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 “YOU actually mean to tell me that you don’t want to get out of this dripping hole?”  
“My dear old ass, why on earth should I want to get out of it?”
Anthony Christopher Stoningham Calvert faced the incredulous glare of the freckle-faced young gentleman from Ohio with engaging candour. Four years of soaking in tropical pest holes and rioting from Monte Carlo to Rio, from Shanghai to Singapore, since they had met, and yet there he sat, sprawled out full length in his great cane chair, as cool and shameless and unconquerably youthful as though he had just been sent down from Oxford for the first time. Even in the light that filtered in through the cane shutters, green and strange as the pallid glow that washes through aquariums, it was clear that time had found no power to touch that long grace, that bright head with its ruffled crop of short hair, those gay eyes, wide set and mischievous in the brown young face, those absurd dimples, carved deep into the lean curve of the cheek. Young Ledyard265 gave a bark of outraged protest, his pleasant face flushed and exasperated under its thatch of sandy hair.
“You mean it? You aren’t coming back with me?”
“Not for all the gold in the Indies, my dear kid—or out of them either, if it comes to that.” The Honourable Tony, as he had been dubbed by a scandalized and diverted public, grinned alluringly through the vaguely sinister light at his onetime comrade at arms. “The whole thing is absolutely ripping, I tell you, and the only thing that I ask is to spend the next sixty years doing precisely what I’m doing now.”
“I don’t believe you,” rejoined his baffled guest flatly. “Why in God’s name should you want to rot your life away in a little backwater Hell, when I can give you a first-rate job twenty-four hours after we land in America?”
“But, my dear fellow, I wouldn’t have your job as a birthday gift. You may be the heir apparent to the greatest rubber business in the whole jolly globe, but try to bear in mind that you see before you the chief, sole, and official British Imperial Adviser to the fattest little Sultan in Asia—who incidentally eats up every word of wisdom that falls from his adviser’s lips and sits up and begs for more, let me tell you.”
266 “And let me tell you that it’s common gossip in every gutter in Singapore that your Sultan’s a black-hearted scoundrel who’s only waiting for a chance to double-cross England and do you one in the eye.”
“What happens to be the current gutter gossip about his adviser?” inquired that gentleman blandly.
Ledyard’s jaw looked suddenly aggressive.
“Never mind what it happens to be. What I want to know is why your friend Bhakdi isn’t back in his dirty little capital trying to straighten out some of the messes he’s got himself into instead of squatting up here in the jungle hunting tigers?”
“Because his invaluable adviser advises him to stay precisely where he is,” explained the Honourable Tony cheerfully. “Just between us, there are several nasty bits of international complications and one or two strictly domestic ones that make a protracted absence from the native heath highly advisable—oh, highly. Besides, you’d hardly have us trot back without a tiger, would you? I assure you that so far we haven’t bagged a solitary one. Not a tiger, Bill, not a tiger!”
“Oh, for the love of the Lord, shut up! I tell you this whole thing’s a rotten, ugly, dangerous business, and I didn’t come crawling up through Hades to have you turn it into a joke. I can’t267 stay jawing about it, and you know it—it’s going to be a darned close squeak to make connections with the steamer as it is. Are you coming or are you not?”
“I are not. Do quiet down and tell me why it is that you’re totally unable to distinguish between comic opera and melodrama? This whole performance is the purest farce, I swear! Wait till you see his Imperial Majesty—as nice a buttery, pompous little blighter as you’d want to lay eyes on, who’s spent six months at Cambridge and comes to heel like a spaniel if you tell him that anything in the world ‘isn’t done.’ He has a solid gold bicycle and four unhappy marriages and a body-guard with bright green panties and mother-of-pearl handles to their automatics! You wouldn’t expect even a Chinaman to take that seriously, would you?”
“I should think you’d go mad in your head trying to get along with a bounder who doesn’t know the first thing in the world about your code of standards or——”
“William, you are the most frightful donkey! The only code that I’ve recognized since I pattered off the ancestral estate is the jolly dot-dash thing that they use for telegrams. I’ve finally got our Bhakdi to the point where he drills his troops in pure British and plays a cracking good game of268 auction bridge without cheating—civilization’s greatest triumph in the Near or Far East. Personally, I ask no more of it!”
