Read CHAPTER VI - KIDNAPPING of Captain Jim , free online book, by Mary Grant Bruce, on ReadCentral.com.

Mrs. Hunt came slowly down the steps of a Park Lane mansion, now used as an officers’ hospital. She was tired and dispirited; her steps dragged as she made her way towards Piccadilly. Beneath her veil her pretty face showed white, with lines of anxiety deepening it.

An officer, hurrying by, stopped and came eagerly to speak to her.

“How are you, Mrs. Hunt? And how’s the Major?”

“Not very well,” said Mrs. Hunt, answering the second part of the question. “The operation was more successful than any he has had yet, but there has been a good deal of pain, and he doesn’t seem to pick up strength. The doctors say that his hand now depends a good deal upon his general health: he ought to live in the country, forget that there’s a war on, and get thoroughly fit.” She sighed. “It’s so easy for doctors to prescribe these little things.”

“Yes they all do it,” said the other a captain in Major Hunt’s regiment. “May I go to see him, do you think?”

“Oh, do,” Mrs. Hunt answered. “It will cheer him up; and anything that will do that is good. He’s terribly depressed, poor old boy.” She said good-bye, and went on wearily.

It was a warm afternoon for October. Norah Linton and her father had come up to London by an early train, and, after much shopping, had lunched at a little French restaurant in Soho, where they ate queer dishes and talked exceedingly bad French to the pretty waitress. It was four o’clock when they found themselves at the door of a dingy building in Bloomsbury.

“Floor 3, the Hunts’ flat, Daddy,” said Norah, consulting a note-book. “I suppose there is a lift.”

There was a lift, but it was out of order; a grimy card, tucked into the lattice of the doorway, proclaimed the fact. So they mounted flight after flight of stairs, and finally halted before a doorway bearing Major Hunt’s card. A slatternly maid answered their ring.

“Mrs. Hunt’s out,” she said curtly. “Gorn to see the Mijor.”

“Oh will she be long?”

“Don’t think so she’s gen’lly home about half-past four. Will yer wait?”

Norah looked at her father.

“Oh yes, we’ll wait,” he said. They followed the girl into a narrow passage, close and airless, and smelling of Irish stew. Sounds of warfare came from behind a closed door: a child began to cry loudly, and a boy’s voice was heard, angry and tired.

The maid ushered the visitors into a dingy little drawing-room. Norah stopped her as she was departing.

“Could I see the children?”

The girl hesitated.

“They’re a bit untidy,” she said sullenly. “I ain’t had no time to clean ’em up. There ain’t no one to take them for a walk to-day.”

“Oh, never mind how untidy they are,” said Norah hastily. “Do send them in.”

“Oh, all right,” said the girl. “You’ll tell the missus it was you arsked for ’em, won’t yer?”

“Yes, of course.”

She went out, and the Lintons looked at each other, and then at the hopeless little room. The furniture was black horsehair, very shiny and hard and slippery; there was a gimcrack bamboo overmantel, with much speckled glass, and the pictures were of the kind peculiar to London lodging-houses, apt to promote indigestion in the beholder. There was one little window, looking out upon a blank courtyard and a dirty little side-street, where children played and fought incessantly, and stray curs nosed the rubbish in the gutters in the hope of finding food. There was nothing green to be seen, nothing clean, nothing pleasant.

“Oh, poor kiddies!” said Norah, under her breath.

The door opened and they came in; not shyly the London child is seldom shy but frankly curious, and in the case of the elder two, with suspicion. Three white-faced mites, as children well may be who have spent a London summer in a Bloomsbury square, where the very pavements sweat tar, and the breathless, sticky heat is as cruel by night as by day. A boy of six, straight and well-grown, with dark hair and eyes, who held by the hand a small toddling person with damp rings of golden hair: behind them a slender little girl, a little too shadowy for a mother’s heart to be easy; with big brown eyes peeping elfishly from a cloud of brown curls.

The boy spoke sullenly.

“Eva told us to come in,” he said.

“We wanted you to take care of us,” said Norah. “You see, your mother isn’t here.”

