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AN UNLUCKY REHEARSAL.

By E. Phillips Oppenheim.

Illustrated by T. Walter Wilson, R.I.

SILEBY GRANGE had received a guest, and old Joseph, the butler, heedless of his rheumatics and the cold east wind, hurried out on to the broad steps to receive him in person, for Gordon Crawford was a general favourite and a frequent visitor.

"How do you do, Joseph? Glad to see you!" exclaimed a tall young man, as he sprang down from the dog-cart and walked lightly up the steps. "All well, eh?"

"Yes, thank you, sir," replied the old man respectfully. "I'm afraid there's no one in just now, though," he added apologetically.

"They didn't expect you quite so soon, and Mr. Dudley he's gone over to Harborough, to see about getting the stage fixed for the theatricals."

"Mrs. Carr in?" inquired the young man, divesting himself of his ulster and leisurely drawing off his gloves.

"No, sir. She's gone out to pay some calls, and Mr. Willie and the other gentlemen are out after the hounds. Howsomever, they'll be home by the time you've changed your things, sir. Will you take anything, Mr. Crawford? A cup of tea, or a whiskey and seltzer?"

He shook his head.

"No, thanks. By the bye, Joseph, is Miss Allnut stopping here?" he asked.

"Yes, sir. There's several of them come on purpose for the theatricals. Miss Botsworth's here, too, and Dr. Thomson, and another young gentleman from Sorchester. Miss Allnut's in the study now, sir, if you'd like to see her—leastways, I mean the library."

The information seemed to please Mr. Gordon Crawford.

"I'll go in and see her," he exclaimed with alacrity. "No, you needn't trouble to announce me," he added hastily, as Joseph turned away with that intention. "I'm going round by the terrace. Have my traps sent up, there's a good fellow, and some hot water. I shan't be more than a minute or two."

Joseph turned away with a quiet chuckle. "I allus thought he was rare sweet on Miss Allnut," he ruminated. "That's what he's come back for, of course," and he descended to the lower regions to impart this delightful gossip to his better half.

Gordon Crawford walked quietly down the wide hall, passed through a conservatory, and stepped out on to a terrace which ran along the side of the house. Outside the high French windows of the library he paused and looked eagerly in. This is what he saw.

A girl stood on the hearthrug in the act of indulging in a merry laugh. Her small but well-poised head was thrown back, and the merriment was shining out of her eyes as well as asserting itself from her lips. She was petite in stature, but her figure was lithe and exquisitely graceful. Her features, though not of classical regularity, were clearly cut and of good type, and the bright, piquant expression, which animated her face and shone out of her blue eyes, redeemed her face from the mediocrity of good looks, and made her appear irresistibly charming. He watched her for a moment with a pleased, happy smile of anticipation, and then raised his hand to knock at the window. A movement within the room, however, arrested him, and he remained watching. A tall, athletic-looking man in scarlet hunting-coat and tops splashed from head to foot, evidently just returned from the hunt, had moved to her side and, leaning against the mantelpiece, began talking earnestly. Her laugh died away and she glanced downwards to where her tiny foot was tracing out the pattern of the hearthrug. He moved closer still and continued talking more emphatically than ever, apparently gaining boldness from his companion's confusion. He took her hand unchidden, passed his arm round her waist, and her sudden joyful cry of "Lionel! dearest Lionel," penetrated through the closed windows. With a barely repressed groan and a white, set face the watcher on the terrace moved away.

Six months ago Gordon Crawford had met Edith Allnut at this same house. He was not a man who, as a rule, contracted sudden likes or dislikes, but in less than a week he was hopelessly in love. Her lively conversation and bewitching manners had at first attracted, then completely enslaved him, and for a while he lived in a fool's paradise. Then his sense of honour brought him a rude awakening. A slight change in her manner, the frequent aversion of her blue eyes which had formerly met him so frankly and fearlessly, warned him that unless he wished to behave like a brute he must be gone. Marriage was an impossibility for him. He was a well-nigh briefless barrister, without fortune, influence, or prospects, and life, as it was, was somewhat of a struggle. Under such circumstances, even an engagement was out of the question.

He had met her in the garden, on the morning of his departure, and had taken leave of her there.

"You are going away sooner than you intended, Mr. Crawford," she remarked, looking away from him.

He laughed a little bitterly.

"I fear that I have taken too long a holiday already," he replied. "I am a poor man, you know. Miss Allnut, and life is not golf and shooting for me."

She looked at him curiously.

"Is it so hard a thing to be poor, then?" she asked.

"I begin to realise that it is," he said, and, fearful of saying too much, he said no more.

They turned towards the house, and the bright expression had vanished for a while from her face.

"Well, since you must go, Mr. Crawford, good-bye," and she held out a little white hand. He took it and gazed into her eyes. What he read there he never told anyone, but he went back to his chambers and worked as he had never worked before.

Barely six months had passed, when an event happened which considerably changed the tenor of his life. His father had died some ten years back, a poor man, ruined through heavy investments in some silver mines, and his sole legacy to his son had been the worthless scrip. One evening, whilst Gordon sat alone in his chambers, idly glancing through the columns of the Globe, a startling announcement attracted his attention.

There had been a great find of silver in a Californian mine, the name of which seemed familiar to him. Half dazed, he caught up his hat and hurried out with the paper in his hand. All the way down the Strand the name rang in his ears, shouted out by eager newsboys, and stared him in the face from placards. At Charing Cross he ran against his stockbroker, the man whom he most desired to see. In a moment the glad tidings were confirmed. He was a rich man.

Almost the first to congratulate him was his old friend, Dudley Carr, whom he encountered coming out of a costumier's in Bond Street. The two men dined and spent the evening together.

