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Title: Autumn Manoeuvres
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1200331.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: January 2012
Date most recently updated: January 2012

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Title: Autumn Manoeuvres
Author: Fred M White

*

Author of "The Crimson Blind," "The Law of the Land," etc.

*

Published in The Windsor Magazine, September, 1912, Page 408.

*

There was a sound of revelry by night, and"--and Marlshire's chivalry
had gathered at Hilsdon Place for much the same purpose as Belgium's
chivalry had come together on a more historic occasion. In other words.
Sir Geoffrey Hilsdon was giving a dance, and a good many of the officers
of the Blue, or attacking, force were present. The country round had
been chosen as a mimic battleground, and a great engagement might be
expected at any moment. Therefore Madge Hilsdon had seized the
opportunity of emulating her Grace of Richmond on the eve of Waterloo.

The dance was in full swing now, and the guests were visibly enjoying
themselves. The fine old rooms were looking their best, the famous
conservatories had been ransacked, and the floral decorations were in
their way a triumph. It wanted an hour to supper-time, a waltz had just
finished, and Madge Hilsdon was enjoying the luxury of a whole five
minutes to herself. It was a warm evening in September, clear and fine
overhead, and most of the windows had been left open for the sake of the
grateful breeze. Madge slid across the refectory, where the dancing was
in progress, and strolled into the cloister beyond. Here was a grand old
quadrangle with a fountain in the centre--a veritable haven of rest in
the languid summer days.

It was blissfully quiet there, and Madge was in the mood to go a little
further. As she turned to the right, a figure emerged suddenly out of
the shadows and grasped her by the arm. She had a fleeting glance of a
dilapidated nomad clad in greasy cords, a dim outline of a
mahogany-coloured face surrounded by a mass of ragged black beard and
whisker. Before Madge could cry out, a hand was clapped to her lips, and
she was lifted from her feet as though she had been no more than a
feather.

"Don't make a noise!" the assailant whispered. "If you are quiet, you
will be perfectly safe in my hands."

The hand was taken from Madge's lips, and she was set gently on her feet
again. She was too indignant to be frightened, too absolutely enraged to
be conscious of any other emotion.

"How--how dare you?" she panted.

"Well, it was a bit thick, wasn't it?" the miscreant remarked. "If you
had only seen yourself standing in the cloister, looking like a
ravishing angel in pink chiffon----"

"Jim," Madge cried--"I mean Mr. Sutton, this is a distinct outrage! You
have dared to presume upon our--our----"

"Engagement," Lieutenant Jim Sutton said coolly. "You might just as well
say it. Oh, Madge, if you only knew----"

"I'll not hear another word," Miss Hilsdon said icily. "I am returning
to the house at once. And if my brother Tom imagines that your sister
Connie is any less determined than I am, he will find himself bitterly
mistaken."

"I can explain," Sutton said eagerly.

"There can be no explanation, Lieutenant Sutton. Gentlemen don't break
appointments with ladies, and take chorus girls on the river instead.
And, besides, gentlemen would not be hanging about a house at this time
of night in a--a beastly disguise like yours. We were under the
impression that you were both with your regiment. I suppose this is some
mad escapade on Tom's part."

"He was always worse than me," Sutton said magnanimously. "Look here,
Madge, I can put that river business right in a minute, if you will only
listen. You see, poor old Billy Lushington got engaged to one of them,
and he was in a pretty considerable funk about it, so Tom and myself
thought----"

Madge stamped her little satin-shod foot impatiently.

"I decline to discuss it," she said. "What are you doing here like a
tramp? You might be some vulgar poacher."

"Oh, I am!" Sutton said cheerfully. "As they say in the melodramas, my
lips are sealed. Now, you might do me a little favour, Madge. It may be
the last that I ever ask at your hands. With all my faults, I am not
lost to all sense of feeling."

Madge's blue eyes softened ever so slightly.

"You don't deserve it," she murmured, "but if----"

"That's right," Sutton said encouragingly. "Now, does Captain Algy
Traske happen to be shaking the light fantastic toe with you to-night?
If so, I would have speech with him."

