The Truants

Chapter XV

Mr. Mudge comes to the Rescue

A.E.W. Mason

LIONEL CALLON’S visit to Millie Stretton bore, however, consequences which had not at all entered into his calculations. He was unaware of the watchers at Lady Millingham’s window; he had no knowledge of Pamela’s promise to Tony Stretton; no suspicion, therefore, that she was now passionately resolved to keep it in the spirit and the letter. He was even without a thought that his advances towards Millie had at all been remarked upon or their motive discovered. Ignorance lulled him into security. But within a short while a counter-plot was set in train.

The occasion was the first summer meeting on Newmarket Heath. Pamela Mardale seldom missed a race meeting at Newmarket during the spring and summer. There were the horses, in the first place; she met her friends besides; the heath itself, with its broad expanse and its downs, had for her eyes a beauty of its own; and in addition the private enclosure was separated by the width of the course from the crowd and clamour of the ring. She attended this particular meeting, and after the second race was over she happened to be standing amidst a group of friends within the grove of trees at the back of the paddock. Outside, upon the heath, the air was clear and bright; a light wind blew pleasantly. Here the trees were in bud, and the sunlight, split by the boughs, dappled with light and shadow the glossy coats of the horses as they were led in and out amongst the boles. A mare was led past Pamela, and one of her friends said—

“Semiramis. I think she will win this race.”

Pamela looked towards the mare, and saw, just beyond her, Mr. Mudge. He was alone, as he usually was; and though he stopped in his walk, now here, now there, to exchange a word with some acquaintance, he moved on again, invariably alone. Gradually he drew nearer to the group in which Pamela was standing, and his face brightened. He quickened his step; Pamela, on her side, advanced rather quickly towards him.

“You are here?” she said, with a smile. “I am glad, though I did not think to meet you.”

Mr. Mudge, to tell the truth, though he carried a race-card in his hand, and glasses slung across his shoulder, had the disconsolate air of a man conscious that he was out of place. He answered Pamela, indeed, almost apologetically.

“It is better after all to be here than in London on a day of summer,” he said, and he added, with a shrewd glance at her, “You have something to say to me—a question to ask.”

Pamela looked up at him in surprise.

“Yes, I have. Let us go out.”

They walked into the paddock, and thence through the gate into the enclosure. The enclosure was at this moment rather empty. Pamela led the way to the rails alongside the course, and chose a place where they were out of the hearing of any bystander.

“You remember the evening at Frances Millingham’s?” she asked. She had not seen Mr. Mudge since that date.

Mr. Mudge replied immediately.

“Yes; Sir Anthony Stretton”—and the name struck so oddly upon Pamela’s ears that, serious as at this moment she was, she laughed. “Sir Anthony Stretton turned away from the steps of his house. You were distressed, Miss Mardale: I, on the contrary, said that nothing better could have happened. You wish to ask me why I said that?”

“Yes,” said Pamela; “I am very anxious to know. Millie is my friend. I am, in a sort of way, too, responsible for her;” and as Mr. Mudge looked surprised, she repeated the word—“Yes, responsible. And I am rather troubled.” She spoke with a little hesitation. There was a frown upon her forehead, a look of perplexity in her dark eyes. She was reluctant to admit that her friend was in any danger or needed any protection from her own weakness. The freemasonry of her sex impelled her to silence. On the other hand, she was at her wits’ end what to do. And she had confidence in her companion’s discretion; she determined to speak frankly.

“It is not only your remark which troubles me,” she said, “but I called on Millie the next afternoon.”

“Oh, you did?” exclaimed Mr. Mudge.

“Yes; I asked after Tony. Millie had not seen him, and did not expect him. She showed me letters from his solicitors empowering her to do what she liked with the house and income, and a short letter from Tony himself, written on the Perseverance, to the same effect.”

She did not explain to Mr. Mudge what the Perseverance was, and he asked no questions.

“I told Millie,” she continued, “that Tony had returned, but she refused to believe it. I told her when and where I had seen him.”

“You did that?” said Mr. Mudge. “Wait a moment.” He saw and understood Pamela’s reluctance to speak. He determined to help her out. “Let me describe to you what followed. She stared blankly at you and asked you to repeat what you had said?”

“Yes,” replied Pamela, in surprise; “that is just what she did.”

“And when you had repeated it, she turned a little pale, perhaps was disconcerted, perhaps a little—afraid.”

“Yes, it is that which troubles me,” Pamela cried, in a low voice. “She was afraid. I would have given much to have doubted it. I could not; her eyes betrayed it, her face, her whole attitude. She was afraid.”

Mr. Mudge nodded his head, and went quietly on—

“And when she had recovered a little from her fear she questioned you closely as to the time when you first saw Stretton outside the house, and the time when he went away.”

He spoke with so much certitude that he might have been present at the interview.

“I told her that it was some little time after eleven when he came, and that he only stayed a few minutes,” answered Pamela.

“And at that,” rejoined Mr. Mudge, “Lady Stretton’s anxiety diminished.”

“Yes, that is true, too,” Pamela admitted; and she turned her face to him with its troubled appeal. “Why was she afraid? For, since you have guessed that she was, you must know the reason which she had for fear. Why was it so fortunate that Tony Stretton did not mount the steps of the house and ring the bell?”

