“Has it ever struck you,” said Vera Durmot to Clovis, “that one might make a comfortable income by compiling a local almanack, on prophetic lines, like those that the general public buy by the half million?”
“An income, perhaps,” said Clovis, “but not a comfortable one. The prophet has proverbially a thin sort of time in his own country, and you would be too closely mixed up with the people you were prophesying about to be able to get much comfort out of the job. If the man who foretells tragic happenings for the Crowned Heads of Europe had to meet them at luncheon parties and tea-fights every other day of the week he would not find his business a comfortable one, especially towards the last days of the year, when the tragedies were getting over-due.”
“I should sell it just before the New Year,” said Vera, ignoring the suggestion of possible embarrassment, “at eighteenpence a copy, and get a friend to type it for me, so that every copy I sold would be clear profit. Everyone would buy it out of curiosity, just to see how many of the predictions would be falsified.”
“Wouldn’t it be rather a trying time for you later on,” asked Clovis, “when the predictions began to ‘lack confirmation’?”
“The thing would be,” said Vera, “to arrange your forecast so that it couldn’t go very far wrong. I should begin with the prediction that the vicar would preach a moving New Year sermon from a text in Colossians; he has always done so since I can remember, and at his time of life men dislike change. Then one could safely foretell for the month of January that ‘more than one well-known family in this neighbourhood will be faced with a serious financial outlook which, however, will not develop into actual crisis.’ Every other head of a family down here discovers about that time of year that his household is living far beyond its income, and that severe retrenchment will be necessary. For April or May or thereabouts I should hint that one of the Dibcuster girls would make the happiest choice of her life. There are eight of them, and it’s really time that one of the family married or went on the stage or took to writing worldly novels.”
“They have never done anything of the kind within human memory,” objected Clovis.
“One must take some risks,” said Vera. “I should be on safer ground,” she added, “in predicting serious servant troubles from February to November. ‘Some of the best mistresses and house managers in this locality will be faced with vexatious servant difficulties, which will be temporarily tided over.’ ”
“Another safe forecast,” suggested Clovis, “could be fitted into the dates when there are medal competitions at the golf club. ‘One or two of the most brilliant local players will encounter extraordinary and persistent bad luck, which will rob them of the deserved guerdon of good play.’ At least a dozen men will think your prophecies positively inspired.”
Vera made a note of the suggestion.
“I’ll let you have an advance copy at half price,” she said; “on the other hand, I expect you to see that your mother buys one at market rates.”
“She shall buy two,” said Clovis; “she can give one to Lady Adela, who never buys anything that she can borrow.”
The almanack had a big sale, and most of its predictions came sufficiently near fulfilment to sustain the compiler’s claim to prophetic powers of an eighteenpenny standard. One of the Dibcuster girls made up her mind to be a hospital nurse and another of them gave up piano playing, both of which might be considered happy decisions, while the forecast of servant troubles and unmerited bad luck on the golf links received ample confirmation in the annals of the home and the club.
“I don’t see how she was to know that I was going to change my cook twice in seven months,” said Mrs. Duff, who easily recognised an allusion to herself as one of the best mistresses of the neighbourhood.
“And it’s come quite true about phenomenal vegetable products being recorded from a local garden,” said Mrs. Openshaw; “it said ‘a garden which has long been the admiration of the neighbourhood for its magnificent flowers will this year produce some marvels in the way of vegetables.’ Our garden is the admiration of everybody, and yesterday Henry brought in some carrots, well, you wouldn’t see anything to equal them at a show.”
“Oh, but I think that refers to our garden,” said Mrs. Duff, “it has always been admired for its flowers, and now we’ve got some Glory of the South parsnips that beat anything I’ve ever seen. We’ve taken their measurements, and I got Phyllis to photograph them. I shall certainly buy the almanack if it comes out another year.”
“I’ve ordered it already,” said Mrs. Openshaw; “after what it foretold about my garden I thought I ought to.”
While the general verdict was in favour of the almanack as an inspired production, or, at any rate, a very fair compilation of successful prediction, there were critics who pointed out that most of the events foretold were of the nature of things that happened in one form or another in any given year.
“I couldn’t risk being very definite about any particular event,” said Vera to Clovis towards the end of the twelve-month; “as it is I have rather tied myself up over Jocelyn Vanner. I hinted that the hunting field was not a safe place for her during November and December. It is never a safe place for her at any time, she is always coming off a jump or getting bolted with or something of that sort. And now she has taken alarm at my prediction, and only comes to the meets on foot. Nothing very serious can happen to her under those circumstances.”
