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    Chapter 21

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    Chapter 21
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    Jim Morlake had never driven quite so slowly as he did on his way home to Wold House. He could well imagine that Sussex society had been shocked to its depths. The vicars and the churchwardens, the squires and squireens, the heads of noble houses who, on the strength of their neighbourship, had offered him their hospitality, the villagers themselves, sticklers for propriety, would regard his arrest and the judge's remarks as something cataclysmic. He maintained a considerable style in the country. His house was a large one; he employed butler and housekeeper, a dozen maids, cooks and the like, and he had never been quite sure of the number of gardeners who were on his pay roll.

    He smiled as he thought of the effect his appearance at the Central Criminal Court would have upon these worthy folk. They were well paid and excellently well treated. His butler, and the butler's wife, who was housekeeper, had grown tremulous in their gratitude for the little services which he had rendered them. What they were thinking now, he could not guess, as he had had no communication with Wold House since his arrest. He had instructed the local bank manager to pay their salaries and such monies as were necessary to carry on the household, and in response he had received only one letter, from the gardener, asking whether it was his wish, in view of recent happenings, that the daffodil bulbs should be planted on the edge of the wood as he had ordered.

    The gates of Wold House were open; he turned the car into the drive, and the solemn chauffeur, who was waiting for him, touched his cap respectfully and took charge of the machine with a certain grim thoroughness that was ominous.

    Jim passed into his sitting-room. The butler bowed him in and opened the door of the sitting-room for him.

    "Is everything all right, William?" asked Jim, as he slowly stripped his gloves and overcoat and handed them to the man.

    "Everything is in excellent order, sir," said Mr. William Cleaver, and then: "I should like, at your earliest convenience, to have a word with you, Mr. Morlake."

    "As soon as you like," said Jim, sensing the coming exodus. "Take my coat out and come back immediately."

    The butler was ill at ease when he returned.

    "The truth is, sir," he said, "I am going to ask you to release me from my engagement. And that--er--applies also to Mrs. Cleaver."

    "You wish to leave me, eh? Don't you like the job?"

    "It is a very excellent situation," said Cleaver precisely, but withal nervously; "only I find the country does not agree with me, sir, and I have been offered an excellent situation in town."

    "Very good," said Jim curtly.

    He unlocked the drawer of his desk, opened the cash-box and took out some money.

    "Here is your salary to date."

    "When would it be convenient for me to go?" asked the butler.

    "Now," was the laconic reply. "There is a train to your beloved 'town' in an hour, by which time you will be out of this house. You understand, Cleaver?"

    "Yes, sir," said the discomfited servant. "There have been other--er--applications, but I have refused to deal with them."

    "I see." Jim nodded. "Send in the eager applicants, please."

    First came the cook, a stout woman but genteel to her finger-tips, being an earnest Christian and a member of the Established Church.

    "I want to give in my notice, sir."

    "Why?" asked Jim bluntly.

    "Well, the fact is, my niece is ill and I want to go to her."

    "You mean you want to leave at once?"

    "I don't want to put you to any inconvenience," the woman hastened to state, "and to oblige you----"

    "Oblige nothing," said Jim Morlake. "You will leave now. If your niece is ill, she'll probably be dead by the time your month's notice has expired. Here are your wages."

    There came a long procession of them: a parlourmaid, slightly tearful, and obviously acting under the instructions of her rigid parents; another, a little self-righteous and inclined to lift her nose at the very thought of serving a criminal; last came the groom and the chauffeur. Each offered a reason why they wanted to leave in a hurry, but only one spoke the truth. Some had relatives ill, some had been offered good situations; one, at least, hinted at an approaching marriage and the desire to devote the time to "getting things together." Neither man nor woman stated in precise language why he or she was leaving Wold House. None, until a little kitchenmaid, smutty of face and squat of figure, stood before the desk, her big hands on her hips.

    "Why are you leaving, Jessie?" asked Jim.

    "Because you're a burglar," was the blunt reply, and, leaning back in the chair, he shook with silent laughter.

    "I think there is two pounds due to you. Here are five. And may I, a real live burglar, salute you as the only honest member of this little community? Don't look at that note as though it would bite you: it hasn't been forged and it hasn't been stolen."

    At last they had gone, all of them, their corded trunks loaded upon a wagon which he had had brought up from the village by telephone, and he walked at its tail and, closing the gates behind the final load, returned to his empty house.

