Billie Finds the Answer
In which it takes a thief in the night to induce a fair maiden to see the light
NOW, as all the world knows, there are places in London where a beneficent County Council permits a man to leave his motor-car for a period of time which renders the concession absolutely futile. In fact, the number of people who have had the last act of a play ruined by the haunting fear of going to prison for overstaying the time-limit has never been accurately ascertained. But it must run the unemployed very close.
And it was in one of these places—to wit St. James’s Square—that a large man was standing at three o’clock on an afternoon in June, engaged in conversation with an obliging attendant.
“But,” murmured the large man mildly, “it seems rather ridiculous.”
The obliging servant was understood to say that it was damned foolishness. Or words to that effect.
“I have lunched excellently,” went on the large man, “and I now want to do some shopping. Close by here—in Jermyn Street. Yet, you tell me, it is necessary for me to get solemnly into my car—drive it to Waterloo Place— and then walk all the way back.”
“Two hours, sir,” said the man in uniform. “Them’s the regulations.”
“And after two hours I must remove it from Waterloo Place and bring it back here? Well, well—I suppose it’s another step on the road toward perfection.”
He felt in his pocket for a coin.
“I am obliged to you for saving me from being shot at dawn ” he remarked, and at that moment an electric horn delivered itself with a loud blast from a range of about one yard behind his back.
“Our celebrity returns,” cried the driver.
The large man jumped: then a slow grin spread over his face.
“Confound you, Tubby!” he said. “But for the presence of ladies I would take you out and stand you on your head. Monica—how are you?”
He strolled to the side of the car and leaned over the door.
“When did you get back, Jim,” cried Monica Marsham.
“Last night,” answered the large man, suddenly becoming acutely aware of the third occupant of the car.
“Billie—this is Jim Strickland. Miss Cartwright.”
A pair of very blue eyes under the rim of a little pull-on hat ... A face, cool and faintly mocking ... A figure, slim and almost boyish Thoroughbred hands faultlessly kept
.A pair of adorable silk stockinged legs which a kindly fashion ordained should be seen. Especially when sitting in a motor car.
“How d’you do,” said Jim gravely.
“But, Monica,” said Billie, “I love the wrinkles round his eyes.”
“Billie, you’re the limit,” remarked Tubby placidly. “Look here, people, I must put the bus away: we’re blocking the entire gangway.”
And then—struck by a sudden thought—
“Jim—what are you doing this week-end?”
“Exactly nothing,” answered Jim. “Why?”
“Then come down and stop with old Louisa Arkwright at Henley.”
“Do!” cried Monica.
“You’ll probably have to sleep in the bathroom,” murmured Billie. “But it’s a very nice bath.”
“Doubtless,” remarked Jim. “The only drawback to your otherwise excellent suggestion is that old Louisa Arkwright doesn’t know me from Adam.”
“That doesn’t matter a hoot, old lad,” cried Tubby. “Her false teeth will chatter like castanets at the thought of getting you. I mean it really,
Jim. Look here, Monica can go and telephone through to her. Tell her we’ve met you, and that we’re bringing you down. I know she’ll be delighted to have you. Then you can motor down, and incidentally take Billie if you don’t mind.
She can show you where the house is.”
“I think I could bear it,” murmured Jim gravely. “Provided Miss Cartwright will trust herself to my driving.”
“You’ll come then?” cried Tubby.
Very blue eyes they were under the rim of that pull-on hat.
“If she’ll have me, I’d like to,” said Jim.
According to the Powers that Be I have to take the car to Waterloo Place.”
“I’ll be there at five o’clock,” she answered. “And we’ll stop on the way down for a cocktail.”
And because those eyes were astoundingly blue under that little pull-on hat, Jim Strickland, as he stepped into his Bentley, failed to see a foreign-looking man who dodged rapidly behind another car—a man whose teeth were bared in a snarl of satisfaction, a man who had heard every word of the conversation.
If he had seen him, strange things might have happened in St. James Square, on that sunny afternoon in June. As it was, life resumed the even tenor of its way. For man must buy shirts and ties to cover his nakedness, though God forbid that one should write of such a boring proceeding.
