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   Chapter 31 THE ELEVENTH HOUR

A Knight on Wheels By Ian Hay Characters: 27031

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"This Week's Society Problem," mused Peggy. "A, an unsophisticated young spinster, finding herself alone in the residence of B, an eligible bachelor acquaintance, notices upon B's dining-room table a letter in B's handwriting, addressed to herself and stamped for post. Problem: What should A do? Answer adjudged correct: Leave the letter where it is and wait until the postman delivers it. Answer adjudged incorrect: Open the letter and read it."

A minute later the seal was broken and Peggy was composedly extracting the folded sheets.

"I'm afraid I never did have the instincts of a real lady," she said. "But perhaps the postman would never have delivered this letter. I will salve my conscience by picking off the stamp and saving him a penny."

She did so. Then, sitting down to the table and drawing the lamp a little nearer, she smoothed out the crackling pages and began to read.

This is the letter of a man who suffers from an impediment in his speech. I have been able to talk to you on many subjects, but never on this-the thing that matters most in all the world.

Peggy drew her chair a little closer.

I might have told you all about it long ago, the letter continued, for I have been ready to do so ever since you gathered me up from under the car at the foot of Wickmore Hill. But I never did. Twice I have nearly done it, and twice I have drawn back-the first time because it seemed too soon, the second because it seemed no use. If details would interest you, the first time was in the early days of my convalescence at Tite Street. I came hobbling into your drawing-room one afternoon-and you had been crying. I suppose your father had been inconsiderate again. Not that you showed it, but I happened to sit down in the same chair as your handkerchief, which was soaking. If necessary, I can produce the handkerchief as evidence.

Peggy gave a half-hysterical little sob.

The second time was on Chelsea Embankment. I don't suppose you remember.

Then followed Philip's version of what took place on Chelsea Embankment. Peggy smiled indulgently. She could afford to smile now.

But now that the reason which kept you from marrying any one-and I think it was fine of you-has been removed, I want to reopen the subject in earnest. First of all, let me talk about the beginning of things....

Peggy looked up.

"I wonder why men always want to go back to the Year One when they make love," she mused. "Tim did it, too. I suppose it is a man's idea of showing how firmly founded his affection is. 'Established eighteen-seventy-six'-that sort of thing!"

Then she returned to her letter.

It was a lengthy epistle, this Epistle of Theophilus. Primarily it was a love-letter; but when you have never written a love-letter before and never intend to write another, a good deal of secondary matter is apt to creep in. This letter contained the whole of Philip's simple philosophy of life; his confession of faith; the thoughts that a deeply reserved and extremely sensitive man sets down just once, and for one eye only. He felt that Peggy was entitled to a full and complete inventory of his thoughts about her; so he set them all down, page by page, line by line; not knowing that a woman as often as not chooses a man as she chooses a house, not because of the stability of the foundations or the purity of the water-supply, but because a quaint, old-fashioned sundial in the garden has caught her fancy, or some oddly shaped room in an out-of-the-way turret strikes her as the one and only site for a little private and particular retreat of her own. But Peggy read on.

The letter covered wide ground. It went back to their first wonderful meeting, and recalled childish conversations which Peggy thought she had forgotten. It told of knightly dreams, and of the Lady whom the Knight was one day to meet and marry-not realising that he had met her already. After that came more recent history-the second meeting, and the rapturous convalescence at Tite Street. The black months that followed the tragedy on Chelsea Embankment were sketched very lightly. Finally came the story of the momentous voyage upon the Bosphorus, and the race home.

The letter closed with a passage which need not be set down here. This is in the main a frivolous narrative; and there are certain inner rooms in the human heart, from the threshold of which self-respecting frivolity draws back with decent reverence.

* * *

The clock struck two. Simultaneously the outer door of the flat opened with the rattle of a latchkey; and next moment Timothy burst into the room. Peggy was curled up in the big armchair before the fire, apparently half asleep.

"That you, Timmy?" she enquired.

"Yes-dearest!" replied Timothy.

Inflated with the enormous pride of possession, he leaned over the back of the chair and gazed fondly down upon his prospective bride.

"Don't bother me just now," said Peggy. "I'm rather sleepy."

"Darling!" responded the infatuated Timothy.

"Stop blowing on the top of my hand, and help yourself to a cigarette, there's a good child," suggested the darling soothingly.

Timothy obeyed, a trifle dashed.

"I don't think, little girl," he remarked, lighting the cigarette, "that that is quite the way in which a man expects to be greeted by his fiancée."

"His what?" asked Peggy.

"His-well, dash it all, Peggy," exclaimed Timothy impatiently,-he was naturally somewhat tightly strung up to-night,-"don't be a little pig. Here I come hareing along from the dance in search of you, as full of beans as-as-as a-"

"Beanpod?" suggested Peggy helpfully.

