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11: The High Prophet Plans a Theft

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Author Topic: 11: The High Prophet Plans a Theft  (Read 2 times)
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« on: May 24, 2023, 11:24:09 am »


IN the few days that intervened before the arrival of the some six hundred members who were scheduled to attend the convention, there was an ominous lull in the progress of events at Old Cowdene. Penpeti was biding his time. His argument was logical. If the High Prophet were to be tumbled from his pedestal, it was far better that his fall should be witnessed by as many people as possible. The whole affair if allowed to come to a head when the convention was in full swing would be just twice as dramatic and effective. Granted Penpeti felt nervous in postponing the dénouement, for Penelope was becoming more jumpy and conscience-stricken at their every meeting. It was a case, Penpeti upheld, of weighing one advantage against another.

For Eustace it was a period of the deepest depression. He lived under the shadow of fateful and imminent happenings, uneasy with apprehension, taut-nerved, disillusioned and desperate. Sid had spoken to him quite frankly about his talk with Hilda at the Dower House. He had said nothing of his abortive attempt to recover the letters, however, or of his startling encounter with the Man in the Teddy-Bear Coat. But he left no doubt in Eustace’s mind that the letters still existed; that Penelope had deliberately lied to him; that Penpeti’s threat to show the letters to Alicia was no evil dream but a very present reality.

But how to counter this threat? Eustace felt himself already fast in the trap. No matter in which direction he looked there seemed to be no way out. In due course Alicia would read those passionate epistles, call together an extraordinary meeting of the Inmost Temple, who would most certainly pass a unanimous resolution that he was no longer worthy to hold the exalted position of High Prophet. He would be called before the Inmost Temple, arraigned, cross-questioned and, finally, judged. And to make matters even more hopeless, Eustace felt that once his infatuation for Penelope were common property he would be unworthy of his high office. Yes---even if they didn’t turn him out, he’d be forced to resign.

And yet . . . ?

Eustace’s jaw tautened and a stubborn gleam illuminated his dark eyes. To let Penpeti into the High Prophetship . . . it was unthinkable! Penpeti, who for all these months had so obviously been conspiring to bring about his downfall. To hand over his robes of office to an ambitious opportunist; to a man whose ideas concerning the Judgment of the Dead were ethically unsound; to a man who refuted the powers of Am-mit as “Eater of the Dead”, who expounded the heretical theory that Neb-er-tcher should take precedence over the great god Osiris himself, who denied that Apep was the arch-enemy of Horus---No! No! Never! To allow the High Prophetship to fall into such hands was to deny the infallibility of his own theological beliefs.

But how to arrest the impending debacle? There was only one way. He must recover the letters. Quite---but how? In the name of Geb, how? It was obvious Penelope would never give them up. He had now been refused admittance to the house. Impossible, therefore, to renew his pleadings. Penelope just wouldn’t see him alone. Impossible to steal the letters for with the doors locked against him, how to place himself in a position to do so? At his age, quite apart from the undignified aspect of such a performance, one did not shin up drain-pipes or pick locks with pieces of bent wire. No, in every direction he faced despair and frustration. Every day he expected the bombshell to explode.


And then one evening, some three days before the opening of the convention, he was sitting with Terence in the lodge parlour, when Mrs. Summers entered with the information that Sid Arkwright wished to see him. Owing to a slight indisposition Eustace had decided not to attend the dinner-party over at the manor that evening. It was a tiny deviation from his usual routine but, in the light of subsequent events, a detail of enormous significance.

Sid, cap in hand, was waiting deferentially in the cramped little hall.

“Well, Arkwright?”

“I must see you, sir,” said Sid with a hint of excitement in his voice. “Private like, if I may. And the sooner the better, sir, if it’s convenient. I was wondering . . . ?”


“If you could slip across with me to the barn, sir. We could talk there without interruption.”

“All right---if it’s really important.”

“It’s vital, sir,” said Sid emphatically. “Vital!”

Reaching for his hat, Eustace followed Sid out of the door, across the drive and up the broad cinder-track that led to the barn. There, seating himself on a rough bench outside the big double-doors, Eustace waited. Sid took a quick look around and, satisfied that they were alone, said abruptly:

“I gotta idea, sir. Came to me only a moment back. About them letters.”

