beginning his clerical labors, receiving thereby a purple stain on the
lip.

"Private William Grant?" asked the sergeant.

"That's me."

"5th Middlesex Fusiliers?"

"That's right," said Bill. He was relieved at being able to start by
telling the truth. It laid a firm foundation for the lies he would have
to construct later on.

"Regimental Number 2312?"

"Correct," said Bill. "What might you want o' me?"

"I just want to ask you a question or two." The scribe at the table
gave his pencil another lick, increasing the stain on his lip.

"What about?"

The spokesman gave a doubtful glance at Mrs. Grant, who was still
quivering in the background.

"If the lady wouldn't mind ..." he began politely.

"'Op it, mother!" said Bill. "You go an' get on with yer washin'."

"Oh, indeed! I'm not to know what goes on in me own 'ouse, ain't I?
Very well then, you can ask yer questions in the street, or the back
yard."

"P'raps it don't matter," said the sergeant uneasily. "I only want to
ask a question or two about this book."

"Right-o," said Bill. "Carry on!"

Should he deny all knowledge of the book? If he did, could he outface
the policemen and convince them? How much did the police know, and how
had they managed to connect him with the book at all? He could not
answer any of these questions, and his only course was to wait till his
adversary should give him a lead. He did not have to wait long.

"This book," said the sergeant, "was sent out to you at the front by
Miss So-fire Browne at a recent date."

"It was," admitted Bill. So that was how they had traced him, was
it--by the name and address of Miss Browne's brother written on the
fly-leaf? And seeing that they knew so much, it was well for him that
he had not after all denied his connection with the book.

"Can you tell me under what circumstances you relinquished possession
of the volume in question?"

This was the point where truth must begin to be tempered. Bill set his
intuitive faculty busily to work.

"Is that Latin for when did I lose it?" he asked, more with the idea
of gaining time than of procuring information or even of insulting the
policeman.

"None o' that," said the Arm of the Law majestically. "Answer the
question. When did you see the book last?"

The owner of the notebook, who had so far merely been ticking off the
various items of Bill's description as the correctness of each was
established, realized that the heavy part of his task was now just
about to begin. He devoted himself to suction of his pencil-point with
such assiduity that he began to look as though he had regaled himself
heavily with black cherries.

Bill, his mind still working at lightning speed, gazed at the
amanuensis in apparent fascination. His object was to invent a method
of disposing of the book which while being credible should not admit
of corroboration. Supposing he said he had lost it at Folkestone on
his way home?... But that might raise the question of the date of his
return to England, and he did not want his mother to know that he had
been home for some time before coming to her. He might manage to put
the police off, but once his mother had got hold of a suspicious fact,
there was no balking _her_.

"Come on," said the police sergeant impatiently. "What's the matter
with you?"

"I was just waitin' till the Town Clerk 'ere was ready," he explained
with his native impudence. "When did I last see the book? I don't know
as I can remember the exact day."

"Never mind that. 'Ow did you come to lose it?"

The sergeant's patience was wearing thin. Bill, who had now had time to
think out his story, took a deep breath.

"Last I seen of it," he said, "I lent it to a chap in the Scottish
Rifles what come into our dug-out one night--name o' Conky. 'E come in
about twenty-past eleven, 'avin' lost 'is way, an' 'e sez...."

"'Ere," said the constable at the table, speaking for the first time.
"Steady!"

"'Ow far 'ave you got with it?" asked Bill kindly.

The scribe, with beads of sweat standing out on his brow, and a
protruding tongue whose tip followed the motions of his pencil, was
writing madly.

"'Dug-out,'" he quoted. "Name o' ... what did you say?"

"Conky."

"That ain't no good," interposed the sergeant with severity. "Don't
waste yer time takin' down muck o' that kind, Collins. What was 'is
other name?"

"Smith, I think," said Grant, his fertile brain casting about for
further corroborative detail with which to give artistic verisimilitude
to his otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. "I can't be sure,
though."

"Well," said the sergeant in a resigned tone, "what did 'e do, any'ow?"