Ledyard mopped his brow despairingly. The dim room with its snowy matting and pale green cushions looked cool enough, but the heat outside would have penetrated a refrigerator. Just the other side of those protecting shutters the sun was beating down on the quiet waters until they glared back like burning silver—the tufts of palm and bamboo were hanging like so many dejected jade banners in the breathless air—the ridiculous little houses were huddled clumsily together on their ungainly piles, shrinking unhappily under their huge hats of nippa thatch.
“It’s a filthy, poisonous hole!” he protested fiercely. “It beats me why you can’t see it. If anything went wrong here, you wouldn’t have a white man in a hundred miles to turn to. You needn’t laugh. There’s nothing so howlingly funny about it. What about that Scotch engineer who was so everlastingly intimate with your precious Bhakdi’s next-door neighbour?”
“Well, what about him? The poor chap fell down a shaft and broke his neck.”
“Oh, he did, did he? Well, believe me, that’s not what they say in Singapore! Calvert, for God’s sake, get out of this infernal place. Every269 inch of it smells of death and damnation. How any one who calls himself an English gentleman can stick it for a minute——”
“But I don’t call myself an English gentleman,” the Honourable Tony assured him earnestly. “God forbid! I call myself an out-and-out waster exiled for ever from the Mother Country by a cruel and powerful elder brother. The only trick in it is that I’m simply cuckoo with ecstasy over the entire situation. Not according to Kipling, what? No, the glittering prospect of spending the remaining years of a misspent life in the largest rubber factory in Ohio leaves me considerably colder than ice.”
“I suggested Ohio because I happen to be in charge of that plant myself,” returned Ledyard stiffly. “If you’d rather have a go at one of the others——”
“But, my good child, it seems impossible to make you understand that the factory has not been built for which I would exchange one single baked banana soaked in rum and moonlight. Think of the simply hideous sacrifices that I’d make, can’t you?—taking advice instead of being paid good round guineas for giving it—working for one beastly hour after another instead of slipping from one golden minute to the next—drinking nasty chemical messes in constant terror of270 sudden death or prison bars, instead of tossing off bumpers and flagons and buckets of delectable fluids that smell like flowers and shine like jewels—dragging around to the most appalling festivals where pampered little females tip up their ridiculous powdered noses and distribute two minutes of their precious dances as though they were conferring the Order of the Garter, instead of——”
Ledyard looked suddenly three shades hotter beneath his freckles.
“Thanks—glad to know how much you enjoyed your visit.”
“I enjoyed every minute of it to the point of explosion, as you are thoroughly well aware. If I live to ninety-two, I shall remember the excellent yarns that your father spun over those incredibly good cigars and that simply immortal corn pudding, and the shoulders on the little red-headed creature in the black dress at the Country Club—good Lord, William, the shoulders on that creature! After four years of not especially pretty smells and not especially pretty noises, what do you think that those July evenings under the awnings on your veranda meant to a God-forsaken flying chap back from the wars, William?”
William looked frankly unappeased.
“A hell of a lot of difference it makes what I think! I know one God-forsaken flying chap who271 thought it wasn’t good enough for him, by a long shot. Not while he could hop off and rot his soul out in a water-logged bamboo shack in Asia!”
The owner of the bamboo shack settled deeper into his chair with a graceless and engaging grin.
“My dear chap, it was Heaven, pure and simple—but a dash too pure and simple for some of us. Every man his own Heaven, what? Well, you’re sitting in mine at the present. Of course it mightn’t suit any one with even an elementary code of principles, but having none of any kind or description it suits me down to the ground and up to the sky.”
“Oh, bunk!” commented Ledyard with fervent irritation. “You’ve got all the principles you need; do you think that I’d have come chasing up this unspeakable river in everything from a motorboat to a raft after any howling blackguard?”
“Well, it’s rather one on you, isn’t it, dear boy? Because it’s so absolutely what you’ve up and gone and done—though through no earthly fault of mine, you know! Rather not. Didn’t I spend four jolly busy years trying to get it through your thick skull that I was ninety-nine different varieties of blighter, and that nice little American kids with freckles on their noses shouldn’t come trotting around my propellers?”
“Hey, how do you get that way?” The nice272 little American kid raised his voice in poignant irritation. “Kid! If any one ever took the trouble to give you two looks they’d think you’d bounced straight out of rompers into long trousers without waiting for knickerbockers. Kid!”
“Old in iniquity, William, old in iniquity,” explained the Honourable Tony blithely. “Physically I grant that I’m fairly in the pink, but morally I’m edging rapidly into senile decay. I pledge you my word, which is worth considerably less than nothing, that I haven’t as many morals as I have side whiskers. And even you, my dear old chap, will be willing to admit that I don’t go in heavily for side whiskers. Take a long piercing look.”