/'A F ONE thing, however, it is necessary A' to write, before coming to Waterloo Place at five o’clock. When a man has been hailed as a celebrity, something must be said to justify the world. Otherwise, he
might be a K.B.E. or an actor, or even an author— which would damn the whole show from the very beginning. Also it conjures up visions of unwashed men signing autographs for flappers . .
Now it is safe to say that not one single flapper had ever written to Jim Strickland for his autograph. But then except for two nieces who adored him, not one single flapper had ever heard of his name. And even they had to admit that his signature ranked lower in the great scheme of things than that of the French mistress’s brother who had once shaken hands with Rudolph Valentino.
True—hewasaV.C. But ■the war was a back number.
And when asked how he got it, his reply was unsatisfying to a degree.
“It was nothing, kids—nothing. I happened to be there, that’s all.”
A few men there were, in High Places, who had been heard to declare in strict confidence, over the port, that twice since the war Jim Strickland had altered our policy abroad—and altered it rightly. But policy abroad is a tedious business—and anyway the remark was made in strict confidence. And there were swarthy hillsmen from over the Indian border who placed him only a little after the Almighty: and Bedouins who had told him strange stories under the star studded African night: and hard-bitten sailormen who had affirmed with oaths and curses that they would sooner have Jim Strickland beside them in a tight corner than any two other men.
But of all those things he never spoke, and even to his nearest friends Jim Strickland remained a bit of an enigma. That he disappeared for months on end from the ken of man—they knew, but where he went to was a different matter. He would vanish abruptly without a
word to a soul: only to reappear just as suddenly—unchanged save, perhaps, for a little more brown on his face, a few more tiny wrinkles round his eyes. And then, for a space, England would hold him—Ascot, Cowes, Scotland; with mothers angling in vain and daughters running round in small circles. But up to date Jim Strickland had shown no signs of entering the holy paths of matrimony.
“What the deuce should I do with a wife, my dear fellow?” he was wont to observe. “I shouldn’t see the dear thing for more than two months a year, and I’d have to pay for her for the other ten. Or someone else would. No, thanks, I was nearly caught once, but thank God! I had to go to Tibet suddenly. And she’d married someone else by the time I got back. I shall live and die a bachelor. . ”
And, after a while, women of his acquaintance ceased to prophesy that he was a liar, and began to believe that he really would. True, they still dangled desirable girls in his path, but it was more from habit than from any real
hope of success. And Jim Strickland, who adored prettv girls, was only too delighted that they should The spreading of the net in the sight of the wary old bird N always amusing—for the bird.
Wherefore that being that, and descriptions being at the best of times intolerably tedious we can come, even as he did, to Waterloo Place when the clock still wanted five minutes to the hour of five.
He saw her at once curled up in the front seat of his car, smoking a cigarette.
“Punctual person,” he remarked, sitting down beside her. “Are you certain you wouldn’t like some tea before we start?”
She shook her head.
“It’s hot and stuffy here. Let’s drive—fast.”
“But certainly,” he said, and glanced at her sideways. Just the tip of her nose, and her firm little chin could he see. then he let in his clutch. And in silence they drove along Pall Mall.
The girl sat motionless staring in front of her—her hands linked loosely in her lap. Evidently she was in no mood for conversation, and suddenly the contrast struck him between her and other women who from time to time had driven in that same seat. No forced small talk—no banal platitudes ...
“How do you like traveling, Mr. Strickland?” And“Isn’t your life very dangerous, Mr. Strickland?”
Moreover, it seemed natural with this girl: she seemed so full of—he searched for the word—full of repose. No that was wrong: repose conjured up elderly ladies of aristocratic appearance, knitting.
Self-possession. That was nearer the mark The rio-hf type of self-possession. ^
Once again he glanced at her sideways, and, as he did so, she turned and met his eye.
“Do you want me to talk?” she said quietly.
“I was just thinking how pleasant it was to sit beside someone and not feel it necessary to do anything of the sort,” he answered. “It’s rather a favorable sign, isn’t it?”