Madge repressed an impulse to laugh. Not that she felt in the least
mirthful. This man was incorrigible. It seemed impossible to believe
that she had ever loved him, that she had suffered his caresses. And
that day in Dovedale, under the shade of the trees, with the stream at
their feet----

"I must get back to the house," she said coldly. "I will speak to
Captain Traske, and tell him you are here, though why you should have
assumed this loathsome disguise----"

"Pearl of the Andes, you will do nothing of the kind," Sutton said
hurriedly. "By the love you once bore me, I implore you to be discreet.
The fate of a nation may hang upon your silence. Tell Traske nothing. So
long as you get him outside, I shall be satisfied. The mere fact that he
is my hated rival does not mean that his life is in danger. Not so much
as a hair of his precious eye-glass shall be injured. Is it a bet?"

"I detest the man," Madge whispered.

Sutton held out his hands to her. She turned and fled. She stood just
inside the ballroom, panting and quivering from head to foot. There was
a beautiful tinge of wild rose in her cheeks, her eyes gleamed like the
reflection of stars in a forest pool. She posed there, such a vision of
dainty beauty, that for two whole minutes Captain Algernon Traske was
actually thinking about something besides himself. He came across the
room, prim and immaculate, not one line or hair a fraction of an inch
out of place. He always reminded Madge of a starched doll. Some inanity
in the way of a compliment was on his lips.

"This is our dance, I think," he said. "I ought not to be here at all,
don't you know. I've got pressing business on for the general
commanding at Farnborough, but, when I received your invitation, I
really couldn't refuse. Must be off in an hour, all the same. A sort of
Adam turned out of Paradise--what?"

"Then come and get it over," Madge said unkindly.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Jim Sutton had made his way through the shrubbery
in the direction of the big wood, where a gipsy caravan was standing.
Here was no pampered home of peripatetic luxury, but the genuine thing
as seen where the children of Bohemia mostly do congregate. The caravan
was exactly as it had been taken over from its previous owners, save
that it had been cleansed and sweetened, and the bedding freshly
obtained from Tottenham Court Road. Inside the caravan a second swarthy
ruffian was lounging, with a clay pipe between a set of beautifully even
white teeth.

"What ho, my noble redskin!" he said, as Sutton entered. "How progresses
the campaign? You have been so confoundedly long that I began to think
that you had fallen into the hands of the treacherous foe. The point is,
have you done any good?"

"I don't think," Sutton laughed. "I've seen Madge, my boy. Regularly
abducted her, Tom. She was pretty haughty, and all that, but on the
whole charming. Would not hear a word about Billy Lushington, all the
same."

"Oh, confound Billy Lushington!" Captain Tom Hilsdon said impatiently.
"We'll put that matter right when we've got time. Did you say anything
about Traske?"

Sutton's eyes glowed, but that might have been due to the reflection of
the match as he lighted his pipe.

"She hates him, my boy," he said rapturously.

"Now, what have I done," Hilsdon asked piously, "to be tied up in an
important mission with an idiot like this?"

"Oh, all right, old chap--don't be ratty! You'd feel just the same as I
do if you had a rival hanging about my sister Connie. You can take it
easy, knowing that you can go in and win when Connie simmers down, as
she's sure to before long. So far as Traske is concerned, I regard him
as a danger."

"What--a sister of mine marry that?" Hilsdon cried. "But go on. Did you
do any good at all?"

"I did. You've only got to wait, and the immaculate Traske is our very
own. Heaven only knows what Madge took me for!"

"Does she know I'm in it, too?"

"Of course she guessed it. Was there ever a gorgeous spree going that we
weren't both in? I believe Madge is under the firm impression that this
is a poaching affray. Now, come along and let's hide somewhere near the
house till the time for action arrives."

Hilsdon carefully closed the door of the caravan, and a moment or two
later the adventurers were hidden in the shrubbery, from whence they
could command a view of the cloisters. Presently there emerged the slim,
dandy form of Captain Traske, accompanied by a radiance in pink chiffon.
Traske was bending over his companion, who seemed to turn away from him
with shy bashfulness.

