Damsel in Distress
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CHAPTER 22.

"Young blighted Albert," said Keggs the butler, shifting his weight
so that it distributed itself more comfortably over the creaking
chair in which he reclined, "let this be a lesson to you, young
feller me lad."

The day was a week after Lord Marshmoreton's visit to London, the
hour six o'clock. The housekeeper's room, in which the upper
servants took their meals, had emptied. Of the gay company which
had just finished dinner only Keggs remained, placidly digesting.
Albert, whose duty it was to wait on the upper servants, was moving
to and fro, morosely collecting the plates and glasses. The boy was
in no happy frame of mind. Throughout dinner the conversation at
table had dealt almost exclusively with the now celebrated
elopement of Reggie Byng and his bride, and few subjects could have
made more painful listening to Albert.

"What's been the result and what I might call the upshot," said
Keggs, continuing his homily, "of all your making yourself so busy
and thrusting of yourself forward and meddling in the affairs of
your elders and betters? The upshot and issue of it 'as been that
you are out five shillings and nothing to show for it. Five
shillings what you might have spent on some good book and improved
your mind! And goodness knows it wants all the improving it can
get, for of all the worthless, idle little messers it's ever been
my misfortune to have dealings with, you are the champion. Be
careful of them plates, young man, and don't breathe so hard. You
'aven't got hasthma or something, 'ave you?"

"I can't breathe now!" complained the stricken child.

"Not like a grampus you can't, and don't you forget it." Keggs
wagged his head reprovingly. "Well, so your Reggie Byng's gone and
eloped, has he! That ought to teach you to be more careful another
time 'ow you go gambling and plunging into sweepstakes. The idea of
a child of your age 'aving the audacity to thrust 'isself forward
like that!"

"Don't call him my Reggie Byng! I didn't draw 'im!"

"There's no need to go into all that again, young feller. You
accepted 'im freely and without prejudice when the fair exchange
was suggested, so for all practical intents and purposes he is your
Reggie Byng. I 'ope you're going to send him a wedding-present."

"Well, you ain't any better off than me, with all your 'ighway
robbery!"

"My what!"

"You 'eard what I said."

"Well, don't let me 'ear it again. The idea! If you 'ad any
objections to parting with that ticket, you should have stated them
clearly at the time. And what do you mean by saying I ain't any
better off than you are?"

"I 'ave my reasons."

"You think you 'ave, which is a very different thing. I suppose you
imagine that you've put a stopper on a certain little affair by
surreptitiously destroying letters entrusted to you."

"I never!" exclaimed Albert with a convulsive start that nearly
sent eleven plates dashing to destruction.

"'Ow many times have I got to tell you to be careful of them
plates?" said Keggs sternly. "Who do you think you are--a juggler
on the 'Alls, 'urling them about like that? Yes, I know all about
that letter. You thought you was very clever, I've no doubt. But
let me tell you, young blighted Albert, that only the other evening
'er ladyship and Mr. Bevan 'ad a long and extended interview in
spite of all your hefforts. I saw through your little game, and I
proceeded and went and arranged the meeting."

In spite of himself Albert was awed. He was oppressed by the sense
of struggling with a superior intellect.

"Yes, you did!" he managed to say with the proper note of
incredulity, but in his heart he was not incredulous. Dimly, Albert
had begun to perceive that years must elapse before he could become
capable of matching himself in battles of wits with this
master-strategist.

"Yes, I certainly did!" said Keggs. "I don't know what 'appened at
the interview--not being present in person. But I've no doubt that
everything proceeded satisfactorily."

"And a fat lot of good that's going to do you, when 'e ain't
allowed to come inside the 'ouse!"

A bland smile irradiated the butler's moon-like face.

"If by 'e you're alloodin' to Mr. Bevan, young blighted Albert, let
me tell you that it won't be long before 'e becomes a regular duly
invited guest at the castle!"

"A lot of chance!"

"Would you care to 'ave another five shillings even money on it?"

Albert recoiled. He had had enough of speculation where the butler
was concerned. Where that schemer was allowed to get within reach
of it, hard cash melted away.

"What are you going to do?"

"Never you mind what I'm going to do. I 'ave my methods. All I
'ave to say to you is that tomorrow or the day after Mr. Bevan
will be seated in our dining-'all with 'is feet under our table,
replying according to his personal taste and preference, when I ask
'im if 'e'll 'ave 'ock or sherry. Brush all them crumbs carefully
off the tablecloth, young blighted Albert--don't shuffle your
feet--breathe softly through your nose--and close the door be'ind
you when you've finished!"

"Oh, go and eat cake!" said Albert bitterly. But he said
it to his immortal soul, not aloud. The lad's spirit was broken.