"'E took the book," resumed the romancer. "An' 'e said 'e'd like
to read it. So I lent it to 'im, an' 'e promised to let me 'ave it
back next time 'e was back restin'--stop me if I go too fast, Mr.
Collins--an' as it 'appened I never seed 'im again."

"What 'appened to 'im?"

"I dunno for certain. But I did 'ear a rumor as 'ow 'e got nabbed, poor
chap."

"Captured?"

"Yes. The Boche come over when 'is battalion was in the line."

"An' 'ow about the book?"

Bill considered a moment. The general consensus of opinion throughout
the country insisted on regarding the Denmore Manor affair as the work
of German spies. In Bill's eyes this was an exceedingly satisfactory
opinion for the country to hold. He decided to give the country a
little assistance.

"The book?" he repeated innocently. "I s'pose the Boche captured that,
too."

Both policemen fell into the trap. Their eyes met in a stare full of
meaning.

"The Boche!" exclaimed the sergeant. "Then it _was_ a spy as...." He
paused, remembering his orders not to divulge to his victim the object
of his questions.

"Look 'ere," said Bill, who was beginning to enjoy himself. "What's
this all about, any'ow? Where did you get the book from, an' what's it
got to do with the police?"

"This chap Smith, now," resumed the sergeant blandly, ignoring Bill's
questions. "What sort of a lookin' feller might 'e be, now?"

Bill pondered.

"Mind you," he said, with the air of an honest man who does not want
to mislead his audience, "I can't be sure 'is name _was_ Smith. Might
'a been Brown--or Thompson. One o' them common names, any'ow. 'E was
one o' them middlin' chaps, not exactly dark, you know--an' yet I don't
know as I should call 'im fair. 'E 'ad blue eyes, an' 'e said 'e come
from Lambeth. P'raps they'll know 'im there."

"We might ask the recruiting office," said the sergeant to the
painstaking Collins, now laboriously engaged in taking down Bill's
minute description of Mr. "Conky" Smith (or Brown or Thompson) of
Lambeth.

"You might," agreed Bill. "But o' course," he went on helpfully, "'e
might not 'ave been in Lambeth when 'e joined up. P'raps 'e 'listed in
Scotland, seein' 'e was in a Jocks regiment."

The sergeant rose to his feet with a sigh. He had started out with high
hopes, but now he felt that he was not very much further forward than
before with the Manor Mystery.

"Well," he said. "If that's all you knows, I'll be getting along. Good
afternoon, mum. Sorry to 'ave troubled you."

Mrs. Grant gave a grunt, and looked anything but pleasant. She
followed her visitors to the door with the sourest of faces. But
on the doorstep her demeanor changed with startling suddenness. She
became positively effusive, making one or two little jokes at which
the sergeant, puzzled, but relieved at her change of attitude, roared
appreciatively. Finally she insisted on shaking hands with both
officers, and as they tramped off down the street she stood at her
door, waving her hand at their unconscious backs. Having thus appeased
the curiosity and disappointed the hopes of all the dear friends and
neighbors who had been waiting in ghoulish joy to find out the nature
of the police visit to her house, she returned to her son, who, very
pleased with himself, was smiling at his reflection in the mirror.

"An' now," she said briskly, "what's all this about, eh? What's all
this talk about books, an' spies, an' Mr. Bloomin' Conky o' Lambeth,
eh?"

"You 'eard what I told 'im," said Bill.

"Yes, an' I knows enough about you, Bill Grant, to tell when you're
lyin'. I didn't meet yer this week for the first time. Now let's 'ave
the truth. What d'you mean by bringin' the police into a respectable
'ouse, eh?"

Bill looked round him in hunted fashion. Then, obeying his lifelong
instinct that in dealing with his mother, discretion was the better
part of valor, he picked up his cap and backed to the door. He mumbled
something about--"Step out an' 'ave a look round"--and was gone.