"No! Yes! All right! Beanpod, if you like!" cried the sorely tried youth. "But give a fellow a chance. As I say, here I come, red-hot on your track, just overflowing with-well, I can't describe it-and you greet me as if I were a Rural Dean."

"I should never dream of addressing a Rural Dean as 'Timmy,' Timmy," Peggy replied.

"Well, you know what I mean," insisted Timothy, not in the least appeased by this soft answer. "Just think. We have both been passing through the greatest crisis of our lives-the most thrilling moment of our joint existence-"

"Have we?" asked Peggy in simple wonder. "I didn't know."

Her incensed swain, grappling heroically with his feelings, began to stride about the room.

"Peggy," he said in a stern voice, "let us understand one another clearly."

For reply, the unfeeling Miss Falconer rose to her feet and struck an attitude.

"'Tush!' cried the Marquis, pacing the floor of the bijou boudoir liked a caged lion," she recited.

Timothy uttered an impatient ejaculation, and dropped upon the sofa.

"Then, with a superb gesture of contempt, he turned upon his heel and flung himself into the depths of an abysmal divan," continued Peggy. "Careful, Timmy! I heard the sofa crack."

"I suppose you know, Peggy," announced Timothy in a very ill-used voice, "that you are breaking my heart? Also destroying my faith in women? Mere details, of course," he added, in what was meant to be a tone of world-weary cynicism; "but they may interest you!"

He rose, and leaning gloomily against the mantelpiece, glowered his disapprobation of his beloved's ill-timed levity.

Once more, just as in her conversation with Philip, Peggy flashed into another mood. She put out an appealing hand, and touched Tim caressingly.

"Timmy, dear," she said, "I'm sorry-there! Will you forgive me, please?"

"Yes, I forgive you," replied Timothy, reassuming his air of possession at once. "But it must not occur again."

"All right," agreed Peggy meekly.

Then she looked at Timothy with a troubled expression.

"Tim," she said, "I want to talk to you like a mother. I have been thinking."

"And have you come to the conclusion that you don't love me!" exclaimed Timothy in a tragic voice. "I know: don't explain! That is a woman all over. A couple of hours-"

"I wasn't going to say anything of the kind, Tim," interposed Peggy quietly; "but I have been thinking." She fingered the buttons of Timothy's immaculate waistcoat. "I have been wondering if a man like you ought to marry at present. What lovely buttons!" She played a little tune on them to show her appreciation.

"Don't treat me like a child, please," said Timothy stiffly.

"At this moment," replied Peggy, "that is just the way I am not treating you."

"You think me too young, I know," insisted Tim.

"I wasn't thinking of you at all," said Peggy calmly.

"I see," said Timothy in a hollow voice. "Yourself? Quite so!" He laughed sardonically.

"No," replied Peggy patiently; "of something bigger. Something bigger than either of us. I was thinking-well, of the nation at large."

"Peggy," enquired Timothy, entirely befogged but considerably intrigued, "what are you talking about?"

"Sit down, and listen," replied Peggy.

Timothy obeyed, and the girl continued:-

"It's this way, Tim. Many a man of promise has ruined his prospects by an early marriage. You are a man of promise, Tim."

"Oh, rot!" protested Timothy, kindling none the less.

"If you were to marry now," continued Peggy, in the same thoughtful voice, "you would settle down into a contented, domesticated husband."

Tim nodded.

"It's about time I did," he said darkly.

"No," countered Peggy; "not yet. You are a man of action, Tim. You ought to be free, at present-free to fight, and climb high, and become famous-"

"By Jove!" exclaimed Timothy, despite himself.

"-and to reach the great place you are entitled to. If I were a man, I would let nothing come between me and my career. A career! Would you sacrifice all that, Tim, just to get married?"

"But, Peggy," exclaimed Timothy, "you would help me. At least, you wouldn't be a bit in the way."

"You do say kind things to me, Tim," replied Peggy gratefully. "But it would never do. Even a man of your personality would find it hard to get on without friends and without influence; and very young married men have few friends and less influence. They are back numbers: nobody wants them. It's the rising young bachelors who go everywhere, and can command interest and popularity and fame. A wife would be a dreadful drag. She might make shipwreck of your life."

Tim drew in his breath, and was on the point of making a gallant interjection of protest; but Peggy concluded swiftly:-

"So you must establish yourself in the public eye before you settle down. Don't you agree with me?"

She lay back in her chair again, looking interrogatively up into Timothy's perplexed countenance.

"There's a good deal in what you say, Peggy," he admitted. "But I simply could not leave you in the cart, after-"

A sudden inspiration seized him.

