The Big Bird
Concerning a young man who drove a bus, fell off a bus, and was afraid of horses
G. R. MALLOCH
THE Old Hall was the home of sport and sportsmen. Its coverts were famous in a county where pheasant rearing was a fine art, and the hunting to be had in the neighborhood, in country free from wire and cultivated by farmers of the old school who rode to hounds, was of the best. General Griggs saw that his farmers were of the old school: he hated the new-fangled men with their ideas of scientific farming and their aversion to foxes, and he could afford to select his tenants according to his liking, his wife, Lady Matilda, having a very comfortable fortune of her own. The general held very strong opinions on various other matters, in fact on every matter to which he gave a moment’s thought, and he seldom gave more than a moment at a time to thinking of anything but sport. A decent old bird, if a bit peppery, was the common verdict of the county on the general.
The family at the Old Hall consisted of the General, Lady Matilda, their two daughters, Piercey and Winifred, and the general’s brother, Admiral Sir Bartholomew Griggs, who was as keen a sportsman as the general. On this October evening, the party included also young Mr. Hopkins-Hopkins, the wealthy descendant of a long line of brewers, whose fortune, their parents thought, might do very well for one of the daughters of the house; Miss Fally, whose devotion to horseflesh and hunting made her welcome; Major Peters, who added skill as an angler to his other accomplishments; old Colonel Pitcher and young Lord Devandale. These were all friends and intimates and they were assembled for a purpose—nothing less than the first attack upon the Lowmeadow Wood, which contained the choicest and most numerous collection of pheasants in the county. The shoot was timed for Wednesday morning: this was Monday evening.
The true centre of life at the Old Hall was the gun room; and there, a couple of hours after dinner, round a blazing log-fire sat the general and his male guests, discoursing of the chase. Everything had been arranged for Wednesday’s campaign, after many earnest conferences with Williams, the head-keeper and his subordinates; stations had been allotted to the guns, and the manoeuvres of the army of beaters had been planned to the last footstep, possible wind and weather taken into account; and now the chief actors felt that nothing was left but to kill time on Tuesday while waiting for the great event.
Beneath serried rows of antlered heads and draperies of skins, interspersed here and there with stuffed minor casualties, such as badgers from the estate and an outsize otter from the river, the general sat, the firelight playing on his ruddy face and white mustache, discoursing of sport in Baluchistan, while Mr. HopkinsHopkins now and then interjected a respectful, “By Jove, sir!” Then the admiral would take up the tale, till old Colonel Pitcher saw an opening and skilfully took advantage of it, till he foolishly mentioned a river, which enabled Major Peters, the angler, to get away with, “Talking of rivers reminds me . . .’’And so the time wore on pleasantly enough for open-air men with tired limbs stretching in the firelight. At last silence fell, except for the crackling of the logs and the occasional swish of a siphon applied to a glass: a distinct snore from the colonel’s armchair.
Then the door burst open and Miss Piercey Griggs, a tall clean-limbed girl in the early twenties, with a healthy, pretty face and black bobbed hair, made an appropriate entrance; that is to say, she shot in, rather than entered. She appeared to be laboring under some form of excitement.
“Daddy,” she exclaimed, “I found a man at the West Lodge—fallen off a bus or something—he’s all mucked about. You’ll have to see him—he’s a gentleman, of course—he’s in the hall and I should think he wants a bath.”
The party sat up and gazed at Miss Piercey.
“What were you doing at the West Lodge at this time of night, my dear?” demanded the general. Always went for the essential point in a problem, did the general, as he frequently told people.
“Weston’s nursing Sally’s pup for me and I just ran down to enquire about it,” was the satisfactory reply. “But do hurry up, daddy—the poor man’s covered with mud and his face is bleeding. I wanted to tie it up for him but he wouldn’t let me. Do you think we should ’phone for Dr. Brown?”
The minds of the bewildered sportsmen lumbered after some coherent meaning in Miss Piercey’s outpourings, but the general was a man of action, and he was on his feet before any of them could frame a question other than the faltering, “Fell off a bus?” which came from young Mr. Hopkins-Hopkins.
“Show me the fellow!” he ordered, and marched out of the room behind the very highly excited Miss Piercey.
“Fell off a bus!” repeated the colonel. “God bless my soul, are there any buses here?”
