Ah! What avails the classic bent,
And what the chosen word,
Against the undoctored incident
That actually occurred?
And what is Art whereto we press
Through paint and prose and rhyme —
When Nature in her nakedness
Defeats us every time?
‘Hi! Hi! Hold your horses! Stop! . . . Well! Well!’ A lean man in a sable-lined overcoat leaped from a private car and barred my way up Pall Mall. ‘You don’t know me? You’re excusable. I wasn’t wearing much of anything last time we met — in South Africa.’
The scales fell from my eyes, and I saw him once more in a sky-blue army shirt, behind barbed wire, among Dutch prisoners bathing at Simonstown, more than a dozen years ago3. ‘Why, it’s Zigler — Laughton O. Zigler!’ I cried. ‘Well, I am glad to see you.’
3 ‘The Captive’: Traffics and Discoveries.
‘Oh no! You don’t work any of your English on me. “So glad to see you, doncher know — an’ ta-ta!” Do you reside in this village?’
‘No. I’m up here buying stores.’
‘Then you take my automobile. Where to? . . . Oh, I know them! My Lord Marshalton is one of the Directors. Pigott, drive to the Army and Navy Cooperative Supply Association Limited, Victoria Street, Westminister.’
He settled himself on the deep dove-colour pneumatic cushions, and his smile was like the turning on of all the electrics. His teeth were whiter than the ivory fittings. He smelt of rare soap and cigarettes — such cigarettes as he handed me from a golden box with an automatic lighter. On my side of the car was a gold-mounted mirror, card and toilette case. I looked at him inquiringly.
‘Yes,’ he nodded, ‘two years after I quit the Cape. She’s not an Ohio girl, though. She’s in the country now. Is that right? She’s at our little place in the country. We’ll go there as soon as you’re through with your grocery-list. Engagements? The only engagement you’ve got is to grab your grip — get your bag from your hotel, I mean — and come right along and meet her. You are the captive of my bow and spear now.’
‘I surrender,’ I said meekly. ‘Did the Zigler automatic gun do all this?’ I pointed to the car fittings.
‘Psha! Think of your rememberin’ that! Well, no. The Zigler is a great gun — the greatest ever — but life’s too short, an’ too interestin’, to squander on pushing her in military society. I’ve leased my rights in her to a Pennsylvanian–Transylvanian citizen full of mentality and moral uplift. If those things weigh with the Chancelleries of Europe, he will make good and — I shall be surprised. Excuse me!’
He bared his head as we passed the statue of the Great Queen outside Buckingham Palace.
‘A very great lady!’ said he. ‘I have enjoyed her hospitality. She represents one of the most wonderful institutions in the world. The next is the one we are going to. Mrs. Zigler uses ’em, and they break her up every week on returned empties.’
‘Oh, you mean the Stores?’ I said.
‘Mrs. Zigler means it more. They are quite ambassadorial in their outlook. I guess I’ll wait outside and pray while you wrestle with ’em.’
My business at the Stores finished, and my bag retrieved from the hotel, his moving palace slid us into the country.
‘I owe it to you,’ Zigler began as smoothly as the car, ‘to tell you what I am now. I represent the business end of the American Invasion. Not the blame cars themselves — I wouldn’t be found dead in one — but the tools that make ’em. I am the Zigler Higher–Speed Tool and Lathe Trust. The Trust, sir, is entirely my own — in my own inventions. I am the Renzalaer ten-cylinder aërial — the lightest aeroplane-engine on the market — one price, one power, one guarantee. I am the Orlebar Paper-welt, Pulp-panel Company for aeroplane bodies; and I am the Rush Silencer for military aeroplanes — absolutely silent — which the Continent leases under royalty. With three exceptions, the British aren’t wise to it yet. That’s all I represent at present. You saw me take off my hat to your late Queen? I owe every cent I have to that great an’ good Lady. Yes, sir, I came out of Africa, after my eighteen months’ rest-cure and open-air treatment and sea-bathing, as her prisoner of war, like a giant refreshed. There wasn’t anything could hold me, when I’d got my hooks into it, after that experience. And to you as a representative British citizen, I say here and now that I regard you as the founder of the family fortune — Tommy’s and mine.’