“The letters, Arkwright?”

“Yes, sir. I’ve thought of a way in which you could get ’em back.”

Eustace sprang up with a look of disbelief. It was his turn to rake the screening bushes with anxious eyes, before asking in tremulous tones:

“Are you serious about this?”

“Dead serious, sir. You can’t afford to be pernickety, if I may say so. You’re in a nasty jam, sir, and no mistake. I’ve been thinking of a dozen ways to get you out of this, but until this evening I was stuck for the right idea. Now, I reckon, I’ve got it!”

Eustace sat down again. Sid came closer.

“Well?” demanded Eustace.

“It’s like this, sir,” explained Sid. “You know well enough that Miss Parker’s not going to cough up them letters just because you ask her to. She’ll do what Mr. Penpeti tells her---you mark my words! But suppose you was to go to her and give her a bit of a fright---threaten her a mite, lay on a sort of a gangster act. I reckon she’d crumple up on the spot and hand over the letters without a murmur.”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow, Arkwright,” said Eustace stiffly. “A gangster act? What exactly----?”

“My idea’s dead simple, sir. I’m pretty slick with my hands and it wouldn’t take me a brace of shakes to knock up something that looked like a revolver from a few bits of wood---see? Well, sir, if you waggled this thing at Miss Parker and talked a bit rough----”

“Are you suggesting,” broke in Eustace in outraged tones, “that I terrorise Miss Parker into surrendering those letters?”

“Why not, sir? Think what’s at stake! It’s no time to act soft.”

“But . . . but . . . how am I to get into the house? You know as well as I do, Arkwright, that Miss Parker has given strict orders to the servants that I’m not to be admitted. I can’t break in, can I?”

“No, sir, you couldn’t. But the point is---what I did you could do---see? A hundred times better, too. You’ve got the same sort of dark eyes and skin. Much of the same build, too. It’s a cinch, sir!” added Sid with a sudden burst of enthusiasm. “An absolute cinch!”

“You mean . . . ?” But Eustace could get no further. The wild audacity of the idea left him dumbfounded. Was Arkwright out of his senses?

“I mean just this, sir. If you’ll give me permission to nip up to London, I’ll hire the same set of things as I did for that dance---make-up, spirit-gum and all.”

“But even then, Arkwright----?”

Sid went on smoothly:

“We’ll fix on a suitable evening in the near future. You find some excuse for not going over to the manor that night. Get rid of Mr. Terence and Mrs. Summers somehow and leave me to doll you up over here in the barn. Miss Parker always gets back to the Dower House somewhere between nine-thirty and ten. I found that out from her maid. All I’ve got to do then is to drive you down to the Dower House and wait under those trees about half-way up the drive there. All you’ve gotta do, sir, is to ring the bell bold as brass, wait till the door’s opened, nod casual like and go straight up to Miss Parker’s room. Hilda tells me she’s got orders to let Mr. Penpeti into the place at any time of the night or day, so there won’t be any need to do more than nod and go upstairs. I know just where Miss Parker’s room is situated on the second floor. I’ll draw you a plan so as you can’t make any mistake. Once you’re inside, close the door, pull out your wooden gun and talk rough. And if you’re not back in the car inside five minutes with the letters in your pocket, sir, then my moniker’s not Sid Arkwright. As I said before, it’s a cinch. You can’t put a foot wrong.”

Eustace looked as if he had his doubts. The daring and originality of Sid’s plan had left him temporarily flustered. On the other hand, the very simplicity of it made an instant appeal. After all the letters were his, and since they were going to be used as evidence against him, he had every right to try out any expedient to recover them. His mind ran rapidly over the salient points of Sid’s suggestion. Already, recovering from the initial impact of the idea, he was re-gathering his wits. Were there any flaws in the plan? Any difficulties that might arise if he put it into execution? One problem occurred to him immediately.

He pointed out:

“But what if Mr. Penpeti happens to call at the Dower House that evening, Arkwright? He might walk back with Miss Parker after dinner at the manor. That would be embarrassing, to say the least of it.”

“Quite so, sir. But I’ve thought of that, too, and it struck me that if you worked it so that you’d know exactly where Mr. Penpeti would be that evening---well, Bob’s your uncle, sir!”

