There was a sound of revelry by night, and"—and Marlshire's chivalry had gathered at Hilsdon Place for much the same purpose as Belgium's chivalry had come together on a more historic occasion. In other words. Sir Geoffrey Hilsdon was giving a dance, and a good many of the officers of the Blue, or attacking, force were present. The country round had been chosen as a mimic battleground, and a great engagement might be expected at any moment. Therefore Madge Hilsdon had seized the opportunity of emulating her Grace of Richmond on the eve of Waterloo.
The dance was in full swing now, and the guests were visibly enjoying themselves. The fine old rooms were looking their best, the famous conservatories had been ransacked, and the floral decorations were in their way a triumph. It wanted an hour to supper-time, a waltz had just finished, and Madge Hilsdon was enjoying the luxury of a whole five minutes to herself. It was a warm evening in September, clear and fine overhead, and most of the windows had been left open for the sake of the grateful breeze. Madge slid across the refectory, where the dancing was in progress, and strolled into the cloister beyond. Here was a grand old quadrangle with a fountain in the centre—a veritable haven of rest in the languid summer days.
It was blissfully quiet there, and Madge was in the mood to go a little further. As she turned to the right, a figure emerged suddenly out of the shadows and grasped her by the arm. She had a fleeting glance of a dilapidated nomad clad in greasy cords, a dim outline of a mahogany-coloured face surrounded by a mass of ragged black beard and whisker. Before Madge could cry out, a hand was clapped to her lips, and she was lifted from her feet as though she had been no more than a feather.
"Don't make a noise!" the assailant whispered. "If you are quiet, you will be perfectly safe in my hands."
The hand was taken from Madge's lips, and she was set gently on her feet again. She was too indignant to be frightened, too absolutely enraged to be conscious of any other emotion.
"How—how dare you?" she panted.
"Well, it was a bit thick, wasn't it?" the miscreant remarked. "If you had only seen yourself standing in the cloister, looking like a ravishing angel in pink chiffon—"
"Jim," Madge cried—"I mean Mr. Sutton, this is a distinct outrage! You have dared to presume upon our—our—"
"Engagement," Lieutenant Jim Sutton said coolly. "You might just as well say it. Oh, Madge, if you only knew—"
"I'll not hear another word," Miss Hilsdon said icily. "I am returning to the house at once. And if my brother Tom imagines that your sister Connie is any less determined than I am, he will find himself bitterly mistaken."
"I can explain," Sutton said eagerly.
"There can be no explanation, Lieutenant Sutton. Gentlemen don't break appointments with ladies, and take chorus girls on the river instead. And, besides, gentlemen would not be hanging about a house at this time of night in a—a beastly disguise like yours. We were under the impression that you were both with your regiment. I suppose this is some mad escapade on Tom's part."
"He was always worse than me," Sutton said magnanimously. "Look here, Madge, I can put that river business right in a minute, if you will only listen. You see, poor old Billy Lushington got engaged to one of them, and he was in a pretty considerable funk about it, so Tom and myself thought—"
Madge stamped her little satin-shod foot impatiently.
"I decline to discuss it," she said. "What are you doing here like a tramp? You might be some vulgar poacher."
"Oh, I am!" Sutton said cheerfully. "As they say in the melodramas, my lips are sealed. Now, you might do me a little favour, Madge. It may be the last that I ever ask at your hands. With all my faults, I am not lost to all sense of feeling."
Madge's blue eyes softened ever so slightly.
"You don't deserve it," she murmured, "but if—"
"That's right," Sutton said encouragingly. "Now, does Captain Algy Traske happen to be shaking the light fantastic toe with you to-night? If so, I would have speech with him."
Madge repressed an impulse to laugh. Not that she felt in the least mirthful. This man was incorrigible. It seemed impossible to believe that she had ever loved him, that she had suffered his caresses. And that day in Dovedale, under the shade of the trees, with the stream at their feet—
"I must get back to the house," she said coldly. "I will speak to Captain Traske, and tell him you are here, though why you should have assumed this loathsome disguise—"
"Pearl of the Andes, you will do nothing of the kind," Sutton said hurriedly. "By the love you once bore me, I implore you to be discreet. The fate of a nation may hang upon your silence. Tell Traske nothing. So long as you get him outside, I shall be satisfied. The mere fact that he is my hated rival does not mean that his life is in danger. Not so much as a hair of his precious eye-glass shall be injured. Is it a bet?"
"I detest the man," Madge whispered.
Sutton held out his hands to her. She turned and fled. She stood just inside the ballroom, panting and quivering from head to foot. There was a beautiful tinge of wild rose in her cheeks, her eyes gleamed like the reflection of stars in a forest pool. She posed there, such a vision of dainty beauty, that for two whole minutes Captain Algernon Traske was actually thinking about something besides himself. He came across the room, prim and immaculate, not one line or hair a fraction of an inch out of place. He always reminded Madge of a starched doll. Some inanity in the way of a compliment was on his lips.
