THE LONG, flower-decked balcony of Lady Barchester's house in Chesterton Place was the most intimate spot in London—a sort of tropical paradise snatched from the warm Southern Seas. In the purple, velvety darkness late on that perfect June night, two people were seated there.
"This," Augustus Openshaw sighed, "is great."
"But dangerous, darling," Angela Gilliland whispered. "If any of those dancers wandered in—"
"Oh, that's all right," Gus Openshaw smiled. "I got Betty Barchester to fasten the window behind us, so that there would he no chance of interruption."
Angela Gilliland snuggled a little closer to the young man with the orange-hued hair and the golden freckles lavishly bestowed on that blunt, good-natured face of his. She was exceedingly fond of Gus, and none the less because she ought not to have been there at all. When a young man has to eke out a miserable existence on about a thousand a year, he has no right to entangle the affections of a beauty like Angela Gilliland, who in her own right was mistress of twenty times that sum. Not that it was anybody's affair but theirs and Mr. Benjamin Openshaw's, and thereby hangs a tale.
Now, Mr. Benjamin Openshaw was not only Gus's uncle, but guardian to the fascinating young woman who at that moment was perched ecstatically on the fortunate young man's knee. They sat there talking over their troubles, and trying to find some scheme by which to avert the threatening danger, and put a spoke in the wheel of Mr. Openshaw's programme at the same time. And as Gus said, it took a bit of doing.
"Now, look here, darling," he observed. "We can't go fooling on like this. Your father was a dear old chap, but he made a bit of a bloomer when he shoved all those dollars of his—I mean yours—into the hands of Uncle Ben. I ain't quarrelling with the idea of your money being tied up till you are twenty-five. Of course, we can wait for the next four years."
"Yes, I suppose we can, Gus," Angela sighed.
Gus clicked his strong even teeth together as he thought of that fat, pompous old uncle of his, that elderly politician who still lived in hope that he might some day find himself endowed with Cabinet Rank. He was a heavy bore of the largest calibre, and he was the proud possessor of a son, another Gus, who was perhaps even a shade more serious and ponderous than his sire. And, quite within the bounds of honour, of course. Openshaw pere was exceedingly anxious to see the hope of his house allied to the dazzling beauty, and equally dazzling fortune of Miss Angela Gilliland.
"Is there no one who can manage it, Gus, dear?" Angela asked almost tearfully. "If you could only make him ridiculous. If you could only wound his family pride. If you could hit him through that Hamlet-like offspring of his!"
"That's a dashed good idea," Gus said. "Something in the public line, I mean, that gets in the newspapers. A stunt to make people laugh at him. Practical—or—got it!"
"Got what?" Angela asked.
"Why, the notion, the big idea. You know Jack Adair?"
Of course, Angela knew Jack Adair, the popular clerk in the Foreign Office, who led all the theatricals and generally presided as a sort of master of ceremonies over the gaieties of their particular set, and who eked out a rather slender income as one of the staff of a popular daily paper.
"Well, there you are then," Gus went on a little vaguely. "But Jack will do it, and he will see that it gets all the publicity it needs through the 'Morning Herald.' But mind you, it's going to take a bit of time. Let me see, isn't my distinguished cousin at present quartered in Rome?"
"British Embassy," Angela murmured. "In training for the Diplomatic Service, and all that."
"Good," Gus cried. "The great work begins to-night. Now, don't ask a lot of questions. And trust me implicitly. I am going out like another Sir Galahad, O.B.E., to take the road for the sake of my lady's bright eyes."
Ten minutes later, Gus was closeted eagerly with that brilliant young man, Jack Adair, in a quiet comer of the inner drawing-room. Then they left the house together and parted with much laughter at the comer of the street.
Half an hour later, the young man with the saffron-coloured hair and gold freckles stood by the side of the Serpentine looking down into the placid water. He was beautifully turned out with a shining topper covering his flaming locks, and with a light overcoat unbuttoned that showed the gleaming expanse of his shirt and waistcoat. And then he did a strange thing. He stooped down deliberately, removed his glistening pumps, and proceeded to divest himself of a pair of lavender socks shot with gold. This done, he rolled these articles up into a tight ball, and threw them into the water. A minute or two later, he was strolling towards his quarters with an air of absolute unconcern, until at length he found himself in Piccadilly. There he came face to face with a stalwart policeman who eyed him with astonishment.