“Lots,” said the major. “Buses everywhere now. Pass here going to the towns, y’know—some of ’em run right through to London—sort of charabanc affairs, y’know.” “Nasty, dirty things, driving cars off the road,” said the colonel. “Serves the fellow right if he fell off it.” “Frighten the game, too, sir,” ventured Mr. Hopkin3Hopkins, feeling that at last he was taking a hand in the conversation. “Not so bad as aeroplanes though, for that.”
“Never get planes here,” barked the admiral, who had been fast asleep till Miss Piercey’s entrance. “My brother says he’d have ’em shot down if they came interfering with the coverts. Damn well right, too.”
“Wouldn’t that be rather drastic?” enquired Mr. Hopkins-Hopkins, but nobody took any notice of him.
“What beats me,” pursued the colonel, “is that she said the fellow’s a gentleman. What could he be doing on a bus?”
This problem was too much for the assembly and silence again descended on the gun room.
MEANTIME General Griggs had reached the hall. His daughter indicated a little group consisting of Lady Matilda, Winifred, and Hilton, the family butler, standing round a couch upon which sat a pale-faced, youngish man in disheveled attire, with a scratched and muddy face. Lady Matilda was dabbing at the face with a towel, while Hutton held a basin of hot water and maintained a strictly non-committal expression. On the hearthrug, legs wide apart, stood Miss Fally smoking a cigarette and regarding the others with cynical detachment.
If we say that the general was prejudiced against his visitor at sight we shall not be far from the truth; but there were excuses for his attitude. In the first place, he knew Lady Matilda’s inexhaustible kindness and her strength of will. He saw at a glance that his house would probably be converted into a hospital for this stranger. In the second, the young man was very dirty and wore a greasy-looking old tweed suit at ten-thirty p.m., both serious offences against the general’s ideas of social discipline. Then, he didn’t particularly like the look of the fellow; slight, thin, and might have been one of those poet fellows or a socialist; and on the rug at his feet reposed a battered-looking little suit-case that any tripper on a bus might have carried. However, judging from his pallor and scratched face, the fellow had evidently taken a knock. The general’s code of hospitality forbade any expression of his feelings, and as he made his way across the big hall, Lady Matilda finished her ministrations with a final dab at the victim’s eyes and handed the towel to Hilton.
The young man staggered to his feet on the general’s approach. He seemed a little unsteady, and the excitable Miss Piercey put out a hand to support him. Is he drunk? thought the general, but the accent and manner of his unwanted guest dispelled that idea.
“Awfully sorry, sir,” he said with an attempt at a smile, “awfully sorry to intrude like this—her ladyship’s been too kind.”
“Taken a tumble, eh?” barked the general. “Must do what we can—feeling better?”
“All right again, sir, thanks,” replied the young man, swaying a little.
“Stiff whisky, Hilton,” commanded the general. “Sit down, sir.” The patient sat down with alacrity. “Like a doctor?”
“Oh, heavens, no, sir.”
“Mustn’t move till you’re fit.”
“He must stop here to-night, my dear,” said Lady Matilda, and her husband knew that it would be so. The young man made a feeble protest and murmured something about the village inn, but his hostess would have none of it. Winifred and Piercey were dispatched to warn the housekeeper and Hilton appeared with his bumper, which the pale youth gulped down with a readiness that surprised the general.
On the stairs, Winifred to Piercey:
“You might disguise your shameless delight.” To which Piercey replied: “Oh shut up, Winnie—I found him and I am sick of Hopkins and Devandale.”
“So am I,” said her sister grimly. “Still, he’s yours by right of capture.”
Meanwhile, Lord Devandale had been the first to recover from the coma which had settled on the gun room; he had unwound his long legs and made his way to the hall.
“What . . .” he began and stopped; a look of terror had appeared and disappeared as swiftly on the stranger’s countenance.
“Bit of a twinge,” he said lamely to cover that and a sudden clenching of one fist in the direction of the newcomer.
“Oh, sorry!” murmured Devandale and walked over to the fire. Only the hawk-like eyes of Miss Fally had observed this little incident. Miss Fally was not a good-natured fool: she was not so easily taken in as some people. There was something very suspicious about the whole affair and the simplicity of her hostess was simply laughable. She thought it was time to intervene.
