‘We’re having a quiet evening together. Stalky’s upstairs changing. Dinner’s at 7.15 sharp, because we’re hungry. His room’s next to yours,’ said The Infant, nursing a cobwebbed bottle of Burgundy.
Then I found Lieutenant-Colonel A.L. Corkran, I.A., who borrowed a collar-stud and told me about the East and his Sikh regiment.
‘And are your subalterns as good as ever?’ I asked.
‘Amazin’—simply amazin’! All I’ve got to do is to find ’em jobs. They keep touchin’ their caps to me and askin’ for more work. ’Come at me with their tongues hangin’ out. I used to run the other way at their age.’
‘And when they err?’ said I. ‘I suppose they do sometimes?’
‘Then they run to me again to weep with remorse over their virgin peccadilloes. I never cuddled my Colonel when I was in trouble. Lambs—positive lambs!’
‘And what do you say to ’em?’
‘Talk to ’em like a papa. Tell ’em how I can’t understand it, an’ how shocked I am, and how grieved their parents’ll be; and throw in a little about the Army Regulations and the Ten Commandments. ’Makes one feel rather a sweep when one thinks of what one used to do at their age. D’you remember——’
We remembered together till close on seven o’clock. As we went out into the gallery that runs round the big hall, we saw The Infant, below, talking to two deferential well-set-up lads whom I had known, on and off, in the holidays, any time for the last ten years. One of them had a bruised cheek, and the other a weeping left eye.
‘Yes, that’s the style,’ said Stalky below his breath. ‘They’re brought up on lemon-squash and mobilisation text-books. I say, the girls we knew must have been much better than they pretended they were; for I’ll swear it isn’t the fathers.’
‘But why on earth did you do it?’ The Infant was shouting. ‘You know what it means nowadays.’
‘Well, sir,’ said Bobby Trivett, the taller of the two, ‘Wontner talks too much, for one thing. He didn’t join till he was twenty-three, and, besides that, he used to lecture on tactics in the ante-room. He said Clausewitz was the only tactician, and he illustrated his theories with cigarends. He was that sort of chap, sir.’
‘And he didn’t much care whose cigar-ends they were,’ said Eames, who was shorter and pinker.
‘And then he would talk about the ’Varsity,’ said Bobby. ‘He got a degree there. And he told us we weren’t intellectual. He told the Adjutant so, sir. He was just that kind of chap, sir, if you understand.’
Stalky and I backed behind a tall Japanese jar of chrysanthemums and listened more intently.
‘Was all the Mess in it, or only you two?’ The Infant demanded, chewing his moustache.
‘The Adjutant went to bed, of course, sir, and the Senior Subaltern said he wasn’t going to risk his commission—they’re awfully down on ragging nowadays in the Service—but the rest of us—er—attended to him,’ said Bobby.
‘Much?’ The Infant asked. The boys smiled deprecatingly.
‘Not in the ante-room, sir,’ said Eames. ‘Then he called us silly children, and went to bed, and we sat up discussin’, and I suppose we got a bit above ourselves, and we—er——’
‘Went to his quarters and drew him?’ The Infant suggested.
‘Well, we only asked him to get out of bed, and we put his helmet and sword-belt on for him, and we sung him bits out of the Blue Fairy Book—the cram-book on Army organisation. Oh yes, and then we asked him to drink old Clausewitz’s health, as a brother-tactician, in milk punch and Worcester sauce, and so on. We had to help him a little there. He bites. There wasn’t much else that time; but, you know, the War Office is severe on ragging these days.’ Bobby stopped with a lop-sided smile.
‘And then,’ Eames went on, ‘then Wontner said we’d done several pounds’ worth of damage to his furniture.’
‘Oh,’ said The Infant, ‘he’s that kind of man, is he? Does he brush his teeth?’
‘Oh yes, he’s quite clean all over!’ said Trivett; ‘but his father’s a wealthy barrister.’
‘Solicitor,’ Eames corrected, ‘and so this Mistet Wontner is out for our blood. He’s going to make a first-class row about it—appeal to the War Office-court of inquiry—spicy bits in the papers, and songs in the music-halls. He told us so.’
