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Title: At Short Notice
Author: Fred M. White
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Language: English
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At Short Notice

by

Fred M. White

Published in The Star, New Zealand, 23 Feb 1909, page 4
Reprinted in The Central Queensland Herald, Rockhampton, Australia, 17 Jun 1937



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 ot the mischief was that the domestics left in a body, to the General's great delight and the corresponding dismay of Miss Lance.

"It's 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 life in India. No trouble with them 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 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 them off grandly one at a time; but who was going to take their places? Seagrave Grange was by a means a large house, but it required at least half a dozen servants to run the place properly, added to which it was some twenty 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 inefficient 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 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 he done speedily, and before darkness fell. The bare trees were swaying 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 setting low," he muttered. "Why aren't there any logs here? And the coal scuttle is empty. 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 bedroom."

"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 things 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. The 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 yourselfby filling up all the 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 drifted by the wind into masses here and there, so that progress was slow and painful. Ethel shuddered to herself as she thought 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 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 while she fought for breath, then she staggered on again till the great white drift rose up beyond her knees, and further progress became impossible. It seemed to the girl that her mind was going now, and that she was sinking 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."

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 dare say 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 to 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 he in the least alarmed, because they don't expect me till to-morrow, which is Christmas Day, and lots of things might happen between now and then. You are not 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 snowflakes on her cheeks. They managed to pick their way between the snowdrifts, thanks to the friendly light of the lantern, until presently Seagrave Grange loomed out of the darkness, and the warmth of tho 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," said Roger, cheerfully. "By the time you get downstairs I will make you some tea. I dare say you have got 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 rjght time."

For once in his life the General yielded up the reins of office to a younger man than himself. After all was 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 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 to-morrow 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 as 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 any time, because the sooner we're 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.



THE END

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