“Do you think, general,” she said with an assumption of candor that might have deceived anyone who didn’t know her, “that this gentleman is sufficiently recovered to tell you something about himself? What I mean is, he will feel, of course, that a complete stranger being asked to stop the night here ...” Miss Fally paused suggestively.
“Give him time,” said the general uncomfortably; he thought she was right. The stranger looked horribly embarrassed.
“My name is Simpson—Harold Simpson,” he volunteered. “Traveling to London—fell out of the bus— stupid thing. Really couldn’t think of trespassing on your hospitality further.”
“We have no right to cross-examine Mr. Simpson, my dear,” said Lady Matilda firmly. “He is not fit to go out and he is going to sleep here to-night.”
“Sorry,” said Miss Fally sweetly. “Only no buses pass here after six o’clock.”
“Mine was a special bus,” said the young man hastily. “Express to London from Mantlethorpe.”
“Funny you should fall out carrying your bag,” said Miss Fally.
“Yes, wasn’t it?” said her victim with an attempt at brightness which failed. “Matter of fact, I was trying to get something out of it when the thing gave a lurch.”
“And nobody noticed anything! Mantlethorpe—-
that’s where the big strike is, isn’t it?”
“Yes—things are very uncomfortable there—lots of people wanted to get away after the riot—that explains the extra bus.”
“Running away, were you, Mr.—Mr. Simpson?’ queried Miss Fally. “I saw in the paper that the strikers were chasing the Communist speakers out of the place— were they on your bus?”
“Don’t think so,” said the young man. But he was saved from further embarrassment by the return of Miss Piercey, who informed her mother that the stranger’s room was ready, and Lady Matilda thereupon insisted that he should go to bed at once.
“I’ll take him up,” volunteered Lord Devandale to everyone’s astonishment. After a few feeble protests, Mr. Harold Simpson suffered himself to be led away, Devandale, to the further amazement of the company, insisting on carrying his bag. When they had gone, there was a moment’s silence.
“Poor young man,” said Lady Matilda, arranging the cushions on the couch he had occupied. “I hope he sleeps well.”
“I hope we do,” said Miss Fally acidly. “You’re an ass, Matilda. I never heard a more suspicious story. I believe it’s all a fake. The Jermingtons were burgled only last week, and the week before Arbour Place was ransacked. Did you notice how embarrassed he was at my questions and how he gulped that whisky? What was in his bag? Shouldn’t be surprised if it was jimmies. I’m sure Devandale suspected him.”
“My dear, he’s obviously a gentleman.”
“I think you’ve been a little too hasty, Matilda,” said the general uncomfortably.
“What utter nonsense you talk, Fally,” snapped Miss Piercey. “Anyone with eyes in his head could see that he isn’t a burglar.”
“That’s just what you haven’t got in your head, Piercey, when a man’s concerned,” said Miss Fally. “Anyhow, I shall see that my door’s locked and bolted. If he’s not a burglar, then he’s a runaway Communist, and that’s worse. He’s just the type, a pale-faced, weak-looking creature. Well, good night everybody!” “Good night, cat!” sneered Miss Piercey. “I don’t think she need bolt her door.”
Whereupon Lady Matilda said, “Hush!” and the general chuckled, and they went their respective ways, the general’s being to the gun room, where he gave an account of what had happened. Young Mr. Hopkins-Hopkins said, “But I say, sir!” several times: the colonel grunted disbelievingly and Major Peters suggested tying a fishing-line across the corridors to trip up any would-be burglar. On reflection, however, they resolved to do nothing but sleep with one eye open, as the admiral put it.
“My opinion, the Fally girl hit the nail on the head when she said he’s a runaway Communist,” was the colonel’s final judgment; “being a Bolshie accounts for his being on a bus.”
They went to bed.
NEXT morning, to everyone’s astonishment, Mr. Harold Simpson was sufficiently recovered to appear at breakfast. He was a fresher and cleaner Mr. Simpson. Dexterous hands had brushed and pressed his suit, and it appeared as obviously the handiwork of an artist, for all its shabbiness; and barring a few scraps of sticking plaster on his still pale countenance, he looked fairly well, even if the searching light of day revealed a few unexpected lines about his mouth and showed him an older man than they had guessed. But to the critical eyes of some of the house party he did not look up to much; he was still slightly built and too like a student or possibly a Bolshevist to please them. In fact, to everyone it was obvious that however good his accent and his manners might be, he did not belong to their set—no sportsman, they concluded, and before the meal was over they were amply confirmed in that judgment.