‘But I only gave you some papers and tobacco.’
‘What more does any citizen need? The Cullinan diamond wouldn’t have helped me as much then; an’— talking about South Africa, tell me —’
We talked about South Africa till the car stopped at the Georgian lodge of a great park.
‘We’ll get out here. I want to show you a rather sightly view,’ said Zigler.
We walked, perhaps, half a mile, across timber-dotted turf, past a lake, entered a dark rhododendron-planted wood, ticking with the noise of pheasants’ feet, and came out suddenly, where five rides met, at a small classic temple between lichened stucco statues which faced a circle of turf, several acres in extent. Irish yews, of a size that I had never seen before, walled the sunless circle like cliffs of riven obsidian, except at the lower end, where it gave on to a stretch of undulating bare ground ending in a timbered slope half-a-mile away.
‘That’s where the old Marshalton race-course used to be,’ said Zigler. ‘That ice-house is called Flora’s Temple. Nell Gwynne and Mrs. Siddons an’ Taglioni an’ all that crowd used to act plays here for King George the Third. Wasn’t it? Well, George is the only king I play. Let it go at that. This circle was the stage, I guess. The kings an’ the nobility sat in Flora’s Temple. I forget who sculped these statues at the door. They’re the Comic and Tragic Muse. But it’s a sightly view, ain’t it?’
The sunlight was leaving the park. I caught a glint of silver to the southward beyond the wooded ridge.
‘That’s the ocean — the Channel, I mean,’ said Zigler. ‘It’s twenty-three miles as a man flies. A sightly view, ain’t it?’
I looked at the severe yews, the dumb yelling mouths of the two statues, at the blue-green shadows on the unsunned grass, and at the still bright plain in front where some deer were feeding.
‘It’s a most dramatic contrast, but I think it would be better on a summer’s day,’ I said, and we went on, up one of the noiseless rides, a quarter of a mile at least, till we came to the porticoed front of an enormous Georgian pile. Four footmen revealed themselves in a hall hung with pictures.
‘I hired this off of my Lord Marshalton,’ Zigler explained, while they helped us out of our coats under the severe eyes of ruffed and periwigged ancestors. ‘Ya-as. They always look at me too, as if I’d blown in from the gutter. Which, of course, I have. That’s Mary, Lady Marshalton. Old man Joshua painted her. Do you see any likeness to my Lord Marshalton? Why, haven’t you ever met up with him? He was Captain Mankeltow — my Royal British Artillery captain that blew up my gun in the war, an’ then tried to bury me against my religious principles4. Ya-as. His father died and he got the lordship. That was about all he got by the time that your British death-duties were through with him. So he said I’d oblige him by hiring his ranch. It’s a hell an’ a half of a proposition to handle, but Tommy — Mrs. Laughton — understands it. Come right in to the parlour and be very welcome.’
4 “The Captive”: Traffics and Discoveries.
He guided me, hand on shoulder, into a babble of high-pitched talk and laughter that filled a vast drawing-room. He introduced me as the founder of the family fortunes to a little, lithe, dark-eyed woman whose speech and greeting were of the soft-lipped South. She in turn presented me to her mother, a black-browed snowy-haired old lady with a cap of priceless Venetian point, hands that must have held many hearts in their time, and a dignity as unquestioned and unquestioning as an empress. She was, indeed, a Burton of Savannah, who, on their own ground, out-rank the Lees of Virginia. The rest of the company came from Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Chicago, with here and there a softening southern strain. A party of young folk popped corn beneath a mantelpiece surmounted by a Gainsborough. Two portly men, half hidden by a cased harp, discussed, over sheaves of typewritten documents, the terms of some contract. A knot of matrons talked servants — Irish versus German — across the grand piano. A youth ravaged an old bookcase, while beside him a tall girl stared at the portrait of a woman of many loves, dead three hundred years, but now leaping to life and warning under the shaded frame-light. In a corner half-a-dozen girls examined the glazed tables that held the decorations — English and foreign — of the late Lord Marshalton.
‘See heah! Would this be the Ordeh of the Gyartah?’ one said, pointing.
‘I presoom likely. No! The Garter has “Honey swore”— I know that much. This is “Tria juncta” something.’
