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9: Sid Arkwright Listens In

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Author Topic: 9: Sid Arkwright Listens In  (Read 3 times)
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« on: May 24, 2023, 06:52:54 am »


Alicia Hagge-Smith’s vision was already well on the way to becoming a reality. As she sat by the mullioned window of her boudoir---a severely Spartan room with no feminine nonsense about it---her somewhat beady eye raked the broad acres of the park and brightened with a gleam of satisfaction. Near and far, amidst the clumps of bosky elms, workmen were busy digging ditches, erecting tents, driving pegs, tying off guy-ropes, laying wires, water-pipes and cinder-tracks. The pink and white mayblossom was in full flower and a golden tide of buttercups seemed to sweep up to the outer confines of the manor garden and break in silence against the mellow brick walls. Under her window a motor-mower was buzzing like a trapped bee as the third gardener moved up and down the gently-undulating lawns. The fourth gardener was visible beyond the rose-walk, engaged in mulching the peony-beds with liquid manure. The fifth, no more than a dot at the far end of the kitchen-garden, was busy pricking out young lettuce plants. The second gardener was not to be seen, since he was sitting on a barrow in the centre of a rhododendron clump enjoying a leisured pipe. The head gardener, as befitted a man of such eminence, was taking a post-prandial nap in the potting-shed.

Mrs. Hagge-Smith was content. All was going well. Two days earlier the members of the Inmost Temple had arrived at Old Cowdene as an advance party to the flood of ordinary members who were due in about a week. Their distribution about the estate had now been completed, for it had been agreed that all the spare rooms in the manor should be reserved for the more enfeebled members of the Movement. Penelope, with Hilda and the cook, were now comfortably installed in the Dower House on the south fringe of the park. Eustace, with typical modesty, had claimed nothing more grandiose than a furnished lodge at the north entrance. Terence and the blonde housekeeper, Mrs. Summers, had travelled down in the Daimler with him. Sid Arkwright had taken up his quarters in a nearby barn where the car was to be garaged. Other members of the Inmost Temple, including Hansford Boot, had, at their own request, been accommodated in a cluster of bell-tents not far from the Chinese summer-house, which had been converted into a quiet and tasteful Temple of Meditation. Penpeti alone had refused to remain within the hallowed precincts of the estate. For reasons, upon which he was obviously not prepared to enlarge, he had engaged a couple of rooms at the local inn---The Leaning Man. Alicia was naturally shocked. It was infra dig, she felt, for a Prophet-in-Waiting to take up residence in a public-house. She begged him to change his mind, but Penpeti remained adamant. He spoke vaguely of that “isolation and detachment necessary to come to terms with one’s Higher Self”; the need for a private retreat “away from the commendable hubbub of mass devotion”. And as Alicia had no more idea of what he meant than Penpeti himself, she was forced to accept his explanation and leave it at that. She was disappointed, a little huffy, but resigned.

Once every twenty-four hours, at dinner, the members of the Inmost Temple foregathered at the manor and went into a huddle. For the remainder of the day they busied themselves about the thousand and one practical activities demanded by the impending conventicle. A casual onlooker might have supposed that a certain amount of the tension which had been so noticeable in Welworth had evaporated.

But beneath the crust of all this activity, the yeast of personal prejudices and problems was still working overtime. The “goodly apple”, alas, was still thoroughly “rotten at the core”.


For months Terence had been dreaming of this moment---dreams in superb technicolour, starring the one and only woman in his life . . . Denise Blake. Once at Old Cowdene he felt sure that he would be able to see Denise alone. It was an extensive estate and his father and the Blot could not possibly police all of it all of the time. True, Denise was tied to her job most of the day, but surely sometime, in the evening in the gloaming . . . ? He had attended his first dinner-party at the manor in a whirl of excitement and anticipation. But, to his acute disappointment, Denise didn’t show up. After all, how was Terence to know that Alicia and Eustace had laid their heads together and decided to do all in their power to keep the couple apart? Alicia because she didn’t want to lose a good secretary: Eustace because he didn’t want to lose his influence over his son.