Mr. Simpson sat down during congratulatory murmurs from the girls and Lady Matilda, who always breakfasted with her husband; the general barked a polite greeting; Mr. Simpson replied modestly and began to eat heartily and talk pleasantly about the beauties of the grounds which, it appeared, he had explored in company with Lord Devandale before breakfast. He seemed much more at ease; and Mr. Hopkins-Hopkins remarked to the colonel when they both happened to be at the sideboard helping themselves to a second go of cold ham, that the beggar seemed to be making himself quite at home. Indeed he was; he was chaffing the girls and addressing Lord Devandale as Devandale, as if he had known him for a much longer time than nine hours. But his downfall was coming.
It began when Lady Matilda suggested that he should remain at the Old Hall for another day, or longer if he could manage it. Lady Matilda had been egged on to this by Miss Piercey. After all, she reflected, the young man looks and acts like a gentleman; he didn’t rob us in the night, and if he is a little reticent as to his own affairs, why, no doubt he has his reasons for that. So she delivered her invitation, which was reinforced by a shameless, “Oh do!” from Miss Piercey; and to everyone’s astonishment Mr. Harold Simpson accepted it with alacrity.
“It’s most awfully kind of you, Lady Matilda,” he said. “I should love to.” “Love to!” grunted the colonel. “Good lord!”
“Your business in London wasn’t so urgent, then?” asked Miss Fally sweetly.
“No,” replied Mr. Simpson, with an engaging smile. “You see, my appointment is busted up now.”
“Then that’s settled,” said Lady Matilda. “You must just consult your own convenience—we are very glad to have you.”
“Well,” said the general, waking to a sense of his duty as a host, “the point is, how are we going to amuse you? You see, we’re more or less loafing to-day—our big shoot’s to-morrow.”
“Loafing would suit me admirably,” said Mr. Simpson, with an involuntary glance at Miss Piercey.
“We usually ride in the mornings,” went on the general. “We can mount you.”
“Oh, I don’t think I’ll ride, thank you, sir,” said Mr. Simpson, not quite so confidently.
“Nonsense—we all do—there’s no difficulty about a mount, if that’s what you’re thinking of.”
Mr. Simpson hesitated — he seemed embarrassed: he cast an appealing glance at Lord Devandale, but that worthy peer was engrossed in a discussion about fish with Major Peters.
“Perhaps Mr. Simpson doesn’t ride,” pounced Miss Fally. Mr. Simpson turned to her gratefully.
“Fact is, I don’t. At least, not unless compelled. Never been in my line.”
The scandalized attention of the whole table was centred on Mr. Simpson.
“What?” snapped the admiral. “I’m a little deaf, sir—didn’t catch what you said, perhaps.”
“Fellow doesn’t ride,” murmured Mr. Hopkins-Hopkins. The general stared. Miss Piercey blushed and Miss Winifred gave her a malicious look.
“We could give you a quiet animal,” said the General at last, in a subdued voice.
“No good, I’m afraid, sir,” said Mr. Simpson, shaking his head mournfully. “Fact is, I’d be scared stiff and I’d only fall off. Don’t know what it is about horses—they frighten me—seem all teeth and hooves to me.”
“In that case, we needn’t ask you to join us,” said the general gravely. “I’m just wondering what you’ll do. There are some pleasant walks if you could find your way about—or there’s the library, of course.”
“Oh thanks, sir,” was the reply, “I’ll manage to amuse myself. And I’ve got some telegraphing to do. I was wondering,” he added, turning to Miss Piercey with calm effrontery, “whether you would be so awfully good as to show me where the post-office is?”
Miss Piercey gasped. She was conscious that the whole party was waiting to hear her crush this appalling young man who was frightened of horses. To her astonishment she heard herself replying:
“Oh, rather. If you’d like a walk afterward, I could show you rather a decent bit of country.”
“Splendid! ’ said Mr. Simpson, and Miss Piercey somehow felt that she didn’t care what they were thinking. She liked this young man; her maternal instincts had been stirred when she found him staggering in the road last night, and she felt that there was something about him that was not apparent, some mystery which she was resolved to fathom.
