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Jimmy's acquaintance with Spennie Blunt had developed rapidly in the few days following their first meeting. Spennie had called next morning to repay the loan, and two days later had invited Jimmy to come down to Shropshire with him. Which invitation, Jimmy, bored with London, had readily accepted. Spike he had decided to take with him in the rôle of valet. The Bowery boy was probably less fitted for the post than any one has ever been since the world began; but it would not do to leave him at Savoy Mansions.
It had been arranged that they should meet Spennie at Paddington station. Accompanied by Spike, who came within an ace of looking almost respectable in new blue serge, Jimmy arrived at Paddington with a quarter of an hour to spare. Nearly all London seemed to be at the station, with the exception of Spennie. Of that light-haired and hearted youth there were no signs. But just as the train was about to start, the missing one came skimming down the platform and hurled himself in. For the first ten minutes he sat panting. At the conclusion of that period, he spoke.
"Dash it!" he said. "I've suddenly remembered I never telegraphed home to let 'em know what train we were coming by. Now what'll happen is that there won't be anything at Corven to meet us and take us up to the abbey. And you can't get a cab. They don't grow such things."
"How far is it to walk?"
"Five solid miles. And uphill most of the way. And I've got a bad foot!"
"As a matter of fact," said Jimmy, "it's just possible that we shall be met, after all. While I was waiting for you at Paddington I heard a man asking if he had to change for Corven. He may be going to the abbey, too."
"What sort of a looking man?"
"Tall. Thin. Rather a wreck."
"Probably my Uncle Thomas. Frightful man. Always trying to roast a chap, don't, you know. Still, there's one consolation. If it is Uncle Thomas, they'll have sent the automobile for him. I shouldn't think he'd ever walked more than a hundred yards in his natural, not at a stretch. He generally stays with us in the summer. I wonder if he's bringing Aunt Julia with him. You didn't see her, I suppose, by any chance? Tall, and talks to beat the band. He married her for her money," concluded Spennie charitably.
"Isn't she attractive, either?"
"Aunt Julia," said Spennie with feeling, "is the absolute limit. Wait till you see her. Sort of woman who makes you feel that your hands are the color of a frightful tomato and the size of a billiard table, if you know what I mean. By gad, though, you should see her jewels. It's perfectly beastly the way that woman crams them on. She's got one rope of pearls which is supposed to have cost forty thousand pounds. Look out for it to-night at dinner. It's worth seeing."
Jimmy Pitt was distressed to feel distinct symptoms of a revival of the Old Adam as he listened to these alluring details. It was trying a reformed man a little high, he could not help thinking with some indignation, to dangle forty thousand pounds' worth of pearls before his eyes over the freshly turned sods of the grave of his past. It was the sort of test which might have shaken the resolution of the oldest established brand from the burning.
He could not keep his mind from dwelling on the subject. Even the fact that--commercially--there was no need for him to think of such things could not restrain him. He was rich now, and could afford to be honest. He tried to keep that fact steadily before him, but instinct was too powerful. His operations in the old days had never been conducted purely with an eye to financial profit. He had collected gems almost as much for what they were as for what they could bring. Many a time had the faithful Spike bewailed the flaw in an otherwise admirable character, which had induced his leader to keep a portion of the spoil instead of converting it at once into good dollar bills. It had had to go sooner or later, but Jimmy had always clung to it as long as possible. To Spike a diamond brooch of cunning workmanship was merely the equivalent of so many "plunks". That a man, otherwise more than sane, should value a jewel for its own sake was to him an inexplicable thing.
Jimmy was still deep in thought when the train, which had been taking itself less seriously for the last half hour, stopping at stations of quite minor importance and generally showing a tendency to dawdle, halted again. A board with the legend "Corven" in large letters showed that they had reached their destination.
"Here we are," said Spennie. "Hop out. Now what's the betting that there isn't room for all of us in the bubble?"
From farther down the train a lady and gentleman emerged.
"That's the man. Is that your uncle?" said Jimmy.
"Guilty," said Spennie gloomily. "I suppose we'd better go and tackle them. Come on."
They walked up the platform to where Sir Thomas stood smoking a meditative cigar and watching in a dispassionate way the efforts of his wife to bully the solitary porter attached to the station into a frenzy. Sir Thomas was a very tall, very thin man, with cold eyes, and tight, thin lips. His clothes fitted him in the way clothes do fit one man in a thousand. They were the best part of him. His general appearance gave one the idea that his meals did him little good, and his meditations rather less. His conversation--of which there was not a great deal--was designed for the most part to sting. Many years' patient and painstaking sowing of his wild oats had left him at fifty-six with few pleasures; but among those that remained he ranked high the discomfiting of his neighbors.
"This is my friend Pitt, uncle," said Spennie, presenting Jimmy with a motion of the hand.
Sir Thomas extended three fingers. Jimmy extended two, and the handshake was not a success.
At this point in the interview, Spike came up, chuckling amiably, with a magazine in his hand.
"P'Chee!" said Spike. "Say, Mr. Chames, de mug what wrote dis piece must ha' bin livin' out in de woods for fair. His stunt ain't writin', sure. Say, dere's a gazebo what wants to get busy wit' de heroine's jools what's locked in de drawer in de dressin' room. So dis mug, what do youse t'ink he does? Why----"
"Another friend of yours, Spennie?" inquired Sir Thomas politely, eying the red-haired speaker with interest.
He looked appealingly at Jimmy.
