I don’t want to bore you, don’t you know, and all that sort of rot, but I must tell you about dear old Freddie Meadowes. I’m not a flier at literary style, and all that, but I’ll get some writer chappie to give the thing a wash and brush up when I’ve finished, so that’ll be all right.
Dear old Freddie, don’t you know, has been a dear old pal of mine for years and years; so when I went into the club one morning and found him sitting alone in a dark corner, staring glassily at nothing, and generally looking like the last rose of summer, you can understand I was quite disturbed about it. As a rule, the old rotter is the life and soul of our set. Quite the little lump of fun, and all that sort of thing.
Jimmy Pinkerton was with me at the time. Jimmy’s a fellow who writes plays—a deuced brainy sort of fellow—and between us we set to work to question the poor pop-eyed chappie, until finally we got at what the matter was.
As we might have guessed, it was a girl. He had had a quarrel with Angela West, the girl he was engaged to, and she had broken off the engagement. What the row had been about he didn’t say, but apparently she was pretty well fed up. She wouldn’t let him come near her, refused to talk on the phone, and sent back his letters unopened.
I was sorry for poor old Freddie. I knew what it felt like. I was once in love myself with a girl called Elizabeth Shoolbred, and the fact that she couldn’t stand me at any price will be recorded in my autobiography. I knew the thing for Freddie.
“Change of scene is what you want, old scout,” I said. “Come with me to Marvis Bay. I’ve taken a cottage there. Jimmy’s coming down on the twenty-fourth. We’ll be a cosy party.”
“He’s absolutely right,” said Jimmy. “Change of scene’s the thing. I knew a man. Girl refused him. Man went abroad. Two months later girl wired him, ‘Come back. Muriel.’ Man started to write out a reply; suddenly found that he couldn’t remember girl’s surname; so never answered at all.”
But Freddie wouldn’t be comforted. He just went on looking as if he had swallowed his last sixpence. However, I got him to promise to come to Marvis Bay with me. He said he might as well be there as anywhere.
Do you know Marvis Bay? It’s in Dorsetshire. It isn’t what you’d call a fiercely exciting spot, but it has its good points. You spend the day there bathing and sitting on the sands, and in the evening you stroll out on the shore with the gnats. At nine o’clock you rub ointment on the wounds and go to bed.
It seemed to suit poor old Freddie. Once the moon was up and the breeze sighing in the trees, you couldn’t drag him from that beach with a rope. He became quite a popular pet with the gnats. They’d hang round waiting for him to come out, and would give perfectly good strollers the miss-in-baulk just so as to be in good condition for him.
Yes, it was a peaceful sort of life, but by the end of the first week I began to wish that Jimmy Pinkerton had arranged to come down earlier: for as a companion Freddie, poor old chap, wasn’t anything to write home to mother about. When he wasn’t chewing a pipe and scowling at the carpet, he was sitting at the piano, playing “The Rosary” with one finger. He couldn’t play anything except “The Rosary,” and he couldn’t play much of that. Somewhere round about the third bar a fuse would blow out, and he’d have to start all over again.
He was playing it as usual one morning when I came in from bathing.
“Reggie,” he said, in a hollow voice, looking up, “I’ve seen her.”
“Seen her?” I said. “What, Miss West?”
“I was down at the post office, getting the letters, and we met in the doorway. She cut me!”
He started “The Rosary” again, and side-slipped in the second bar.
“Reggie,” he said, “you ought never to have brought me here. I must go away.”
“Go away?” I said. “Don’t talk such rot. This is the best thing that could have happened. This is where you come out strong.”
“She cut me.”
“Never mind. Be a sportsman. Have another dash at her.”
“She looked clean through me!”
“Of course she did. But don’t mind that. Put this thing in my hands. I’ll see you through. Now, what you want,” I said, “is to place her under some obligation to you. What you want is to get her timidly thanking you. What you want——”
“But what’s she going to thank me timidly for?”
