“I suppose we shall never see Wilfred Pigeoncote here now that he has become heir to the baronetcy and to a lot of money,” observed Mrs. Peter Pigeoncote regretfully to her husband.
“Well, we can hardly expect to,” he replied, “seeing that we always choked him off from coming to see us when he was a prospective nobody. I don’t think I’ve set eyes on him since he was a boy of twelve.”
“There was a reason for not wanting to encourage his acquaintanceship,” said Mrs. Peter. “With that notorious failing of his he was not the sort of person one wanted in one’s house.”
“Well, the failing still exists, doesn’t it?” said her husband; “or do you suppose a reform of character is entailed along with the estate?”
“Oh, of course, there is still that drawback,” admitted the wife, “but one would like to make the acquaintance of the future head of the family, if only out of mere curiosity. Besides, cynicism apart, his being rich will make a difference in the way people will look at his failing. When a man is absolutely wealthy, not merely well-to- do, all suspicion of sordid motive naturally disappears; the thing becomes merely a tiresome malady.”
Wilfrid Pigeoncote had suddenly become heir to his uncle, Sir Wilfrid Pigeoncote, on the death of his cousin, Major Wilfrid Pigeoncote, who had succumbed to the after-effects of a polo accident. (A Wilfrid Pigeoncote had covered himself with honours in the course of Marlborough’s campaigns, and the name Wilfrid had been a baptismal weakness in the family ever since.) The new heir to the family dignity and estates was a young man of about five-and-twenty, who was known more by reputation than by person to a wide circle of cousins and kinsfolk. And the reputation was an unpleasant one. The numerous other Wilfrids in the family were distinguished one from another chiefly by the names of their residences or professions, as Wilfrid of Hubbledown, and young Wilfrid the Gunner, but this particular scion was known by the ignominious and expressive label of Wilfrid the Snatcher. From his late schooldays onward he had been possessed by an acute and obstinate form of kleptomania; he had the acquisitive instinct of the collector without any of the collector’s discrimination. Anything that was smaller and more portable than a sideboard, and above the value of ninepence, had an irresistible attraction for him, provided that it fulfilled the necessary condition of belonging to some one else. On the rare occasions when he was included in a country-house party, it was usual and almost necessary for his host, or some member of the family, to make a friendly inquisition through his baggage on the eve of his departure, to see if he had packed up “by mistake” any one else’s property. The search usually produced a large and varied yield.
“This is funny,” said Peter Pigeoncote to his wife, some half-hour after their conversation; “here’s a telegram from Wilfrid, saying he’s passing through here in his motor, and would like to stop and pay us his respects. Can stay for the night if it doesn’t inconvenience us. Signed ‘Wilfrid Pigeoncote.’ Must be the Snatcher; none of the others have a motor. I suppose he’s bringing us a present for the silver wedding.”
“Good gracious!” said Mrs. Peter, as a thought struck her; “this is rather an awkward time to have a person with his failing in the house. All those silver presents set out in the drawing-room, and others coming by every post; I hardly know what we’ve got and what are still to come. We can’t lock them all up; he’s sure to want to see them.”
“We must keep a sharp look-out, that’s all,” said Peter reassuringly.
“But these practised kleptomaniacs are so clever,” said his wife, apprehensively, “and it will be so awkward if he suspects that we are watching him.”
Awkwardness was indeed the prevailing note that evening when the passing traveller was being entertained. The talk flitted nervously and hurriedly from one impersonal topic to another. The guest had none of the furtive, half-apologetic air that his cousins had rather expected to find; he was polite, well-assured, and, perhaps, just a little inclined to “put on side”. His hosts, on the other hand, wore an uneasy manner that might have been the hallmark of conscious depravity. In the drawing-room, after dinner, their nervousness and awkwardness increased.
“Oh, we haven’t shown you the silver-wedding presents,” said Mrs. Peter, suddenly, as though struck by a brilliant idea for entertaining the guest; “here they all are. Such nice, useful gifts. A few duplicates, of course.”
“Seven cream jugs,” put in Peter.
“Yes, isn’t it annoying,” went on Mrs. Peter; “seven of them. We feel that we must live on cream for the rest of our lives. Of course, some of them can be changed.”
Wilfrid occupied himself chiefly with such of the gifts as were of antique interest, carrying one or two of them over to the lamp to examine their marks. The anxiety of his hosts at these moments resembled the solicitude of a cat whose newly born kittens are being handed round for inspection.
“Let me see; did you give me back the mustard-pot? This is its place here,” piped Mrs. Peter.
“Sorry. I put it down by the claret-jug,” said Wilfrid, busy with another object.
“Oh, just let me have the sugar-sifter again,” asked Mrs. Peter, dogged determination showing through her nervousness; “I must label it who it comes from before I forget.”
Vigilance was not completely crowned with a sense of victory. After they had said “Good-night” to their visitor, Mrs. Peter expressed her conviction that he had taken something.
“I fancy, by his manner, that there was something up,” corroborated her husband; “do you miss anything?”
Mrs. Peters hastily counted the array of gifts.
