"I HAD better say at once," I announced as I turned over the wine list, "that I have come out here to enjoy myself, and enjoy myself I shall. Myra, what shall we drink?"
"You had three weeks' honeymoon in October," complained Thomas, "and you're taking another three weeks now. Don't you ever do any work?"
Myra and I smiled at each other. Coming from Thomas, who spends his busy day leaning up against the wireless installation at the Admiralty, the remark amused us.
"We'll have champagne," said Myra, "because it's our opening night. Archie, after you with the head-waiter."
It was due to Dahlia, really, that the Rabbits were hibernating at the Hôtel des Angéliques, Switzerland (central-heated throughout); for she had been ordered abroad, after an illness, to pull herself together a little, and her doctor had agreed with Archie that she might as well do it at a place where her husband could skate. On the point that Peter should come and skate too, however, Archie was firm. While admitting that he loved his infant son, he reminded Dahlia that she couldn't possibly get through Calais and Pontarlier without declaring Peter, and that the duty on this class of goods was remarkably heavy. Peter, therefore, was left behind. He had an army of nurses to look after him, and a stenographer to take down his more important remarks. With a daily bulletin and a record of his table-talk promised her, Dahlia was prepared to be content.
As for Myra and me, we might have hesitated to take another holiday so soon, had it not been for a letter I received one morning at breakfast.
"Simpson is going." I said. "He has purchased a pair of skis."
"That does it," said Myra decisively. And, gurgling happily to herself, she went out and bought a camera.
For Thomas I can find no excuses. At a moment of crisis he left his country's Navy in jeopardy and, the Admiralty yacht being otherwise engaged, booked a first return from Cook's. And so it was that at four o'clock one day we arrived together at the Hôtel des Angéliques, and some three hours later were settling down comfortably to dinner.
"I've had a busy time," said Archie. "I've hired a small bob, a luge and a pair of skis for myself, a pair of snow-shoes and some skates for Dahlia, a—a tricycle horse for Simpson, and I don't know what else. All in French."
"What is the French for a pair of snow-shoes?" asked Myra.
"I pointed to them in French. The undersized Robert I got at a bargain. The man who hired it last week broke his leg before his fortnight was up, and so there was a reduction of several centimes."
"I've been busy too," I said. "I've been watching Myra unpack, and telling her where not to put my things."
"I packed jolly well—except for the accident."
"An accident to the boot-oil," I explained. "If I get down to my last three shirts you will notice it."
We stopped eating for a moment in order to drink Dahlia's health. It was Dahlia's health which had sent us there.
"Who's your friend, Samuel?" said Archie, as Simpson caught somebody's eye at another table and nodded.
"A fellow I met in the lift," said Simpson casually.
"Samuel, beware of elevator acquaintances," said Myra in her most solemn manner.
"He's rather a good chap. He was at Peterhouse with a friend of mine. He was telling me quite a good story about a 'wine' my friend gave there once, when——"
"Did you tell him about your 'ginger-beers' at Giggleswick?" I interrupted.
"My dear old chap, he's rather a man to be in with. He knows the President."
"I thought nobody knew the President of the Swiss Republic," said Myra. "Like the Man in the Iron Mask."
"Not that President, Myra. The President of the Angéliques Sports Club."
"Never heard of it," we all said.
Simpson polished his glasses and prepared delightedly to give an explanation.
"The Sports Club runs everything here," he began. "It gives you prizes for fancy costumes and skating and so on."
"Introduce me to the President at once," cooed Myra, patting her hair and smoothing down her frock.
"Even if you were the Treasurer's brother," said Archie, "you wouldn't get a prize for skating, Simpson."
"You've never seen him do a rocking seventeen, sideways."
Simpson looked at us pityingly.
"There's a lot more in it than that," he said. "The President will introduce you to anybody. One might see—er—somebody one rather liked the look of, and—er—— Well, I mean in an hotel one wants to enter into the hotel life and—er—meet other people."
"Who is she?" said Myra.
"Anybody you want to marry must be submitted to Myra for approval first," I said. "We've told you so several times."
Simpson hastily disclaimed any intention of marrying anybody, and helped himself lavishly to champagne.
It so happened that I was the first of our party to meet the President, an honour which, perhaps, I hardly deserved. While Samuel was seeking tortuous introductions to him through friends of Peterhouse friends of his, the President and I fell into each other's arms in the most natural way.
