I remember - it must have been while I was at school because I don't go in for that sort of thing very largely nowadays - reading a poem or something about something or other in which there was a line that went, if I've got it rightly, "Shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing child." Well, what I'm driving at is that during the next two weeks that's exactly how it was with me. I mean to say, I could hear wedding bells chiming faintly in the distance and getting nearer and nearer, and Tara moving farther and farther away, and how the deuce to slide out of one and set things right with the other was more than I could think. Giles, no doubt, could have dug up a dozen brainy schemes in a couple of minutes, but he was still aloof and chilly, and I couldn't bring myself to ask him point-blank. I mean, he could see easily enough that the young mistress was in a bad way and, if that wasn't enough to overlook the fact that I was still gleaming about the waistband, well, what it amounted to was that the old feudal spirit was dead in the blighter's bosom and there was nothing to be done about it.
It really was rummy the way the Hemmingway family had taken to me. I wouldn't have said off-hand that there was anything particularly fascinating about me - in fact, most people look on me as rather an ass; but there was no getting on from the fact that I went like a breeze with this fellow and his brother. They didn't seem happy if they were away from me. I couldn't move a step, dash it, without one of them popping out from somewhere and freezing on. In fact, I'd got into the habit now of retiring to my room when I wanted to take it easy for a bit. I had managed to get Tara and I a rather decent suite on the third floor, looking down onto the promenade. Of course, Tara was now in a different room on a different floor. The only thing keeping me from curling into a ball much like an infant was the thought that things hadn't gone so far as to be unmendable.
I had gone to earth in my suite one evening and for the first time that day was feeling that life wasn't so bad after all. Right through the day from lunch time I'd had the Hemmingway bloke on my hands, Aunt Sheila having shooed us off together immediately after the midday meal. The result was, as I looked down on the lighted promenade and saw all the people popping happily about on their way to dinner or the Casino and whatnot, a kind of wistful feeling came over me. I couldn't stop thinking how dashed happy Tara and I could have contrived to be in this place if only Aunt Sheila and other blisters had contrived to be elsewhere.
I heaved a sigh, and at that moment there was a knock at the door.
"Someone at the door, Giles," I said.
"Yes, miss," he said.
"Perhaps it is Miss Maclay?"
"I shall endeavor to discover, miss."
He opened the door, and in popped Andrew Hemmingway and his brother. The last person I expected. I really had thought it might have been Tara who, having discovered how lonely it was in her little room, came to seek some company. And that we might then start to talking, and then to conversing, and then, before you knew it, everything would be set to rights, and we'd be sailing home on the morrow.
"Oh, hallo," I said.
"Oh, Miss Rosenby," said Andrew in a gasping sort of way. You know, it suddenly struck me that this fellow seemed to be a touch light in the loafers. "I don't know how to begin."
Then I noticed that the fellow did appear considerably rattled, and as for the brother, he looked like a sheep with a secret sorrow.
This made me sit up a bit and take notice. I had supposed that this was just a social call, but apparently something had happened to give them a jolt. Though I couldn't see why they should come to me about it.
"Is anything up?" I asked.
"Poor Jonathan - it was my fault - I ought never to have let him go there alone," said Andrew. Dashed agitated.
At this point the brother, who after shedding a floppy overcoat and parking his hat on a chair had been standing by wrapped in silence, gave a little cough, like a sheep caught in the mist on a mountain top.
"The fact is, Miss Rosenby," he said, "a sad, most deplorable thing has occurred. This afternoon, while you were so engaged with my broth-ah, I found the time to hang a little heavy on my hands and I was tempted to - er -gamble at the Casino."
I looked on the man with a kindlier spirit than I had been able up to date. This evidence that he had sporting blood in his veins made him seem a bit more human, I'm bound to say. If only I'd known earlier that he went in for that sort of thing, I felt that we might have had a better time together.
"Oh!" I said. "Did you click?"
He sighed heavily.
"If you mean was I successful, I must answer in the negative. I rashly persisted in the view that the color red, having appeared no fewer than seven times in succession, must inevitably at no distant date give place to black. I was in error. I lost my little all, Miss Rosenby."
"Tough luck," I said.
"I left the Casino," proceeded the chappie, "and returned to the hotel. There I encountered one of my parishioners, a Colonel Forrest, who chanced to be holiday-making over here. I - er - induced him to cash me a check for one hundred pounds on my little account in my London bank."