"Look here-I have it!" he cried. "Supposing we get married in five years from now-what?"

Peggy was silent, and Tim waited impatiently for her to make up her mind. At last she spoke.

"It would be a very difficult five years for you, Tim. Imagine yourself going about this big world, meeting all sorts of famous and influential people, and growing more and more famous and influential yourself. Girls would be falling in love with you-"

"Oh, I say!" exclaimed Timothy, much confused.

"Yet all the time," continued Peggy in a tragic voice, "you would be able to give them no encouragement, because you felt bound to come at the end of five years and marry me-getting on for thirty! It wouldn't be a very comfortable five years for either of us, would it?"

By this time Timothy was once more striding about the room. But he was not posing now: he was thinking hard. Peggy sat motionless. Her face was serene, but her hands gripped the arms of the chair until her pink finger-nails grew white. Once she wondered where Philip was. She did not know that he was walking up and down Sloane Street in the fog, fighting with all the devils in Hell.

At last Timothy appeared to arrive at some decision. He came and sat down upon the edge of Peggy's chair.

"Peggy," he announced, "you have a sense of proportion quite unusual in your sex. You are the most farsighted woman I have ever known."

"I believe I am," said Peggy.

"And the most unselfish," added the youthful Grand Turk on the arm of her chair.

"I'm not so sure of that," said Peggy.

"What you say about my making a career, and all that," continued the newly awakened Timothy-"well, there is something in it, you know! By Gad, there's something in it! I rather see myself in Parliament, letting some of those chaps have it in the neck! Wow-wow!" He bubbled enthusiastically: already, with the simple fervour of the hereditary ruling class, he felt himself at grips with the enemies of the State. "And I am sure you are right, too, about my not tying myself down to an early marriage. I consider it a jolly sporting and unselfish view for you to take. Still, I must not allow you to suffer." He laid his hand upon Peggy's arm. "Look here, Peggy, if I come to you in five years from now and ask you to marry me-will you?"

"Yes," said Peggy.

"Cheers!"

"On one condition."

"And that is-"

"That neither of us has married any one else in the meanwhile," concluded Peggy sedately.

Timothy laughed loudly at this flight of fancy.

"You can set your mind at rest on that point, Peggy," he said. "I will stick to you." He was a single-minded egoist, was young Timothy. "Then it's a deal?"

Peggy, knowing well what was coming, nodded. Timothy bent over her.

"I think

we might signify our assent in the usual manner-eh?" he suggested.

"We agreed upon five years-not five seconds!" said Peggy, laughingly releasing her hand. She stepped out of the chair and stood up. "Now, Tim, you trot off to the ball again; it's not much after three. Philip will take me home: he is out getting a cab now. You go and perform a similar service for Babs Duncombe."

"Oh, I say, come!" observed Timothy scornfully. "Babs Duncombe!"

"Why not? She is a very nice, pretty girl, and her father is a very influential man. Remember, Tim, you have got to spend the next five years getting to know influential people. Begin on Babs. If you hurry up, you may be able to catch her for an extra or two."

Already the pliable Timothy was putting on his coat.

"You are right, Peggy," he said. "You are always right. I believe you know what is best for me better than I do myself."

Peggy, surveying him indulgently, mentally allotted to him a maximum of six further months in the single state.

"I shouldn't be surprised," she said. "Good-night, Tim!"

"Good-night, Peggy. You are quite sure about-well, perhaps you're right. Hallo, Theophilus, old son! Got back?"

"Yes," said Philip, putting down his hat. "It's lucky I caught you. I can't find a cab high or low. You had better take Peggy home in yours."

"Tim is going back to the ball, Philip," interposed Peggy. "He has one or two duty dances to work off. I will share his cab as far as the Freeborns' and take it on home. I shall be quite safe."

"Well, hurry up, Peggy," said Timothy, now ready for the road. "I should look a bit of a mug if I got there and found the place shut-what, what? Good-night, Philip, my lad. Don't sit up for me. Half a minute, Peggy! I think I had better have a fresh pair of gloves."

He dashed out, across the hall, and disappeared into his own room, where he could be heard opening drawers and banging cupboard doors.

Philip picked up Peggy's velvet cloak and wrapped it round her.

"Shall I come, too?" he asked, "and act as subsequent escort; or should I find myself a member of the ancient French family of De Trop?"

Peggy picked up her gloves, fan, and handkerchief from the table, and said:-

"You would never be de trop at any time, Philip. But I am not going to drag you to Chelsea to-night. Look-the fog is lifting!"

She drew back the curtain of the window. Twinkling lights were discernible in the street below.

They shook hands.

"Have you given him his answer?" Philip blurted out. He could not help it.