“It may be a very dangerous one,” she remarked.
“Pointing to boredom,” he said lightly.
She gave a short laugh, and leaning forward lit a cigarette under cover of the wind screen.
“I’m in a peculiar mood, Jim Strickland,” she announced calmly. “I’m out of conceit with life_rather
more so than usual. Met a damned old cat at my club into whose eye I would have liked to spit.”
He negotiated a lorry with care.
“I shouldn’t have thought you were the type of person to be upset by damned old cats,” he said non-committally.
They came to the new switch road, and she put her hand on his arm.
Let her out all out,” she cried. “Seventy—eighty . . Go on, Jim—she’ll do eighty-five.”
'T'HE wind roared past them: the needle quivered past A eighty-five—stayed motionless at eighty-seven.
“Over ninety if she’s tuned up,” said Jim Strickland slowing as they came to the main road.
I felt like that, she said, lying back in her seat.
“The old cat was very cattish, was she?”
“She insisted on giving me good advice,” she answered.
“Nuff said!” remarked Jim. “Men have died for less than that.”
Once again she fell silent, a little frown puckering her forehead. And it was not until they were approaching that celebrated hotel by the river at Maidenhead that she spoke again.
“Mine is a Martini with an olive,” she said. “And the point is shall I marry him or shall I not?”
For a moment Jim Strickland stared at her: then he burst out laughing.
“You really are an astounding person,” he remarked. “Why?” she answered calmly, strolling across the lawn at his side. You are just as capable of answering the question as my old cat at the club. And she said yes. In fact she said it so often that it sounded like bullets coming out of a machine-gun.”
“Who is the fortunate individual?” asked Jim. “You’ll see him. He’s stopping at Henley. By the name of Trevor. George of that ilk. Stockbroker by trade. And full of money. Good-looking and dances divinely.”
One trifling detail, murmured Jim. “Do you love him?”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“Can one afford to indulge in luxuries on the princely allowance of a hundred a year?”
“Rotten,” said Jim curtly. “Cheap and rotten.”
She stared at him, a hint of passionate anger in her eyes.
It s easy for you to talk, Jim Strickland,” she said, in a low voice. “It’s a problem that has never confronted you.”
True, he agreed. Nor has a desire to commit forgery. But there are some things about which one can make up one’s mind without actually encountering
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“And, anyway,” she went on, “what is love? You seem to have escaped it yourself up-to-date.”
“Maybe,” he answered quietly. “Or shall we say that it has escaped me? Not quite the same thing. In any case, what has that to do with it? The fact that I am not married—which I presume is what you mean—seems to me to be no adequate reason why you should do otherwise. I have never fallen in love: therefore, I am not married. You, on your own showing, have never fallen in love: therefore, you propose to get married. ’Tisn’t sense.”
“It’s sense all right.” She was sitting very still staring across the river. “Not the sense perhaps of romantic fiction: but common or garden horse sense, Jim Strickland.”
“Then there’s no more to be said,” he answered shortly. “Incidentally, I don’t want to hurry you, but I think as the newcomer I ought to arrive before dinner.”
“I suppose you think me a pretty average sweep,” she remarked in a low voice.
For a moment he did not answer: then he spoke very deliberately.
“I think that without exception you are the most attractive girl I have ever met. And I loathe to hear you talking as you have done. It’s horrible: it’s unnatural: it’s not worthy of you. Shall we go?”
And it was only when she made no movement to rise that he noticed that her eyes were swimming in tears.
“Sorry, Kid,” he said gently. “No business of mine and all that. But— don’t.”
Impulsively he put his hand on her shoulder: felt her quiver under his touch. Then slowly his hand fell to his side, and, over her head, he stared with unseeing eyes at a passing steamer. For in that brief second of contact a new factor had entered into the situation. And because he was thirty-seven, and the thoughts and habits of a life-time are not easily broken, Jim Strickland shied away from that new factor like a frightened colt.
At last she rose, having furtively dabbed her eyes with a pocket handkerchief. The mocking smile had returned to her lips: the very blue eyes under the little pull-on hatseemed bluer than ever because of their mistiness.