Mr. Mudge answered her immediately, and very quietly.

“Because Lionel Callon was inside the house.”

A great sympathy made his voice gentle—sympathy for Pamela. None the less the words hurt her cruelly. She turned away from him so that he might not see her face, and stood gazing down the course through a mist. Bitter disappointment was hers at that moment. She was by nature a partisan. The thing which she did crept closer to her heart by the mere act of doing it. She knew it, and it was just her knowledge which had so long kept her to inaction. Now her thoughts were passionately set on saving Millie, and here came news to her which brought her to the brink of despair. She blamed Tony. “Why did he ever go away?” she cried. “Why, when he had come back, did he not stay?” And at once she saw the futility of her outcry. Tony, Millie, Lionel Callon—what was the use of blaming them? They acted as their characters impelled them. She had to do her best to remedy the evil which the clash of these three characters had produced. “What can be done?” she asked of herself. There was one course open certainly. She could summon Warrisden again, send him out a second time in search of Tony Stretton, and make him the bearer, not of an excuse, but of the whole truth. Only she dreaded the outcome; she shrank from telling Tony the truth, fearing that he would exaggerate it. “Can nothing be done?” she asked, again in despair, and this time she asked the question aloud, and turned to Mr. Mudge.

Mudge had been quietly waiting for it.

“Yes,” he answered, “something can be done. I should not have told you, Miss Mardale, what I knew unless I had already hit upon a means to avert the peril; for I am aware how much my news must grieve you.”

Pamela looked at Mr. Mudge in surprise. It had not occurred to her at all that he could have solved the problem.

“What can I do?” she asked.

“You can leave the whole trouble in my hands for a few days.”

Pamela was silent for a little while; then she answered doubtfully—

“It is most kind of you to offer me your help.”

Mr. Mudge shook his head at Pamela with a certain sadness.

“There’s no kindness in it at all,” he said; “but I quite understand your hesitation, Miss Mardale. You were surprised that I should offer you help, just as you were surprised to see me here. Although I move in your world I am not of it. Its traditions, its instincts, even its methods of thought—to all of these I am a stranger. I am just a passing visitor who, for the time of his stay, is made an honorary member of your club. He meets with every civility, every kindness; but he is not inside, so that when he suddenly comes forward and offers you help in a matter where other members of your club are concerned, you naturally pause.”

Pamela made a gesture of dissent; but Mr. Mudge gently insisted—

“Let me finish. I want you to understand equally well why I offer you help which may very likely seem to you an impertinence.”

“No, indeed,” said Pamela; “on the contrary, I am very grateful.”

Others were approaching the spot where they stood. They turned and walked slowly over the grass away from the paddock.

“There is no need that you should be,” Mudge continued; “you will see that, if you listen.” And in a few words he told her at last something of his own career. “I sprang from a Deptford gutter, with one thought—to get on, and get on, and get on. I moved from Deptford to Peckham. There I married. I moved from Peckham to a residential suburb in the south-west. There my wife died. Looking back now, I am afraid that in my haste to get on I rather neglected my wife’s happiness. You see I am frank with you. From the residential suburb I moved into the Cromwell Road, from the Cromwell Road to Grosvenor Square. I do not think that I was just a snob; but I wanted to have the very best of what was going. There is a difference. A few years ago I found myself at the point which I had aimed to reach, and, as I have told you, it is a position of many acquaintances and much loneliness. You might say that I could give it up and retire into the country. But I have too many undertakings on my hands; besides, I am too tired to start again, so I remain. But I think you will understand that it will be a real pleasure to me to help you. I have not so many friends that I can afford to lose the opportunity of doing one of them a service.”

Pamela heard him to the end without any interruption; but when he had finished she said, with a smile—

“You are quite wrong about the reason for my hesitation. I asked a friend of mine a few weeks ago to help me, and he gave me the best of help at once. Even the best of help fails at times, and my friend did. I was wondering merely whether it would not be a little disloyal to him if I now accepted yours, for I know he would be grieved if I went to any one but him.”

“I see,” said Mr. Mudge; “but I think that I can give you help which no one else can.”

It was clear from his quiet persistence that he had a definite plan. Pamela stopped and faced him.

“Very well,” she said. “I leave the whole matter for a little while in your hands.”

“Thank you,” said Mr. Mudge; and he looked up towards the course. “There are the horses going down.”

A sudden thought occurred to Pamela. She opened the purse she carried on her wrist, and took out a couple of pounds.

“Put this on Semiramis for me, please,” she said, with a laugh. “Be quick, if you will, and come back.”

Though she laughed she was still most urgent he should go. Mr. Mudge hurried across the course, made the bet, and returned. Pamela watched the race with an eagerness which astonished Mr. Mudge, so completely did she seem to have forgotten all that had troubled her a minute ago. But he did not understand Pamela. She was, after her custom, seeking for a sign, and when Semiramis galloped in a winner by a neck, she turned with a hopeful smile to her companion—

“We shall win too.”

“I think so,” Mudge replied, and he laughed. “Do you know what I think of Lionel Callon, Miss Mardale? The words are not mine, but the sentiment is unexceptionable. A little may be a good thing, but too much is enough.”

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