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Title: A Christmas in Peril Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402711h.html Language: English Date first posted: Oct 2014 Most recent update: Oct 2014 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. Project Gutenberg of 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 of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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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.
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