Project Gutenberg Australia
a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership


Title: At Short Notice
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1200041.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: January 2012
Date most recently updated: January 2012

This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy

Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions
which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice
is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular
paper edition.

Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the
copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this
file.

This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions
whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms
of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at
http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html

To contact Project Gutenberg Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: At Short Notice
Author: Fred M. White

*

Published in The Central Queensland Herald (Rockhampton, Qld.), Thursday
17 June, 1937.

*



CHAPTER I.


It was all very well for the General to assert his independence, to
proclaim the fact that he was not going to be put upon by anybody, but
it was none the less awkward for Ethel Lance, who was mainly responsible
for the maintenance of law and order in the old fire-eater's family.
This was not the first time the same thing had happened, but it had
never taken place on Christmas Eve before. To make a long story short,
General Francis had been quarrelling with his servants, and one word
leading to another, the upshot of the mischief was that the domestics
left in a body, to the General's great delight and the corresponding
dismay of Miss Lance.

"It is all very well," she said, "but what are we going to do now? Do
you know there is absolutely not a single servant left in the house? Do
you understand that?"

"And a good thing, too, my dear," General Francis chuckled. "They are
the plague of one's life. If I had known how things had altered since my
young days I would have spent the rest of my years in India. No trouble
with then out there."

Which was precisely the source of all the mischief. General Francis had
spent more years than he cared to count in the service of his country
abroad, and he had not yet succeeded in bringing himself in line with
modern British ideas. It was, no doubt, a fine thing to take out his
cheque book and pay then off grandly one at a time; but who was going to
take their places? Seagrave Grange was by no means a large house, but it
required at least half a dozen servants to run the place properly, added
to which it was some twelve miles from the nearest town. Between now and
Christmas Day it would be absolutely impossible for Ethel to supply a
fresh domestic staff. More than this, casual help was at a premium. Even
the humblest of cottager's wives liked, if possible, to spend Christmas
in the bosom of their family. It was fortunate, perhaps, that the few
expected guests were all relatives, who could be put off by telegram.

"Well, there is only one thing for it," Ethel said resignedly. "We shall
have to send messages to everybody not to come, and we shall have to do
the best we can for ourselves. I suppose you understand what that means,
Uncle? You must make your own bed and get your own breakfast. I don't
suppose it will be any particular hardship to an old campaigner like
yourself, and, no doubt, I can manage. But it is impossible that there
should be cooking of any kind in the circumstances."

The General drew himself up erect. The smile of the conqueror was on his
face. For the moment he stood on the hearthrug in front of the
dining-room fire feeling that he had done well by his country. But the
mood would pass presently, as Ethel very well knew, for the General was
a man who had a weakness for his dinner and the other good things of
this life.

"Where there's a will there's a way," he said cheerfully. "Oh, no doubt
you will find somebody to come and give you a hand. I daresay there are
plenty of deserving women in the neighbourhood who have been cooks and
all that kind of thing in their younger days. I don't want much
myself--just a bit of fish, and a bird and a savoury for dinner. It's
hard luck if an old soldier like myself can't make shift and do without
a parcel of insolent servants."

In spite of her perplexity Ethel laughed aloud. She was wondering where
the genius was to come from, capable of cooking the little dinner which
the General had sketched out so airily for himself. There were,
doubtless, working men's wives in the neighbourhood who eked out a
scanty living by an occasional odd day's work, but from a gastronomic
point of view, they were hardly likely to satisfy the General's modest
requirements. And despite her annoyance, Ethel could not really find it
in her heart of hearts to be angry with her uncle. He seemed to take
everything so for granted. He seemed absolutely certain that he had done
the right thing. Ethel stood there for a moment or two looking out
through the windows across the snowy landscape lying white and silent
outside. There had been two heavy falls of snow lately, so that it was a
matter of some difficulty to reach the nearest village, and if something
had to be done that same must be done speedily, and before darkness
fell. The bare trees were sweeping wildly in the wind, the leaden-grey
sky gave promise of more snow to come. The General turned away from the
fire and rubbed his hands briskly.

"It's getting low," he muttered. "Why aren't there any logs here? And
the coal scuttle is empty, too. Confound the people. They might have
taken the trouble to see to this before they went."

"And now you'll have to see to it yourself," Ethel laughed. "Do you
happen to know where the coal and wood are kept, because if you don't I
must show you. And whilst you are about it you had better get in a good
supply or we shall have the kitchen fire out, too, to say nothing of the
drawing-room and the bedrooms."

"I've got to do that?" the General said in a choking voice.

"Well, of course," Ethel responded sweetly. "My dear uncle, you hardly
expect me to do a thing of that sort."

General Francis snorted furiously. A deep pink spread over his cheeks.
He was beginning faintly to realise that he was likely to pay a penalty
for his headstrong folly. All the same he followed Ethel quietly and
grimly enough down the stone-flagged passages until they came to a large
square yard surrounded by outhouses. There were five or six inches of
wet snow on the pavement, and the General breathed a silent prayer that
his chronic rheumatism might escape the fruits of his rashness.