"What's the gime?" the officer asked. "What are you playin' at? An' where are you goin'?"
"John o' Groats," Gus said. "Do I turn to the right or left, or do I keep straight on?"
"But what's the gime?" the man in blue repeated almost imploringly. "Look 'ere, you'd better come along o' me and see the sergeant."
"I decline," Gus said with dignity, "to see any sergeant. I am not interested in sergeants—they are the sort of people I have been in the habit of mixing with. My name is Openshaw, Augustus Openshaw. And if you don't happen to know it—"
Apparently the officer did, for his manner became a little more respectful.
"Well, sir," he went on. "It's no business of mine, of course, but I don't think, as Mr. Benjamin Openshaw will very much like it. And if you take my advice—"
At that moment another man in evening dress appeared upon the scene. With a twinkle in his eye, Gus recognised his inconsequent friend, Jack Adair. The latter stopped and regarded his confederate with a fine air of intense astonishment.
"What, do you mean to say you are actually going on with it?" he cried. "Look here, come along with me."
"I decline to come along with you," Gus said with dignity. "I have made a wager and I am going to carry it out. I am on my way to walk to Scotland, and if you will kindly tell me whether I turn to left or to right when I come to the end of the road, I shall be greatly obliged."
Without a word, Adair put his hand through his friend's arm and led him away with the air of one who is humouring a fractious child. He winked at the policeman over his shoulder and significantly touched his forehead.
"It works, old man, it works," Gus said. "I will tell you where to find me from time to time, but I don't think that I am going to walk quite all the way, and anyhow, I can manage to keep from permanent lameness if I carry a pair of running shoes in my tail coat pocket. Now, come inside and have a drink, and I will tell you—"
"Not on your life," Adair said. "It will take me all my time to reach the office of my rag if I am going to have that paragraph in all the editions tomorrow."
The countless readers of the 'Morning Herald' saw that striking paragraph as they sat at breakfast in their luxurious suburban homes:
DRAMATIC SCENES IN PICCADILLY.
"Early this morning a young man of distinguished appearance was discovered strolling down Piccadilly wearing immaculate evening dress, and in every way resplendent, save for the fact that he was entirely divested of footgear and socks. He explained to a bewildered policeman that he was engaged in a wager for an enormous sum to walk, just as he was, from Piccadilly Circus to the North of Scotland. We gather from our representative, who happened to be on the spot, that one of the conditions of the bet was that the journey should be accomplished in bare feet, and that the protagonist in question should wear nothing but evening kit, and that he should, thus apparelled, walk through every town that happened to be en route. This, our representative had first hand and, moreover, he elicited from the chief actor himself the fact that his name is Augustus Openshaw. We understand, therefore, that he is the only son of Mr. Benjamin Openshaw, the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs who, we believe, is certain of Cabinet rank at an early date. Further particulars of this eccentric feat will appear in our later edition."
For the moment, the political world was standing still, there were no complications on land and sea, no lurid, salacious divorce case penciling, so that the 'Morning Herald' made a feature of the ridiculous stunt which they regarded as all their own. And, other papers kindly copied. The enterprising Openshaw was located here and there, he was seen in this town and that, sturdily plodding his way north, and occasionally encountered on country roads, where he prudently removed his unspiked running shoes at the slightest sign of life coming in his direction. Also, strange to say, no word of indignant expostulation came from the head of the family. And Gus found himself troubled and worrying.
The Right Honourable Benjamin, Openshaw had been absent for some time on the affairs of his country in Brussels. So, because he had not seen the English papers for so long, this terrible scandal had not approached his august presence. And then, when his work was finished, and he found himself with a little leisure, he turned eagerly to the British papers and read the whole horrible catastrophe in a state bordering on collapse.
So the Right Honourable gentleman packed his traps and fled precipitously homewards, bent upon righting this terrible wrong and perhaps hushing up a scandal which threatened to ruin his political career. And the first person he met as he crossed his threshold was his erring son, in propria persona, looking mildly through his spectacles, and bleating in his accustomed manner.
