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At Short Notice


[ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.] At Short Notice BY FRED M. WHITE, Author of The Cardinal Moth," The Crimson Blind," "The Midnight Guest," &c. CHAPTER I. It was all very well for the General to ag- tert his independence, to proclaim the fact that he was not going to be put upon by any- body, but it was none the less awkward for Ethel Lance, who was mainly responsible for the maintenance of law and order in the old fire-eater's family. This was not the first time the same thing had happened, but it had never taken place on Christmas Eve before. To make a long story short, General Francis had been quarrelling with his servants, and one word leading to another, the upshot of the mischief was that the domestics left in a body, to the General's great delight and the corresponding dismay of Miss Lance. "It is all very well," she said, "but what are we going to do now? Do you know there is absolutely not a single servant left in the house? Do you understand that?" And a good thing too, my dear," General Francis chuckled. "They are the plague of one's life. If I had known how things had altered since my young days I would have spent the rest of my years in India. No trouble with them out there." Which was precisely the source of all the mischief. General Francis had spent more years than he cared to count in the service of his country abroad, and he had not yet succeeded in bringing himself in line with modern British ideas. It was, no doubt, a fine thing to take out his cheque book and pay them off grandly one at a time but who was going to take their places? Seagrave Grange was by no means a large house, but it required at least half a dozen servants to run the place properly, added to which it was gome twelve miles from the nearest town. Be- tween now and Christmas Day it would be absolutely impossible for Ethel to supply a fresh domestic staff. More than this, casual help was at a premium. Even the humblest of cottager's wijes liked if possible to spend Christmas in the bosom of their family. It was fortunate, perhaps, that the few expected guests were all [ehiti, es, who could be put off by telegram. "Well, .there is only one thing for it," Ethel said resignedly. "We shall have to send messages to everybody not to come, and we shall have to do the best we can for our- selves. I suppose you understand what that means, uncl,? You must make your own bed and get your own breakfast. I don't suppose it will be any particular hardship to an old campaigner like yourself, and, no doubt, I can manage. But it is impossible that there should be cooking of any kind in the circum- stances." The General drew himself up erect. The smile of the conqupror was on his face. For the moment he stood 011 the hearthrug in front of the dining-roon. lire feeling that he had done well by his country. But the mood would pass presently, as Ethel very well knew, for the General was a man who had a weakness for his dinner and the other good things of this life. "Where there's a will there's a way," he said cheerfully. "Oh, no doubt you will find somebody to come and give you a hand. I daresay there are plenty of deserving women in the neighbourhood who have been cooks and all that kind of thing in their younger days. I don't want much myself—just a bit of fish, and a bird and a savoury for dinner. It's hard luck if an old soldier like myself can't make shift and do without a parcel of insolent servants." In spite of her perplexity Ethel laughed aloud. She was wondering where the genius was to come from, capable of cooking the little dinner which the General had sketched out so airily for himself. There were, doubt- less, working men's wives in the neighbour- hood who eked out a scanty living by au occa- itSnal odd day's work, but from a gastrono- mic point of view, they were hardly likely to satisfy the General's modest requirements. And despite her annoyance, Ethel could not really find it in her heart of hearts to be really find it in her heart of hearts to be angry with her uncle. He seemed to ta.ke Everything so for granted. He seemed abso- lutely certain that he had done the right thing. Ethel stood there for a moment or two looking out through the windows across the snowy landscape lying white and silent out- side. There had been two heavy falls of snow lately, so that it was a matter of some diffi- culty to reach the nearest village, and if something had to be done, that same must be done speedily, and before darkness fell. The bare trees were sweeping wildly in the wind, the leaden-grey sky gave promise of more snow to come. The General turned away from the fire and rubbed his hands briskly. "It's getting low," he muttered. "Why aren't there any logs here? And the coal scuttle is empty, too. Confound the people. They might have taken the trouble to see to this before they went." "And now you'll have to see to it your- self," Ethel laughed. "Do you happen to know where the coal and wood are kept, be- cause if you don't I must show you. And whilst you are about it you had better get in a good supply or we shall have the kitchen fire out, too, to say nothing of the drawing- room and the bedrooms." "I've got to do that?" the General said in a choking voice. "Well, of course," Ethel responded sweetly. "My dear uncle, you hardly expect me to do a thing of that sort." General Francis snorted furiously. A deep pink spread over his cheeks. He was begin- ning faintly to realise that he was likely to pay a penalty for his headstrong folly. All the same he followed Ethel quietly and grimly enough down the stone-flagged pas- sages until they came to a large square yard surrounded by outhouses. There were five or six inches of wet snow on the pavement, and the General breathed a silent prayer that his chronic rheumatism might escape the fruits of his rashness. "You'll find all you want over there," Ethel went on. "You can amuse yourself by filling up all buckets and baskets and carry- ing them into the kitchen. You had better get in a big supply because it looks like more snow, and goodness knows how deep it will be before morning. As to myself, I will go as far as the village and see if I can get some sort of assistance." It was no far cry to the village, but the task was a little more difficult than Ethel had anticipated. The fine snow had been drifted by the wind into masses here and there, so that progression was slow and pain- ful. Ethel shuddered to herself. as she thought how dangerous the way would be if she happened to be detained in the village till after dark. But she put these gruesome thoughts from her mind now and trudged bravely on till at length the place was reached. It was just as she had antici- pated. News of the exodus from Seagrave Grange had already reached the villagers, and some of them were disposed to be amused over the trouble which had over- taken General Francis. Some, on the other hand, were sympathetic enough, but the same story came to Ethel's ears with weari- some monotony. Everybody who cared to turn out had been engaged for the festive season. And as to the rest, they made no secret of the fact that Christmas Day was a sacred one to them, so far as their families were concerned. It was very annoying and very disheartening, but there was nothing else for it, and Ethel turned disconsolately homeward in the gathering dusk. She had been detained by more than one forlorn hope, so that at length when she turned her back upon the glowing red lights of the vil- lage the darkness had nearly fallen. It was strange how weird and unfamiliar the land- scape had grown, how all the well-known

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