‘That’s the sort of chap he is,’ said Trivett. ‘And that means old Dhurrah-bags, our Colonel, ’ll be put on half-pay, same as that case in the Scarifungers’ Mess; and our Adjutant’ll have to exchange, like it was with that fellow in the 73rd Dragoons, and there’ll be misery all round. He means making it too hot for us, and his papa’ll back him.’
‘Yes, that’s all very fine,’ said The Infant; ‘but I left the Service about the time you were born, Bobby. What’s it got to do with me?’
‘Father told me I was always to go to you when I was in trouble, and you’ve been awfully good to me since he . . .’
‘Better stay to dinner.’ The Infant mopped his forehead.
‘Thank you very much, but the fact is——’Trivett halted.
‘This afternoon, about four, to be exact——’ Eames broke in.
‘We went over to Wontner’s quarters to talk things over. The row only happened last night, and we found him writing letters as hard as he could to his father—getting up his case for the War Office, you know. He read us some of ’em, but I’m not a good judge of style. We tried to ride him off quietly—apologies and so forth—but it was the milk-punch and mayonnaise that defeated us.’
‘Yes, he wasn’t taking anything except pure revenge,’ said Eames.
‘He said he’d make an example of the regiment, and he was particularly glad that he’d landed our Colonel. He told us so. Old Dhurrah-bags don’t sympathise with Wontner’s tactical lectures. He says Wontner ought to learn manners first, but we thought——’ Trivett turned to Eames, who was less a son of the house than himself, Eames’ father being still alive.
‘Then,’ Eames went on, ‘he became rather noisome, and we thought we might as well impound the correspondence’—he wrinkled his swelled left eye—‘and after that, we got him to take a seat in my car.’
‘He was in a sack, you know,’ Trivett explained. ‘He wouldn’t go any other way. But we didn’t hurt him.’
‘Oh no! His head’s sticking out quite clear, and’—Eames rushed the fence—‘we’ve put him in your garage—er pendente lite.’
‘My garage!’ Infant’s voice nearly broke with horror.
‘Well, father always told me if I was in trouble, Uncle George——’
Bobby’s sentence died away as The Infant collapsed on a divan and said no more than, ‘Your commissions!‘ There was a long, long silence.
‘What price your latter-day lime juice subaltern?’ I whispered to Stalky behind my hand. His nostrils expanded, and he drummed on the edge of the Japanese jar with his knuckles.
‘Confound your father, Bobby!’ The Infant groaned. ‘Raggin’s a criminal offence these days. It isn’t as if——’
‘Come on,’ said Stalky. ‘That was my old Line battalion in Egypt. They nearly slung old Dhurrah-bags and me out of the Service in ’85 for ragging.’ He descended the stairs and The Infant rolled appealing eyes at him.
‘I heard what you youngsters have confessed,’ he began; and in his orderly-room voice, which is almost as musical as his singing one, he tongue-lashed those lads in such sort as was a privilege and a revelation to listen to. Till then they had known him almost as a relative—we were all brevet, deputy, or acting uncles to The Infant’s friends’ brood—a sympathetic elder brother, sound on finance. They had never met Colonel A. L. Corkran in the Chair of Justice. And while he flayed and rent and blistered, and wiped the floor with them, and while they looked for hiding-places and found none on that floor, I remembered (1) the up-ending of ‘Dolly’ Macshane at Dalhousie, which came perilously near a court-martial on Second-Lieutenant Corkran; (2) the burning of Captain Parmilee’s mosquito-curtains on a hot Indian dawn, when the captain slept in his garden, and Lieutenant Corkran, smoking, rode by after a successful whist night at the club; (3) the introduction of an ekka pony, with ekka attached, into a brother captain’s tent on a frosty night in Peshawur, and the removal of tent, pole, cot, and captain all wrapped in chilly canvas; (4) the bath that was given to Elliot-Hacker on his own verandah—his lady-love saw it and broke off the engagement, which was what the Mess intended, she being an Eurasian—and the powdering all over of Elliot-Hacker with flour and turmeric from the bazaar.