"This is a nice business!" Openshaw bellowed. "What do you mean by it, sir? What do you mean—"
"My dear father," the other Gus said mildly. "I am as much in the darkness as you are. I got an English paper in Rome some days ago, and directly I read the paragraph there, I hurried home as soon as possible. I can't understand it."
A sudden, light illuminated the great statesman.
"It's that rascally cousin of yours!" he breathed heavily. "One of those disgraceful practical jokes of his. A wager, perhaps. He would not give a thought to any position, or the due he owes to the family. I suppose Sommerson is here. Get him to telephone to your cousin and say he must come round here at once."
Sommerson, deeply concerned, and anxious for his chief's political welfare, managed to find Gus at his club and returned a moment later with the information that the delinquent would be on view within the next half-hour. He came cheerfully enough, smilingly hailing the aged butler and apparently oblivious of the fact that Benjamin's late wife's sister and ruler of the household had deliberately turned her back upon him. He knew that Angela was in the house somewhere, but deemed it policy not to ask after her—at any rate for the moment. He strode across the hall into the sacred domain where Benjamin Openshaw composed those majestic speeches of his, and stood in the Presence entirely unabashed.
"I suppose you know why I sent for you," Openshaw asked.
"Oh, Lord—yes," Gus said cheerfully. "About that little stunt of mine. Upon my word, I am sorry. But, after all do you think that it really matters?"
Openshaw fairly gasped.
"Matters!" he echoed. "Do you know sir, that my whole political career is at stake—to say nothing of that of your unfortunate cousin? I have been made a laughing stock of, sir! And as the head of the family I have been held up to ridicule. Do you know that 'Punch' has had something to say about it?"
"By Jove!—that is something like fame!" the recalcitrant Gus said cheerfully. "But why blame me?"
"Why blame you? Why blame you? You did it on purpose, sir—deliberately to injure your cousin."
"Here, steady on!" Gus said. "I didn't put that paragraph in the 'Morning. Herald.' I had to tell the police who I was, and they naturally jumped to the conclusion that I was your son. Of course, I know you don't care for these jokes, and in any case—"
"Joke, sir! Do you call it a joke? Some idiotic wager, I presume. The sort of amazing folly that you inconsequent idiots are always indulging in. It may be too late to save the family name, but at any rate, I can only try. You, sir, will have to make an abject apology. I order you immediately to write to that confounded paper, whose politics, by the way, are diametrically opposite to mine, and eat dust, sir!—eat dirt!"
"Well, I think that is only fair," Gus said coolly. "I'll make as abject an apology, as you like. Fact is, I came prepared to do so. So if you will sling me over a pen and some paper—"
Openshaw placed the desired material in front of his sinful relative, and Gus proceeded to write. If Mr. Openshaw had been less concerned with his own dignity and had been a little more observant than he was, he would have seen that Gus, who couldn't write three consecutive lines of prose to save his life, was getting on with amazing rapidity. He paused once in the flow of his splendid composition as if carefully polishing a period. As a matter of fact, Gus was what he would have called bunkered over his orthography, having been badly tripped by the word 'apology.' He finally decided to spell it with an 'o,' and proceeded cheerfully on his florid way. Then, with a certain air of triumph, he tossed the sheet across the table.
"There, what price that?" he asked.
It was a humble enough apologia, as even the outraged statesman was fain to admit. It was quite sufficient that it would restore him in the eyes of his fellow-men, and place the other Gus back upon his pedestal of stolid British respectability.
"Um!—very good!" the other man said. "Now, if you will sign that, I will see that it is duly posted. But I am not appeased yet, sir, I am not appeased yet. You will be good enough to abstain from coming here in future, and you and Miss Gilliland—"
Gus looked up suddenly with a fighting light in his eyes. He might have been confronted with a long putt on the last green for the match and the championship. His Irish hair gleamed in the sunshine filtering through the window, and his mouth grey hard.