Ledyard scowled wretchedly at the impish countenance blandly presented for inspection.
“The trouble with you is that you simply can’t take it in that any one on the whole bally globe could prefer a Bengal tiger to a British lion and a bird of paradise to an American eagle. You see before you a foul monstrosity who would trade all the British Isles for twenty yards of jungle, and gloat over his bargain. Have a cigarette?”
“No, I won’t have a cigarette. You make me so sick and tired with all that jaw about what a devil you are that I could yell. Once and for all, are you going to drop it and come back with me?”
273 “Once and for all I am not going to move one quarter of an inch. Stop jawing yourself for a minute, and try to see it my way. If you’d been chivvied about for your entire life by a lot of frenzied vestals for aunts who were trying to guide you to what they unfortunately considered grace, and three simply appalling bounders for brothers who set up the most frightful howl over the Bolingham name and the Bolingham honour and the Bolingham fortune every time the youngest member of the Bolingham family picked a primrose, you’d good and well think you were in Heaven if you could get out of earshot of their ghastly voices.”
“Damn it all!” cried young Ledyard violently. “You haven’t got the nerve to sit up there and tell me that you call this filthy water-hole Heaven?”
“Oh, I haven’t, haven’t I?” The Honourable Tony regarded the flushed countenance with pensive amusement. “I say, you Americans do have the most amazing cheek! Who ever asked you to come puffing and blowing into my own particular earthly Paradise and start in slanging it all over the shop? Filthy water-hole, by Gad! You won’t recognize Heaven when you have the milk and gold and harps and honey stuck under your silly nose.”
Ledyard rose sharply to his feet.
274 “All right, I’ll be off, then, and not waste any more of the valuable time that you’re employing so profitably. As you suggest, no one asked me to hurl myself into your affairs, and you’ve managed to make it good and clear that I was a lunatic to think that you’d take advice or help from me or any other well-meaning fool on the face of the earth. If you’ll get hold of one of those black swine that make up your circle of friends, these days, and tell them to get my men and the raft——”
“My dear old chap!” The Honourable Tony was at Ledyard’s side in two great strides, his arm was about Ledyard’s shoulders in the old, remembered gesture of gay affection. “For God’s sake, do try to remember that I am simply a feather-headed goat who can’t for the life of him say three consecutive inoffensive syllables—I give you my word that I was born with both feet in my mouth—actually! As for your taking the time and trouble to come tooting up that frightful river in order to throw me a life-line, I could sit down and howl with emotion whenever I think of it—no, I swear that’s the truth! Do sit down again like a good chap—it’s absolute rot to talk about going before sundown; the sun would simply melt you down like a tallow candle. Besides, the jetty-eyed companion of your travels isn’t back from her275 interview with His Majesty, and you can hardly abandon her to our tender mercies—oh, well, hardly! I say, didn’t you gather that she was going to romp straight back to our sheltering wings as soon as she’d presented the heart-wrung petition?”
“If you believe two words the lying little devil says, you’re a worse fool than I am!” said Ledyard gloomily.
The Honourable Tony shouted his delight.
“Where’s all this hundred per cent. American chivalry? What an absolutely shocking way to talk about a perfect lady who touchingly relies on your being a perfect gentleman. ‘Meestair Billee Ledyar’, allaways, allaways he conduck heemself like a mos’ pairfick genteelman!’”
He shouted again at the sight of Meestair Billee Ledyar’s revolted countenance.
“Calvert, when I think what I’ve been through with that beastly limpet, jabbering all day and hysterics all night—it’s nothing short of a miracle that I didn’t bash her head against the anchor and feed her to the crocodiles. Who the devil is she, anyway?”
“Daisy de Vallorosa? My dear chap, why ask me?”
“Well, I do ask you. She seems to know who you are all right!”
276 “Does she, indeed? Upon my word, that’s interesting!”
He cocked his head attentively, guileless and inscrutable.
“Yes, she does indeed. Come on—let me in on this! Did she honestly come up here to get help for a brother dying in the tin mines, or is this a rendezvous that the two of you fixed up in Singapore?”
His host looked shocked but magnanimous.
“William, William—no, frankly, you appall me! What a sordid mind you have under that sunny exterior; out upon you! I never make rendezvous—absolutely not.”