I thought for a moment.
“Look out for a chance and save her from drowning,” I said.
“I can’t swim,” said Freddie.
That was Freddie all over, don’t you know. A dear old chap in a thousand ways, but no help to a fellow, if you know what I mean.
He cranked up the piano once more and I sprinted for the open.
I strolled out on to the sands and began to think this thing over. There was no doubt that the brain-work had got to be done by me. Dear old Freddie had his strong qualities. He was top-hole at polo, and in happier days I’ve heard him give an imitation of cats fighting in a backyard that would have surprised you. But apart from that he wasn’t a man of enterprise.
Well, don’t you know, I was rounding some rocks, with my brain whirring like a dynamo, when I caught sight of a blue dress, and, by Jove, it was the girl. I had never met her, but Freddie had sixteen photographs of her sprinkled round his bedroom, and I knew I couldn’t be mistaken. She was sitting on the sand, helping a small, fat child build a castle. On a chair close by was an elderly lady reading a novel. I heard the girl call her “aunt.” So, doing the Sherlock Holmes business, I deduced that the fat child was her cousin. It struck me that if Freddie had been there he would probably have tried to work up some sentiment about the kid on the strength of it. Personally I couldn’t manage it. I don’t think I ever saw a child who made me feel less sentimental. He was one of those round, bulging kids.
After he had finished the castle he seemed to get bored with life, and began to whimper. The girl took him off to where a fellow was selling sweets at a stall. And I walked on.
Now, fellows, if you ask them, will tell you that I’m a chump. Well, I don’t mind. I admit it. I am a chump. All the Peppers have been chumps. But what I do say is that every now and then, when you’d least expect it, I get a pretty hot brain-wave; and that’s what happened now. I doubt if the idea that came to me then would have occurred to a single one of any dozen of the brainiest chappies you care to name.
It came to me on my return journey. I was walking back along the shore, when I saw the fat kid meditatively smacking a jelly-fish with a spade. The girl wasn’t with him. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any one in sight. I was just going to pass on when I got the brain-wave. I thought the whole thing out in a flash, don’t you know. From what I had seen of the two, the girl was evidently fond of this kid, and, anyhow, he was her cousin, so what I said to myself was this: If I kidnap this young heavy-weight for the moment, and if, when the girl has got frightfully anxious about where he can have got to, dear old Freddie suddenly appears leading the infant by the hand and telling a story to the effect that he has found him wandering at large about the country and practically saved his life, why, the girl’s gratitude is bound to make her chuck hostilities and be friends again. So I gathered in the kid and made off with him. All the way home I pictured that scene of reconciliation. I could see it so vividly, don’t you know, that, by George, it gave me quite a choky feeling in my throat.
Freddie, dear old chap, was rather slow at getting on to the fine points of the idea. When I appeared, carrying the kid, and dumped him down in our sitting-room, he didn’t absolutely effervesce with joy, if you know what I mean. The kid had started to bellow by this time, and poor old Freddie seemed to find it rather trying.
“Stop it!” he said. “Do you think nobody’s got any troubles except you? What the deuce is all this, Reggie?”
The kid came back at him with a yell that made the window rattle. I raced to the kitchen and fetched a jar of honey. It was the right stuff. The kid stopped bellowing and began to smear his face with the stuff.
“Well?” said Freddie, when silence had set in. I explained the idea. After a while it began to strike him.
“You’re not such a fool as you look, sometimes, Reggie,” he said handsomely. “I’m bound to say this seems pretty good.”
And he disentangled the kid from the honey-jar and took him out, to scour the beach for Angela.
I don’t know when I’ve felt so happy. I was so fond of dear old Freddie that to know that he was soon going to be his old bright self again made me feel as if somebody had left me about a million pounds. I was leaning back in a chair on the veranda, smoking peacefully, when down the road I saw the old boy returning, and, by George, the kid was still with him. And Freddie looked as if he hadn’t a friend in the world.
