THE STRATEGIST

Mrs. Jallatt’s young people’s parties were severely

exclusive; it came cheaper that way, because you could ask

fewer to them. Mrs. Jallatt didn’t study cheapness, but

somehow she generally attained it.

“There’ll be about ten girls,” speculated Rollo, as he

drove to the function, “and I suppose four fellows, unless

the Wrotsleys bring their cousin, which Heaven forbid. That

would mean Jack and me against three of them.”

Rollo and the Wrotsley brethren had maintained an undying

feud almost from nursery days. They only met now and then

in the holidays, and the meeting was usually tragic for

whichever happened to have the fewest backers on hand.

Rollo was counting tonight on the presence of a devoted and

muscular partisan to hold an even balance. As he arrived he

heard his prospective champion’s sister apologizing to the

hostess for the unavoidable absence of her brother; a moment

later he noted that the Wrotsleys had brought their cousin.

Two against three would have been exciting and possibly

unpleasant; one against three promised to be about as

amusing as a visit to a dentist. Rollo ordered his carriage

for as early as was decently possible, and faced the company

with a smile that he imagined the better sort of aristocrat

would have worn when mounting to the guillotine.

“So glad you were able to come,” said the elder Wrotsley

heartily.

“Now, you children will like to play games, I suppose,”

said Mrs. Jallatt, by way of giving things a start, and as

they were too well-bred to contradict her there only

remained the question of what they were to play at.

“I know of a good game,” said the elder Wrotsley

innocently. “The fellows leave the room and think of a

word, then they come back again, and the girls have to find

out what the word is.”

Rollo knew that game. He would have suggested it himself

if his faction had been in the majority.

“It doesn’t promise to be very exciting,” sniffed the

superior Dolores Sneep as the boys filed out of the room.

Rollo thought differently. He trusted to Providence that

Wrotsley had nothing worse than knotted handkerchiefs at his

disposal.

The word-choosers locked themselves in the library to

ensure that their deliberations should not be interrupted.

Providence turned out to be not even decently neutral; on a

rack on the library wall were a dog-whip and a whalebone

riding switch. Rollo thought it criminal negligence to

leave such weapons of precision lying about. He was given a

choice of evils, and chose the dog-whip; the next minute or

so he spent in wondering how he could have made such a

stupid selection. Then they went back to the languidly

expectant females.

“The word’s `camel,’ “ announced the Wrotsley cousin

blunderingly.

“You stupid!” screamed the girls, “we’ve got to guess

the word. Now you’ll have to go back and think of

another.”

“Not for worlds,” said Rollo; “I mean, the word isn’t

really camel; we were rotting. Pretend it’s dromedary!” he

whispered to the others.

“I heard them say `dromedary’! I heard them. I don’t

care what you say; I heard them,” squealed the odious

Dolores. “With ears as long as hers one would hear

anything,” thought Rollo savagely.

“We shall have to go back, I suppose,” said the elder

Wrotsley resignedly.

The conclave locked itself once more into the library.

“Look here, I’m not going through that dog-whip business

again,” protested Rollo.

“Certainly not, dear,” said the elder Wrotsley; “we’ll

try the whalebone switch this time, and then you’ll know

which hurts most. It’s only by personal experience that one

finds out these things.”

It was swiftly borne in upon Rollo that his earlier

selection of the dog-whip had been a really sound one. The

conclave gave his under-lip time to steady itself while it

debated the choice of the necessary word. “Mustang” was

no good, as half the girls wouldn’t know what it meant;

finally “quagga” was pitched on.

“You must come and sit down over here,” chorused the

investigating committee on their return; but Rollo was

obdurate in insisting that the questioned person always

stood up. On the whole, it was a relief when the game ended

and supper was announced.