His mother glared furiously at the door. If only she had thought to
lock it when the policemen went! But she wasted no time in useless
regrets. When Bill came back to supper she'd get it all out of him.
Meanwhile it might be as well to go out and explain to one or two
neighbors how her two cousins in the police force had been to see her.
She put on her bonnet and went.

Bill, skulking at the corner of the street, waited till she was out
of sight. Then, slipping into the house, he collected his kit and his
rifle, and went to a Y.M.C.A. at Victoria, and there he spent the
night. Mrs. Grant did not see her son again before he departed for
the front; she was thus free to invent her own reasons for his visit
from the police. But she never connected Bill with the statement which
appeared subsequently in the less dignified newspapers.

"The Denmore Manor Mystery still continues to baffle the most acute
intellects of the police force. It is, however, certain, from evidence
of the most unimpeachable nature, that the whole affair is a plot of
German intrigue and the Hidden Hand. When will the Government ...?
Etc., etc."

Bill, on the steamer crossing from England to France, read this passage
aloud to Alf, to whom he had already recounted the story of "Conky."

"You _are_ a one, Bill," said Higgins, quite in his ancient vein of
fervent admiration.

Bill merely looked self-conscious. He felt that the tribute was no more
than his due.



CHAPTER XVII

THE FATE OF THE BUTTON


Neither of the two friends could have said with truth that he was sorry
to see France once more.

Alf had a feeling that now, at any rate, his disastrous venture into
high life and the public eye was really behind him. He could slip back
thankfully into his old routine as an unconsidered cog in an enormous
machine, and be lost in the friendly obscurity. The Button still hung
from its string round his neck. He determined that it should continue
to hang there; he was afraid to dispose of it, in case it should fall
into the hands of some other man and be used for unimaginable evil.
He had an almost fanatical determination that he himself should never
again test the Button's supernatural powers; but in addition, he felt
that he had a sacred charge to prevent anybody else from doing so. When
he had left the Base and was already in the leave train and bound for
the line, he realized that his best course would have been to drop the
Button into the sea on his way across. But the idea came to him--as
ideas generally came to Alf--too late.

Bill's feeling towards France was different. He had no love for the
place in itself; but considered as a mere means to his great end, it
had its uses. Now that he and Alf were back in the grip of the military
life, where no man can avoid his neighbor without that neighbor's
connivance--and sometimes not even then--he hoped and believed that
he would find an early opportunity of obtaining the Button from its
unappreciative owner; and then--good by forever to France and all that
it stood for.

No reference to the Button was ever allowed to creep into his
conversation now. The simple-minded Alf, if he noticed this at all,
thought it meant that Bill had forgotten about it. But Bill had not
forgotten. He was merely biding his time.

The battalion was in billets when the two men rejoined it. They
reported themselves to C.S.M. French, who directed them to their own
platoon.

"'Ullo," said Sergeant Lees, when they appeared before him. "So you're
back, are yer? Well, just you be'ave yerselves, see? I got as much on
me 'ands as I can blinkin' well stand without 'avin' any trouble from
you."'

They found their own section installed in a small barn. Corporal
Greenstock, like his superior, greeted them without enthusiasm. They
settled down amid the straw.

"Well, and how is Blighty?" asked Private Denham.

"All right. I ain't sorry to be back," replied Bill. There were cries
of incredulity from the section.

"Easy enough to talk," Walls remarked.

"Well, it's true."

"It won't stay true long, anyhow."

"Why not?"

"We're off up the line in a few days. Into a lively bit, too."

"Ah!" commented Bill. "I thought the sergeant seemed to 'ave something
on 'is mind."

"But that's not all. We got a new officer."

"The devil we 'ave. What's 'e like?"

"Wait an' see. You will, fast enough."

Alf, who had so far had a listening part only, made a remark.

"Cap'en Richards back?" he asked.

"A week ago," said the corporal. "But they've took Donaldson away to be
O.C. 'A' Company. 'E's a captain now."

Alf was much relieved at this information. He had a great admiration
for Donaldson, but was afraid of that officer's exceedingly sharp eye
and his habit of asking awkward questions. Bill also felt that this
latest move of the Powers that were, augured well for his scheme.