‘Oh, what’s that cunning little copper cross with “For Valurr”?’ a third cried.
‘Say! Look at here!’ said the young man at the bookcase. ‘Here’s a first edition of Handley Cross and a Beewick’s Birds right next to it — just like so many best sellers. Look, Maidie!’
The girl beneath the picture half turned her body but not her eyes.
‘You don’t tell me!’ she said slowly. ‘Their women amounted to something after all.’
‘But Woman’s scope, and outlook was vurry limmutted in those days,’ one of the matrons put in, from the piano.
‘Limmutted? For her? If they whurr, I guess she was the limmut. Who was she? Peters, whurr’s the cat’log?’
A thin butler, in charge of two footmen removing the tea-batteries, slid to a table and handed her a blue-and-qilt book. He was button-holed by one of the men behind the harp, who wished to get a telephone call through to Edinburgh.
‘The local office shuts at six,’ said Peters. ‘But I can get through to’— he named some town —‘in ten minutes, sir.’
‘That suits me. You’ll find me here when you’ve hitched up. Oh, say, Peters! We — Mister Olpherts an’ me — ain’t goin’ by that early morning train tomorrow — but the other one — on the other line — whatever they call it.’
‘The nine twenty-seven, sir. Yes, sir. Early breakfast will be at half-past eight and the car will be at the door at nine.’
‘Peters!’ an imperious young voice called. ‘What’s the matteh with Lord Marshalton’s Ordeh of the Gyartah? We cyan’t find it anyweah.’
‘Well, miss, I have heard that that Order is usually returned to His Majesty on the death of the holder. Yes, miss.’ Then in a whisper to a footman, ‘More butter for the pop-corn in King Charles’s Corner.’ He stopped behind my chair. ‘Your room is Number Eleven, sir. May I trouble you for your keys?’
He left the room with a six-year-old maiden called Alice who had announced she would not go to bed ‘‘less Peter, Peter, Punkin-eater takes me — so there!’
He very kindly looked in on me for a moment as I was dressing for dinner. ‘Not at all, sir,’ he replied to some compliment I paid him. ‘I valeted the late Lord Marshalton for fifteen years. He was very abrupt in his movements, sir. As a rule I never received more than an hour’s notice of a journey. We used to go to Syria frequently. I have been twice to Babylon. Mr. and Mrs. Zigler’s requirements are, comparatively speaking, few.’
‘But the guests?’
‘Very little out of the ordinary as soon as one knows their ordinaries. Extremely simple, if I may say so, sir.’
I had the privilege of taking Mrs. Burton in to dinner, and was rewarded with an entirely new, and to me rather shocking view, of Abraham Lincoln, who, she said, had wasted the heritage of his land by blood and fire, and had surrendered the remnant to aliens. ‘My brother, suh,’ she said, ‘fell at Gettysburg in order that Armenians should colonise New England today. If I took any interest in any dam-Yankee outside of my son-inlaw Laughton yondah, I should say that my brother’s death had been amply avenged.’
The man at her right took up the challenge, and the war spread. Her eyes twinkled over the flames she had lit.
‘Don’t these folk,’ she said a little later, ‘remind you of Arabs picnicking under the Pyramids?’
‘I’ve never seen the Pyramids,’ I replied.
‘Hm! I didn’t know you were as English as all that.’ And when I laughed, ‘Are you?’
‘Always. It saves trouble.’
‘Now that’s just what I find so significant among the English’— this was Alice’s mother, I think, with one elbow well forward among the salted almonds. ‘Oh, I know how you feel, Madam Burton, but a Northerner like myself — I’m Buffalo — even though we come over every year — notices the desire for comfort in England. There’s so little conflict or uplift in British society.’
‘But we like being comfortable,’ I said.
‘I know it. It’s very characteristic. But ain’t it a little, just a little, lacking in adaptability an’ imagination?’
‘They haven’t any need for adaptability,’ Madam Burton struck in. ‘They haven’t any Ellis Island standards to live up to.’
‘But we can assimilate,’ the Buffalo woman charged on.
‘Now you have done it!’ I whispered to the old lady as the blessed word ‘assimilation’ woke up all the old arguments for and against.
