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Title: Compounding a Felony
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1200761.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: January 2012
Date most recently updated: January 2012

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

Title: Compounding a Felony
Author: Fred M. White

*

Published in the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, Portsmouth, 1 April, 1899.

*



CHAPTER I.


The sound of a banjo badly played carried on the river air. It was just
possible to glean the fact that the unseen musician had desires in the
direction of 'Tommy Atkins.' The audience consisted of two people in a
boat--a man and a woman.

"Fred, what does it all mean?" said the latter.

"It means," returned the man grimly, "that we are unexpectedly returning
to the house-boat a full hour before our time. It means that the
servants are entertaining company, Ella."

Fred Galton swished the dinghy along under the side of the houseboat
Diana, and assisted his wife to gain the deck. Then he strode along to
the liliputian kitchen, and threw the door open wide.

"I should like to know what all this means," he demanded.

Neither of the four listeners responded to the conundrum. Two of the
party were black-gowned and smartly cuffed and collared. The soiree was
completed by two gentlemen in scarlet.

"If you please, sir," Cook commenced, defiantly falsetto, "we did not
think you were coming back for some time."

"I believe that," Galton interrupted, grimly. "Turn these two
blackguards out at once, and put those supper things away. How dare you
take my banjo from the cabin. Your mistress will settle with you
presently."

"Very well, sir," Cook responded, with a strained politeness that would
have alarmed a more seasoned householder than Galton. "I daresay me and
Hemly will know what to do, sir."

The two sons of Mars sneaked out of the kitchen and over the side into
the boat awaiting them. Then they splashed off in the darkness, cursing
each other with mutual heartiness.

"You'd better go and see those girls," Galton remarked to his wife. "Put
your foot down, Ella, and don't stand any nonsense."

Galton swung into the cabin and lighted a cigarette. For the first time
during his tenancy of the 'Diana' he felt a little disenchanted. When
Jones, his rich stockbroker friend, had offered him the loan of the boat
for a couple of months he had accepted almost with rapture. A life like
that on the broad bosom of the river in leafy June and languid July was
an ideal one for a novelist just making his way to the front. There was
another reason also why the offer was accepted with alacrity. There is
no exchequer that fluctuates more than that of the average literary man,
and a 'slump' in letters had brought Galton to a sense of the folly of
living up to the top of his income.

Therefore the pretty little house at Crouch End had been let furnished
for a time, and cook and Emily transferred to the Diana. There were
scores of other house-boats close by, and many attractions chez
Pangbourne, which accounted for the backsliding of the domestics and the
feasting of Her Majesty's soldiery. Galton began to wish himself well
out of it.

"If I and Beck come to terms," he muttered, "I'll chuck this. I'm
getting tired of sleeping with my feet in the river and my head in the
bookcase."

A great deal depended upon this 'if.' Galton had begun to realise the
uncertainty of ephemeral literature, and to look out for something in
the way of an editorship, where he could have a good fixed income and
plenty of time to write besides. And when fortune threw Jossa J. Beck
across his path hope beat high.

Mr. Beck was an American millionaire with a taste for literature. A man
of culture and education, he had settled down in England, where he had
purchased a big newspaper or two plus a trio of magazines, over which he
was delighted to lose no more than 500 a month. Certes, no journals
were better served or 'got up' than his. Beck was a queer, cranky kind
of man, whose plentiful milk of human kindness was soured by the
polluting stream of chronic dyspepsia, but where he took, Beck was a
friend indeed.

Galton had great hopes in this quarter. Beck had told him personally
that the editorship of the 'British Monthly' would soon be vacant, and
incidentally that Simes, the present man, got 800 a year. Galton asked
boldly for the appointment. But Beck could promise nothing. "I'll see,"
he responded, playing, as he did incessantly, with the big intaglio ring
on his little finger. "No time wasted. Ain't you at Pangbourne? On the
'Diana?' Tell you what, I'll come there and lunch with you on Friday,
and we will try and fix up things."

Needless to say, Galton jumped at the suggestion. A few hours from the
present moment and he would know his fate. To-morrow was the pregnant
Friday. He forgot all about Ella and the recreant domestics in the dwarf
kitchen. The dainty little luncheon, the mayonnaise, the chicken
cutlets, the pomard and salad, were all gathered for the coming of the
lion from the west. Then Ella swept in. Her pretty face was pale,
something like a tear dimmed her blue eye. Napoleon had lost her
domestic Waterloo.

"Well?" Galton asked impatiently.

"It is anything but well," Ella replied with the calmness of despair.
"They were both extremely insolent, and I had to be quite firm. The
consequence is that they are both going the first thing in the morning."