"'Shun!" yelled Corporal Greenstock suddenly. The section rose to its
feet in the straw as Sergeant Lees entered, followed by the platoon
commander.

Second-Lieutenant Stockley was a man of about forty years of age, as
his grizzled hair testified. He was a big man, with a splendid pair
of well-drilled shoulders, and a broad chest which showed up to the
best advantage an imposing row of medal-ribbons. Altogether he looked,
to the casual glance, far more like a distinguished colonel than a
junior subaltern. He was, in fact, an ex-sergeant-major, promoted for
gallantry in the field.

His inspection of the section billet was carried out with a
thoroughness hitherto unheard of. He directed Corporal Greenstock's
attention to a hole in the roof with an air of faint reproof which
suggested that a really efficient N.C.O. would have remedied such
defects without being told; after which the usually imperturbable
corporal, losing his nerve entirely, followed his platoon commander
round the billet agitatedly explaining away defects before the officer
had time to criticise. Sergeant Lees, who was accustomed with the
ordinary subaltern to act as spokesman and master of the ceremonies,
hung about anxiously in the offing. Even he was plainly feeling the
strain of living up to this super-efficient new officer. Bill began to
understand why he had seemed to have "something on his mind."

As Mr. Stockley concluded his examination and turned to go, his eye
rested on Alf and Bill.

"Two men here I don't know, sergeant," he said. "Names, please."

"Higgins and Grant, sir."

"Where from?"

"Leave, sir."

"Umph! Corporal!!"

"Sir!"

Corporal Greenstock's attitude of attention might well have been
photographed and used as a model for recruits.

"See those two get cleaned up before I see them again. May do for
Blighty, won't do for me."

Bill looked after the officer's retreating form.

"Lumme!" he commented. "'Ot stuff, eh?"

"You bet," said the corporal. "An' arter what 'e said you'd better be
'ot stuff too, my lad, by to-morrow, or 'e'll be biting you in the
neck--an' me, too."

"'As 'e been in the line yet?" asked Alf.

"Not with us, 'e 'asn't. But 'e was a fair terror with 'is old
battalion, they say. 'E's killed nigh on fifty Fritzies 'imself, first
an' last, an' on'y for a bit o' bad luck 'e'd 'ave 'ad the V.C. Some
soldier!"

"I expect," put in a gloomy voice, "as 'ow 'e's one o' these 'ere
interferin' fellers as can't let well alone. When 'e gets into the
trenches 'e'll never be satisfied with a quiet life, you'll see."

Corporal Greenstock grinned.

"Quiet life?" he said. "Not much! This blinkin' platoon'll spend all
its time crawlin' about No-Man's Land on its stummick, when it ain't
doin' bombing raids into Fritz's trenches. You'll see."

Bill had an instinctive feeling that the corporal was right. Mr.
Stockley had the air of a man who did not do things by halves; and the
ribbons of the Military Medal, the D.C.M. and the Military Cross (a
distinction only rarely conferred on sergeant-majors) testified to his
fighting qualities. As to his thoroughness on parade, it was not long
before both Higgins and Grant became painfully aware of that. Their
long spell of leave had left them rather out of touch with military
life, and they fell very far short of their new commander's minimum
standard.

"This life ain't what it was, Alf," Bill confided one day, busy with
oil-bottle and pull-through on the working parts of his rifle.

Alf said nothing. His temper was ruffled. He was engaged in polishing
to a dazzling brightness a bayonet which he considered was already
as clean as any reasonable man could desire; he had a constitutional
objection to gilding refined gold and to painting lilies--an objection,
however, which was not shared by his officer. He continued to polish in
morose silence.