There was not a dull moment in that dinner for me — nor afterwards when the boys and girls at the piano played the rag-time tunes of their own land, while their elders, inexhaustibly interested, replunged into the discussion of that land’s future, till there was talk of coon-can. When all the company had been set to tables Zigler led me into his book-lined study, where I noticed he kept his golf-clubs, and spoke simply as a child, gravely as a bishop, of the years that were past since our last meeting.
‘That’s about all, I guess — up to date,’ he said when he had unrolled the bright map of his fortunes across three continents. ‘Bein’ rich suits me. So does your country, sir. My own country? You heard what that Detroit man said at dinner. “A Government of the alien, by the alien, for the alien.” Mother’s right, too. Lincoln killed us. From the highest motives — but he killed us. Oh, say, that reminds me. ‘J’ever kill a man from the highest motives?’
‘Not from any motive — as far as I remember.’
‘Well, I have. It don’t weigh on my mind any, but it was interesting. Life is interesting for a rich — for any — man in England. Ya-as! Life in England is like settin’ in the front row at the theatre and never knowin’ when the whole blame drama won’t spill itself into your lap. I didn’t always know that. I lie abed now, and I blush to think of some of the breaks I made in South Africa. About the British. Not your official method of doin’ business. But the Spirit. I was ‘way, ‘way off on the Spirit. Are you acquainted with any other country where you’d have to kill a man or two to get at the National Spirit?’
‘Well,’ I answered, ‘next to marrying one of its women, killing one of its men makes for pretty close intimacy with any country. I take it you killed a British citizen.’
‘Why, no. Our syndicate confined its operations to aliens — dam-fool aliens. . . . ‘J’ever know an English lord called Lundie5? Looks like a frame-food and soap advertisement. I imagine he was in your Supreme Court before he came into his lordship.’
5 ‘The Puzzler’: Actions and Reactions.
‘He is a lawyer — what we call a Law Lord — a Judge of Appeal — not a real hereditary lord.’
‘That’s as much beyond me as this!’ Zigler slapped a fat Debrett on the table. ‘But I presoom this unreal Law Lord Lundie is kind o’ real in his decisions? I judged so. And — one more question. ‘Ever meet a man called Walen?’
‘D’you mean Burton–Walen, the editor of —?’ I mentioned the journal.
‘That’s him. ‘Looks like a tough, talks like a Maxim, and trains with kings.’
‘He does,’ I said. ‘Burton–Walen knows all the crowned heads of Europe intimately. It’s his hobby.’
‘Well, there’s the whole outfit for you — exceptin’ my Lord Marshalton, né Mankeltow, an’ me. All active murderers — specially the Law Lord — or accessories after the fact. And what do they hand you out for that, in this country?’
‘Twenty years, I believe,’ was my reply.
He reflected a moment.
‘No-o-o,’ he said, and followed it with a smoke-ring. ‘Twenty months at the Cape is my limit. Say, murder ain’t the soul-shatterin’ event those nature-fakers in the magazines make out. It develops naturally like any other proposition. . . . Say, ‘j’ever play this golf game? It’s come up in the States from Maine to California, an’ we’re prodoocin’ all the champions in sight. Not a business man’s play, but interestin’. I’ve got a golf-links in the park here that they tell me is the finest inland course ever. I had to pay extra for that when I hired the ranche — last year. It was just before I signed the papers that our murder eventuated. My Lord Marshalton he asked me down for the week-end to fix up something or other — about Peters and the linen, I think ’twas. Mrs. Zigler took a holt of the proposition. She understood Peters from the word “go.” There wasn’t any house-party; only fifteen or twenty folk. A full house is thirty-two, Tommy tells me. ‘Guess we must be near on that to-night. In the smoking-room here, my Lord Marshalton — Mankeltow that was — introduces me to this Walen man with the nose. He’d been in the War too, from start to finish. He knew all the columns and generals that I’d battled with in the days of my Zigler gun. We kinder fell into each other’s arms an’ let the harsh world go by for a while.
