THE members of the Royal Crossboro' Golf Club were suffering from a periodical lack of incidents. For instance, nobody had done any holes "in one" lately, the merits and demerits of the "Haskell"* et hoc had been thoroughly thrashed out, so that the select smoking-room company were actually forced back upon quite mundane matters. The afternoon was too wet and windy even for golf, and the half-dozen members round the fire had finished the usual after-lunch abuse of the Green Committee.
"Nor'-west gale for the last week," growled one. "I suppose that's why we are kept on the back tee at the eighteenth hole. Old Seddon to blame, of course."
"Of course," said another of the smokers. "It means that every ball that's fairly well played falls in the Mole brook, and consequently is carried past Seddon's house and into his private grounds, where he collects them all. He hasn't bought a new ball for years."
One of the fathers of the club, smoking gravely in his favourite armchair, smiled meaningly. There was a deadly feud between Mr. Chorsley aforesaid and the wily Seddon, whose residence was quite close to the home green.
"I've stopped that," Chorsley said. "I had a wire grating fixed across the brook just as it passed through the hedge into Seddon's grounds. No more annexed Haskell's now. Did I ever tell you how Seddon served me the last time we played together in the Spring?"
The assembled company shuffled uneasily. They had all heard the story times out of number, how Seddon had played with his opponent's ball, and declared it to be his own. But then Mr. Chorsley was a real good fellow, and widely hospitable to boot, and the old old story was endured in silence. And Seddon was no favourite in the club.
"It's a strange thing," another member said, thoughtfully. "For the last month Frank Bruce has never made one decent drive over the Mole brook at the last hole. He is playing a better game than he has ever played in his life, and yet every time he comes to the last tee he slices his drive over the boundary into the brook, as it passes into Seddon's property."
"And never misses when he drops another ball down for a second drive," added another member.
"One way of getting round old Seddon," a further member remarked. "It's love for Mary Seddon, the old boy's niece, that upsets Bruce's nerve at the last hole. When he is in sight of the house he is thinking of the unattainable and other things."
"Is that really a fact?" Chorsley asked eagerly.
"Absolutely," the last speaker replied. "And whatever may be the faults of old Seddon, his niece Mary is really a nice girl. She'll have a fair amount of money, too, not that Bruce calculates on that. But Seddon's got a sorry nephew who comes down from the City now and again, and he's trying to force the little girl to marry him."
"Why doesn't Bruce take matters in his own hands?" Chorsley growled.
"Well, he can't quite do that. His prospects are good, and he is a really smart fellow, but as yet his income is small. Seddon has put his foot down. There is to be no more intercourse, nothing till Frank can show a clear income of £500 a year. When that comes Seddon magnanimously offers to withdraw all opposition. So it's long odds on the nephew."
Chorsley nodded thoughtfully. He was an easy going kind-hearted old gentleman, but he had a pretty temper of his own, and he hated Seddon heartily. He would have gone a long way to thwart the miserly man who laid traps for golf balls. His eyes twinkled as he looked into the fire. He began to see his way. He was not yet retired from the stockbroking firm from whence he derived a large portion of his big income.
"You'll see Bruce when he comes down to-night, Partridge," he said. "I wish you'd make up a match with him for me on Saturday, if he has nothing else on. Then you can both come afterwards and have dinner with me."
Partridge promised to arrange the matter if possible, and evidently meant it. Chorsley's little dinners were by no means to be despised. And though Frank Bruce was an infinitely better player than his elderly opponent, and though he was consumed by what looked like a hopeless passion for Mary Seddon, he fixed up the match without the slightest hesitation.
They came along well enough till the last teeing ground was reached. It was an interesting match, for at this point the rivals were all square. Everything depended upon the last hole. Below the tee was a broken sloping ground ending into the tiny but swiftly running Mole brook. Beyond was the fair green course and the red flag fluttering in the distance.
"My honour," said Bruce, as he seemed to be selecting a ball with unusual care. "My drive first. I must try and not miss this one. Latterly I can't manage this hole at all,"
He made his tee carefully, and placed a perfectly white new ball upon it. Mr. Chorsley made as if to get out of the way, and in doing so kicked the ball off the tee, so that it rolled into some heather. With a muttered apology, he replaced the dismantled ball.
"Now go on," he said. "Give me a good lead."
Bruce swung very slowly up, then his driver came down with a smashing force. Away went the ball, not straight across the course, but sliced away to the right well over the boundary fence and down till it hopped into the Mole brook in Seddon's grounds.
"Funny thing, isn't it?" Bruce said without the slightest emotion.
"Very," Chorsley said gravely. "But you'll do better next drive. Of course, you can tee up another ball and play three strokes. Go ahead."
Chorsley got a good drive, and Bruce a beautifully long raking shot. But the handicap was too strong, and he lost the hole by a stroke. He bore his defeat with singular philosophy.
