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CHAPTER VIII


AT DREEVER


IN the days before he began to expend his surplus energy in playing Rugby football, the Welshman was accustomed, whenever the monotony of his everyday life began to oppress him, to collect a few friends and make raids across the border into England, to the huge discomfort of the dwellers on the other side. It was to cope with this habit that Dreever Castle, in the county of Shropshire, came into existence. It met a long-felt want. In time of trouble, it became a haven of refuge. From all sides, people poured into it, emerging cautiously when the marauders had disappeared. In the whole history of the castle, there is but one instance recorded of a bandit attempting to take the place by storm, and the attack was an emphatic failure. On receipt of a ladleful of molten lead, aimed to a nicety by one John, the Chaplain (evidently one of those sporting parsons), this warrior retired, done to a turn, to his mountain fastnesses, and was never heard of again. He would seem, however, to have passed the word around among his friends, for subsequent raiding parties studiously avoided the castle, and a peasant who had succeeded in crossing its threshold was for the future considered to be "home" and out of the game.

Such was the Dreever of old. In later days, the Welshman having calmed down considerably, it had lost its militant character. The old walls still stood, gray, menacing and unchanged, but they were the only link with the past. The castle was now a very comfortable country-house, nominally ruled over by Hildebrand Spencer Poynt de Burgh John Hannasyde Coombe-Crombie, twelfth Earl of Dreever ("Spennie" to his relatives and intimates), a light-haired young gentleman of twenty-four, but in reality the possession of his uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Julia Blunt.

Lord Dreever's position was one of some embarrassment. At no point in their history had the Dreevers been what one might call a parsimonious family. If a chance presented itself of losing money in a particularly wild and futile manner, the Dreever of the period had invariably sprung at it with the vim of an energetic blood-hound. The South Sea Bubble absorbed two hundred thousand pounds of good Dreever money, and the remainder of the family fortune was squandered to the ultimate penny by the sportive gentleman who held the title in the days of the Regency, when Watier's and the Cocoa Tree were in their prime, and fortunes had a habit of disappearing in a single evening. When Spennie became Earl of Dreever, there was about one dollar and thirty cents in the family coffers.

This is the point at which Sir Thomas Blunt breaks into Dreever history. Sir Thomas was a small, pink, fussy, obstinate man with a genius for trade and the ambition of an Alexander the Great; probably one of the finest and most complete specimens of the came-over-Waterloo-Bridge-with-half-a crown-in-my-pocket-and-now-look-at-me class of millionaires in existence. He had started almost literally with nothing. By carefully excluding from his mind every thought except that of making money, he had risen in the world with a gruesome persistence which nothing could check. At the age of fifty-one, he was chairman of Blunt's Stores, L't'd, a member of Parliament (silent as a wax figure, but a great comfort to the party by virtue of liberal contributions to its funds), and a knight. This was good, but he aimed still higher; and, meeting Spennie's aunt, Lady Julia Coombe-Crombie, just at the moment when, financially, the Dreevers were at their lowest ebb, he had effected a very satisfactory deal by marrying her, thereby becoming, as one might say, Chairman of Dreever, L't'd. Until Spennie should marry money, an act on which his chairman vehemently insisted, Sir Thomas held the purse, and except in minor matters ordered by his wife, of whom he stood in uneasy awe, had things entirely his own way.

One afternoon, a little over a year after the events recorded in the preceding chapter, Sir Thomas was in his private room, looking out of the window, from which the view was very beautiful. The castle stood on a hill, the lower portion of which, between the house and the lake, had been cut into broad terraces. The lake itself and its island with the little boat-house in the center gave a glimpse of fairyland.

But it was not altogether the beauty of the view that had drawn Sir Thomas to the window. He was looking at it chiefly because the position enabled him to avoid his wife's eye; and just at the moment he was rather anxious to avoid his wife's eye. A somewhat stormy board-meeting was in progress, and Lady Julia, who constituted the board of directors, had been heckling the chairman. The point under discussion was one of etiquette, and in matters of etiquette Sir Thomas felt himself at a disadvantage.

"I tell you, my dear," he said to the window, "I am not easy in my mind."

