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Title: Beauty in Distress Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1601401h.html Language: English Date first posted: Dec 2016 Most recent update: Jan 2017 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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THE Gentle Buccaneers were lounging on the deck of the Gehenna in the moonlight after dinner. They might have been just four very proper and gallant gentlemen, taking their ease after the pleasures of the day, and, indeed, they were something like that; but thereby hangs a tale.
There were four of them altogether—the Honorable Roger Endellion, commonly called Jolly Roger as a delicate compliment to him, as the leading spirit of the great adventure; Jimmy Graydon, alias Truthful James, one time a mighty "Rugger" international three-quarter, and St. John Wallace, commonly called the Brigadier, seeing that for a brief space he had been a soldier; all some time at Eton, and now citizens of the world. The fourth man, Peter Shacklock, generally hailed as the Prodigal Son, was pure American, and, as his nickname might imply, a backslider from a commercial point of view, and a veritable thorn in the flesh of a businesslike father with perhaps more millions (dollars) than he knew how to count.
They were a fine company, physically, if not intellectually, though Endellion himself, the leader of the expedition and owner of the yacht, was by way of being a classical scholar and a passionate admirer of Marcus Aurelius, whose philosophy he was fond of translating with a wide margin.
Now it pleased the Gentle Buccaneers to regard themselves as something between Drake and Kidd. In other words, pirates in the South Pacific Seas, though, nathless, their piracy, like Ariel's spiriting, was done gently. They liked to pose as men who have been badly mauled in the battle of the world, and as regards two of them, at least, this was substantially true. The others had gone into the business in the pure spirit of adventure. But Endellion, at least, had a real enough grievance. As he was fond of putting it, what use was that large fortune of his, inherited from a kindly godmother, seeing that it was impossible for him to show his face either in the park or on "the sweet shady side of Pall Mall." There had been a time, not so long ago when he had been quite persona grata in Society, but that was before he had fallen in love with a woman of considerable personal attractions and slim morality who had somehow got entangled in a card scandal of some magnitude. In his fine quixotic way Endellion had taken all the blame upon himself and confessed of a social crime of the blackest type—the one unforgivable sin, in fact.
He had not been blind. No one had known better than he that the object of his misplaced affections had no business to be playing for such a high stakes, despite the fact that she was a fine exponent, and depended upon her skill to pay most of her obligations. But Endellion had not stopped to count the cost. He was most absurdly in love, and it had seemed to him that with his ample means he and the lady in question might live happily ever afterwards, in spite of the social ostracism which would inevitably be handed out to him. And therefore he stood confessed for her sake, and then, when she was enjoying the sympathy of everybody, she turned her back upon Endellion and married someone else.
Endellion immediately disappeared from his familiar haunts, and from time to time rumors reached his old friends to the effect that he was leading a riotous sort of life in the South Pacific Seas on board a luxurious yacht in company with a few other black sheep he had scraped together from various parts of the globe. He had gone headlong to the devil. Sooner or later he would be picked up by some patrolling gunboat, and then there would be an end to his career.
And so it came about that Endellion was sitting there with his companions, on the deck of his own yacht in the glorious moonlight, off a little spit of an island inhabited, for the most part by other black sheep and a trader or two in copra and mother o' pearl. They did not know even the name of the island and had drifted there in the mere spirit of adventure. They had been on shore for an hour or two taking in water and one or two odd things, and now seated on the deck round a little table on which stood an electric light, smoking their cigars and talking idly over coffee and liquers.
They might have been no more than four idle gentlemen, prospecting around for sheer amusement. From where they sat they could see the foam creaming on the white sand and a waving fringe of palms swaying gently in the evening breeze. It was a peaceful picture of sea and sky and brilliant moon and far enough remote apparently in the way of crime or violence.
"What manner of place is this?" Endellion asked. He had not been ashore. "What do you make of it, Jimmy?"
"Oh, just the usual," Graydon replied. "Two or three huts, a general store, and a poisonous little saloon, of course. Same old game. A handful of white traders steadily drinking themselves to death in the intervals of business, and the inevitable remittance man propped up against the bar. It's a lovely spot, of course, but a God-forsaken hole, all the same. Not much sign of adventure here."