“Well, she swore that she’d met you and Bhakdi at a special concert while he was visiting Singapore.”
“Oh, extremely special,” murmured the Honourable Tony, a reminiscent gleam in his eye. “Rather! She sang some little songs that were quite as special as anything I’ve ever heard in my life, and at one time or another I’ve heard a good few. Bhakdi was most frightfully bowled over; he gave her two hammered gold buckles and a warm invitation to drop in on him at any time that she was in the neighbourhood. I rather fancy that that’s what’s at the bottom of all this; taking one thing with another, I’m inclined to believe that277 Necessity became a Mother again when our little Daisy barged into you, and that the expiring brother is simply one of her inventive offspring. Hence, death and the tin mines! By the way, just how did the young female barge into you?”
“She had the next seat on the train from Singapore, curse her!” replied Ledyard vindictively. “And she sat there as good and quiet as pie, squeaking out, ‘Yes, I sank you’ and ‘No, I sank you’ every time I asked her if she wanted the window up, or the shades down or—or anything. I tell you butter wouldn’t have melted in her nasty little painted mouth! Then when we found that you and Bhakdi had lit out after tigers, and I decided that I’d just have time before the next boat to hire a crew and hunt you down, she went off into twenty-one different kinds of hysterics until I promised to bring her along, too. ‘Five meenit—only five small lil’ meenit to spik weeth the gr-reat, the good Sultan, and the gr-reat, nobl’ Honable Meestaire Tonee Calver’, and her Manuelo would be restore once more to her arms.’ When I think that I fell for that I could choke down a quart of carbolic straight.”
“Oh, I can quite see how it came about—quite, quite!” murmured the Honourable Tony, pensively sympathetic.
“Believe me, you can’t see the half of it!”278 Ledyard ran a frenzied hand through the sandy hair. “Listen, how about getting away now, before she turns up?”
“Well, upon my word, you unprincipled young devil, I’ve yet to hear a cooler proposition! Damme if you don’t curdle the blood—damme if you don’t. Are you asking me to sit by and condone a callous desertion of this young female to the lures of a wily and dissolute potentate?”
Ledyard faced his delighted inquisitor unabashed.
“Oh, go on—I’ll bet that’s what she’s after—and if you ask me, he’s plenty good enough for her. She’s probably a cousin of his; any one with all that fuzzy black hair and those black saucer eyes and nasty glittery little teeth——”
“Wrong again, dear boy. The lady is undeniably the legitimate offspring of Lady Scott’s English maid and a Portuguese wine merchant, born in Madeira. She is also a British subject, being the legitimate widow of the late Tommy Potts, one-time pianist of the Imperial Doll Baby Girls.”
“Widow?” demanded Ledyard incredulously.
“Widow and orphan, William. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Tommy, alas, passed away while they were touring New Zealand, in a distressingly complicated attack of appendicitis and D. T.’s. She didn’t tell you?”
279 “No, she did not tell me,” replied William somewhat aggressively. “See here, how do you happen to know so much about this Portuguese Empire Doll Baby?”
“A trifling matter of a passport, William. Purely as a business matter it became my painful duty to excavate the lady’s buried past.”
Ledyard eyed him suspiciously.
“I believe she’s gone on you and you know it,” he said gloomily. “Anyway, if she doesn’t turn up pretty soon, I’m going to pull out, and that’s that. You and Bhakdi can fight it out between the two of you—I’m through chaperoning Daisy de Vallorosa Potts from now on.”
“Sorry, but you’re going to have to chaperon her clear back to Singapore,” the Honourable Tony assured him inflexibly. “If there’s one thing that I simply cannot and will not stick it’s cheap powder, and if there are two things that I simply cannot and will not stick—it’s cheap perfume. The less they cost, the more they use. Lord, Lord, the perfume that little hussy uses!”
“If she’s a British subject, it’s your job to look out for her. She’s under your protection.”
“My dear kid, I wouldn’t disturb this enchanting existence by lifting a finger to protect Queen Victoria from Don Juan.”
“Well, she’d better step lively,” remarked her280 late escort ominously. “I’m not joking, you know—if I don’t make connections with that boat in Singapore, I’m as good as disinherited! My Governor’s not so gone on you that he’d consider you any excuse for missing two boats, you know.”
“Not for missing one, you young ass.” The gay eyes dwelt on him deeply for a moment, mocking and affectionate. “Your very able parent was one fellow who never entertained any illusions as to my intrinsic merit, wasn’t he?”
