VI

Among the compensations of advancing age is a wholesome pessimism, which, though it takes the fine edge off of whatever triumphs may come to us, has the admirable effect of preventing Fate from working off on us any of those gold bricks, coins with strings attached, and unhatched chickens, at which ardent youth snatches with such enthusiasm, to its subsequent disappointment. As we emerge from the twenties we grow into a habit of mind that looks askance at Fate bearing gifts. We miss, perhaps, the occasional prize, but we also avoid leaping light-heartedly into traps.

Ashe Marson had yet to reach the age of tranquil mistrust; and when Fate seemed to be treating him kindly he was still young enough to accept such kindnesses on their face value and rejoice at them.

As he sat on his bed at the end of his first night in Castle Blandings, he was conscious to a remarkable degree that Fortune was treating him well. He had survived⁠—not merely without discredit, but with positive triumph⁠—the initiatory plunge into the etiquette maelstrom of life below stairs. So far from doing the wrong thing and drawing down on himself the just scorn of the steward’s room, he had been the life and soul of the party. Even if tomorrow, in an absentminded fit, he should anticipate the groom of the chambers in the march to the table, he would be forgiven; for the humorist has his privileges.

So much for that. But that was only a part of Fortune’s kindnesses. To have discovered on the first day of their association the correct method of handling and reducing to subjection his irascible employer was an even greater boon. A prolonged association with Mr. Peters on the lines in which their acquaintance had begun would have been extremely trying. Now, by virtue of a fortunate stand at the outset, he had spiked the millionaire’s guns.

Thirdly, and most important of all, he had not only made himself familiar with the locality and surroundings of the scarab, but he had seen, beyond the possibility of doubt, that the removal of it and the earning of the five thousand dollars would be the simplest possible task. Already he was spending the money in his mind. And to such lengths had optimism led him that, as he sat on his bed reviewing the events of the day, his only doubt was whether to get the scarab at once or to let it remain where it was until he had the opportunity of doing Mr. Peters’ interior good on the lines he had mapped out in their conversation; for, of course, directly he had restored the scarab to its rightful owner and pocketed the reward, his position as healer and trainer to the millionaire would cease automatically.

He was sorry for that, because it troubled him to think that a sick man would not be made well; but, on the whole, looking at it from every aspect, it would be best to get the scarab as soon as possible and leave Mr. Peters’ digestion to look after itself. Being twenty-six and an optimist, he had no suspicion that Fate might be playing with him; that Fate might have unpleasant surprises in store; that Fate even now was preparing to smite him in his hour of joy with that powerful weapon, the Efficient Baxter.

He looked at his watch. It was five minutes to one. He had no idea whether they kept early hours at Blandings Castle or not, but he deemed it prudent to give the household another hour in which to settle down. After which he would just trot down and collect the scarab.

The novel he had brought down with him from London fortunately proved interesting. Two o’clock came before he was ready for it. He slipped the book into his pocket and opened the door.

All was still⁠—still and uncommonly dark. Along the corridor on which his room was situated the snores of sleeping domestics exploded, growled and twittered in the air. Every menial on the list seemed to be snoring, some in one key, some in another, some defiantly, some plaintively; but the main fact was that they were all snoring somehow, thus intimating that, so far as this side of the house was concerned, the coast might be considered clear and interruption of his plans a negligible risk.

Researches made at an earlier hour had familiarized him with the geography of the place. He found his way to the green-baize door without difficulty and, stepping through, was in the hall, where the remains of the log fire still glowed a fitful red. This, however, was the only illumination, and it was fortunate that he did not require light to guide him to the museum.

He knew the direction and had measured the distance. It was precisely seventeen steps from where he stood. Cautiously, and with avoidance of noise, he began to make the seventeen steps.

He was beginning the eleventh when he bumped into somebody⁠—somebody soft⁠—somebody whose hand, as it touched his, felt small and feminine.

The fragment of a log fell on the ashes and the fire gave a dying spurt. Darkness succeeded the sudden glow. The fire was out. That little flame had been its last effort before expiring, but it had been enough to enable him to recognize Joan Valentine.

“Good Lord!” he gasped.

His astonishment was short-lived. Next moment the only thing that surprised him was the fact that he was not more surprised. There was something about this girl that made the most bizarre happenings seem right and natural. Ever since he had met her his life had changed from an orderly succession of uninteresting days to a strange carnival of the unexpected, and use was accustoming him to it. Life had taken on the quality of a dream, in which anything might happen and in which everything that did happen was to be accepted with the calmness natural in dreams.