"You'll find all you want over there," Ethel went on. "You can amuse
yourself by filling up all buckets and baskets and carrying them into
the kitchen. You had better get in a big supply because it looks like
more snow, and goodness knows how deep it will be before morning. As to
myself, I will go as far as the village and see if I can get some sort
of assistance."

It was no far cry to the village, but the task was a little more
difficult than Ethel had anticipated. The fine snow had been drifted by
the wind into masses here and there, so that progression was slow and
painful. Ethel shuddered to herself as she thought of how dangerous the
way would be if she happened to be detained in the village till after
dark. But she put these gruesome thoughts from her mind now and trudged
bravely on till at length the place was reached. It was just as she had
anticipated. News of the exodus from Seagrave Grange had already reached
the villagers, and some of them were disposed to be amused over the
trouble which had overtaken General Francis. Some, on the other hand,
were sympathetic enough, but the same story came to Ethel's ears with
wearisome monotony. Everybody who cared to turn out had been engaged for
the festive season. And as to the rest, they made no secret of the fact
that Christmas Day was a sacred one to them, so far as their families
were concerned. It was very annoying and very disheartening, but there
was nothing else for it, and Ethel turned disconsolately homeward in the
gathering dusk. She had been detained by more than one forlorn hope, so
that at length when she turned her back upon the glowing red lights of
the village the darkness had nearly fallen. It was strange how weird and
unfamiliar the landscape had grown, how all the well known marks seemed
to become merged in the snow. Yet Ethel had walked that same path
hundreds of times before. She would have been almost ready to have
attempted it blindfold. Yet now she felt all misty and confused, with a
certain horror lest she had taken a wrong road. The darkness shut down,
too, with appalling swiftness. The trees were rocking in the wind, a
stinging powder of snow tingled on the girl's face until she winced in
positive pain. She turned her back to the gale for one moment whilst she
fought for breath, then she staggered on again till the great white
drift rose up beyond her knees, and further progression became
impossible. It seemed to the girl that her mind was going now and that
she was sinking down into a dreamless sleep. She remembered in a vague
kind of way tales and stories of travellers lost in the snow, and how
they had actually lain down and perished within a stone's throw of
warmth and safety.

With a great effort she struggled to her feet and attempted to push her
way forward. It was just a chance now whether she made her way through
or not, for the darkness was thick and black as velvet. She could feel
nothing but the tingle of the snow on her face. All she knew was that
whatever happened she must keep upon her feet, that the least weakness
or fear on her part would bring the end about. She braced herself up
presently and cried aloud for help. Surely it was possible that somebody
was abroad in the neighbourhood, for dark and desolate as it was, she
was yet within half a mile of the village and almost within hearing
distance of civilisation. She bitterly regretted that she had not
accepted the offer of a lantern which one of the villagers had tendered
her. Once more she opened her lips and cried aloud, and this time it
seemed as if her call was not in vain. Surely she could hear someone
coming whistling down the road. Surely that spot of light dancing before
her eyes must be a lantern carried by some guardian angel in the shape
of a villager. Once more the scream for assistance broke distractedly
from the girl's lips.

"All right," a welcome voice said cheerfully. "I'm coming. Stay where
you are and I am certain to find you."




CHAPTER II.


Ethel's heart seemed to stand still for a moment, then the blood rushed
back to her veins again, the feeling of numbness and sleepiness passed
away. A moment later she was looking up into the face of the man who
carried the lantern, and he was gazing concernedly into her own. A light
of recognition came into his eyes.

"Why, Ethel," he exclaimed. "What are you doing here? Don't you know how
dangerous it is to be out in a storm like this? To think I should run
against you like this the very day I come home. But perhaps you have not
yet forgiven me."

"Oh, take me back to the Grange," Ethel moaned."'Thank heaven you came
in time. It is only a few minutes since I left the village and yet I am
absolutely exhausted. I came down here to see if I could find some
assistance. All our servants have gone away and the General and myself
are quite alone in the house."

Roger Keene suppressed a smile, for the General's queer notions of
discipline were well known to the young sailor, who was now hastening
home to his father's house. Sir Roger Keene's residence lay fairly close
to Seagrave Grange. There had been a time, two years ago, when Roger and
Ethel had been something more than friends, but some stupid
misunderstanding had arisen between them, and a long voyage in the
Chinese seas seemed to have nipped the romance in the bud.

"And so you are absolutely dependent upon yourselves," Roger said
cheerfully. "How like the General it is. Nobody but he would have chosen
a time like this to get rid of all his servants. But I daresay we shall
find some way out of the difficulty. The first thing is to get you home
again. Just you lean on my arm and trust me to pull you through. It is a
precious lucky thing that I thought of borrowing a lantern in the
village. I don't believe I should have got home without it."