Ledyard drew a long breath, his face a little pale.
“Yes,” he said slowly, “he was. That was one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. It’s hard to talk to you about anything like that, Calvert!”
“Like what?”
The tone was hardly encouraging for all its amiability, but young Ledyard pushed doggedly ahead.
“Like that—anything serious or intimate or real. You make it darned difficult, let me tell you.”
“Then why do it?”
“Oh, not because I want to!” His angry, tired young face bore unmistakable testimony to that. “Believe me, if I were consulting my own pleasure I’d have told you to go to the devil the first time you tried any of that condescending impertinence of yours on me.”
281 “Is it beside the mark to ask you just whose pleasure you are consulting, then?”
Young Ledyard set his teeth hard.
“Pattie’s,” he said, very distinctly.
The Honourable Tony did not stir, but the eyes that he fixed on Pattie’s brother went suddenly and incredibly black. After a long pause he repeated, evenly and courteously,
“Yes, Pattie’s. That’s half of why I came—the other half, if you want to know, is because I’m fool enough to care more about you than any other man I ever met—than any other two men.”
The wide eyes were suddenly blue again.
“Thanks,” said the Honourable Tony, and there was something startlingly sweet in his smile. “Thanks awfully. It’s quite mutual, you know—any three men, I should say offhand. Suppose we simply let it go at that? And do try one of these cigarettes; they really are first-rate.”
“I can’t let it go at that, I tell you—I wish to the Lord I could. Pattie had it all out with Dad, and she made me swear that I’d run you down when I got out here and bring you back. She said that if I couldn’t work it any other way I was to tell you that she said ‘Please.’ I’m at the end of my rope, Calvert—and Pattie says ‘Please.’”
282 The Honourable Tony raised his hand sharply, staring through Pattie’s brother as though he saw someone else. Possibly he did see someone else—someone as clear and cool in that dim, hot room as a little spring, someone who stood there very small and straight with young Ledyard’s sandy hair clasping her brows like a wreath of autumn leaves, and young Ledyard’s gray eyes turned to two dancing stars, and young Ledyard’s freckles trailing a faint gold powder across the very tip of her tilted nose—someone as brave and honest as a little boy and as wistful and gentle as a little girl, who stood clasping her hands together tightly, and said “Please.”
“No, by God!” cried the Honourable Tony loudly. “No!”
“Don’t yell like that.” Ledyard rapped the words out fiercely. “I’m not deaf—all you have to say is ‘no’ once. If it’s any satisfaction to you to know it, I’m through.”
He rose to his feet and his host rose, too, swiftly, catching at his arm.
“Rather got the wind up, haven’t we, old thing? No, don’t jerk away; it’s simply rotten bad manners, and throws me off my stride completely when I’m preparing to do the thing in the grand manner—apologies, and amendes honorables and every mortal trick in the bag. You’re absolutely right,283 you know. It’s far too hot to start shouting, and I swear that I’ll keep quiet if you will. We might toss off a stirrup cup of quinine, what?”
“I believe that you’d laugh at a corpse,” said Ledyard fiercely.
The Honourable Tony eyed him for a moment strangely—and then shrugged his shoulders.
“At a corpse—exactly. And there you are!”
“Well, where am I? D’you want me to tell Pattie that all you have to say to her is ‘No, by God’?”
“I want you to tell Pattie just exactly nothing whatever; say that I was off tiger hunting with the Sultan, and that you couldn’t get track of me to save your soul.”
“Thanks; I don’t go in for lies—more especially not with Pattie.”
“I see.” The Honourable Tony, his hands deep in his pockets, evidently saw something not entirely flattering, judging from the curl to his lip. After a minute, however, he dismissed it with another careless shrug. “Oh, spare your conscience by all means. Give Pattie my love, then, and tell her that I’d like most awfully to run up and wipe her out at tennis, but that I’m so indispensable here that I can’t possibly make it.”
“That all?”
“Quite all, thanks.”
284 “But, good Lord, I tell you that she wants you——”
“You misunderstood her.”
“Don’t be a fool. She told me——”
The Honourable Tony jerked forward suddenly, his fingers biting into Ledyard’s arm, his low voice savage as a whip.
“drop it, will you? drop it!” At the sight of the blank and stricken amazement in the other’s eyes he broke off sharply, his fingers relaxing their grip. “Oh, Lord love us, we’re both fit for a madhouse! Throw some water over me—pound my head against the wall—do something but stand there staring like another lunatic. Pull your jaw back, there’s a good kid.”
