We were having breakfast in the garden with the wasps, and Peter was enlarging on the beauties of the country round his new week-end cottage.
“Then there’s Hilderton,” he said; “that’s a lovely little village, I’m told. We might explore it to-morrow.”
Celia woke up suddenly.
“Is Hilderton near here?” she asked in surprise. “But I often stayed there when I was a child.”
“This was years ago, when Edward the Seventh was on the throne,” I explained to Mrs. Peter.
“My grandfather,” went on Celia, “lived at Hilderton Hall.”
There was an impressive silence.
“You see the sort of people you’re entertaining,” I said airily to Peter. “My wife’s grandfather lived at Hilderton Hall. Celia, you should have spoken about this before. It would have done us a lot of good in Society.” I pushed my plate away. “I can’t go on eating bacon after this. Bring me peaches.”
“I should love to see it again.”
“If I’d had my rights,” I said, “I should be living there now. I must put my solicitor on to this. There’s been foul play somewhere.”
Peter looked up from one of the maps which, being new to the country, he carries with him.
“I can’t find Hilderton Hall here,” he said. “It’s six inches to the mile, so it ought to be marked.”
“Celia, our grandfather’s name is being aspersed. Let us look into this.”
We crowded round the map and studied it anxiously. Hilderton was there, and Hilderton House, but no Hilderton Hall.
“But it’s a great big place,” protested Celia.
“I see what it is,” I said regretfully. “Celia, you were young then.”
“Ten. And naturally it seemed big to you, just as Yarrow seemed big to Wordsworth, and a shilling seems a lot to a baby. But really—-“
“Really,” said Peter, “it was semi-detached.”
“And your side was called Hilderton Hall and the other side Hilderton Castle.”
“I don’t believe it was even called Hilderton Hall,” said Peter. “It was Hilderton Villa.”
“I don’t believe she ever had a grandfather at all,” said Mrs. Peter.
“She must have had a grandfather,” I pointed out. “But I’m afraid he never lived at Hilderton Hall. This is a great blow to me, and I shall now resume my bacon.”
I drew my plate back and Peter returned his map to his pocket.
“You’re all very funny,” said Celia, “but I know it was Hilderton Hall. I’ve a good mind to take you there this morning and show it to you.”
“Do,” said Peter and I eagerly.
“It’s a great big place—-“
“That’s what we’re coming to see,” I reminded her.
“Of course they may have sold some of the land, or–I mean, I know when I used to stay there it was a–a great big place. I can’t promise that it—-“
“It’s no good now, Celia,” I said sternly. “You shouldn’t have boasted.”
Hilderton was four miles off, and we began to approach it–Celia palpably nervous–at about twelve o’clock that morning.
“Are you recognizing any of this?” asked Peter.
“N-no. You see I was only about eight—-“
“You must recognise the church,” I said, pointing to it. “If you don’t, it proves either that you never lived at Hilderton or that you never sang in the choir. I don’t know which thought is the more distressing. Now what about this place? Is this it?”
Celia peered up the drive.
“N-no; at least I don’t remember it. I know there was a walnut tree in front of the house.”
“Is that all you remember?”
“Well, I was only about six—-“
Peter and I both had a slight cough at the same time.
“It’s nothing,” said Peter, finding Celia’s indignant eye upon him. “Let’s go on.”
We found two more big houses, but Celia, a little doubtfully, rejected them both.
“My grandfather-in-law was very hard to please,” I apologized to Peter. “He passed over place after place before he finally fixed on Hilderton Hall. Either the heronry wasn’t ventilated properly, or the decoy ponds had the wrong kind of mud, or—-“
There was a sudden cry from Celia.
“This is it,” she said.
She stood at the entrance to a long drive. A few chimneys could be seen in the distance. On either side of the gates was a high wall.
“I don’t see the walnut tree,” I said.
“Of course not, because you can’t see the front of the house. But I feel certain that this is the place.”
“We want more proof than that,” said Peter. “We must go in and find the walnut tree.”
“We can’t all wander into another man’s grounds looking for walnut trees,” I said, “with no better excuse than that Celia’s great-grandmother was once asked down here for the week-end and stayed for a fortnight. We—-“
“My grandfather,” said Celia coldly, “lived here.”
“Well, whatever it was,” I said, “we must invent a proper reason. Peter, you might pretend you’ve come to inspect the gas-meter or the milk or something. Or perhaps Celia had better disguise herself as a Suffragette and say that she’s come to borrow a box of matches. Anyhow, one of us must get to the front of the house to search for this walnut tree.”
“It–it seems rather cheek,” said Celia doubtfully.
“We’ll toss up who goes.”
We tossed, and of course I lost. I went up the drive nervously. At the first turn I decided to be an insurance inspector, at the next a scout-master, but, as I approached the front door, I thought of a very simple excuse. I rang the bell under the eyes of several people at lunch and looked about eagerly for the walnut tree.
There was none.
“Does Mr.–er–Erasmus–er–Percival live here?” I asked the footman.
“No, sir,” he said–luckily.
“Ah! Was there ever a walnut–I mean was there ever a Mr. Percival who lived here? Ah! Thank you,” and I sped down the drive again.
“Well?” said Celia eagerly.
“Mr. Percival doesn’t live there.”
“Whoever’s Mr. Percival?”
“Oh, I forgot; you don’t know him. Friends,” I added solemnly, “I regret to tell you there is no walnut tree.”
“I am not surprised,” said Peter.
The walk home was a silent one. For the rest of the day Celia was thoughtful. But at the end of dinner she brightened up a little and joined in the conversation.
“At Hilderton Hall,” she said suddenly, “we always—-“
“H’r’m,” I said, clearing my throat loudly. “Peter, pass Celia the walnuts.”
. . . . .
I have had great fun in London this week with the walnut joke, though Celia says she is getting tired of it. But I had a letter from Peter to-day which ended like this:–
“By the way, I was an ass last week. I took you to Banfield in mistake for Hilderton. I went to Hilderton yesterday and found Hilderton Hall–a large place with a walnut tree. It’s a little way out of the village, and is marked big on the next section of the map to the one we were looking at. You might tell Celia.”
True, I might….
Perhaps in a week or two I shall.