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    Chapter 22

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    Chapter 22
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    The New Housekeeper

    Obediently he carried down the spirit lamp, cups and saucers and cracked teapot to the kitchen, and stood in awe, watching her as she kindled a fire in the big kitchen range.

    "Let me do that for you," he said.

    "You ought to have volunteered hours ago," she reproached him, "but if you had, I shouldn't have allowed you. You would only have made a lot of smoke----"

    "Fire lighting is an art: I never realised it till now. Does your mother know you're here?" he asked suddenly.

    "I hope so," she said. "Mother is in heaven."

    "Your father?"

    "Father is in London, which is quite a different place. Look in the larder and see if you can find some lard."

    "That seems to be the proper place for it," he said.

    "Have you any milk?" she asked, when he returned with a large white and bulbous supply.

    "We have no milk, but we've lots of preserved milk."

    "Haven't you a cow?"

    He shook his head.

    "I'm not sure whether I have or whether I haven't. I've really never taken an interest in the details of my estate, but I'm under the impression that I am entirely cowless."

    "Why do you stay here?" She was sitting on her heels before the crackling fire, looking up at him curiously. "Why didn't you go back to London? You've got a flat, haven't you?"

    "I prefer staying here," he said.

    "How lordly! I prefer staying here." She mimicked him. "You're going to starve to death here, my good man, and freeze to death too. You ought to know that the people of Creith would never consent to stain their white souls by contact with a gentleman with your seamy past! Get some servants from London: they're less particular. They have cinemas in London that educate them in the finer nuances of criminality. Why don't you bring your man down--Binger?"

    "Binger?" he said in surprise. "Do you know him?"

    "I've spoken with him," she said. "When you were in durance I made a call on him, to see if there was anything I could do. It required a great deal of tact because I wasn't supposed to know that you were under arrest. I asked him where you were, and he said you were 'hout.'"

    "Instead of which I was hin!" laughed Jim.

    "Hout or hin, he was deliciously diplomatic. And I saw your Moor, and your beautiful room. Did you live in Morocco?"

    "For a short time," he said.

    She was busy with the eggs for a little while, and he saw she was thinking deeply.

    "Of course, you know why this antagonism has sprung up in the village against you? It isn't wholly spontaneous, or due to the purity of Creith's morals. A week ago, Mr. Hamon came down and interviewed most of the leading tradespeople, and I believe he also saw your butler. I know, because my maid, who lives in the village----"

    "Your what?" he asked sharply.

    "Maid--it is short for maiden aunt," she said, not so much as dropping an eyelid. "My maiden aunt, who lives in the village and who is something of a gossip, told me."

    "You were here, then?"

    "No, I was in London at the time. She told me when I came back. There are your eggs."

    "I couldn't possibly eat three," he protested.

    "It is not intended that you should: one is for me," she replied.

    She went into the hall and brought down a bag, and extracted a new loaf and a small oblong brick of butter.

    "We will dine in the kitchen, because I feel more at home there," she said. "And after breakfast I am going to see what needs doing. I can only stay a few hours every day."

    "Are you coming to-morrow?" he said eagerly.

    She nodded, and he sighed his relief.

    "The curious thing was that I didn't see you come at all, though I was looking through the window and I had a good view of the drive."

    "I didn't arrive by the road," she said. "I discovered a little foot bridge across the river that joins Creith Park and your meadows. Naturally, I still retain a certain amount of self-respect, so I came furtively."

    He laughed at that.

    "If you're trying to make me believe that you care two cents what the village is thinking of you, you're working on a hopeless job," he said. "What puzzles me is"--he hesitated--"you may be a villager: I daresay you are; in fact, you must be, otherwise you wouldn't know so much about the people. But that you're a member of the downtrodden working classes, I will never believe."

    "Go and find the carpet-sweeper," she ordered, "and I will show you that, if I'm not downtrodden, I'm certainly a labourer."

    It seemed to him that she had hardly been there ten minutes before she came to the study, dressed ready to go.

    "You're not going already!" he gasped in dismay.

    "Yes, I am," she nodded, "and you will be good enough to stay where you are and not attempt to follow me. And I also rely upon you that you do not ask any of your village acquaintances--which, I should imagine, are very few by now--who I am or who my relations are. I want to keep the name of Smith unsullied. It is a fairly good name."

    "I know of none better," he said enthusiastically. "Good-night, Jane."

    He held out a hand, and was unaccountably thrilled to see the faint pink that came to her face.

    "There is one favour I'm going to ask you in return for my services, and it is that you call off your campaign of vengeance; in other words, that you leave poor Colter alone. He is acting according to his lights, and it isn't going to give you any great satisfaction to ruin him."

    "I've been thinking of that to-day," said Jim a little ruefully, "and wondering exactly what I can do. I don't like to strike my colours and leave the enemy triumphant."