The breakfasters rose from the table one by one, leaving the colonel whispering into a veal and bam pie; “Scared of horses —no wonder the bus threw him! What are we coming to?” At that moment the colonel came to a tempting piece of egg which he extracted from the pie and put into his mouth, and his further thoughts were lost to the world.
In due time the cavalcade departed, leaving Mr. Simpson and Miss Piercey alone. And they in turn set out for the post-office. If she v/as a little tongue-tied at first, Mr. Simpson was not. He talked simply but well; he had traveled a lot, it seemed, and Miss Piercey began to wonder whether a life devoted to sport in Loamshire was really quite the summit of human bliss—whether this strange young man hadn’t got something out of life almost as good as the ability to manage a horse. And she was greatly comforted to find that he did know a lot about cars— in fact, he seemed to know all about them. A man who had driven across an African desert and who had raced at Brooklands couldn’t be altogether a muff, even if he didn’t ride. But to her astonishment, Mr. Simpson suddenly checked himself and asked her to say nothing about these exploits of his to anyone else. She had to promise; but an uneasy doubt awoke in her—was he afraid that he might be exposed as a boaster by some shrewd question? '
They reached the post-office and Mr. Simpson sent off his telegrams. She longed to know what they were about but he told her nothing. The only thing was that, as he emerged from the Post Office, he turned back with a grin and, shaking a finger at old Mrs. Jones, said: “Now Post Mistress, don’t forget the Official Secrets Act!” And Mrs. Jones had replied very respectfully, “You trust me, sir.” Which passage left Miss Piercey more intrigued than ever.
rT"'HEY had their walk through Bipham -I and Bupham and Old Man’s Hole, and various other spots of local interest. It was a glorious morning, the autumn woods were beginning to glow with color, and there was a frosty tang in the air very good to breathe. Mr. Simpson and his companion soon forgot that the world was inhabited by any other people. They ¡ stood on the old stone bridge at Bupham and watched the river slowly dimpling past beneath them, and Mr. Simpson suddenly felt a ridiculous inclination to kiss the back of Miss Piercey’s neck, and Miss Piercey knew perfectly well what he was thinking but kept her indignation to herself. They climbed the high stile into the water meadows and Miss Piercey had to give him her hand when she was getting down, and at the end of a mile she found that he was still holding it. A lot of other silly things happened, and Miss Piercey, thinking them over when the sight of the Old Hall and the house party disposed on chairs on the terrace restored her to sanity, told herself that she must be loopey.
Conversation among the party on the terrace died when Mr. Simpson joined them, and after a few awkward remarks, the general led the way to lunch. At table, the talk inevitably swung round to the next day’s shoot and the merits of the Lowmeadow coverts. To everyone’s surprise, Mr. Simpson, who had been dividing his attention between his food and Miss Piercey, suddenly broke in with a question.
“Lowmeadow Wood—that’s the wood that runs down to the Haunted Field, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said the general, suspiciously. “Do you know the country then?”
“Oh, I’ve just nosed round a bit,” said Mr. Simpson innocently.
“Good heavens, sir, I hope you’ve not been nosing round, as you say, in the coverts ! What sort of watch can Williams be keeping, if anyone can go tramping through Lowmeadow to-day!”
Mr. Simpson did not appear to notice the general’s indignation or the consternation of the others.
“What time do you expect to reach the Haunted Field, sir?” he went on.
“We never expect to reach it, sir,” snapped the general. “Perhaps I should explain to you, as you seem to be unacquainted with these matters, that we do not run after pheasants or hunt them with hounds—they are driven up to the guns, sir.”
“Why did you want to know when they would reach the Haunted Field, Mr. Simpson?” demanded Miss Fally.
Mr. Simpson looked at her blandly. “Oh, well, it gets dark so soon on these autumn evenings, doesn’t it?” he said. “Creepy sort of place to be in, you know.”
Miss Fally rolled her eyes to heaven, the colonel snorted and the general stared: Lord Devandale leaned back in his chair and laughed.
“May I ask whether Mr. Harold Simpson is to be one of us to-morrow?” said Major Peters with deadly politeness. The general started.
