Damsel in Distress
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The great ball in honour of Lord Belpher's coming-of-age was at its
height. The reporter of the Belpher Intelligencer and Farmers'
Guide, who was present in his official capacity, and had been
allowed by butler Keggs to take a peep at the scene through a
side-door, justly observed in his account of the proceedings next
day that the 'tout ensemble was fairylike', and described the
company as 'a galaxy of fair women and brave men'. The floor was
crowded with all that was best and noblest in the county; so that a
half-brick, hurled at any given moment, must infallibly have spilt
blue blood. Peers stepped on the toes of knights; honorables bumped
into the spines of baronets. Probably the only titled person in the
whole of the surrounding country who was not playing his part in
the glittering scene was Lord Marshmoreton; who, on discovering
that his private study had been converted into a cloakroom, had
retired to bed with a pipe and a copy of Roses Red and Roses White,
by Emily Ann Mackintosh (Popgood, Crooly & Co.), which he was to
discover--after he was between the sheets, and it was too late to
repair the error--was not, as he had supposed, a treatise on his
favourite hobby, but a novel of stearine sentimentality dealing
with the adventures of a pure young English girl and an artist
George, from the shaded seclusion of a gallery, looked down upon
the brilliant throng with impatience. It seemed to him that he had
been doing this all his life. The novelty of the experience had
long since ceased to divert him. It was all just like the second
act of an old-fashioned musical comedy (Act Two: The Ballroom,
Grantchester Towers: One Week Later)--a resemblance which was
heightened for him by the fact that the band had more than once
played dead and buried melodies of his own composition, of which he
had wearied a full eighteen months back.
A complete absence of obstacles had attended his intrusion into the
castle. A brief interview with a motherly old lady, whom even
Albert seemed to treat with respect, and who, it appeared was Mrs.
Digby, the house-keeper; followed by an even briefer encounter with
Keggs (fussy and irritable with responsibility, and, even while
talking to George carrying on two other conversations on topics of
the moment), and he was past the censors and free for one night
only to add his presence to the chosen inside the walls of Belpher.
His duties were to stand in this gallery, and with the assistance
of one of the maids to minister to the comfort of such of the
dancers as should use it as a sitting-out place. None had so far
made their appearance, the superior attractions of the main floor
having exercised a great appeal; and for the past hour George had
been alone with the maid and his thoughts. The maid, having asked
George if he knew her cousin Frank, who had been in America nearly
a year, and having received a reply in the negative, seemed to be
disappointed in him, and to lose interest, and had not spoken for
George scanned the approaches to the balcony for a sight of Albert
as the shipwrecked mariner scans the horizon for the passing sail.
It was inevitable, he supposed, this waiting. It would be difficult
for Maud to slip away even for a moment on such a night.
"I say, laddie, would you mind getting me a lemonade?"
George was gazing over the balcony when the voice spoke behind him,
and the muscles of his back stiffened as he recognized its genial
note. This was one of the things he had prepared himself for, but,
now that it had happened, he felt a wave of stage-fright such as he
had only once experienced before in his life--on the occasion when
he had been young enough and inexperienced enough to take a
curtain-call on a first night. Reggie Byng was friendly, and would
not wilfully betray him; but Reggie was also a babbler, who could
not be trusted to keep things to himself. It was necessary, he
perceived, to take a strong line from the start, and convince
Reggie that any likeness which the latter might suppose that he
detected between his companion of that afternoon and the waiter of
tonight existed only in his heated imagination.
As George turned, Reggie's pleasant face, pink with healthful
exercise and Lord Marshmoreton's finest Bollinger, lost most of its
colour. His eyes and mouth opened wider. The fact is Reggie was
shaken. All through the earlier part of the evening he had been
sedulously priming himself with stimulants with a view to amassing
enough nerve to propose to Alice Faraday: and, now that he had
drawn her away from the throng to this secluded nook and was about
to put his fortune to the test, a horrible fear swept over him that
he had overdone it. He was having optical illusions.
Reggie loosened his collar, and pulled himself together.
"Would you mind taking a glass of lemonade to the lady in blue
sitting on the settee over there by the statue," he said carefully.
He brightened up a little.
"Pretty good that! Not absolutely a test sentence, perhaps, like
'Truly rural' or 'The intricacies of the British Constitution'.
But nevertheless no mean feat."
"I say!" he continued, after a pause.
"You haven't ever seen me before by any chance, if you know what I
mean, have you?"
"You haven't a brother, or anything of that shape or order, have
"No, sir. I have often wished I had. I ought to have spoken to
father about it. Father could never deny me anything."
Reggie blinked. His misgiving returned. Either his ears, like his
eyes, were playing him tricks, or else this waiter-chappie was
talking pure drivel.
"What did you say?"
"I said, 'No, sir, I have no brother'."
"Didn't you say something else?"
Reggie's worst suspicions were confirmed.
"Good God!" he muttered. "Then I am!"
Miss Faraday, when he joined her on the settee, wanted an
"What were you talking to that man about, Mr. Byng? You seemed to
be having a very interesting conversation."
"I was asking him if he had a brother."
Miss Faraday glanced quickly at him. She had had a feeling for some
time during the evening that his manner had been strange.
"A brother? What made you ask him that?"
"He--I mean--that is to say--what I mean is, he looked the sort of
chap who might have a brother. Lots of those fellows have!"
Alice Faraday's face took on a motherly look. She was fonder of
Reggie than that love-sick youth supposed, and by sheer accident he
had stumbled on the right road to her consideration. Alice Faraday
was one of those girls whose dream it is to be a ministering angel
to some chosen man, to be a good influence to him and raise him to
an appreciation of nobler things. Hitherto, Reggie's personality
had seemed to her agreeable, but negative. A positive vice like
over-indulgence in alcohol altered him completely. It gave him a
"I told him to get you a lemonade," said Reggie. "He seems to be
taking his time about it. Hi!"
George approached deferentially.
"Where's that lemonade?"
"Didn't I ask you to bring this lady a glass of lemonade?"
"I did not understand you to do so, sir."
"But, Great Scott! What were we chatting about, then?"
"You were telling me a diverting story about an Irishman who landed
in New York looking for work, sir. You would like a glass of
lemonade, sir? Very good, sir."
Alice placed a hand gently on Reggie's arm.
"Don't you think you had better lie down for a little and rest, Mr.
Byng? I'm sure it would do you good."
The solicitous note in her voice made Reggie quiver like a jelly.
He had never known her speak like that before. For a moment he was
inclined to lay bare his soul; but his nerve was broken. He did not
want her to mistake the outpouring of a strong man's heart for the
irresponsible ravings of a too hearty diner. It was one of Life's
ironies. Here he was for the first time all keyed up to go right
ahead, and he couldn't do it.
"It's the heat of the room," said Alice. "Shall we go and sit
outside on the terrace? Never mind about the lemonade. I'm not
Reggie followed her like a lamb. The prospect of the cool night air
"That," murmured George, as he watched them depart, "ought to hold
you for a while!"
He perceived Albert hastening towards him.