Galton groaned. Many husbands would have promptly laid the blame upon
the wife; but the glamour of the honeymoon was still upon them both.

"And Beck is coming," Galton concluded. "What shall we do? Can you get
anybody else? To put him off would be a most successful form of
suicide."

"I quite see that, dear; and as to getting servants here within a week
of Henley the thing is utterly impossible."

"Don't you think," Galton suggested, meekly, "that you might ask the
girls----"

"No, I don't," Ella said crisply, "especially after the way they spoke
to me. If you'd been there you would have sent them away now."

Galton advanced no further in that direction. He had a poor idea of
using other people at the sacrifice of personal pride. There was only
one thing to do under the circumstances and that he did--he laughed.
Ella smiled also. She had a pretty sense of humour and a sweet audacity
which was by no means the least of her charms.

"Fred," she said presently, "does Mr. Beck know you are married?"

"Upon my word I can't say. Why?"

"Because I have a plan. The more I think it over the easier it seems.
And it would be a great deal off my mind. You won't say no?"

"My dearest girl, I won't say no to any way out of the difficulty. Once
we get to-morrow over I don't care. If necessary, we could do the work
of the boat ourselves. And if Beck turns out trumps, why we shall have
to give up the 'Diana' in any case."

"Then make your mind easy," Ella laughed. "Everything shall go as
merrily as the proverbial marriage bell."




CHAPTER II.


By slow degrees the cabin of the 'Diana' had been reduced to order.
True, breakfast had not been exactly a function, neither did Galton's
ideas of dusting tally with the views on that important task held by
Ella.

"You're as black as a tinker," said the man of letters.

"I shall be blacker still," Ella responded, cheerfully, "before I have
finished. If you will get out of my way I shall be so glad."

By the time Galton had consumed three cigarettes on the roof, the table
in the cabin had been laid and decked with flowers. The luncheon had
been spread out, and very nice and dainty it looked, Galton thought.

"No show or ostentation," he said, "and yet quite sufficient. If only we
had a decent parlour-maid, the thing would be complete. But I say!"

"What is the matter now?"

"Why, you have only laid covers for two."

"Quite right. Don't ask any foolish questions. And now I am going to
dress. Come down here again when I call you."

Half-an-hour passed before the summons came.

As Galton passed into the cabin, his eyes dilated with astonishment.
Before him stood Ella, but no longer the idol of his dreams. The golden
glossy hair had been pushed back under a snowy cap, the long strings of
which dangled behind. Round Ella's throat was a deep white collar, her
wrists were surrounded by turned-back cuffs. As to her dress, it was
black, both rigid and plain. A daintier, more graceful little
parlour-maid never handed round a dish. The half-bold, half-fearsome
look in her eyes made the charm complete.

"How did you manage it?" Galton gasped.

"Petty larceny." Ella laughed. "I opened the box left by Emily till
called for, and took the liberty of borrowing these things. You're not
angry, Fred?"

"I couldn't be if I were to try," Galton responded. "Mind you, I don't
like it. But when a girl shows pluck like that--and you look so deuced
pretty, you know."

"Silly boy! You have knocked my cap all on one side. Now get away to
Pangbourne and meet your tame millionaire, or you will be late. Nervous!
Really, nothing to speak of."

Wherein Ella prevaricated; which was excusable under the circumstances.
In due course Mr. Beck emerged from a first-class carriage at
Pangbourne, and received a respectful greeting from his host. The man
who can meet a millionaire on terms of equality has yet to be
discovered. The lean shambling figure lounged along by Galton's side.
Beck was less melancholy than usual, and Galton had tact enough not to
mention business. They reached the house-boat at length, and a few
cigarettes were consumed on the roof ere came the welcome announcement
of luncheon.

Ella waited deftly and noiselessly. She managed to exchange a word or
two with Galton when the plutocrat was washing his hands in the
lavatory. Fortunately for Ella's peace of mind the visitor did not
appear to notice her at all. Like most of his countrymen he had a good
and rabid appetite, and at the end of the repast he was fain to confess
that he had lunched well.

"One gets so tired of these big feeds," he said, lighting a cigar
costing something like half-a-crown per inch. "Upon my word, Galton,
you're better off than I am."

"If I could persuade my creditors the same thing," Galton said, dryly,
"it would be a source of mutual happiness."

"Money does not mean happiness," Beck remarked, sententiously.

"Perhaps not; but you can have precious little fun without it. I don't
suppose you would like to live upon 400 a year, earned fitfully as I
do."

"Well, it don't amount to a pile, and that's a fact. A smart fellow like
you ought to do a great deal better than that."

