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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesKathleen - Chapter 9
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Kathleen - Chapter 9 Post by :chrisf Category :Long Stories Author :Christopher Morley Date :May 2012 Read :603

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Kathleen - Chapter 9

CHAPTER IX

"Come, Mr. Blair," said Mrs. Kent; "you sit there, next to Mr. Kent, where you can talk about archaeology. Mr. Carter tells me he knows nothing about such subjects, so he will have to amuse Kathleen and me."

"What errand brings you to Wolverhampton, Mr. Carter?" inquired Blair, thinking to unmask his opponent's weapons as quickly as possible.

Carter was a little staggered by this, but his effrontery was up to the test.

"The Bishop sent me down," he said, "to look over the surrounding parishes with a view to establishing a chapel in the suburbs."

"How very interesting!" exclaimed Mr. Kent. "But surely this does not lie in the Oxford diocese?"

"Quite true," said Carter. "The Bishop had to get special permission from Parliament. An old statute of the fourteenth century, I believe."

"Indeed! Indeed!" cried Mr. Kent. "How absorbing! My dear Mr. Carter, you must tell me more about that. I take it you are something of a historical student, after all."

"I'm afraid not, sir," replied Carter. "My studies in divinity have been too exacting to leave much opportunity--"

"You must not believe Mr. Carter's disclaimers," said Blair. "I have heard of his papers before the Oxford Historical Society. He has a very sound antiquarian instinct. I think you would find his ideas of great interest."

"We were speaking of the battle with the Danes at Tettenhall," observed Mr. Kent, turning to Blair. "I think that if Kathleen could arrange to take you out there you would find the burial mounds of unusual interest. My dear, could you walk out there with Mr. Blair to-morrow morning?"

Kathleen assented, but Blair noticed that she was not eating her soup. He also noticed that the maid, in the background, was seized with occasional spasms, which he was at a loss to interpret.

"Did I hear you say Tettenhall?" ventured Carter. "That is the very place the Bishop mentioned to me. He was particularly anxious that I should go there."

"You must come with us, by all means," said Kathleen.

"Bravo," said Mr. Kent, beaming genially upon the young people. "I wish I could go with you. You know they say Wulfruna, the widow of the Earl of Northampton, who founded Wolverhampton, had a kind of summer place once near Tettenhall, and I claim to have located--By the way, my dear, what do you suppose has happened to this soup?"

"I think that Eliza Thick has a heavy hand with the condiments," said Mrs. Kent. "You may take it away now, Mary."

"As I recall, Wulfruna founded the town about 996," observed Blair. "I presume it takes its name from her?"

"Exactly--Wulfruna-hampton. Really, Mr. Blair, your historical knowledge does you honour. I had no idea that Americans were such keen students of the past."

Blair began to think that he had overplayed his hand, for he noticed that Falstaff was getting in some private conversation with Kathleen. He attempted to catch her eye to ask a question, but Mr. Kent was now well launched on his hobby.

"Wulfruna was descended from Ethelhild, who was a granddaughter of Alfred the Great. You recall that the Etheling Ethelwold, the son of Alfred's brother Ethelred, took sides with the Danes. To stem the invasion, Edward and his sister Ethelfled--"

"Ethel fled, that's just the trouble," interposed Mrs. Kent. "Kathleen, my dear, do run downstairs and see what's wrong in the kitchen. I'm afraid Eliza is in difficulties again. Mr. Blair, you and Mr. Carter must excuse this irregularity. Our substitute cook is a very strange person."

Kathleen left the room, and it seemed to Blair as though the sparkle had fled from the glasses, the gleam of candlelight from the silver. Across the cloth he had watched her--girlish, debonair, and with a secret laughter lurking in her eyes. And yet he had not had a chance to exchange half a dozen sentences with her.

The maid reentered, whispered something to Mrs. Kent, and began to place the dishes for the next course.

"Kathleen begs to be excused," said Mrs. Kent. "She thinks she had better stay in the kitchen to help Eliza."

"Oh, I say," cried the curate. "That's too bad. Do you think I could help, Mrs. Kent? I'm a very good cook. The Bishop himself has praised my--er--my--"

"Your what?" asked Blair.

"My ham and eggs," retorted the cleric.

"Perhaps you will let me wash the dishes," suggested Blair. "I should be only too happy to assist. I feel very embarrassed at having intruded upon you at so inconvenient a time."

"I should not dream of such a thing," said Mrs. Kent. "I believe that Eliza is perfectly capable, but as Joe said, she is eccentric."

"I am quite accustomed to washing dishes," said Carter. "In fact, the Bishop always used to ask me to do it for him."

"Dear me," remarked Mr. Kent, "surely the Bishop has plenty of servants to help in such matters?"

Blair applied himself to the food on his plate to which he had helped himself almost unconsciously. He well knew the daring hardihood of his rival, and feared that the other might find some excuse to follow Kathleen to the kitchen. As he raised his fork to his lips, suddenly his hand halted. The dish was stuffed eggs. His mind reverted to the Public Library the evening before. Was it possible that the Goblin--?

He determined that the first thing to be done was to get Carter so firmly engaged with Mr. Kent that the wolf in cleric's clothing could not withdraw. Then perhaps he himself could frame some excuse for seeing what was going on downstairs.

