6. THE ARISTOCRATIC ENTANGLEMENT
The beech wood was tall and vast, the green trunked trees standing up to their ankles in a haze of bluebells. The trees grew so closely together that even something the size of Rosy would be completely invisible thirty yards from the road. However, Adrian was not taking any chances. The farther he removed them from the hunt the better he would feel. Presently they found a small ride which meandered off at right angles to the road and disappeared deep into the forest, and this they followed for a mile or so. High in the treetops wood-pigeons crooned huskily, rabbits flashed and scuttled all around them, and squirrels fled up the tree trunks in alarm—their tails like puffs of red smoke—and chattered indignantly at them as they passed. Adrian began to regain his confidence, Surely, he thought, in this great, cool forest no one would be able to find them.
Presently the ride led them to a large field in the middle of the wood, and in the field were the somewhat bedraggled remains of a last year’s haystack. But it was warm and dry, and Adrian decided that this would be the perfect place to sleep. He unhitched the cart and, with Rosy’s help, pushed it deep into the undergrowth where it would be well hidden. Then he unpacked the food and the blankets and made his way to the haystack. Rosy followed him in a preoccupied manner, but presently returned to the trap and reappeared carrying the firkin of ale carefully in her trunk. So, wrapped up warmly in blankets, on a bed of sweet-smelling hay, Adrian lay and ate his supper while Rosy stood guard beside him, swaying gently from side to side. The moon slid up into the sky and peered down at them, turning the meadow to silver, and deep in the forest the owls hooted tremulously at each other.
Adrian was woken at dawn by a vast chorus of bird-song that made the wood echo and ring. The meadow was white with dew and the morning air was chilly. They made a hasty meal and rounded it off with a pint of ale each, Adrian reflecting that he was falling into Mr. Pucklehammer’s evil ways of drinking ale for breakfast. Then, the cart hitched up once more, they continued on their way in the sparkling morning light, Rosy leaving great circular footprints in the dewy grass. They had crossed three fields, seeing nothing more alarming than a cock pheasant glittering in the sun, when they came to a gap in the hedge that led them on to the road once more.
They were just about to regain the road when Adrian heard the sound of horses’ hooves. Hastily shushing Rosy (who was making considerably less noise than he was) he peered cautiously round the hedge, expecting to see a whole host of mounted policemen galloping in pursuit of them. But instead he saw a very elegant black landau with gold wheels and impressive crests on the doors, being pulled at a spanking pace by a pair of magnificent greys. Reclining in the back of the landau was a man clad in a pale lavender coat and white breeches, with a top hat as shiny as a beetle tipped over his face.
Adrian was so busy watching the approach of the landau that he had stupidly let go of Rosy’s ear and she, acting on the assumption that the highroad was free to all travellers (including elephants), shambled out on to the road, pulling the trap behind her. By now the effect that Rosy had on horses had ceased to surprise Adrian. The two greys skidded to a halt, reared up on their hind legs and made desperate endeavours to climb through the hedge, carrying the landau with them, while the coachman, white-faced, did his best to control them.
“What are you trying to do, Jenkiris?” enquired the man in the lavender coat languidly.
“I’m sorry, my lord,” said the coachman, “but it’s this here animal!”
The man in the lavender coat tilted his shiny top hat back, revealing elegant side-whiskers and curly hair of the brightest auburn shade. He had a long, pale and rather delicate-looking face lit with enormous eyes of the most vivid violet. He seemed quite unperturbed by the fact that the landau was in imminent danger of turning over. He felt thoughtfully in his waistcoat pocket, produced a monocle and proceeded to arrange it carefully in his right eye. By now the horses had succeeded in getting their heads through the hedge, and the landau was rocking and bouncing like a ship in a heavy sea.
“By Jove!” said the man in the lavender coat, surveying Rosy, “an elephant . . . a veritable elephant. ’Pon my soul, what an extraordinary thing.”
Adrian was pushing at Rosy’s head in a desperate endeavour to get her to go into reverse, but she was being singularly stubborn.
“You there,” said the man in the lavender coat, “is that your elephant?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so . . . in a sort of a way,” said Adrian, still pushing at Rosy.
“What an extraordinary thing,” said the man musingly. “I suppose you aren’t by any chance the person who upset the Monkspepper Hunt? I suppose you must be . . . there can’t be more than one elephant in the district, surely?”