Ledyard stared at him wretchedly.
“But, Calvert, I swear that I don’t understand. I thought—we all thought—that you—that you cared for her——”
“My dear fellow, what in the world has that got to do with it? The more I cared for her the less likely I’d be to go within a thousand miles of her. For God’s sake, and Pattie’s sake, and my sake, try to get this straight. I am absolutely no good. I don’t mean that I’m one of your deep-dyed, hair-raising villains—no such luck; I’m simply a waster and rotter of the very first water who’s gone to and fro over the face of the earth doing the285 things that he ought not to have done, and leaving undone the things that he ought to have done for more years than he cares to remember. You’re worse than mad to tempt me to forget it; don’t do it again, there’s a good chap. And while you’re about it, try and remember that the best there is isn’t half good enough for Pattie.”
Ledyard swallowed hard.
“I don’t care—you can talk till you’re black in the face, and I won’t believe that you know yourself. If it came to a show-down, you’d be as good as the best.”
“Thanks. As it’s not likely to, you can take my word for it that I’m not of the stuff of which heroes are made, even in a pinch. Now that that’s settled, how about hunting up the little Vallorosa hussy? It’s getting on a bit.”
“I hope to the Lord she’s decided to settle here for life.”
“Oh, rot. Tell you what, if the young thing doesn’t turn up pretty promptly, we’ll call out the royal, holy, gold-fringed, pearl-tasselled, diamond-studded red parasols, and romp over in time to cadge some light refreshments from His Majesty. He has a cognac that will make you sit up and yelp with excitement; Napoleon—the real stuff, I pledge you my word. I suppose that it will be simply thrown away on you; half a nip of prune cordial286 sets the good old world going round for you Yankee martyrs these days, what?”
“Help!” invoked Ledyard with gloomy fervour. “Glad to know you get the comic sections regularly.”
“My priceless old thing, we get nothing whatever regularly; that’s one of the unholy charms. When my royal master and pupil feels any craving for mail and newspapers and other foreign frivolities he summons about twenty of the stalwart flowers of the masculine population and bids them oil and decorate and adorn themselves as befits the occasion and pop into the old lacquer sampans and yo heave ho on business of state. A few days or a few weeks later they turn up like Santa Claus bearing gifts, and I take all the pretty envelopes with an English postmark and put them in a nice tin can with a nice round stone, and drop ’em out of the window plop into the jolly old river—returned unopened, with many, many thanks! You never can tell when one of the tricky little devils might read ‘Anthony, come home, all is forgiven.’”
“But, my Lord, they must be worried half frantic! How do they know whether you’re alive or dead?”
“My dear chap, the only thing that the Bolinghams have ever worried about as far as little Anthony Christopher’s concerned was that he287 mightn’t have the grace to die before one of his waggish pranks landed him in jail or actually cost them something in pounds and shillings instead of mere lamentations! That’s why I gratified them by throwing over my share of the title when I came of age. Lord Anthony, what? No, thanks. But it’s all too clear that you don’t know Aunt Pamela and Aunt Clarissa, the last of the Bolingham vestals, or those splendid fellows, Roderick, Cyril, and Oliver.”
“Good-night, I’d hate to be as bitter as that about my worst enemy.” Ledyard’s honest drawl was chilled and thoughtful.
“Bitter? About my priceless family?” His careless mirth flooded the quiet room. “No, I swear that’s good! Why, my child, I revel in ’em; I have ever since Oliver used to jerk me out of bed at two in the morning to wallop the everlasting soul out of me because he’d lost at écarté—ragging along all the time about how it was his sacred duty as head of the Bolingham family to see that I learned not to disgrace it again by getting in through the scullery window at nine o’clock of a fine August night. I wasn’t more than three feet high, with a face no bigger than a button, but I couldn’t keep it straight then and I can’t keep it straight now when I think of that enormous red mug of his with all those noble sentiments pouring288 out of it—and the harder he walloped and the nobler he gabbled, the more I knew he’d lost. I was Satan’s own limb even in those days, and he generally managed to dig up some excellent and fruity reason for improving the witching hours with a boot-strap, but it undeniably was one on both of us that the night that he lost one hundred and thirty-seven golden guineas I’d been in bed in a state of grace since early dawn, with a nice bit of fever and a whopping toothache.”
