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Title: The Colonel's Christmas Pudding Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1100871h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2014 Most recent update: Aug 2014 This eBook was produced by Roy Glashan. 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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HAROLD STANTON stamped up and down the platform of the little country station with a vigorous attempt to infuse some amount of life into his veins. The journey from town had been a long one there were changes to make, and the mere suggestion of a footwarmer had found the local officials helpless. The sun was setting in a sky of brass; a purple mist hung on the horizon; the whole countryside lay under a deep mantle of snow. For once in a way England was being treated to a good old-fashioned Christmas. And Harold was not quite sure that he appreciated the gift as he should.
"My luggage will be all right," he said. "I believe that a cart is coming over from the Grange for some things this afternoon, and I shall be glad if you will put my traps in with the rest. By the way, how far off is the Grange?"
The porter gave the desired information. It was a matter of two miles to the Grange, and it was impossible for the gentleman to miss it. There were no conveyances.
"Don't want one," Stanton said, crisply. "I prefer to walk. Don't forget."
Stanton's spirit rose as he strode along the snowy road. Warmth and elasticity were coming back to him again. Really, it was good to be alive, he thought. This was his first visit to the residence of Colonel Candwell, and it behoved this light of the Junior Bar to be on his best behaviour. There were special reasons why it was necessary to secure the good opinion of the Colonel. For the present these reasons were known only to Harold Stanton and Kitty Candwell, the Colonel's only daughter. Ostensibly the invitation had come through Jack Candwell, but even he was not in the secret.
Stanton came to a field-path presently, leading through woods that shaded a long stone house that looked exceedingly inviting and comfortable. Doubtless this was, the Grange. Harold waited for somebody to come along and tell him. The somebody who appeared presently took the form of an exceedingly pretty girl, with a pair of sparkling blue eyes and a mass of golden-brown hair under a little fur cap. Her dainty figure was clad in furs, and there was a charming touch of colour on her cheeks. She held out both her hands to Stanton. Then she seemed to vanish for a moment in an affectionate embrace. Her blue eyes grew moist and tender.
"Dear old boy," she murmured. "It does seem such a long time"
"Doesn't it, Kitty?" Stanton replied. "Ever since August. I began to think that I was never, going to see you again. I have been working like—like one o'clock by way of drowning dull care. But how did you manage it, Kit? I thought—"
"Oh, well, the others have all gone skating. There has been no such ice for years. I— well— l pretended that several things wanted looking after, and I stayed behind. I persuaded Jack not to send a conveyance for you to the station, saying that you would walk and that your luggage would follow. I did that so that I could stop away and meet you."
"You darling! Has Jack any sort of suspicion that we—"
"Not the least. Brothers never see that kind of thing. Probably Jack would be quite surprised that any man could care for a little insignificant thing like me. And you of all people in the world. Jack thought that my suggestion was inhospitable. What a surprise it will be for them all later on."
"Won't it?" Harold grinned joyfully. "What will the Colonel say?"
A slight frown clouded Kitty's precty face for a moment.
"That's what I'm afraid of," she whispered. "Dad is an old dear, but he has such funny, old-fashioned notions. He has no opinion of young men, and I'm very much afraid that he has already chosen somebody for me. I don't like deceiving him in this way, either, Hal. Now, if you could only do something out of the common."
Stanton was willing enough. He only wanted his chance. He was pretty certain to succeed in due time at the Bar; but as yet briefs had been few and far between. His private means were not large, but there was a certain jolly old sporting aunt who regarded him as the apple of her eye, and who was quite ready to do the handsome thing if Stanton's matrimonial venture pleased her. Still—
"We'd better go on like this for the present," he suggested. "Don't worry about the future. It's good enough to see you again, dearest. I'll do my best to make a good impression upon the Colonel. You might give me a few tip—"
"Are you any good in the detective line?" Kitty asked.
"What's that got to do with it? As a barrister I know a thing or two. But you don't mean to say that there is anything wrong here?"