    To bring down Binger was worse than useless, besides which, he needed him in London; and Mahmet, though an excellent brewer of coffee, would certainly fail in all other branches of the culinary art. He wandered through the deserted house from kitchen to attic. It was spotlessly clean, and would remain so for a day or two.

    "There's only one thing for a sensible man to do," he told himself, and that was to go back to London.

    But he was too much of a fighter to shirk even the petty challenge which his domestic staff had thrown out to him. He went down to the lower regions and took stock of the larder. He sought bread and butter and tea. He could have got along without either, but he wanted to know just where he stood.

    The principal shop in the village was Colter's Store, which supplied most things, from horse feed to mangles. As his car drew up before the shop, he saw through the window an excited young man pointing, and the bearded Mr. Colter emerged from his tiny office at the end of the counter. Jim got down from the car at leisure and strolled into the shop.

    "Good morning," he said. "I want you to send some bread up to Wold House, and a couple of pounds of butter. I think I shall also want some eggs."

    Mr. Colter pushed his assistant out of his way and confronted his customer from the other side of the counter, and there was a light in Mr. Colter's eyes which spoke eloquently of his righteousness.

    "I'm not sending bread or anything else up to your house, Mr. Morlake," he said. "I've kept my hands clean of tainted money all my life, and I'm not going to start truckling with thievery and burglary at my time of life!"

    Jim took the cigar from between his lips, and his eyes narrowed.

    "Does that mean that you refuse to serve me?"

    "That's just what it means," said Mr. Colter, glaring at him through his powerful spectacles. "And I'll tell you something more, Mr. Morlake: that the sooner you take your custom and yourself from Creith, the better we shall like it."

    Jim looked round the store.

    "You do a fairly big trade here, don't you, Colter?" he asked.

    "An honest trade," said Mr. Colter emphatically.

    "I mean, this business is worth something to you? I'll buy it from you."

    Mr. Colter shook his head, and at that moment his stout partner, who had been a silent audience of the encounter, emerged from the door leading into the parlour.

    "We don't want your money; we neither sell nor buy," she said shrilly. "It's quite enough to have burglars living like gentlemen, without their trying to corrupt decent, honest, God-fearing people."

    "Oh, I'm glad there's somebody you fear," said Jim, and walked out of the house.

    His bank was almost opposite, and bankers have few prejudices.

    "Glad to see you got out of your trouble, Mr. Morlake," said the manager briskly. "By the way, the police examined your account--you know that?"

    "And failed to find any connection between my various robberies and my unbounded affluence," smiled Jim. "Now listen, friend: the last time I was here, you were trying to induce me to take an interest in village house property. I notice that the store next to Colter's is empty."

    The manager nodded.

    "It fell in under a mortgage. The owner tried to run a garage, but Creith doesn't lie on the road to anywhere, and he went broke in a month. Do you want to buy?"

    "Name a price, and let it be reasonable. Imagine you're negotiating with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and forget that I am an opulent burglar," said Jim.

    An hour later, he walked out of a lawyer's office the proprietor of the store.

    At ten o'clock that night there arrived from London a young and energetic man.

    "I 'phoned the Grocers' Association for you, and they tell me that you're something of a live wire."

    "Undoubtedly I am," said the youth immodestly.

    "There's a store next to Colter's in the village. I want you to take charge of that to-morrow morning; get in carpenters and painters, and stock it with every article that Colter sells. Mark down all the prices twenty-five per cent. below his. Get a van and beat up the country for custom. If he lowers his price, you lower yours, you understand? But anyway, keep it a standard twenty-five under."

    "That'll cost money," said the young man.

    "You probably have never heard of me. My name is Morlake, and I am by profession a burglar. My capital is therefore unlimited," said Jim soberly. "If there is any need to bring new capital into the business, just notify me and I'll take my gun and a bag and raise debentures at the nearest bank."

    He had biscuits, tea and a large slice of ham for dinner; for supper, he had biscuits and tea without the ham; and in the morning, when he went in search of a breakfast menu, he rejected all other combinations than tea and biscuits. It was a little monotonous, but satisfactory. In his shirt sleeves he swept his room and the hall, made his own bed, and scrubbed down the broad steps at the front of the house. He began to sympathise with the housemaids who had left him.