"What are your teeth chattering for?" Hilsdon asked.

"They ain't chattering," Sutton said curtly. "I'm gritting 'em. By Jove,
Madge has gone back and left that last rose of summer all blooming
alone! He evidently thinks she's going to return. Now, then, it's a case
of 'Up, Guards, and at 'em!'"

A pair of arms were wound kindly but firmly round Traske's shoulders,
and a gag was thrust in his mouth. Without a word being uttered, he was
carried to the caravan and there deposited on the floor. He protested
loudly, but his threats apparently had no effect upon the miscreants who
had dared to inflict this indignity upon him. That he had not the
slightest notion of their identity did not in the least detract from the
humour of the situation.

"He's beginning to sit up and take notice," Hilsdon grinned. "Traske, my
son, you are the victim of a woman's perfidy. You are not the first
brave soldier who, for the sake of a pair of blue eyes, has--well, made
an ass of himself, so to speak. Product of an effete civilisation, do
you realise that you have fallen into the hands of the foe?"

"Oh, speak in a language the child can understand!" Sutton said. "Algy,
dear old son, we want that from you which is dearer than your life, even
dearer than your eye-glass. Will you kindly cough up those dispatches
which you are taking to the general at Farnborough."

"A joke, isn't it--what?" Traske asked feebly.

"On the part of your general--yes," Sutton grinned. "To pick you out the
bearer of dispatches was a stroke of absolute genius. That prince of
detectives, Lupin himself, would never have dreamt that you could have
been chosen as the bearer of important messages. But you talk, dear boy,
and our spies in your camp conveyed the news to us. Did you but know it,
we are here officially with the full connivance of our illustrious
chief. Like Autolycus, we are snappers-up of unconsidered trifles. In
this guise we are going through your lines, gathering honey on the way.
For the next day or two, at any rate, you are our prisoner. No clean
collars, my boy, no purple and fine linen, not even a bath unless you
like to take it in a brook. Will you kindly oblige with those
dispatches?"

"I--I haven't got them on me," Traske stammered.

"Always obstinate, even as a child," Sutton said sadly, "and greedy,
too. I am very much afraid that we shall have to resort to one of the
fine old Eton methods of extracting information."

"I swear I haven't got them," Traske protested. "I only came to the
dance for an hour. I arrived at Hilsdon Place in my uniform, and Sir
Geoffrey was good enough to let me change there. The dispatches are
written in cipher, and are concealed in the lining of a cigarette case.
If you will let me go----"

"Not once," Hilsdon said firmly. "Tell me which bedroom you are
occupying, and that will be good enough for me. No, you need not go into
details. Seeing that I was born in the house, I shall be able to find
the room easily enough."

Very reluctantly Traske gave the desired information. He protested
loudly against the indignation of fetters on his feet and being tied up
so carefully that it was barely possible to smoke a cigarette in
comfort. The two adventurers left him there, and made their way back to
the cloisters.

"We shall be sure to see Madge presently," Hilsdon said. "She can't help
being curious as to what is going on. And it's any money that she tells
Connie."

Hilsdon's prophecy was fulfilled to the letter, for a few minutes later
two slim, graceful figures flitted like butterflies along the cloisters.

"Well, you girls," Hilsdon accosted them cheerfully, "and what mischief
might you be up to?"

"We're not punting on the Thames," Connie Sutton said severely, "and
we're not poachers, either."

"Now, that's very unkind," Hilsdon said plaintively. "This is all the
thanks we get when we tear ourselves away from the society of these
cruel girls in the hour of our country's need. We are not poachers--we
are officers in disguise. If we are arrested, we shall be shot as spies.
To make the matter plain, we are after some dispatches which Traske is
conveying to the officer in command at Farnborough. We are supposed to
be gipsies, and if you've got five minutes to spare, we will show you
the jolliest little caravan----"

"Keep to the point," Sutton said sternly.