"Indeed I do, Hal. I forgot everything for the moment when I met you. As a matter of fact, a very unpleasant thing has happened. I must tell you that my mother had a lot of valuable jewellery. The quantity was not so much as the quality. Dad refused to keep these things at the bank; he preferred to have them in the house. Each Christmas he takes one ring or pendant or something, and makes me a present of it. When he went to that old-fashioned safe of his the night before last he found that everything had vanished. The thieves had taken it all."
"That's bad," Stanton said, gravely. "Any clue?"
"No sign of one. We have had the police over several times, but without result. And dad refuses to have anything to do with Scotland Yard. He has resigned himself to his loss, and declares that the house is not going to be given over to a lot of strange men, who will only upset everybody without finding anything out. Now, it struck me that this might be a good chance for you. You're a barrister, Hal, and, of course, know a good deal about criminals and their ways. If you could only manage to get these things back it would make a tremendous impression upon dad, and perhaps— perhaps—"
Stanton plunged into the matter with all the enthusiasm of youth. He found himself discussing the matter with the Colonel presently, as they sipped their tea in the great hall of the Grange before a roaring log-fire. The skating party had not as yet returned from the lake, so that the group gathered round the tea-table was a small one, consisting of the Colonel and his daughter and Miss Constance Candwell, an elderly cousin of Kitty's who kept house for her uncle.
She appeared to be a jolly-faced woman, and Stanton knew by instinct that he had a friend here. Constance was one of those popular persons whose chief pleasure lies in the art of catering for other people's enjoyment. She ruled the household with the iron hand in the velvet glove the servants respected her; even in the kitchen she was a welcome figure. It was one of her boasts that she could cook a dinner with anybody. Certainly she was a popular figure everywhere.
The Colonel stood with his back to the blazing logs, laying down the law. "The thing is most annoying," he said. "It isn't altogether the pecuniary loss, though that comes to some thousands of pounds. It is the unpleasant suggestion that there is a thief in the house somewhere. I cannot bring myself to suspect any of my servants, seeing that they have all been with me so long. And, besides, they are all children of tenants of mine, all born on the estate."
"Except the cook," Kitty said, thoughtfully.
"My dear, I am quite aware of it," the Colonel went on, magnificently. "I have not lost sight of the fact that the cook is an alien, so to speak. Incidentally, I may remark that she is the best cook we ever had at the Grange."
Stanton murmured something respectful. The Colonel looked like a man able to appreciate the efforts of a really efficient cook.
"But I wish to remind you, my dear child," he went on, "that the cook was engaged by your cousin Constance. Constance never makes mistakes. We can put your suggestion aside as quite unreasonable. Besides, cooks do not help themselves to family jewels. Now, as a barrister with a practice at the Bar, I ask you. Mr. Stanton—"
The door of the hall was flung open at this point, and a cold stream of air poured in. Outside, the trees stood with their heavy mantles of snow. A roaring mass of blue and golden sparks streamed up the big open chimney. The skaters had come back again. There was quite a dozen of them, all clamouring for tea, and all declaring that they could eat anything. Their light-hearted laughter rang in the rafters.
A couple of footmen were kept busy dispensing tea and hot cakes. The Colonel looked on with his most benevolent smile.
"We will discuss the matter later on, Mr. Stanton," he said. "It is no subject for a frivolous crowd like this. We must make allowance for them."
Stanton was just a little flattered. It was something of a compliment to be singled out thus from the rest of the giddy throng, and it seemed to him that he was making headway. It was no part of his policy to proclaim the fact that he was as giddy as the rest, and that he was looking forward to his share of the fun. The next day would be Christmas Eve, and skating was again the programme. As an old skating-club expert he was anticipating this with pleasure. Besides, it would give him a good opportunity of seeing Kitty.
Jack Candweli came bustling up to him. "So you've managed to get here after, all, old, man," he said. "I didn't think that a quiet place such as this would be any sort of good to you. Now, look here; it's a good moon to-night, and there are a lot of duck down on the marshes. One or two of us propose to have a go at them to-night after the womenkind have gone to bed. We'll take a few sandwiches with us, and a flask or two, and start about midnight. We'll get back again by two in the morning. Are you on?"