It occurred like this. There was a dance after dinner; and Myra, not satisfied with my appearance, sent me upstairs to put some gloves on. (It is one of the penalties of marriage that one is always being sent upstairs.) With my hands properly shod I returned to the ball-room, and stood for a moment in a corner while I looked about for her. Suddenly I heard a voice at my side.
"Do you want a partner?" it said.
I turned, and knew that I was face to face with the President.
"Well——" I began.
"You are a new-comer, aren't you? I expect you don't know many people. If there is anybody you would like to dance with——"
I looked round the room. It was too good a chance to miss.
"I wonder," I said. "That girl over there—in the pink frock—just putting up her fan——"
He almost embraced me.
"I congratulate you on your taste," he said. "Excellent! Come with me."
He went over to the girl in the pink dress, I at his heels.
"Er—may I introduce?" he said. "Mr.—er—er—yes, this is Miss—er—yes. H'r'm." Evidently he didn't know her name.
"Thank you," I said to him. He nodded and left us. I turned to the girl in the pink frock. She was very pretty.
"May I have this dance?" I asked. "I've got my gloves on," I added.
She looked at me gravely, trying hard not to smile.
"You may," said Myra.
II.—THE OPENING RUN
With a great effort Simpson strapped his foot securely into a ski and turned doubtfully to Thomas.
"Thomas," he said, "how do you know which foot is which?"
"It depends whose," said Thomas. He was busy tying a large rucksack of lunch on to himself, and was in no mood for Samuel's ball-room chatter.
"You've got one ski on one foot," I said. "Then the other ski goes on the foot you've got over. I should have thought you would have seen that."
"But I may have put the first one on wrong."
"You ought to know, after all these years, that you are certain to have done so," I said severely. Having had my own hired skis fixed on by the concierge I felt rather superior. Simpson, having bought his in London, was regarded darkly by that gentleman, and left to his own devices.
"Are we all ready?" asked Myra, who had kept us waiting for twenty minutes. "Archie, what about Dahlia?"
"Dahlia will join us at lunch. She is expecting a letter from Peter by the twelve o'clock post and refuses to start without it. Also she doesn't think she is up to ski-ing just yet. Also she wants to have a heart-to-heart talk with the girl in red, and break it to her that Thomas is engaged to several people in London already."
"Come on," growled Thomas, and he led the way up the hill. We followed him in single file.
It was a day of colour, straight from heaven. On either side the dazzling whiteness of the snow; above, the deep blue of the sky; in front of me the glorious apricot of Simpson's winter suiting. London seemed a hundred years away. It was impossible to work up the least interest in the Home Rule Bill, the Billiard Tournament, or the state of St. Paul's Cathedral.
"I feel extremely picturesque," said Archie. "If only we had a wolf or two after us, the illusion would be complete. The Boy Trappers, or Half-Hours among the Rocky Mountains."
"It is a pleasant thought, Archie," I said, "that in any wolf trouble the bachelors of the party would have to sacrifice themselves for us. Myra dear, the loss of Samuel in such circumstances would draw us very close together. There might be a loss of Thomas too, perhaps—for if there was not enough of Simpson to go round, if there was a hungry wolf left over, would Thomas hesitate?"
"No," said Thomas, "I should run like a hare."
Simpson said nothing. His face I could not see; but his back looked exactly like the back of a man who was trying to look as if he had been brought up on skis from a baby and was now taking a small party of enthusiastic novices out for their first lesson.
"What an awful shock it would be," I said, "if we found that Samuel really did know something about it after all; and, while we were tumbling about anyhow, he sailed gracefully down the steepest slopes. I should go straight back to Cricklewood."
"My dear chap, I've read a lot about it."
"Then we're quite safe."
"With all his faults," said Archie, "and they are many—Samuel is a gentleman. He would never take an unfair advantage of us. Hallo, here we are!"
We left the road and made our way across the snow to a little wooden hut which Archie had noticed the day before. Here we were to meet Dahlia for lunch; and here, accordingly, we left the rucksack and such garments as the heat of the sun suggested. Then, at the top of a long snow-slope, steep at first, more gentle later, we stood and wondered.
"Who's going first?" said Archie.
"What do you do?" asked Myra.
"You don't. It does it for you."
"But how do you stop?"
"Don't bother about that, dear," I said. "That will be arranged for you all right. Take two steps to the brink of the hill and pick yourself up at the bottom. Now then, Simpson! Be a man. The lady waits, Samuel. The—— Hallo! Hi! Help!" I cried, as I began to move off slowly. It was too late to do anything about it. "Good-bye," I called. And then things moved more quickly....