Bill fell into a brown study. The more he saw of Mr. Stockley the
more he admired him and the more bitterly he cursed the fate that
had thrown them together. Stories of Stockley's dare-devil deeds and
hairbreadth escapes were circulating freely about the battalion, and
the more Grant heard the less he liked the prospect of venturing into
the line under the leadership of such a firebrand. Bill was by nature
a peaceable person, who considered his duty to his country was done so
long as he helped to man the front line from time to time, and also
occasionally, in a decent, well-ordered manner, went over the top. He
regarded the energetic dare-devilry by which Stockley interpreted the
word "warfare" as he would have regarded big-game hunting--an amusement
to be restricted entirely to such lunatics as liked it. The thought
of spending his time crawling about No-Man's Land filled him with
forebodings, and gave him a new and powerful reason for attempting to
obtain the Button from Alf at the earliest possible moment.

He began to watch the unconscious Alf and to shadow him after the
manner of the lynx-eyed detective of fiction; but somehow time slipped
away without giving him the opportunity he sought. One thing was
certain; he must make quite sure of the success of any scheme before
he put it into execution. One false step--one bungled attempt would
ruin all his hopes; Bill was confident that if once Alf's suspicions
were roused, he would get rid of the talisman altogether--possibly,
for instance, by burying it. The problem was in consequence not an
easy one, and Bill was no nearer its solution when, on the third day
following their return, the brigade received its marching order for the
forward area.

Time was growing short; but fate played into Bill's hands, granting him
at any rate a brief respite. The 5th Battalion was to be in Reserve to
begin with.

"Huh!" said Alf. "Workin' parties for us. 'Ow very nice!"

Sergeant Lees, who happened to be present, caught this remark, and
turned to the speaker in well-simulated surprise.

"Why, 'Iggins," he said, "I wonder at yer. On'y a month ago, before
you went on leave, you was that fond o' workin' parties there was no
keepin' you off 'em."

Alf, who had learnt by experience the curious nature of his sergeant's
sense of humor, gave a sickly smile and said nothing. The section
sniggered sycophantically.

On the march next day, both the friends found to their cost that a
sybaritic life in the lap of luxury is not the best preparation for
an active-service route march. The first halt saw them not only badly
blown and streaming with sweat, but also beginning to be footsore.

"Umph!" said the sergeant caustically. "It's easy to see 'ow some
people spend their leave. What you two want is a little 'ard P.T.
'Owever, some o' these working parties you're so fond of 'll soon put
you right."

Sergeant Lees was an economical humorist.

Soon a whistle blew, and the column fell in again. At every step the
poor condition of Privates Higgins and Grant became more noticeable,
and the rest of the section, swinging along in fine style, only showed
them up more plainly. The weight of their packs began to increase
steadily and relentlessly, until it seemed that something must break
soon. A dull pain began to make itself felt across their shoulders,
increasing little by little until it became a raging torment like a
toothache. They set their teeth and plodded on; the battalion was proud
of its marching. At last, when the pain was wellnigh unbearable, the
blessed sound of the whistle was heard. The battalion fell out for
another ten minutes' halt.

The expression "fell out" was true in its most literal sense of Alf and
Bill. They lay side by side, every aching muscle relaxed, determined to
make good use of every second of their rest.

It was at this auspicious moment that Mr. Stockley chose to notice them.

He himself seemed as fresh as when he started out, despite the fact
that he had been carrying two men's rifles in addition to his own kit.
He came swinging along the road during the halt with a jaunty step and
an air of physical well-being which it made Alf and Bill feel faint to
look upon.

He stopped and regarded the collapsed forms of the two friends with a
disapproving air.

"Very out of condition," he commented. They made convulsive efforts to
rise, but he waved them back. "No, no!" he said. "Lie still. Need a
rest. But warn you--won't do. Going into the line; every man must be
fit for anything. Must sweat off that fat."

He went off, leaving the two men more conscious of their flabbiness
than ever.

"Makes me tired, 'e do," complained Bill. "I don't b'lieve I can march
another step. I've a good mind not to fall in at all."

But at this moment a welcome message reached them from the head of the
column. Their destination, it appeared, was now only half an hour's
march away; and as they were now entering the forward area, platoons
would march from here at intervals of a hundred yards. As the companies
were marching in alphabetical order, this meant that "C" Company would
have a further rest while "A" and "B" were getting under way. Alf and
Bill, giving much thanks for this relief, lay down again; and when at
last No. 9 Platoon moved on again they were able to move with it in
comparative comfort.