When he took breath I realised how only Satan can rebuke sin. The good don’t know enough.
‘Now,’ said Stalky, ‘get out! No, not out of the house. Go to your rooms.’
‘I’ll send your dinner, Bobby,’ said The Infant. ‘Ipps!’
Nothing had ever been known to astonish Ipps, the butler. He entered and withdrew with his charges. After all, he had suffered from Bobby since Bobby’s twelfth year.
‘They’ve done everything they could, short of murder,’ said The Infant. ‘You know what this’ll mean for the regiment. It isn’t as if we were dealing with Sahibs nowadays.’
‘Quite so.’ Stalky turned on me. ‘Go and release the bagman,’ he said.
‘’Tisn’t my garage,’ I pleaded. ‘I’m company. Besides, he’ll probably slay me. He’s been in the sack for hours.’
‘Look here,’ Stalky thundered—the years had fallen from us both—‘is your—am I commandin’ or are you? We’ve got to pull this thing off somehow or other. Cut over to the garage, make much of him, and bring him over. He’s dining with us. Be quick, you dithering ass!’
I was quick enough; but as I ran through the shrubbery I wondered how one extricates the subaltern of the present day from a sack without hurting his feelings. Anciently, one slit the end open, taking off his boots first, and then fled.
Imagine a sumptuously-equipped garage, half-filled by The Infant’s cobalt-blue, grey-corded silk limousine and a mud-splashed, cheap, hooded four-seater. In the back-seat of this last, conceive a fiery chestnut head emerging from a long oatsack; an implacable white face, with blazing eyes and jaws that worked ceaselessly at the loop of the string that was drawn round its neck. The effect, under the electrics, was that of a demon caterpillar wrathfully spinning its own cocoon.
‘Good evening!’ I said genially. ‘Let me help you out of that.’ The head glared. ‘We’ve got ’em,’ I went on. ‘They came to quite the wrong shop for this sort of game—quite the wrong shop.’
‘Game!’ said the head. ‘We’ll see about that. Let me out.’
It was not a promising voice for one so young, and, as usual, I had no knife.
‘You’ve chewed the string so I can’t find the knot,’ I said as I worked with trembling fingers at the caterpillar’s throat. Something untied itself, and Mr. Wontner wriggled out, collarless, tieless, his coat split half down his back, his waistcoat unbuttoned, his watch-chain snapped, his trousers rucked well above the knees.
‘Where,’ he said grimly, as he pulled them down, ‘are Master Trivett and Master Eames?’
‘Both arrested, of course,’ I replied. ‘Sir George’—I gave The Infant’s full title as a baronet—‘is a Justice of the Peace. He’d be very pleased if you dined with us. There’s a room ready for you.’ I picked up the sack.
‘D’you know,’ said Mr. Wontner through his teeth—but the car’s bonnet was between us, ‘that this looks to me like—I won’t say conspiracy yet, but uncommonly like a confederacy.’
When injured souls begin to distinguish and qualify, danger is over. So I grew bold.
‘’Sorry you take it that way,’ I said. ‘You come here in trouble——’
‘My good fool,’ he interrupted, with a half-hysterical snort, ‘let me assure you that the trouble will recoil on the other men!’
‘As you please,’ I went on. ‘Anyhow, the chaps who got you into trouble are arrested, and the magistrate who arrested ’em asks you to dinner. Shall I tell him you’re walking back to Aldershot?’
He picked some fluff off his waistcoat.
‘I’m in no position to dictate terms yet,’ he said. ‘That will come later. I must probe into this a little further. In the meantime, I accept your invitation without prejudice—if you under stand what that means.’
I understood and began to be happy again. Subalterns without prejudices were quite new to me. ‘All right,’ I replied; ‘if you’ll go up to the house, I’ll turn out the lights.’
He walked off stiffly, while I searched the sack and the car for the impounded correspondence that Bobby had talked of. I found nothing except, as the police reports say, the trace of a struggle. He had kicked half the varnish off the back of the front seat, and had bitten the leather padding where he could reach it. Evidently a purposeful and hard-mouthed young gentleman.