Keggs, the processes of digestion completed, presented himself
before Lord Belpher in the billiard-room. Percy was alone. The
house-party, so numerous on the night of the ball and on his
birthday, had melted down now to reasonable proportions. The
second and third cousins had retired, flushed and gratified, to
obscure dens from which they had emerged, and the castle housed
only the more prominent members of the family, always harder to
dislodge than the small fry. The Bishop still remained, and the
Colonel. Besides these, there were perhaps half a dozen more of the
closer relations: to Lord Belpher's way of thinking, half a dozen
too many. He was not fond of his family.

"Might I have a word with your lordship?"

"What is it, Keggs?"

Keggs was a self-possessed man, but he found it a little hard to
begin. Then he remembered that once in the misty past he had seen
Lord Belpher spanked for stealing jam, he himself having acted on
that occasion as prosecuting attorney; and the memory nerved him.

"I earnestly 'ope that your lordship will not think that I am
taking a liberty. I 'ave been in his lordship your father's service
many years now, and the family honour is, if I may be pardoned for
saying so, extremely near my 'eart. I 'ave known your lordship
since you were a mere boy, and . . ."

Lord Belpher had listened with growing impatience to this preamble.
His temper was seldom at its best these days, and the rolling
periods annoyed him.

"Yes, yes, of course," he said. "What is it?"

Keggs was himself now. In his opening remarks he had simply been,
as it were, winding up. He was now prepared to begin.

"Your lordship will recall inquiring of me on the night of the ball
as to the bona fides of one of the temporary waiters? The one that
stated that 'e was the cousin of young bli--of the boy Albert, the
page? I have been making inquiries, your lordship, and I regret to
say I find that the man was a impostor. He informed me that 'e was
Albert's cousin, but Albert now informs me that 'e 'as no cousin in
America. I am extremely sorry this should have occurred, your
lordship, and I 'ope you attribute it to the bustle and haste
inseparable from duties as mine on such a occasion."

"I know the fellow was an impostor. He was probably after the
spoons!"

Keggs coughed.

"If I might be allowed to take a further liberty, your lordship,
might I suggest that I am aware of the man's identity and of his
motive for visiting the castle."

He waited a little apprehensively. This was the crucial point in
the interview. If Lord Belpher did not now freeze him with a glance
and order him from the room, the danger would be past, and he could
speak freely. His light blue eyes were expressionless as they met
Percy's, but inwardly he was feeling much the same sensation as he
was wont to experience when the family was in town and he had
managed to slip off to Kempton Park or some other race-course and
put some of his savings on a horse. As he felt when the racing
steeds thundered down the straight, so did he feel now.

Astonishment showed in Lord Belpher's round face. Just as it was
about to be succeeded by indignation, the butler spoke again.

"I am aware, your lordship, that it is not my place to offer
suggestions as to the private and intimate affairs of the family I
'ave the honour to serve, but, if your lordship would consent to
overlook the liberty, I think I could be of 'elp and assistance in
a matter which is causing annoyance and unpleasantness to all."

He invigorated himself with another dip into the waters of memory.
Yes. The young man before him might be Lord Belpher, son of his
employer and heir to all these great estates, but once he had seen
him spanked.

Perhaps Percy also remembered this. Perhaps he merely felt that
Keggs was a faithful old servant and, as such, entitled to thrust
himself into the family affairs. Whatever his reasons, he now
definitely lowered the barrier.

"Well," he said, with a glance at the door to make sure that there
were no witnesses to an act of which the aristocrat in him
disapproved, "go on!"

Keggs breathed freely. The danger-point was past.

"'Aving a natural interest, your lordship," he said, "we of the
Servants' 'All generally manage to become respectfully aware of
whatever 'appens to be transpirin' above stairs. May I say that I
became acquainted at an early stage with the trouble which your
lordship is unfortunately 'aving with a certain party?"

Lord Belpher, although his whole being revolted against what
practically amounted to hobnobbing with a butler, perceived that he
had committed himself to the discussion. It revolted him to think
that these delicate family secrets were the subject of conversation
in menial circles, but it was too late to do anything now. And
such was the whole-heartedness with which he had declared war upon
George Bevan that, at this stage in the proceedings, his chief
emotion was a hope that Keggs might have something sensible to
suggest.