    All day long, strange trolleys had been dashing into the village, and a small army of carpenters and painters from a neighbouring town, men who thought it no disgrace to work for sinners, but rather prided themselves upon the distinction of being in the employ of a gentleman who had figured at the Old Bailey, were working at top speed, to convert the drab and uninhabitable garage into a store. The live wire was tingling. Stocks were arriving every hour. Mr. Colter stood before his door, one hand in the pocket of his apron, the other fingering his beard.

    "It will be a nine days' wonder," he said to an audience of his neighbours. "These here-to-day-and-gone-to-morrow people! Why, I've had competition and beat 'em this past thirty years!"

    By the afternoon the printing had been delivered, and the neighbouring villages learnt of sensational and permanent reductions in the price of almost every commodity. Mr. Colter went to the police station to seek legal advice, and was referred to a lawyer by the police sergeant, who wasn't quite sure of his ground, and certainly had no knowledge of the legal aspect of this undercutting process. It was the first time in his life he had ever paid a penny to a lawyer, but the occasion demanded extraordinary expenditure, and it did not seem to Mr. Colter that he received value for his money when he was told that he could do nothing.

    "To talk about conspiracy is absurd," said the man of law. "There is nothing to prevent this new fellow from giving his goods away."

    "But a burglar's money is behind this scandalous business!" wailed Mr. Colter.

    "If it was a murderer, it would make no difference," said the lawyer with satisfaction.

    Colter, after consultation with his wife, put on his coat and went up to Wold House. He found Jim in the hall, sitting on a stair with an array of silver at his feet which he was polishing.

    "Sit down," said Jim politely, and Mr. Colter looked round. "You can sit on the floor, or you can go up one stair higher than me and sit there. I can hear you quite well, and it isn't necessary that I should see your face."

    "Now see here, Mr. Morlake, I think this business has gone a bit too far. You know you're taking the bread and butter out of my mouth?"

    "I know you denied me those self-same commodities," said Jim, "and others," he added.

    "I am going to his lordship to-morrow. I am going to see if the Earl of Creith will allow one of his neighbours to be robbed of his livelihood. Not that you will," said Mr. Colter. "I have friends in this neighbourhood of forty years' standing! I've got the whole community behind me!"

    "You watch 'em walk in front of you when the twenty-five per cent. reduction comes into operation!" said Jim.

    "It's the most scandalous thing that has ever happened in the history of the world!" screamed the tradesman.

    "You have forgotten the Massacre of the Huguenots," said Jim, "and Nero's lion parties, and a few other indelicate happenings."

    Mr. Colter went back to the village, drew up a statement of his position, which was printed by a misguided stationer, and distributed it to every house in the village--misguided because the next morning brought a letter from a Horsham lawyer demanding that the name of the printer's legal representative be sent him, as his client intended to commence an action for libel.

    Tea and dry biscuits were beginning to pall on Jim, when he found, that same morning, an unexpected cache of eggs. He could not be bothered to light the kitchen fire; he found a stove and a supply of spirit, and this he set up in his somewhat untidy study. He had brewed the tea, and had laid the table with a copy of the morning newspaper, and set about cooking the eggs. He knew little about egg cooking, except that a certain amount of heat, a certain number of eggs and a frying-pan were requisite. The room was grey with smoke and pungent with the odour of a burnt pan when the unexpected visitor arrived.

    She came through the open door and stood in the doorway, open-mouthed, watching his primitive essay in cookery.

    "Oh, what are you doing?" she asked in consternation, and, running across the room, took the smoking abomination from his hand. "You have put no fat in the pan!" she said. "How can you expect to cook eggs without some kind of grease?"

    He was speechless with amazement. The last person he expected to see at Wold House, in this moment of crisis, was Jane Smith. Yet Jane Smith it was, prettier than ever in her plain blue suit, her big white Peter Pan collar, and the little black hat.

    "Where the dickens did you come from?"

    "I came from the village," she said, wrinkling her nose with an expression of distaste. "Phew! Open the window."

    "Why, don't you like eggs?"

    "Did these eggs express any wish to be cremated?"

    He made no move.

    "I suppose you know----"

    "I know everything." She blew out the spirit fire and put down the pan, then, taking off her coat and hat, she threw them on the sofa. "I have come to look after you," she said, "you poor American waif!"
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