‘Well done!’ said Stalky at the door. ‘So he didn’t slay you. Stop laughing. He’s talking to The Infant now about depositions. Look here, you’re nearest his size. Cut up to your rooms and give Ipps your dinner things and a clean shirt for him.’
‘But I haven’t got another suit,’ I said.
‘You! I’m not thinking of you! We’ve got to conciliate him. He’s in filthy rags and a filthy temper, and he won’t feel decent till he’s dressed. You’re the sacrifice. Be quick! And clean socks, remember!’
Once more I trotted up to my room, changed into unseasonable unbrushed grey tweeds, put studs into a clean shirt, dug out fresh socks, handed the whole garniture over to Ipps, and returned to the hall just in time to hear Stalky say, ‘I’m a stockbroker, but I have the bonour to hold His Majesty’s commission in a Territorial battalion.’ Then I felt as though I might be beginning to be repaid.
‘I have a very high opinion of the Territorials myself,’ said Mr. Wontner above a glass of sherry. (Infant never lets us put bitters into anything above twenty years old.) ‘But if you had any experience of the Service, you would find that the Average Army Man——’
Here The Infant suggested changing, and Ipps, before whom no human passion can assert itself, led Mr. Wontner away.
‘Why the devil did you tell him I was on the Bench?’ said Infant wrathfully to me. ‘You know I ain’t now. Why didn’t he stay in his father’s office? He’s a raging blight!’
‘Not a bit of it,’ said Stalky cheerfully. ‘He’s a little shaken and excited. Probably Beetle annoyed him in the garage, but we must overlook that. We’ve contained him so far, and I’m going to nibble round his outposts at dinner. All you’ve got to do, Infant, is to remember you’re a gentleman in your own house. Don’t hop! You’ll find it pretty difficult before dinner’s over. I don’t want to hear anything at all from you, Beetle.’
‘But I’m just beginning to like him,’ I said. ‘Do let me play! ‘
‘Not till I ask you. You’ll overdo it. Poor old Dhurrah-bags! A scandal ’ud break him up!’
‘But as long as a regiment has no say as to who joins it, it’s bound to rag,’ Infant began. ‘Why—why, they varnished me when I joined!’ He squirmed at the thought of it.
‘Don’t be owls! We ain’t discussing principles! We’ve got to save the court of inquiry if we can,’ said Stalky.
Five minutes later—at 7.45 to be precise—we four sat down to such a dinner as, I hold, only The Infant’s cook can produce, with wines worthy of pontifical banquets. A man in the extremity of rage and injured dignity is precisely like a typhoid patient. He asks no questions, accepts what is put before him, and babbles in one key—very often of trifles. But food and drink are the very best of drugs. I think it was Heidsieck Dry Monopole ’92—Stalky as usual stuck to Burgundy—that began to unlock Mr. Wontner’s heart behind my shirt-front. Me he snubbed throughout, after the Oxford manner, because I had seen him in the sack, and he did not intend me to presume; but to Stalky and The Infant, while I admired the set of my dinner jacket across his shoulders, he made his plans of revenge very clear indeed. He had even sketched out some of the paragraphs that were to appear in the papers, and if Stalky had allowed me to speak, I would have told him that they were rather neatly phrased.
‘You ought to be able to get whackin’ damages out of ’em, into the bargain,’ said Stalky, after Mr. Wontner had outlined his position legally.