Suddenly there came a moment when I realized that I wasn't keeping up with my feet....
I shouted to my skis to stop. It was no good. They went on....
I decided to stop without them....
The ensuing second went by too swiftly for me to understand rightly what happened. I fancy that, rising from my sitting position and travelling easily on my head, I caught my skis up again and passed them....
Then it was their turn. They overtook me....
But I was not to be beaten. Once more I obtained the lead. This time I took the inside berth, and kept it....
There seemed to be a lot more snow than I really wanted.... I struggled bravely with it....
And then the earthquake ceased, and suddenly I was in the outer air. My first ski-run, the most glorious run of modern times, was over.
"Ripping!" I shouted up the hill to them. "But there's rather a nasty bump at the bottom," I added kindly, as I set myself to the impossible business of getting up....
"Jove," said Archie, coming to rest a few yards off, "that's splendid!" He had fallen in a less striking way than myself, and he got to his feet without difficulty. "Why do you pose like that?" he asked, as he picked up his stick.
"I'm a fixture," I announced. "Myra," I said, as she turned a somersault and arrived beaming at my side, "I'm here for some time; you'll have to come out every morning with crumbs for me. In the afternoon you can bring a cheering book and read aloud to your husband. Sometimes I shall dictate little things to you. They will not be my best little things; for this position, with my feet so much higher than my head, is not the one in which inspiration comes to me most readily. The flow of blood to the brain impairs reflection. But no matter."
"Are you really stuck?" asked Myra in some anxiety. "I should hate to have a husband who lived by himself in the snow," she said thoughtfully.
"Let us look on the bright side," said Archie. "The snow will have melted by April, and he will then be able to return to you. Hallo, here's Thomas! Thomas will probably have some clever idea for restoring the family credit."
Thomas got up in a businesslike manner and climbed slowly back to us.
"Thomas," I said, "you see the position. Indeed," I added, "it is obvious. None of the people round me seems inclined—or, it may be, able—to help. There is a feeling that if Myra lives in the hotel alone while I remain here—possibly till April—people will talk. You know how ready they are. There is also the fact that I have only hired the skis for three weeks. Also—a minor point, but one that touches me rather—that I shall want my hair cut long before March is out. Thomas, imagine me to be a torpedo-destroyer on the Maplin Sands, and tell me what on earth to do."
"Take your skis off."
"Oh, brilliant!" said Myra.
"Take my skis off?" I cried. "Never! Is it not my duty to be the last to leave my skis? Can I abandon—— Hallo! is that Dahlia on the sky-line? Hooray, lunch! Archie, take my skis off, there's a good fellow. We mustn't keep Dahlia waiting."
III.—A TYPICAL MORNING
"You take lunch out to-day—no?" said Josef, the head-waiter, in his invariable formula.
Myra and I were alone at breakfast, the first down. I was just putting some honey on to my seventh roll, and was not really in the mood for light conversation with Josef about lunch. By the way, I must say I prefer the good old English breakfast. With eggs and bacon and porridge you do know when you want to stop; with rolls and honey you hardly notice what you are doing, and there seems no reason why you should not go on for ever. Indeed, once ... but you would never believe me.
"We take lunch out to-day, yes, Josef. Lunch for—let me see——"
"Six?" suggested Myra.
"What are we all going to do? Archie said something about skating. I'm off that."
"But whatever we do we must lunch, and it's much nicer outdoors. Six, Josef."
Josef nodded and retired. I took my eighth roll.
"Do let's get off quickly to-day," I said. "There's always so much chat in the morning before we start."
"I've just got one swift letter to write," said Myra, as she got up, "and then I shall be pawing the ground."
Half an hour later I was in the lounge, booted, capped, gloved, and putteed—the complete St. Bernard. The lounge seemed to be entirely full of hot air and entirely empty of anybody I knew. I asked for letters; and, getting none, went out and looked at the thermometer. To my surprise I discovered that there were thirty-seven degrees of frost. A little alarmed, I tapped the thing impatiently. "Come, come," I said, "this is not the time for persiflage." However, it insisted on remaining at five degrees below zero. What I should have done about it I cannot say, but at that moment I remembered that it was a Centigrade thermometer with the freezing point in the wrong place. Slightly disappointed that there were only five degrees of frost (Centigrade) I returned to the lounge.
"Here you are at last," said Archie impatiently. "What are we all going to do?"