The Prodigal Son, otherwise Peter U. Shacklock, chuckled quietly to himself.
"I don't know about that, sonny," he said. "There's a girl on the island. A real peach, too."
"Oh, come off it," Wallace said. "Do you mean there's a lady tied up on this gob of sand?"
"I do that," Shacklock replied. "I saw her when the hands were filling up the water casks. Tall, dark, with violet eyes and a walk like a goddess. Quite young too. Now I wonder who the deuce she is."
"That will do," Endellion put in. "None of that, my boy. No woman here. Now, what does Marcus Aurelius say about woman and her man friends?"
"Oh, come off with your Marcus Aurelius," Shacklock went on. "I tell you there is a mystery here. Now, what on earth is a woman—and a lady, mind—doing here, where there isn't a clean white man within a thousand miles? When I say a lady I mean it. The real thing."
"It sounds interesting," Wallace said thoughtfully. "A prisoner, perhaps. I will just have a stroll round in the morning——"
"You'll do nothing of the sort," Endellion said. "I am going to have no woman mixed up with this expedition. It will mean the break up of our friendship. I am glad you told me about this, Shacklock. We will sail at dawn."
"Yes, but look here," Shacklock protested. "You can't leave a white woman, and a lady at that, a prisoner in a place like this. And if ever I saw a woman in trouble the is one."
"Oh, don't drag me into it," Endellion said bitterly. "I have finished with the sex. I wouldn't walk a yard across the deck to help one of them."
Endellion spoke cynically enough; there was a hard look on that clean cut, smoothly shaven face of his, and yet at the same time a yearning expression in his eyes. The others looked at one another and shrugged their shoulders, knowing well enough that there was no moving the owner of the Gehenna when he was in his present mood. His was no secret to them, the only three men in the world who really knew the truth.
They sat there for a few moments in silence, looking out over the silver track of the moon, whilst Endellion frowned moodily, and, for once in his life, failing to quote something apposite from his favourite author. Then there was a sound of oars alongside the yacht, and a moment later a woman came up the ladder and stood there, in the little ring of electric light, looking timidly at the four figures seated at the table.
"May—may I speak to you?" she faltered timidly. "I—I am in very great trouble."
Endellion rose to his feet instantly, and brought his heels together. At once the cynic had been merged into the gentleman, so that a moment later the girl with the violet eyes and the white pleading face found herself looking at four wholesome Englishmen. The mere sight of them brought the tears into her eyes.
"Anything we can do for you?" Endellion began.
"You are very good," the girl murmured. "But I have not the courage to tell all of you at once. May I speak alone with the owner of the yacht?"
Three men turned away simultaneously, leaving the woman-hater face to face with the foe. Endellion could hear Shacklock chuckle as he vanished into the darkness.
"I say, what price Marcus Aurelius now?" Shacklock whispered to his companions. "Guess our St. Anthony is going to catch it under the fifth rib all right. Say, boys, we're going to get our adventure yet."
All of which, fortunately, was not audible to the man on the deck. He was looking down into a pleading pair of limpid violet eyes that were turned trustingly upon him, and, sooth to say, that hardened misogynist was not altogether displeased. There was something in this implicit confidence that appealed to him strongly. Because, you see, he was a young man and this girl was good to look upon. Moreover, the prodigal son's description had not been in the least exaggerated. Here was a lady beyond all question, one to the manner born and speaking the little refined shibboleths of Society. And, moreover, she was in trouble. It was useless for Endellion to fall back upon the little platitudes and epigrams behind which he had tried to shield himself in the face of beauty in distress, and, moreover, beauty with a crystal purity of gaze and openness of expression that would have disarmed cynicism itself.
And, on her side, this intruder with the crimson checks and blooming eyes was looking into the face of perhaps the handsomest man she had ever seen. Nor did she know that he was smiling down upon her with that instinctive protection that every woman appreciates whether she admires it or not.
"Won't you sit down?" Endellion said.
"I would rather not," the girl replied. "My name is Audrey Croxton, at least——"
"At least, that's the name you want me to address you by," Endellion smiled. "Isn't that so?"
"Oh, yes, yes," the girl replied. "That is not my name, but it is my father's name, if you understand me."