"Oh, indeed," he said. "I see what you are driving at. But, look here, there are conditions. If I like to make a wager to walk to Land's End on my hands, it is nothing to do with you. And if newspapers like to make mistakes in people's identity, then it is no concern of mine. Now listen, uncle, I have known Angela all my life, and I have been dead keen on her ever since she was a kid with pigtails. And I am going to marry her. I am going to marry her with your consent or not. I know you can hold her money over for the next four years, but we can manage on my thousand quid per annum. Take a cottage near some decent golf links, and do with one servant. We have talked it over."
"Oh, you have, have you? And perhaps you have considered the consequences."
"Consequences. What consequences?"
"Well—er—let us say offspring," Openshaw suggested.
"Topping," Gus said delightedly. "By Gad, I never thought of that. A couple of natting youngsters would suit me down to the ground. I shouldn't mind a bit; bathing and feeding the little beggars. Awfully fond of kiddies, always was. And Angela, why, she'd be fairly potty about them. Now then."
"You mean to threaten me, sir," Openshaw demanded.
"Well, not quite that. But dash it, it's a poor rule that doesn't work both ways. You have got my apology there, and I am quite prepared to sign it and send it on to the editor of the 'Morning Herald.' There. Stick a stamp on it and get one of your servants to post it at once."
Openshaw looked a little less majestic.
"I am glad to see, sir," he said, "that you have some respect for the honour of the house. Why you came near, very near indeed, perhaps to depriving a country of a future Premier, at any rate, a Cabinet Minister. Still," he went on loftily, "I accept your apology in the spirit in which it has been offered, and I trust that time will heal the wound. I have nothing more to say, nothing. You can go, Augustus, you can go."
The fighting light crept back into Gus's eyes. Sooth to say, he had come there a bit ashamed of himself with the consciousness that he had not been quite playing the game. The whole thing had been a piece of inconsequent folly, and he was feeling rather ashamed of it. But, dash it all, if the head of the family was going to ride off like that, he would have something to say.
"Look here," he expostulated. "Why should I take all the blame? It isn't my fault that there are two Gus Openshaws, and it isn't my fault because my cousin is such a mutt. And now perhaps we can exchange documents. Here is a bit of paper in my pocket which I think you might sign."
He handed it over, and the potential future Premier began to read. His cheeks swelled up like those of an angry turkey cock.
"Colossal impudence," he cried. "You are actually asking me in writing to give my consent to an alliance with my ward! Because that is what this means. Miserable boy."
"Not at all, sir, not at all," Gus said. "It is only a little interchange of compliments. However, being a sportsman, I waive it. The apology can go, and you can tear up the paper which you have in your hand. I heard you say once, years ago, that in your early day you had some ambition of being a sportsman yourself. I begin to see now where you have been a failure."
The great man stood there with the sheet of notepaper in his hand. He looked into that pleasant, rugged, attractive face of his nephew's with a vague regret that his own son was not a little more like this young man who stood before him. He was bound to admit that Gus was behaving rather handsomely. He was actually abasing himself for the good of the family, and if he had refused to put his name to that apology, then Mr. Benjamin Openshaw would have been an everlasting object of ridicule, and the great man knew only too well what that meant in the world of politics. But there was his brother's son actually throwing away his sword and depriving himself of what might have been a deadly weapon.
And a sort of sudden liking for Gus seemed to spring spontaneously in that ponderous bosom of his. Something inside him was heaving like the ice on a river before the west wind. He was conscious that the crust of years was cracking, and here and there were dim memories of the time when he was a boy himself. He had also been at the best public school in England. He was recollecting now how he had dreamt of the day when he, too, might have been amongst the Bloods—a member of the Olympian band that constituted the first cricket XI, and perhaps the proud wearer of a footer cap. He had dreams of the day when he would do the hundred yards in even time... then he woke up.
He looked across the table with the nearest thing to a smile on his face that man had ever seen.
"My dear boy," he said, with a ponderous clearing of his throat. "You are behaving very well, indeed. An honourable course I should have expected from my brother's son. And—er—yes—um—I think, perhaps, on the whole, it would be better for me not to stand in your way, and I—er—rather think that you will find Angela alone in the drawing-room."
Gus took the stairs three at a time.