"I dare say I ought to, but I don't."

"And that's why you require an editorship?"

"Precisely. A regular income relieves one from a deal of anxiety, and
that means better work. It's all very well for fools to talk about the
spur of adversity, but what's the use of spurring a laden horse?"

Beck nodded. This kind of philosophy was after his own heart.

"I have been making a good many inquiries about ye," he said, "and ye
seem to be just the man I want. Simes isn't. He's groovy and intolerant
of new ideas. I'm not going to promise anything definite yet. In the
course of a few weeks you shall hear from me."

Galton smiled as pleasantly as possible. All the same, he didn't like
it. Also he knew that Simes was leaving Beck almost immediately. And he
had counted upon this appointment more than he knew. Then Beck took up
the thread of conversation again.

"I daresay you have often heard me spoken of as a peculiar man," he
said. "Well, I am. People in my position see a good deal of the sordid
side of life, and we could form a 'corner' in human nature if necessary.
If I figure a man up and like him, I'm his friend till he passes the
tape, you bet. For all I say it, perhaps, who shouldn't, it's no bad
thing for a young man to come to me."

"That is why I am so anxious to come," Galton responded.

"At 800 a year," Beck said drily. "Now where the deuce----"

The speaker paused, and looked helplessly at his right hand. Galton
noticed that the big intaglio was no longer there.

"Guess I've lost my ring," Beck said resignedly. "I couldn't have done
such a thing for a thousand. That ring, sir, belonged to Francis the
First of France, and was given by him to Victoria Colonna. I knew that
it would slip off my finger one of these days, and now it has."

"Then it's on the boat," Galton exclaimed, "because I'm prepared to
swear that it was on your finger when we were smoking our cigarettes
before luncheon. I noticed how plainly the head showed up in the
sunshine."

"That's a fact, Mr. Galton?"

"I'm prepared take my oath to it anywhere."

Beck considered a moment, and then a shrewd smile crossed his face. He
looked like a man who was having a joke at his own expense.

"I guess you are right," he said. "I could tell you the price that
'Centrals' stood this day twelve months, but for other things I've no
memory to speak of. I remember now taking the ring off in the lavatory.
I expect I left it there."

And Beck stepped away, covering with one stride the yard and a half that
lay between the cabin and the lavatory. In a moment or two he had
returned with the information that it was not there. Ella, in the act of
removing the plates stood to listen.

"Young woman," Beck demanded, "have you been in there?"

Ella blushed to the roots of her hair. She had almost forgotten her
role, and for an instant resented the tone of the speaker.

"Certainly I have," she retorted. "And I saw no ring there."

Beck appeared to be by no means satisfied. And his suspicions were
aroused.

"I'll make an affidavit I left it there," he declared, "and nobody has
been in the place but you. Now you look here, young woman, I guess you
found that ring, and in the press of business forgot all about it."

"Do you dare to insinuate," Ella cried, "that I have stolen----"

"Simmer down. We'll leave all that to the police."

Instances of millionaires being the object of cases of assault and
battery are happily rare. But no plutocrat ever came so measurably near
a sound thrashing as Beck stood at that moment.

"I don't want to do anything unpleasant," he said, "but unless I get my
intaglio, there's going to be trouble somewhere. Guess I'll fetch the
police."

Ella dropped into a chair and promptly burst into tears. Galton laid a
grip on Beck's arm that promptly checked further action.

"There's some diabolical mistake here," the author said, hoarsely. "Mr.
Beck, the girl you take for a servant is my wife."

With his hands plunged into his waistcoat pockets Beck whistled. As he
struck this attitude his face grew hot, his air was one of distress and
shame. For a moment Galton did not see this.

"Our servants left us in the lurch last night," Galton explained. "We
could not see our way to put you off. Hence my wife masquerading like
this. But as to Ella stealing your ring, why I'd as soon accuse you of
doing it yourself."

"Well, you'd be quite right to do so," said Beck, with a queer smile,
"for the blamed thing is in my waistcoat pocket all the time. I've only
just discovered the fact, and properly ashamed of myself I am. And if
the lady will forget the gross insult----"

"Don't say any more, please," Ella implored.

"But I must," Beck replied. "I always make it a point to be especially
polite to those in my employ. And to think that I should have so vilely
treated the wife of the editor of 'The British Monthly' makes me feel
hot all over."

A thrill of joy shot down Galton's spine. The threatened misfortune was
a veritable blessing in disguise.

"Do you really mean that, sir?" he asked.

"Really and truly. Never more serious in my life. And if ye are as
successful in life as ye are in the choice of a wife you'll rise to not
only magazine editor but owner into the bargain."



THE END



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