From breakfast on I felt like a bag-snatcher at a railway station. I had to hang about waiting for the parcel to be put on the hall table, and it wasn't put. Uncle Willoughby was a fixture in the library, adding the finishing touches to the great work, I supposed, and the more I thought the thing over, the less I liked it. The chances against me pulling it off seemed about three to two, and the thought of what would happen if I didn't gave me cold shivers down the spine. Uncle Willoughby was a pretty mild sort of old boy, as a rule, but I've known him to cut up rough, and, by Jove, he was scheduled to extend himself if he caught me trying to get away with his life's work.
To top it all, I had the broodings of my Aunt Sheila's scheme bouncing about in my forehead. The old girl had popped off on the train before I had a chance to really settle in with the plan. The idea seemed hearty enough, and gratefully light on the labor, at least for my end of it, but still, there was something quite rummy about the whole thing. But then, I had always been a bit short on brain myself: the old bean seemed to be constructed more for ornament than for use, don't you know? I decided to wait for good old Lumps to arrive, along with this American-girl-Maclay-what's-it and have a good strong dash at it.
At nearly four Uncle Willoughby toddled out of the library with the parcel under his arm, put it on the table, then toddled off again. I was hiding a bit to the southeast at the moment, behind a suit of armor. I bounded out and legged it for the table. Then I nipped upstairs to hide the swag. I charged in like a mustang and nearly stubbed my toe on young, blighted Connor, the Boy Scout. He was standing at the chest of drawers, confound him, messing about with my gloves.
"Hallo!" he said.
"What are you doing here?"
"I'm tidying your room. It's my last Saturday's act of kindness."
"I'm five days behind. I was six till last night, but I polished your shoes."
"Was it you-"
"Yes. Did you see them? I just happened to think of it. I was in here, looking around. Mr. Berkeley had this room while you were away. He left this morning. I thought perhaps he might have left something in it that I could have sent on. I've often done acts of kindness that way."
"You must be a comfort to one and all!" I said rather grumpily.
It became more and more apparent to me that this infernal kid must somehow be turned out eftsoons or right speedily. I had hidden the parcel behind my back, and I didn't think he had seen it; but I wanted to get to that chest of drawers quick, before anyone else came along.
"I shouldn't bother about tidying the room." I said.
"I like tidying it. It's not a bit of trouble - really."
"But it's quite tidy now."
"Not as tidy as I shall make it."
This was getting perfectly rotten. I didn't want to murder the kid, and yet there didn't seem to be any other way of shifting him. I pressed down the mental accelerator. The old lemon throbbed fiercely. I got an idea.
"There's something much kinder than that which you could do," I said. "You see that box of cigars? It's for your brother. Take it down to the smoking room and snip the ends off for me. That would save me no end of trouble. Stagger along, laddie."
He seemed a bit doubtful; but he staggered. I shoved the parcel into a drawer, locked it, pocketed the key, and felt better. I may be a chump, but, dash it, I could out-general a mere kid with a face like a ferret. I turned to head downstairs and found Giles looming in the doorway like a great-well-like a great looming-thing, don't you know. The blighter nearly scared the buttons off my gloves.
"Excuse me, miss."
"Terribly sorry to disturb, miss."
"Yes- no- what is it?"
"There's a Miss Maclay to see you."
"You were expecting her later, miss?"
"Well, I- Come to think of it, I didn't know when she would arrive. Has Lumps arrived as well?"
"My cousin, the young Mr. Harrison-Phipps."
"Not as yet, miss."
"Dash it. Well, then, show me to her."
"Miss Maclay is awaiting you in the downstairs hall."
I expect my eyes must have goggled at that revelation.
"The hall?!" I said. "Hasn't she been shown in?" The notion seemed simply barbaric.
"Oakshott informed me, miss, that she was rather firm about waiting for you there."
"Firm, you say?"
"Well, thank you, Giles. That'll be all, I expect, for now."
"Very good, miss."
I went downstairs again. Just as I was passing the smoking room door, out curveted Connor. It seemed to me that if he wanted to do a real act of kindness he would commit suicide.
"I'm snipping them," he said.
"Snip on! Snip on!"
"Do you like them snipped much, or only a bit?"
"All right. I'll be getting on then."
And we parted.