“And just what did he do about that?” inquired Ledyard grimly. He did not seem to be as carried away by the humour of the situation as the Honourable Tony, whose carved dimples had become riotous at memory.
“Oh, you simply have to credit Noll for resource—he trounced the skin off me for adding hypocrisy to my list of iniquities! And there was I, innocent as a water baby of guilt or guile for twenty-four priceless hours—you’ll have to admit that it was a good one on me. I’ve taken jolly good care from that day to this that I didn’t let a night come around without deserving a simply first-rate caning, let me tell you!”
Ledyard made a gesture of fierce disgust.
“Do you mean to tell me that your own brother beat you night after night and no one lifted a hand to stop him?”
289 “Oh, well, come, who do you think was going to stop him?” inquired the Honourable Tony with indulgent amusement. “After all, the noble Duke had a fairly good right to see that a cheeky brat learned all of the sacred traditions of the family from the sacred head of the family, hadn’t he? Well, rather! All the more to his credit that the little jackanapes wasn’t his own brother.”
“Wasn’t?” echoed Ledyard blankly.
“Oh, come, come—you don’t mean to say that no one’s told you the true history of the little black sheep rampant on the Bolingham arms? No? Oh, I say, I am let down—— I thought all you chaps used to jaw about it for hours between flights! No one even said a word about it down the river? Well, there’s glory for you; it begins to look as though I’d won your kind attentions under entirely false pretences, my dear kid. All the time that you’ve been thinking me a purely blue specimen of the British aristocracy I’ve been a black skeleton and a dancing sheep and a mere paltry half brother to His Grace the Duke of Bolingham—and it begins to look as though I were an impostor to boot. I say, I am sick.”
He looked far from sick; leaning back in the long chair with his brown hands clasped behind his bright head, he looked radiantly and outrageously amused.
290 Ledyard gave a vicious kick to an innocuous rattan stool.
“I don’t know what you’re driving at, but if you’re implying that the reason that I was misguided enough to choose you for a friend, was that you happened to have a duke for your father, you can shut your mouth and eat your words. I’d always understood that you were Bolingham’s son, but I don’t give a curse if he picked you out of an ash-can, and you know it. Dukes mean nothing in my young life, let me tell you. If you aren’t Bolingham’s son, who are you?”
“Oh, I’m Bolingham’s son, all right enough, only unlike Noll and Cyril and Roddie, I don’t happen to be able to claim the Lady Alicia Honoria Fortescue as my mother. No, no, nothing to bring the blush of shame to that ingenuous brow, William. The lady died some eighteen years before I arrived on the scene, so neither of us can be blamed, you’ll admit. My mother’s name happened to be Biddy O’Rourke, and I’d be willing to take an oath that she was prouder of that and being able to dance longer on her toes than any one else in the London music halls, than of the minor matter of bearing the title of Duchess of Bolingham and having forty-two servants call her ‘Your Grace.’ Your Grace! I shouldn’t be surprised if it fitted her better than the Lady Alicia Honoria.”
291 “You mean he was married to her?”
“Rather—rather, my young sleuth! There was all too little doubt on that score to make it pleasant for any one but the unregenerate Duke and his Duchess. It seemed to afford them considerable amusement.”
“I didn’t know that dukes married—married artists.” Young Ledyard eyed his host with suspicion; he had fallen victim more than once to the soaring flights of that gentleman’s imagination.
“They don’t; that was exactly what furnished all the ripe excitement. He not only married her, but he was most frightfully set up about it—fairly swollen with pride. Nothing damped them, as far as I can learn; Society and the Court and the whole blooming family went off their heads with excitement and cut her and insulted her and disowned her—and she laughed in their faces and danced on their toes. She thought that the whole thing was the most stupendous joke; Bunny says that there never were five minutes after she came to Gray Courts that you couldn’t hear her laughing or singing somewhere about the place—and sometimes doing both at once.”
“Who’s Bunny?”
“Bunny was her maid—afterward she was my own private slave until the magnificent Noll showed her the gates of the ancestral home after she’d292 locked me up in her room one night when he was out hunting for me with the boot-strap! She went off into the most stunning hysterics right outside the door and called him a bloody roaring monster what ought to have his heart cut out for laying a finger on an innocent lamb. And when they fished the innocent lamb out from under the bed and informed him between larrups that his Bunny had been hurled into outer darkness by two footmen and an under-gardener, he let out the last howls of his life. He’d reached the mature age of six and a half, but he hasn’t lost or found anything since worth a single solitary howl!”