It was strange that she should be here in the pitch-dark hall in the middle of the night; but⁠—after all⁠—no stranger than that he should be. In this dream world in which he now moved it had to be taken for granted that people did all sorts of odd things from all sorts of odd motives.

“Hello!” he said.

“Don’t be alarmed.”

“No, no!”

“I think we are both here for the same reason.”

“You don’t mean to say⁠—”

“Yes; I have come here to earn the five thousand dollars, too, Mr. Marson. We are rivals.”

In his present frame of mind it seemed so simple and intelligible to Ashe that he wondered whether he was really hearing it the first time. He had an odd feeling that he had known this all along.

“You are here to get the scarab?”

“Exactly.”

Ashe was dimly conscious of some objection to this, but at first it eluded him. Then he pinned it down.

“But you aren’t a young man of good appearance,” he said.

“I don’t know what you mean. But Aline Peters is an old friend of mine. She told me her father would give a large reward to whoever recovered the scarab; so I⁠—”

“Look out!” whispered Ashe. “Run! There’s somebody coming!”

There was a soft footfall on the stairs, a click, and above Ashe’s head a light flashed out. He looked round. He was alone, and the green-baize door was swaying gently to and fro.

“Who’s that? Who’s there?” said a voice.

The Efficient Baxter was coming down the broad staircase.

A general suspicion of mankind and a definite and particular suspicion of one individual made a bad opiate. For over an hour sleep had avoided the Efficient Baxter with an unconquerable coyness. He had tried all the known ways of wooing slumber, but they had failed him, from the counting of sheep downward. The events of the night had whipped his mind to a restless activity. Try as he might to lose consciousness, the recollection of the plot he had discovered surged up and kept him wakeful.

It is the penalty of the suspicious type of mind that it suffers from its own activity. From the moment he detected Mr. Peters in the act of rifling the museum and marked down Ashe as an accomplice, Baxter’s repose was doomed. Nor poppy nor mandragora, nor all the drowsy sirups of the world, could ever medicine him to that sweet sleep which he owed yesterday.

But it was the recollection that on previous occasions of wakefulness hot whisky and water had done the trick, which had now brought him from his bed and downstairs. His objective was the decanter on the table of the smoking-room, which was one of the rooms opening on the gallery that looked down on the hall. Hot water he could achieve in his bedroom by means of his stove.

So out of bed he had climbed and downstairs he had come; and here he was, to all appearances, just in time to foil the very plot on which he had been brooding. Mr. Peters might be in bed, but there in the hall below him stood the accomplice, not ten paces from the museum’s door. He arrived on the spot at racing speed and confronted Ashe.

“What are you doing here?”

And then, from the Baxter viewpoint, things began to go wrong. By all the rules of the game, Ashe, caught, as it were, red-handed, should have wilted, stammered and confessed all; but Ashe was fortified by that philosophic calm which comes to us in dreams, and, moreover, he had his story ready.

Mr. Peters rang for me, sir.”

He had never expected to feel grateful to the little firebrand who employed him, but he had to admit that the millionaire, in their late conversation, had shown forethought. The thought struck him that but for Mr. Peters’ advice he might by now be in an extremely awkward position; for his was not a swiftly inventive mind.

“Rang for you? At half-past two in the morning!”

“To read to him, sir.”

“To read to him at this hour?”

Mr. Peters suffers from insomnia, sir. He has a weak digestion and pain sometimes prevents him from sleeping. The lining of his stomach is not at all what it should be.”

“I don’t believe a word of it.”

With that meekness which makes the good man wronged so impressive a spectacle, Ashe produced and exhibited his novel.

“Here is the book I am about to read to him. I think, sir, if you will excuse me, I had better be going to his room. Good night, sir.”

He proceeded to mount the stairs. He was sorry for Mr. Peters, so shortly about to be roused from a refreshing slumber; but these were life’s tragedies and must be borne bravely.

The Efficient Baxter dogged him the whole way, sprinting silently in his wake and dodging into the shadows whenever the light of an occasional electric bulb made it inadvisable to keep to the open. Then abruptly he gave up the pursuit. For the first time his comparative impotence in this silent conflict on which he had embarked was made manifest to him, and he perceived that on mere suspicion, however strong, he could do nothing. To accuse Mr. Peters of theft or to accuse him of being accessory to a theft was out of the question.