"This is our dance, I think," he said. "I ought not to be here at all, don't you know. I've got pressing business on for the general commanding at Farnborough, but, when I received your invitation, I really couldn't refuse. Must be off in an hour, all the same. A sort of Adam turned out of Paradise—what?"
"Then come and get it over," Madge said unkindly.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Jim Sutton had made his way through the shrubbery in the direction of the big wood, where a gipsy caravan was standing. Here was no pampered home of peripatetic luxury, but the genuine thing as seen where the children of Bohemia mostly do congregate. The caravan was exactly as it had been taken over from its previous owners, save that it had been cleansed and sweetened, and the bedding freshly obtained from Tottenham Court Road. Inside the caravan a second swarthy ruffian was lounging, with a clay pipe between a set of beautifully even white teeth.
"What ho, my noble redskin!" he said, as Sutton entered. "How progresses the campaign? You have been so confoundedly long that I began to think that you had fallen into the hands of the treacherous foe. The point is, have you done any good?"
"I don't think," Sutton laughed. "I've seen Madge, my boy. Regularly abducted her, Tom. She was pretty haughty, and all that, but on the whole charming. Would not hear a word about Billy Lushington, all the same."
"Oh, confound Billy Lushington!" Captain Tom Hilsdon said impatiently. "We'll put that matter right when we've got time. Did you say anything about Traske?"
Sutton's eyes glowed, but that might have been due to the reflection of the match as he lighted his pipe.
"She hates him, my boy," he said rapturously.
"Now, what have I done," Hilsdon asked piously, "to be tied up in an important mission with an idiot like this?"
"Oh, all right, old chap—don't be ratty! You'd feel just the same as I do if you had a rival hanging about my sister Connie. You can take it easy, knowing that you can go in and win when Connie simmers down, as she's sure to before long. So far as Traske is concerned, I regard him as a danger."
"What—a sister of mine marry that?" Hilsdon cried. "But go on. Did you do any good at all?"
"I did. You've only got to wait, and the immaculate Traske is our very own. Heaven only knows what Madge took me for!"
"Does she know I'm in it, too?"
"Of course she guessed it. Was there ever a gorgeous spree going that we weren't both in? I believe Madge is under the firm impression that this is a poaching affray. Now, come along and let's hide somewhere near the house till the time for action arrives."
Hilsdon carefully closed the door of the caravan, and a moment or two later the adventurers were hidden in the shrubbery, from whence they could command a view of the cloisters. Presently there emerged the slim, dandy form of Captain Traske, accompanied by a radiance in pink chiffon. Traske was bending over his companion, who seemed to turn away from him with shy bashfulness.
"What are your teeth chattering for?" Hilsdon asked.
"They ain't chattering," Sutton said curtly. "I'm gritting 'em. By Jove, Madge has gone back and left that last rose of summer all blooming alone! He evidently thinks she's going to return. Now, then, it's a case of 'Up, Guards, and at 'em!'"
A pair of arms were wound kindly but firmly round Traske's shoulders, and a gag was thrust in his mouth. Without a word being uttered, he was carried to the caravan and there deposited on the floor. He protested loudly, but his threats apparently had no effect upon the miscreants who had dared to inflict this indignity upon him. That he had not the slightest notion of their identity did not in the least detract from the humour of the situation.
"He's beginning to sit up and take notice," Hilsdon grinned. "Traske, my son, you are the victim of a woman's perfidy. You are not the first brave soldier who, for the sake of a pair of blue eyes, has—well, made an ass of himself, so to speak. Product of an effete civilisation, do you realise that you have fallen into the hands of the foe?"
"Oh, speak in a language the child can understand!" Sutton said. "Algy, dear old son, we want that from you which is dearer than your life, even dearer than your eye-glass. Will you kindly cough up those dispatches which you are taking to the general at Farnborough."
"A joke, isn't it—what?" Traske asked feebly.
"On the part of your general—yes," Sutton grinned. "To pick you out the bearer of dispatches was a stroke of absolute genius. That prince of detectives, Lupin himself, would never have dreamt that you could have been chosen as the bearer of important messages. But you talk, dear boy, and our spies in your camp conveyed the news to us. Did you but know it, we are here officially with the full connivance of our illustrious chief. Like Autolycus, we are snappers-up of unconsidered trifles. In this guise we are going through your lines, gathering honey on the way. For the next day or two, at any rate, you are our prisoner. No clean collars, my boy, no purple and fine linen, not even a bath unless you like to take it in a brook. Will you kindly oblige with those dispatches?"
"I—I haven't got them on me," Traske stammered.