“I’m afraid so,” said Adrian, “but it was all a horrible mistake, really. We didn’t mean any harm, but you can see the effect the has on horses.”
“Yes,” agreed the man, “she does appear to have a detrimental effect on them, I will admit Would it be asking too much, my dear fellow, for you to move her a trifle so that we can get past?”
“Certainly,” said Adrian. “I’ll do the best I can.”
But Rosy, having gained the road, saw no valid reason for returning to the field. The struggle lasted some time and then Adrian bad an idea. He ran round to the back of the trap and filled Rosy’s tankard with beer. Using this as a bribe he managed to entice her back behind the hedge. Now she was out of view the coachman could get the greys under some sort of control. The man in the lavender coat had watched the whole performance with rapt attention, and when Adrian reappeared he screwed his monocle more firmly into his eye and leant forward.
“Tell me, my dear chap,” he enquired, “does she drink the beer or just bathe in it?”
“She drinks it,” said Adrian bitterly.
“Quite remarkable,” said the man, “a beer-drinking elephant.”
“I’m terribly sorry we upset your horses,” said Adrian. “Rosy doesn’t mean any harm, really.”
“Not at all, my dear fellow,” said the man, waving a slender hand. “Don’t mention it, pray. Most diverting experience. Tell me, does the drink anything else besides beer?”
“Yes,” said Adrian succinctly, “everything.”
“Fascinating!” said the man, and then added with a gleam of humour in his violet eyes, “If that’s the effect she has on my greys, I’d love to have seen what she did to the hunt.”
“I must say it was quite spectacular,” Adrian admitted, grinning. “I’ve never seen so many huntsmen fall off at once.”
The man in the landau gave a crow of laughter, and then, taking off his top hat, he held out a slender hand. “I’m Lord Fenneltree, by the by, and I’m delighted to meet you.”
“Thank you, sir,” stammered Adrian. “My name’s Rookwhistie, Adrian Rookwhistle, and that’s Rosy.”
“Charming names,” said his lordship vaguely, and then fell into a reverie, staring into space. Adrian, never having met a lord before, was uncertain what to do. He was not at all sure that he had not been dismissed. He was just about to raise his hat and say good-bye, when his lordship woke up with a start, screwed his monocle more firmly in his eye and glared at him.
“I’ve been thinking,” said Lord Fenneltree proudly, with the air of one describing a rare phenomenon. “Are you, by any chance, free at the moment?”
“Well . . . yes,” said Adrian. “I’m just making my way down to the coast.”
“Capital! Capital!” said his lordship enthusiastically, “it couldn’t have been a more fortunate meeting.”
“Really!” said Adrian. “Why?”
“The party,” said his lordship in surprise, “The party, my dear fellow, that’s been occupying my waking and sleeping thoughts for the last month.”
“Oh, I see,” said Adrian, who did not see at all but wanted to be polite.
“Don’t you think, Jenkins,” said his lordship to the coachman, “that the elephant would be admirable for the party?”
“Yes, my lord,” said Jenkins woodenly. “If you say so.”
“It is so nice to be agreed with,” said Lord Fenneltree, beaming at Adrian.
“Forgive me,” said Adrian, “but what is it you want me to do exactly?”
“We cannot discuss it here,” said his lordship firmly, “it’s too fatiguing to hold an intellectual conversation in the back of a landau. If you continue down this road a mile or so you’ll see my house lying on the left-hand side. Do come there, my dear fellow, and bring your elephant. Then we’ll discuss the matter further over some lunch, eh?”
“That’s very kind of you,” said Adrian.
“Don’t mention it,” said his lordship. “Home, Jenkins.” The landau rattled off down the lane and a much puzzled Adrian went back into the field to retrieve Rosy.
“This is a rum do, Rosy,” he said to her as he led her down the mad. “First you try and kill a member of the aristocracy, and then he invites us to lunch. At least, he invited me to lunch, but I suppose he’ll give you a cabbage or something. I wonder what this party thing is that he keeps on about? I don’t see what we can do to help. Anyway, my girl, just you remember where you are and behave yourself. I don’t want to be had up for killing a lord.”