“But we can’t have tea,” said the boy. “Eva says she isn’t cleaned up yet, and besides, there’s no milk, and very likely Mother’ll forget the cakes, she said.”

“But we don’t want tea,” said Norah. “We had a big lunch, not so long ago. And besides, we’ve got something nicer than tea. It’s in his pocket.” She nodded at her father, who suddenly smiled in the way that made every child love him, and, fishing in his pocket drew out a square white box at sight of which the baby said delightedly, “Choc!” and a kind of incredulous wonder, rather pitiful to see, came into the eyes of Geoffrey and his sister.

“There’s a very difficult red ribbon on this,” said Mr. Linton, fumbling with it. “I can’t undo it.” He smiled at little Alison. “You show me how.”

She was across the room in a flash, the baby at her heels, while Geoffrey made a slow step or two, and then stopped again.

“But you don’t undone it ’tall,” she said. “It sticks on top. You breaks this paper” pointing to the seal “and then it undones himself.”

“You’re quite right,” said Mr. Linton, as the lid came off. “So it does. How did you know?”

“We did have lots of boxes when we lived with the wegiment,” said the small girl; “but now the wegiment’s in Fwance, and Daddy doesn’t have enough pennies for chocs.” Her busy fingers tossed aside tissue paper and silver wrapping, until the brown rows of sweets were revealed. Then she put her hands by her sides.

“Is we to have some?”

“Oh, you poor little soul!” said David Linton hurriedly, and caught her up on his knee. He held the box in front of her.

“Now, which sort do you think is best for weeshy boys like that?” he asked, indicating the baby, who was making silent dives in the direction of the box. “And which do you like? and Geoffrey?”

“Michael likes these.” She fished one out carefully, and Michael fell upon it, sitting on the carpet that he might devour it at his ease. “And Geoff and me oh, we likes any ’tall.”

“Then you shall have any at all.” He held out his free hand. “Come on, Geoff.” And the boy, who had hesitated, digging one foot into the carpet, suddenly capitulated and came.

“Are you an officer?” he asked presently.

“No, I’m too old,” said David Linton. “But I have a big son who is one and another boy too.”

“What’s their regiment?”

“The same as your father’s.”

“Truly?” A sparkle came into the boy’s eyes. “I’m going to be in it some day.”

“Of course you will and Michael too, I suppose. And then you’ll fight the Germans that is, if there are any left.”

“Daddy says there won’t be. But I keep hoping there’ll be just a few for me and Michael.’

“Alison wants some too,” said that lady. “Wants to kill vem wiv my wevolver.”

“A nice young fire-eater, you are,” said Mr. Linton, laughing.

“Girls can’t kill Germans, silly,” said Geoffrey scornfully. “They have to stop at home and make bandages.” To which his sister replied calmly, “Shan’t: I’m going to kill forty ’leven,” with an air of finality which seemed to end the discussion. Norah checked any further warlike reflections by finding a new layer of sweets as attractive as those on top, and the three heads clustered over the box in a pleasant anxiety of selection.

The carriages on the Tube railway had been very stuffy that afternoon. Mrs. Hunt emerged thankfully from the crowded lift which shot up the passengers from underground. She came with slow step into the dusty street. The flat was not far away: that was one comfort. But she sighed impatiently as she entered the building, to be confronted with the “Not Working” legend on the lift.

“Little wretch!” she said, alluding to the absent lift-boy. “I’m sure he’s only playing pitch-and-toss round the corner.” She toiled up the three long flights of stairs her dainty soul revolting at their unswept dinginess. Stella Hunt had been brought up in a big house on a wind-swept Cumberland fell, and there was no day in crowded Bloomsbury when she did not long for the clean open spaces of her girlhood.

She let herself into the flat with her latch-key. Voices came to her from the sitting-room, with a gurgle of laughter from little Michael. She frowned.

“Eva should not have let the children in there,” she thought anxiously. “They may do some damage.” She opened the door hurriedly.

No one noticed her for a moment, David Linton, with Alison on one knee and Geoffrey on the other, was deep in a story of kangaroo-hunting. On the floor sat Norah, with Michael tucked into her lap, his face blissful as she told on his fat fingers the tale of the little pigs who went to market. The box of chocolates was on the table, its scarlet ribbon making a bright spot of colour in the drab room. The mother looked for a minute in silence, something of the weariness dying out of her eyes.

Then Geoffrey looked up and saw her a slight figure, holding a paper bag.

“Hallo!” he said. “I’m glad you didn’t forget the cakes, ’cause we’ve got people to tea!”

Mr. Linton placed his burden on the hearthrug, and got up.

“How are you, Mrs. Hunt? I hope you don’t mind our taking possession like this. We wanted to get acquainted.”

“I could wish they were cleaner,” said Mrs. Hunt, laughing, as she shook hands. “I’ve seldom seen three grubbier people. Geoff, dear, couldn’t Eva have washed your face?”

“She said she hadn’t time,” said Geoffrey easily. “We tried to wash Michael, but he only got more streaky.”

“Oh, please don’t mind, Mrs. Hunt,” Norah pleaded. “They’ve been such darlings!”

“I’m afraid I don’t mind at all,” said Mrs. Hunt, sitting down thankfully. “I’ve been picturing my poor babies tired to death of not being out and then to come home and find them in the seventh heaven ” She broke off, her lip quivering a little.

“You’re just as tired as you can be,” said Norah. “Now you’re going to rest, and Geoff will show me how to get tea.”

“Oh, I couldn’t let you into that awful little kitchen,” said Mrs. Hunt hastily. “And besides I’m awfully sorry I don’t believe the milkman has been yet.”

“I could go to the milk-shop round the corner with a jug,” said Geoffrey anxiously. “Do let’s, Mother.”

“Is there one?” Norah asked. “Now, Mrs. Hunt, do rest make her put her feet up on the sofa, Dad. And Geoff and I will go for milk, and I’ll ask Eva to make tea. Can she?”

“Oh, of course she can” said Mrs. Hunt, ceasing to argue the point. “But she’s never fit to be seen.”

“That doesn’t matter,” said David Linton masterfully. “We’ve seen her once, and survived the shock. Just put your feet up, and tell me all about your husband Norah will see to things.”

Eva, however, was found to have risen to the situation. She had used soap and water with surprising effect, and now bloomed in a fresh cap and an apron that had plainly done duty a good many times, but, being turned inside out, still presented a decent front to the world. She scorned help in preparing tea, but graciously permitted Norah to wash the three children and brush their hair, and indicated where clean overalls might be found. Then, escorted by all three, Norah sallied forth, jug in hand, and found, not only the milk-shop, but another where cakes and scones so clamoured to be bought that they all returned laden with paper bags. Eva had made a huge plate of buttered toast; so that the meal which presently made its appearance on the big table in the drawing-room might well have justified the query as to whether indeed a war were in progress.

Mrs. Hunt laughed, rather mirthlessly.

“I suppose I ought to protest but I’m too tired,” she said. “And it is very nice to be taken care of again. Michael, you should have bread-and-butter first.”

“Vere isn’t any,” said Alison with triumph.

Norah was tucking a feeder under Michael’s fat chin.

“Now he’s my boy for a bit not yours at all, Mrs. Hunt,” she said, laughing. “Forget them all: I’m going to be head nurse.” And Mrs. Hunt lay back thankfully, and submitted to be waited on, while the shouts of laughter from the tea-table smoothed away a few more lines from her face, and made even Eva, feasting on unaccustomed cakes in the kitchen, smile grimly and murmur, “Lor, ain’t they ‘avin’ a time!”

Not until tea was over, and the children busy with picture books that had come mysteriously from another of his pockets, did David Linton unfold his plan: and then he did it somewhat nervously.

“We want to take you all out of this, Mrs. Hunt,” he said. “There’s a little cottage a jolly little thatched place close to our house that is simply clamouring to have you all come and live in it. I think it will hold you all comfortably. Will you come?”

Mrs. Hunt flushed.

“Don’t talk to poor Bloomsbury people of such heavenly things as thatched cottages,” she said. “We have this horrible abode on a long lease, and I don’t see any chance of leaving it.”

“Oh, never mind the lease we’ll sub-let it for you,” said Mr. Linton. He told her briefly of John O’Neill’s bequest to Norah.

“I want you to put it out of your head that you’re accepting the slightest favour,” he went on. “We feel that we only hold the place in trust; the cottage is there, empty, and indeed it is you who will be doing us the favour by coming to live in it.”

“Oh I couldn’t,” she said breathlessly.

“Just think of it, Mrs. Hunt!” Norah knelt down by the hard little horsehair sofa. “There’s a big lawn in front, and a summer-house where the babies could play, and a big empty attic for them on wet days, and heaps of fresh milk, and you could keep chickens; and the sitting-room catches all the sun, and when Major Hunt comes out of the hospital it would be so quiet and peaceful. He could lie out under the trees on fine days on a rush lounge; and there are jolly woods for him to walk in.” The poor wife caught her breath. “And he’d be such tremendous company for Dad, and I know you’d help me when I got into difficulties with my cook-lady. There’s a little stream, and a tiny lake, and ”

“When is we goin’, Muvver?”

The question was Alison’s, put with calm certainty. She and Geoffrey had stolen near, and were listening with eager faces.

“Oh, my darling, I’m afraid we can’t,” said Mrs. Hunt tremulously.

“But the big girl says we can. When is we going?”

“Oh, Mother!” said Geoffrey, very low. “Away from here!” He caught her hand. “Oh, say we’re going, Mother darling!”

“Of course she’ll say it,” David Linton said. “The only question is, how soon can you be ready?”

“Douglas is terribly proud,” Mrs. Hunt said. “I am afraid I couldn’t be proud. But he will never accept a favour. I know it would be no use to ask him.”

“Then we won’t ask him,” said David Linton calmly. “When does he leave the hospital?”

“This day week, if he is well enough.”

“Then we’ll have you comfortably installed long before that. We won’t tell him a thing about it: on the day he’s to come out I’ll go for him in the motor and whisk him down to Homewood before he realizes where he’s going. Now, be sensible, Mrs. Hunt” as she tried to speak. “You know what his state is how anxious you are: you told me all about it just now. Can you, in justice to him, refuse to come? can you face bringing him back here?”

Geoffrey suddenly burst into sobs.

“Oh, don’t Mother!” he choked. “You know how he hates it. And trees, and grass, and woods, and ” He hid his face on her arm.

“An’ tsickens,” said Alison. “An’ ackits to play in.”

“You’re in a hopeless minority, you see, Mrs. Hunt,” said Mr. Linton. “You’ll have to give in.”

Mrs. Hunt put her arms round the two children who were pressing against her in their eagerness: whereupon Michael raised a wrathful howl and flung himself bodily upon them, ejaculating: “Wants to be hugged, too!” Over the three heads the mother looked up at her visitors.

“Yes, I give in,” she said. “I’m not brave enough not to. But I don’t know what Douglas will say.”

“I’ll attend to Douglas,” said Mr. Linton cheerfully. “Now, how soon can you come?” He frowned severely. “There’s to be no question of house-cleaning here I’ll put in people to do that. You’ll have your husband to nurse next week, and I won’t have you tiring yourself out beforehand. So you have only to pack.”

“Look, Mrs. Hunt,” Norah was flushed with another brilliant idea. “Let us take the babies down to-day I’m sure they will come with me. Then you and Eva will have nothing to do but pack up your things.”

“Oh, I couldn’t ” Mrs. Hunt began.

“Ah yes, you could.” She turned to the children. “Geoff, will you all come with my Daddy and me and get the cottage ready for Mother?”

Geoffrey hesitated.

“Would you come soon, Mother?”

“I I believe if I had nothing else to do I could leave the flat to-morrow,” Mrs. Hunt said, submitting. “Would you all be happy, Geoff? and very good?”

“Yes, if you’d hurry up and come. You’ll be a good kid, Alison, won’t you?”

“’Ess,” said Alison. “Will I see tsickens?”

“Ever so many,” Norah said. “And Michael will be a darling: and we’ll all sleep together in one big room, and have pillow-fights!”

“You had certainly better come soon, before your family’s manners become ruined, Mrs. Hunt,” said Mr. Linton, laughing. “Then you can really manage to get away to-morrow? Very well I’ll call for you about five, if that will do.”

“Yes; that will give me time to see Douglas first.”

“But you won’t tell him anything?”

“Oh, no: he would only worry. Of course, Mr. Linton, I shall be able to get up to see him every day?”

“We’re less than an hour by rail,” he told her. “And the trains are good. Now I think you had better pack up those youngsters, and I’ll get a taxi.”

Norah helped to pack the little clothes, trying hard to remember instructions as to food and insistence on good manners.

“Oh, I know you’ll spoil them,” said Mrs. Hunt resignedly. “Poor mites, they could do with a bit of spoiling: they have had a dreary year. But I think they will be good: they have been away with my sister sometimes, and she gives them a good character.”

The children said good-bye to their mother gaily enough: the ride in the motor was sufficient excitement to smooth out any momentary dismay at parting. Only Geoffrey sat up very straight, with his lips tightly pressed together. He leaned from the window Norah gripping his coat anxiously.

“You’ll be true-certain to come to-morrow, Mother?”

“I promise,” she said. “Good-bye, old son.”

“Mother always keeps her promises, so it’s all right,” he said, leaning back with a little smile. Alison had no worries. She sang “Hi, diddle, diddle!” loud and clear, as they rushed through the crowded streets. When a block in the traffic came, people on ’buses looked down, smiling involuntarily at the piping voice coming from the recesses of the taxi. As for Michael, he sat on Norah’s knee and sucked his thumb in complete content.

Jones met them at the end of the little journey. His lips involuntarily shaped themselves to a whistle of amazement as the party filed out of the station, though to the credit of his training be it recorded that no sound came. Geoffrey caught his breath with delight at the sight of the brown cobs.

“Oh-h! Are they yours?”

“Yes aren’t they dears?” responded Norah.

The boy caught her hand.

“Oh could I possibly sit in front and look at them?”

Norah laughed.

“Could he, Jones? Would you take care of him?”

“’E’d be as safe as in a cradle, Miss Norah,” said Jones delightedly. “Come on up, sir, and I’ll show you ’ow to drive.” Mr. Linton swung him up, smiling at the transfigured little face. Norah had already got her charges into the carriage: a porter stowed away their trunk, and the horses trotted off through the dusk.

“I didn’t ever want to get out,” Geoffrey confided to Norah, as they went up the steps to the open door of Homewood. “That kind man let me hold the end of the reins. And he says he’ll show me more horses to-morrow.”

“There’s a pony too we’ll teach you to ride it,” said Mr. Linton. Whereat Geoffrey gasped with joy and became speechless.

“Well have you got them all tucked up?” asked Mr. Linton, when Norah joined him in the morning-room an hour later.

“Oh, yes; they were so tired, poor mites. Bride helped me to bathe them, and we fed them all on bread and milk with lots of cream. Michael demanded “Mummy,” but he was too sleepy to worry much. But; Dad Geoff wants you badly to say ‘good-night.’ He says his own Daddy always says it to him when he’s in bed. Would you mind?”

“Right,” said her father. He went upstairs, with Norah at his heels, and tiptoed into the big room where two of his three small guests were already sleeping soundly. He looked very tall as he stood beside the little bed in the corner. Geoff’s bright eyes peeped up at him.

“It was awful good of you to come,” he said sleepily. “Daddy does. He says, ‘Good night, old chap, and God bless you.’”

“Good night, old chap, and God bless you,” said David Linton gravely. He held the small hand a moment in his own, and then, stooping, brushed his forehead with his lips.

“God bless you,” said Geoff’s drowsy voice. “I’m going going to ride the pony . . . to-morrow.” His words trailed off in sleep.