"Where's Dahlia?" asked Myra. "Let's wait till she comes and then we can all talk at once."
"Here she is. Dahlia, for Heaven's sake come and tell us the arrangements for the day. Start with the idea fixed in your mind that Myra and I have ordered lunch for six."
Dahlia shepherded us to a quiet corner of the lounge and we all sat down.
"By the way," said Simpson, "are there any letters for me?"
"No; it's your turn to write," said Archie.
"But, my dear chap, there must be one, because——"
"But you never acknowledged the bed-socks," I pointed out. "She can't write till you—— I mean, it was rather forward of her to send them at all; and if you haven't even——"
"Well," said Dahlia, "what does anybody want to do?"
Thomas was the first to answer the question. A girl in red came in from the breakfast-room and sat down near us. She looked up in our direction and met Thomas's eye.
"Good morning," said Thomas, with a smile, and he left us and moved across to her.
"That's the girl he danced with all last night," whispered Myra. "I can't think what's come over him. Is this our reserved Thomas—Thomas the taciturn, whom we know and love so well? I don't like the way she does her hair."
"She's a Miss Aylwyn," said Simpson in a loud voice. "I had one dance with her myself."
"The world," said Archie, "is full of people with whom Samuel has had one dance."
"Well, that washes Thomas out, anyway. He'll spend the day teaching her something. What are the rest of us going to do?"
There was a moment's silence.
"Oh, Archie," said Dahlia, "did you get those nails put in my boots?"
I looked at Myra ... and sighed.
"Sorry, dear," he said. "I'll take them down now. The man will do them in twenty minutes." He walked over to the lift at the same moment that Thomas returned to us.
"I say," began Thomas, a little awkwardly, "if you're arranging what to do, don't bother about me. I rather thought of—er—taking it quietly this morning. I think I overdid it a bit yesterday."
"We warned you at the time about the fourth hard-boiled egg," I said.
"I meant the ski-ing. We thought of—I thought of having lunch in the hotel, but, of course, you can have my rucksack to carry yours in. Er—I'll go and put it in for you."
He disappeared rather sheepishly in the direction of the dining-room.
"Now, Samuel," said Myra gently.
"Now what, Myra?"
"It's your turn. If you have a headache, tell us her name."
"My dear Myra, I want to ski to-day. Where shall we go? Let's go to the old slopes and practise the Christiania Turn."
"What you want to practise is the ordinary Hampstead Straight," I said. "A medium performance of yours yesterday, Samuel."
"But, my dear old chap," he said eagerly, "I told you it was the fault of my skis. They would stick to the snow. Oh, I say," he added, "that reminds me. I must go and buy some wax for them."
He dashed off. I looked at Myra ... and sighed.
"The nail-man won't be long," said Archie to Dahlia, on his return. "I'm to call for them in a quarter of an hour."
"Can't you wear some other boots, Dahlia, or your bedroom slippers or something? It's half-past eleven. We really must get off soon."
"But we haven't settled where we're going yet."
"Then for 'eving's sake let's do it. Myra and I thought we might go up above the wood at the back and explore. We can always ski down. It might be rather exciting."
"Remember," said Dahlia, "I'm not so expert as you are."
"Of course," said Myra, "we're the Oberland mixed champions."
"You know," said Archie, "I was talking to the man who's doing Dahlia's boots and he said the snow would be bad for ski-ing to-day."
"If he talked in French, no doubt you misunderstood him," I said, a little annoyed. "He was probably asking you to buy a pair of skates."
"Talking about that," said Archie, "why shouldn't we skate this morning, and have lunch at the hotel, and then get the bob out this afternoon?"
"Here you are," said Thomas, coming up with a heavy rucksack. "Lunch for six, so you'll have an extra one."
"I'd forgotten about lunch," said Archie. "Look here, just talk it over with Dahlia while I go and see about my skates. I don't suppose Josef will mind if we do stay in to lunch after all. What about Simpson?"
I looked at Myra ... and sighed.
"What about him?" I said.
Half an hour later two exhausted people—one of them with lunch for six on his back—began the ascent to the wood, trailing their skis behind them.
"Another moment," said Myra, "and I should have screamed."
IV.—THOMAS, AND A TURN
Myra finished her orange, dried her hands daintily on my handkerchief, and spoke her mind.
"This is the third time," she said, "that Thomas has given us the slip. If he gets engaged to that girl in red I shall cry."