"Always obstinate, even as a child," Sutton said sadly, "and greedy, too. I am very much afraid that we shall have to resort to one of the fine old Eton methods of extracting information."
"I swear I haven't got them," Traske protested. "I only came to the dance for an hour. I arrived at Hilsdon Place in my uniform, and Sir Geoffrey was good enough to let me change there. The dispatches are written in cipher, and are concealed in the lining of a cigarette case. If you will let me go—"
"Not once," Hilsdon said firmly. "Tell me which bedroom you are occupying, and that will be good enough for me. No, you need not go into details. Seeing that I was born in the house, I shall be able to find the room easily enough."
Very reluctantly Traske gave the desired information. He protested loudly against the indignation of fetters on his feet and being tied up so carefully that it was barely possible to smoke a cigarette in comfort. The two adventurers left him there, and made their way back to the cloisters.
"We shall be sure to see Madge presently," Hilsdon said. "She can't help being curious as to what is going on. And it's any money that she tells Connie."
Hilsdon's prophecy was fulfilled to the letter, for a few minutes later two slim, graceful figures flitted like butterflies along the cloisters.
"Well, you girls," Hilsdon accosted them cheerfully, "and what mischief might you be up to?"
"We're not punting on the Thames," Connie Sutton said severely, "and we're not poachers, either."
"Now, that's very unkind," Hilsdon said plaintively. "This is all the thanks we get when we tear ourselves away from the society of these cruel girls in the hour of our country's need. We are not poachers—we are officers in disguise. If we are arrested, we shall be shot as spies. To make the matter plain, we are after some dispatches which Traske is conveying to the officer in command at Farnborough. We are supposed to be gipsies, and if you've got five minutes to spare, we will show you the jolliest little caravan—"
"Keep to the point," Sutton said sternly.
"The fact is, we've got Traske a prisoner, and he has confessed to possessing the dispatches, which are in his cigarette case in his bedroom. If one of you girls will only nip along and get it."
"I'd love to see that caravan," Connie said rapturously.
"Darling, you shall," Hilsdon said with equal fervour. "If Madge will cut in and get that cigarette case, you shall come down there now. We can easily put Traske to bed for an hour or two in the bracken. But we must have those papers first. Now, Madge, do be a sportsman for once."
Madge laughed, a spirit of mischief dancing in her eyes. She turned and disappeared like a shadow down the cloisters, only to return five minutes later with something dainty in the way of a cigarette case in her hand.
"There!" she said breathlessly. "But I thought you two people were alone in this business?"
"So we are," Sutton explained. "Why?"
"Oh, only because there are two other men in the house dressed very much as you are. They had the audacity to make their way into the corridor upstairs. I caught a glimpse of one of them turning into one of the rooms. It seems to me, Tom, that your intelligence department has taken the precaution of having two strings to its bow. I suppose anything is justifiable in war-time, but I thought it rather cool on the part of those men to enter the house and go upstairs. I suppose they are aware of the fact that every servant in the house is fully occupied with what is going on on the ground floor."
Hilsdon looked at Sutton and whistled softly.
"You may bet they were," he said drily. "Now, you girls, get back in the house, or you will be missed."
"What about the caravan?" Madge protested.
"Come back here in half an hour," Hilsdon went on. "Now, go back, or you will spoil everything. Ah, that's better! This is going to be a great night, old man. You tumble, don't you?"
"I tumble," Sutton said briefly. "But what's the next move? It will never do for us to disclose our identity, especially considering the fact that the house is fairly bulging with Johnnies attached to the battalions of the foe. And if, on the other hand, we do nothing—"
"Oh, come along!" Hilsdon said impatiently. "I know exactly how those chaps got in, and, therefore, it stands to reason that I know how they will come out. They must have been pretty sure of their ground for both of them to enter the house. We will go round to the side entrance. Ah, this is just as I thought!"
Hilsdon stooped and called Sutton's attention to a strand of wire running between two pegs on the grass. The entanglements were carefully skirted, and the spies came presently to a side entrance over which was a balcony facing a large casement window. By the side of the porch a short ladder was standing.
"Up you go," Hilsdon whispered. "We'll wait for our friends here. I don't suppose they will be very much longer. You stand on one side of the window, and I'll stand on the other; and when the first artist comes out on your side, drop him without the slightest hesitation. They won't have much plate on them, because most of that will be in use downstairs. But I've no doubt these chaps have laid their hands upon a tidy amount of jewellery, seeing what a crowd of women there are staying in the house."