"Mr. Kent," he said, "you should draw out Mr. Carter concerning his views on amending the liturgy of the Established Church. He has some very advanced ideas on that subject which have attracted much attention at Oxford. One of his interesting suggestions is that radical churchmen should wear the clerical collar back side foremost, as a kind of symbol of their inverted opinions."

The wretched Carter's hand flew to his neck, and he glared across the table in a very unecclesiastical manner.

"Really!" said Mr. Kent, "that is most interesting. I had noticed his modification of the customary dress. In what other ways, Mr. Carter, would you amend the ritual?"

The unfortunate curate was caught.

"Er--hum--well--that is, the Bishop and I both think that the service is too long," he faltered. "I am in favour of omitting the sermon."

"Hear, hear!" cried Mr. Kent. "It is most refreshing to hear a high churchman make such a confession. And what else do you propose?"

"Why--ah--hum--it has always seemed to me that the--thirty-nine articles might--well--be somewhat condensed."

"Bravo indeed, though I fear the Bishop would balk at that," said his host.

The maid, appearing in the dining-room again, whispered to Mrs. Kent.

"Philip," said the latter, "that gas-man is here again, and says he _must see the meter. He claims that there is a dangerous leak which should be fixed at once. Perhaps I had better go down to the cellar with him. Your rheumatism--"

"My dear Mrs. Kent," cried the curate, seeing his chance; "do nothing of the sort. It is the privilege of my cloth to take precedence when there is danger of any kind. If any one should be overcome by fumes, the consolations of the church may be needed." And without waiting for another word, he leaped up and ran from the room.

Blair fidgeted in his chair, seeing himself outwitted, but there was nothing he could do.

"Pray go on with your supper, Mr. Blair," urged Kent. "You must overlook anything that seems strange this evening. Everything seems to be widdershins. Perhaps because it is St. Patrick's Day. I do believe that woman in the kitchen is at the bottom of it all. These stuffed eggs are positively uneatable! If I were not crippled with this lumbago I would go down and fire her out of the house."

"Let me do it for you!" cried Blair, half rising from his seat.

"Nonsense! I'm not going to sacrifice our good talk on antiquities so easily. I want very much to tell you about the Battle of Wolverhampton. The town was strongly loyalist in the great rebellion; in fact, in 1645 it was the headquarters of Prince Rupert, while Charles the First is said to have stopped at the Blue Boar for a drink--"

At this moment came a ring at the front door, and Mr. Kent stopped to listen. They heard a male voice mumbling to the maid, who then came to her mistress to report.

"There's a policeman out here, ma'am, to see Mr. Kent."

"A policeman?" queried the antiquarian. "What next, I wonder? Well, supper is suspended, send him in."

And to Blair's dismay the gigantic form of Whitney, the Iron Duke, crossed the threshold, in the correct uniform of the Wolverhampton police force.

If Blair was dismayed, the counterfeit policeman was no less disgusted to see his fellow Scorpion sitting at the dinner table, but they gazed at each other without any sign of recognition.

"Begging your pardon for interrupting, sir, but the chief sent me around for a word with you. There's been a gang o' sneak thieves operating 'round 'ere, sir, and some of 'em 'as been getting admittance to 'ouses by passin' themselves off as gas inspectors, sir."

Mrs. Kent screamed.

"I 'ad a notion that one o' these birds is along Bancroft Road to-night, sir, an' I wanted to warn you. Don't let the maid admit any tradesmen or agents from the gas company unless they 'as the proper badges, sir."

"Heavens, Philip!" cried Mrs. Kent. "That dreadful man is downstairs now! Eliza threw him out once this afternoon, but he's here again. He may have murdered Mr. Carter by this time. Oh, inspector, do hurry down at once and see what's happened! There's a defenceless high-church curate in the cellar with him. Mary, show the way downstairs."

Blair poured out a glass of water for Mrs. Kent.

"Don't you think I had better go down, too?" he asked.

"Oh, please don't go!" begged Mrs. Kent, faintly. "Stay here, in case he should escape upstairs. I believe we shall all be murdered in our beds!"

"Come, come," said Mr. Kent. "We mustn't let all this spoil Mr. Blair's supper. Have another glass of wine. The policeman will attend to the gas-man. We don't often get a chance to talk to a genuine antiquarian. I think, Mr. Blair, that you will be greatly interested in the architectural restoration of our parish church. It exemplifies the worst excesses of the mid-Victorian period. The church itself is one of the finest examples of the cruciform type. The south transept dates from the thirteenth century; the nave, clerestory, and north transept from the fifth. The chancel was restored in 1865, but I must confess that the treatment of the clerestory seems to me barbarous. Now what are your own ideas as to the proper treatment of a clerestory?"

The wretched American was non-plussed. He had a shrewd suspicion that matters were moving rapidly downstairs yet he did not see any way of leaving the dining-room to investigate for himself. He had hardly heard what was said.

"Why--ah--to tell you the truth, Mr. Kent, I read very little fiction nowadays. I'm rather worried about that gas-man downstairs. Do you suppose your daughter can be in any danger? There might be some sort of explosion--don't you think I had better run down to see if I can help?"

As they sat listening Kathleen's voice was heard from the kitchen, raised in clear and angry tones.

Blair could contain himself no longer. With an inarticulate apology he hurried out of the room, leaving the puzzled antiquarian and his wife alone at the supper table.

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