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- (U.K. Jill the Reckless) - 1/77 -


Produced by Jim Tinsley

THE LITTLE WARRIOR

CHAPTER ONE

1.

Freddie Rooke gazed coldly at the breakfast-table. Through a gleaming eye-glass he inspected the revolting object which Parker, his faithful man, had placed on a plate before him.

"Parker!" His voice had a ring of pain.

"Sir?"

"What's this?"

"Poached egg, sir."

Freddie averted his eyes with a silent shudder.

"It looks just like an old aunt of mine," he said. "Remove it!"

He got up, and, wrapping his dressing-gown about his long legs, took up a stand in front of the fireplace. From this position he surveyed the room, his shoulders against the mantelpiece, his calves pressing the club-fender. It was a cheerful oasis in a chill and foggy world, a typical London bachelor's breakfast-room. The walls were a restful gray, and the table, set for two, a comfortable arrangement in white and silver.

"Eggs, Parker," said Freddie solemnly, "are the acid test!"

"Yes, sir?"

"If, on the morning after, you can tackle a poached egg, you are all right. If not, not. And don't let anybody tell you otherwise."

"No, sir."

Freddie pressed the palm of his hand to his brow, and sighed.

"It would seem, then, that I must have revelled a trifle whole-heartedly last night. I was possibly a little blotto. Not whiffled, perhaps, but indisputably blotto. Did I make much noise coming in?"

"No, sir. You were very quiet."

"Ah! A dashed bad sign!"

Freddie moved to the table, and poured himself a cup of coffee.

"The cream-jug is to your right, sir," said the helpful Parker.

"Let it remain there. Cafe noir for me this morning. As noir as it can jolly well stick!" Freddie retired to the fireplace and sipped delicately. "As far as I can remember, it was Ronny Devereux' birthday or something . . ."

"Mr Martyn's, I think you said, sir."

"That's right. Algy Martyn's birthday, and Ronny and I were the guests. It all comes back to me. I wanted Derek to roll along and join the festivities--he's never met Ronny--but he gave it a miss. Quite right! A chap in his position has responsibilities. Member of Parliament and all that. Besides," said Freddie earnestly, driving home the point with a wave of his spoon, "he's engaged to be married. You must remember that, Parker!"

"I will endeavor to, sir."

"Sometimes," said Freddie dreamily, "I wish I were engaged to be married. Sometimes I wish I had some sweet girl to watch over me and . . . No, I don't, by Jove! It would give me the utter pip! Is Sir Derek up yet, Parker?"

"Getting up, sir."

"See that everything is all right, will you? I mean as regards the foodstuffs and what not. I want him to make a good breakfast. He's got to meet his mother this morning at Charing Cross. She's legging it back from the Riviera."

"Indeed, sir?"

Freddie shook his head.

"You wouldn't speak in that light, careless tone if you knew her! Well, you'll see her tonight. She's coming here to dinner."

"Yes, sir."

"Miss Mariner will he here, too. A foursome. Tell Mrs Parker to pull up her socks and give us something pretty ripe. Soup, fish, all that sort of thing. _She_ knows. And let's have a stoup of malvoisie from the oldest bin. This is a special occasion!"

"Her ladyship will be meeting Miss Mariner for the first time, sir?"

"You've put your finger on it! Absolutely the first time on this or any stage! We must all rally round and make the thing a success."

"I am sure Mrs Parker will strain every nerve, sir." Parker moved to the door, carrying the rejected egg, and stepped aside to allow a tall, well-built man of about thirty to enter. "Good morning, Sir Derek."

"Morning, Parker."

Parker slid softly from the room. Derek Underhill sat down at the table. He was a strikingly handsome man, with a strong, forceful face, dark, lean and cleanly shaven. He was one of those men whom a stranger would instinctively pick out of a crowd as worthy of note. His only defect was that his heavy eyebrows gave him at times an expression which was a little forbidding. Women, however, had never been repelled by it. He was very popular with women, not quite so popular with men--always excepting Freddie Rooke, who worshipped him. They had been at school together, though Freddie was the younger by several years.

"Finished, Freddie?" asked Derek.

Freddie smiled wanly,

"We are not breakfasting this morning," he replied. "The spirit was willing, but the jolly old flesh would have none of it. To be perfectly frank, the Last of the Rookes has a bit of a head."

"Ass!" said Derek.

"A bit of sympathy," said Freddie, pained, "would not be out of place. We are far from well. Some person unknown has put a threshing-machine inside the old bean and substituted a piece of brown paper for our tongue. Things look dark and yellow and wobbly!"

"You shouldn't have overdone it last night."

"It was Algy Martyn's birthday," pleaded Freddie.

"If I were an ass like Algy Martyn," said Derek, "I wouldn't go about advertising the fact that I'd been born. I'd hush it up!"

He helped himself to a plentiful portion of kedgeree, Freddie watching him with repulsion mingled with envy. When he began to eat, the spectacle became too poignant for the sufferer, and he wandered to the window.

"What a beast of a day!"

It was an appalling day. January, that grim month, was treating London with its usual severity. Early in the morning a bank of fog had rolled up off the river, and was deepening from pearly white to a lurid brown. It pressed on the window-pane like a blanket, leaving dark, damp rivulets on the glass.

"Awful!" said Derek.

"Your mater's train will be late."

"Yes. Damned nuisance. It's bad enough meeting trains in any case, without having to hang about a draughty station for an hour."

"And it's sure, I should imagine," went on Freddie, pursuing his train of thought, "to make the dear old thing pretty tolerably ratty, if she has one of those slow journeys." He pottered back to the fireplace, and rubbed his shoulders reflectively against the mantelpiece. "I take it that you wrote to her about Jill?"

"Of course. That's why she's coming over, I suppose. By the way, you got those seats for that theatre tonight?"

"Yes. Three together and one somewhere on the outskirts. If it's all the same to you, old thing, I'll have the one on the outskirts."

Derek, who had finished his kedgeree and was now making himself a blot on Freddie's horizon with toast and marmalade, laughed.

"What a rabbit you are, Freddie! Why on earth are you so afraid of mother?"

Freddie looked at him as a timid young squire might have gazed upon St. George when the latter set out to do battle with the dragon. He was of the amiable type which makes heroes of its friends. In the old days when he had fagged for him at Winchester he had thought Derek the most wonderful person in the world, and this view he still retained. Indeed, subsequent events had strengthened it. Derek had done the most amazing things since leaving school. He had had a


(U.K. Jill the Reckless) - 1/77

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