“You’re incorrigibly romantic, Jim,” she announced calmly. “In fact not at all the sort of person for an impressionable young girl to be alone with. But you’re —rather a darling.”
And then abruptly her eyes fell from his, and she began to fumble with her hand-bag.
“I think we’d better go,” she said, a little unsteadily. “It would never do if you were late for dinner.”
In silence he led the way to the car, wild incoherent thoughts pounding through his brain. In silence she got in and sat down beside him. And that was the second time within the space of three hours that Jim Strickland, of whom it was said that he possessed not one but twenty pairs of eyes, failed to see a foreign looking man, now reinforced by a companion, who watched the car as it drove off
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with barely concealed malevolence. If he had seen him, strange things might have happened in Maidenhead on that sunny afternoon in June.
'T'HERE is a type of man whom women find ‘so amusing, you know,’ and men ‘quite a decent sort, but . . .’ And the ‘but’ is left, as it were, high and dry. Nothing specific to follow the qualification: nothing that can be put into so many words: but—something. And to this type belonged George Trevor.
Immaculately groomed: sleek of head: good-looking and with charming manners, he was, undoubtedly, an acquisition to any house-party. Moreover, being a very shrewd business man, not only had Tie prospered exceedingly on the Stock Exchange, but, in addition, he was able to impart valuable private tips to such of his friends as he desired. And the fact that those of his friends whom he desired to benefit were almost invariably pretty women, may possibly help to etch in his character.
He was standing in the hall performing rites with a cocktail shaker as Jim Strickland drove up, and the girl introduced them to one another.
“Mr. Strickland has just motored me down, George,” she remarked. “And I won’t have a cocktail, as we stopped for one at Skindles.”
With a little nod she turned and went upstairs leaving the two men together.
“I presume,” said Trevor easily, “that one is not your limit.”
“No” said Jim, with a faint smile, “it is not. “But it will have to be a quick one: I’m rather late.”
To the outsider, two very attractive men of totally dissimilar types casually talking banalities over a drink and a cigarette: to a thought reader two utterly antagorrstic personalities who disliked one another at the very first clash, but being men of the world concealed that dislike behind a discussion of Yorkshire’s chances for the championship.
To Jim Strickland, accustomed as he was to forming instant judgment on his fellows, Trevor seemed all that he disliked most—a poseur of the worst description. Which, to be just, was not quite fair.
To George Trevor, accustomed also to thequick summing up of character, though in a very different school, Strickland appeared conceited and over-bearing. Which most certainly was not quite fair.
And so when they went up to dress for dinner, they weie each in the condition in which, for the benefit of all concerned, it would be better if they did not play bridge at the same table.
“The type of man,” murmured Jim to his reflection as he shaved, “who plays little tricks with matches.”
And then he broke off and stared thoughtfully out of the window: he was honest with himself always—was Jim Strickland. Was it entirely the clash of two mutually hostile men: or was it very largely the bitter instinctive rivalry of two male animals? Trevor was the man that Billie was thinking of marrying: except for that, would he have felt as he did? And suddenly his hand began to shake a little: he was back at Skindles and a girl with very blue eyes under a little pull-on hat was fumbling with her handbag. A girl whose voice was not quite steady ... A girl, who . . .
“Don’t be a fool, Jim Strickland,” he remarked firmly. “A man of your age doesn’t fall in love with a girl, whom he has known for an hour.”
For a moment his eyes narrowed: wasn’t there something moving on the other side of the lawn behind that bush? He leaned out of the window, to see better: then he gave a little laugh. Old habits die hard, but this was England, not his usual hunting grounds. England where people kept gardeners—and a man could sleep with both eyes shut. . . .
The evening passed as such evenings do—bridge, a gramophone for dancing, drinks for the thirsty. And if Jim Strick-
land and George Trevor successfully avoided one another’s society, only one other person was aware of the fact. And that one other person, because she was a hundred per cent, woman, secretly rather enjoyed it.