"The fact is, we've got Traske a prisoner, and he has confessed to
possessing the dispatches, which are in his cigarette case in his
bedroom. If one of you girls will only nip along and get it."

"I'd love to see that caravan," Connie said rapturously.

"Darling, you shall," Hilsdon said with equal fervour. "If Madge will
cut in and get that cigarette case, you shall come down there now. We
can easily put Traske to bed for an hour or two in the bracken. But we
must have those papers first. Now, Madge, do be a sportsman for once."

Madge laughed, a spirit of mischief dancing in her eyes. She turned and
disappeared like a shadow down the cloisters, only to return five
minutes later with something dainty in the way of a cigarette case in
her hand.

"There!" she said breathlessly. "But I thought you two people were
alone in this business?"

"So we are," Sutton explained. "Why?"

"Oh, only because there are two other men in the house dressed very much
as you are. They had the audacity to make their way into the corridor
upstairs. I caught a glimpse of one of them turning into one of the
rooms. It seems to me, Tom, that your intelligence department has taken
the precaution of having two strings to its bow. I suppose anything is
justifiable in war-time, but I thought it rather cool on the part of
those men to enter the house and go upstairs. I suppose they are aware
of the fact that every servant in the house is fully occupied with what
is going on on the ground floor."

Hilsdon looked at Sutton and whistled softly.

"You may bet they were," he said drily. "Now, you girls, get back in the
house, or you will be missed."

"What about the caravan?" Madge protested.

"Come back here in half an hour," Hilsdon went on. "Now, go back, or you
will spoil everything. Ah, that's better! This is going to be a great
night, old man. You tumble, don't you?"

"I tumble," Sutton said briefly. "But what's the next move? It will
never do for us to disclose our identity, especially considering the
fact that the house is fairly bulging with Johnnies attached to the
battalions of the foe. And if, on the other hand, we do nothing----"

"Oh, come along!" Hilsdon said impatiently. "I know exactly how those
chaps got in, and, therefore, it stands to reason that I know how they
will come out. They must have been pretty sure of their ground for both
of them to enter the house. We will go round to the side entrance. Ah,
this is just as I thought!"

Hilsdon stooped and called Sutton's attention to a strand of wire
running between two pegs on the grass. The entanglements were carefully
skirted, and the spies came presently to a side entrance over which was
a balcony facing a large casement window. By the side of the porch a
short ladder was standing.

"Up you go," Hilsdon whispered. "We'll wait for our friends here. I
don't suppose they will be very much longer. You stand on one side of
the window, and I'll stand on the other; and when the first artist comes
out on your side, drop him without the slightest hesitation. They won't
have much plate on them, because most of that will be in use downstairs.
But I've no doubt these chaps have laid their hands upon a tidy amount
of jewellery, seeing what a crowd of women there are staying in the
house."

They were quite ready, not to say eager, for the fray, but the waiting
was weary work, and they were both getting a little jumpy when a long
shadow crossed the window. There was a pause for a moment, and then a
burly figure emerged as silent and noiseless as a shadow. His pockets
appeared to be bulging, a small sack was slung over his shoulder. He
gave a grunt of relief as he turned his face to the open. A second later
a smashing blow on the jaw laid him out puffing and blowing on the
balcony. The second man, hearing the fall, doubled on his tracks and
raced along the corridor. But physical culture is not an art in high
favour with the predatory class, and a neat trip brought him headlong to
the ground. He found himself dragged along backwards until the balcony
was reached, and the window closed carefully behind him.

"How are you getting on, Jim?" Hilsdon panted.

[Autumn01.jpg] "HILSDON PROMPTLY TURNED HIS MAN OVER."

"Oh, I'm sitting on his head," Sutton responded cheerfully. "Most
obstinate beggar he is. I had to jolt him considerably before he
consented to part with his revolver. It's any odds your bird's got one,
too. You'd better argue the matter with him."

Hilsdon promptly turned his man over and rubbed his face on the cold,
unsympathetic lead casing of the balcony.

"Hand it over," he said between his teeth. "If you don't, I'll spoil
those pretty features for you."

