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TO NEWCASTLE BY ROAD
I found several of my brother's friends staying at Feltham, who were also well known to me, and my aunt, who was playing hostess, had several women staying with her. We spent the time very much after the fashion of an ordinary house-party during the first week of October. We shot until four o'clock, came home and played bridge until dinner-time, bridge or billiards after dinner, varied by a dance one night and some amateur theatricals. On the fifth day a singular thing happened to me.
The whole of the house-party were invited to shoot with my uncle, Lord Horington, who lived about forty miles from us. We left in two motor-cars soon after breakfast-time, and for the last few miles of the way we struck the great north road. It was just after we had entered it that we came upon a huge travelling car, covered with dust, and with portmanteaus strapped upon the roof, hung up by the side of the road. Our chauffeur slowed down to find out if we could be of any use, and as the reply was scarcely intelligible, we came to a full stop. He dismounted to speak to the other chauffeur, and I looked curiously at the two men who were leaning back in the luxurious seats inside the car. For a moment I could not believe my eyes! Then I opened the door of my own car and stepped quickly into the road. The two men who were sitting there, and by whom I was as yet unobserved, were Delora and the Chinese ambassador!
I walked at once up to the window of their car and knocked at it. Delora leaned forward and recognized me at once. His face, for a moment, seemed dark with anger. He let down the sash.
"What does this mean?" he asked. "Have you forgotten our bargain?"
I laughed a little shortly.
"My dear sir," I said, "it is not I who have come to see you, but you to see me. I am within a few miles of my own estate, on my way to shoot at a friend's."
He stared at me for a moment incredulously.
"Do you mean to tell me," he said, in a low tone, "that you have not followed us from London?"
"Why I have not been in London, or near it, for five days," I told him. "I slept last night within thirty miles from here, and, as I told you before, am on my way to shoot with my uncle at the present moment."
"I know nothing of the geography of your country," Delora said shortly. "What you say may be correct. His Excellency and I are having a few days' holiday."
"May I hope to have the pleasure of seeing you at Feltham?" I inquired.
"I am afraid not," Delora answered. "If we had known that we should have been so near, we might have arranged to pay you a visit. As it is, we are in a hurry to get on."
"How far north did you think of going?" I asked.
"We have not decided," Delora answered. "Remember our bargain, and ask no questions."
"But this is a holiday trip," I reminded him. "Surely I may be permitted to advise you about the picturesque spots in my own country!"
"You can tell me, at any rate, what it is that has happened to our car," Delora answered. "Neither His Excellency nor I know anything about such matters."
I walked round and talked to the two chauffeurs. The accident, it seemed, was a trivial one, and with the help of a special spanner, with which we were supplied, was already rectified. I returned and explained matters to Delora.
"Have you come far this morning?" I asked.
"Not far," Delora answered. "We are taking it easy."
I looked at his tired face, at the car thick with dust, at the Chinese ambassador already nodding in his corner, and I smiled to myself. It was very certain to me that they had run from London without stopping, and I felt an intense curiosity as to their destination. However, I said no more to them. I made my adieux to Delora, and bowed profoundly to the Chinese ambassador, who opened his eyes in time solemnly to return my farewell. The chauffeur was already in his place, and I stopped to speak to him. I saw Delora spring forward and whistle down the speaking-tube, but my question was already asked.
"How far north are you going?" I asked.
"To Newcastle, sir," the man answered.
He turned then to answer the whistle, and I re-entered my own car. We started first, but they passed us in a few minutes travelling at a great rate, and with a cloud of dust behind them. Delora threw an evil glance at me from his place. For once I had stolen a march upon him. They had both been too ignorant of their route to keep their final destination concealed from the chauffeur, and they certainly had not expected to meet any one on the way with whom he would be likely to talk! But why to Newcastle? I asked myself that question so often during the morning that my shooting became purely a mechanical thing. Newcastle,--the Tyne, coals, and shipbuilding! I could think of nothing else in connection with the place.