From the first moment that Billie had sat down to dinner, next to Trevor, she had sensed the hostility between the two men. Which was quite sufficient for any girl to start playing an age old if somewhat dangerous game. Just once or twice she remembered the look blazing in Jim Strickland’s eyes as they had stood together on the lawn at Skindles, and when she did her heart beat a little quicker, and she stole a glance at him over the table. Had he really meant it—that unmistakeable message? Or was it merely the passing feeling of a moment.
Somehow it struck her that Jim Strickland was not that sort. From George Trevor she would have expected it, and as the evening went on more and more did the absolute contrast between the two men come home to her. And the result was not favorable to the stockbroker.
True he danced more divinely than usual, and that normally went a long way with her. But on this occasion . . .
“What’s the matter with you, Billie?” he whispered half-way through their second. “You’re as cold as be damned tonight.”
“Am I?” she answered. “You’d better go and dance with someone else.”
It was at that moment that she saw Jim Strickland standing in the door of the bridge-room staring at her. She smiled at him, but he turned away a little abruptly—and the smile turned to a frown. When all was said and done, he had not the faintest right to criticize her.
“That’s better,” said Trevor, a moment later. “Now you’re dancing more like yourself.”
He, too, had seen Strickland in the door, and a faint smile flickered round his lips. He’d show the blighter the terms he was on with Billie. And because I in modern dancing an exceedingly intimate, but wordless, conversation can be maintained between the dancers, he succeeded in reducing Strickland to a condition of silent fury which boded ill for someone. He also succeeded in working himself into a condition when the answer to his oft-put question to Billie could be waited for no longer.
“Billie, darling,” he said, a little hoarsely, “come outside with me for a bit. Can’t you say yes, my dear? I’m simply mad about you.”
And so the crux had come: it was now or never. Dimly came the advice of her female relative: dimly came worldly wisdom. Say—yes: say—yes. And then clear as a trumpet call came four words—“It’s rotten: it’s cheap.” Came also the vision of a clean cut sunburned face: the feel of a strong hand on her shoulder . . .
“I’m sorry, George,” she said, steadily, “but I made up my mind definitely to-day that I can’t marry you.”
“Why not?” he demanded thickly. “I believe it’s that damned fellow Strickland.”
“Don’t be offensive,” she said coldly. “I met Mr. Strickland for the first time this afternoon. I can’t marry you, because I don’t love you.”
And then George Trevor lost his head. He flung his arms round her, and before she could stop him he was kissing her on the lips, on her bare neck.
“Let me go, you brute,” she said, furiously. “Let me go, or I’ll hit you.”
Sullenly he let her go, staring at her with smoldering eyes.
“I think,” she said quietly, “that I hate you.”
WITHOUT another word she walked back into the house, and up to her room. Her mind was seething: she felt she had to be alone. And after a while she undressed, and, turning out the light, sat down by the open window. She had burned her boats now all right. She had
deliberately turned down the most eligible man of her acquaintance. But it, wasn’t that she was thinking of—it was the remark of his—“I believe it’s that damned fellow Strickland.”
Was it? Had he hit the nail on the head? And suddenly with a little rush of color to her face even in the darkness, she knew that if it had been Jim Strickland who had flung his arms round her and kissed her she would not have told him to let her go.
One by one, the lights went out in the house; one by one bedroom doors shut as the house-party came to bed. And still she sat on by the open window. Did things happen like that—suddenly, in an instant? To her of all people—a girl who had asked what love was. Was she in love with this man whom she had only just 1 met ? Was he in love with her?
She stirred restlessly in her chair: had she been a fool? Probably she would never see him again after this week-end; he’d be away on one of these strange trips of his. Not the marrying sort, as Tubby had said. And yet, in spite of everything, she knew that she was glad she had answered George Trevor as she had.
The bells rang out from the silent town across the river. One o’clock.
Two hours had she been sitting there, and a little stiffly she got up, only to' shrink back instantly behind the curtain. Two dark shapes were stealing round the edge of the lawn coming toward the house.