“Why,” he spluttered, “I—I don’t think so—shouldn’t suppose he cares for that sort of thing. Do you shoot?” he demanded, turning on his guest.
“Oh, it’s awfully good of you, sir,” said Mr. Simpson, frowning at Lord Devandale, “but please count me out of it.”
“Probably Mr. Simpson doesn’t approve of blood sports,” sneered Miss Fally.
“Never criticize other fellows,” responded Mr. Simpson. “But the fact is, I’m not too frightfully keen on killing. Been like that since the war—some sort of complex, I suppose.”
“Ha!” snorted the colonel, seeing a light. “Shell-shock, eh? You were in the trenches?”
Mr. Simpson shook his head. “No,” he said, “but I’ve been round the devastated areas in a bus.”
Lunch was suspended for a moment while the party gazed at Mr. Simpson as if he were some sort of obnoxious insect. The general sighed and looked entreatingly at his wife. Lord Devandale so far forgot his manners as to laugh till tears came into his eyes.
“Might one ask what you did do during the war, sir?” rasped the admiral at last.
“Drove a bus,sir,” replied Mr. Simpson. “Began at Chingford, but they shifted me all over the place. You see, 1 knew something about petrol engines.”
“And you’re not ashamed to sit there, sir,” said the colonel, “and tell us that you stuck at home driving a bus—that you’re afraid of horses—that you don’t like shooting—can’t shoot, you really mean! I think you’ve come to the wrong house, sir. You should be in a home for Conscientious Objectors. Are you a vegetarian, eh? A teetotaler and a nonsmoker, eh?”
“Every man to his job, colonel,” responded Mr. Simpson, unmoved. “But, of course, if the general feels like that, too, I’ll shift my quarters at once. I’m leaving for London to-morrow, anyhow, I hope. The village pub would suit me quite well—though,” he added with a really charming smile to his hostess, “I’m most awfully grateful to Lady Matilda and the General—and Miss Piercey—for such kindness.”
Miss Piercey, who had sat astounded and ashamed, and yet somehow disbelieving, as the astounding confessions of Mr. Simpson fell on her ears, blushed painfully at thus being singled out. Whatever Mr. Simpson might be, she knew in her heart that after this morning she would always have a tender spot for him, and she was almost sure that Lord Devandale’s laughter was not directed at her friend, whatever might be amusing him so much. Going to London to-morrow was he—and perhaps she would never see him again?
“Mother, of course, Mr. Simpson must stop here,” she heard herself saying. “And I don’t see what business it is of anybody’s whether Mr. Simpson likes riding or shooting or not, or what he did in the war—I’m sure he did his best, like all of us.”
She glared defiance at the others: Lady Matilda, very much astonished, assured Mr. Simpson that he must not think of moving to the inn. But Mr. Simpson scarcely heard her. He beamed at Miss Piercey.
“That was very kind of you,” he said simply. “Splendid—I shan’t forget it.”
And somehow he seemed to speak as a man whose remembrance was something worth having, and everyone felt it and grew rather uncomfortable. The general felt that he must pour oil on the troubled waters—he hoped Piercey wasn’t going to take the bit between her teeth and fall in love with this weird fellow.
“Well, well,” he said, “it takes all sorts to make a world. Just make yourself comfortable here as long as it suits you, Mr. Simpson—glad to be of any service to you, I’m sure. To-morrow, as you know, we’ll all be rather busy, but no doubt you can kill time, somehow. Perhaps you’d like to come down to the lunch with the ladies and see how we’ve got on.”
“Very kind of you, sir,” said Mr. Simpson, non-committally.
“That reminds me,” went on the General, “your speaking of the Haunted Lield, I mean—that there’s a lot of talk in the village, so they tell me, about ghosts being seen there again. It’s a most absurd thing, of course—but the place has always had the reputation of being haunted by a gang of murderers who were hung there centuries ago. I’m told a girl came screaming into the village last night saying she had seen men in sort of grayblue clothes in the field round a gallows. And nobody will go near the place.” “Is it a field entirely surrounded by thick woods?” asked Mr. Simpson. “Because I found myself in a place like that this morning—eerie sort of spot. But I didn’t see any ghosts.”
“That’s the place,” said the general. “I've a good mind to go and have a look at it this afternoon.”