"I think, begging your lordship's pardon for making the remark,
that you are acting injudicious. I 'ave been in service a great
number of years, startin' as steward's room boy and rising to my
present position, and I may say I 'ave 'ad experience during those
years of several cases where the daughter or son of the 'ouse
contemplated a misalliance, and all but one of the cases ended
disastrously, your lordship, on account of the family trying
opposition. It is my experience that opposition in matters of the
'eart is useless, feedin', as it, so to speak, does the flame.
Young people, your lordship, if I may be pardoned for employing the
expression in the present case, are naturally romantic and if you
keep 'em away from a thing they sit and pity themselves and want it
all the more. And in the end you may be sure they get it. There's
no way of stoppin' them. I was not on sufficiently easy terms with
the late Lord Worlingham to give 'im the benefit of my experience
on the occasion when the Honourable Aubrey Pershore fell in love
with the young person at the Gaiety Theatre. Otherwise I could
'ave told 'im he was not acting judicious. His lordship opposed
the match in every way, and the young couple ran off and got
married at a registrar's. It was the same when a young man who was
tutor to 'er ladyship's brother attracted Lady Evelyn Walls, the
only daughter of the Earl of Ackleton. In fact, your lordship, the
only entanglement of the kind that came to a satisfactory
conclusion in the whole of my personal experience was the affair of
Lady Catherine Duseby, Lord Bridgefield's daughter, who
injudiciously became infatuated with a roller-skating instructor."

Lord Belpher had ceased to feel distantly superior to his companion.
The butler's powerful personality hypnotized him. Long ere the
harangue was ended, he was as a little child drinking in the
utterances of a master. He bent forward eagerly. Keggs had broken
off his remarks at the most interesting point.

"What happened?" inquired Percy.

"The young man," proceeded Keggs, "was a young man of considerable
personal attractions, 'aving large brown eyes and a athletic
lissome figure, brought about by roller-skating. It was no wonder,
in the opinion of the Servants' 'All, that 'er ladyship should have
found 'erself fascinated by him, particularly as I myself 'ad 'eard
her observe at a full luncheon-table that roller-skating was in
her opinion the only thing except her toy Pomeranian that made life
worth living. But when she announced that she had become engaged to
this young man, there was the greatest consternation. I was not, of
course, privileged to be a participant at the many councils and
discussions that ensued and took place, but I was aware that such
transpired with great frequency. Eventually 'is lordship took the
shrewd step of assuming acquiescence and inviting the young man to
visit us in Scotland. And within ten days of his arrival, your
lordship, the match was broken off. He went back to 'is
roller-skating, and 'er ladyship took up visiting the poor and
eventually contracted an altogether suitable alliance by marrying
Lord Ronald Spofforth, the second son of his Grace the Duke of
Gorbals and Strathbungo."

"How did it happen?"

"Seein' the young man in the surroundings of 'er own 'ome, 'er
ladyship soon began to see that she had taken too romantic a view
of 'im previous, your lordship. 'E was one of the lower middle
class, what is sometimes termed the bourjoisy, and 'is 'abits were
not the 'abits of the class to which 'er ladyship belonged. 'E 'ad
nothing in common with the rest of the 'ouse-party, and was
injudicious in 'is choice of forks. The very first night at dinner
'e took a steel knife to the ontray, and I see 'er ladyship look at
him very sharp, as much as to say that scales had fallen from 'er
eyes. It didn't take 'er long after that to become convinced that
'er 'eart 'ad led 'er astray."

"Then you think--?"

"It is not for me to presume to offer anything but the most
respectful advice, your lordship, but I should most certainly
advocate a similar procedure in the present instance."

Lord Belpher reflected. Recent events had brought home to him the
magnitude of the task he had assumed when he had appointed himself
the watcher of his sister's movements. The affair of the curate and
the village blacksmith had shaken him both physically and
spiritually. His feet were still sore, and his confidence in
himself had waned considerably. The thought of having to continue
his espionage indefinitely was not a pleasant one. How much simpler
and more effective it would be to adopt the suggestion which had
been offered to him.

"--I'm not sure you aren't right, Keggs."

"Thank you, your lordship. I feel convinced of it."

"I will speak to my father tonight."

"Very good, your lordship. I am glad to have been of service."

"Young blighted Albert," said Keggs crisply, shortly after
breakfast on the following morning, "you're to take this note to
Mr. Bevan at the cottage down by Platt's farm, and you're to
deliver it without playing any of your monkey-tricks, and you're to
wait for an answer, and you're to bring that answer back to me,
too, and to Lord Marshmoreton. And I may tell you, to save you the
trouble of opening it with steam from the kitchen kettle, that I
'ave already done so. It's an invitation to dine with us tonight.
So now you know. Look slippy!"

Albert capitulated. For the first time in his life he felt humble.
He perceived how misguided he had been ever to suppose that he
could pit his pigmy wits against this smooth-faced worker of
wonders.

"Crikey!" he ejaculated.

It was all that he could say.

"And there's one more thing, young feller me lad," added Keggs
earnestly, "don't you ever grow up to be such a fat'ead as our
friend Percy. Don't forget I warned you."


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