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Title: A Christmas in Peril
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1402711.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: October 2014
Date most recently updated: October 2014

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

Title: A Christmas in Peril
Author: Fred M White

*

A CHRISTMAS IN PERIL
By
FRED M. WHITE.

*

Author of "An Eye for an Eye," "The House on the River," "The Green
Bungalow," "The Golden Bat," Etc., Etc.

*

Published in the Daily Telegraph, Launceston, Tas., Saturday 18
December, 1926.

*

It was an affectionate, almost family, farewell that Dick Fenton took
of Mrs. Lee Watson and her daughter Clytie when he saw them off from
Cape Town in the late summer. As a matter of fact, he had seen a good
deal of that exceedingly pleasant lady and her only child during the
time they had been pleasuring in South Africa. And he had diverted
a great deal of his leisure to seeing that they properly enjoyed
themselves. That leisure had been rather pronounced lately, because
Fenton was leaving South Africa for good within a month or so of
Christmas, and, indeed, he would have more than willingly accompanied
his friends but for one or two outstanding matters that called for his
personal attention.

It would be his first visit home for ten years. He had gone out there
more or less in his youth to build up the family fortunes, and had
succeeded beyond his most sanguine expectations, so that, at the age of
thirty-four, he was a rich man.

Not that there was any particular lure for him at home, since he was
one of a dwindling family, and now that his father was dead he would
have been hard put to it to find a single relative left in the old
country. Still, that didn't matter very much to a man whose ambition it
was to settle down in the land of his birth, where he fully intended to
purchase one of the fine, old sporting estates that so often came into
the market, and live the life of a gentleman of leisure upon his own
property. A stable of horses, some good shooting, and all that sort of
thing.

He had pictured within the background a vague image of some really nice
girl. But that had been nebulous enough until fate had brought Clytie
Watson into his life. And now, there was no longer any doubt as to who
was to share the roseate picture he had conjured up and the more he saw
of her, the more certain he was there could never be anybody else.

That there was no obstacle in the way he had already ascertained;
indeed, Mrs. Lee Watson, like the good mother that she was, had been
at some pains to assure him on this point, because she liked Dick,
who was a clean, manly sort of individual, and one of the products of
an English public school. He had become, perhaps, a little raw and
careless of his personal appearance during the years of the struggle
for fortune, but a few months in the society of the Lee Watsons et hoc
would soon rub that off.

And so it was that the parting at Cape Town had come about in the most
pleasing of circumstances.

"Then you will be back before Christmas?" Mrs. Watson said, as she
shook hands warmly. "And you will come and spend at least a month with
us at Claygates Hall?"

Dick murmured his gratitude. He wanted nothing better. He had heard
enough about Claygates Hall to know that Claygates was one of those
fine, old Elizabethan houses where the old tradition prevailed. He knew
that it meant a big house party, with the usual Yuletide gaieties, and,
even apart from Clytie, he would have accepted the invitation with
alacrity.

"Of course," he said heartily. "You have no idea how grateful I am to
you for giving me this opportunity. After ten years in this part of the
world I should simply love to find myself spending Christmas in one of
England's ancestral homes."

"That will be topping," Clytie said, a little shyly.

Her hand lay in his for a fraction of a second longer than convention
called for, and Dick was conscious of the warm pressure of the little,
pink fingers. Also, he was almost dizzily aware of a certain light
in a pair of sapphire eyes which had haunted him to the exclusion of
everything else for some months.

"I will be there," he said. "I will be there if I have to walk. But
perhaps you wouldn't mind leaving the exact date open. There is a
friend of mine, who was out here with me until fairly recently, who
is going to be married somewhere about Christmas week, and if I am in
London at the time, I must go. Indeed, Tony Bassett would be very much
hurt if I didn't."

"Tony Bassett," Mrs. Watson exclaimed. "Oh, yes, we know all about
that. Didn't he come into a fortune?"

"That's right," Dick laughed. "Some distant relative from whom he
expected nothing. He bolted off home without even stopping to say
good-bye to me, and I haven't heard a word from him since, except what
I have gathered from the English newspapers. Of course, I knew that he
was engaged."

"Oh, we know the Bassett family quite well. Also, Vera Trent, the girl
Tony is going to marry. We haven't had an invitation to the wedding,
though I dare say we should have done if he had been at home. And now,
Mr. Fenton, we really must say good-bye. You know our address, so there
will be no excuse for you not writing to us directly we reach London,
and fixing up the day for your visit."