"It's only my man," said Jimmy. "Spike," he added in an undertone, "to the woods. Chase yourself. It's not up to you to do stunts on this beat. Fade away."
"Sure," said the abashed Spike, restored to a sense of his position. "Dat's right. I've got wheels in me coco, that's what I've got, comin' buttin' in here. Sorry, Mr. Chames. Sorry, gents. Me for the tall grass."
He trotted away.
"Your man seems to have a pretty taste in literature," said Sir Thomas to Jimmy. "Well, my dear, finished your chat with the porter?"
Lady Blunt had come up, flushed and triumphant, having left the solitary porter a demoralized wreck.
"I'm through," she announced crisply. "Well, Spencer? How are you? Who's this? Don't stand gaping, child. Who's your friend?"
Spennie explained with some incoherence that his name was Pitt. His uncle had shaken him; the arrival of his aunt seemed to unnerve him completely.
"Pleased to meet you," snapped Lady Blunt. "Spencer, where are your trunks? Left them behind, I suppose? No? Well, that's a surprise. Tell that porter to look after them. If you have any trouble with him, mention it to me. I'll make him jump around. Where's the automobile? Outside? Where? Take me to it."
Lady Blunt, when conversing, resembled a Maxim gun more than anything else in the world.
"I'm afraid," said Spennie in an abject manner, as they left the station, "that it will be rather a bit of a frightful squash--what I mean to say is, I hardly think we shall all find room in the auto. I see they have only sent the small one."
Lady Blunt stopped short, and fixed him with a glittering eye.
"I know what it is, Spencer," she said. "You never telegraphed to your mother to tell her what time you were going to arrive."
Spennie opened his mouth feebly, but apparently changing his mind, made no reply.
"My dear," said Sir Thomas smoothly, "we must not expect too much of Spennie."
"Pshaw!" This was a single shot from the Maxim.
The baited youth looked vainly for assistance to Jimmy.
"But--er--aunt," said Spennie. "Really, I--er--I only just caught the train. Didn't I, Pitt?"
"What? Oh, yes. Got in just as it was moving."
"That was it. I really hadn't time to telegraph. Had I, Pitt?"
"Not a minute."
"And how was it you were so late?"
Spennie plunged into an explanation, feeling all the time that he was making things worse for himself. Nobody is at his best in the matter of explanations if a lady whom he knows to be possessed of a firm belief in the incurable weakness of his intellect is looking fixedly at him during the recital. A prolonged conversation with Lady Blunt always made him feel exactly as if he were being tied into knots.
"All this," said Sir Thomas, as his nephew paused for breath, "is very, very characteristic of our dear Spennie."
Our dear Spennie broke into a perspiration.
"However," continued Sir Thomas, "there's room for either you or----"
"Pitt," said Jimmy. "P--i double t."
Sir Thomas bowed.
"In front with the chauffeur, if you care to take the seat."
"I'll walk," said Jimmy. "I'd rather."
"Frightfully good of you, old chap," whispered Spennie. "Sure you don't mind? I do hate walking, and my foot's hurting fearfully."
"Which is my way?"
"Straight as you can go. You go to the----"
"Spennie," said Sir Thomas suavely, "your aunt expresses a wish to arrive at the abbey in time for dinner. If you could manage to come to some arrangement about that seat----"
Spennie climbed hurriedly into the automobile. The last Jimmy saw of him was a hasty vision of him being prodded in the ribs by Lady Blunt's parasol, while its owner said something to him which, judging by his attitude, was not pleasant.
He watched them out of sight, and started to follow at a leisurely pace. It certainly was an ideal afternoon for a country walk. The sun was just hesitating whether to treat the time as afternoon or evening. Eventually it decided that it was evening, and moderated its beams. After London, the country was deliciously fresh and cool. Jimmy felt, as the scent of the hedges came to him, that the only thing worth doing in the world was to settle down somewhere with three acres and a cow, and become pastoral.
There was a marked lack of traffic on the road. Once he met a cart, and once a flock of sheep with a friendly dog. Sometimes a rabbit would dash out into the road, stop to listen, and dart into the opposite hedge, all hind legs and white scut. But except for these he was alone in the world.
And gradually there began to be borne in upon him the conviction that he had lost his way.
It is difficult to judge distance when one is walking, but it certainly seemed to Jimmy that he must have covered five miles by this time. He must have mistaken the way. He had certainly come straight. He could not have come straighter. On the other hand, it would be quite in keeping with the cheap substitute which served Spennie Blunt in place of a mind that he should have forgotten to mention some important turning. Jimmy sat down by the roadside.
As he sat, there came to him from down the road the sound of a horse's feet, trotting. He got up. Here was somebody at last who would direct him.
The sound came nearer. The horse turned the corner; and Jimmy saw with surprise that it bore no rider.
"Hullo!" he said. "Accident? And, by Jove, a side saddle!"
The curious part of it was that the horse appeared in no way a wild horse. It did not seem to be running away. It gave the impression of being out for a little trot on its own account, a sort of equine constitutional.
Jimmy stopped the horse, and led it back the way it had come. As he turned the bend in the road, he saw a girl in a riding habit running toward him. She stopped running when she caught sight of him, and slowed down to a walk.
"Thank you so much," she said, taking the reins from him. "Oh, Dandy, you naughty old thing."
Jimmy looked at her flushed, smiling face, and uttered an exclamation of astonishment. The girl was staring at him, open-eyed.
"Molly!" he cried.
And then a curious feeling of constraint fell simultaneously upon them
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