‘My de-ah sir,’ Mr. Wontner applied himself to his glass, ‘It isn’t a matter that gentlemen usually discuss, but, I assure you, we Wontners’—he waved a well-kept hand—,‘do not stand in any need of filthy lucre.’ In the next three minutes, we learned exactly what his father was worth, which, as he pointed out, was a trifle no man of the world dwelt on. Stalky envied aloud, and I delivered my first kick at The Infant’s ankle. Thence we drifted to education, and the Average Army Man, and the desolating vacuity—I remember these words—of Army Society, notably among its womenkind. It appeared there was some sort of narrow convention in the Army against mentioning a woman’s name at Mess. We were much surprised at this—Stalky would not let me express my surprise—but we took it from Mr. Wontner, who said we might, that it was so. Next he touched on Colonels of the old school, and their cognisance of tactics. Not that he himself pretended to any skill in tactics, but after three years at the ’Varsity—none of us had had a ’Varsity education—a man insensibly contracted the habit of clear thinking. At least, he could automatically co-ordinate his ideas, and the jealousy of these muddle-headed Colonels was inconceivable. We would understand that it was his duty to force on the retirement of his Colonel, who had been in the conspiracy against him; to make his Adjutant resign or exchange; and to give the half-dozen childish subalterns who had vexed his dignity a chance to retrieve themselves in other corps—West African ones, he hoped. For himself, after the case was decided, he proposed to go on living in the regiment, just to prove—for he bore no malice—that times had changed, nosque mutamur in illis—if we knew what that meant. Infant had curled his legs out of reach, so I was quite free to return thanks yet once more to Allah for the diversity of His creatures in His adorable world.
And so, by way of an eighty-year-old liqueur brandy, to tactics and the great General Clausewitz, unknown to the Average Army Man. Here The Infant, at a whisper from Ipps—whose face had darkened like a mulberry while he waited—excused himself and went away, but Stalky, Colonel of Territorials, wanted some tips, on tactics. He got them unbrokenly for ten minutes—Wontner and Clausewitz mixed, but Wontner in a film of priceless cognac distinctly on top. When The Infant came back, he renewed his clear-spoken demand that Infant should take his depositions. I supposed this to be a family trait of the Wontners, whom I had been visualising for some time past even to the third generation.
‘But, hang it all, they’re both asleep!’ said Infant, scowling at me. ‘Ipps let ’em have the ’81 port.’
‘Asleep!’ said Stalky, rising at once. ‘I don’t see that makes any difference. As a matter of form, you’d better identify them. I’ll show you the way.’
We followed up the white stone side-staircase that leads to the bachelors’ wing. Mr. Wontner seemed surprised that the boys were not in the coal-cellar.
‘Oh, a chap’s assumed to be innocent until he’s proved guilty,’ said Stalky, mounting step by step. ‘How did they get you into the sack, Mr. Wontner?’
‘Jumped on me from behind—two to one,’ said Mr. Wontner briefly. ‘I think I handed each of them something first, but they roped my arms and legs.’
‘And did they photograph you in the sack?’
‘Good Heavens, no!’ Mr. Wontner shuddered.
‘That’s lucky. Awful thing to live down—a photograph, isn’t it?’ said Stalky to me as we reached the landing. ‘I’m thinking of the newspapers, of course.’
‘Oh, but you can easily have sketches in the illustrated papers from accounts supplied by eyewitnesses,’ I said.
Mr. Wontner turned him round. It was the first time he had honoured me by his notice since our talk in the garage.
‘Ah,’ said he, ‘do you pretend to any special knowledge in these matters?’
‘I’m a journalist by profession,’ I answered simply but nobly. ‘As soon as you’re at liberty, I’d like to have your account of the affair.’
Now I thought he would have loved me for this, but he only replied in an uncomfortable, uncoming-on voice, ‘Oh, you would, would you?’
‘Not if it’s any trouble, of course,’ I said. ‘I can always get their version from the defendants. Do either of ’em draw or sketch at all, Mr. Wontner? Or perhaps your father might——’
&Then he said quite hotly, ‘I wish you to understand very clearly, my good man, that a gentleman’s name can’t be dragged through the glitter to bolster up the circulation of your wretched sheet, whatever it may be.’
‘It is——’ I named a journal of enormous sales which specialises in scholastic, military, and other scandals. ‘I don’t know yet what it can’t do, Mr. Wontner.’
‘I didn’t know that I was dealing with a reporter,’ said Mr. Wontner.
We were all halted outside a shut door. Ipps had followed us.