"Yes, I think I have got that," Endellion said. "There are reasons why you do not want me to know who you really are. Well, it doesn't in least matter. Go on."
"It is good of you to try and make it easy for me," the girl said gratefully. "You see, my father lived on the island. He has been here for—for so many years."
Endellion nodded. A remittance man, no doubt, one of those men who, in the conventional phrase, has done something wrong, and who is kept at arms' length across the world and subsidised by his relations so long as he stays in the outer darkness. In his experience Endellion had met scores of these, but that one of them should be so far gone as to keep a child of his in that outlandish region was something almost beyond comprehension.
"And may I ask how long you have been here?" Endellion said. "It is not curiosity——"
"Oh, I quite understand that. I have been here nearly two years."
"And you want to get away?"
"Oh, I must, you can see that I must Mr.——"
"Endellion. That's my name."
Audrey Croxton gazed with wide-opened eyes.
"Oh, indeed?" she said. "I have heard——"
She broke off abruptly.
"Go on," Endellion said good-naturedly. "You were going to say that you have heard of me before."
"Well, I have friends in England——"
"Then you know my story. It is no secret, Miss Croxton. And now, if you think that you can trust a man who——. But we need not go into that. We are both in trouble, you see, and that should be a bond of sympathy between us. Now, do sit down and tell me everything."
"Oh, I do trust you," the girl said. "Do you know, I came here to-night in sheer desperation. I saw your friends on the beach this afternoon, and that gave me the idea. Two years ago when I was a mere schoolgirl at home, I conceived the romantic idea that it was my duty to come out here and look after my father. I had not seen him for many, many years, and I persuaded myself he had been very badly treated by his relatives. Just the notion that a child does get hold of. So when I got the chance, and the necessary means, I ran away and joined my father here."
"To his joy or annoyance, which?" Endellion asked. "I am bound to ask you the question."
"Isn't my presence here to-night an answer?" the girl said, with some spirit. "It was a fatal mistake, Mr. Endellion. I had no idea that my father had sunk so low. I would not confess my mistake, I would not write to my friends for money to return home. You may call that pride or stupidity, whichever you like, but any father, to do him justice, would send me back again if he had the money. He has promised me over and over again that if he was lucky he would see to it. But until quite lately there has been no opportunity. Then a few days ago there came to the island a Japanese, whom my father had befriended once or twice, a man in the last stage of consumption who came here to die. He had been a pearl fisher—a pearl poacher, if you like. He had one big stone which he gave to my father out of gratitude a few days before he died. That pearl is worth a good many hundreds of pounds, and there was my opportunity. I implored my father to sell it to one of the traders here. But he says if he keeps it for a week or two until the next ship comes along he will be able to get double the price. And then he began to talk, he began to display that stone in the saloon where he spent most of his day. There is a man here who will rob father of it if he gets the opportunity. If he doesn't get the opportunity, he will make it, and then I shall never reach England again. I was wondering if, by any chance, I could induce one of you gentlemen to make my father an offer."
To all this Endellion listened gravely enough. He could read the tense anxiety behind those quietly-spoken words, and he was beginning to realise what a veritable hell life must have been there all those weary months for this delicately natured girl.
"I think that could be managed," Endellion said. "Tell me, where is your father now?"
"Down at the saloon as usual," the girl said with a sort of weary scorn. "He had his cheque from England a few days ago, so just now he is a welcome guest. I would not mind so much if he would not carry that pearl about with him. Any time Billy Hutton and his gang may make him intoxicated, and then they will lure him on to play cards for the pearl. Oh, it's terrible, Mr. Endellion, terrible. Can't you help, me?"
"I not only can, but will," Endellion said crisply. "But who is the aforesaid Billy Hutton?"
"The terror of these seas," the girl explained. "A pirate, a pearl poacher, anything that is vile. He is a big, burly ruffian, who is the bully of the island. He has a small tramp steamer in which he and his crew go off from island to island, and wherever they are there is violence. And that's the man my father wants to—oh, Mr. Endellion, I can't say it. It's too horrible."