The burglar wriggled an unsteady hand behind him and contrived to
extract an ugly-looking Colt from his hip-pocket.

"So far, so good," Hilsdon said. "You go down the ladder first, Jim, and
these chaps will follow you. I'll bring up the rear, and we'll take them
as far as the caravan. We can search them quietly there. Now, drop that
cursing, my man. If you only knew it, you are two of the luckiest
rascals in England."

"I'm afraid they are," Sutton muttered mournfully. "We are bound to let
the brutes go when we've done with them. We can't appear in the matter
without disclosing our identity. Now, then, squad, by the left, march!"

The caravan was somewhat crowded a little later. Traske viewed the
new-comers through his eyeglass with a kind of mild, resigned
astonishment. His own abject misery and utter melancholy won a smile
even from the burglars.

"D'yer mean to say, guv'nor," one of them asked, "as wot' e's another of
us? D'yer know 'im, George?"

George shook his head gloomily. He was engaged in the horribly
uncongenial task of emptying his pockets. With a heartfelt sigh,
George's companion in misfortune was doing the same. It was a fine,
glittering heap of stuff that presently littered the caravan floor. Sir
Geoffrey's male guests had not been selfishly forgotten, for the heap
contained watches and pins and sovereign purses, to say nothing of a
little heap of cigarette cases. As one of these, a platinum and gold
affair set in diamonds, was produced, a queer sort of a cry broke from
Traske's lips. It was only for a moment, then he became wooden again,
but, all the same, his passing agitation had not escaped Sutton's
notice. He laughed drily.

"So that's the lot," Hilsdon said. "And now you two artists can go as
soon as you like."

A fine perspiration bespangled George's brow.

"You're joking, guv'nor," he said hoarsely.

"Oh, no, I'm not," Hilsdon went on. "Make the most of your luck when you
get the opportunity. There's the door, unless you prefer the more
congenial exit of the window."

The space recently occupied by George and his companion resolved itself
into thin air. Sutton bent over the glittering heap of gems, and picked
up the resplendent cigarette case.

"Those chaps have done us a fine service," he said.

"In what way?" Hilsdon asked.

"Why, don't you see, Mad--I mean your messenger--brought you the wrong
cigarette case. Dear old Algy here is just the sort of Johnny to carry
two. And didn't you notice how he cried out when George produced that
Solomon-in-all-his-glory box? George and Co. are evidently much better
finders of valuables than we are. Now, come, Algy, aren't I right? If
you don't agree, we can easily cut the cigarette box open."

"Don't do that!" Traske groaned. "I hate to see beautiful things spoilt.
I'd much rather show you how to open the case."

"Good boy!" Hilsdon said approvingly. "What an ingenious arrangement! And
now, Algy, we are going to look after your health a bit. It is
absolutely necessary that you should have a little fresh air before
going to sleep, so we are going to deposit you outside for half an hour
on a comfortable bed of bracken. At the end of three days we shan't want
you any more, and then we can return you to headquarters as an empty."

Traske made no protest--he recognised the futility of it. A little while
later, and there were two other figures in the caravan. They were
slender, beautiful ethereal figures in frothy lace and diaphanous
draperies--they had pink in their cheeks and a tender gleam in their
blue eyes.

"And that's the story," Hilsdon concluded lamely.

"Oh, it was wonderful, wonderful!" Connie exclaimed. "You are the two
cleverest boys in the world!"

"I'm glad you didn't leave me out," Sutton said.

"Just as if anybody could!" Madge cried indignantly. "Oh, I should like
to have seen Captain Traske's face when you brought him here! I suppose
you couldn't fetch him?"

"Oh, that would be downright cruel," Sutton said. "But then girls are
cruel--no sense of justice at all. You've only got to go out of your way
to help another man, and they are sure to think that you are doing their
sex an injustice. Now, take----"

Madge impulsively threw her arms about his neck.

"Will you ever forgive me?" she murmured.

"Connie," Hilsdon whispered, "don't you think we're in the way here?
Shall I see you back to the house?"

"I think you had better, dear," Connie said demurely.


THE END



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