‘But surely you want it in the papers, don’t you?’ I urged. ‘With a scandal like this, one couldn’t, in justice to the democracy, be exclusive. We’d syndicate it here and in the United States. I helped you out of the sack, if you remember.’
‘I wish to goodness you’d stop talking!’ he snapped, and sat down on a chair. Stalky’s hand on my shoulder quietly signalled me out of action, but I felt that my fire had not been misdirected.
‘I’ll answer for him,’ said Stalky to Wontner, in an undertone that dropped to a whisper. I caught—‘Not without my leave—dependent on me for market-tips,’ and other gratifying tributes to my integrity.
Still Mr. Wontner sat in his chair, and still we waited on him. The Infant’s face showed worry and heavy grief; Stalky’s, a bright and bird-like interest; mine was hidden behind his shoulders, but on the face of Ipps were written emotions that no butler should cherish towards any guest. Contempt and wrath were the least of them. And Mr. Wontner was looking full at Ipps, as Ipps was looking at him. Mr. Wontner’s father, I understood, kept a butler and two footmen.
‘D’you suppose they’re shamming, in order to get off? ‘he said at last. Ipps shook his head and noiselessly threw the door open. The boys had finished their dinner and were fast asleep—one on a sofa, one in a long chair—their faces fallen back to the lines of their childhood. They had had a wildish night, a hard day, that ended with a telling-off from an artist, and the assurance they had wrecked their prospects for life. What else should youth do, then, but eat, and drink ’81 port, and remember their sorrows no more?
Mr. Wontner looked at them severely, Ipps within easy reach, his hands quite ready. ‘Childish,’ said Mr. Wontner at last. ‘Childish but necessary. Er—have you such a thing as a rope on the premises, and a sack—two sacks and two ropes? I’m afraid I can’t resist the temptation. That man understands, doesn’t he, that this is a private matter?’
‘That man,’ who was me, was off’ to the basement like one of Infant’s own fallow-deer. The stables gave me what I wanted, and coming back with it through a dark passage, I ran squarely into Ipps. ‘Go on!’ he grunted. ‘The minute he lays hands on Master Bobby, Master Bobby’s saved. But that person ought to be told how near he came to being assaulted. It was touch-and-go with me all the time from the soup down, I assure you.’
I arrived breathless with the sacks and the ropes.
‘They were two to one with me,’ said Mr. Wontner, as he took them. ‘If they wake——’
‘We’ll stand by,’ Stalky replied. ‘Two to one is quite fair.’
But the boys hardly grunted as Mr. Wontner roped first one and then the other. Even when they were slid into the sacks they only mumbled, with rolling heads, through sticky lips and snored on.
‘Port?’ said Mr. Wontner virtuously.
‘Nervous exhaustion. They aren’t much more than kids, after all. What’s next?’ said Stalky.
‘I want to take ’em away with me, please.’
Stalky looked at him with respect.
‘I’ll have my car round in five minutes,’ said The Infant. ‘Ipps’ll help carry ’em downstairs,’ and he shook Mr. Wontner by the hand.
We were all perfectly serious till the two bundles were dumped on a divan in the hall, and the boys waked and began to realise what had happened.
‘Yah!’ said Mr. Wontner, with the simplicity of twelve years old. ‘Who’s scored now?’ And he sat upon them. The tension broke in a storm of laughter, led, I think, by Ipps.
‘Asinine—absolutely asinine!’said Mr. Wontner, with folded arms from his lively chair. But he drank in the flattery and the fellowship of it all with quite a brainless grin, as we rolled and stamped round him, and wiped the tears from our cheeks.
‘Hang it!’ said Bobby Trivett. ‘We’re defeated!’
‘By tactics, too,’ said Eames. ‘I didn’t think you knew ’em, Clausewitz. It’s a fair score. What are you going to do with us?’
‘Take you back to Mess,’ said Mr. Wontner.
‘Not like this?’
‘Oh no. Worse—much worse! I haven’t begun with you yet. And you thought you’d scored! Yah!’