Yet his whole being revolted at the thought of allowing the sanctity of the museum to be violated. Officially its contents belonged to Lord Emsworth, but ever since his connection with the castle he had been put in charge of them, and he had come to look on them as his own property. If he was only a collector by proxy he had, nevertheless, the collector’s devotion to his curios, beside which the lioness’ attachment to her cubs is tepid; and he was prepared to do anything to retain in his possession a scarab toward which he already entertained the feelings of a life proprietor.

No⁠—not quite anything! He stopped short at the idea of causing unpleasantness between the father of the Honorable Freddie and the father of the Honorable Freddie’s fiancée. His secretarial position at the castle was a valuable one and he was loath to jeopardize it.

There was only one way in which this delicate affair could be brought to a satisfactory conclusion. It was obvious from what he had seen that night that Mr. Peters’ connection with the attempt on the scarab was to be merely sympathetic, and that the actual theft was to be accomplished by Ashe. His only course, therefore, was to catch Ashe actually in the museum. Then Mr. Peters need not appear in the matter at all. Mr. Peters’ position in those circumstances would be simply that of a man who had happened to employ, through no fault of his own, a valet who happened to be a thief.

He had made a mistake, he perceived, in locking the door of the museum. In future he must leave it open, as a trap is open; and he must stay up nights and keep watch. With these reflections, the Efficient Baxter returned to his room.

Meantime Ashe had entered Mr. Peters’ bedroom and switched on the light. Mr. Peters, who had just succeeded in dropping off to sleep, sat up with a start.

“I’ve come to read to you,” said Ashe.

Mr. Peters emitted a stifled howl, in which wrath and self-pity were nicely blended.

“You fool, don’t you know I have just managed to get to sleep?”

“And now you’re awake again,” said Ashe soothingly. “Such is life! A little rest, a little folding of the hands in sleep, and then bing!⁠—off we go again. I hope you will like this novel. I dipped into it and it seems good.”

“What do you mean by coming in here at this time of night? Are you crazy?”

“It was your suggestion; and, by the way, I must thank you for it. I apologize for calling it thin. It worked like a charm. I don’t think he believed it⁠—in fact, I know he didn’t; but it held him. I couldn’t have thought up anything half so good in an emergency.”

Mr. Peters’ wrath changed to excitement.

“Did you get it? Have you been after my⁠—my Cheops?”

“I have been after your Cheops, but I didn’t get it. Bad men were abroad. That fellow with the spectacles, who was in the museum when I met you there this evening, swooped down from nowhere, and I had to tell him that you had rung for me to read to you. Fortunately I had this novel on me. I think he followed me upstairs to see whether I really did come to your room.”

Mr. Peters groaned miserably.

“Baxter,” he said; “He’s a man named Baxter⁠—Lord Emsworth’s private secretary; and he suspects us. He’s the man we⁠—I mean you⁠—have got to look out for.”

“Well, never mind. Let’s be happy while we can. Make yourself comfortable and I’ll start reading. After all, what could be pleasanter than a little literature in the small hours? Shall I begin?”


Ashe Marson found Joan Valentine in the stable yard after breakfast the next morning, playing with a retriever puppy. “Will you spare me a moment of your valuable time?”

“Certainly, Mr. Marson.”

“Shall we walk out into the open somewhere⁠—where we can’t be overheard?”

“Perhaps it would be better.”

They moved off.

“Request your canine friend to withdraw,” said Ashe. “He prevents me from marshaling my thoughts.”

“I’m afraid he won’t withdraw.”

“Never mind. I’ll do my best in spite of him. Tell me, was I dreaming or did I really meet you in the hall this morning at about twenty minutes after two?”

“You did.”

“And did you really tell me that you had come to the castle to steal⁠—”

“Recover.”

“⁠—Recover Mr. Peters’ scarab?”

“I did.”

“Then it’s true?”

“It is.”

Ashe scraped the ground with a meditative toe.

“This,” he said, “seems to me to complicate matters somewhat.”

“It complicates them abominably!”

“I suppose you were surprised when you found that I was on the same game as yourself.”

“Not in the least.”

“You weren’t!”

“I knew it directly I saw the advertisement in the Morning Post. And I hunted up the Morning Post directly you had told me that you had become Mr. Peters’ valet.”

“You have known all along!”

“I have.”

Ashe regarded her admiringly.

“You’re wonderful!”