That night, when every occupant of his dug-out had at long last dropped
off to sleep, Bill lay awake, tingling with excitement. Striking a
match with the utmost caution, he fished out from his tunic pocket
an enormous clasp-knife, which he opened. Then he lit a piece of
candle-end and, shading it carefully with his hand, he leant over the
sleeping form of his mate; but all he could see was a tightly rolled
and shapeless cocoon. Alf's method of using his blanket left Bill no
possible chance of getting at the string which bore the Button.

One of the men stirred in his sleep, and Bill, extinguishing his light,
gave himself up to slumber in a very disturbed state of mind. Come
what might, by some means or other he must get that Button in time to
prevent No. 9 Platoon from being let into the front line by its present
commander.

Next day, things became worse than ever. Mr. Stockley was detailed to
take out a working-party consisting of his own platoon and to dig a
length of trench behind the British lines. He took this opportunity of
beginning the process of sweating the fat off Alf and Bill. He himself,
with his coat off and his immense arms bare to the elbow, was doing two
men's work; and he made it his personal duty to see that Higgins and
Grant did at least two men's work between them.

At the end of the day's work both men were stiffer than they had dreamt
possible; they went through a pantomime expressive of acute agony,
which Stockley saw--as he was intended to.

He laughed.

"Thank me later," he said. "Stiff time coming in front line. Must be
fit. May save your lives."

And he fell his party in and marched it back to the lines.

The position was fast becoming impossible. Bill's determination not to
trust himself in the line under Stockley's command had become a raging
obsession, and yet he could see no way of getting the Button. That
night he morosely watched his unconscious friend making himself into a
chrysalis for the night.

"Alf," he said with guile, "don't you feel it 'orrid 'ot these nights,
rolled up in a great thick blanket like that?"

"I likes to be warm at night," answered a muffled voice from within the
folds.

"But it's so un'ealthy," urged Bill.

Alf's tousled head and astonished face appeared at one end of the
cocoon.

"Ho!" he said suspiciously. "And since when 'ave you been troubling
your 'ed about my 'ealth, eh?"

Bill abandoned the topic, feeling very annoyed. If the simple Alf was
beginning so readily to question the purity of his motives, he foresaw
that he would have to take desperate risks. He would have to lure his
friend into a remote spot and extract the Button from him by the old
"Stand-and-Deliver" method. But this method had the disadvantage that
Bill was not at all sure that, man to man, Alf was not the stronger of
the two. He must rely on the essence of strategy--surprise. But how?
And when?... He passed a disturbed night; and the sounds of peaceful
slumber proceeding from the apparently hermetically sealed bundle at
his side failed to soothe him in any way.

Next morning, Sergeant Lees appeared in the dug-out with the
exasperatingly superior air he always assumed when he had important
or interesting news to tell. After his custom at such times, he
distributed trivial orders and asked unimportant questions until the
men about him were on the verge of apoplexy from sheer irritation and
excitement. Then he produced an item of news.

"We move up into support to-morrow, relievin' the 4th," he stated.
"Front line four days later."

There was a general movement of disappointment. Most of the men would
quite certainly have preferred to move straight up into the line and
get their tour of duty therein finished. There was a general impression
abroad that things were gradually blowing up to a storm, and that the
brigade's last four days in the front trenches would be the worst. The
pessimists were unanimously of opinion that the 5th Battalion had been
allotted these four days owing to malice aforethought on the part of
the Higher Command.

"It'll be a thick time," said somebody.

"Yes," agreed somebody else. "Especially with 'im in charge."

Then Sergeant Lees, with the air of a careful dramatist who is
congratulating himself that he has succeeded in keeping his big thrill
till the very end of his play, added his second piece of news.

"Lootenant Stockley is leavin' us to-day, for to undergo a course at
one of these 'ere schools, or something."

"Lumme!" said an awed voice. "What the 'ell do they think they can
teach _'im_?"