Mrs. Jallatt did not stint her young guests, but the more

expensive delicacies of her supper-table were never

unnecessarily duplicated, and it was usually good policy to

take what you wanted while it was still there. On this

occasion she had provided sixteen peaches to “go round”

among fourteen children; it was really not her fault that

the two Wrotsleys and their cousin, foreseeing the long

foodless drive home, had each quietly pocketed an extra

peach, but it was distinctly trying for Dolores and the fat

and good-natured Agnes Blaik to be left with one peach

between them.

“I suppose we had better halve it,” said Dolores sourly.

But Agnes was fat first and good-natured afterwards; those

were her guiding principles in life. She was profuse in her

sympathy for Dolores, but she hastily devoured the peach,

explaining that it would spoil it to divide it; the juice

ran out so.

“Now what would you all like to do?” demanded Mrs.

Jallatt by way of a diversion. “The professional conjurer

whom I had engaged has failed me at the last moment. Can

any of you recite?”

There were symptoms of a general panic. Dolores was known

to recite “Locksley Hall” on the least provocation. There

had been occasions when her opening line, “Comrades, leave

me here a little,” had been taken as a literal injunction

by a large section of her hearers. There was a murmur of

relief when Rollo hastily declared that he could do a few

conjuring tricks. He had never done one in his life, but

those two visits to the library had goaded him to unusual

recklessness.

“You’ve seen conjuring chaps take coins and cards out of

people,” he announced; “well, I’m going to take more

interesting things out of some of you. Mice, for

instance.”

“Not mice!”

A shrill protest rose, as he had foreseen, from the

majority of his audience.

“Well, fruit, then.”

The amended proposal was received with approval. Agnes

positively beamed.

Without more ado Rollo made straight for his trio of

enemies, plunged his hand successively into their

breast-pockets, and produced three peaches. There was no

applause, but no amount of hand-clapping would have given

the performer as much pleasure as the silence which greeted

his coup.

“Of course, we were in the know,” said the Wrotsley

cousin lamely.

“That’s done it,” chuckled Rollo to himself.

“If they had been confederates they would have sworn they

knew nothing about it,” said Dolores, with piercing

conviction.

“Do you know any more tricks?” asked Mrs. Jallatt

hurriedly.

Rollo did not. He hinted that he might have changed the

three peaches into something else, but Agnes had already

converted one into girl-food, so nothing more could be done

in that direction.

“I know a game,” said the elder Wrotsley heavily,

“where the fellows go out of the room, and think of some

character in history; then they come back and act him, and

the girls have to guess who it’s meant for.”

“I’m afraid I must be going,” said Rollo to his hostess.

“Your carriage won’t be here for another twenty

minutes,” said Mrs. Jallatt.

“It’s such a fine evening I think I’ll walk and meet

it.”

“It’s raining rather steadily at present. You’ve just

time to play that historical game.”

“We haven’t heard Dolores recite,” said Rollo

desperately; as soon as he had said it he realized his

mistake. Confronted with the alternative of “Locksley

Hall,” public opinion declared unanimously for the history

game.

Rollo played his last card. In an undertone meant

apparently for the Wrotsley boy, but carefully pitched to

reach Agnes, he observed:

“All right, old man; we’ll go and finish those chocolates

we left in the library.”

“I think it’s only fair that the girls should take their

turn in going out,” exclaimed Agnes briskly. She was great

on fairness. “Nonsense,” said the others; “there are too

many of us.”

“Well, four of us can go. I’ll be one of them.”

And Agnes darted off towards the library, followed by

three less eager damsels.

Rollo sank into a chair and smiled ever so faintly at the

Wrotsleys, just a momentary baring of the teeth; an otter,

escaping from the fangs of the hounds into the safety of a

deep pool, might have given a similar demonstration of its

feelings.

From the library came the sound of moving furniture.

Agnes was leaving nothing unturned in her quest for the

mythical chocolates. And then came a more blessed sound,

wheels crunching wet gravel.

“It has been a most enjoyable evening,” said Rollo to

his hostess.