“Because I saw through you?”

“Partly that; but chiefly because you had the pluck to undertake a thing like this.”

“You undertook it.”

“But I’m a man.”

“And I’m a woman. And my theory, Mr. Marson, is that a woman can do nearly everything better than a man. What a splendid test case this would make to settle the votes-for-women question once and for all! Here we are⁠—you and I⁠—a man and a woman, each trying for the same thing and each starting with equal chances. Suppose I beat you? How about the inferiority of women then?”

“I never said women were inferior.”

“You did with your eyes.”

“Besides, you’re an exceptional woman.”

“You can’t get out of it with a compliment. I’m an ordinary woman and I’m going to beat a real man.”

Ashe frowned.

“I don’t like to think of ourselves as working against each other.”

“Why not?”

“Because I like you.”

“I like you, Mr. Marson; but we must not let sentiment interfere with business. You want Mr. Peters’ five thousand dollars. So do I.”

“I hate the thought of being the instrument to prevent you from getting the money.”

“You won’t be. I shall be the instrument to prevent you from getting it. I don’t like that thought, either; but one has got to face it.”

“It makes me feel mean.”

“That’s simply your old-fashioned masculine attitude toward the female, Mr. Marson. You look on woman as a weak creature, to be shielded and petted. We aren’t anything of the sort. We’re terrors! We’re as hard as nails. We’re awful creatures. You mustn’t let my sex interfere with your trying to get this reward. Think of me as though I were another man. We’re up against each other in a fair fight, and I don’t want any special privileges. If you don’t do your best from now onward I shall never forgive you. Do you understand?”

“I suppose so.”

“And we shall need to do our best. That little man with the glasses is on his guard. I was listening to you last night from behind the door. By the way, you shouldn’t have told me to run away and then have stayed yourself to be caught. That is an example of the sort of thing I mean. It was chivalry⁠—not business.”

“I had a story ready to account for my being there. You had not.”

“And what a capital story it was! I shall borrow it for my own use. If I am caught I shall say I had to read Aline to sleep because she suffers from insomnia. And I shouldn’t wonder if she did⁠—poor girl! She doesn’t get enough to eat. She is being starved⁠—poor child! I heard one of the footmen say that she refused everything at dinner last night. And, though she vows it isn’t, my belief is that it’s all because she is afraid to make a stand against her old father. It’s a shame!”

“She is a weak creature, to be shielded and petted,” said Ashe solemnly.

Joan laughed.

“Well, yes; you caught me there. I admit that poor Aline is not a shining example of the formidable modern woman; but⁠—” She stopped. “Oh, bother! I’ve just thought of what I ought to have said⁠—the good repartee that would have crushed you. I suppose it’s too late now?”

“Not at all. I’m like that myself⁠—only it is generally the next day when I hit the right answer. Shall we go back?⁠ ⁠… She is a weak creature, to be shielded and petted.”

“Thank you so much,” said Joan gratefully. “And why is she a weak creature? Because she has allowed herself to be shielded and petted; because she has permitted man to give her special privileges, and generally⁠—No; it isn’t so good as I thought it was going to be.”

“It should be crisper,” said Ashe critically. “It lacks the punch.”

“But it brings me back to my point, which is that I am not going to imitate her and forfeit my independence of action in return for chivalry. Try to look at it from my point of view, Mr. Marson. I know you need the money just as much as I do. Well, don’t you think I should feel a little mean if I thought you were not trying your hardest to get it, simply because you didn’t think it would be fair to try your hardest against a woman? That would cripple me. I should not feel as though I had the right to do anything. It’s too important a matter for you to treat me like a child and let me win to avoid disappointing me. I want the money; but I don’t want it handed to me.”

“Believe me,” said Ashe earnestly, “it will not be handed to you. I have studied the Baxter question more deeply than you have, and I can assure you that Baxter is a menace. What has put him so firmly on the right scent I don’t know; but he seems to have divined the exact state of affairs in its entirety⁠—so far as I am concerned, that is to say. Of course he has no idea you are mixed up in the business; but I am afraid his suspicion of me will hit you as well. What I mean is that, for some time to come, I fancy that man proposes to camp out on the rug in front of the museum door. It would be madness for either of us to attempt to go there at present.”

“It is being made very hard for us, isn’t it? And I thought it was going to be so simple.”

“I think we should give him at least a week to simmer down.”

“Fully that.”

