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Freddie Rooke gazed coldly at the breakfast-table. Through a gleaming eye-glass he inspected the revolting object which Parker, his faithful man, had placed on a plate before him.
"Parker!" His voice had a ring of pain.
"Poached egg, sir."
Freddie averted his eyes with a silent shudder.
"It looks just like an old aunt of mine," he said. "Remove it!"
He got up, and, wrapping his dressing-gown about his long legs, took up a stand in front of the fireplace. From this position he surveyed the room, his shoulders against the mantelpiece, his calves pressing the club-fender. It was a cheerful oasis in a chill and foggy world, a typical London bachelor's breakfast-room. The walls were a restful gray, and the table, set for two, a comfortable arrangement in white and silver.
"Eggs, Parker," said Freddie solemnly, "are the acid test!"
"If, on the morning after, you can tackle a poached egg, you are all right. If not, not. And don't let anybody tell you otherwise."
Freddie pressed the palm of his hand to his brow, and sighed.
"It would seem, then, that I must have revelled a trifle whole-heartedly last night. I was possibly a little blotto. Not whiffled, perhaps, but indisputably blotto. Did I make much noise coming in?"
"No, sir. You were very quiet."
"Ah! A dashed bad sign!"
Freddie moved to the table, and poured himself a cup of coffee.
"The cream-jug is to your right, sir," said the helpful Parker.
"Let it remain there. Cafe noir for me this morning. As noir as it can jolly well stick!" Freddie retired to the fireplace and sipped delicately. "As far as I can remember, it was Ronny Devereux' birthday or something …"
"Mr Martyn's, I think you said, sir."
"That's right. Algy Martyn's birthday, and Ronny and I were the guests. It all comes back to me. I wanted Derek to roll along and join the festivities—he's never met Ronny—but he gave it a miss. Quite right! A chap in his position has responsibilities. Member of Parliament and all that. Besides," said Freddie earnestly, driving home the point with a wave of his spoon, "he's engaged to be married. You must remember that, Parker!"
"I will endeavor to, sir."
"Sometimes," said Freddie dreamily, "I wish I were engaged to be married. Sometimes I wish I had some sweet girl to watch over me and … No, I don't, by Jove! It would give me the utter pip! Is Sir Derek up yet, Parker?"
"Getting up, sir."
"See that everything is all right, will you? I mean as regards the foodstuffs and what not. I want him to make a good breakfast. He's got to meet his mother this morning at Charing Cross. She's legging it back from the Riviera."
Freddie shook his head.
"You wouldn't speak in that light, careless tone if you knew her! Well, you'll see her tonight. She's coming here to dinner."
"Miss Mariner will be here, too. A foursome. Tell Mrs Parker to pull up her socks and give us something pretty ripe. Soup, fish, all that sort of thing. She knows. And let's have a stoup of malvoisie from the oldest bin. This is a special occasion!"
"Her ladyship will be meeting Miss Mariner for the first time, sir?"
"You've put your finger on it! Absolutely the first time on this or any stage! We must all rally round and make the thing a success."
"I am sure Mrs Parker will strain every nerve, sir." Parker moved to the door, carrying the rejected egg, and stepped aside to allow a tall, well-built man of about thirty to enter. "Good morning, Sir Derek."
Parker slid softly from the room. Derek Underhill sat down at the table. He was a strikingly handsome man, with a strong, forceful face, dark, lean and cleanly shaven. He was one of those men whom a stranger would instinctively pick out of a crowd as worthy of note. His only defect was that his heavy eyebrows gave him at times an expression which was a little forbidding. Women, however, had never been repelled by it. He was very popular with women, not quite so popular with men—always excepting Freddie Rooke, who worshipped him. They had been at school together, though Freddie was the younger by several years.
"Finished, Freddie?" asked Derek.
Freddie smiled wanly,
"We are not breakfasting this morning," he replied. "The spirit was willing, but the jolly old flesh would have none of it. To be perfectly frank, the Last of the Rookes has a bit of a head."
"Ass!" said Derek.
"A bit of sympathy," said Freddie, pained, "would not be out of place. We are far from well. Some person unknown has put a threshing-machine inside the old bean and substituted a piece of brown paper for our tongue. Things look dark and yellow and wobbly!"
"You shouldn't have overdone it last night."
"It was Algy Martyn's birthday," pleaded Freddie.
"If I were an ass like Algy Martyn," said Derek, "I wouldn't go about advertising the fact that I'd been born. I'd hush it up!"
He helped himself to a plentiful portion of kedgeree, Freddie watching him with repulsion mingled with envy. When he began to eat, the spectacle became too poignant for the sufferer, and he wandered to the window.
"What a beast of a day!"
It was an appalling day. January, that grim month, was treating London with its usual severity. Early in the morning a bank of fog had rolled up off the river, and was deepening from pearly white to a lurid brown. It pressed on the window-pane like a blanket, leaving dark, damp rivulets on the glass.
"Awful!" said Derek.
"Your mater's train will be late."
"Yes. Damned nuisance. It's bad enough meeting trains in any case, without having to hang about a draughty station for an hour."
"And it's sure, I should imagine," went on Freddie, pursuing his train of thought, "to make the dear old thing pretty tolerably ratty, if she has one of those slow journeys." He pottered back to the fireplace, and rubbed his shoulders reflectively against the mantelpiece. "I take it that you wrote to her about Jill?"
"Of course. That's why she's coming over, I suppose. By the way, you got those seats for that theatre tonight?"
"Yes. Three together and one somewhere on the outskirts. If it's all the same to you, old thing, I'll have the one on the outskirts."