Rigidly she watched them—burglars, of course. Saw them make a quick run over a little patch of open ground, and get into the shadow of the house. Peered out cautiously: realized they were just under her window. Heavens! they’d probably come up through her room.
And then suddenly one of the dark shapes spoke in a low voice. The night was still and every word carried clear to the girl's ears.
“The third room from here. I saw him shaving.”
The third room! The third room was Jim Strickland’s. These men weren’t burglars: they were after Jim . . .And now her brain was ice cold: the need for action was instant and imperative. She opened her door and tiptoed along the passage to pause for a moment outside Jim’s room. No light came through the keyhole: he was evidently in bed. And without further hesitation she went in.
She could see him in the dim light asleep—one arm flung loosely over the bed clothes. And the next instant she was bending over him whispering his name. Then she put her hand on his arm, and had to bite back a scream as she found herself seized in a grip like a steel vice—a grip which relaxed instantly.
“You!” he muttered incredulously. “Good lord, girl—what are you doing here?”
“Jim,” she whispered urgently, “there are two men in the garden. And they’re coming to your room. I heard them talking under my window.”
“You topper,” he breathed, swinging out of bed. “You absolute topper.”
She heard the thrill of excitement in hi? voice—realized that now she was seeing Jim Strickland in the setting which was peculiarly his own.
“In that corner, Billie,” he whispered;. “I’m going to catch ’em as they come in.”
Tn his hand was the poker, and she laid her hand on his arm.
“Listen, Jim. I’ll get into the bed. Then they’ll think you’re asleep. You hide by the curtain.”
“You darling,” he muttered. “You perfectly priceless Kid.”
And then, because she couldn’t help it, she flung her arms around his neck and kissed him on the lips.
“Slog the blighters,” she whispered. “Billie,” he breathed. “Billie, dear.”
A faint noise outside brought him to his senses, and like a cat he crossed the room toward the window. The Jim Strickland of many a similar position was functioning automatically: but another I
Jim Strickland felt his senses rioting with the remembrance of warm young arms round his neck, warm young lips on his.
He stole a glance at the bed: she was curled up apparently asleep. And then he had absolutely to force himself to attend to the business in hand.
Slowly, inch by inch, a head was appearing over the window sill, but he bided his time. Then the body came, a leg was flung over—and still Jim waited. He wanted both of the men.
Came a sudden sharp hiss, and with a furious curse Jim lunged and struck. Straight in the face he got him, and the man toppled over backwards without a sound, to crash in the flower-bed below. He had a glimpse of the other running like a hare across the lawn: then sick with anxiety he turned toward the bed. Fool —thrice damned fool that he was. not to have thought of a silent automatic . . .
“Billie,” he cried, and then—“Oh! my God.”
On the sheet an ominous red stain was already spreading.
“Jim,” she whispered faintly, “my leg feels all funny.”
“My darling,” he muttered in an agony, “he’s plugged you with a revolver.’ “Did you get him, Jim?”
Her voice trailed off, she had fainted. And, for just one second, did Jim Strickland hesitate: some things are a little bit difficult to explain. Then, with a feeling of contempt for his momentary indecision, he got to work. It was a nasty looking wound in the thigh, and the bullet was still inside—but the danger as he well knew was that it might prove septic.
“Expanding bullet,” he muttered. “Damn the swine!”
Into the wound went most of a bottle of iodine, and with a scream of pain the girl came to.
“Steady, darling,” said Jim. “It hurts like hell, I know—but it’s got to be done. Then we’ll have a doctor here in no time and get the bullet out.”
He ripped a towel in pieces and bound up the wound, whilst Billie, the bright color flooding her face and neck, watched him.
“I’m going to tell them exactly what happened, dear,” he went on quietly. “And I’m also going to tell them we are engaged. It may make things easier.” Already there were steps in the passage outside, and Lady Arkwright’s voice— “Who was that who screamed?”
“There, dear,” said Jim finishing the bandage. “Now leave it all to me.”
He went to the door and opened it. “Lady Arkwright,” he called, “will you at once telephone for a doctor? Tell him that there’s a case of a bullet wound in the thigh, with the bullet still in. Say that the wound already has been dressed with iodine.”