“Let us look on the bright side. We are in no hurry. Blandings Castle is quite as comfortable as Number Seven Arundell Street, and the commissariat department is a revelation to me. I had no idea English servants did themselves so well. And, as for the social side, I love it; I revel in it. For the first time in my life I feel as though I am somebody. Did you observe my manner toward the kitchen maid who waited on us at dinner last night? A touch of the old noblesse about it, I fancy. Dignified but not unkind, I think. And I can keep it up. So far as I am concerned, let this life continue indefinitely.”

“But what about Mr. Peters? Don’t you think there is danger he may change his mind about that five thousand dollars if we keep him waiting too long?”

“Not a chance of it. Being almost within touch of the scarab has had the worst effect on him. It has intensified the craving. By the way, have you seen the scarab?”

“Yes; I got Mrs. Twemlow to take me to the museum while you were talking to the butler. It was dreadful to feel that it was lying there in the open waiting for somebody to take it, and not be able to do anything.”

“I felt exactly the same. It isn’t much to look at, is it? If it hadn’t been for the label I wouldn’t have believed it was the thing for which Peters was offering five thousand dollars’ reward. But that’s his affair. A thing is worth what somebody will give for it. Ours not to reason why; ours but to elude Baxter and gather it in.”

“Ours, indeed! You speak as though we were partners instead of rivals.”

Ashe uttered an exclamation. “You’ve hit it! Why not? Why any cutthroat competition? Why shouldn’t we form a company? It would solve everything.”

Joan looked thoughtful.

“You mean divide the reward?”

“Exactly⁠—into two equal parts.”

“And the labor?”

“The labor?”

“How shall we divide that?”

Ashe hesitated.

“My idea,” he said, “was that I should do what I might call the rough work; and⁠—”

“You mean you should do the actual taking of the scarab?”

“Exactly. I would look after that end of it.”

“And what would my duties be?”

“Well, you⁠—you would, as it were⁠—how shall I put it? You would, so to speak, lend moral support.”

“By lying snugly in bed, fast asleep?”

Ashe avoided her eye.

“Well, yes⁠—er⁠—something on those lines.”

“While you ran all the risks?”

“No, no. The risks are practically nonexistent.”

“I thought you said just now that it would be madness for either of us to attempt to go to the museum at present.” Joan laughed. “It won’t do, Mr. Marson. You remind me of an old cat I once had. Whenever he killed a mouse he would bring it into the drawing-room and lay it affectionately at my feet. I would reject the corpse with horror and turn him out, but back he would come with his loathsome gift. I simply couldn’t make him understand that he was not doing me a kindness. He thought highly of his mouse and it was beyond him to realize that I did not want it.

“You are just the same with your chivalry. It’s very kind of you to keep offering me your dead mouse; but honestly I have no use for it. I won’t take favors just because I happen to be a female. If we are going to form this partnership I insist on doing my fair share of the work and running my fair share of the risks⁠—the practically nonexistent risks.”

“You’re very⁠—resolute.”

“Say pigheaded; I shan’t mind. Certainly I am! A girl has got to be, even nowadays, if she wants to play fair. Listen, Mr. Marson; I will not have the dead mouse. I do not like dead mice. If you attempt to work off your dead mouse on me this partnership ceases before it has begun. If we are to work together we are going to make alternate attempts to get the scarab. No other arrangement will satisfy me.”

“Then I claim the right to make the first one.”

“You don’t do anything of the sort. We toss up for first chance, like little ladies and gentlemen. Have you a coin? I will spin, and you call.”

Ashe made a last stand.

“This is perfectly⁠—”

Mr. Marson!”

Ashe gave in. He produced a coin and handed it to her gloomily.

“Under protest,” he said.

“Head or tail?” said Joan, unmoved.

Ashe watched the coin gyrating in the sunshine.

“Tail!” he cried.

The coin stopped rolling.

“Tail it is,” said Joan. “What a nuisance! Well, never mind⁠—I’ll get my chance if you fail.”

“I shan’t fail,” said Ashe fervently. “If I have to pull the museum down I won’t fail. Thank heaven, there’s no chance now of your doing anything foolish!”

“Don’t be too sure. Well, good luck, Mr. Marson!”

“Thank you, partner.”

They shook hands.

As they parted at the door, Joan made one further remark: “There’s just one thing, Mr. Marson.”

“Yes?”

“If I could have accepted the mouse from anyone I should certainly have accepted it from you.”