Once Terence had glimpsed Denise in the distance---a sylph-like figure slipping through the rose-garden with a basket of flowers on her arm. Daring all, he had called her by name---an anguished, love-lorn bellow that echoed against the grey-stoned walls like a roll of thunder. The result had been disheartening---a collection of heads bobbing up from the most unexpected places, all staring in his direction. Gardeners peering over shrubs, maids from windows, workmen from holes in the ground; and, finally, like some outraged diva, Alicia Hagge-Smith herself, glaring at him from the terrace. Denise had fled into the house. Terence, flushing to the roots of his hair, had stumbled off across the park.

He was furious with his father, the Blot, himself, life, every damn thing! Any normal chap with a normal father would have been allowed to make contact with a decent, normal girl like Denise. It was sickening, vile! If he had to bottle himself up much longer, he’d . . . he’d . . .

But Terence wasn’t sure just what he would do when the critical moment arrived. Something drastic and dramatic. Of that he was convinced!


Penelope had given instructions that Mr. Penpeti was to be admitted without question to the Dower House whenever he chanced to call. Now, more than ever, she needed a strong arm upon which to lean; a stimulating personality to revitalise her jaded nerves. For Penelope, after a lifetime of ease and security, suddenly found herself in a jam. Two days before leaving Welworth, like a bolt from the blue, she had received a letter from her broker in the City. Its contents left no room for doubt. Due to a totally unexpected fluctuation of certain shares, a large slice of Penelope’s private income had, so to speak, vanished overnight. Retrenchment was now the order of the day---a cutting down here, a denial there, and so on. All unnecessary luxuries would have to go, including, of course, her little “loans” (as she optimistically liked to call them) to Peta. Penpeti was horror-struck when he learnt the news, for Yacob, as the result of a series of losses on the turf, had suddenly begun to tighten the screw. True, there was still Hansford Boot’s fifty pounds a quarter, but without Penelope’s extra disbursements it was going to be the very devil to keep Yacob sweet and reasonable.

But this financial set-back was as thistledown to the second worry which tormented Penelope. For weeks she had been wrestling with a new and terrifying complication, determined that Penpeti’s life should not be darkened by her secret. But two days after her arrival in Sussex, she broke down and confessed everything.

“But good God!” cried Penpeti, shaken to the core. “It can’t be true! It can’t!”

“Oh, I’ve tried to persuade myself that I’ve been imagining things!” cried Penelope in stricken tones. “But I’m not, Peta. We’ve got to face up to it. I’m going to have a child---your child! It’s terrible, I admit, but it’s true!”

“But good heavens, don’t you see?” blustered Penpeti. “If this leaks out, I’m ruined. Ruined! Imagine Alicia’s reaction to the news. Me, the Prophet-in-Waiting, the father of----”

“Peta darling, we must keep our heads.”

“Confound it---I’m trying to. But you must see it from my point-of-view. As Prophet-in-Waiting I receive certain emoluments that go with the office. What happens to my income if----?”

“Then Alicia mustn’t find out!”

“Don’t be absurd. How the devil can we prevent her? Unless,” he added, suddenly brightening, “unless you’re prepared to go away. Is that it? You’re willing to go abroad, perhaps?”

Penelope shook her head.

“No, Peta. For one thing I couldn’t afford it. For another, my darling, I just couldn’t bear to be away from you at this awful moment. I just couldn’t! Surely you see that?”

“Then how can we hoodwink Alicia, Eustace and all the rest of them? In a few more weeks your condition will be obvious to everybody. I tell you, Penelope, this will ruin me. I shall be done for in the Movement. Defrocked! Disgraced!” Penpeti threw his arms wide in a gesture of despair and began to pace rapidly up and down the room. “That this should happen now---now, when there’s a strong possibility of my promotion. Only the other day, Alicia was hinting to me . . . there’s a growing faction inside the Order who would like to see Eustace out of office. Too unenterprising. Too dogmatic. Too reactionary. I haven’t spoken about this before, but Alicia’s convinced that if the matter were put to a general vote . . .” He clasped his hands dramatically to his head. “And now it’s hopeless, hopeless! This has finished me. I can be written off!”

He dropped into an armchair and lay back exhausted, scowling at the overcast sky beyond the window. All his plans thwarted. All his hopes dashed to the ground. Suddenly he was aware of Penelope’s cool hand brushing over his cheek.


“Well?” He snatched aside her hand with a surly gesture and glared up at her with an expression of impatience.

