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Stories of Mystery edited by Rossiter Johnson
THE FOUR-FIFTEEN EXPRESS by AMELIA B. EDWARDS.
"And now, my dear fellow," said my host, when the first greeting was over, "you have no time to spare. We dine at eight, and there are people coming to meet you; so you must just get the dressing business over as quickly as may be. By the way, you will meet some acquaintances. The Biddulphs are coming, and Prendergast (Prendergast, of the Skirmishers) is staying in the house. Adieu! Mrs. Jelf will be expecting you in the drawing-room."
I was ushered to my room,--not the blue room, of which Mr. Dwerrihouse had made disagreeable experience, but a pretty little bachelor's chamber, hung with a delicate chintz, and made cheerful by a blazing fire. I unlocked my portmanteau. I tried to be expeditious; but the memory of my railway adventure haunted me. I could not get free of it. I could not shake it off. It impeded me,--it worried me,--it tripped me up,--it caused me to mislay my studs,--to mistie my cravat,--to wrench the buttons off my gloves. Worst of all, it made me so late that the party had all assembled before I reached the drawing-room. I had scarcely paid my respects to Mrs. Jelf when dinner was announced, and we paired off, some eight or ten couples strong, into the dining-room.
I am not going to describe either the guests or the dinner. All provincial parties bear the strictest family resemblance, and I am not aware that an East Anglian banquet offers any exception to the rule. There was the usual country baronet and his wife; there were the usual country parsons and their wives; there was the sempiternal turkey and haunch of venison. _Vanitas vanitatum._ There is nothing new under the sun.
I was placed about midway down the table. I had taken one rector's wife down to dinner, and I had another at my left hand. They talked across me, and their talk was about babies. It was dreadfully dull. At length there came a pause. The entrees had just been removed, and the turkey had come upon the scene. The conversation had all along been of the languidest, but at this moment it happened to have stagnated altogether. Jelf was carving the turkey. Mrs. Jelf looked as if she was trying to think of something to say. Everybody else was silent. Moved by an unlucky impulse, I thought I would relate my adventure.
"By the way, Jelf," I began, "I came down part of the way to-day with a friend of yours."
"Indeed!" said the master of the feast, slicing scientifically into the breast of the turkey. "With whom, pray?"
"With one who bade me tell you that he should, if possible, pay you a visit before Christmas."
"I cannot think who that could be," said my friend, smiling.
"It must be Major Thorp," suggested Mrs. Jelf.
I shook my head.
"It was not Major Thorp," I replied. "It was a near relation of your own, Mrs. Jelf."
"Then I am more puzzled than ever," replied my hostess. "Pray tell me who it was."
"It was no less a person than your cousin, Mr. John Dwerrihouse."
Jonathan Jelf laid down his knife and fork. Mrs. Jelf looked at me in a strange, startled way, and said never a word.
"And he desired me to tell you, my dear madam, that you need not take the trouble to burn the hall down in his honor this time; but only to have the chimney of the blue room swept before his arrival."
Before I had reached the end of my sentence, I became aware of something ominous in the faces of the guests. I felt I had said something which I had better have left unsaid, and that for some unexplained reason my words had evoked a general consternation. I sat confounded, not daring to utter another syllable, and for at least two whole minutes there was dead silence round the table. Then Captain Prendergast came to the rescue.