“I can only make it thirty-four, and I think it should be thirty- five,” she announced; “I can’t remember if thirty-five includes the Archdeacon’s cruet-stand that hasn’t arrived yet.”
“How on earth are we to know?” said Peter. “The mean pig hasn’t brought us a present, and I’m hanged if he shall carry one off.”
“To-morrow, when’s he having his bath,” said Mrs. Peter excitedly, “he’s sure to leave his keys somewhere, and we can go through his portmanteau. It’s the only thing to do.”
On the morrow an alert watch was kept by the conspirators behind half-closed doors, and when Wilfrid, clad in a gorgeous bath-robe, had made his way to the bath-room, there was a swift and furtive rush by two excited individuals towards the principal guest-chamber. Mrs. Peter kept guard outside, while her husband first made a hurried and successful search for the keys, and then plunged at the portmanteau with the air of a disagreeably conscientious Customs official. The quest was a brief one; a silver cream jug lay embedded in the folds of some zephyr shirts.
“The cunning brute,” said Mrs. Peters; “he took a cream jug because there were so many; he thought one wouldn’t be missed. Quick, fly down with it and put it back among the others.”
Wilfrid was late in coming down to breakfast, and his manner showed plainly that something was amiss.
“It’s an unpleasant thing to have to say,” he blurted out presently, “but I’m afraid you must have a thief among your servants. Something’s been taken out of my portmanteau. It was a little present from my mother and myself for your silver wedding. I should have given it to you last night after dinner, only it happened to be a cream jug, and you seemed annoyed at having so many duplicates, so I felt rather awkward about giving you another. I thought I’d get it changed for something else, and now it’s gone.”
“Did you say it was from your MOTHER and yourself?” asked Mr. and Mrs. Peter almost in unison. The Snatcher had been an orphan these many years.
“Yes, my mother’s at Cairo just now, and she wrote to me at Dresden to try and get you something quaint and pretty in the old silver line, and I pitched on this cream jug.”
Both the Pigeoncotes had turned deadly pale. The mention of Dresden had thrown a sudden light on the situation. It was Wilfrid the Attache, a very superior young man, who rarely came within their social horizon, whom they had been entertaining unawares in the supposed character of Wilfrid the Snatcher. Lady Ernestine Pigeoncote, his mother, moved in circles which were entirely beyond their compass or ambitions, and the son would probably one day be an Ambassador. And they had rifled and despoiled his portmanteau! Husband and wife looked blankly and desperately at one another. It was Mrs. Peter who arrived first at an inspiration.
“How dreadful to think there are thieves in the house! We keep the drawing-room locked up at night, of course, but anything might be carried off while we are at breakfast.”
She rose and went out hurriedly, as though to assure herself that the drawing-room was not being stripped of its silverware, and returned a moment later, bearing a cream jug in her hands.
“There are eight cream jugs now, instead of seven,” she cried; “this one wasn’t there before. What a curious trick of memory, Mr. Wilfrid! You must have slipped downstairs with it last night and put it there before we locked up, and forgotten all about having done it in the morning.”
“One’s mind often plays one little tricks like that,” said Mr. Peter, with desperate heartiness. “Only the other day I went into the town to pay a bill, and went in again next day, having clean forgotten that I’d–”
“It is certainly the jug I bought for you,” said Wilfrid, looking closely at it; “it was in my portmanteau when I got my bath-robe out this morning, before going to my bath, and it was not there when I unlocked the portmanteau on my return. Some one had taken it while I was away from the room.”
The Pigeoncotes had turned paler than ever. Mrs. Peter had a final inspiration.
“Get me my smelling-salts, dear,” she said to her husband; “I think they’re in the dressing-room.”
Peter dashed out of the room with glad relief; he had lived so long during the last few minutes that a golden wedding seemed within measurable distance.
Mrs. Peter turned to her guest with confidential coyness.
“A diplomat like you will know how to treat this as if it hadn’t happened. Peter’s little weakness; it runs in the family.”
“Good Lord! Do you mean to say he’s a kleptomaniac, like Cousin Snatcher?”
“Oh, not exactly,” said Mrs. Peter, anxious to whitewash her husband a little greyer than she was painting him. “He would never touch anything he found lying about, but he can’t resist making a raid on things that are locked up. The doctors have a special name for it. He must have pounced on your portmanteau the moment you went to your bath, and taken the first thing he came across. Of course, he had no motive for taking a cream jug; we’ve already got seven, as you know–not, of course, that we don’t value the kind of gift you and your mother–hush here’s Peter coming.”
Mrs. Peter broke off in some confusion, and tripped out to meet her husband in the hall.
“It’s all right,” she whispered to him; “I’ve explained everything. Don’t say anything more about it.”
“Brave little woman,” said Peter, with a gasp of relief; “I could never have done it.”
* * *
Diplomatic reticence does not necessarily extend to family affairs. Peter Pigeoncote was never able to understand why Mrs. Consuelo van Bullyon, who stayed with them in the spring, always carried two very obvious jewel-cases with her to the bath-room, explaining them to any one she chanced to meet in the corridor as her manicure and face-massage set.