Late that evening I sat with a whiskey and soda and final cigar in the smoking-room. The evening papers had just arrived, brought by motor-bicycle from Norwich. I found nothing to interest me in them, but, glancing down the columns, my attention was attracted by some mention of Brazil. I looked to see what the paragraph might be. It concerned some new battleships, and was headed,--
LARGEST BATTLESHIPS IN THE WORLD!
It is not generally known, that there will be launched from the works of Messrs. Halliday & Co. on the Tyne, within the next three or four weeks, two of the most powerful battleships of the "Dreadnought" type, which have yet been built.
There followed some specifications, in which I was not particularly interested, an account of their armament, and a final remark,--
One is tempted to ask how a country, in the financial position of Brazil, can possibly reconcile it with her ideas of national economy, to spend something like three millions in battleships, which there does not seem to be the slightest chance of her ever being called upon to use!
Somehow or other this paragraph fascinated me. I read it over and over again. I could see no connection between it and the visit of Delora to Newcastle, especially accompanied as he was by the Chinese ambassador. Yet the more I thought of it, the more I felt convinced that in some way the two were connected. I put down the paper at last, and called out of the room to a motoring friend.
"How far is it to Newcastle from here, Jacky?"
Jacky Dalton, a fair-haired young giant, one of the keenest sportsmen whom I had ever met, and whose mind and soul was now entirely dominated by the craze for motoring, told me with only a few moments' hesitation.
"Between two hundred and two hundred and twenty miles, Austen," he said, "and a magnificent road. With my new Napier, I reckon that I could get there in six hours, or less at night, with this moon."
I walked to the window. Across the park the outline of the trees and even the bracken stood out with extraordinary distinctness in the brilliant moonlight. There was not a breath of air, although every window in the house was open. We were having a few days of record heat.
"Jove, what a gorgeous run it would be to-night!" Dalton said, with a little sigh, looking out over my shoulder. "Empty roads, as light as day, and a breeze like midsummer! You don't want to go, do you, Austen?"
"Will you take me?" I asked.
"Like a shot!" he answered. "I only wish you were in earnest!"
"But I am," I declared. "If you don't mind missing the day's shooting to-morrow I'd love to run up there. It's impossible to sleep with this heat."
"It's a great idea," Dalton declared enthusiastically. "I'd love a day off from shooting."
I turned to a younger cousin of mine, who had just come in from the billiard-room.
"Dick," I said, "will you run things to-morrow if I go off motoring with Dalton?"
"Of course I will," he answered. "It's only home shooting, anyway. I'd rather like a day off because of the cricket match in the afternoon."
"Jacky, I'm your man!" I declared.
"We'll have Ferris in at once," he declared. "Bet you what you like he's ready to start in a quarter of an hour. I always have her kept ready tuned right up."
I rang the bell and sent for Jacky's chauffeur. He appeared after a few minutes' delay,--a short, hard-faced young man, who before Jacky had engaged him had driven a racing car.
"Ferris," his master said, "we want to start for Newcastle in half an hour."
"To-night, sir?" the man asked.
"Certainly," Dalton answered. "I shall drive some of the way myself. Everything is in order, I suppose?"
"Everything, sir," the man answered. "You can start in ten minutes if you wish."
"Any trouble about petrol?" I asked.
"We carry enough for the whole journey, sir," the man answered. "I'll have the car round at the front, sir, in a few minutes."
"Let's go up and change our clothes," Dalton said. "Remember we are going to travel, Austen, especially up the north road. You will want some thickish tweeds and an overcoat, although it seems so stifling here."
"Right, Jacky!" I answered. "I'll be down in a quarter of an hour, or twenty minutes at the most."
In less than half an hour we were off. It was only when the great car swung from the avenue into the country lane that Jacky, who was driving, turned toward me.
"By the bye," he asked, "what the devil are we going to Newcastle for?"
"We are going to look at those new battleships, Jacky," I answered.
He stared at me.
"Are you in earnest?"
"Partly," I answered. "Let's say we are going for the ride. It's worth it."
Dalton drew a long breath. We were rushing now through the silent night, with a delicious wind, strong and cool, blowing in our faces.
"By Jove, it is!" he assented.
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