They were quite ready, not to say eager, for the fray, but the waiting was weary work, and they were both getting a little jumpy when a long shadow crossed the window. There was a pause for a moment, and then a burly figure emerged as silent and noiseless as a shadow. His pockets appeared to be bulging, a small sack was slung over his shoulder. He gave a grunt of relief as he turned his face to the open. A second later a smashing blow on the jaw laid him out puffing and blowing on the balcony. The second man, hearing the fall, doubled on his tracks and raced along the corridor. But physical culture is not an art in high favour with the predatory class, and a neat trip brought him headlong to the ground. He found himself dragged along backwards until the balcony was reached, and the window closed carefully behind him.
"How are you getting on, Jim?" Hilsdon panted.
"Oh, I'm sitting on his head," Sutton responded cheerfully. "Most obstinate beggar he is. I had to jolt him considerably before he consented to part with his revolver. It's any odds your bird's got one, too. You'd better argue the matter with him."
Hilsdon promptly turned his man over and rubbed his face on the cold, unsympathetic lead casing of the balcony.
"Hand it over," he said between his teeth. "If you don't, I'll spoil those pretty features for you."
The burglar wriggled an unsteady hand behind him and contrived to extract an ugly-looking Colt from his hip-pocket.
"So far, so good," Hilsdon said. "You go down the ladder first, Jim, and these chaps will follow you. I'll bring up the rear, and we'll take them as far as the caravan. We can search them quietly there. Now, drop that cursing, my man. If you only knew it, you are two of the luckiest rascals in England."
"I'm afraid they are," Sutton muttered mournfully. "We are bound to let the brutes go when we've done with them. We can't appear in the matter without disclosing our identity. Now, then, squad, by the left, march!"
The caravan was somewhat crowded a little later. Traske viewed the new-comers through his eyeglass with a kind of mild, resigned astonishment. His own abject misery and utter melancholy won a smile even from the burglars.
"D'yer mean to say, guv'nor," one of them asked, "as wot' e's another of us? D'yer know 'im, George?"
George shook his head gloomily. He was engaged in the horribly uncongenial task of emptying his pockets. With a heartfelt sigh, George's companion in misfortune was doing the same. It was a fine, glittering heap of stuff that presently littered the caravan floor. Sir Geoffrey's male guests had not been selfishly forgotten, for the heap contained watches and pins and sovereign purses, to say nothing of a little heap of cigarette cases. As one of these, a platinum and gold affair set in diamonds, was produced, a queer sort of a cry broke from Traske's lips. It was only for a moment, then he became wooden again, but, all the same, his passing agitation had not escaped Sutton's notice. He laughed drily.
"So that's the lot," Hilsdon said. "And now you two artists can go as soon as you like."
A fine perspiration bespangled George's brow.
"You're joking, guv'nor," he said hoarsely.
"Oh, no, I'm not," Hilsdon went on. "Make the most of your luck when you get the opportunity. There's the door, unless you prefer the more congenial exit of the window."
The space recently occupied by George and his companion resolved itself into thin air. Sutton bent over the glittering heap of gems, and picked up the resplendent cigarette case.
"Those chaps have done us a fine service," he said.
"In what way?" Hilsdon asked.
"Why, don't you see, Mad—I mean your messenger—brought you the wrong cigarette case. Dear old Algy here is just the sort of Johnny to carry two. And didn't you notice how he cried out when George produced that Solomon-in-all-his-glory box? George and Co. are evidently much better finders of valuables than we are. Now, come, Algy, aren't I right? If you don't agree, we can easily cut the cigarette box open."
"Don't do that!" Traske groaned. "I hate to see beautiful things spoilt. I'd much rather show you how to open the case."
"Good boy!" Hilsdon said approvingly. "What an ingenious arrangement! And now, Algy, we are going to look after your health a bit. It is absolutely necessary that you should have a little fresh air before going to sleep, so we are going to deposit you outside for half an hour on a comfortable bed of bracken. At the end of three days we shan't want you any more, and then we can return you to headquarters as an empty."
Traske made no protest—he recognised the futility of it. A little while later, and there were two other figures in the caravan. They were slender, beautiful ethereal figures in frothy lace and diaphanous draperies—they had pink in their cheeks and a tender gleam in their blue eyes.
"And that's the story," Hilsdon concluded lamely.
"Oh, it was wonderful, wonderful!" Connie exclaimed. "You are the two cleverest boys in the world!"
"I'm glad you didn't leave me out," Sutton said.
"Just as if anybody could!" Madge cried indignantly. "Oh, I should like to have seen Captain Traske's face when you brought him here! I suppose you couldn't fetch him?"
"Oh, that would be downright cruel," Sutton said. "But then girls are cruel—no sense of justice at all. You've only got to go out of your way to help another man, and they are sure to think that you are doing their sex an injustice. Now, take—"
Madge impulsively threw her arms about his neck.
"Will you ever forgive me?" she murmured.
"Connie," Hilsdon whispered, "don't you think we're in the way here? Shall I see you back to the house?"
"I think you had better, dear," Connie said demurely.