"Well, that was all to the good, what?" I said, hoping to induce the poor fish to the bright side. "I mean, bit of luck finding someone to slip it into first crack out of the box."
"On the contrary, Miss Rosenby, it did but make matters worse. I burn with shame as I make the confession, but I immediately went back to the Casino and lost the entire sum - this time under the mistaken supposition that the color black was, as I believe the saying is, due for a run."
"I say," I said, "You are having a night out!"
"And," concluded the chappie, "the most lamentable feature of the whole affair is that I have no funds in the bank to meet the check when presented."
I'm free to confess that, though I realized by this time that all this was leading up to a touch and my ear was shortly to be bitten in no uncertain manner, my heart warmed to the poor prune. Indeed, I gazed at him with no little interest and admiration. Never before had I encountered a curate so genuinely all to the mustard. Little as he might look like all the lads of the village, he appeared to be the real Tabasco, and I wished he had shown me this side of his character before."
"Colonel Forrest," he went on, gulping somewhat, " is not the sort of man who would be likely to overlook the matter. He is a hard man. He will expose me to my vic-ah. My vic-ah is a hard man. In short, Miss Rosenby, if Colonel Forrest presents that check I shall be ruined. He leaves for England tonight!"
Andrew, who had been standing by biting his handkerchief and gurgling at intervals while his brother got the above off his chest, now started in once more.
"Miss Rosenby!" he cried, "Won't you, won't you help us? Oh, do say you will! We must have the money to get back the check from Colonel Forrest before nine o'clock - he leaves on the nine-twenty. I was at my wits' end what to do when I remembered how kind you had always been. Miss Rosenby, will you lend Jonathan the money and take these as security?" And before I knew what he was doing, he had dug into his inside breast-pocket, produced a case, and opened it. "Our mother's pearls," he said, "I keep them with me for luck--"
By jingoes there it was, I was now certain this fellow was, as I believe the term is, a "ginger". I now had a way out of this silly marriage business. The question was, how to convince Aunt Sheila of it without causing the poor chap to lose his dignity or worse. After a moment's pondering, I noticed the cove was still talking.
"I don't know what they are worth - they were a present from my poor father--"
"Now, alas, no more," chipped in the brother.
"But I know they must be worth ever so much more than the amount we want."
Dashed embarrassing. Made me feel like a pawnbroker. More than a touch of popping the watch about the whole business.
"No, I say, really," I protested. "There's no need of any security, you know, or any rot of that kind. Only too glad to let you have the money. I've got it on me, as a matter of fact. Rather luckily drew some this morning."
And I fished it out of my bag and pushed it across. The brother shook his head.
"Miss Rosenby," he said, "we appreciate your generosity, your beautiful heartening confidence in us, but we cannot permit this."
"What Jonathan means," said Andrew, " is that you really don't know anything about us when you come to think of it. You mustn't risk lending us all this money without any security at all to two people who, after all, are almost strangers. If I hadn't thought that you would be quite business-like about all this, I would never have dared to come to you."
"The idea of - er - pledging the pearls at the local Mont de Piété was, you readily understand, repugnant to us," said the curate.
"If you will just give me a receipt as a matter of form--"
I wrote out the receipt and handed it over, feeling more or less of an ass.
"Here you are," I said.
Andrew took the piece of paper, shoved it in his pocket, grabbed the money and slipped it to brother Jonathan, and then, before I knew what was happening, he had darted at me, kissed me, and legged it from the room.
I'm bound to say the thing rattled me. So dashed sudden and unexpected. I mean a fellow like that. Always been quiet and humble and whatnot - by no means the sort of fellow to go about the place kissing, well, kissing females. Through a sort of mist I could see that Giles had appeared from the background and was helping the brother on with his coat; and I remember wondering idly how the dickens a man could bring himself to wear a coat like that, it being more like a sack than anything else. Then the brother came up to me and grasped my hand.
"I cannot thank you sufficiently, Miss Rosenby!"
"Oh, not at all."
"You have saved my good name. Good name in man or woman," he said massaging the fin with some fervor, "is the immediate jewel of their souls. Who steals my purse steals trash. 'Twas mine, tis his, and has been slave to thousands. But he that filches from me my good name of that which not enriches him makes me poor indeed. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Good night, Miss Rosenby."
"Good night, old thing," I said.
I blinked at Giles as the door shut. "Rather a sad affair, Giles," I said.
"Lucky I had all that money handy."
"Well - er - yes, miss."
"You speak as though you didn't think much of it."
"It is not my place to criticize your actions, miss, but I will venture to say that I think you behaved a little rashly."