“But how on earth am I to do that?” asked Eustace, puzzled.

“I was thinking of that there roster you and Mr. Terence was drawing up---that Chain of Meditation idea, sir, that’s to be put into operation the moment the convention opens. Mr. Terence happened to show me his typewritten list the other morning. I noticed that Mr. Penpeti was earmarked to attend several times during the first week---that is in the temple in that Chinese summer-house place.”

“Quite true---he is,” agreed Eustace, feeling in his breast-pocket. “I happen to have the original list on me.” He spread out the folded sheet of paper and glanced at it closely. “Yes, here we are---Mr. Penpeti’s agreed to attend for one hour every week-day. The times of his attendance vary of course to fit in with his other commitments. On Monday next---that is the opening day of the conference---I see he’s down to attend from nine to ten in the morning. On Tuesday from two to three in the----”

“You’ll pardon me, sir,” broke in Sid deferentially. “All we need bother ourselves with are the times of his evening meditations. I seem to remember that on Thursday next----”

“Thursday!” exclaimed Eustace, running his finger down the list. “Yes---Thursday from nine to ten in the evening.”

“Well, there you are, sir!” pointed out Sid triumphantly. “What could suit us better? That makes sure of Mr. Penpeti. All you’ve got to do now is to see that Mrs. Summers and Mr. Terence are also away from the lodge that evening. And that shouldn’t be difficult, sir.”

Eustace sighed.

“I’m afraid I’m no good as a conspirator, Arkwright. I haven’t got the proper mental twist.”

Sid grinned.

“How if you suggested she had the afternoon off, sir? They’re showing a top-notch variety show over at the Downchester Palladium. You might suggest that Mr. Terence goes with her and that they both stay on and look into the show.”

“Umph---it’s a feasible idea. But do you really think this whole fantastic plan will work?”

“Certain of it, sir. If you’re ready to carry it out just as we’ve arranged.”

“Then you suggest next Thursday, eh, Arkwright?”

Sid nodded.

“Leaving the lodge somewhere about nine-thirty. That leaves us five days to attend to all the details and make sure we haven’t tripped up anywhere. Agreed, sir?”

“Very well, Arkwright. I’m in your hands. I can’t help feeling that it’s all very melodramatic and undignified, but I can quite see that it’s a moment for desperate measures. And please don’t think I’m not grateful to you, Arkwright, for your sympathy and co-operation in this very distasteful matter. I am---exceedingly grateful. It’s just that I can’t see myself in the rôle you’ve allotted to me.”

“Still . . . when the devil drives, sir...”

“Quite so, Arkwright, quite so.”

And at that, their strange and clandestine discussion was concluded.

Poor Eustace felt somewhat hypocritical, however, when some ten minutes later Penpeti turned up at the lodge with a polite little note from Mrs. Hagge-Smith. She was sorry that he had been unable to come over to dinner and trusted that his indisposition was not of a serious nature. She was projecting kind thoughts in his direction.


During the afternoon of Saturday, June 1st, the first members began to silt into the park, where Hansford Boot (who was in charge of this part of the arrangements) detailed them to their various tents. Some came via the train and the station-bus, others in their own cars, some on bicycles, and some, from the nearer localities, on foot. Over the wrought-iron gates of the north and south entrances, Mrs. Hagge-Smith had ordered the gardeners to erect two banners---WELCOME TO OLD COWDENE. It was a happy touch that set the keynote to the opening phases of the convention. Everybody was a-glisten with good-will and good-humour, settling into their respective tents with much badinage and facetiousness, forgathering in the big marquee for their meals, chattering, laughing, renewing old friendships, making new ones. Yes, despite the somewhat chill and lowering skies, a heartening scene and one which grew more animated and boisterous with every fresh batch of arrivals.

By late Sunday evening the rally was complete and everything was set for the unfolding of the fortnight’s programme, which was due to open with Alicia’s speech of welcome in the lecture tent on the following morning. One odd incident occurred on Sunday afternoon over in the ladies’ compound. Each bell-tent was scheduled to accommodate four members. It was quite understandable, therefore, that the inmates of Tent 6, Row D should go at once to Hansford Boot when they discovered a fifth and unrecognised member unpacking in their tent.

