Jeremy was looking at a card which his wife had just passed across the table to him.
“‘Lady Bendish. At Home,’” he read. “‘Pets.’ Is this for us?”
“Of course,” said Mrs. Jeremy.
“Then I think ‘Pets’ is rather familiar. ‘Mr. and Mrs. J. P. Smith’ would have been more correct.”
“Don’t be silly, Jeremy. It means it’s a Pet party. You have to bring some sort of pet with you, and there are prizes for the prettiest, and the most intelligent, and the most companionable, and so on.” She looked at the fox-terrier curled up in front of the fire-place. “We could take Rags, of course.”
“Or Baby,” said Jeremy. “We’ll enter her in the Fat Class.”
But when the day arrived Jeremy had another idea. He came in from the garden with an important look on his face, and joined his wife in the hall.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s start.”
“But where’s Rags?”
“Rags isn’t coming. I’m taking Hereward instead.” He opened his cigarette-case and disclosed a small green animal. “Hereward,” he said.
“Why, Jeremy,” cried his wife, “it’s–why, it’s blight from the rose-tree!”
“It isn’t just blight, dear; it’s one particular blight. A blight. Hereward, the Last of the Blights.” He wandered round the hall. “Where’s the lead?” he asked.
“Jeremy, don’t be absurd.”
“My dear, I must have something to lead him up for his prize on. During the parade he can sit on my shoulder informally, but when we come to the prize-giving, ‘Mr. J. P. Smith’s blight, Hereward,’ must be led on properly.” He pulled open a drawer. “Oh, here we are. I’d better take the chain; he might bite through the leather one.”
They arrived a little late, to find a lawn full of people and animals; and one glance was sufficient to tell Jeremy that in some of the classes at least his pet would have many dangerous rivals.
“If there’s a prize for the biggest,” he said to his wife, “my blight has practically lost it already. Adams has brought a cart-horse. Hullo, Adams,” he went on, “how are you? Don’t come too close or Hereward may do your animal a mischief.”
Jeremy opened his cigarette-case.
“Hereward,” he said. “Not the woodbine; that’s quite wild. The blight. He’s much more domesticated, but there are moments when he gets out of hand and becomes unmanageable. He gave me the slip coming here, and I had to chase him through the churchyard; that’s why we’re late.”
“Does he take meals with the family?” asked Adams with a grin.
“No, no; he has them alone in the garden. You ought to see him having his bath. George, our gardener, looks after him. George gives him a special bath of soapy water every day. Hereward simply loves it. George squirts on him, and Hereward lies on his back and kicks his legs in the air. It’s really quite pretty to watch them.”
He nodded to Adams, and wandered through the crowd with Mrs. Jeremy. The collection of animals was remarkable; they varied in size from Adams’s cart-horse to Jeremy’s blight; in playfulness from the Vicar’s kitten to Miss Trehearne’s chrysalis; and in ability for performing tricks from the Major’s poodle to Dr. Bunton’s egg of the Cabbage White.
“There ought to be a race for them all,” said Mrs. Jeremy. “A handicap, of course.”
“Hereward is very fast over a short distance,” said Jeremy, “but he wants encouragement. If he were given ninety-nine yards, two feet, and eleven inches in a hundred, and you were to stand in front of him with a William Allan Richardson, I think we might pull it off. But, of course, he’s a bad starter. Hullo, there’s Miss Bendish.”
Miss Bendish, hurrying along, gave them a word as she went past.
“They’re going to have the inspection directly,” she said, “and give the prizes. Is your animal quite ready?”
“I should like to brush him up a bit,” said Jeremy. “Is there a tent or anywhere where I could prepare him? His eyebrows get so matted if he’s left to himself for long.” He took out a cigarette and lit it.
“There’s a tent, but you’ll have to hurry up.”
“Oh, well, it doesn’t really matter,” said Jeremy, as he walked along with her. “Hereward’s natural beauty and agility will take him through.”
On the south lawn the pets and their owners were assembling. Jeremy took the leash out of his pocket and opened his cigarette-case.
“Good heavens!” he cried. “Hereward has escaped! Quick! Shut the gates!” He saw Adams near and hurried up to him. “My blight has escaped,” he said breathlessly, holding up the now useless leash. “He gnawed through the chain and got away. I’m afraid he may be running amok among the guests. Supposing he were to leap upon Sir Thomas from behind and savage him–it’s too terrible.” He moved anxiously on. “Have you seen my blight?” he asked Miss Trehearne. “He has escaped, and we are rather anxious. If he were to get the Vicar down and begin to worry him—-” He murmured something about “once getting the taste for blood” and hurried off. The guests were assembled, and the judges walked down the line and inspected their different animals. They were almost at the end of it when Jeremy sprinted up and took his place by the last beast.
“It’s all right,” he panted to his wife, “I’ve got him. Silly of me to mislay him, but he’s so confoundedly shy.” He held out his finger as the judges approached, and introduced them to the small green pet perching on the knuckle. “A blight,” he said. “Hereward, the Chief Blight. Been in the family for years. A dear old friend.”
Jeremy went home a proud man. “Mr. J. P. Smith’s blight, Hereward,” had taken first prize in the All-round class.
. . . . .
“Yes,” he admitted to his wife at dinner, “there is something on my mind.” He looked at the handsome cigarette-box on the table in front of him and sighed.
“What is it, dear? You enjoyed yourself this afternoon, you know you did, and Hereward won you that beautiful cigarette-box. You ought to be proud.”
“That’s the trouble. Hereward didn’t win it.”
“But they said–they read it out, and—-“
“Yes, but they didn’t know. It was really Elspeth who won it.”
“Yes, dear.” Jeremy sighed again. “When Hereward escaped and I went back for him, I didn’t find him as I–er–pretended. So I went to the rose garden and–and borrowed Elspeth. Fortunately no one noticed it was a lady blight … they all took it for Hereward…. But it was really Elspeth–and belonged to Lady Bendish.”
He helped himself to a cigarette from the box.
“It’s an interesting point,” he said. “I shall go and confess to-morrow to Sir Thomas, and see what he thinks about it. If he wants the box back, well and good.”
He refilled his glass.
“After all,” he said, “the real blow is losing Hereward. Elspeth–Elspeth is very dear to me, but she can never be quite the same.”
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