‘Walen he introduces me to your Lord Lundie. He was a new proposition to me. If he hadn’t been a lawyer he’d have made a lovely cattle-king. I thought I had played poker some. Another of my breaks. Ya-as! It cost me eleven hundred dollars besides what Tommy said when I retired. I have no fault to find with your hereditary aristocracy, or your judiciary, or your press.
‘Sunday we all went to Church across the Park here. . . . Psha! Think o’ your rememberin’ my religion! I’ve become an Episcopalian since I married. Ya-as. . . . After lunch Walen did his crowned-heads-of-Europe stunt in the smokin’-room here. He was long on Kings. And Continental crises. I do not pretend to follow British domestic politics, but in the aeroplane business a man has to know something of international possibilities. At present, you British are settin’ in kimonoes on dynamite kegs. Walen’s talk put me wise on the location and size of some of the kegs. Ya-as!
‘After that, we four went out to look at those golf-links I was hirin’. We each took a club. Mine’— he glanced at a great tan bag by the fire-place —‘was the beginner’s friend — the cleek. Well, sir, this golf proposition took a holt of me as quick as — quick as death. They had to prise me off the greens when it got too dark to see, and then we went back to the house. I was walkin’ ahead with my Lord Marshalton talkin’ beginners’ golf. (I was the man who ought to have been killed by rights.) We cut ‘cross lots through the woods to Flora’s Temple — that place I showed you this afternoon. Lundie and Walen were, maybe, twenty or thirty rod behind us in the dark. Marshalton and I stopped at the theatre to admire at the ancestral yew-trees. He took me right under the biggest — King Somebody’s Yew — and while I was spannin’ it with my handkerchief, he says, “Look heah!” just as if it was a rabbit — and down comes a bi-plane into the theatre with no more noise than the dead. My Rush Silencer is the only one on the market that allows that sort of gumshoe work. . . . What? A bi-plane — with two men in it. Both men jump out and start fussin’ with the engines. I was starting to tell Mankeltow — I can’t remember to call him Marshalton any more — that it looked as if the Royal British Flying Corps had got on to my Rush Silencer at last; but he steps out from under the yew to these two Stealthy Steves and says, “What’s the trouble? Can I be of any service?” He thought — so did I—’twas some of the boys from Aldershot or Salisbury. Well, sir, from there on, the situation developed like a motion-picture in Hell. The man on the nigh side of the machine whirls round, pulls his gun and fires into Mankeltow’s face. I laid him out with my cleek automatically. Any one who shoots a friend of mine gets what’s comin’ to him if I’m within reach. He drops. Mankeltow rubs his neck with his handkerchief. The man the far side of the machine starts to run. Lundie down the ride, or it might have been Walen, shouts, “What’s happened?” Mankeltow says, “Collar that chap.”
‘The second man runs ring-a-ring-o’-roses round the machine, one hand reachin’ behind him. Mankeltow heads him off to me. He breaks blind for Walen and Lundie, who are runnin’ up the ride. There’s some sort of mix-up among ’em, which it’s too dark to see, and a thud. Walen says, “Oh, well collared!” Lundie says, “That’s the only thing I never learned at Harrow!” . . . Mankeltow runs up to ’em, still rubbin’ his neck, and says, “He didn’t fire at me. It was the other chap. Where is he?”
‘“I’ve stretched him alongside his machine,” I says.
‘“Are they poachers?” says Lundie.
‘“No. Airmen. I can’t make it out,” says Mankeltow.
‘“Look at here,” says Walen, kind of brusque. “This man ain’t breathin’ at all. Didn’t you hear somethin’ crack when he lit, Lundie?”
‘“My God!” says Lundie. “Did I? I thought it was my suspenders”— no, he said “braces.”
‘Right there I left them and sort o’ tiptoed back to my man, hopin’ he’d revived and quit. But he hadn’t. That darned cleek had hit him on the back of the neck just where his helmet stopped. He’d got his. I knew it by the way the head rolled in my hands. Then the others came up the ride totin’ their load. No mistakin’ that shuffle on grass. D’you remember it — in South Africa? Ya-as.
‘“Hsh!” says Lundie. “Do you know I’ve broken this man’s neck?”
‘“Same here,” I says.
‘“What? Both?” says Mankeltow.
‘“Nonsense!” says Lord Lundie. “Who’d have thought he was that out of training? A man oughtn’t to fly if he ain’t fit.”