Endellion inclined his head gravely. In a flash he had comprehended the whole situation. He was feeling just a little unreal, as if he had stepped on to the stage in the midst of a comedy-drama with a rehearsed part. He knew something by repute of the aforesaid Billy Hutton, pirate, scalliwag, and scoundrel generally, who arrogated to himself the mastery of those free and easy seas, and who had more than once expressed a lurid desire to meet the man who was there with the obvious intention of disputing his sovereignty with him. And this was the creature that Croxton would have allowed the child of his to marry.
Endellion could see it clearly enough, could see the broken down gentleman who had sunk so low that he cared nothing so long as he could obtain his daily portion of drink.
And yet, with it all, Endellion was conscious of the fact that he was flying in the face of every resolution which had been bitten into him by his troubles in the past. He could recollect another face like this, and another pair of violet eyes that had looked wildly and imploringly into his with a prayer for salvation behind them. And because he had passionately loved the owner of those eyes he had cheerfully sworn away his own honor and had gone out into the social darkness without receiving a single word of thanks. Never again, he had told himself. And yet here he was, perforce a squire of dames, a champion of beauty, on the last spot of God's earth where he had expected to find that role thrust upon him.
"I think I understand," he said. "It's pretty horrible, isn't it? That's a banal way of putting it, Miss Croxton, but I want you to understand; I turned my back on England two years ago, swearing by all my gods that I would never speak to a woman again. I told myself that if I saw one of them dying by the wayside I would not hold out a hand to help her. Never mind why. Certainly I never expected to be speaking to a woman like this again. But I cannot leave you here to suffer. I must help you. Well, let me tell you the truth, I want to help you. This matter shall be attended to at once. Where is your father to be found?"
"There is only one place, except when he is asleep," Audrey said. "Or when he has no money. He is down at Bioni's saloon. You can see it on the beach yonder. And that little bungalow on the left is my home."
"You had better stay here," Endellion said. "You will be safe till we come back. I think it would be far more prudent. Now, let me make you comfortable in the cabin."
"You are very good," the girl said. "And you will be careful, won't you? The man I speak of is utterly reckless."
A few minutes later Endellion and his trusty companions were pulling off in the direction of the shore. The leader of the expedition had made the situation plain in a few words, and it was an eager little coterie that turned their face in the direction of the saloon.
They pulled up their boat presently on a little spit of golden sand and made their way past the fringe of palms and growing hibiscus that led to the saloon. The doors were closed, despite the closeness of the night, and here and there a clink of light crept through the window slats.
Endellion pushed his way unconcernedly forward and entered the saloon, closely followed by his companions. A blast of hot reeking air drove them back for a moment, a stifling heat that seemed to have little effect on the knot of men gathered round a rough deal table. Two of them were playing cards, and the other choice specimens of humanity were drinking and looking on. It was evidently an exciting game, for it was some little time before the unsavory occupants of the place became aware of the presence of the new comers, so that Endellion and his friends had a good chance of looking round.
They saw a big mountain of a man, burly and red of face, and black of beard, who sat at one end of the table with cards in his hand. He appeared to dominate the place with a certain personality of his own, for the others seemed to hang upon his every word and applaud the coarse jests that fell from his lips.
And the game they were playing was evidently poker. From time to time one of the cardholders selected a fresh piece of pasteboard from the greasy pack, and then the bidding went on.
The other man was a fine specimen of humanity, slim and wiry, but the muscles round the corners of his lips trembled and the slim, well-shaped hands were horribly shaky. A ragged, fair moustache dropped over his lips; the grey eyes were weak and bleared and watery.
"That's the man," Endellion whispered. "A typical specimen of the class who live upon the charity of their friends. A gentleman, evidently. Strange how the flavor clings in spite of everything, isn't it? My God, it's Lashford."
"What, 'Lashford of Evans?'" Graydon asked.
"Yes, that's the man. Can't you recognise him from the photograph that used to hang up in the dining-room? To what base uses may we come, as Marcus Aurelius says."
"Guess it was Shakespeare who said that," Shacklock said.
"Well, it doesn't matter," Endellion replied. "That's Lashford all right. Lashford who was captain of the Eton eleven for three years and the finest bat the old House ever turned out. And just look at him now."