"Yes."

"Can I-guess it?"

"I don't know. You might. It's an even chance, isn't it?"

Timothy appeared at the door.

"Peggy, I am waiting," he mentioned coldly; and disappeared.

"Coming, Tim," replied Peggy. "Good-night, Philip!"

"Tim seems to have rather taken command of things," said Philip, as he escorted Peggy to the top of the stairs.

"He is in a hurry, poor dear,-that's all. He hasn't completed his evening's programme yet. But I must fly."

She turned to go; then paused.

"It's as well you came in when you did, Philip," she said. "Two minutes later and you would have found me gone."

"I am glad I got back in time," replied Philip gravely.

Suddenly the girl looked up squarely into his face.

"Do you know, mon ami," she said, with a whimsical smile, "you have a habit of running things rather fine."

"Have I?" replied Philip dully.

"You have. Talk about the eleventh hour! In-"

"Pegg-ee!" The voice of the fermenting Timothy came booming up the staircase. Peggy did not hurry.

"Good-night-Phil!" she said softly.

"Good-night-Pegs!" replied Philip. He touched her hand awkwardly. They had not addressed one another thus since childhood.

He watched her out of sight down the winding stair, and then turned heavily away. As he paused to close the outer door of the flat his ear caught the sound of light feet. He looked out.

Peggy was standing at the top of the staircase.

"Phil," she said, rather breathlessly, "don't forget to post your letter!"

Then she fled.

One second later Philip was standing by the lamplit table. His letter was gone, and another had taken its place. It was addressed to "Most Excellent Theophilus."

He took it up, dizzily, and turned it over. On the back was written:-

I have saved you a stamp by reading your letter before you posted it.

P.S. You will find the stamp on the inkstand.

Finally he opened the letter. His own had occupied many pages; this, the answer, consisted of three words.

Philip read them through. Then, rocking on his feet, he read them again, and again. Finally he raised his head and gazed dumbly about him. His eyes fell upon a twinkling circular object lying upon the table close beside the place where he had found the letter.

With a swelling heart he snatched it up, and strode to the hearthrug.

There, with one devastating sweep of his arm, he rendered the mantelpiece a solitude. Everything went with one glorious crash-pipes, tobacco-jar, cigarettes, Bulgarian Atrocities-all. Last, but not least, with a heavy thud, went the Meldrum Carburettor. The day of Things was over.

Then, very reverently, in the very centre of the desert that he had created for her, he planted a portrait-the portrait of a Lady, in a large, round, shining, silver frame.

THE END

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Transcriber's Notes:

* * *

Throughout the dialogues, there were words used to mimic accents of the speakers. Those words were retained as-is.

Errors in punctuations, inconsistent spelling and inconsistent, hyphenation were not corrected unless otherwise noted below.

On page 59, the period after "good things of this world" was replaced with a comma.

On page 69, the word "bulllied" was replaced with "bullied".

On page 125, a quotation mark was added after "never meddled with that handle since."

On page 167, a quotation mark was added after "shall double again".

On page 170, "Allnut" was replaced with "Allnutt".

On page 187, "Mablethrope" was replaced with "Mablethorpe", and the comma after "Go ahead, Philip" was replaced with a period.

On page 198, the comma after "the fruit of honest toil" was replaced with a period.

On page 205, "dimissals" was replaced with "dismissals".

On page 208, a single quotation mark after "Well?" was replaced with a double quotation mark.

On page 214, a quotation mark was added after "walk down to the Embankment,"

On page 235, "byeway" was replaced with "byway".

On page 241, the single quotation mark at the end of "will you?" was replaced with a double quotation mark.

On page 245, a period was added after "gasp of dismay".

On page 252, an exclamation point was added after "That bumpkin".

On page 255, the comma after "the flying car" was replaced with a period.

On page 255, the period after "he shouted" was replaced with a comma.

On page 284, a quotation mark was added before "For a grand-uncle".

On page 290, the comma after "Philip rebelliously" was replaced with a period.

On page 291, the comma after "I don't want to overcharge you" was replaced with a period.

On page 315, the single quotation mark at the end of "another reason?" was replaced with a double quotation mark.

On page 324, the period after "should be happy with him" was replaced with a comma.

On page 333, "unbiassed" was replaced with "unbiased".

On page 368, the single quotation mark before "-Brand." was replaced with a double quotation mark.

On page 378, the quotation mark before "The feverish Timothy" was removed.

On page 388, the quotation mark before "You have dropped in" was removed.

On page 392, "unbiassed" was replaced with "unbiased".

On page 408, the exclamation point after "not five seconds" was moved within the quotation marks.

In the ad for "A MAN'S MAN", "12mo," was replaced with "12mo.".

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