Stanton accepted with alacrity. He protested that there was nothing he should like better. On the whole, it was rather a dull evening for him, for the Colonel had singled him out for special attention. His esteemed host was full of his loss, though the rest of the company appeared to hide successfully their sorrow.
It was nearly eleven o'clock before Harold 1 contrived to get Kitty to himself. She looked up with a demure little smile on her face.
"You are making yourself a favourite," she suggested.
"Confound it, yes," Stanton groaned. "I mean, I suppose that I should be pleased. The Colonel is good enough to approve of me. He sees in me certain solid qualities which are not possessed by the rest of the party, and I hope you will treat me with more respect in the future, Kit. Still, I should like to find those diamonds."
"Wouldn't it be grand!" Kitty exclaimed. "What are you going to do now?" Stanton proceeded to explain. Three or four of the younger men went presently into the smoking-room ready for the coming raid on the duck. The guns were in the hall.
"We musn't forget the grub," Jack Candwell suggested. "It will be precious cold work, and a mouthful of something will be acceptable. I expect everybody has gone to bed by this time. I'll go into the kitchen and forage round."
"Let me come along," said Stanton. "I'm rather good at cutting sandwiches."
The big kitchen was not empty, as Jack Candwell had anticipated, for the cook was still there. There had been a few things to clear up before retiring, she explained. On the great oak dresser stood a row of white basins with cloths tied over them. Two basins, more majestic than the rest, were still steaming.
"The pudding," Jack laughed. "Which one are we going to have on Christmas Day, cook?"
The cook shrugged her big shoulders. It was quite evident that this intrusion was by no means welcome to her. She answered the question in a short sullen way, and averted her gaze from the intruders. A faint smell of spirits pervaded the air. The cupboard doors were banged to, and presently the cook lighted her bedroom candle and departed.
"Nice amiable old party, isn't she?" Candwell laughed. "Wonder why cooks should always be like that. I suppose it is all a matter of liver."
Stanton responded thoughtfully. He was asking himself a few questions. He was still asking himself the same questions when the marshes were reached and the onslaught on the unoffending duck began. For once in his life he shot badly, so badly, indeed, that his exploits in that direction attracted the attention of Candwell, who remarked upon it. But it was doubtful whether Harold heard a single word.
"I've got it!" he exclaimed, presently. "By Jove, I've got it! I remember now. It was at Chelmsford two years ago, and besides—"
"What on earth are you talking about?" Candwell demanded. Stanton came to with a start.
"Upon my word, I heg your pardon," he said. "I must have been thinking about some one else. You see I have rather an important case upon my mind, and that is why I have been shooting so badly to-night."
Harold had the same thoughtful frown on his face as he prepared for bed an hour later. He crept in between the sheets presently, but not to sleep. Consequently, everybody had finished breakfast the following morning by the time he had got down. He found Miss Constance Candwell waiting to receive him.
"I apologise most humbly," he said. "But the fact is, I slept very badly last night, and— but what's the matter? Nothing wrong, I hope."
"Perhaps you wouldn't think so," Miss Constance said. "But from my, point of view it is nothing less than a calamity. Our cook is going."
"Really! I suppose it is awkward. Still, you will have time to get—"
"She is going this afternoon by the 2.15 train. Her mother is dying, and she has to leave at once. I can find a substitute, of course, in the village. But it is a tiresome thing to happen on Ghristmas Eve."
Harold expressed his sympathy. Ha ate his breakfast slowly and thoughtfully, after which he went in search of Kitty. She had her skates in her hand.
"This is dreadful she said, reproachfully. "And what are you looking so grave about?"
"Am I? I suppose Miss Candwell has affected me. The cook is going at—"
"That doesn't matter. Our old cook, who married from here in the summer, will come back if she is needed. And how long have you been interested—"
"My dear child, I have an idea. Unless I am greatly mistaken, I have made a most important discovery. I believe that luck is on our side. If I don't happen to be in to lunch, make some excuse for me. Now let's go as far as the lake."
