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CHAPTER XV


MR. M'EACHERN INTERVENES


LIFE at the castle during the first few days of his visit filled Jimmy with a curious blend of emotions, mainly unpleasant. Fate, in its pro-Jimmy capacity, seemed to be taking a rest. In the first place, the part allotted to him was not that of Lord Herbert, the character who talked to Molly most of the time. The instant Charteris learned from Lord Dreever that Jimmy had at one time actually been on the stage professionally, he decided that Lord Herbert offered too little scope for the new man's talents.

"Absolutely no good to you, my dear chap," he said. "It's just a small dude part. He's simply got to be a silly ass."

Jimmy pleaded that he could be a sillier ass than anybody living; but Charteris was firm.

"No," he said. "You must be Captain Browne. Fine acting part. The biggest in the piece. Full of fat lines. Spennie was to have played it, and we were in for the worst frost in the history of the stage. Now you've come, it's all right. Spennie's the ideal Lord Herbert. He's simply got to be himself. We've got a success now, my boy. Rehearsal after lunch. Don't be late." And he was off to beat up the rest of the company.

From that moment, Jimmy's troubles began. Charteris was a young man in whom a passion for the stage was ineradicably implanted. It mattered nothing to him during these days that the sun shone, that it was pleasant on the lake, and that Jimmy would have given five pounds a minute to be allowed to get Molly to himself for half-an-hour every afternoon. All he knew or cared about was that the local nobility and gentry were due to arrive at the castle within a week, and that, as yet, very few of the company even knew their lines. Having hustled Jimmy into the part of Captain Browne, he gave his energy free play. He conducted rehearsals with a vigor that occasionally almost welded the rabble he was coaching into something approaching coherency. He painted scenery, and left it about—wet, and people sat on it. He nailed up horseshoes for luck, and they fell on people. But nothing daunted him. He never rested.

"Mr. Charteris," said Lady Julia, rather frigidly, after one energetic rehearsal, "is indefatigable. He whirled me about!"

It was perhaps his greatest triumph, properly considered, that he had induced Lady Julia to take a part in his piece; but to the born organizer of amateur theatricals no miracle of this kind is impossible, and Charteris was one of the most inveterate organizers in the country. There had been some talk—late at night, in the billiard-room—of his being about to write in a comic footman role for Sir Thomas; but it had fallen through, not, it was felt, because Charteris could not have hypnotized his host into undertaking the part, but rather because Sir Thomas was histrionically unfit.

Mainly as a result of the producer's energy, Jimmy found himself one of a crowd, and disliked the sensation. He had not experienced much difficulty in mastering the scenes in which he appeared; but unfortunately those who appeared with him had. It occurred to Jimmy daily, after he had finished "running through the lines" with a series of agitated amateurs, male and female, that for all practical purposes he might just as well have gone to Japan. In this confused welter of rehearsers, his opportunities of talking with Molly were infinitesimal. And, worse, she did not appear to mind. She was cheerful and apparently quite content to be engulfed in a crowd. Probably, he thought with some melancholy, if she met his eye and noted in it a distracted gleam, she put it down to the cause that made other eyes in the company gleam distractedly during this week.

Jimmy began to take a thoroughly jaundiced view of amateur theatricals, and of these amateur theatricals in particular. He felt that in the electric flame department of the infernal regions there should be a special gridiron, reserved exclusively for the man who invented these performances, so diametrically opposed to the true spirit of civilization. At the close of each day, he cursed Charteris with unfailing regularity.

There was another thing that disturbed him. That he should be unable to talk with Molly was an evil, but a negative evil. It was supplemented by one that was positive. Even in the midst of the chaos of rehearsals, he could not help noticing that Molly and Lord Dreever were very much together. Also—and this was even more sinister—he observed that both Sir Thomas Blunt and Mr. McEachern were making determined efforts to foster the state of affairs.

Of this, he had sufficient proof one evening when, after scheming and plotting in a way that had made the great efforts of Machiavelli and Richlieu seem like the work of raw novices, he had cut Molly out from the throng, and carried her off for the alleged purpose of helping him feed the chickens. There were, as he had suspected, chickens attached to the castle. They lived in a little world of noise and smells at the back of the stables. Bearing an iron pot full of a poisonous-looking mash, and accompanied by Molly, he had felt for perhaps a minute and a half like a successful general. It is difficult to be romantic when you are laden with chicken-feed in an unwieldy iron pot, but he had resolved that this portion of the proceedings should be brief. The birds should dine that evening on the quick-lunch principle. Then—to the more fitting surroundings of the rose-garden! There was plenty of time before the hour of the sounding of the dressing-gong. Perhaps, even a row on the lake—

"What ho!" said a voice.

Behind them, with a propitiatory smile on his face, stood his lordship of Dreever.

"My uncle told me I should find you out here. What have you got in there, Pitt? Is this what you feed them on? I say, you know, queer coves, hens! I wouldn't touch that stuff for a fortune, what? Looks to me poisonous."

He met Jimmy's eye, and stopped. There was that in Jimmy's eye that would have stopped an avalanche. His lordship twiddled his fingers in pink embarrassment.

"Oh, look!" said Molly. "There's a poor little chicken out there in the cold. It hasn't had a morsel. Give me the spoon, Mr. Pitt. Here, chick, chick! Don't be silly, I'm not going to hurt you. I've brought you your dinner."

She moved off in pursuit of the solitary fowl, which had edged nervously away. Lord Dreever bent toward Jimmy.