They had scored beyond their wildest dream. The man in whose hands it lay to shame them, their Colonel, their Adjutant, their Regiment, and their Service, had cast away all shadow of his legal rights for the sake of a common or bear-garden rag—such a rag as if it came to the ears of the authorities, would cost him his commission. They were saved, and their saviour was their equal and their brother. So they chaffed and reviled him as such till he again squashed the breath out of them, and we others laughed louder than they.
‘Fall in!’ said Stalky when the limousine came round. ‘This is the score of the century. I wouldn’t miss it for a brigade! We shan’t be long, Infant!’
I hurried into a coat.
‘Is there any necessity for that reporter-chap to come too?’ said Mr. Wontner in an unguarded whisper. ‘He isn’t dressed for one thing.’
Bobby and Eames wriggled round to look at the reporter, began a joyous bellow, and suddenly stopped.
‘What’s the matter?’ said Wontner with suspicion.
‘Nothing,’ said Bobby. ‘I die happy, Clausewitz. Take me up tenderly.’
We packed into the car, bearing our sheaves with us, and for half an hour, as the cool nightair fanned his thoughtful brow, Mr. Wontner was quite abreast of himself. Though he said nothing unworthy, he triumphed and trumpeted a little loudly over the sacks. I sat between them on the back seat, and applauded him servilely till he reminded me that what I had seen and what he had said was not for publication. I hinted, while the boys plunged with joy inside their trappings, that this might be a matter for arrangement. ‘Then a sovereign shan’t part us,’ said Mr. Wontner cheerily, and both boys fell into lively hysterics. ‘I don’t see where the joke comes in for you,’ said Mr. Wontner. ‘I thought it was my little jokelet to-night.’
‘No, Clausewitz,’ gasped Bobby. ‘Some is, but not all. I’ll be good now. I’ll give you my parole till we get to Mess. I wouldn’t be out of this for a fiver.’
‘Nor me,’ said Eames, and he gave his parole to attempt no escape or evasion.
‘Now, I suppose,’ said Mr. Wontner largely to Stalky, as we neared the suburbs of Ash, ‘you have a good deal of practical joking on the Stock Exchange, haven’t you?’
‘And when were you on the Stock Exchange, Uncle Leonard?’ piped Bobby, while Eames laid his sobbing head on my shoulder.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Stalky, ‘but the fact is, I command a regiment myself when I’m at home. Your Colonel knows me, I think.’ He gave his name. Mr. Wontner seemed to have heard of it. We had to pick Eames off the floor, where he had cast himself from excess of delight.
‘Oh, Heavens!’ said Mr. Wontner after a long pause. ‘What have I done? What haven’t I done?’ We felt the temperature in the car rise as he blushed.
‘You didn’t talk tactics, Clausewitz?’ said Bobby. ‘Oh, say it wasn’t tactics, darling!’
‘It was,’ said Wontner.
Eames was all among our feet again, crying, ‘If you don’t let me get my arms up, I’ll be sick. Let’s hear what you said. Tell us.’
But Mr. Wonter turned to Stalky. ‘It’s no good my begging your pardon, sir, I suppose,’ he said.
‘Don’t you notice ’em,’ said Stalky. ‘It was a fair rag all round, and anyhow, you two youngsters haven’t any right to talk tactics. You’ve been rolled up, horse, foot, and guns.’
‘I’ll make a treaty. If you’ll let us go and change presently,’ said Bobby, ‘I’ll promise we won’t tell about you, Clausewitz. You talked tactics to Uncle Len? Old Dhurrah-bags will like that. He don’t love you, Claus.’
‘If I’ve made one ass of myself, I shall take extra care to make asses of you!’ said Wontner. ‘I want to stop, please, at the next milliner’s shop on the right. It ought to be close here.’
He evidently knew the country even in the dark, for the car stopped at a brilliantly-lighted millinery establishment, where—it was Saturday evening—a young lady was clearing up the counter. I followed him, as a good reporter should.
‘Have you got——’ he began. ‘Ah, tbose’ll do!’ He pointed to two hairy plush beehive bonnets, one magenta, the other a conscientious electric blue. ‘How much, please? I’ll take them both, and that bunch of peacock feathers, and that red feather thing.’ It was a brilliant crimson-dyed pigeon’s wing.