Presently they came to a pair of huge wrought-iron gates, hung on tall pillars, each one guarded by snarling stone griffons vivid with patches of green moss and yellow lichens. Beyond them the drive curled through noble parkland, dotted with clumps of magnificent trees, and in the distance, gigantic, rosy red in the sunlight, its mullioned windows flashing, lay the residence of Lord Fenneltree. An elderly man came trotting out of the lodge, pulling his forelock, and opened the gates wide.
“Morning, sir,” he said, looking somewhat apprehensively at Rosy. “His lordship said you was coming.”
Adrian and Rosy, with the trap trundling behind, made their way up the long curling drive. As they got nearer to the house the green sward gave place to neatly clipped lawns, flower beds and yew hedges which had been carefully and cunningly fashioned to represent peacocks, unicorns and similar interesting beasts. His lordship was standing on the steps leading up to the front door impatiently awaiting their arrival. He was surrounded by several footmen and an elderly and almost circular butler, all in a state of ill-suppressed excitement at the sight of Rosy.
“There you are,” said Lord Fenneltree. “Excellent. Now, my dear chap, come in and have some luncheon. What, by the way, does Rosy like, apart from beer?”
“Well, any sort of fruit or vegetables,” said Adrian.
“Raymond,” said his lordship to the butler, “show Mr. Rookwhistle and Rosy the way to the stables and then tell the gardeners to get her some fruit and vegetables.”
Once Rosy was tethered in a spacious barn in the stable yard, the gardeners appeared with wheelbarrow loads of succulent fruit and vegetables that made Adrian’s mouth water and produced shrill trumpetings of enthusiasm from Rosy. There were peaches and grapes, carrots, cabbage and peas, apples, pears and apricots. Leaving Rosy engulfing these delicacies, Adrian was escorted back to the house by the butler and ushered into a vast withdrawing-room, where Lord Fenneltree was reclining on a sofa, surrounded by a pack of dogs of all shapes and sizes.
“Come and sit down,” said his lordship. ‘Presently we’ll have some lunch. Rosy all safe and sound, I trust?”
“Yes,” said Adrian, “she’s eating her head off. It’s very good of you to be so kind when the could have been the cause of your death. I’m really most grateful.”
“Well,” said his lordship, “if you’re feeling all that grateful you might be able to do me a small service.”
“Anything I can,” said Adrian.
“It’s this damned party,” explained his lordship, closing his eyes as though the mere thought was painful to him. “You see, I have a daughter who—although I say it myself—is not utterly repulsive. Very shortly it is to be her eighteenth birthday and to celebrate it we are having a party, d’you see? My dear wife, who is, I’m afraid, a headstrong and insatiable woman, insists that this party from the point of view of extravagance and originality outshine anything that has been done previously in the district. Now, I can manage the financial side of things all right, but up to now I had been quite unable to think of anything original. Then you came along.”
“I see,” said Adrian cautiously.
“Now, it occurs to me,” his lordship went on, “that the introduction of a large, tame, beer-drinking elephant into a party of this sort would be a very original idea, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” said Adrian.
“Do, my dear fellow, disagree with me if you think the idea lacking in originality,” said his lordship earnestly.
“No, come to think of it, it would be a very original idea,” said Adrian. “My trouble is that I have got so used to having Rosy around that her originality hadn’t occurred to me.”
“Quite so,” said his lordship. “Now what I had in mind was this: I would suggest that we bedeck Rosy in a costume befitting her eastern origins, and I will then ride her into the ballroom, suitably attired myself. I thought of something in the nature of a maharaja. How does the thought strike you?”
“Yes,” said Adrian, “I think she’ll do it all right.”
“Capital!” exclaimed Lord Fenneltree, beaming. “We’ve got about a week to arrange the details. So during that time I would be glad if you and Rosy would be my guests. Fortunately, my wife and daughter are up in the city buying frills and furbelows, so we can keep our secret quite easily.”
“I’m sure your idea will be a success,” said Adrian.
“I hope so, my dear boy,” said his lordship, rising to his feet. “And now let’s have some luncheon.”