‘“What did they want here, anyway?” said Walen; and Mankeltow says, “We can’t leave them in the open. Some one’ll come. Carry ’em to Flora’s Temple.”
We toted ’em again and laid ’em out on a stone bench. They were still dead in spite of our best attentions. We knew it, but we went through the motions till it was quite dark. ‘Wonder if all murderers do that? “We want a light on this,” says Walen after a spell. “There ought to be one in the machine. Why didn’t they light it?”
‘We came out of Flora’s Temple, and shut the doors behind us. Some stars were showing then — same as when Cain did his little act, I guess. I climbed up and searched the machine. She was very well equipped, I found two electric torches in clips alongside her barometers by the rear seat.
‘“What make is she?” says Mankeltow.
‘“Continental Renzalaer,” I says. “My engines and my Rush Silencer.”
‘Walen whistles. “Here — let me look,” he says, and grabs the other torch. She was sure well equipped. We gathered up an armful of cameras an’ maps an’ note-books an’ an album of mounted photographs which we took to Flora’s Temple and spread on a marble-topped table (I’ll show you tomorrow) which the King of Naples had presented to grandfather Marshalton. Walen starts to go through ’em. We wanted to know why our friends had been so prejudiced against our society.
‘“Wait a minute,” says Lord Lundie. “Lend me a handkerchief.”
‘He pulls out his own, and Walen contributes his green-and-red bandanna, and Lundie covers their faces. “Now,” he says, “we’ll go into the evidence.”
‘There wasn’t any flaw in that evidence. Walen read out their last observations, and Mankeltow asked questions, and Lord Lundie sort o’ summarised, and I looked at the photos in the album. ‘J’ever see a bird’s-eye telephoto-survey of England for military purposes? It’s interestin’ but indecent — like turnin’ a man upside down. None of those close-range panoramas of forts could have been taken without my Rush Silencer.
‘“I wish we was as thorough as they are,” says Mankeltow, when Walen stopped translatin’.
‘“We’ve been thorough enough,” says Lord Lundie. “The evidence against both accused is conclusive. Any other country would give ’em seven years in a fortress. We should probably give ’em eighteen months as first-class misdemeanants. But their case,” he says, “is out of our hands. We must review our own. Mr. Zigler,” he said, “will you tell us what steps you took to bring about the death of the first accused?” I told him. He wanted to know specially whether I’d stretched first accused before or after he had fired at Mankeltow. Mankeltow testified he’d been shot at, and exhibited his neck as evidence. It was scorched.
‘“Now, Mr. Walen,” says Lord Lundie. “Will you kindly tell us what steps you took with regard to the second accused?”
‘“The man ran directly at me, me lord,” says Walen. “I said, ‘Oh no, you don’t,’ and hit him in the face.”
‘Lord Lundie lifts one hand and uncovers second accused’s face. There was a bruise on one cheek and the chin was all greened with grass. He was a heavy-built man.
‘“What happened after that?” says Lord Lundie.
‘“To the best of my remembrance he turned from me towards your lordship.”
‘Then Lundie goes ahead. “I stooped, and caught the man round the ankles,” he says. “The sudden check threw him partially over my left shoulder. I jerked him off that shoulder, still holding his ankles, and he fell heavily on, it would appear, the point of his chin, death being instantaneous.”
‘“Death being instantaneous,” says Walen.
‘Lord Lundie takes off his gown and wig — you could see him do it — and becomes our fellow-murderer. “That’s our case,” he says. “I know how I should direct the jury, but it’s an undignified business for a Lord of Appeal to lift his hand to, and some of my learned brothers,” he says, “might be disposed to be facetious.”
‘I guess I can’t be properly sensitised. Any one who steered me out of that trouble might have had the laugh on me for generations. But I’m only a millionaire. I said we’d better search second accused in case he’d been carryin’ concealed weapons.
‘“That certainly is a point,” says Lord Lundie. “But the question for the jury would be whether I exercised more force than was necessary to prevent him from usin’ them.” I didn’t say anything. He wasn’t talkin’ my language. Second accused had his gun on him sure enough, but it had jammed in his hip-pocket. He was too fleshy to reach behind for business purposes, and he didn’t look a gun-man anyway. Both of ’em carried wads of private letters. By the time Walen had translated, we knew how many children the fat one had at home and when the thin one reckoned to be married. Too bad! Ya-as.