‘Now I want some yards of muslin with a nice, fierce pattern, please.’ He got it—yellow with black tulips—and returned heavily laden.
‘Sorry to have kept you,’ said he. ‘Now we’ll go to my quarters to change and beautify.’
We came to them—opposite a dun waste of parade-ground that might have been Mian Mir—and bugles as they blew and drums as they rolled set heart-strings echoing.
We hoisted the boys out and arranged them on chairs, while Wontner changed into uniform, but stopped when he saw me taking off my jacket.
‘What on earth’s that for?’ said he.
‘Because you’ve been wearing my evening things,’ I said. ‘I want to get into ’em again, if you don’t mind.’
‘Then you aren’t a reporter? ‘he said
‘No,’ I said, ‘but that shan’t part us.’
‘Oh, hurry!’ cried Eames in desperate convulsions. ‘We can’t stand this much longer. ’Tisn’t fair on the young.’
‘I’ll attend to you in good time,’ said Wontner; and when he had made careful toilet, he unwrapped the bonnets, put the peacock’s feather into the magenta one, pinned the crimson wing on the blue one, set them daintily on the boys’ heads, and bade them admire the effect in his shaving-glass while he ripped the muslin into lengths, bound it first, and draped it artistically afterwards a little below their knees. He finished off with a gigantic sash-bow, obi fashion. ‘Hobble skirts,’ he explained to Stalky, who nodded approval.
Next he split open the bottom of each sack so that they could walk, but with very short steps. ‘I ought to have got you white satin slippers,’ he murmured, ‘and I’m sorry there’s no rouge.’
‘Don’t worry on our account, old man—you’re doing us proud,’ said Bobby from under his hat. ‘This beats milk-punch and mayonnaise.’
‘Oh, why didn’t we think of these things when we had him at our mercy?’ Eames wailed. ‘Never mind—we’ll try it on the next chap. You’ve a mind, Claus.’
‘Now we’ll call on ’em at Mess,’ said Wontner, as they minced towards the door.
‘I think I’ll call on your Colonel,’ said Stalky. ‘He oughtn’t to miss this. Your first attempt? I assure you I couldn’t have done it better myself. Thank you!’ He held out his hand.
‘Thank you, sir!’ said Wontner, shaking it. ‘I’m more grateful to you than I can say, and—and I’d like you to believe some time that I’m not quite as big a——’
‘Not in the least,’ Stalky interrupted. ‘If I were writing a confidential report on you, I should put you down as rather adequate. Look after your geishas, or they’ll fall!’
We watched the three cross the road and disappear into the shadow of the mess verandah. There was a noise. Then telephone bells rang, a sergeant and a mess waiter charged out, and the noise grew, till at last the Mess was a little noisy.
We came back, ten minutes later, with Colonel Dalziell, who had been taking his sorrows to bed with him. The ante-room was quite full and visitors were still arriving, but it was possible to hear oneself speak occasionally. Trivett and Eames, in sack and sash, sat side by side on a table, their hats at a ravishing angle, coquettishly twiddling their tied feet. In the intervals of singing ‘Put Me Among the Girls,’ they sipped whisky-and-soda held to their lips by, I regret to say, a Major. Public opinion seemed to be against allowing them to change their costume till they should have danced in it. Wontner, lying more or less gracefully at the level of the chandelier in the arms of six subalterns, was lecturing on tactics and imploring to be let down, which he was with a run when they realised that the Colonel was there. Then he picked himself up from the sofa and said: ‘I want to apologise, sir, to you and the Mess for having been such an ass ever since I joined!’
This was when the noise began.
Seeing the night promised to be wet, Stalky and I went home again in The Infant’s car. It was some time since we had tasted the hot air that lies between the cornice and the ceiling of crowded rooms.
After half an hour’s silence, Stalky said to me ‘I don’t know what you’ve been doing, but 1 believe I’ve been weepin’. Would you put that down to Burgundy or senile decay?’