As Endellion spoke he stepped quietly forward and stood by the side of the table where the game of cards was going on. That cool, insolent clean-cut face of his and his spotless white clothing were in vivid contrast to the greasy picturesqueness of the ruffians round the table.
"Good evening," Endellion said with exquisite politeness. "A little game of poker, I presume? But, my dear Mr. Lashford, if you will allow me to call you so, how can you expect to win when you are playing with an opponent who uses his own cards, and not only that, but marks them, too? I wonder how many hundreds of times that venerable pile of greasy pasteboards has figured in a robbery like this?"
It was done so coolly and quietly that for a moment the big man with the black beard and his companions stood there gazing stupidly at the intruders. It was only the man with the fair moustache who showed signs of agitation. At the mention of his proper name he had half-started to his feet, then dropped back into his chair again with a dull red spot glowing on either cheek. But the quiet thrust had gone clean home, the recognition, the cool, cutting contempt in Endellion's tone had penetrated through the outer coat of vice and sloth and lost self-respect. He looked up dully.
"Eton, by the Lord," he said. "Since my day, too. Evans? Am I right, sir?"
"You are," Endellion said crisply. "And upon my word you are still remarkably like your photograph. I wonder what Evans' would say, if they knew?"
"Drop that, damn you," Lashford said fiercely.
"Ah, well, the old Adam is not yet dead, I am glad to see," Endellion replied. "And for the sake of the old school I am not going to stand here and see that black-bearded ruffian rob you. Here, look for yourself!"
Endellion reached over coolly and took one of the oleaginous cards from the table.
"Look here, you fool," he said. "These cards were once white with glazed backs. They shine even now if you glance at them sideways. And I'll eat the whole pack if there are not dull spots on the back of every one of them. There you are. See for yourself. How are you going to win when that scamp yonder can pick any card he likes, knowing the value of it from the spots on the back? Upon my word, Mr. Hutton, it's pretty cool of you to work an old trick like that. Get up, Lashford, and come along with us. This is no place for an old Etonian, even if he has flown off the handle. And before you go, be sure you have got that pearl in your pocket."
"Oh, that's all right," Lashford muttered.
Then it was that the big bully rose from his chair. He had been too paralysed by Endellion's audacious onslaught and the cool, easy proof of his accusation to sit there whilst he was sparring for wind, so to speak. He looked round now, as if measuring Endellion and his companions with the eyes of a general reckoning up the forces against him. And because he did not slip his hand to his hip pocket and the other greasy rascals were standing around, as if awaiting a lead, Endellion, and the rest of the Gentle Buccaneers knew that these men were not armed. They had probably regarded that precaution as unnecessary; they had just come over from their battered old tramp steamer on an errand far too simple to call for any precaution of that kind.
"Who the blazes are you?" Hutton demanded.
"I think you know," Endellion smiled sweetly. "I understand that you have expressed a friendly interest in me and the Gehenna and her crew. You say that there isn't room in the South Pacific for your lot and mine. With that expression of opinion I am in entire accord. That's not a threat, it's only an expression of opinion. But I think you understand what I mean. We are both here on a spirit of adventure, and both, I believe, utterly reckless. But your methods are not ours. Swindling and robbery form no part of our programme."
It was all quietly said and in a cool and cutting voice that seemed to drive the big man to the verge of frenzy. He let out wildly in Endellion's direction with a fist big enough to have smashed that handsome, insolent, contemptuous face if the blow had got home. But Endellion side-stepped deftly and caught the bully a stinging counter on the left cheek.
"Into it, boys!" Graydon yelled. "Collar 'em low. They've got no arms, so we'll just make a 'rough house' of it. Whoop, you devils, get your heads down forwards, and mind you heel out when I give you the word. And you, you little black devil behind the bar yonder, lock the door, and if anyone wants to come in tell 'em they can't, because you've got some gentlemen here engaged in a friendly argument. Lock the door, you little sprat, and then lie down behind the bar until someone whistles for you. Now, then, all together."
"Rah! Rah! Rah!" Shacklock screamed. "Yale! Yale! Go it, ye cripples! Come on, Brigadier!"