After what Lord Fenneltree described as a light luncheon (which consisted of asparagus soup, plaice cooked in white wine and cream, quails cooked with grapes, a haunch of venison stuffed with chestnuts, and a bowl of fresh strawberries and cream) they set about the task of getting ready for the party. His lordship, carried away by the originality of the whole idea, was determined that no expense should be spared. Three local tailors were employed to make the rich trappings for Rosy, and three carpenters to make the howdah. This had been Adrian’s suggestion. He felt that to have Lord Fenneltree astride Rosy’s neck and in full control of her was a shade unwise, so he tactfully suggested that a maharaja should really recline in the comfort of a howdah, while one of his menials (Adrian himself) took over the delicate task of steering Rosy. Lord Fenneltree had been delighted with the idea.
Rosy’s clothes, when they were ready, were really splendid. They were of a rich, deep blue velvet, covered with hundreds of sequins and bits of coloured glass, and embroidered all over in what Lord Fenneltree fondly imagined to be Hindu writing in gold thread. It took four people to lift this magnificent apparel, and from a range of ten paces in a strong light the blaze of glass and sequins almost blinded one. The howdah was also spectacular, cunningly carved and with a fringe round the top. It was painted in scarlet, yellow and deep blue, like the pony trap which Lord Fenneltree thought was most tasteful. Again, oriental patterns in sequins decorated it. His lordship and Adrian were delighted with the whole thing.
Then came the task of preparing the costumes that his lordship and Adrian were to wear, and they both had long sessions being measured and chalked by bewildered tailors. The tailors were bewildered, principally because they had never bad to construct costumes like this before, and Lord Fenneltree kept changing his mind. One of them, in fact, had to spend a day in bed after facing the terrible wrath of Lord Fenneltree when he had produced a scarlet instead of a white turban.
The finished product was really sumptuous. His lordship had insisted on designing his own costume, and as he had only the haziest notion of what a maharaja wore, the results would not, perhaps, have satisfied the sartorial eye of an eastern potentate. It consisted of long, baggy, crimson trousers caught in at the ankle, pointed Persian slippers heavily decorated with sequins and gold thread, and a magnificent three-quarter length coat in jade green and yellow. The whole ensemble was surmounted by a snow-white turban in which quivered four peacock feathers. These feathers had been Adrian’s idea, and for several days the smaller members of the gardening staff had spent all their spare time stalking and plucking the unfortunate birds in the grounds. Adrian, as the driver, could not of course outshine the maharaja, and so he had to content himself with a small scarlet waistcoat, embroidered in gold, baggy white trousers and a white turban. When the costumes were finally ready, they tried them on in the seclusion of his lordship’s bedroom, and Adrian had to admit that they both looked very remarkable indeed. His lordship, however, did not seem satisfied. Surveying himself in the minor he seemed disturbed; he stroked his side-whiskers pensively.
“You know, my boy,” he said at last, “there’s something wrong. I look a little bit pale for a maharaja, don’t you think?”
“Perhaps,” said Adrian.
“I have it,” said his lordship with a flash of inspiration. “Burnt cork!”
Before Adrian could protest the butler had been dispatched to the wine cellar from whence he soon reappeared carrying a variety of corks. With the aid of two footmen and a candelabra a sufficient quantity of burnt cork was manufactured, and his lordship proceeded to make himself up with great gusto.
“There!” he said at last, turning round in triumph from the mirror. “How does that look?”
Adrian stared at him. Lord Fenneltree’s face was now a rich coal-black, against which his enormous violet eyes and auburn side-whiskers looked, to say the least, arresting.
“Magnificent,” said Adrian doubtfully.
“It’s just the final touch that makes all the difference,” said his lordship. “Now let me do you.”
He had just done half of Adrian’s face when the butler reappeared in the room.
“Excuse me, my lord,” he said.
“What is it, Raymond, what is it?” asked his lordship testily, pausing in his work.
“I thought you ought to know, my lord, that her ladyship has just arrived.”
Lord Fenneltree started violently and dropped the burnt cork.
“Great heavens!” he ejaculated in horror. “She mustn’t find us like this. quick, quick, Raymond, go and tell her we’re just having baths or something. Don’t let her come up here . . . and above all, don’t mention that elephant.”
“Yes, my lord,” said Raymond, and left the room.
“I can’t think why she’s come back,” said his lordship, unwinding his turban frantically. “They shouldn’t be back till the day after to-morrow. Look here, Rookwhistle, she must not under any circumstances find out what we’re planning. She has very little sense of fun, my wife, and she’d probably put a stop to the whole thing. So, dear boy, silent as the grave, oh? Quiet as a tombstone, what?”