Fenton turned away at length, feeling that the world was a good place
to live in, and that he was one of the most fortunate of men. His only
regret was that he had not put his fortunes to the test before Mrs.
Watson and her daughter left South Africa. Like most young men very
much in love, he was lost in wonder that Clytie, with her beauty and
fascination, had not been snapped up long ago. But these miracles are
constantly happening. At any rate, it would not be Dick's fault unless
he knew exactly where he stood before Christmas Day arrived. He would
get to London now as soon as he possibly could and look up Tony Bassett.

But December was half over before Dick found himself in the chilly
atmosphere of the metropolis and more or less at home in the modest
hotel to which he had been driven on his arrival. And then, after a
quiet dinner and a pipe, he went down to the smoking room and took up
a morning paper. Almost the first thing he saw there was a paragraph
in the society news relating to the marriage of Tony Bassett and Vera
Trent.

With an exclamation of dismay, he saw that the happy event was fixed to
take place in St. Olive's Church the following afternoon at half-past
two.

Here was a pretty state of affairs! He would have to be present, at
any rate at the ceremony, and, no doubt afterwards at the reception
given by the bride's uncle, Sir John Lester in Eccleston Square. And
he hadn't a garment in the world fit for such an occasion. It was the
kind of thing he had not troubled about until he had reached London,
where he had intended to spare a few days in close confabulation with
the family tailor. All he had in his trunks was a seedy morning suit,
and in this he would, perforce, have to mingle with some of the cream
of England's society. Nor could he get hold of Tony in the meantime,
because he had not the remotest idea as to where that individual was to
be found.

"Well, there's no help for it," he told himself. "I shall have to make
the best of it. They will probably take me for some shady chap after
the wedding presents. By Jove, I haven't even got a card of invitation.
Oh, well, I can send my name in to Tony, and I dare say it will be all
right directly we meet."

       *       *       *       *       *

For eight and forty hours, subsequent to Dick's visit to St. Olive's
and the marriage of his old friend, he had been seated moodily in
a police cell in Holloway Gaol. Also, he had been charged before a
distinctly unfriendly magistrate with entering certain premises in
Eccleston Square and there unlawfully possessing himself of a certain
diamond ornament, which had been found in his pocket by a detective
employed to look after the wedding presents. At the end of the somewhat
brief proceedings, he had been remanded for a fortnight for inquiries,
and that was exactly how matters stood at the moment.

He did not want to think too much of that exceedingly unpleasant scene
in which he had been marched off, under the eyes of some two hundred
guests, but he was essentially a man of action, and he had lost no
time in getting at the fountain head. In other words, he had written a
somewhat compelling letter to Sir John Lester, the uncle of the bride,
and was now waiting for the next move on the part of that somewhat
impulsive gentleman.

But two further days elapsed before the cell door was opened, and a
warder escorted two visitors into the narrow apartment in which the
prisoner was confined. The elder of the two was a typical Englishman of
the better sporting class, and the younger belonging to the same type,
and unmistakably class. He gave one glance at the man in the cell, and
then fell back in astonishment.

"Dick," he cried. "What the devil?"

"Yes, what the devil," Dick Fenton said. "This is a nice way to treat
an old pal. I reach London just in time to attend your wedding, and
I come on to the reception afterwards with a present in my pocket,
expecting to find you cutting the cake and making speeches and all
the rest of it. But not a sign of you, or the bride, either. Nothing
but Babel and confusion. I suppose that is how I managed to slip in
without being challenged. But not knowing a soul there, I pottered
about looking for the presents, and all that sort of thing, and then
found myself in the custody of a detective sort of chap who finds a
South African blue diamond in my pocket. So, despite all my protests,
they dragged me here and charged me with stealing one of the wedding
presents. Stealing my own property, mind! Well, here I am, and unless
you do something speedily, here I am likely to stay."

"Good Lord," the man called Tony Bassett cried. "I wouldn't have had
this happen for anything. And do you mean to say that you were present
at my wedding?"

"I was," Dick said grimly. "Just as I told you. And in the shabby suit
and tired looking spats I am wearing at the present moment. If I had
had time to visit Savile Row and get a proper rig out this could never
have happened. But because we are such old pals, I came along in this
scarecrow kit to Eccleston Square meaning to ask one of the servants to
give me an opportunity of speaking to you, when, of course, everything
would have been all right. And then, when that unlucky present was
found in my pocket, everything was all wrong. I suppose that is why
Sir John Lester here decided to give me into custody. At any rate, he
might----"

"Oh, quite, quite," the elderly gentleman said in confusion. "But, of
course, I acted in good faith. I had no idea that my niece's husband
had a friend called Fenton. And when I got your letter two days ago, I
immediately cabled to the South of France for this,--this idiotic young
bridegroom and brought him back hot foot from his honeymoon. And serve
him right."