“It must be ruining her hunting season,” said Clovis.
“It’s ruining the reputation of my almanack,” said Vera; “it’s the one thing that has definitely miscarried. I felt so sure she would have a spill of some sort that could be magnified into a serious accident.”
“I’m afraid I can’t offer to ride over her, or incite hounds to tear her to pieces in mistake for a fox,” said Clovis; “I should earn your undying devotion, but there would be a wearisome fuss about it, and I should have to hunt with another pack in future, and that would be dreadfully inconvenient.”
“As your mother says, you are a mass of selfishness,” commented Vera.
An opportunity for being unselfish occurred to Clovis a day or two later, when he found himself at close quarters with Jocelyn near Bludberry Gate, where hounds were drawing a long woody hollow in search of an elusive fox.
“Scent is poor, and there’s an interminable amount of cover,” grumbled Clovis from his saddle; “we shall be here for hours before we get a fox away.”
“All the more time for you to talk to me,” said Jocelyn archly.
“The question is,” said Clovis darkly, “whether I ought to be seen talking to you. I may be involving you.”
“Heavens! Involving me in what?” gasped Jocelyn.
“Do you know anything about Bukowina?” Clovis asked with seeming inconsequence.
“Bukowina? It’s somewhere in Asia Minor, isn’t it — or Central Asia — or is it part of the Balkans?” hazarded Jocelyn; “I really forget for the moment. Where exactly is it?”
“On the brink of a revolution,” said Clovis impressively; “that’s what I want to warn you about. When I was staying with my aunt in Bucharest” (Clovis invented aunts as lavishly as other people invent golfing experiences) “I got mixed up in the affair without knowing what I was in for. There was a Princess–”
“Ah,” said Jocelyn knowingly, “there always is a beautiful and alluring Princess in these affairs.”
“As plain and boring a woman as one could find in Eastern Europe,” said Clovis; “one of the sort that call just before lunch and stay till it’s time to dress for dinner. Well, it seems that some Rumanian Jew is willing to finance the revolution if he can be assured of getting certain mineral concessions. The Jew is cruising in a yacht somewhere off the English coast, and the Princess had made up her mind that I was the safest person to convey the concession papers to him. My aunt whispered, ‘For Heaven’s sake agree to what she says or she’ll stay on to dinner.’ At that moment any sacrifice seemed better than that, and so here I am, with my breast pocket bulging with compromising documents, and my life not worth a minute’s purchase.”
“But,” said Jocelyn, “you are safe here in England, aren’t you?”
“Do you see that man over there, on the roan?” asked Clovis, pointing to a man with a heavy black moustache, who was probably an auctioneer from a neighbouring town, and at any rate was a stranger to the hunt. “That man was outside my aunt’s house when I escorted the Princess to her carriage. He was on the platform of the railway station when I left Bucharest. He was on the landing-stage when I arrived in England. I can go nowhere without finding him at my elbow. I was not surprised to see him at the meet this morning.”
“But what can he do to you?” asked Jocelyn tremulously; “he can’t kill you.”
“Not before witnesses, if he can avoid it. The moment hounds find and the field scatters will be his opportunity. He means to have those papers to-day.”
“But how can he be sure you’ve got them on you?”
“He can’t; I might have slipped them over to you while we were talking. That is why he is trying to make up his mind which of us to go for at the critical moment.”
“Us?” screamed Jocelyn; “do you mean to say–?”
“I warned you that it was dangerous to be seen talking to me.”
“But this awful! What am I to do?”
“Slip away into the undergrowth the moment that hounds get moving, and run like a rabbit. It is your only chance, and remember, if you escape, no talking. Many lives will be involved if you breathe a word of what I’ve told you. My aunt at Bucharest–”
At that moment there was a whimper from hounds down in the hollow, and a general ripple of movement passed through the scattered groups of waiting horsemen. A louder and more assured burst of noise came up from the valley.
“They’ve found!” cried Clovis and turned eagerly to join in the stampede. A crashing, scrunching noise as of a body rapidly and resolutely forcing its way through birch thicket and dead bracken was all that remained to him of his late companion.
Jocelyn’s most intimate friends never knew the exact nature of the deadly peril she had incurred in the hunting field that day, but enough was made known to ensure the almanack a brisk sale at its new price of three shillings.
The Morning Post, 17th June, 1913