I entered the front hall and there I discovered a deucedly pretty girl. What happened now was that I began, as it were, to drink her in. She was rather small, like me, with great big eyes and a ripping smile, not to mention the most-lovely flaxen hair since, well, ever, really.
Quite instantly I saw the unknowable flaw in my Aunt Sheila's plan. The girl I was to set Lumpy fancying for was a girl I found myself rather fancying. On sight, mind you! The old ticky-tock was a blighted fool when it came to deucedly pretty girls. I'd spent countless hours trying my best to re-educate the organ to the proper ways of beating; my engagement to Daniel Osbourne was sort of the final round of exams, don't you know? But here it was and it seemed that the old thumper was just as stubborn at learning as the old melon. There was nothing to do but set it aside, and press forward.
"Hallo!" I said, cheerily on the approach.
Rum, I thought. She had the voice of an angel with an American accent. I realized then that the setting aside of things was going to be markedly more difficult than previously anticipated.
"Yes, my Aunt Sheila warned you'd be coming."
Dash it all, I'd worried her, and not three sentences in.
"Oh, well, what I mean to say is that she gave us notice you'd be arriving. So the staff would be prepared; not only the staff, of course, but the rest of us as well, don't you know? Not that you're coming to Easeby is on the particular intriguing-Not to say that it isn't, mind you! Your company is quite welcome here at the old what's-it-called. I myself am quite bucked."
I came to a stop when I'd finally run out of air.
"Are you alright?"
There was an unfortunately brutal pause.
"I hope I didn't cause too much trouble," she said.
"Trouble?" I was confounded.
"By asking the butler to let me wait in the hall."
"Oh that? Pish-tosh."
"He seemed a little upset."
"Well, you know butlers."
"Not really." She said, "Daddy has never cared for them, so, we've never had one."
"Well, I suppose there's nothing wrong with serving one's own tea, or folding one's own shirts."
She shook her head rather shyly, and then sort of glanced away. If this girl proved any more adorable, I feared I would have to chain myself to my room out of concern of making a greater fool of myself than I already was.
"Speaking of tea," I went on, "would you care for some? It's rather that time."
I gestured that she should follow me and we made our way down the hall.
"The smoking-room's just up ahead," I said. "We can take our tea in there."
"I'm afraid I don't smoke."
The way she said it made it sound like the most sincere apology since my cousin Winifred's brother Wesley accidentally ran over her prized terrier Maxmillian's tail with an overloaded barrow of wild berries. I felt it best to reassure the dear girl.
"I don't either." I said. "Disgusting habit, really."
Just then, blighted Connor popped out of the room with the box I had sent him in with.
"Here's your cigars. I've snipped them all for you, medium, like you asked."
I glanced to Miss Maclay, then back at the horrible kid in front of me. Both regarded me with peevish sort of looks. For whatever reason, I made the decision to dodge.
"I say, young chappie, you must have me confused with one of the other guests."
"Are you mad? You only just gave me these to snip."
"I dare say not. I never touch the things."
"But I was in your room when you gave them to me."
"Well, I must have been in the wrong room then, mustn't I?"
"I may very well be, but those are not my cigars!"
"Well, I'm not keeping them!"
"If I may," Miss Maclay interjected. "Perhaps the easiest way to settle this is to return the box to the room where you found it. Then the true owner, whoever they are, will be sure to find it again."
The little devil hesitated a moment, then grumbled something under his breath and legged it for the stairs. I let out the deepest draft of air I'd ever taken in. This girl was perfectly marvelous! Though I couldn't help but notice the knowing gaze she struck me with at the "whoever they are" bit of her wording.
"Shall we have a dash at the drawing room?" I said. "I've always felt the view out the window is quite agreeable."
I led the way and we proceeded to take our tea.
Tara Maclay was one of those very quiet, appealing girls who have a way of looking at you with their big eyes as if they thought you were the greatest thing on Earth and wondered that you hadn't got onto it yet yourself. She made me feel that there was nothing I wouldn't do for her. She was rather like one of those innocent-tasting American drinks which creep imperceptibly into your system so that, before you know what you're doing, you're starting out to reform the world by force if necessary and pausing on your way to tell the large man in the corner that, if he looks at you like that, you will knock his head off. What I mean is, she made me feel alert and dashing, like a jolly old knight-errant or something of that kind. I found her absolutely ripping!
Dreaded was the thought of turning her over to good old Lumpy when the time came.