A moment later the whole pack were mixed in inextricable confusion on the floor. White shirts and black ties were torn away indiscriminately in the scene that ensued, till gradually Hutton and his pack were driven back by the scientific rush of those thained footballers, and before long three of the pirates were lying dazed on the floor, wondering where they were and whether they had suddenly become victims of a passing tornado.
Endellion scrambled to his feet. He was hardly up before Hutton was at him again. The others, recognising the two master minds, drew a little on one side to watch the coming fray.
"The skipper will be all right," Wallace said cheerfully. "It looks big odds, but he'll get there."
Endellion tore off what remained of his white coat. He measured the big man opposite with a cool and critical eye, and addressed him with irritating calm.
"Now, that's not a bad idea, Mr. Hutton," he said. "We are none of us armed, so we will have to fall back upon Nature's weapons. I see by the way you are shaping that you know something about the art, and, without vanity, I am not exactly a novice. Some other time perhaps we may try other forces. But now, as it is a question of whether you finish this game on top or I do, we must make the best of what we have got."
Hutton appeared to ask nothing better. There was a wicked gleam in his eyes as be lunged forward with all the weight of that big body behind him. And then began a battle of giants. Weight was all on the side of the swashbuckler; he had a fair smattering of science, too, but he was considerably the older man, and a long experience in the fetid atmosphere of saloon bars was all against him. There was no mistaking his power and his knowledge and had he been permitted to come to close grips it might have gone hard with Endellion. But, despite all the jibs and sneers of the big man, he kept his distance and contented himself now and again with a few short arm jabs that were hammered home well on the big fellow's ribs, until at length he lost his temper and came on in a blind fury to receive a smashing blow just a shade too high on the jaw to knock him out.
Then he burst furiously into curses loud and deep, so that presently he began to sob for breath, as if his lungs oppressed him, embittered by the knowledge that so far, at any rate, he had not even touched his nimble opponent.
"You've got him now, old man," Graydon said coolly. "Just wade in and finish him."
"I should like to punish him a bit more yet," Endellion said, as if he were conferring a favor.
And he did. He hammered away until the big man's face was streaming and a great swelling over his left eye presently closed that optic altogether. Hutton was puffing now, and unmistakably groggy at the knees. With his two hands thrown up, he lurched forward, and then, quite calmly and good-naturedly, Endellion drove home a blow on the mark, so that the big man sank gently backwards and, like Elder Jones in the poem, "subsequent proceedings interested him no more."
When he opened his eyes at length Endellion was smiling down on him, with Lashford by his side.
"Well, Mr. Hutton," Endellion said, "if you enjoyed that little dust-up as much as I did we can shake hands over it."
Hutton broke into voluble execrations.
"When you are dying perhaps, curse you," he said. "But listen to me, my lad. It's your turn today but it will be mine tomorrow. We shall meet again. And when we do, look to yourself."
Endellion turned away with a shrug of his shoulders, and a few minutes later the thoroughly satisfied Buccaneers were making their way back towards their boat, with Lashford bringing up the rear. Endellion dropped behind to speak to him.
"Now, look here, sir," he said. "I know all about your story and some day I'll tell you mine. Your daughter is on board my yacht. I leave you to guess why she came to seek my assistance this evening. I rather gather that for certain reasons you don't want to go back home."
"I—I can't," Lashford stammered.
"Well, for the matter of that, neither can I," Endellion said coolly. "But, at any rate, I can hold out a helping hand to an old Etonian, even when he has sunk as low as you have. And when there is a lady in the question—oh, dash it, you know what I mean. At any rate, after what has happened you can't stay here. I suggest you get all your belongings together, and join us on the yacht. There is no hurry, and we can settle what is to be done later on. Now, what do you say?"
"What can I say, except to thank you?" Lashford said. "But won't you find us rather a nuisance?"
It was precisely the same question that Graydon asked his skipper in somewhat agitated tones an hour or so later when once more they were on board the yacht.
"It was a rattling good spree, old man," he said. "But we didn't come over here to prowl about the island rescuing damsels in distress. You see what it means? It will play the devil with our arrangements. Not to be inquisitive, old thing, what are you going to do about it?"
"Dashed if I know," Endellion replied. "But how on earth could we have done otherwise?"
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