Bill, when he heard the sergeant's news, felt like a condemned criminal
who is reprieved just as the hangman is fitting the rope round his
neck. He was now sure of getting the two things he had lacked so far
for the fulfillment of his scheme--time and opportunity. Time, because
Mr. Stockley would now not be in charge of the platoon; opportunity,
because in the support lines Alf would no longer enjoy the protection
of his beloved blanket.

In fact, orders for their immediate collection and delivery to
the quartermaster were even now on their way round the battalion
by the hands of "runners." Bill had a vision of Alf sleeping with
open tunic and bare neck, and he realized that to a patient and
watchful conspirator the Rape of the Button could only be a matter of
days--perhaps of hours. And once the Button had changed hands, the
fearful souls who had prophesied that the 5th Battalion's next tour in
the trenches would be full of battle, murder and sudden death, might
take fresh courage. That tour of duty would never come. The War would
be over--or if not over, it would have devolved into a route-march. And
then....

Bill never allowed his imagination to tempt him beyond this point.
Sufficient for the day was the miracle thereof. Let him once get hold
of the Button and he and Eustace would not be at any loss what to do.
Only, behind and beyond his earth-shaking schemes for the good of his
country was one very definite and private project closely connected
with his vanished handmaid Lucy and his interrupted supply of beer.
But this idea was never allowed to encroach upon his mind too much; he
never forgot that before he could realize it, broader issues were to be
dealt with.

On the following day the battalion moved up into the support line and
settled down into its new dug-outs with the speed that only comes with
experience. During the relief there was a certain amount of shelling
going on, but there were no casualties. "C" Company was distributed to
its dug-outs without undue fuss. Captain Richards, going the round of
his company, gave a word of advice.

"Get what sleep you can, you men," he said. "They're very jumpy
to-night in the front line, and you may have to tumble out at any
minute. Keep your equipment by you and your boots on."

Bill and Alf were allotted with four others to a small dug-out. Bill,
whose mind was still bent on his single aim, piloted his friend into
a recess in which there was room for two only; and all six loosening
their tunics and the belts of their equipment, settled themselves to
sleep. Bill, who had determined to lie awake watching his chance, was
the first man to go to sleep; and, as the irony of fate would have it,
Alf selected this time of all others to turn upon his back and remain
in that position. His opened tunic fell away from his neck, and the
talisman lay in the little hollow between his collar-bones--the easiest
of preys for the patient and watchful conspirator aforesaid. A couple
of hours passed in which nothing could be heard in the dugout but a
nasal sextet of harmony and power, to which the guns far above supplied
a desultory obbligato.

At length a cautious footfall sounded on the stair, and Sergeant Lees
appeared. He flashed his electric torch round the dug-out, then he went
to each of the recumbent forms on the floor and shook them.

"You four," he whispered, careful not to wake the two in the recess, of
whom he could see nothing but boot-soles. "Come up to Company H.Q. at
once. The Captain's got a job for you. Quiet, now."

But quiet as they were, they woke Bill. He sat up dazedly, wondering
where the others had gone. He was seized with a wild panic. Had they
missed him out by accident? Ought he to follow? Then he realized that
he was not quite alone. Alf, who had taken the bass part in the recent
sextet, was maintaining it as a solo with undiminished vigor.

Grant struck a match and held it above his head, and realized that here
at last was his opportunity. He was alone with Alf in the dug-out--and
there, before his eyes, was the longed-for Button. Trembling with
excitement, he fished out his haversack and produced an ancient and
depressed-looking piece of candle, lit it, and stuck it on a beam.
Then he drew his bayonet, and leant over his friend. Cautiously, not
daring to breathe, he inserted the point of his weapon beneath the
string that bore the talisman. One sharp cut, and the Button would be
his. His hand shook on the handle of the bayonet so violently that the
point rattled on Alf's collar-bone; and Alf's eyes opened.

It must have been sufficiently terrifying to him, awaking from a deep
sleep, to find a grimy man kneeling over him in the eerie light of
a sputtering candle-end, and holding a naked bayonet to his throat.
He lay as still as death, and his round blue eyes widened until they
seemed to protrude from their sockets.