"Yes, I am afraid it's true, Dick," Tony Bassett confessed. "Look here,
Sir John, Dick Fenton is a very old pal of mine. We were together in
South Africa for years, and when I came into my money and made a dash
for home and Vera, I asked Dick to come to the wedding. And as he was
on the point of retiring from business, I hoped he would be back in
time. And I'm dashed if he wasn't."

"I assure you that I wouldn't have had this happen for worlds," Sir
John said. "Tony is entirely to blame. The way he upset the household
on the day of his marriage was unpardonable."

"But what happened?" Dick asked.

Sir John majestically indicated the culprit by his side.

"Ask him," he said. "Ask him."

"Really, I am awfully sorry, old chap," Bassett said contritely. "You
see, it was a little joke that Vera and I put up between us. We never
wanted to have all that fuss over our wedding. Our idea was to slip
quietly off to a registry office and get spliced on the sly, just
like all the nuts are doing now-a-days. You know what I mean 'Society
romance,' and all that sort of thing. Portrait of the bride, badly done
and about a column of descriptive matter. See the idea? But what I
really funked most was cutting the cake and the infernal speech-making
afterwards. So when we got back, Vera sneaked up to her bedroom and
changed, and I bunked into a room and climbed into my sports suit, and
we sort of eloped by the back way in my two seater and got off on our
own, without telling a soul where we were going. We didn't even travel
to the house in the country which a pal had placed at our disposal. A
bit rough on the villagers, with their arches and flags; but there you
are, there's no use apologising. So we quietly sloped off to the South,
and Vera sent Sir John here her address on a post card. We had hardly
settled down to humdrum married life before I got a telegram from Sir
John that made me sit up and purr. So I came back actually leaving Vera
behind me to see what all the trouble was about. And upon my soul, old
chap, it's dashed funny, isn't it?"

"Oh, very," Fenton said drily. "My name in all the papers. Three days
in a cell like this and the prospect of coming before magistrates again
in the course of a week or so. Perhaps I shall be able to see the humor
of it later on, but, for the present--yet, perhaps, I am not altogether
blameless. I ought not to have gone to Eccleston Square at all in this
mouldy old kit. But I didn't think that the mere fact that I was going
to give you a wedding present would be the means if making me into a
criminal."

"Oh, criminal be hanged," Bassett cried. "'Pon my word, old chap I
hardly know what to say about it. You see that little stunt of mine was
quite innocent, though I admit it was a silly trick to do. And now, Sir
John, what about it?"

"You are not blaming me, I hope," Lester said, a little stiffly.

"Well, to a certain extent I am," Bassett went on. "You gave poor
old Dick into custody. You, it was, who wouldn't listen to a single
explanation, and you it was who refused to believe my old friend when
he said that that diamond was his offering to the bride. Dash it all,
you might have given him the benefit of the doubt. I mean, you could
have had him watched and all that sort of thing whilst you sent for me.
I suppose he told you he was a friend of mine?"

"That," Sir John said uncomfortably, "I am bound to admit. I did not
believe him. And that fool of a detective said he was quite sure he had
seen Mr. Fenton's face before."

"Yes," Tony said impatiently, "but what about it?"

"Eh?" Sir John asked. "Do you suggest----"

"Suggest nothing. Look here, this thing has got to be stopped. Poor old
Dick can't stay here another hour. And he can't go before magistrates
again, either. What's the good of your being Lord Lieutenant of your
county if you can't pull a string or two? You know the Home Secretary
and all those legal nuts, don't you?"

Sir John Lester admitted that he did.

"Very well, then," Tony went on. "Let's take a taxi and go off at once
to the Home Office and set the ball rolling. What's become of that blue
diamond, by the way?"

Sir John was understood to say that it had been packed away with the
rest of the wedding presents, and was at the bank.

"Well, there you are, then. Nobody else sent a blue diamond solitaire,
and I know that nothing else was missing or we should have heard about
it. Now, come on, let's get down to the Home Office and explain the
whole thing. Tell the chaps there that it has been a ghastly mistake
and that you are entirely to blame. By Gad, if old Dick was a different
sort of man, he'd bring an action against you and recover heavy
damages."

"I am not in the least likely to do that," Dick smiled. "Nor am I
blaming Sir John at all. You are the culprit, Tony, and don't you
forget it. And that's about all there is to be said."