"I wish you'd come down and spend a day or two with us, old man," Dudley had said, as they parted. "We're getting up some theatricals. They'll be rather fun, and your old flame, Miss Allnut, is stopping with us. Come down to-morrow, do."

The invitation was exactly what Gordon Crawford desired, and accordingly on the very next day he had followed his friend down to Sileby Grange.

He was a man of strong nature, and his penchant for Edith Allnut had been no passing fancy. His first thought when he realised his wealth had been of her, and his first throb of joy had been caused by the reflection that he might now seek to win her. He had hurried down to Sileby Grange full of hope, and he had arrived just in time to see her in another man's arms, and hear her lips utter caressingly another man's name. What a fool he had been, and what a flirt she was!

Soon Dudley, all over white and sawdust, came hurrying up from the scene of his labours and welcomed his guest heartily. Then Mrs. Carr, his mother, returned, and presently Edith appeared. She welcomed him almost shyly, and there was a subdued, half-conscious light in her eyes which puzzled him. He muttered a stereotyped answer to her little speech, cursing her the while under his breath for a flirt, and then turned coldly away to continue his conversation with Mrs. Carr.

During dinner he sat glum and silent, eating scarcely anything, and drinking a great deal more than usual. Opposite him sat Miss Allnut, with an unusual colour in her cheeks, and a brilliant sparkle in her eyes, talking with reckless gaiety to her right-hand neighbour, whom Crawford easily recognised as her red-coated cavalier. Afterwards, when Dudley rose and proposed joining the ladies, he flatly refused to enter the drawing-room, and persuaded good-natured old Colonel Josser to accompany him into the billiard-room. For a while they were alone, but suddenly, when they were in the midst of the third game, there was the sound of merry voices and footsteps outside, and the door was burst open.

"Sorry to disturb you fellows," Dudley cried out, "but we want to have a rehearsal here. No, don't go away, Gordon, there's a good fellow. We want you to play the part of criticising audience. You're a dab hand at this sort of thing, you know"; and very unwillingly Gordon Crawford resumed his seat on a lounge and took up a paper. He listened to Dudley's coaching, to the merry laughter and badinage, and he felt very sore. Despite his efforts, he could not keep his eyes from following Edith, as, clad in a gown of soft black lace, which hung gracefully around her supple figure, she moved brightly about, the centre of all the mirth. Bah! how happy they all were, and how miserable he was! Suddenly he started, and the paper fell from his hand. He leaned forward, with eyes riveted upon the little group.

Miss Allnut and Mr. Scott (the man whom he had seen with her in the library) were alone on the pretended stage. He advanced towards her, leaned over the back of the chair, and made an ardent speech; moved closer still, and finally, in conventional terms, made her a proposal of marriage. She blushed, looked down, and accepted him, whispering, "Dearest Lionel!" He put his arm around her waist, and then, just as the infuriated guardian entered, Dudley stopped the scene.

"It won't do at all," he declared. "Scott, my dear fellow, you'll excuse me, but you must improve in this scene. You're fearfully stiff, and Harborough audiences are critical, I can tell you."

"I'm beastly sorry," declared Mr. Scott ruefully. "I'm an awful duffer at this sort of thing, I know. Miss Allnut was good enough to rehearse with me this afternoon in the library, but she couldn't help laughing at me. I can't seem to get into it, somehow."

"It must be improved upon," Dudley exclaimed decidedly, "or it will spoil the piece. Come, let's try again."

"I say, look here," said Scott, turning round eagerly. "There's your friend, Mr. Crawford—he's a dab at acting, you say. Perhaps he would take this part. Pitcher's quite as much as I can manage comfortably. Would you mind, Mr. Crawford?" he added. "I can assure you that I should take it as a special favour," he declared earnestly.

Miss Allnut drew herself up and frowned, but she caught a sudden appealing glance from Gordon Crawford and was silent.

"I shall be very happy indeed," he assented, "if Mr. Scott really wishes it."

"That's capital," pronounced Dudley, rubbing his hands with pleasure. "Here, Gordon, take my book and read your part over with Miss Allnut, while we go through the other farce. Other end of the room, please, ladies and gentlemen, for the 'Area Belle.’"

Miss Allnut looked almost inclined to follow them, but she thought better of it.

"Your part begins here, Mr. Crawford," she said coldly, showing him the book. "I think you had better learn it first, and we can rehearse to-morrow."

"I think we'll follow Dudley's suggestion, if you don't mind," he objected. "This is my first speech, is it? Thanks."

"Maud, I have come to ask you to be my wife. I—— Oh, bother the book!" he exclaimed, softly throwing it down, and glancing across the room to where the others stood in a little knot, busy rehearsing their farce. "Edith, I came down here to tell you something that I dared not tell you in the summer. I was coming to you in the library this afternoon, and I saw you rehearsing with that fellow Scott. I didn't know anything about these theatricals, and—and——"

"And you thought he was making love to me," she said, with a quiet, happy smile parting her lips.

"Exactly!"

"And that's why you've been so horrid ever since you came," with a sigh of relief. "How ridiculous!"

"Darl——"

"I say," cried Dudley, looking round, "I can't hear the words, but the attitude is capital. No one could tell that was acting, Scott, could they?" he continued innocently, and no one could imagine for the moment why it was that Miss Allnut looked so frightfully confused.

The theatricals took place in due course, and were an immense success. Everyone knew his or her part, but the number of rehearsals which Gordon Crawford and Miss Allnut went in for astonished everyone, until an interesting little item of news was confided to Mrs. Carr and spread among the guests. Then everyone understood it at once.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1946, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.