THE STAMPEDING OF LADY BASTABLE

“It would be rather nice if you would put Clovis up for

another six days while I go up north to the MacGregors’,”

said Mrs. Sangrail sleepily across the breakfast-table. It

was her invariable plan to speak in a sleepy, comfortable

voice whenever she was unusually keen about anything; it put

people off their guard, and they frequently fell in with her

wishes before they had realized that she was really asking

for anything. Lady Bastable, however, was not so easily

taken unawares; possibly she knew that voice and what it

betokened— at any rate, she knew Clovis.

She frowned at a piece of toast and ate it very slowly, as

though she wished to convey the impression that the process

hurt her more than it hurt the toast; but no extension of

hospitality on Clovis’s behalf rose to her lips.

“It would be a great convenience to me,” pursued Mrs.

Sangrail, abandoning the careless tone. “I particularly

don’t want to take him to the MacGregors’, and it will only

be for six days.”

“It will seem longer,” said Lady Bastable dismally.

“The last time he stayed here for a week—”

“I know,” interrupted the other hastily, “but that was

nearly two years ago. He was younger then.”

“But he hasn’t improved,” said her hostess; “it’s no

use growing older if you only learn new ways of misbehaving

yourself.”

Mrs. Sangrail was unable to argue the point; since Clovis

had reached the age of seventeen she had never ceased to

bewail his irrepressible waywardness to all her circle of

acquaintances, and a polite scepticism would have greeted

the slightest hint at a prospective reformation. She

discarded the fruitless effort at cajolery and resorted to

undisguised bribery.

“If you’ll have him here for these six days I’ll cancel

that outstanding bridge account.”

It was only for forty-nine shillings, but Lady Bastable

loved shillings with a great, strong love. To lose money at

bridge and not to have to pay it was one of those rare

experiences which gave the card-table a glamour in her eyes

which it could never otherwise have possessed. Mrs.

Sangrail was almost equally devoted to her card winnings,

but the prospect of conveniently warehousing her offspring

for six days, and incidentally saving his railway fare to

the north, reconciled her to the sacrifice; when Clovis made

a belated appearance at the breakfast-table the bargain had

been struck.

“Just think,” said Mrs. Sangrail sleepily; “Lady

Bastable has very kindly asked you to stay on here while I

go to the MacGregors’.”

Clovis said suitable things in a highly unsuitable manner,

and proceeded to make punitive expeditions among the

breakfast dishes with a scowl on his face that would have

driven the purr out of a peace conference. The arrangement

that had been concluded behind his back was doubly

distasteful to him. In the first place, he particularly

wanted to teach the MacGregor boys, who could well afford

the knowledge, how to play poker-patience; secondly, the

Bastable catering was of the kind that is classified as a

rude plenty, which Clovis translated as a plenty that gives

rise to rude remarks. Watching him from behind

ostentatiously sleepy lids, his mother realized, in the

light of long experience, that any rejoicing over the

success of her manoeuvre would be distinctly premature.

It was one thing to fit Clovis into a convenient niche of

the domestic jig-saw puzzle; it was quite another matter to

get him to stay there.

Lady Bastable was wont to retire in state to the

morning-room immediately after breakfast and spend a quiet

hour in skimming through the papers; they were there, so she

might as well get their money’s worth out of them. Politics

did not greatly interest her, but she was obsessed with a

favourite foreboding that one of these days there would be a

great social upheaval, in which everybody would be killed by

everybody else. “It will come sooner than we think,” she

would observe darkly; a mathematical expert of exceptionally

high powers would have been puzzled to work out the

approximate date from the slender and confusing groundwork

which this assertion afforded.

On this particular morning the sight of Lady Bastable

enthroned among her papers gave Clovis the hint towards

which his mind had been groping all breakfast time. His

mother had gone upstairs to supervise packing operations,

and he was alone on the ground-floor with his hostess—and

the servants. The latter were the key to the situation.

Bursting wildly into the kitchen quarters, Clovis screamed a

frantic though strictly non-committal summons: “Poor Lady

Bastable! In the morning-room! Oh, quick!” The next moment

the butler, cook, page-boy, two or three maids, and a

gardener who had happened to be in one of the outer kitchens

were following in a hot scurry after Clovis as he headed

back for the morning-room. Lady Bastable was roused from

the world of newspaper lore by hearing a Japanese screen in

the hall go down with a crash. Then the door leading from

the ball flew open and her young guest tore madly through

the room, shrieked at her in passing, “The jacquerie!

They’re on us!” and dashed like an escaping hawk out

through the French window. The scared mob of servants burst

in on his heels, the gardener still clutching the sickle

with which he had been trimming hedges, and the impetus of

their headlong haste carried them, slipping and sliding,

over the smooth parquet flooring towards the chair where

their mistress sat in panic-stricken amazement. If she had

had a moment granted her for reflection she would have

behaved, as she afterwards explained, with considerable

dignity. It was probably the sickle which decided her, but

anyway she followed the lead that Clovis had given her

through the French window, and ran well and far across the

lawn before the eyes of her astonished retainers.

*

Lost dignity is not a possession which can be restored at

a moment’s notice, and both Lady Bastable and the butler

found the process of returning to normal conditions almost as

painful as a slow recovery from drowning. A jacquerie, even

if carried out with the most respectful of intentions,

cannot fail to leave some traces of embarrassment behind it.

By lunch-time, however, decorum had reasserted itself with

enhanced rigour as a natural rebound from its recent

overthrow, and the meal was served in a frigid stateliness

that might have been framed on a Byzantine model. Half-way

through its duration Mrs. Sangrail was solemnly presented

with an envelope lying on a silver salver. It contained a

cheque for forty-nine shillings.

The MacGregor boys learned how to play poker-patience;

after all, they could afford to.