"But you will be snowed up yourself," Ethel protested. "And they will be
anxious about you at home. And, besides, I don't see why you should go
out of your way like this for my sake, especially after the way in which
I----"

Ethel broke off in some confusion. It seemed to her that Roger pressed
her arm to his affectionately.

"I think I know what you are going to say," he whispered. "But we will
go into all that later on. As a matter of fact, my people won't be in
the least alarmed, because they don't expect me till tomorrow, which is
Christmas Day, and lots of things might happen between now and then. You
are not going to say another word till you are warm and comfortable
again and have had some hot food. You are under my protection, now. How
stupid we have been, Ethel."

Ethel made no attempt to deny the charge. She was feeling strangely
happy and comfortable, despite their slow progress and the sting of snow
flakes on her cheeks. They managed to pick their way between the snow
drifts, until presently Seagrave Grange loomed out of the darkness and
the warmth of the dining-room was reached at length.

A great fire blazed upon the hearth. General Francis had managed to
light the lamps, both of which were smoking horribly. The anxiety
cleared from his face as Ethel came into the room.

"I was beginning to feel terribly worried," he said. "Hallo, Roger, is
that you? How did you come here?"

Roger Keene proceeded to briefly explain. Without ceremony he
extinguished one of the lamps and relighted it dexterously. In a few
moments both lamps were burning brightly.

"Now you go off to your room at once," Roger said, cheerfully. "By the
time you get downstairs I will make you some tea. I daresay you have a
kettle and hot water somewhere. If you don't know where it is I can find
it. But don't you worry, General. You just sit down and smoke a cigar
and leave it to me. One doesn't knock about for two or three years in a
coasting squadron without learning a thing or two. I flatter myself I
can show you a way to do without servants altogether. After we have had
tea we'll overhaul the larder and see if I can't cook you a dinner
which, at any rate, will have the charm of novelty. It is a lucky thing
that I happened to come along just at the right time."

For once in his life the General yielded up the reins of office to a
younger man than himself. After all said and done they seemed to have
ways of managing things in the Navy which certainly did not apply to the
sister service. In an incredibly short space of time Roger had tea on
the table. He had found bread and butter foraging about the kitchen, and
presently the tea was flanked by a pile of hot buttered toast, to which
all did ample justice.

"Upon my word, this is a unique experience," the General cried. "I have
spent some queer Christmas Eves in my time, but never one like this
before. I begin to feel almost glad that I got rid of those servants
now. Better tea I never tasted."

Roger Keene smiled discreetly. He knew the General well enough to feel
that once the novelty had worn off he would soon be hungry again for the
good things of life. But for the present it was pleasant enough; it was
pleasant to sit there round the glowing wood fire with the curtains
tightly drawn, listening to the howl of the gale outside and the angry
swish of snowflakes on the windows. It was, in sooth, a strange
Christmas Eve, but the very strangeness of it added to its charm and
piquancy. Ethel sat there in a big armchair, her eyes half closed. She
was still dwelling upon her miraculous escape; her heart was full of
gratitude and tenderness towards Roger. But for him, she shuddered to
think where she might be by this time.

Cut off from the world as they were, the evening passed swiftly enough,
and Roger's impromptu dinner was voted as successful as his tea. There
was one part of the meal which the absence of servants could not mar,
and that was the wines. The General brought them up from the cellar
himself. He decanted some curious old port with a reverence and respect
which became its great age. He was beaming with delight now. He did not
look in the least like the culprit who had brought all this about.

"Your very good health, Roger," he said; "and may this be the least
pleasant moment in our lives. If you can possibly run over tomorrow and
cook our meals for us, I daresay we shall get along till we can man the
garrison again."

"I think I have a better plan than that," Roger said demurely. "I shall
have to leave you to get your own breakfast, but you shall see me later
in the day."

And Roger was quite as good at his word, for early in the forenoon on
Christmas Day a comfortable-looking omnibus ploughed its way through the
snow to Seagrave Grange, and Sir Roger Keene, followed by his son,
alighted, and made their way into the house.

"A merry Christmas to you," the Baronet said heartily. "My dear General,
why on earth did you not let me know what was going on! Here we are in
that big house of mine with no Christmas guests, for once in a way,
except Roger, with enough, and more than enough, for a whole village,
and you are actually starving here, with no one to help you. I am not
going to listen to a single word. I'll send over a caretaker to look
after the house, and meanwhile Miss Ethel and yourself are coming over
to my place to stay till you can get settled again. Now don't waste
time, because the sooner we are off the better. Just go upstairs and
pack what you want, and we can get away in time for a bit of shooting
before lunch."

There was no denying the breezy hospitality of the speaker, and half an
hour later the bus was rolling down the drive again in the direction of
Sir Roger Keene's house. They pulled up at length under the big portico;
the huge doors were thrown open, and the cosy hall sent out an inviting
warmth. Roger stretched out his hand and helped Ethel to the ground.

"As my future wife," he whispered; "now, promise."

And the look in Ethel's eyes answered the question.




This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia

THE END