A little before two o'clock the same, afternoon, Stanton was lurking in the shrubbery that led from the domestic offices towards the drive. Some time before he had seen the cook's boxes depart in a cart, and presently that functionary herself followed. It was her evident intention to walk to the station. She carried on her arm a flat basket with flaps, and the contents appeared to be heavy. As she entered the shrubbery Stanton rose and confronted her. Her red face was palpably paler.
"I will trouble you for your basket," Stanton said. "Hand it over, please."
"Well, I never the flustered woman protested. "What next, indeed!"
"That," Stanton said, calmly, "depends entirely upon yourself. It isn't the slightest use for you to take that tone with me. It is a considerable time since we met, and on that occasion it was my duty to get you eighteen months' imprisonment for fraud and forgery, and, robbing your mistress of money. You obtained a good situation, by means of a forged character, and you are well known to the police. Give me your basket."
"There is nothing in it but a plum pudding for my mother," the woman protested.
"Invalid mothers don't require plum puddings," Stanton smiled. "Give me your basket just as it is, and you can go."
The basket was handed over with a sigh. Without another word Stanton marched back to the house with it on his arm. As he expected, he found Miss Candwell in the kitchen superintending matters. He opened the basket casually.
"I took this from your cook," ha said. "Unless I am greatly mistaken it is the plum pudding for to-morrow's dinner. I noticed last night that there were two puddings of greater tonnage than the rest, and I feel sure that this is one of them."
"Quite right," Miss Candwell smiled. "I suppose that cook regarded this as one of her perquisites. And you actually took it from her?"
"My dear lady, I had an excellent reason," Stanton said. "My excuse will be forthcoming to-morrow night at dinner. Now will you do me a special favour? Will you see that this is the pudding for Christmas Day?"
It was an excellent dinner, in spite of the late cook's defection, and Miss Candwell's anxious face relaxed on tha appearance of the pudding carried by, two footmen and blazing with gold and purple flames. It was gravely divided and handed round to the various guests.
"One moment," Stanton remarked. "This, I feel sure, is a pudding of amazing qualities. If it should contain any foreign substance, such as—"
"Look at this!" a pretty, girl on tha far side of the table cried. "A necklace—"
"And here is a ring—" another voice broke in. "And I have got a pendant as well."
The cries were becoming general now, all along the table. Finger-bowls were brought into requisition, and pretty soon a pile of glittering gems lay by the side of the Colonel's plate. He held them carefully up to the light.
"My poor wife's missing jewellery," he said. "Mr. Stanton, you are indeed a Sherlock Holmes. Pray tell us how you managed such marvellous results. It was a pretty conceit of yours to—"
"Only part of the credit is mine, sir," Stanton said, modestly. "As a matter of fact, luck was on my side. I happened the night before last to recognises your treasure of a cook as a woman whom I successfully prosecuted nearly two years ago at Chelmsford for forgery and fraud. Directly I saw her I guessed at once where your family gems had gone. I knew your cook would leave you after she saw me, and that is why I stopped her on the way to the station. I took the basket and found the pudding in it. Then it flashed across my mind that the gems were in the pudding.
"Splendid!" the Colonel cried. "You are tho most remarkable young man I ever came across. I drink to your good luck, sir. Everybody will join one. And if there is any way in which I can repay you, any favour, however great—"
Stanton glanced at Kitty and smiled. She blushed and coloured with delight. An hour or so later, when the sensation and excitement had somewhat subsided, Stanton turned to remind his host of his promise. It was a big favour ha was going to ask. Colonel Candwell listened without any signs of grave displeasure.
"So you have met beiore," he said. "Well well. I suppose I shall have to part with Kitty some of these days, and I may say that I had other plans. Young men nowadays are so empty-headed, so frivolous, so you understand what I mean. But after to-night I feel that I could not refuse you anything."
Kitty was in the conservatory, apparently doing nothing. Stanton caught her to him and kissed her warm red lips. Outside the moon was shining on the snow. "What luck," he said. "It's all right, darling. And he's rather proud of me."
"And so am I," Kitty said fondly. "It was wonderful of you, Hal—wonderful!"
"Well, it doesn't matter so long as I've got you," Stanton said.
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