‘Says Walen to me while we was rebuttonin’ their jackets (they was not in uniform): “Ever read a book called The Wreckers, Mr. Zigler?”
‘“Not that I recall at the present moment,” I says.
‘“Well, do,” he says. “You’d appreciate it. You’d appreciate it now, I assure you.”
‘“I’ll remember,” I says. “But I don’t see how this song and dance helps us any. Here’s our corpses, here’s their machine, and daylight’s bound to come.”
‘“Heavens! That reminds me,” says Lundie. “What time’s dinner?”
‘“Half-past eight,” says Mankeltow. “It’s half-past five now. We knocked off golf at twenty to, and if they hadn’t been such silly asses, firin’ pistols like civilians, we’d have had them to dinner. Why, they might be sitting with us in the smoking-room this very minute,” he says. Then he said that no man had a right to take his profession so seriously as these two mountebanks.
‘“How interestin’!” says Lundie. “I’ve noticed this impatient attitude toward their victim in a good many murderers. I never understood it before. Of course, it’s the disposal of the body that annoys ’em. Now, I wonder,” he says, “who our case will come up before? Let’s run through it again.”
‘Then Walen whirls in. He’d been bitin’ his nails in a corner. We was all nerved up by now. . . . Me? The worst of the bunch. I had to think for Tommy as well.
‘“We can’t be tried,” says Walen. “We mustn’t be tried! It’ll make an infernal international stink. What did I tell you in the smoking-room after lunch? The tension’s at breaking-point already. This ‘ud snap it. Can’t you see that?”
‘“I was thinking of the legal aspect of the case,” says Lundie. “With a good jury we’d likely be acquitted.”
‘“Acquitted!” says Walen. “Who’d dare acquit us in the face of what ‘ud be demanded by — the other party? Did you ever hear of the War of Jenkins’ ear? ‘Ever hear of Mason and Slidel? ‘Ever hear of an ultimatum? You know who these two idiots are; you know who we are — a Lord of Appeal, a Viscount of the English peerage, and me — me knowing all I know, which the men who know dam’ well know that I do know! It’s our necks or Armageddon. Which do you think this Government would choose? We can’t be tried!” he says.
‘“Then I expect I’ll have to resign me club,” Lundie goes on. “I don’t think that’s ever been done before by an ex-officio member. I must ask the secretary.” I guess he was kinder bunkered for the minute, or maybe ’twas the lordship comin’ out on him.
‘“Rot!” says Mankeltow. “Walen’s right. We can’t afford to be tried. We’ll have to bury them; but my head-gardener locks up all the tools at five o’clock.”
‘“Not on your life!” says Lundie. He was on deck again — as the high-class lawyer. “Right or wrong, if we attempt concealment of the bodies we’re done for.”
“‘I’m glad of that,” says Mankeltow, “because, after all, it ain’t cricket to bury ’em.”
‘Somehow — but I know I ain’t English — that consideration didn’t worry me as it ought. An’ besides, I was thinkin’— I had to — an’ I’d begun to see a light ‘way off — a little glimmerin’ light o’ salvation.
‘“Then what are we to do?” says Walen. “Zigler, what do you advise? Your neck’s in it too.”
‘“Gentlemen,” I says, “something Lord Lundie let fall a while back gives me an idea. I move that this committee empowers Big Claus and Little Claus, who have elected to commit suicide in our midst, to leave the premises as they came. I’m asking you to take big chances,” I says, “but they’re all we’ve got,” and then I broke for the bi-plane.