“But there must be some mistake,” protested Hansford, scanning his official lists. “No tent is supposed to hold more than four. I’ll come along at once.”

He had no difficulty in settling the little dispute. The names of Barker, Wicksteed, Grant, and Hazlitt were clearly inscribed on his list. The name of Minnybell was not! In fact, the name of Miss Minnybell didn’t appear on any official list, though to Hansford it had a ring of familiarity.

“Surely you’re from Welworth?” he said. Miss Minnybell didn’t deny it. “But I’d no idea you were a member of our Garden City group,” went on Hansford, suddenly recalling the gossip he had heard about Miss Minnybell’s reputed strangeness. “I never recall seeing you at any of our Carroway Road services.”

“Oh dear me, no!” smiled Miss Minnybell, sweetly. “I only applied for membership five days ago.”

“But we closed our list of convention members nearly six weeks ago. I’m afraid, Miss Minnybell, that in the circumstances we’ve made no provision for your accommodation.”

“Oh please don’t apologise,” beamed Miss Minnybell. “I know how busy you must have been. I really don’t mind where you put me. A simple palliasse in the open-air will do. That is,” she added slyly, “if it doesn’t rain. You can’t possibly be so unkind as to send me away.”

Hansford metaphorically scratched his head. Miss Minnybell had set him a teaser. Such wholehearted enthusiasm was praiseworthy and the poor soul seemed so helpless and vague that it would be a crime to deny her the spiritual feasts that were in store. He consulted his lists again, whilst Miss Minnybell stood patiently by his side, staring up at him with the eyes of an expectant spaniel.

“Well, Miss Minnybell, if you’ll come with me,” he said at length, “I’ll see what I can do for you. I think there’s a vacancy in Tent 12 Row H—a member from Manchester suddenly taken ill with appendicitis. It’s all rather irregular, you know, but in the circumstances . . .”

Miss Minnybell trotted happily in his wake and, after consultation with two other officials in the Camp Commandant’s office, it was decided that Miss Minnybell should be offered the vacancy that had occurred.

For the second time Miss Minnybell unpacked her meagre suitcase, whilst she affably engaged the rest of the tent in an interminable and one-sided conversation. She was well satisfied with the results of her scheming, for Mr. Penpeti’s sudden disappearance from the Garden City had left her profoundly uneasy. She was quite certain that he had gone away to make final secret plans for her decimation. He was probably gathering around him a group of fellow-conspirators. Miss Minnybell did not hesitate. She learnt exactly where Mr. Penpeti had gone, filled in her membership form as a Child of Osiris and travelled down to Sussex. Now she was happy again. Once more she was in a position to keep an eye on him and thwart his evil machinations. She was determined, as far as circumstances permitted, to stick to Mr. Penpeti like a leech.


It was on Tuesday at the breakfast-table that Eustace looked up from his poached egg on boiled lettuce and said with a nice air of sympathy:

“You’re looking tired, Mrs. Summers. I trust you haven’t been overdoing things down here. Without the domestic amenities with which we were blessed at Tranquilla, I’m afraid you may have found everything rather difficult.”

“Well, it’s not easy, Mr. Mildmann,” replied Mrs. Summers with a martyred air. “But one has to carry on and make the most of it.”

“Quite! Quite!” Eustace took a sip of his milkless green tea and went on: “I was wondering if you’d care to have a half-day off---say, next Thursday. I understand that Downchester is a very good shopping and entertainments centre.”

“It would certainly make a nice change, Mr. Mildmann.”

“Then we’ll take that as settled,” smiled Eustace with an inward sigh of relief. “Er . . . perhaps you’d care to have Terence as an escort. I imagine you may want to go to the evening performance at the theatre and return by the late bus. I should feel happier if he were with you.”

“It would be nice to have company,” agreed Mrs. Summers, “if Terence would like to come.”

“I’m sure he’d like to---eh Terence?”

Terence looked up from his plate and grunted. It was obvious that his thoughts had been far afield. Mr. Mildmann repeated his suggestion.

“All right,” muttered Terence ungraciously. “I’ll go if you want me to. No option anyway.”

And at that Eustace tactfully dropped the subject, only too thankful to find that this part of the conspiracy, at least, had been far easier than he had anticipated.

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