"Nonsense," snapped Lady Julia; "absurd—ridiculous!"

Lady Julia Blunt, when conversing, resembled a Maxim gun more than anything else.

"But your diamonds, my dear."

"We can take care of them."

"But why should we have the trouble? Now, if we—"

"It's no trouble."

"When we were married, there was a detective—"

"Don't be childish, Thomas. Detectives at weddings are quite customary."

"But—"

"Bah!"

"I paid twenty thousand pounds for that rope of diamonds," said Sir Thomas, obstinately. Switch things upon a cash basis, and he was more at ease.

"May I ask if you suspect any of our guests of being criminals?" inquired Lady Julia, with a glance of chill disdain.

Sir Thomas looked out of the window. At the moment, the sternest censor could have found nothing to cavil at in the movements of such of the house-party as were in sight. Some were playing tennis, some clock-golf, and others were smoking.

"Why, no," he admitted.

"Of course. Absurd—quite absurd!"

"But the servants. We have engaged a number of new servants lately."

"With excellent recommendations."

Sir Thomas was on the point of suggesting that the recommendations might be forged, but his courage failed him. Julia was sometimes so abrupt in these little discussions! She did not enter into his point of view. He was always a trifle inclined to treat the castle as a branch of Blunt's Stores. As proprietor of the stores, he had made a point of suspecting everybody, and the results had been excellent. In Blunt's Stores, you could hardly move in any direction without bumping into a gentlemanly detective, efficiently disguised. For the life of him, Sir Thomas could not see why the same principle should not obtain at Dreever. Guests at a country house do not as a rule steal their host's possessions, but then it is only an occasional customer at a store who goes in for shop-lifting. It was the principle of the thing, he thought: Be prepared against every emergency. With Sir Thomas Blunt, suspiciousness was almost a mania. He was forced to admit that the chances were against any of his guests exhibiting larcenous tendencies, but, as for the servants, he thoroughly mistrusted them all, except Saunders, the butler. It had seemed to him the merest prudence that a detective from a private inquiry agency should be installed at the castle while the house was full. Somewhat rashly, he had mentioned this to his wife, and Lady Julia's critique of the scheme had been terse and unflattering.

"I suppose," said Lady Julia sarcastically, "you will jump to the conclusion that this man whom Spennie is bringing down with him to-day is a criminal of some sort?"

"Eh? Is Spennie bringing a friend?"

There was not a great deal of enthusiasm in Sir Thomas's voice. His nephew was not a young man whom he respected very highly. Spennie regarded his uncle with nervous apprehension, as one who would deal with his short-comings with vigor and severity. Sir Thomas, for his part, looked on Spennie as a youth who would get into mischief unless under his uncle's eye.

"I had a telegram from him just now," Lady Julia explained.

"Who is his friend?"

"He doesn't say. He just says he's a man he met in London."

"H'm!"

"And what does, 'H'm!' mean?" demanded Lady Julia.

"A man can pick up strange people in London," said Sir Thomas, judicially.

"Nonsense!"

"Just as you say, my dear."

Lady Julia rose.

"As for what you suggest about the detective, it is of course absolutely absurd."

"Quite so, my dear."

"You mustn't think of it."

"Just as you say, my dear."

Lady Julia left the room.

What followed may afford some slight clue to the secret of Sir Thomas Blunt's rise in the world. It certainly suggests singleness of purpose, which is one of the essentials of success.

No sooner had the door closed behind Lady Julia than he went to his writing-table, took pen and paper, and wrote the following letter:


To the Manager, Wragge's Detective Agency.
Holborn Bars, London E. C.

Sir: With reference to my last of the 28th, ult., I should be glad if you would send down immediately one of your best men. Am making arrangements to receive him. Kindly instruct him to present himself at Dreever Castle as applicant for position of valet to myself. I will see and engage him on his arrival, and further instruct him in his duties.

Yours faithfully,
Thos. Blunt.
P. S. I shall expect him to-morrow evening. There is a good train leaving Paddington at 2:15.


Sir Thomas read this over, put in a comma, then placed it in an envelope, and lighted a cigar with the air of one who can be checked, yes, but vanquished, never.