“But what’s happened?” cried his hostess.
“Explanations afterwards,” said Jim curtly. “Get the doctor.” He saw Monica and Tubby. “Monica—will you remain in my room with Miss Cartwright?”
“And now,” he glanced round the row of amazed faces, “since every one in the house seems to be awake, I may as well explain what happened. Shall we go downstairs for a moment? And, first of all, we may as well see what has become of the gentleman in the flower-bed.” They thronged after him too bewildered to speak, and pressed through the front door in a bunch. The man was lying where he had fallen stone dead, his head almost split open: and in his hand he still gripped the revolver.
“So,” muttered Jim half to himself —“it’s Strabinoff at last . . . That man, ladies and gentlemen, has been trying to kill me for four years. But for Miss Cartwright, he would have succeeded to-night. However the point is immaterial: other far more important matters must be explained.”
They followed him back into the house, and quite shortly he told them exactly what had happened.
“I may further add,” he said, when he
had finished, “that only to-night Miss Cartwright did me the very great honor of promising to become my wife.”
A confused medley of congratulations broke out, interrupted suddenly by the arrival of the doctor.
“Gracious me!” he exclaimed, “what’s all this?”
“Would you take the doctor up, Lady Arkwright?” said Jim. “Once again, explanations after. By the way, it s an expanding bullet, doctor.”
He strode to the telephone and rang up the police; then coming back he sat down on the fender. And sitting down became acutely aware-of a man who, in the excitement he had forgotten all about—George Trevor. He was standing at the foot of the stairs, smoking a cigarette with a cynical smile on his face.
“I congratulate you, Mr. Strickland,” he said, with a slight sneer.
“On what,” said Jim, curtly.
“Shall we call it—a ready imagination?” Jim Strickland rose slowly to his feet, and crossed the hall toward him. The rest of the party had dispersed; the two men were alone.
“You imply,” he murmured politely, “that I lied.”
“As any one else would do,” returned the other equally politely, “in similar circumstances.”
“Will you come into the garden with me, Mr. Trevor?” said Strickland gently. “You see, I’m going to break you up— and this is not my furniture.”
And at that full blast, the hatred of George Trevor blazed out.
“This isn’t one of your damned savage countries,” he snarled. “We don’t do that sort of thing in England. You can keep your breaking up and your seduction of girls for places where they belong.”
“Indeed,” murmured Jim, with a faint smile. “You are too kind.”
Quite slowly his hands went out and fastened on George Trevor; quite slowly he walked George Trevor through the hall and into the garden ; and then quite slowly he waded into George Trevor. He broke George Trevor up methodically and thoroughly till George Trevor could neither speak, nor hear, nor see; and having done so he flung him into one of those trees that are known as monkey puzzles. And there he left George Trevor and returned to the house feeling better.
THE police had arrived; but, for the moment, Jim Strickland was not concerned with the police. He was concerned with no one but the doctor, who was just coming downstairs.
“Quite all right,” he cried cheerfully as he saw Strickland. “We’ve got the bullet out, and she’s going on capitally.”
“Is she conscious?” said Jim.
“Very much so,” said the doctor with a faint smile. “Would you like to go up and see her?”
“Would I like?” remarked Jim taking the stairs three at a time.
He opened the door of his room to find his hostess and Monica with Billie.
“Do you mind going?” he said, shamelessly.
And they went.
Very blue eyes they were shining up at him from the pillows, and very dear and frank was the message in them.
“I thought,” she said, “that when a man said he was engaged he usually went through the formality of asking the girl.” And then there comes a slight discrepancy. Jim Strickland swears it was half a minute; the police-sergeant swears it was half an hour. Anyway, it is absurd to haggle over such a trifling difference. The fact remains that at the end of this doubtful interval, a patient voice was heard on the other side of the door.
“Look ’ere, sir, there’s a dead man in the flower-bed—and a ’orrible sight in the monkey puzzle—and can we get on with it?”
Moreover, that pillar of the Henley constabulary swears that the only answer he got consisted of two words: