The Tremendous Adventure Of Mr Jones
UNTIL her engagement to Lord Maltravers was announced, society had almost forgotten that Lady Dorothy had ever been married before. Then the newspapers, by the simple process of turning up their back files, published extensively the story of her previous matrimonial experience.
Eight years had elapsed since, at the age of seventeen, she had run away from her father's house with Mr. Ralph Galton, the Australian adventurer, whose meteoric career on the turf has been the sensation of the season. The marriage, which had begun on the top-note of romance had rapidly developed into a sordid tragedy. At the end of a brief six weeks Lady Dorothy had returned to her father's house.
A fortnight later a terrible accident to a racing "special" on which Ralph Galton was known to have been travelling seemed finally to have set her free. Amidst the heap of charred remains that had once been human beings, actual identification was impossible; but though the Coroner's jury returned an open verdict, the general consensus of opinion agreed that Ralph Galton met his death. After the lapse of the legal period, Lady Dorothy applied to the Courts for leave to find her husband dead, and her application was duly granted.
MR. JONES, who walked in a famous lingerie establishment in Regent Street, was reminded of these circumstances, with which he had acquainted himself through the columns of his newspaper, by seeing no less a person than Lady Dorothy herself enter the shop.
In the course of his day's work he had the opportunity of scanning many lovely faces, but none, he thought, as beautiful as Lady Dorothy's. This preference may have originated in some romantic element that lay unsuspected in his nature, but still there was no question that Lady Dorothy was exceedingly beautiful. It was easy for the most unobservant person to see that those experiences of eight years before had set their mark upon her character.
She was radiantly happy, and she smiled serenely on Mr. Jones as, with the urbane courtesy of his profession, he conducted her to the department she required. But behind all this animation there was a winsome sadness unmistakable.
"Sun looking out through rain clouds," muttered Mr. Jones to himself as he returned to his post near the door. He was so taken with the phrase that he repeated it several times under his breath in order to commit it to memory, so that he might mention it quite casually to Mrs. Jones at supper.
In recent years he had found it increasingly necessary to impress his wife from time to time with his intellectual superiority. Unfortunately for the cultivation of Mrs. Jones' humility, another matter had obtruded itself upon his attention before he reached his home on the outskirts of London, to the exclusion of all recollection of his meeting with Lady Dorothy.
For the past two or three months Mr. Jones' five feet and a half body had thrust itself upon his notice quite unnecessarily—especially after meals. The fact that such a thing should trouble him when he was only thirty-three caused him not a little anxiety. He had consulted a chemist's assistant, who travelled up by the same train as himself, on his symptoms, but the subsequent swallowing of various unpleasant mixtures and "tablets" had failed to remedy the faults of his mortal machinery.
Then, when a species of despair was setting down upon his soul, hope had come to him in the shape of an advertisement setting forth the hygienic advantages of the Natural Physical Cure Company. In accordance with their suggestion he had sent the fullest particulars of his symptoms and his mode of life, together with a postal order for 10/6, and had received in reply complete directions for a course of remedial exercises.
Certain strenuous things had to be done morning and evening in the seclusion of his bedroom, but the part of the cure on which the company insisted most stringently was a six-mile run in the country daily. That night was the first night on which he was to enter upon his pursuit of health by natural physical means.
Mrs. Jones was frankly sarcastic as he came down from his bedroom dressed in a sweater, shorts and sandshoes, with which he had provided himself. It was distinctly a costume in which he did not look to advantage; his legs were very thin, and his chest, without the elaborate padding of his professional frock-coat, was extremely narrow.
Mr. Jones had a natural vanity with regard to his own appearance, but an athletic costume was not one in which he would have aspire to distinction among his fellow-creatures, and he was not sorry that the night was dark.
The night was very dark, and, moreover. there was a mist clinging about the streets. As he made his way through the quarter of a mile of suburban thoroughfare that separated him from the open country he was fortunate for his own self-respect in only meeting one passer-by—a newspaper boy, who hooted exultantly, and asked him if he was going to win the Marathon.
He was relieved when the last house was finally passed, and the hedges on either side of the road, looming dimly through the mist, told him that he was free to carry out his exercise without impertinent interruptions.
Pad-pad-pad he went along in the middle of the road, his elbows pressed close to his sides, his fists clenched determinedly. Very slowly he went, for there was an agonising stitch in his side, and moreover it was difficult to see. but the instructions he had received had told him at all costs to keep going, and he manfully struggled to obey. He had mapped out his route beforehand, so as to avoid all necessity of passing through any inhabited districts—up to the sign-post a mile on the main road, then down the side lone for two miles in the direction of Cheshunt Towers, then a turn to the left before the lodge gates were reached and a three-mile run homewards.
Serious doubts as to whether he would be able to stay the course filled his mind, when he turned to the left off the main road. His feet left like lead, and his legs appeared to move automatically. He went slower and slower, till his pace was merely a pretence of a run, not distinguishable from an ordinary brisk walk. He gasped and gulped with the unaccustomed exercise, and a deadly feeling of nausea seized him. He would have liked to stop, if only for a moment, but partly because the instructions were emphatic on the point, and partly because he had paid 10/6 for those instructions, he kept going.
IT was when he was almost at the end of his strength, half a mile up the road leading to Cheshunt Towers, that he heard the purring of a motor behind him. As he turned he saw the glare of its lamps coming steadily toward him.
"Nuisance," he muttered to himself. "Must stop now—might get run over. Hang those road hogs."
Very thankfully he pressed himself against the hedge, regardless of the thorns. The motor car came up slowly, almost blinding him with its lights. As it passed him he caught sight for the moment of the sweet face of its occupant. It was Lady Dorothy.
"Lor!" he exclaimed. "Lady Dorothy! Who would have thought—of course she lives at Cheshunt Towers. I'd forgotten. Odd, I should see her again after this morning—people do get thrown up together sometimes."
These harmless meditations made Jones linger in his reclining position against the hedge longer than was perhaps quite fair to the Natural Physical Cure Company. When he started moving once more he felt refreshed and the stitch had gone from his side. He began to cover the ground with almost an athletic stride, feeling an unaccustomed vigour.
A quarter of a mile away he could see the lights of the motor car as it moved slowly through the mist and the darkness. He spurted after it with that spirit of vaulting ambition which makes one cyclist try to overtake and pass another cyclist on the road. It seemed to him that he was catching it up at every stride, and then all at once he realised that the lights were stationary and that the car had stopped.
"Accident or something," he muttered, and spurted again, with some intangible idea of being of assistance.
Then suddenly he heard a wild cry snd the noise of scuffling feet that died down quickly. It brought him to a halt, his heart thumping against his ribs tumultuously. He stood in the middle of the road, rather an absurd figure in his unaccustomed clothes, his arms hanging limply by his sides and his eyes staring with nervous perplexity through the mist and darkness in the direction of the car, now not twenty yards away.
Out of the stillness of the countryside there came to him the voice of a man, the words indistinguishable, and then a woman's voice, crying piteously and appealingly for help. It was that which set Mr. Jones's now very stiff legs moving again—not quickly, for he was appallingly frightened, but slowly and stealthily with the knees bent, bringing his body into the crouching attitude of the animal that seeks to avoid detection.
HE kept on the edge of the road near the hedge, where the strip of grass, straggling through layers of dust, deadened the sound of his canvas shoes. A few feet from the rear wheels of the car he sat down on his haunches and listened—a very troubled and a very frightened scrap of humanity.
Dimly he could see the figure of a man—a man of his own height—leaning against the door of the car, his head and shoulders thrust through the window. He was speaking, and every word he uttered reached the ears of Mr. Jones.
"Don't know me, my fine lady, eh? Can't you give a guess? What if I was to tell you my name was Ralph Galton."
"Ralph!" Lady Dorothy's voice was so faint that it reached Mr. Jones like a whisper.
"Yes, Ralph, your husband. Thought I was killed in that railway accident, didn't you? Hoped I was, I expect, but here I am still alive, turned up just in time to stop my darling wife committing bigamy."
A choking sob from the interior of the car was the only answer. "Bless you, don't excite yourself; I don't mind if you commit bigamy or trigamy for that matter; what I want is money. Give me money, and you shall never be troubled with the sight of me again."
"I have hardly anything with me. If—"
"Give me what you've got. And your jewels; you are wearing the Cheshunt diamonds, I see; they'll do to go along with for a bit. Give me them quick; I can't hang about here. Off with them."
THE man's bullying tone acted like a tonic to Mr. Jones's nerves. For the first time he thought of interfering, and no sooner had that idea taken shape in his brain than a scheme at once formulated itself for putting it into execution. In a flash came two memories, such as peep out for an inexplicable reason in moments of stress.
One was that in the days when he was a draper's assistant, "living in" in an establishment in Tottenham Court Road, he had cultivated, in a mild way, the art of ventriloquism for the amusement and amazement of his companions. The other consisted in a recollection of the terrifying effect produced, even upon an orderly crowd collected round a fallen horse, of a policeman's voice saying "Now then, what's all this about?"
How he came to collate these experiences so as to bring them to bear on the situation he could not have explained, but he acted on the suggestions that his mind had thrown up without the slightest hesitation. Creeping up the side of the hedge until he was almost exactly behind the man, who was still leaning through the open window of the motor car, he drew himself to his full height—five foot six of a Mr. Jones, nervously alert and determined. He wasted no time in hesitation; he was completely master of himself. Suddenly, from behind the car, there came a voice—a reasonably gruff voice that was as like a policeman's as Mr. Jones could manage—
"Now then, what's all this about?"
Mr. Jones had hoped that the wayside marauder would have taken to his heels at the sound of the voice of law and order. He was disappointed. In a moment the man had withdrawn his head from the window, and in a flash his hand went into his pocket, and the answer to Mr. Jones's ventriloquial entertainment was two revolver shots fired wildly into the night.
"Ugh! ugh!" came a sound from behind the car, believed by Mr. Jones to faithfully reproduce the possible dying exclamation of an expiring policeman. The man peered searchingly for a moment into the darkness, and then cautiously, his body bent to scan the ground, he walked a few paces down the lane. A divine rashness filled Mr. Jones's soul. Stepping very softly he followed him, and then suddenly sprang on him from behind and bore him to the ground. He heard the revolver drop on the metal of the road.
Desperately he grabbed for it. He was only just in time, and for a second he had to struggle for its possession, tearing it from the grasp of the other's clutching fingers.
"Now, you!" he said breathlessly, holding the revolver near the other's ear. The man's body beneath him seemed suddenly to develop the qualities of an expanding spring.
He felt himself jerked into the air, and only with great difficulty did he keep astride of his opponent's back. A hand seized the revolver, and then quite unexpectedly and quite unaccountably, as far as Mr. Jones was concerned, it went off.
The man's body became abruptly flaccid. The arched back on which Mr. Jones had been riding so uncomfortably collapsed, and he rolled into the road. As he picked himself up he stood for a moment to look at the motionless figure.
"Lor'!" he exclaimed, "I've killed a man."
These feelings only lasted a moment. He was quite exultant when he thrust his head in through the window of the motor car. Lady Dorothy was sitting there, erect, motionless, deathly pale. Her beautiful face seemed as if it had been carved out of marble. The intrusion of Mr. Jones' flushed features, crowned with disordered hair, almost presented the picture of some grotesque creature, peering up through the undergrowth at the embowered statue of a goddess.
"It's all right, my lady; I've done for him; he won't trouble you any more."
She turned her eyes to him slowly, like one who hears things in a dream.
"Who are you?"
"Jones—walking gentleman at Powell & Caterham's—showed you to the department you wanted this morning, my lady. I'm proud to have been of service to you."
"What service have you done me?" she asked in the same dreamy, monotonous voice.
"I've killed him," answered Mr. Jones, hesitating over the blatant definition of his deed. "The man who wanted your money and diamonds."
Lady Dorothy seemed to be suddenly galvanised into wakeful activity. Mr. Jones opened the door for her as she made a movement to get out.
"Let me see him," she said. "Where is he?"
"I shouldn't if I were you," protested Mr. Jones. "It can't be a nice sight for a lady. Besides, I haven't got a light."
She took a box of matches from the car and handed them to him. "I must see him, please."
Very reluctantly, Mr. Jones led her to the place where the man lay, and struck a match. He would not have looked, but she asked him to turn the body over so that she might see the face, and then to remove the mask that shrouded the eyes. He got his fingers sticky with something that trickled down the man's cheek, and it was several moments before he could strike another match. He purposely averted his gaze as the little spurt of flame lit up the darkness.
"That is not my husband!" exclaimed Lady Dorothy in a voice in which it seemed that thankfulness struggled with fear.
MR. JONES became once more alert and active. Even in his sweater and shorts his professional habits returned to him.
"Certainly not, my lady. Your husband was killed in a railway accident eight years ago, and you are going to settle down happily with the Rt. Hon. the Earl Maltravers—I've read all about it in the newspapers, my lady. Won't you come a little this way, please?"
In the darkness he bowed her as if she was a customer towards the lights of the motor car. For the first time he noticed that the road had been rudely blocked with piled stones and two hurdles, and that lying among the debris was the figure of the chauffeur.
"Lor'!" he exclaimed. "I hope he hasn't killed your shovver, my lady."
They hurried to his side, the lady in her delicate evening wraps, with her priceless jewels glittering in the glare of the lamps, and the little grotesque Mr. Jones in his sweater and shorts.
The man was not dead, and even as they bent over him he struggled back to consciousness and with their assistance sat up. But he was too weak even to stand.
"Whatever is to be done" gasped Lady Dorothy, looking over at Mr. Jones, and for the first time seeming to realise the abnormalities of his figure and his costume.
"If you will do me the honour, my lady, to let me escort you home we can put the shovver inside the car until I get the police."
"You've done me such great service already—you have been so good and brave—and I haven't even thanked you yet."
IT was with a certain high exaltation in his soul that Mr. Jones, having helped the chauffeur into the car, escorted Lady Dorothy in the direction of Cheshunt Towers.
He had found an overcoat on the side of the road, evidently left by the unfortunate desperado, and it afforded a welcome covering to his body. Moreover, it saved his self-respect; for now that the excitement of the struggle was over he realised the curious figure he must cut in his running clothes by the side of this beautiful lady agitated him not a little.
But with the overcoat on and the revolver that he had picked up in his hand he felt not unlike a knight errant, daring heroic deeds for a high-born lady in distress.
For the first half mile Mr. Jones talked eloquently, answering Lady Dorothy's questions about himself and his life in the shop, and his hopes and ambitions. Then they relapsed into silence, walking side by side. Mr. Jones gallantly holding Lady Dorothy's arm to help her through the darkness. The lights of the lodge were at last quite close. They were almost come to that branch road up which Mr: Jones had intended to finish his last three miles of exercise on his way home.
Suddenly they were both startled by a loud coo-ee.
It was repeated two or three times. Mr. Jones let his companion's arm drop.
"It will be all right, my lady," he answered reassuringly. "You stay here and you'll be quite safe."
His tone was masterful; he felt himself inspired with a capacity for doing tremendous things. He patted Lady Dorothy's arm patronisingly before striding out into the darkness towards the spot from which the signalling voice emanated.
"Coo-ee," he answered back. There was a scuffle in the hedge on his left and the sound of somebody jumping lightly into the road. Mr. Jones turned the collar of his overcoat up, high over his ears. The dim shadow of a tall man thrust himself out of the night, towering over him.
"That you, Jim?" said a voice in a hoarse whisper.
"Yes," answered Mr. Jones, coughing adroitly to disguise his identity.
"Thought you were never coming. What did you fire those three shots for? Did the chauffeur show fight?"
"Yes," retorted Mr. Jones, again thickly.
"Couldn't work the returned husband rig properly, I suppose? Never mind; let's divide the swag and clear out of this. It's dangerous hanging about here. Wait a moment while I show a light, Jim."
Mr. Jones heard the man fumbling with the buttons of his coat; then out of the darkness sprang the glow of an electric torch. Mr. Jones took a step forward and thrust the revolver in the other's face.
A flagrant memory of apocryphal doings in the Wild West returned to him.
"Hands up!" The light went out immediately, but he saw the man's hands go up automatically over his head.
"Keep that torch burning or I'll fire."
The light sprang into being again instantly, nearly three feet above his head, shining like a beacon.
"Now turn, and straight on, if you please, until I tell you to stop."
He shepherded the man down the road with his revolver to the door of the lodge, where he bade him knock. To the astonished head gardener of Cheshunt Towers who appeared he spoke in sharp commanding sentences.
"Kindly secure this man and see he doesn't escape. Lady Dorothy has been attacked in her automobile—the driver has been almost killed, and this man's confederate is lying dead on the road a mile away. Get men at once to bring the car home; the driver is inside. I must return to Lady Dorothy."
He waited only long enough to see his prisoner locked away in the coal cellar, answering the questions with which the gardener bombarded him in the same short, incisive sentences.
Then with the torch that he had taken from his prisoner in his hand he hurried back to where Lady Dorothy was standing in the middle of the road. He drew her arm into his, and bade her, in a soothing voice, not to be frightened any longer.
THE walk to Cheshunt Towers was a triumphant progress—for Mr. Jones. On the way they met the gardener and his two assistants, frantic with anxiety. Lady Dorothy said nothing; it was Mr. Jones, standing bareheaded with a vision of skinny legs peeping out from under the skirts of his overcoat, who directed them commandingly what to do.
His exaltation did not even leave him when finally they reached the house and he came face to face with Lord Cheshunt, and, more trying still, Lord Cheshunt's butler. He insisted on managing the whole affair; telephoning for the police, interviewing them when they came, and quite impervious to the amazement his costume created, demonstrating to them conclusively that the man he had killed and the man he had captured had conspired together to blackmail Lady Dorothy by pretending that her first husband, Ralph Galton, was still alive.
BUT next morning Mr. Jones was simply Mr. Jones—frock-coated, immaculately curled, at his post near the big glass doors of Messrs. Powell & Caterham's. There was an interesting interview with the partners; there was an inquest, a magisterial inquiry and a trial in which he had to take part; there was a visit paid by Lord Cheshunt, Lady Dorothy and Lord Maltravers on Mrs. Jones, and there were some quite substantial presents which found their way into Mr. Jones' meagre banking account.
For a time, too, he was persecuted by cameras, and the Natural Physical Cure Company purchased his unsolicited testimonial, with photograph, for £50.
But the Mr. Jones of the tremendous adventure never emerged again. Sometimes it would happen when he sat at table at the luncheon hour—a composite collection of clothes and collars, hung upon a very meagre frame—that a new apprentice or assistant would mention a deed of horror that he had read in the papers, and wonder enviously what it must feel like to kill a man.
Then Mr. Jones' fingers would, almost automatically, give his moustache a Kaiser-like twist, and he would begin, "I once killed a man," at which opening most of the assistants would fly in confusion. As for the young man who had never heard it before, he would invariably impart to a friend his conviction that "Our Mr. Jones is a thundering liar."
End of The Tremendous Adventure Of Mr Jones by Paul Urquhart