Bill had gone too far now to hesitate or turn back.

"If you move a finger, Alf 'Iggins," he said, in a melodramatic
whisper, "it is your last. I'm goin' to 'ave that Button."

The bayonet jerked up as the string snapped, and Bill, reaching out,
felt his fingers close at last upon the object of his desires.

Alf's wits came back to him. He sat up.

"Gimme that back," he ordered violently. "'Tain't yours. Gimme it!"

"Not much!" answered Bill. "Now for it! Now for Kaiser Bill and the end
o' the war!! What-oh! Now for.... Lumme, what the 'ell's that?"

"That" was a sudden terrific bombardment which broke out overhead,
of an intensity which made the dug-out walls quiver. As they stood
listening open-mouthed, a thin voice--the voice of Corporal
Greenstock--floated down the staircase to them.

"Tumble out there, quickly," it said. "The Boche is comin' over." A
pause. "D'you 'ear me?"

"Comin', corp'ril," shouted Bill. All thought of Eustace, the Button,
the Kaiser--everything had vanished instantly from his mind. He thrust
the precious Button carelessly into a pocket, grabbed his rifle and
tore upstairs, followed by Alf. Then they found themselves doubling up
a communication trench under the leadership of Lieutenant Shaw. Nobody
seemed to know what had happened, or exactly what they were going to
do--except that they were going to kill Boches.

The German guns were shelling the communication trenches to prevent
the British supports from coming up, and whizz-bangs were bursting all
about them. But they had no time to pay attention to details of that
kind--the one desire was to get on and into the front line. At last
they turned a corner, and plunged into the thick of a hand-to-hand
struggle. Neither Alf nor Bill had a very coherent memory of what
happened in the next few minutes. They remember heaving and hacking
and stabbing at innumerable greasy Huns. Then suddenly the Huns seemed
to melt away and disappear; the two men realized dimly that the trench
was cleared and the enemy in flight, and they sat down to rest, feeling
dizzy and badly winded.

But as soon as the raiding party were clear of the British trenches
the guns began again. A whizzbang dropped into the trench where the
two friends were sitting, and burst. That was the last thing that Bill
Grant knew until he woke some days later to find himself in a Casualty
Clearing Station.

A Sister came towards him.

"Awake at last," she said cheerily.

He stared stupidly at her.

"Where am I?" he said. "Where's Alf 'Iggins?"

"Next bed, ole son," said a weak voice. "Leg broke."

Bill pondered this information for a space. Then a thought struck him
and he sat up with a jerk. The Sister came over to him.

"You must lie down and keep quiet," she said.

"The Button!" exclaimed Bill fiercely.

The Sister looked anxious.

"There, there!" she said, in a soothing tone. "Just lie down and be
quiet. You were knocked silly by a shell, you know, but you're all
right now. Lie down at once."

"I want my Button," he reiterated, struggling with her. "Gimme my
Button, an' I'll lie down."

The Sister turned to Alf.

"What does he mean?" she asked quietly. "I believe he's wandering."

"No, no!" said Alf. "The Button. It's most important."

"Well," replied the Sister, mystified but relieved that Bill was
apparently not raving after all. "Your tunic was in such a mess it was
burnt, but I kept your buttons and the things in your pockets. I'll get
them, if you'll lie still."

She produced a collection of miscellaneous rubbish. Bill sorted out
the buttons and rubbed each one in turn feverishly, forgetful of the
probable effect on the Sister if Eustace had suddenly appeared. But he
did not.

"Duds, all of 'em," said Bill dismally. "Lumme! What did I do with
it.... I know!" He shouted in sudden inspiration. "I put it in me
right-'and trouser-pocket. Sister, do please 'ave a look in me
trousers. Please!"

The two men waited in a tense silence till she returned.

"Now," she said severely. "No more nonsense, please. You must both lie
down and keep quiet. There's nothing in your trousers pockets except a
large hole."


THE END





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