       *       *       *       *       *

It was quite late in the evening before Dick found himself free to go
his own way and returned to his hotel, comforting himself as best he
could with the knowledge that to-morrow's papers would see him publicly
exonerated from the ridiculous charge which had been made against him.
He was still feeling very sore and angry, though logically there was no
one to whom he could attach any particular blame. It was all very well
to read in the papers the following morning the story which had been
sent out to the Press, which pungent incident had been made the most of
by certain of the cheaper papers with headlines all across the page.
So that, altogether, Dick was very far from seeing ahead of him the
Christmas that he had so delightfully anticipated on his way home from
the Cape.

Nor, in the circumstances, did he feel disposed to communicate with
Mrs. Lee Watson. There was, of course, no reason why he should not, but
a certain shyness held him back. Besides, if there was one thing he
hated more than another, it was publicity. He would go as far as Savile
Row and replenish his wardrobe, after which he would set about the
purchase of his Christmas presents. At any rate, he need not be shy of
sending these to the ladies of Claygates Hall. That he could do.

It was a fine, crisp morning when he set out on his errand, and the
streets were crowded with shoppers. And then, presently, in one of
the big emporiums in Oxford-street he ran in Clytie Watson. There was
absolutely no avoiding recognition.

She looked at him with a startled expression on her face.

"Oh, Mr. Fenton, oh!" she exclaimed.

Dick was quick enough to appreciate what was passing in her mind.
It was quite evident she had read of his trouble which the society
paragraphs in the papers had made the most of, and the sequel.

"You didn't expect to see me here," he said as coolly as possible. "I
wonder if you would like to hear what I have to say."

"Of course I should," Clytie said, warmly, at the same time looking at
him with something more than pity in her eyes.

"Then perhaps, if we had a little lunch together----"

"Well, why not?" Clytie asked. "I am in Town for a day or two shopping
with my mother, and she has gone off to the Ritz to see some friends.
And, oh, I don't believe a word of it."

"You don't believe that I am--I am----"

"Guilty of that ridiculous business? Of course not. Do let's go
somewhere where we can talk about it quietly."

And so it came about, half an hour later, that they were sitting at a
secluded little table in the corner of the dining-room of a West-End
hotel, with Clytie listening eagerly to the story that Dick had to
tell. When he had finished, her face was flushed and rosy and there
was more than a suspicion of tears in her eyes. Then she laughed
wholeheartedly, like a child that is pleased.

"What an extraordinary thing," she said. "When I read the first account
in the papers, I didn't know what to think. But, mind you, I didn't
think for a moment that you could possibly have done anything wrong.
And my mother agreed with me. And you say it's all in this mornings
papers. Well, I'm rather glad I didn't see it. I wonder if you can
guess why?"

"Give it up," Dick said rather briefly.

"Oh, how silly of you! Don't you see it's because I am able to meet
you like this and shake hands with you before I heard the explanation?
Now, you will never be able to think that I had the slightest doubt
about you. You must take me back to our hotel so that we can have tea
with mother, and if you can arrange to come down to Claygates with us
to-morrow it would be lovely."

"I am afraid I can't come to-morrow," Dick said audaciously. "You see I
must stay in town a few days until my wardrobe is replenished. And I
haven't even a decent dress suit. And in any case, I am afraid I could
only come down to Claygates on one condition. I wonder if you can guess
what that is, Clytie."

"Perhaps I can, Dick," the girl said demurely.

"Ah, well, I think we understand one another. It wouldn't be a really
happy Christmas to me unless I could--er--kiss you under the mistletoe.
And I, I don't mean as a matter of custom but as a right. Am I
presuming too far Clytie?"

She looked into his face, her eyes sparkling gaily.

"Won't you come down and see?" she asked.

And Dick said, in a matter of fact sure enough that it was good enough
for him. Just for a moment he regretted that the conventions, to say
nothing that the crowd about him, prevented him from advertising his
reply in a more emphatic manner.

"I'll come down on the 21st," he said. "I can't possibly manage it
earlier, and you shall meet me with the car at the station and the next
day we'll go out in the woods and cut the Yule log together. I can do
pretty well everything with an axe, and I have been longing for years
to spend an English Christmas and help to bring in the Yule log. And, I
say, Clytie, you might lend me that little ruby ring of yours."

"What do you want it for?" Clytie murmured.

"Just as if you couldn't guess. When I give it to you back, I will give
you another one as well--diamonds and pearls, eh?"

And so, in due course, the Yule log was cut and carried, and Dick and
Clytie sat down to the enjoyment of the most perfect Christmas dinner
that either ever remembered, and on Clytie's left hand was a ring of
pearls and diamonds of which she seemed to be inordinately proud.


THE END



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