    "He's not at all triumphant: the poor man's scared to death. I can tell you all his secret history. He has been speculating in oil shares, at the suggestion of Mr. Hamon (I expect Mr. Hamon has an interest in the company) and the poor man is on the verge of bankruptcy. You have only to open your store and run it for a week, to push him over the edge--plunk! That is vulgar," she added penitently, "but will you think it over, Mr. Morlake? I don't know whether you can afford to withdraw, but I think you can."

    An hour after the girl had left, Jim walked down to the village and into Colter's Store. A very humble Mr. Colter hastened to discover his needs.

    "I want bread, butter and eggs," said Jim firmly. "I want them delivered every morning, with a quart of milk and such other commodities as I require."

    "Yes, sir," said the humble Colter. "This store of yours, Mr. Morlake, is going to ruin me--I've had three farmers here to-day; they are supposed to be thorough gentlemen and friends of mine, but they're holding up their winter buying until your shop is open. They say that isn't the reason, but I know 'em!"

    "The store will never open so long as I have my eggs, butter, bread and milk," said Jim patiently. "Is that understood?"

    "Yes, sir," said the fervent storekeeper, and showed him to the door.

    That night the young enthusiast was sent back to London after selling his stocks to Colter below cost price; and when Jim came down in the morning and opened the front door, he found Mr. Colter's boy sitting on the steps.

    Jane Smith came late that morning, and something in her appearance arrested his attention.

    "You've been crying," he said.

    "No, I haven't. I've had very little sleep, that is all."

    "You've been crying," he repeated.

    "If you say that again, I won't stay. You're really annoying, and I never thought you would be that."

    This silenced him, but he was worried. Had she got into some kind of scrape through this escapade of hers? He never troubled to believe that she was a housemaid. Probably she was some poor relation of one of the big families in the neighbourhood. There were many little villas and tiny half-acre lots scattered about the countryside.

    They were eating a rather dismal lunch together when he asked her plainly:

    "Where do you live?"

    "Oh, somewhere around," she said vaguely.

    "Do you ever speak the truth, young woman?"

    "I was the most truthful person in the world until I----" She checked herself suddenly.

    "Until you----?" he suggested.

    "Until I started lying. It is very easy, Mr. Raffles."

    "Oh, by the way"--he remembered suddenly--"two of the housemaids of this establishment came and interviewed me this morning whilst you were making the beds. They want to come back."

    "Don't have them," she said hastily. "If you do, I shall go."

    And, conscience stricken at her selfishness, she added quickly:

    "Yes, get them if you can. I think you ought to get your servants back as soon as you possibly can. They're only following the lead of Cleaver, and most of them will be dying to get back, because there's a whole lot of unemployment in the county. Only--I should like you to let me know before they come."

    He helped her to wash up after lunch, and then went upstairs to his study to write some letters, whilst she laid his dinner before she left. The kitchen stairs led into the back hall, and he was more than surprised, when he turned a corner of the stairs, to see a girl standing in the entrance hall. He had left the door wide open, and either he had not heard her ring, or she had not taken the trouble to push the bell. She was very pretty, he saw at a glance, and fashionably dressed, and he wondered if it was a delegation from the women of Sussex demanding his instant withdrawal from the country.

    Flashing a smile at him, she came toward him.

    "You're Mr. Morlake, I know," she said, as he took her hand. "I've seen your photograph. You don't know me."

    "I'm afraid I haven't that advantage," said Jim, and showed her into the drawing-room.

    "I simply had to come and see you, Mr. Morlake. This stupid feud of yours with my brother mustn't go on any longer."

    "Your brother?" he asked in wonder, and she laughed roguishly.

    "Now don't pretend that you don't dislike poor Ralph very intensely."

    A light was beginning to show.

    "Then you are Miss Hamon?" he said.

    "Of course I'm Miss Hamon! I came over from Paris specially to see you. Ralph is terribly worried about this frightful quarrel you're carrying on."

    "I suppose he is," said Jim subtly. "And you have come all the way from Paris to patch up our feud, have you? Of course you're Lydia Hamon. How stupid of me! I remember you years and years ago, before the days of your brother's prosperity."

    Lydia Hamon had not the slightest desire to be remembered years and years ago, and she turned him off that dangerous topic.

    "Now tell me, Morlake, isn't it possible for you and Ralph to get together, as you delightful Americans say, and----"

    The door opened abruptly, and Jane Smith came in. She was dressed for going home and was pulling on her gloves.

    "I thought you were in your study," she began and then her eyes fell upon the visitor.

    If the apparition of Lydia Hamon startled her, the effect on Lydia was staggering. She raised a pair of unnecessary lorgnettes and surveyed the girl with a look of horror.

    "Surely I'm not mistaken?" she said. "It is Lady Joan Carston!"

    "Damn!" said Joan.
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