"There are," I said, idly throwing a crust at Simpson and missing him, "engagements and Swiss engagements—just as there are measles and German measles. It is well known that Swiss engagements don't count."
"We got engaged in Kent. A bit of luck."
"I have nothing against Miss Aylwyn——" I went on.
"Except the way she does her hair."
"—but she doesn't strike me as being the essential Rabbit. We cannot admit her to the—er—fold."
"The covey," suggested Myra.
"The warren. Anyhow, she—— Simpson, for goodness' sake stop fooling about with your bearded friend and tell us what you think of it all."
We were finishing lunch in the lee of a little chalet, high above the hotel, and Simpson had picked up an acquaintance with a goat, which he was apparently trying to conciliate with a piece of chocolate. The goat, however, seemed to want a piece of Simpson.
"My dear old chap, he won't go away. Here—shoo! shoo! I wish I knew what his name was."
"Ernest," said Myra.
"I can't think why you ever got into such a hirsute set, Simpson. He probably wants your compass. Give it to him and let him withdraw."
Ernest, having decided that Simpson was not worth knowing, withdrew, and we resumed our conversation.
"When we elderly married folk have retired," I went on, "and you gay young bachelors sit up over a last cigar to discuss your conquests, has not Thomas unbent to you, Samuel, and told you of his hopes and fears?"
"He told me last night he was afraid he was going bald, and he said he hoped he wasn't."
"That's a bad sign," said Myra. "What did you say?"
"I said I thought he was."
With some difficulty I got up from my seat in the snow and buckled on my skis.
"Come on, let's forget Thomas for a bit. Samuel is now going to show us the Christiania Turn."
Simpson, all eagerness, began to prepare himself.
"I said I would, didn't I? I was doing it quite well yesterday. This is a perfect little slope for it. You understand the theory of it, don't you?"
"We hope to after the exhibition."
"Well, the great thing is to lean the opposite way to the way you think you ought to lean. That's what's so difficult."
"You understand, Myra? Samuel will lean the opposite way to what he thinks he ought to lean. Tell Ernest."
"But suppose you think you ought to lean the proper way, the way they do in Christiania," said Myra, "and you lean the opposite way, then what happens?"
"That is what Samuel will probably show us," I said.
Simpson was now ready.
"I am going to turn to the left," he said. "Watch carefully. Of course, I may not bring it off the first time."
"I can't help thinking you will," said Myra.
"It depends what you call bringing it off," I said. "We have every hope of—I mean we don't think our money will be wasted. Have you got the opera-glasses and the peppermints and the programme, darling? Then you may begin, Samuel."
Simpson started down the slope a little unsteadily. For one moment I feared that there might be an accident before the real accident, but he recovered himself nobly and sped to the bottom. Then a cloud of snow shot up, and for quite a long time there was no Simpson.
"I knew he wouldn't disappoint us," gurgled Myra.
We slid down to him and helped him up.
"You see the idea," he said. "I'm afraid I spoilt it a little at that end, but——"
"My dear Samuel, you improved it out of all knowledge."
"But that actually is the Christiania Turn."
"Oh, why don't we live in Christiania?" exclaimed Myra to me. "Couldn't we possibly afford it?"
"It must be a happy town," I agreed. "How the old streets must ring and ring again with jovial laughter."
"Shall I do it once more?"
"Can you?" said Myra, clasping her hands eagerly.
"Wait here," said Samuel, "and I'll do it quite close to you."
Myra unstrapped her camera.
Half an hour later, with several excellent films of the scene of the catastrophe, we started for home. It was more than a little steep, but the run down was accomplished without any serious trouble. Simpson went first to discover any hidden ditches (and to his credit be it said that he invariably discovered them); Myra, in the position of safety in the middle, profited by Samuel's frequent object-lessons; while I, at the back, was ready to help Myra up, if need arose, or to repel any avalanche which descended on us from above. On the level snow at the bottom we became more companionable.
"We still haven't settled the great Thomas question," said Myra. "What about to-morrow?"
"Why bother about to-morrow? Carpe diem. Latin."
"But the great tailing expedition is for to-morrow. The horses are ordered; everything is prepared. Only one thing remains to settle. Shall we have with us a grumpy but Aylwynless Thomas, or shall we let him bring her and spoil the party?"
"She can't spoil the party. I'm here to enjoy myself, and all Thomas's fiancées can't stop me. Let's have Thomas happy, anyway."
"She's really quite a nice girl," said Simpson. "I danced with her once."
"Right-o, then. I'll tell Dahlia to invite her."