Derek, who had finished his kedgeree and was now making himself a blot on Freddie's horizon with toast and marmalade, laughed.
"What a rabbit you are, Freddie! Why on earth are you so afraid of mother?"
Freddie looked at him as a timid young squire might have gazed upon St. George when the latter set out to do battle with the dragon. He was of the amiable type which makes heroes of its friends. In the old days when he had fagged for him at Winchester he had thought Derek the most wonderful person in the world, and this view he still retained. Indeed, subsequent events had strengthened it. Derek had done the most amazing things since leaving school. He had had a brilliant career at Oxford, and now, in the House of Commons, was already looked upon by the leaders of his party as one to be watched and encouraged. He played polo superlatively well, and was a fine shot. But of all his gifts and qualities the one that extorted Freddie's admiration in its intensest form was his lion-like courage as exemplified by his behavior in the present crisis. There he sat, placidly eating toast and marmalade, while the boat-train containing Lady Underhill already sped on its way from Dover to London. It was like Drake playing bowls with the Spanish Armada in sight.
"I wish I had your nerve!" he said, awed. "What I should be feeling, if I were in your place and had to meet your mater after telling her that I was engaged to marry a girl she had never seen, I don't know. I'd rather face a wounded tiger!"
"Idiot!" said Derek placidly.
"Not," pursued Freddie, "that I mean to say anything in the least derogatory and so forth to your jolly old mater, if you understand me, but the fact remains she scares me pallid! Always has, ever since the first time I went to stay at your place when I was a kid. I can still remember catching her eye the morning I happened by pure chance to bung an apple through her bedroom window, meaning to let a cat on the sill below have it in the short ribs. She was at least thirty feet away, but, by Jove, it stopped me like a bullet!"
"Push the bell, old man, will you? I want some more toast."
Freddie did as he was requested with growing admiration.
"The condemned man made an excellent breakfast," he murmured. "More toast, Parker," he added, as that admirable servitor opened the door. "Gallant! That's what I call it. Gallant!"
Derek tilted his chair back.
"Mother is sure to like Jill when she sees her," he said.
"When she sees her! Ah! But the trouble is, young feller-me-lad, that she hasn't seen her! That's the weak spot in your case, old companion! A month ago she didn't know of Jill's existence. Now, you know and I know that Jill is one of the best and brightest. As far as we are concerned, everything in the good old garden is lovely. Why, dash it, Jill and I were children together. Sported side by side on the green, and what not. I remember Jill, when she was twelve, turning the garden-hose on me and knocking about seventy-five per cent off the market value of my best Sunday suit. That sort of thing forms a bond, you know, and I've always felt that she was a corker. But your mater's got to discover it for herself. It's a dashed pity, by Jove, that Jill hasn't a father or a mother or something of that species to rally round just now. They would form a gang. There's nothing like a gang! But she's only got that old uncle of hers. A rummy bird! Met him?"
"Several times. I like him."
"Oh, he's a genial old buck all right. A very bonhomous lad. But you hear some pretty queer stories about him if you get among people who knew him in the old days. Even now I'm not so dashed sure I should care to play cards with him. Young Threepwood was telling me only the other day that the old boy took thirty quid off him at picquet as clean as a whistle. And Jimmy Monroe, who's on the Stock Exchange, says he's frightfully busy these times buying margins or whatever it is chappies do down in the City. Margins. That's the word. Jimmy made me buy some myself on a thing called Amalgamated Dyes. I don't understand the procedure exactly, but Jimmy says it's a sound egg and will do me a bit of good. What was I talking about? Oh, yes, old Selby. There's no doubt he's quite a sportsman. But till you've got Jill well established, you know, I shouldn't enlarge on him too much with the mater."
"On the contrary," said Derek. "I shall mention him at the first opportunity. He knew my father out in India."
"Did he, by Jove! Oh, well, that makes a difference."
Parker entered with the toast, and Derek resumed his breakfast.
"It may be a little bit awkward," he said, "at first, meeting mother. But everything will be all right after five minutes."
"Absolutely! But, oh, boy! that first five minutes!" Freddie gazed portentously through his eye-glass. Then he seemed to be undergoing some internal struggle, for he gulped once or twice. "That first five minutes!" he said, and paused again. A moment's silent self-communion, and he went on with a rush. "I say, listen. Shall I come along, too?"
"To the station. With you."
"What on earth for?"
"To see you through the opening stages. Break the ice and all that sort of thing. Nothing like collecting a gang, you know. Moments when a feller needs a friend and so forth. Say the word, and I'll buzz along and lend my moral support."
Derek's heavy eyebrows closed together in an offended frown, and seemed to darken his whole face. This unsolicited offer of assistance hurt his dignity. He showed a touch of the petulance which came now and then when he was annoyed, to suggest that he might not possess so strong a character as his exterior indicated.
"It's very kind of you," he began stiffly.
Freddie nodded. He was acutely conscious of this himself.
"Some fellows," he observed, "would say 'Not at all!' I suppose. But not the Last of the Rookes! For, honestly, old man, between ourselves, I don't mind admitting that this is the bravest deed of the year, and I'm dashed if I would do it for anyone else."
"It's very good of you, Freddie …"
"That's all right. I'm a Boy Scout, and this is my act of kindness for today."
Derek got up from the table.
"Of course you mustn't come," he said. "We can't form a sort of debating society to discuss Jill on the platform at Charing Cross."
"Oh, I would just hang around in the offing, shoving in an occasional tactful word."
"The wheeze would simply be to …"
"Oh, very well," said Freddie, damped. "Just as you say, of course. But there's nothing like a gang, old man, nothing like a gang!"