“We want some more coal,” said Celia suddenly at breakfast.
“Sorry,” I said, engrossed in my paper, and I passed her the marmalade.
“More coal,” she repeated.
I pushed across the toast.
Celia sighed and held up her hand.
“Please may I speak to you a moment?” she said, trying to snap her fingers. “Good; I’ve caught his eye. We want—-“
“I’m awfully sorry. What is it?”
“We want some more coal. Never mind this once whether Inman beat Hobbs or not. Just help me.”
“Celia, you’ve been reading the paper,” I said in surprise. “I thought you only read the feuill–the serial story. How did you know Inman was playing Hobbs?”
“Well, Poulton or Carpentier or whoever it is. Look here, we’re out of coal. What shall I do?”
“That’s easy. Order some more. What do you do when you’re out of nutmegs?”
“It depends if the nutmeg porters are striking.”
“Striking! Good heavens, I never thought about that.” I glanced hastily down the headlines of my paper. “Celia, this is serious. I shall have to think about this seriously. Will you order a fire in the library? I shall retire to the library and think this over.”
“You can retire to the library, but you can’t have a fire there. There’s only just enough for the kitchen for two days.”
“Then come and chaperon me in the kitchen. Don’t leave me alone with Jane. You and I and Jane will assemble round the oven and discuss the matter. B-r-r-r. It’s cold.”
“Not the kitchen. I’ll assemble with you round the electric light somewhere. Come on.”
We went into the library and rallied round a wax vesta. It was a terribly cold morning.
“I can’t think like this,” I said, after fifteen seconds’ reflection. “I’m going to the office. There’s a fire there, anyway.”
“You wouldn’t like a nice secretary,” said Celia timidly, “or an office girl, or somebody to lick the stamps?”
“I should never do any work if you came,” I said, looking at her thoughtfully. “Do come.”
“No, I shall be all right. I’ve got shopping to do this morning, and I’m going out to lunch, and I can pay some calls afterwards.”
“Right. And you might find out what other people are doing, the people you call on. And–er–if you should be left alone in the drawing-room a moment … and the coal-box is at all adjacent…. You’ll have your muff with you, you see, and—- Well, I leave that to you. Do what you can.”
I had a good day at the office and have never been so loth to leave. I always felt I should get to like my work some time. I arrived home again about six. Celia was a trifle later, and I met her on the mat as she came in.
“Any luck?” I asked eagerly, feeling in her muff. “Dash it, Celia, there are nothing but hands here. Do you mean to say you didn’t pick up anything at all?”
“Only information,” she said, leading the way into the drawing-room. “Hallo, what’s this? A fire!”
“A small involuntary contribution from the office. I brought it home under my hat. Well, what’s the news?”
“That if we want any coal we shall have to fetch it ourselves. And we can get it in small amounts from greengrocers. Why greengrocers, I don’t know.”
“I suppose they have to have fires to force the cabbages. But what about the striking coal porters? If you do their job, won’t they picket you or pickaxe you or something?”
“Oh, of course, I should hate to go alone. But I shall be all right if you come with me.”
Celia’s faith in me is very touching. I am not quite so confident about myself. No doubt I could protect her easily against five or six great brawny hulking porters … armed with coal-hammers … but I am seriously doubtful whether a dozen or so, aided with a little luck, mightn’t get the better of me.
“Don’t let us be rash,” I said thoughtfully. “Don’t let us infuriate them.”
“You aren’t afraid of a striker?” asked Celia in amazement.
“Of an ordinary striker, no. In a strike of bank-clerks, or–or chess-players, or professional skeletons, I should be a lion among the blacklegs; but there is something about the very word coal porter which—- You know, I really think this is a case where the British Army might help us. We have been very good to it.”
The British Army, I should explain, has been walking out with Jane lately. When we go away for week-ends we let the British Army drop in to supper. Luckily it neither smokes nor drinks nor takes any great interest in books. It is a great relief, on your week-ends in the country, to know that the British Army is dropping in to supper, when otherwise you might only have suspected it. I may say that we are rather hoping to get a position in the Army Recruiting film on the strength of this hospitality.
“Let the British Army go,” I said. “We’ve been very kind to him.”
“I fancy Jane has left the service. I don’t know why.”
“Probably they quarrelled because she gave him caviare two nights running,” I said. “Well, I suppose I shall have to go. But it will be no place for women. To-morrow afternoon I will sally forth alone to do it. But,” I added, “I shall probably return with two coal porters clinging round my neck. Order tea for three.”
Next evening, after a warm and busy day at the office, I put on my top-hat and tail-coat and went out. If there was any accident I was determined to be described in the papers as “the body of a well-dressed man”; to go down to history as “the remains of a shabbily dressed individual” would be too depressing. Beautifully clothed, I jumped into a taxi and drove to Celia’s greengrocer. Celia herself was keeping warm by paying still more calls.
“I want,” I said nervously, “a hundredweight of coal and a cauliflower.” This was my own idea. I intended to place the cauliflower on the top of a sack, and so to deceive any too-inquisitive coal porter. “No, no,” I should say, “not coal; nice cauliflowers for Sunday’s dinner.”
“Can’t deliver the coal,” said the greengrocer.
“I’m going to take it with me,” I explained.
He went round to a yard at the back. I motioned my taxi along and followed him at the head of three small boys who had never seen a top-hat and a cauliflower so close together. We got the sack into position.
“Come, come,” I said to the driver, “haven’t you ever seen a dressing-case before? Give us a hand with it or I shall miss my train and be late for dinner.”
He grinned and gave a hand. I paid the greengrocer, pressed the cauliflower into the hand of the smallest boy, and drove off….
It was absurdly easy.
There was no gore at all.
. . . . .
“There!” I said to Celia when she came back. “And when that’s done I’ll get you some more.”
“Hooray! And yet,” she went on, “I’m almost sorry. You see, I was working off my calls so nicely, and you’d been having some quite busy days at the office, hadn’t you?”
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