We hurried on to the hotel; but as we passed the rink the President stopped me for a chat. He wanted me to recite at a concert that evening. Basely deserted by Myra and Samuel, I told him that I did not recite; and I took the opportunity of adding that personally I didn't think anybody else ought to. I had just persuaded him to my point of view when I noticed Thomas cutting remarkable figures on the ice. He picked himself up and skated to the side.
"Hallo!" he said. "Had a good day?"
"Splendid. What have you been doing?"
"I say, about this tailing expedition to-morrow——"
"Er—yes, I was just going to talk about that."
"Well, it's all right. Myra is getting Dahlia to ask her to come with us."
"Good!" said Thomas, brightening up.
"You see, we shall only be seven, even with Miss Aylwyn, and——"
"Miss Aylwyn?" said Thomas in a hollow voice.
"Yes, isn't that the name of your friend in red?"
"Oh, that one. Oh, but that's quite—I mean," he went on hurriedly, "Miss Aylwyn is probably booked up for to-morrow. It's Miss Cardew who is so keen on tailing. That girl in green, you know."
For a moment I stared at him blankly. Then I left him and dashed after Myra.
V.—A TAILING PARTY
The procession prepared to start in the following order:—
(1) A brace of sinister-looking horses.
(2) Gaspard, the Last of the Bandits; or "Why cause a lot of talk by pushing your rich uncle over the cliff, when you can have him stabbed quietly for one franc fifty?" (If ever I were in any vendetta business I should pick Gaspard first.)
(3) A sleigh full of lunch.
(4) A few well-known ladies and gentlemen (being the cream of the Hôtel des Angéliques) on luges; namely, reading from left to right (which is really the best method—unless you are translating Hebrew), Simpson, Archie, Dahlia, Myra, me, Miss Cardew, and Thomas.
While Gaspard was putting the finishing knots to the luges, I addressed a few remarks to Miss Cardew, fearing that she might be feeling a little lonely amongst us. I said that it was a lovely day, and did she think the snow would hold off till evening? Also had she ever done this sort of thing before? I forget what her answers were.
Thomas meanwhile was exchanging badinage on the hotel steps with Miss Aylwyn. There must be something peculiar in the Swiss air, for in England Thomas is quite a respectable man ... and a godfather.
"I suppose we have asked the right one," said Myra doubtfully.
"His young affections are divided. There was a third girl in pink with whom he breakfasted a lot this morning. It is the old tradition of the sea, you know. A sailor—I mean an Admiralty civilian has a wife at every wireless station."
"Take your seats, please," said Archie. "The horses are sick of waiting."
We sat down. Archie took Dahlia's feet on his lap, Myra took mine, Miss Cardew took Thomas's. Simpson, alone in front, nursed a guide-book.
"En avant!" cried Simpson in his best French-taught-in-twelve-lessons accent.
Gaspard muttered an oath to his animals. They pulled bravely. The rope snapped—and they trotted gaily down the hill with Gaspard.
We hurried after them with the luges....
"It's a good joke," said Archie, after this had happened three times, "but, personally, I weary of it. Miss Cardew, I'm afraid we've brought you out under false pretences. Thomas didn't explain the thing to you adequately. He gave you to understand that there was more in it than this."
Gaspard, who seemed full of rope, produced a fourth piece and tied a knot that made even Simpson envious.
"Now, Samuel," I begged, "do keep the line taut this time. Why do you suppose we put your apricot suit right in the front? Is it, do you suppose, for the sunset effects at eleven o'clock in the morning, or is it that you may look after the rope properly?"
"I'm awfully sorry, Miss Cardew," said Simpson, feeling that somebody ought to apologize for something and knowing that Gaspard wouldn't, "but I expect it will be all right now."
We settled down again. Once more Gaspard cursed his horses, and once more they started off bravely. And this time we went with them.
"The idea all along," I explained to Miss Cardew.
"I rather suspected it," she said. Apparently she has a suspicious mind.
After the little descent at the start, we went uphill slowly for a couple of miles, and then more rapidly over the level. We had driven over the same road in a sleigh, coming from the station, and had been bitterly cold and extremely bored. Why our present position should be so much more enjoyable I didn't quite see.
"It's the expectation of an accident," said Archie. "At any moment somebody may fall off. Good."