“I want to show you something.”

She went to a small antique bureau, unlocked the lid, picked up her letter-case, unlocked it in turn and took out a bundle of letters tied with ribbon.

“These,” she murmured, handing the bundle to Penpeti. “Read them. I think they may interest you.”

Penpeti briskly untied the ribbon, flattened out the first letter and began to read. He did so without comment. Then he took up a second epistle, then a third, and gradually his scowl evaporated. He leaned forward in his chair, stroking his beard, absorbed, devouring page after page of the closely-written sheets with unbridled attention.

Then: “Eustace!” he cried. “Good heavens, it’s impossible!” He began to laugh softly, derisively. “Of all the damned hypocrites. I can’t believe it. How long has this been going on?”

“Oh months,” said Penelope. “Until I put a stop to it a few weeks ago . . . after he’d made me a proposal of marriage.”

“A proposal?” shot out Penpeti. “Eustace?” He laughed again; then suddenly recalling the conversation which had led up to the revelation of these letters, he went on tartly: “This is all very amusing, I admit, but why show them to me now?”

“But, Peta, don’t you see?”

He stared at her blankly.

“I haven’t the----”

Penelope broke in tenderly.

“Do you think I want to spoil your career, my darling? Your chances of becoming High Prophet? Peta dear, don’t be so obtuse. Surely you think a little more highly of your adoring Penelope than that? Don’t you realise? I was wondering if Eustace, perhaps, wasn’t the one person who could get us out of this dilemma.”

“Eustace? But how?”

“Well,” murmured Penelope, with a mystical expression. “Suppose I went to Alicia and . . . and told her that Eustace was the father of the child I’m about to bear?”

Dumbfounded, Penpeti sprang to his feet. He stared at Penelope as if he suspected her of having lost her reason. Then slowly a smile spread over his swarthy features.

“Eustace,” he said softly. “Eustace, who has written you all these intimate little notes. Eustace, who has made you a proposal of marriage---a proposal in writing! My dear, but this is sheer inspiration. You’re wonderful. And for my sake, you’re prepared to suffer the inevitable scandal that will follow this dénouement?”

“For your sake, Peta,” said Penelope with perfect simplicity, “you know I’m ready to do anything.”

“But Eustace may deny the charge of paternity.”

“What of it? It will be his word against mine. And when Alicia reads those letters . . . I’ve an idea that the office of High Prophet----”

Penpeti’s dark eyes glittered.

“Mine!” he muttered. “This will set the seal on it. Good heavens! Penelope, you’re incomparable! Superb!”

What did it matter now that Penelope’s financial aid had dried up? If this scheme were successful, Eustace was finished, and he, Penpeti, would without any shadow of doubt, step into his shoes. And the office of High Prophet, as he often had good cause to remind himself, carried with it a salary of five thousand a year!

One thing alone perplexed him. Why hadn’t Penelope used this contretemps as a lever to force him to marry her? There was nothing really standing in the way of such a union. Thank heaven, of course, that the idea hadn’t occurred to her! For all that, it was a strange and puzzling omission.


But in the first flush of his enthusiasm for a scheme that would whitewash his own character at the expense of a man who stood between him and five thousand a year, Penpeti forgot to make allowances for a possible nigger in the wood-pile. The conspiracy, as propounded by Penelope, seemed pretty well flawless, and perhaps it would have been if Sid Arkwright hadn’t enjoyed an occasional half-pint of mild and bitter.

Sid was happy in his loft above the barn. He liked the free-and-easy rural atmosphere that reigned at Old Cowdene. In point of fact he had little enough to do during that first week in Sussex, for his employer scarcely ever left the confines of the park. Occasionally he taxied the High Prophet from one corner of the estate to the other, for the park covered a surface of nearly nine square miles. But apart from these brief journeys, Sid was more or less left to his own devices.

Before leaving Welworth he had had just one helluva row with Violet Brett. Not that she hadn’t good reasons for feeling annoyed, but Sid preferred to forget that. At first he had been depressed by the quarrel, but by now he was quite heart-free and ready to take up with any girl that chanced to take his eye. Hilda Shepstone, for example, Miss Parker’s maid over at the Dower House. In Sid’s opinion a bit of a high-stepper and well worth cultivating. Of course, Hilda wasn’t always free in the evening, so Sid had dropped into the habit of taking a stroll up to The Leaning Man once he had deposited the Mildmanns at the manor. After dinner they usually walked back through the park, which gave Sid the rest of the evening to himself.