“I shouldn’t, if I were you, sir,” said Mr. Simpson earnestly. It’s simply buzzing with the most deadly-looking mosquitoes I’ve ever seen.”
“All teeth and hooves, I suppose,” laughed Miss Fally. But the mention of mosquitoes was enough to make the general change his mind: even Miss Fally, who was curious, was too proud of her ankles to risk their symmetry, and the project was abandoned.
After lunch, Miss Piercey and Mr. Simpson drifted away and were not seen again till dinner-time. During that meal Miss Piercey was unusually bright-eyed and Mr. Simpson silent, but everyone else was engrossed in discussing the morning campaign, and only Lady Matilda noticed anything. Her only comment was a sigh of resignation: she knew her Piercey. She asked where they had been and was told that they had visited the Haunted Field.
NEXT day dawned, a perfect, cloudless, frosty morning. Breakfast was despatched in silence; the occasion was much too solemn for joking. The men were soon gathered on the terrace with a small crowd of keepers and loaders; weapons were examined with loving care, and at the appointed time, the procession moved off. Mr. Simpson was nowhere to be seen; neither was Miss Piercey. Miss Fally and Winifred elected to accompany the men; Lady Matilda was to put in an appearance with the lunch.
In due course, the general had all his forces at their appointed stations in the Long Ride; the word was passed to the beaters; the sportsmen waited in tense silence.
Suddenly a most extraordinary noise began, a strange, spitting, humming sound that seemed to come from the direction of the Haunted Field which lay behind the wood they were in.
“Good heavens, what’s that?” demanded the general of his keeper. But that worthy only pointed dumbly upward. Pheasants were beginning to appear from all directions; the whole wood was loud with them. Birds came rocketing this way and that, the whole feathered population of the coverts seemed to be on the wing. Guns cracked, birds showered down; it was simply firing into the brown; it was magnificent, if one counted the bag, but not sport, because the terrified birds flew anyhow, up wind or down wind or anywhere. The roaring sound increased, rabbits darted wildly round the general’s feet, owls and thrushes broke cover.
“Look, sir, look sir!” shouted the keeper. The noise became a roar, and suddenly above the tree-tops shot a gleaming shape, just missing them by inches, and a huge plane passed over their heads, circled round, climbing; and then turning its nose Londonward, was soon a glistening speck in the sky.
The general stood open-mouthed staring after it. He was stunned by the unexpectedness of the thing, by the torrential emptying of his coverts and the sudden silence which followed. The others of the party came up, realizing that sport was over in. this particular spot. They were in various stages of excitement.
“What the—who?—” began the general, unable to find words to express his feelings.
Lord Devandale was the only cool member of the party.
“That would be the Air-Marshal,” he said, lighting a cigarette.
“The Air-Marshal, sir. Simpson—the chap who’s been stopping with you— fellow who bombed the Rhine—you know.”
A petrified silence fell on the group. Devandale went on:
“You see, he was taking a secret new
machine to London from the works at Mantlethorpe where the strike was. Had to be got out because they were afraid some of the strikers might start smashing the thing up. He came down himself and took it away before it was quite finished —crashed in the Haunted Field the other night. Old pal of mine, by-the-way. Wired to London for mechanics and patched it up in the field. Had to get away this morning—told me to say he was frightfully sorry if the bus upset your birds.”
The colonel was the first to find his tongue.
“Said he fell off a bus ! So he did. Said he drove a bus in the war—so he did, by Gad, and many a time I saw him do it! Should have taken off my hat to the fellow, instead of cheeking him.”
“He’s led us all up the garden, rather,” said the general. “Quite right, too, considering how we treated him. By-theway,” he asked inconsequently, “where’s Piercey?”
“Yes, where’s Piercey?” demanded Miss Fally, acidly.
“One of the beaters tells me that there was a lady in the bus when it started up,” said Lord Devandale innocently. “Could it be she, I wonder? Well, what about it, sir? The birds haven’t gone far—if you turned the beaters over to the other side we’d have them back.”
At luncheon a telegram was handed to Lady Matilda. She frowned as she read it and then, smiling, read it aloud.
“Had a most thrilling flip to London. Returning by two five train. I suppose we are engaged. Hope you approve. Piercey.”
“Well,” said the general cryptically, “I don’t know that I don’t.”