"My dear old chap," said Simpson, turning round to take part in the conversation, "why anybody should fall off——"
We went suddenly round a corner, and quietly and without any fuss whatever Simpson left his luge and rolled on to the track. Luckily any possibility of a further accident was at once avoided. There was no panic at all. Archie kicked the body temporarily out of the way; after which Dahlia leant over and pushed it thoughtfully to the side of the road. Myra warded it off with a leg as she neared it; with both hands I helped it into the deep snow from which it had shown a tendency to emerge; Miss Cardew put a foot out at it for safety; and Thomas patted it gently on the head as the end of the "tail" went past....
As soon as we had recovered our powers of speech—all except Miss Cardew, who was in hysterics—we called upon Gaspard to stop. He indicated with the back of his neck that it would be dangerous to stop just then; and it was not until we were at the bottom of the hill, nearly a mile from the place where Simpson left us, that the procession halted, and gave itself up again to laughter.
"I hope he is not hurt," said Dahlia, wiping the tears from her eyes.
"He wouldn't spoil a good joke like that by getting hurt," said Myra confidently. "He's much too much of a sportsman."
"Why did he do it?" said Thomas.
"He suddenly remembered he hadn't packed his safety-razor. He's half-way back to the hotel by now."
Miss Cardew remained in hysterics.
Ten minutes later a brilliant sunset was observed approaching from the north. A little later it was seen to be a large dish of apricots and cream.
"He draws near," said Archie. "Now then, let's be stern with him."
At twenty yards' range Simpson began to talk. His trot had heated him slightly.
"I say," he said excitedly. "You——"
Myra shook her head at him.
"Not done, Samuel," she said reproachfully.
"Not what, Myra? What not——"
"You oughtn't to leave us like that without telling us."
"After all," said Archie, "we are all one party, and we are supposed to keep together. If you prefer to go about by yourself, that's all right; but if we go to the trouble of arranging something for the whole party——"
"You might have caused a very nasty accident," I pointed out. "If you were in a hurry, you had only to say a word to Gaspard and he would have stopped for you to alight. Now I begin to understand why you kept cutting the rope at the start."
"You have sent Miss Cardew into hysterics by your conduct," said Dahlia.
Miss Cardew gave another peal. Simpson looked at her in dismay.
"I say, Miss Cardew, I'm most awfully sorry. I really didn't—— I say, Dahlia," he went on confidentially, "oughtn't we to do something about this? Rub her feet with snow or—I mean, I know there's something you do when people have hysterics. It's rather serious if they go on. Don't you burn feathers under their nose?" He began to feel in his pockets. "I wonder if Gaspard's got a feather?"
With a great effort Miss Cardew pulled herself together. "It's all right, thank you," she said in a stifled voice.
"Then let's get on," said Archie.
We resumed our seats once more. Archie took Dahlia's feet on his lap. Myra took mine. Miss Cardew took Thomas's. Simpson clung tight to his luge with both hands.
"Right!" cried Archie.
Gaspard swore at his horses. They pulled bravely. The rope snapped—and they trotted gaily up the hill with Gaspard.
We hurried after them with the luges....
VI.—A HAPPY ENDING
"For our last night they might at least have had a dance," said Myra, "even if there was no public presentation."
"As we had hoped," I admitted.
"What is a gymkhana, anyway?" asked Thomas.
"A few little competitions," said Archie. "One must cater for the chaperons sometimes. You are all entered for the Hat-making and the Feather-blowing—Dahlia thought it would amuse you."
"At Cambridge," I said reminiscently, "I once blew the feather 119 feet 7 inches. Unfortunately I stepped outside the circle. My official record is 2 feet."
"Did you ever trim a hat at Cambridge?" asked Myra. "Because you've got to do one for me to-night."
I had not expected this. My view of the competition had been that I should have to provide the face and that she would have to invent some suitable frame for it.
"I'm full of ideas," I lied.
Nine o'clock found a small row of us prepared to blow the feather. The presidential instructions were that we had to race our feather across a chalk-line at the end of the room, anybody touching his feather to be disqualified.
"In the air or on the floor?" asked Simpson earnestly.
"Just as you like," said the President kindly, and came round with the bag.
I selected Percy with care—a dear little feather about half an inch long and of a delicate whity-brown colour. I should have known him again anywhere.
"Go!" said the President. I was rather excited, with the result that my first blow was much too powerful for Percy. He shot up to the ceiling and, in spite of all I could do, seemed inclined to stay there. Anxiously I waited below with my mouth open; he came slowly down at last; and in my eagerness I played my second just a shade too soon. It missed him. My third (when I was ready for it) went harmlessly over his head. A frantic fourth and fifth helped him downwards ... and in another moment my beautiful Percy was on the floor. I dropped on my knees and played my sixth vigorously. He swirled to the left; I was after him like a shot ... and crashed into Thomas. We rolled over in a heap.