It was a Saturday night just after closing-time, when Sid first found himself involved in the secret machinations of his superiors. It happened quite by chance. Rounding a bend in the road at the end of the village on his way back to the park, he was suddenly aware of a figure preceding him down the moonlit lane. The man was moving swiftly, silently and, in Sid’s opinion, furtively. He was continually stopping in his stride and looking back over his shoulder. His curiosity aroused, Sid moved on to the wide grass verge and proceeded to stalk this mysterious figure. There was deep shadow under the overhanging trees and, to judge by the man’s behaviour, he had no idea that Sid was following him.

Presently the man drew into the side of the road and Sid heard more stealthy footsteps advancing, this time, up the lane. He crouched back under a tangle of briar and waited. In a short time the second figure became clearly visible in the moonlight and Sid gave a start of surprise. There was no mistaking the black-bearded features and the long black caftan. He noticed, however, that Mr. Penpeti was carrying his fez and it struck Sid that he had done this to make himself less conspicuous.

The man in the shadows gave a low whistle. Penpeti halted, looked cautiously up and down the lane, and joined the second figure under the overhanging branches of elm. Almost at once they broke into a brisk though muted conversation. With his curiosity now at fever heat, Sid withdrew gently up the lane to a point where he had previously noticed a stile that gave on to a field on the same side of the road as the two men. In a flash he was over the stile and creeping silently towards them on the far side of the hedge.

At a point some five yards away, which was as near as he dared to advance, Sid halted and listened. It was quite impossible to hear every word of their conversation. In fact it was only a few detached phrases of Penpeti’s that he was able to isolate, for his companion was talking in a kind of harsh and throaty whisper. But what he did hear was sufficient to whet Sid’s appetite to hear more. What did it mean? Why had Penpeti met this man so secretively in the lane? And who was his companion?

After a few seconds Sid realised that it was his employer they were discussing. He caught a series of broken phrases.

“. . . point is . . . Mildmann has been writing letters . . . long period of time . . . this woman in question . . . use these as a lever to . . . out of office . . .”

Then followed a few quick, inaudible comments by the second figure, terminating in a low, mirthless sort of chuckle. Again Penpeti took up the conversation.

“Awkward, I admit . . . Parker girl’s all right, though . . . let me down . . . work it right . . . Mildmann will take the rap . . . I tell you . . . on to a dead cert . . . end of our friend Mildmann . . . kaput!”

There was another chuckle and further inaudible comments from the second man. Again Penpeti---this time with a persuasive note in his voice, rather anxious.

“But confound it . . . asking you to wait a few weeks . . . must have patience . . . pay you out then O.K. . . safe bet, I assure you . . . in clover if things go . . .”

But suddenly Penpeti dropped his voice to match the husky whisper of his fellow conspirator, and Sid was unable to isolate any further sequence of words. But what he had heard roused in him the wildest speculation. This was his chance, he realised, to make amends to his employer for his previous unkind behaviour. He had never forgotten Eustace’s sympathy and generosity in the days following the shooting incident in the Cut. He had fussed over him during his convalescence as if Sid had been his own son. And if he had been wounded by Sid’s rather cheap mockery of all that he held sacred, Eustace never revealed the fact. He said nothing, so that Sid, for the first time in his life, felt thoroughly ashamed of himself. From that day to this Sid had devoted himself with unswerving loyalty to his master’s service. He still thought Cooism a bit of a “queer do”, but he would have rather cut off his right hand than let his employer tumble to the fact.

He decided that he had nothing further to gain by waiting any longer behind the hedge. Stealthily he retraced his steps and, making a wide detour round the edge of the big meadow, entered the lane at a point some two hundred yards beyond the two men. Thereafter he quickened his pace until the North Lodge came in sight. A light was burning beyond one of the latticed windows. Sid did not hesitate. Instead of making for his loft in the nearby barn, he slipped through the wicket-gate of the drive entrance and pulled the wrought-iron bell under the clematis-covered porch of the front-door.

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