‘Don’t tell me the English can’t think as quick as the next man when it’s up to them! They lifted ’em out o’ Flora’s Temple — reverent, but not wastin’ time — whilst I found out what had brought her down. One cylinder was misfirin’. I didn’t stop to fix it. My Renzalaer will hold up on six. We’ve proved that. If her crew had relied on my guarantees, they’d have been half-way home by then, instead of takin’ their seats with hangin’ heads like they was ashamed. They ought to have been ashamed too, playin’ gun-men in a British peer’s park! I took big chances startin’ her without controls, but ’twas a dead still night an’ a clear run — you saw it — across the Theatre into the park, and I prayed she’d rise before she hit high timber. I set her all I dared for a quick lift. I told Mankeltow that if I gave her too much nose she’d be liable to up-end and flop. He didn’t want another inquest on his estate. No, sir! So I had to fix her up in the dark. Ya-as!
‘I took big chances, too, while those other three held on to her and I worked her up to full power. My Renzalaer’s no ventilation-fan to pull against. But I climbed out just in time. I’d hitched the signallin’ lamp to her tail so’s we could track her. Otherwise, with my Rush Silencer, we might’s well have shooed an owl out of a barn. She left just that way when we let her go. No sound except the propellers — Whoo-oo-oo! Whoo-oo-oo! There was a dip in the ground ahead. It hid her lamp for a second — but there’s no such thing as time in real life. Then that lamp travelled up the far slope slow — too slow. Then it kinder lifted, we judged. Then it sure was liftin’. Then it lifted good. D’you know why? Our four naked perspirin’ souls was out there underneath her, hikin’ her heavens high. Yes, sir. We did it! . . . And that lamp kept liftin’ and liftin’. Then she side-slipped! My God, she side-slipped twice, which was what I’d been afraid of all along! Then she straightened up, and went away climbin’ to glory, for that blessed star of our hope got smaller and smaller till we couldn’t track it any more. Then we breathed. We hadn’t breathed any since their arrival, but we didn’t know it till we breathed that time — all together. Then we dug our finger-nails out of our palms an’ came alive again — in instalments.
‘Lundie spoke first. “We therefore commit their bodies to the air,” he says, an’ puts his cap on.
‘“The deep — the deep,” says Walen. “It’s just twenty-three miles to the Channel.”
‘“Poor chaps! Poor chaps!” says Mankeltow. “We’d have had ’em to dinner if they hadn’t lost their heads. I can’t tell you how this distresses me, Laughton.”
‘“Well, look at here, Arthur,” I says. “It’s only God’s Own Mercy you an’ me ain’t lyin’ in Flora’s Temple now, and if that fat man had known enough to fetch his gun around while he was runnin’, Lord Lundie and Walen would have been alongside us.”
‘“I see that,” he says. “But we’re alive and they’re dead, don’t ye know.”
‘“I know it,” I says. “That’s where the dead are always so damned unfair on the survivors.”
‘“I see that too,” he says. “But I’d have given a good deal if it hadn’t happened, poor chaps!”
‘“Amen!” says Lundie. Then? Oh, then we sorter walked back two an’ two to Flora’s Temple an’ lit matches to see we hadn’t left anything behind. Walen, he had confiscated the note-books before they left. There was the first man’s pistol which we’d forgot to return him, lyin’ on the stone bench. Mankeltow puts his hand on it — he never touched the trigger — an’, bein’ an automatic, of course the blame thing jarred off — spiteful as a rattler!
‘“Look out! They’ll have one of us yet,” says Walen in the dark. But they didn’t — the Lord hadn’t quit being our shepherd — and we heard the bullet zip across the veldt — quite like old times. Ya-as!
‘“Swine!” says Mankeltow.
‘After that I didn’t hear any more “Poor chap” talk. . . . Me? I never worried about killing my man. I was too busy figurin’ how a British jury might regard the proposition. I guess Lundie felt that way too.
‘Oh, but say! We had an interestin’ time at dinner. Folks was expected whose auto had hung up on the road. They hadn’t wired, and Peters had laid two extra places. We noticed ’em as soon as we sat down. I’d hate to say how noticeable they were. Mankeltow with his neck bandaged (he’d caught a relaxed throat golfin’) sent for Peters and told him to take those empty places away — if you please. It takes something to rattle Peters. He was rattled that time. Nobody else noticed anything. And now . . . ’
‘Where did they come down?’ I asked, as he rose.
‘In the Channel, I guess. There was nothing in the papers about ’em. Shall we go into the drawin’-room, and see what these boys and girls are doin?’ But say, ain’t life in England interestin’?
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52