"Sorry!" we apologized as we got back on to our hands and knees.
Thomas went on blowing.
"Where's my feather?" I said.
Thomas was now two yards ahead, blowing like anything. A terrible suspicion darted through my mind.
"Thomas," I said, "you've got my feather."
He made no answer. I scrambled after him.
"That's Percy," I said. "I should know him anywhere. You're blowing Percy. It's very bad form to blow another man's feather. If it got about, you would be cut by the county. Give me back my feather, Thomas."
"How do you know it's your feather?" he said truculently. "Feathers are just alike."
"How do I know?" I asked in amazement. "A feather that I've brought up from the egg? Of course I know Percy." I leant down to him. "P—percy,"I whispered. He darted forward a good six inches. "You see," I said, "he knows his name."
"As a matter of fact," said Thomas, "his name's P—paul. Look, I'll show you."
"You needn't bother, Thomas," I said hastily. "This is mere trifling. I know that's my feather. I remember his profile distinctly."
"Then where's mine?"
"How do I know? You may have swallowed it. Go away and leave Percy and me to ourselves. You're only spoiling the knees of your trousers by staying here."
"Paul and I——" began Thomas.
He was interrupted by a burst of applause. Dahlia had cajoled her feather over the line first. Thomas rose and brushed himself. "You can 'ave him," he said.
"There!" I said, as I picked Percy up and placed him reverently in my waistcoat pocket. "That shows that he was mine. If he had been your own little Paul you would have loved him even in defeat. Oh, musical chairs now? Right-o." And at the President's touch I retired from the arena.
We had not entered for musical chairs. Personally I should have liked to, but it was felt that, if none of us did, then it would be more easy to stop Simpson doing so. For at musical chairs Simpson is—I am afraid there is only one word for it; it is a word that I hesitate to use, but the truth must prevail—Simpson is rough. He lets himself go. He plays all he knows. Whenever I take Simpson out anywhere I always whisper to my hostess, "Not musical chairs."
The last event of the evening was the hat-making competition. Each man of us was provided with five large sheets of coloured crinkly paper, a packet of pins, a pair of scissors, and a lady opposite to him.
"Have you any plans at all?" asked Myra.
"Heaps. Tell me, what sort of hat would you like? Something for the Park?" I doubled up a piece of blue paper and looked at it. "You know, if this is a success, Myra, I shall often make your hats for you."
Five minutes later I had what I believe is called a "foundation." Anyhow, it was something for Myra to put her head into.
"Our very latest Bond Street model," said Myra. "Only fifteen guineas—or three-and-ninepence if you buy it at our other establishment in Battersea."
"Now then, I can get going," I said, and I began to cut out a white feather. "Yes, your ladyship, this is from the genuine bird on our own ostrich farm in the Fulham Road. Plucked while the ingenuous biped had its head in the sand. I shall put that round the brim," and I pinned it round.
"What about a few roses?" said Myra, fingering the red paper.
"The roses are going there on the right." I pinned them on. "And a humming-bird and some violets next to them.... I say, I've got a lot of paper over. What about a nice piece of cabbage ... there ... and a bunch of asparagus ... and some tomatoes and a seagull's wing on the left. The back still looks rather bare—let's have some poppies."
"There's only three minutes more," said Myra, "and you haven't used all the paper yet."
"I've got about one William Allan Richardson and a couple of canaries over," I said, after examining my stock. "Let's put it inside as lining. There, Myra, my dear, I'm proud of you. I always say that in a nice quiet hat nobody looks prettier than you."
"Time!" said the President.
Anxious matrons prowled round us.
"We don't know any of the judges," I whispered. "This isn't fair."
The matrons conferred with the President. He cleared his throat. "The first prize," he said, "goes to——"
But I had swooned.
"Well," said Archie, "the Rabbits return to England with two cups won on the snowfields of Switzerland."
"Nobody need know," said Myra, "which winter-sport they were won at."
"Unless I have 'Ski-ing, First Prize' engraved on mine," I said, "as I had rather intended."
"Then I shall have 'Figure-Skating' on mine," said Dahlia.
"Two cups," reflected Archie, "and Thomas engaged to three charming girls. I think it has been worth it, you know."