“Why didn’t your mother and father stop them?” demanded Ledyard, looking stern and sick and still faintly incredulous.
“Because the only active interference they were capable of at the time would have been with a Ouija board,” explained the Honourable Tony affably. “Exit Biddy, Duchess of Bolingham, laughing, on the day that young Anthony Christopher Stoningham Calvert makes his first bow to a ravished family. I’ll wager that before she slipped off she realized that it was a good one on all of us, too!”
“Well, but what happened to your father?”
“Oh, the Black Duke, as he was impolitely referred to, hadn’t extracted any amusement from293 life before he discovered his Biddy, and once she was gone, he evidently considered it a dingy affair. He slunk around the empty corridors for a bit hunting for the echo of her laughter, but he got tired of that game, too, and died of pneumonia and boredom without making any particular fuss—though Bunny swears that after everyone in the room thought he was gone for good and they all were filing out of the room on the tips of reverent toes, he flung back his head and gave one great roar of laughter—the kind of a roar that he used to give when he’d come on little Biddy in a dark hall, dancing out an imitation of the Bolingham vestals at their weekly task of patronizing the parish poor. Bunny said that it fair scared the breath out of their bodies, but when they went back he was lying there as dead as last year’s wild boar.”
“Calvert, are you making this up?”
The Honourable Tony turned his head sharply toward his interlocutor, his dark eyes narrowed to slits. After a moment’s cold scrutiny of the troubled countenance, he shrugged his shoulders with a not highly diverted laugh.
“My dear kid, I suppose that I’ve asked for this by over-valuing your powers of discrimination! Just as a tip, though, I may pass on to you the information that even the clown in the circus is apt294 to draw the line at playing the giddy fool over his mother. I might add, moreover, that my fertile imagination would balk at inventing any one as delightful as the lady who did me the honour to be mine.”
Ledyard, flushed to the bone, met the ironic gaze with considerable dignity.
“I beg your pardon,” he said. “As you imply, I’m a tasteless fool.”
“And so you’re in excellent company!” his host assured him. “I will now rapidly descend from the ancestral high-horse and prove to you, strictly as a matter of penance, that I am not invariably a liar. If you’ll wait just half a shake, I’ll present you to Biddy, ninth Duchess of Bolingham.”
He vanished into the room at the back with a reassuring gleam over his shoulder at young Ledyard’s startled countenance, and was back in rather less than half a shake with a shabby black case in his hands. He put it carefully on the table between them, touched a spring, and stepped with a low bow.
“There!” he announced. “Madame Biddy, the American kid with the freckles—you know the one. Mr. Bill Ledyard from Ohio, the Duchess of Bolingham—from Ireland.”
Out of the black velvet frame there smiled, wicked and joyful, a tiny vision of gold and ivory295 and sapphire. The head, with its froth of bright curls, lightly tilted—the nose tilted, too—and the lips tilted, too—there she sat laughing down the years, gay as a flower, reckless as a butterfly, lovely as a dream.
“Buffets and insults and three inimitable step-children and four incomparable sisters-in-law—and then some artist chap came along and painted her like this!” The Honourable Tony leaned over, touching the gauzy folds of the dress with a light and caressing finger. “She’s a bit incredible, after all, you know! They were going to crush all that life and laughter clear down into the earth, and away she went dancing through their fingers into the dust that was just a flower garden to her. She’s more alive this minute than they’ll ever be in all their everlasting stale lives. Ah, Biddy darlin’, look at you now after flirtin’ with the fine young man from America, and you with the blessed saints to teach you wisdom all these weary long years.”
Ledyard stared down at her, young and awed and tongue-tied.
“She’s—she’s the prettiest thing that I ever saw—honestly.”
“Oh, prettier than that, young Bill. She’s the prettiest thing that ever lived—or ever died. And she was such a lovely little lunatic herself that296 we get on famously. We know what a joke it all is, don’t we, Biddy? God be praised, we even know when it’s on us. There now, back you go, mavourneen, while Mr. Billee Ledyar’ and I start out hunting for another lady. Bill, take a look across the kampong at the sun while I hunt up my helmet—if it’s lower than Bhakdi’s roof you’d better be off. It goes down like a rocket in these parts, once it gets started.”
Young Ledyard flung open the great wooden door that had barred out the heat, and a little breeze came dancing in, barely stirring the strange glossy leaves that clustered about the ladder-like steps. The sky was blue as steel; behind the black shado............
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