"No use getting out of temper," he said.
"Not a bit," Chorsley chuckled. "See you later on at dinner time. Partridge has to leave early, but don't you hurry. I have a word or two for your private ear afterwards."
A LONG bubbling glass stood at Frank Bruce's elbow, and a long cigar between his teeth. The smoking-room was comfortably and not too brilliantly lighted; the glowing fire invited confidence.
Partridge had departed, and Bruce and his host were alone together. For a long time the former stared thoughtfully into the fire.
"Why don't you make up your mind to marry her in spite of him?" Chorsley asked.
"It wouldn't be fair," Bryce said, in the most natural manner, and as if there had been a long conversation on the subject nearest his heart. "I couldn't afford it yet, and, confound it, Mr. Chorsley, how could you possibly guess what I was thinking about?"
"So what the fellows at the club house say is perfectly true," Chorsley went on coolly. "Old Seddon plays the magnanimous, and what he'll do when you can show a clear £500 a year. Meanwhile, there is a rival in the path."
"Yes, confound him!" Bruce growled.
"Who has the ears of the wicked uncle. This wicked uncle watches the niece so carefully that she can't get a line out of the house, and you can't get a line into it. And yet you can put her on her guard when the rival is coming down, and if you want an interview when you come down here on Saturdays you know how to arrange it, don't you?"
Bruce looked up anxiously, and Chorsley smiled.
"Oh, I'm not going to give you away," he said. "It's one of the smartest tricks I've ever come across, and that is saying a good deal. A young fellow who can invent a dodge like that is certain to get on in the world, and I can give him a good start. Here is a golf ball. It is the one that you first put upon the last tee this morning. When I kicked it off the tee I replaced it with another. I know your secret, young man, and I congratulate you. Go up to the last tee in the morning, and drive that ball off in the way it should be driven, and when you see Miss Seddon at night ask for an interview with her uncle. Tell him you have your £500 a year all right, and, if he is incredulous, give him this letter. Now finish up your cigar, and be off."
* * * * *
At a quarter past nine the following night Frank Bruce was sitting in a secluded part of Mr. Seddon's grounds, and he was not alone. A pretty girl with dark eyes was by his side, and his arm was about her waist.
"I expected your message last night," Mary said.
"Well, I thought I had sent it," Bruce replied. "Mary, our little scheme has been found out. Mr. Chorsley took the marked ball, and substituted another for it."
"And I saw you drive off, and when I picked the ball up it was quite clean," Mary said, "But surely Mr. Chorsley would never have been so ill-natured--"
"Old Chorsley is a brick. And between ourselves, he would give a great deal to put a spoke in your uncle's wheel. On the whole we shall have no occasion to regret--"
An acid voice breaking in on the lovers' sweet converse thought otherwise. The tall, thin man demanded to know why he had been deceived like this, to which Bruce coolly responded that there had been no deception whatever. There was a stipulation as to an income of £500 a year--
"Which remains to be fulfilled," Seddon said, coldly.
"Perhaps when you read this letter you will think otherwise," Bruce said. "It is intended for you."
Seddon tore open the envelope contemptuously. His face changed as he read, and he bit his lip.
"I suppose you are aware of the contents of this letter," he said with an effort. "But, of course you are. In it Mr. Chorsley informs me that he is going out of the firm of Chorsley and Martin, and that the present manager comes in. Therefore you are offered the managership, with good prospects at a salary of £600 a year."
Bruce nodded coolly. But he was absolutely taken by surprise. All the same his enemy was utterly routed. He dropped the letter on the grass, and walked away with his hands behind him. Mary bent over her lover, and kissed him with delighted tears in her eyes.
"Do explain, Frank," she said, rapturously. "Do tell me how it happened."
"When I've seen Chorsley," Bruce muttered, "but not before, because I'm hanged if I know."
"Easiest thing in the world," Chorsley said, as he waved his cigar in front of him. "Why did you always slice it in the same direction? Why did you always get your ball off so clean? Because you were doing it on purpose. Again why? Because the object of your affection was near at hand. You wanted to signal to her. Then it occurred to me that if you wrote a message in blue pencil on a new golf ball, it wouldn't come out for some time. You do so, and you drive that ball into the brook, and Miss Seddon finds it. I got hold of a ball of yours, and I read the message making an appointment. By Jove, a splendid dodge--never heard of better. And so that's the way you managed your love affairs, eh. Well, If you can do so well with one thing you may do well with another, and that's why I gave you the chance of filling the new opening in our office. No, you need not thank me, I shall have a good servant, and I get even with Seddon at the same time. But there will be two things that I prophesy."
"And what are those?" Bruce asked.
"That you will miss no more drives on the last tee," Chorsley chuckled, "and that you will not be so prodigal with your 'rubbers' in the future."