"What, lending that money?"
"Yes, miss. These fashionable French watering places are notoriously infested with dishonest characters."
This was a bit too thick.
"Now look here, Giles," I said, " I can stand a lot but when it comes to your casting asp-whatever-the-word-is on a bloke in Holy Orders--"
"Perhaps I am over-suspicious, miss. But I have seen a great deal at these resorts. When I was in the employment of Lord Finnegan Riley, shortly before I entered your service, his lordship was very neatly swindled by a criminal known, I believe, by the sobriquet of Jiving Johnny, who scraped acquaintance with us in Monte Carlo with the assistance of a young male accomplice. I have never forgotten the circumstances."
"I don't want to butt in on your reminiscences, Giles," I said coldly, "but you're talking through your hat. How can there have been anything fishy about this business? They've left me the pearls, haven't they? Very well then, think before you speak. You had better be tooling down to the front desk right now and having these things shoved into the hotel safe." I picked up the case and opened it. "Oh, Great Scott!"
The bally thing was empty!
"Oh, my Lord!" I said, staring. "Don't tell me there's been dirty work at the crossroads after all!"
"Precisely, miss. It was in exactly the same manner that Lord Riley was swindled on the occasion to which I have alluded. While his accomplice was gratefully embracing his lordship, an act which left his lordship understandably rattled, Jiving Johnny substituted a duplicate case for the one containing the pearls and went off with the jewels, the money and the receipt. On the strength of the receipt he subsequently demanded from his lordship the return of the pearls, and his lordship, not being able to produce them, was obliged to pay a heavy sum in compensation. It was a simple but effective ruse."
I felt as if the bottom had dropped out of things with a jerk.
"Jiving Johnny? John? Jonathan! Brother Jonathan! Why, by Jove, Giles, do you think that parson was Jiving Johnny?"
"But it seems so extraordinary. Why, his collar buttoned at the back - I mean, he would have deceived a bishop. Do you really think he was Jiving Johnny?"
"Yes, miss. I recognized him directly he came into the room."
I stared at the blighter.
"Then, dash it all," I said, deeply moved, " I think you might have told me."
"I thought it would save disturbance and unpleasantness if I merely abstracted the case from the man's pocket as I assisted him with his coat, miss. Here it is, miss."
He laid another case on the table next to the dud one, and, by Jove, you couldn't tell them apart. I opened it, and there were the pearls, as merry and bright as dammit, smiling up at me. I gazed feebly at the man. I was feeling a bit overwrought.
"Giles," I said, "You're an absolute genius!"
Relief was surging over me in great chunks by now. Thanks to Giles I was not going to be called upon to cough up several thousand quid.
"It looks to me as if you had saved the old home. I mean, even a chappie with the immortal rind of old Jonathan is hardly likely to have the nerve to come back and retrieve these little chaps."
"I should imagine not, miss."
"Well, then - oh, I say, you don't think they are just paste or anything like that?"
"No, miss. These are genuine pearls and extremely valuable."
"Well, then, dash it, I'm on velvet. Absolutely reclining on the good old plush! I may be down a hundred quid but I'm up a jolly good string of pearls, Am I right or wrong?"
"Hardly that, miss. I think that you will have to restore the pearls."
"What! To Jonathan? Not while I have my physique!"
"No, miss. To their rightful owner."
"Who is their rightful owner?"
"Mrs. Rosenby-Gregson, miss."
"What! How do you know?"
"It was all over the hotel an hour ago that Mrs. Rosenby-Gregson's pearls had been abstracted. I was speaking to Mrs. Rosenby-Gregson's maid shortly before you came in and she informed me that the manager of the hotel is currently in Mrs, Rosenby-Gregson's suite."
"And having a devil of a time, what?"
"So I should be disposed to imagine, miss."
The situation was beginning to unfold before me.
"I'll go and give them back to her, eh? It will put me one up, what?"
"Precisely, miss. And, if I may make a suggestion, I think it might be judicious to stress the fact that they were stolen by--"
"Great Scott! By the dashed fellow she was hounding me on to marry, by Jove!"
"Giles," I said, "This is going to be the biggest score off my jolly old relative that has ever occurred in the world's history."
"It is not unlikely, miss."
"Keep her quiet for a bit, eh? Make her stop snootering me for a while. Give Miss Maclay and I a chance to rekindle, reclaim and settle in, what?"
"It should have that effect, miss."
"Golly!" I said, bounding for the door.