"Frightfully sorry, Pitt, old man," he whispered, feverishly. "Didn't want to come. Couldn't help it. He sent me out." He half-looked over his shoulder. "And," he added rapidly, as Molly came back, "the old boy's up at his bedroom window now, watching us through his opera-glasses!"

The return journey to the house was performed in silence—on Jimmy's part, in thoughtful silence. He thought hard, and he had been thinking ever since.

He had material for thought. That Lord Dreever was as clay in his uncle's hands he was aware. He had not known his lordship long, but he had known him long enough to realize that a backbone had been carelessly omitted from his composition. What his uncle directed, that would he do. The situation looked bad to Jimmy. The order, he knew, had gone out that Lord Dreever was to marry money. And Molly was an heiress. He did not know how much Mr. McEeachern had amassed in his dealings with New York crime, but it must be something considerable. Things looked black.

Then, Jimmy had a reaction. He was taking much for granted. Lord Dreever might be hounded into proposing to Molly, but what earthly reason was there for supposing that Molly would accept him? He declined even for an instant to look upon Spennie's title in the light of a lure. Molly was not the girl to marry for a title. He endeavored to examine impartially his lordship's other claims. He was a pleasant fellow, with—to judge on short acquaintanceship—an undeniably amiable disposition. That much must be conceded. But against this must be placed the equally undeniable fact that he was also, as he would have put it himself, a most frightful ass. He was weak. He had no character. Altogether, the examination made Jimmy more cheerful. He could not see the light-haired one, even with Sir Thomas Blunt shoving behind, as it were, accomplishing the knight's ends. Shove he never so wisely, Sir Thomas could never make a Romeo out of Spennie Dreever.

It was while sitting in the billiard-room one night after dinner, watching his rival play a hundred up with the silent Hargate, that Jimmy came definitely to this conclusion. He had stopped there to watch, more because he wished to study his man at close range than because the game was anything out of the common as an exposition of billiards. As a matter of fact, it would have been hard to imagine a worse game. Lord Dreever, who was conceding twenty, was poor, and his opponent an obvious beginner. Again, as he looked on, Jimmy was possessed of an idea that he had met Hargate before. But, once more, he searched his memory, and drew blank. He did not give the thing much thought, being intent on his diagnosis of Lord Dreever, who by a fluky series of cannons had wobbled into the forties, and was now a few points ahead of his opponent.

Presently, having summed his lordship up to his satisfaction and grown bored with the game, Jimmy strolled out of the room. He paused outside the door for a moment, wondering what to do. There was bridge in the smoking-room, but he did not feel inclined for bridge. From the drawing-room came sounds of music. He turned in that direction, then stopped again. He came to the conclusion that he did not feel sociable. He wanted to think. A cigar on the terrace would meet his needs.

He went up to his room for his cigar-case. The window was open. He leaned out. There was almost a full moon, and it was very light out of doors. His eye was caught by a movement at the further end of the terrace, where the shadow was. A girl came out of the shadow, walking slowly.

Not since early boyhood had Jimmy descended stairs with such a rare burst of speed. He negotiated the nasty turn at the end of the first flight at quite a suicidal pace. Fate, however, had apparently wakened again and resumed business, for he did not break his neck. A few moments later, he was out on the terrace, bearing a cloak which he had snatched up en route in the hall.

"I thought you might be cold," he said, breathing quickly.

"Oh, thank you," said Molly. "How kind of you!" He put it round her shoulders. "Have you been running?"

"I came downstairs rather fast."

"Were you afraid the boogaboos would get you?" she laughed. "I was thinking of when I was a small child. I was always afraid of them. I used to race downstairs when I had to go to my room in the dark, unless I could persuade someone to hold my hand all the way there and back."

Her spirits had risen with Jimmy's arrival. Things had been happening that worried her. She had gone out on to the terrace to be alone. When she heard his footsteps, she had dreaded the advent of some garrulous fellow-guest, full of small talk. Jimmy, somehow, was a comfort. He did not disturb the atmosphere. Little as they had seen of each other, something in him—she could not say what—had drawn her to him. He was a man whom she could trust instinctively.

They walked on in silence. Words were pouring into Jimmy's mind, but he could not frame them. He seemed to have lost the power of coherent thought.

Molly said nothing. It was not a night for conversation. The moon had turned terrace and garden into a fairyland of black and silver. It was a night to look and listen and think.

They walked slowly up and down. As they turned for the second time, Molly's thoughts formed themselves into a question. Twice she was on the point of asking it, but each time she checked herself. It was an impossible question. She had no right to put it, and he had no right to answer. Yet, something was driving her on to ask it.

It came out suddenly, without warning.

"Mr. Pitt, what do you think of Lord Dreever?"

Jimmy started. No question could have chimed in more aptly with his thoughts. Even as she spoke, he was struggling to keep himself from asking her the same thing.

"Oh, I know I ought not to ask," she went on. "He's your host, and you're his friend. I know. But—"

Her voice trailed off. The muscles of Jimmy's back tightened and quivered. But he could find no words.

"I wouldn't ask anyone else. But you're—different, somehow. I don't know what I mean. We hardly know each other. But—"

She stopped again; and still he was dumb.

"I feel so alone," she said very quietly, almost to herself. Something seemed to break in Jimmy's head. His brain suddenly cleared. He took a step forward.

A huge shadow blackened the white grass. Jimmy wheeled round. It was McEachern.

"I have been looking for you, Molly, my dear," he said, heavily. "I thought you must have gone to bed."

He turned to Jimmy, and addressed him for the first time since their meeting in the bedroom.

"Will you excuse us, Mr. Pitt?"

Jimmy bowed, and walked rapidly toward the house. At the door, he stopped and looked back. The two were standing where he had left them.