“Hello!” I said. “Couldn’t you find her?”
“Yes, I found her,” he replied, with one of those bitter, hollow laughs.
Freddie sank into a chair and groaned.
“This isn’t her cousin, you idiot!” he said.
“He’s no relation at all. He’s just a kid she happened to meet on the beach. She had never seen him before in her life.”
“What! Who is he, then?”
“I don’t know. Oh, Lord, I’ve had a time! Thank goodness you’ll probably spend the next few years of your life in Dartmoor for kidnapping. That’s my only consolation. I’ll come and jeer at you through the bars.”
“Tell me all, old boy,” I said.
It took him a good long time to tell the story, for he broke off in the middle of nearly every sentence to call me names, but I gathered gradually what had happened. She had listened like an iceberg while he told the story he had prepared, and then—well, she didn’t actually call him a liar, but she gave him to understand in a general sort of way that if he and Dr. Cook ever happened to meet, and started swapping stories, it would be about the biggest duel on record. And then he had crawled away with the kid, licked to a splinter.
“And mind, this is your affair,” he concluded. “I’m not mixed up in it at all. If you want to escape your sentence, you’d better go and find the kid’s parents and return him before the police come for you.”
By Jove, you know, till I started to tramp the place with this infernal kid, I never had a notion it would have been so deuced difficult to restore a child to its anxious parents. It’s a mystery to me how kidnappers ever get caught. I searched Marvis Bay like a bloodhound, but nobody came forward to claim the infant. You’d have thought, from the lack of interest in him, that he was stopping there all by himself in a cottage of his own. It wasn’t till, by an inspiration, I thought to ask the sweet-stall man that I found out that his name was Medwin, and that his parents lived at a place called Ocean Rest, in Beach Road.
I shot off there like an arrow and knocked at the door. Nobody answered. I knocked again. I could hear movements inside, but nobody came. I was just going to get to work on that knocker in such a way that the idea would filter through into these people’s heads that I wasn’t standing there just for the fun of the thing, when a voice from somewhere above shouted, “Hi!”
I looked up and saw a round, pink face, with grey whiskers east and west of it, staring down from an upper window.
“Hi!” it shouted again.
“What the deuce do you mean by ‘Hi’?” I said.
“You can’t come in,” said the face. “Hello, is that Tootles?”
“My name is not Tootles, and I don’t want to come in,” I said. “Are you Mr. Medwin? I’ve brought back your son.”
“I see him. Peep-bo, Tootles! Dadda can see ‘oo!”
The face disappeared with a jerk. I could hear voices. The face reappeared.
I churned the gravel madly.
“Do you live here?” said the face.
“I’m staying here for a few weeks.”
“What’s your name?”
“Pepper? Any relation to Edward Pepper, the colliery owner?”
“My uncle. But——”
“I used to know him well. Dear old Edward Pepper! I wish I was with him now.”
“I wish you were,” I said.
He beamed down at me.
“This is most fortunate,” he said. “We were wondering what we were to do with Tootles. You see, we have the mumps here. My daughter Bootles has just developed mumps. Tootles must not be exposed to the risk of infection. We could not think what we were to do with him. It was most fortunate your finding him. He strayed from his nurse. I would hesitate to trust him to the care of a stranger, but you are different. Any nephew of Edward Pepper’s has my implicit confidence. You must take Tootles to your house. It will be an ideal arrangement. I have written to my brother in London to come and fetch him. He may be here in a few days.”
“He is a busy man, of course; but he should certainly be here within a week. Till then Tootles can stop with you. It is an excellent plan. Very much obliged to you. Your wife will like Tootles.”
“I haven’t got a wife,” I yelled; but the window had closed with a bang, as if the man with the whiskers had found a germ trying to escape, don’t you know, and had headed it off just in time.
I breathed a deep breath and wiped my forehead.
The window flew up again.