Chapter 1: A mission
”The Empress of Blandings has disappeared,” declared Gaskin, sitting down on a chair in Biggles’ office.
”I didn’t know we had an Empress,” said Biggles, puzzled. ”Isn’t it enough with a Queen?”
”The Empress is a sow, a prize pig. Owned by Lord Emsworth, in Shropshire. His lordship is screaming his head off. Rumour has it he’s got his secretary drafting something for the House of Lords. The powers that be would like to nip that in the bud, thank you very much.”
”I don’t want to hear about it,” said Biggles, firmly. ”I remember the time you came to me about rustlers. Pigs don’t fly. I refuse to believe this has anything to do with aeroplanes.”
”But you can conduct a search much better from the air.”
”Looking for what, exactly? An overgrown, green landscape where a pig, any size, will be completely impossible to spot. It’s time you learned that even the Air Police are no miracle workers.”
”Lord Emsworth?” said Algy, looking up from filing technical specifications for aeroplanes. ”I remember him, he’s an acquaintance of my guv’nor’s. Before he got into pigs, he was crazy about pumpkins, I believe. Or was it flowers? Nice old man; quite potty, of course,” said Algy cheerfully, and continued with his work.
”Show me a member of the Landed Gentry who isn’t,” muttered Gaskin, darkly.
Biggles looked thoughtfully at Algy and Bertie.
”That might be difficult,” he agreed.
”Here, I say, old chap; I think we were just insulted,” protested Bertie, turning to Algy for support.
”Ignore him – that’s what I’ve been doing all my life,” retorted Algy. ”It’s just middle-class insecurity.”
”Middle-class what!” exclaimed Biggles, outraged. He turned to Gaskin.
”Come to think of it, who am I to say that pigs can’t fly? I’ll send these two toffs to Shropshire, where they can look for sows to their heart's content.”
”Not that I would mind going, you understand – the rose garden at Blandings Castle should be marvellous by now – but have you checked if any of Lord Emsworth’s nephews or nieces are involved in a romance at the moment? Rumour has it that several of them has kidnapped the pig, at one time or the other, to force his lordship’s hand,” said Algy.
”As far as I've heard, the only younger, unmarried relative in residence at the moment is his lordship’s brother, Mr. Threepwood. Not a likely candidate for pig-napping, I would say.”
”If it’s the Threepwood I heard stories about when I was a kid, I’d say he’s up to anything,” put in Bertie.
”How about the neighbour, Parsley something? He and old Emsworth were always fighting it out over who had the fattest pig."
”You mean Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe. The local constabulary has searched Matchingham Hall from stern to aft, or whatever, without so much as an oink. I understand Sir Gregory has given up pigs. He’s trying to grow the largest onions in the shire, instead.”
”Algy and Bertie can check for an underground sty, behind revolving panels in the library,” said Biggles, sarcastically.
Said Algy, who obviously thought that the joke had gone on long enough:
”Listen, Gaskin, you can’t be serious about this. Who in his right mind would call in Scotland Yard for a lost pig? What could the old boy write to the House that might upset anyone? Pig-napping as a capital offense?”
”You might be on to something there, considering what the old toff ranted about when I heard from him,” said Gaskin dryly, ”but I fancy it’s not so much the demands old Emsworth will make that worries people, as the fact that a lost pig could be a question in the House. I got the impression someone high up doesn’t want the House of Lords to be a laughing stock in the media.”
”They should have thought of that before they invented all those silly traditions,” muttered Ginger to nobody in particular.
He had recently been reading an article about the traditions of the House of Lords, and his head was spinning trying to grasp how many rows of ermine tail should adorn the red robe of different peers. Or white rabbit, as it were, for those who preferred the cheap option.
Algy shook his head.
”I don’t see what we can do that the local police can’t do better. As Biggles pointed out, if you want to spot a hidden pig, flying is not the best option. If the Constable failed to find anything on foot, we’re not likely to see her from the air; that is, if she’s still in the vicinity. The key will most probably be in the local gossip, and we’ll hardly be the first to hear about it.”
”Who would want to steal a pig, anyway,” added Ginger. ”Meat rationing has ended, after all.”
”You don’t know this pig,” said Gaskin darkly. ”She attracts more thieves than the Crown Jewels.”
”An Empress or an Empress’ Jewels comes to much the same thing, I should jolly well say. Ha! Joke!” interposed Bertie.
Algy took up the second last file, hesitating admiringly over the specifications for the new type of Hawker Hunter.
”Well, one can always dream,” he murmured to himself, before letting the file slip down between the Hawker Sea Hawk and the Mig 17.
He rolled his eyes; someone had shuffled the files again. A few days of pig-spotting might make a nice change from the filing cabinet.
”Anyway, you did find that rustler, Biggles,” argued Gaskin, doggedly.
”I say, old chap, cows are quite another cup of tea,” protested Bertie. ”They are bigger and more difficult to hide, for one thing. One pig looks just like another, if you ask me.”
”No-one did ask you, Bertie. Chief, you can phone Lord Whatever and tell him that as long as he provides a landing strip, we’ll send two of our finest to go over the grounds with a fine-tooth comb,” declared Biggles.
”Thanks, Biggles – I owe you one,” averred Gaskin, rising from the chair.
”A picture of the great, white chief, putting his foot down,” murmured Bertie and polished his monocle.
Biggles gave him a hard look.
”Did you say anything, Bertie?”
Bertie put on his most fatuous smile and fixed the monocle in his eye.
”Delighted to go looking for lost pigs, old boy – delighted!”
Chapter 2: Blandings Castle
Blandings Castle, an imposing fifteenth century building with all the turrets and battlements one could ask for in an English castle, stood at its customary place on a knoll of rising ground at the southern end of the Vale of Blandings in Shropshire. From the highest battlement, the flag of the ninth Earl was fluttering gently in the breeze. The green meadows had a fresh look, the lake shim-mered like silver and the yew alley cast a pleasant shade over the winding road up to the majestic building.
It would have been a picture of serene British country-life, had it not been for the incessant hum-ming of an aeroplane engine that was circling at a height of a few hundred feet.
”I have to say, old chap,” observed Bertie in the cockpit of the Auster, ”Chedcombe Manor is slightly smaller than that.”
”Merioneth Towers, too, thank heavens,” replied Algy. ”Hardly large enough to get properly lost in.”
”Good thing we topped up on the way; otherwise we might not have had enough juice to search the whole property in one flight. I say, you don’t think they put the sow in one of the guest rooms and forgot which one, do you?”
”Most things are possible, when it comes to Emsworth, I believe,” said Algy, philosophically.
”Now, since we’ve been sent on this fool’s errand, let’s do it properly. I’ll circle around as low as I can, and you keep your eyes skinned and mark anything that might contain a pig on that map so we can check it out later.”
”Right-ho, old boy,” agreed Bertie, busying himself with the map.
They carefully surveyed the park, the surrounding fields and forest, and Bertie conscientiously marked the existence of three small cottages among the trees. Close to the formal garden, a small shed with adjoining pen was bereft of its illustrious dweller, but they could also spot another sty-like building, the stable and a few sheds dotted over the ground.
They took in the little hamlet of Blandings Parva, with its few cottages and assorted official and service institutions; namely a church, a vicarage, a general store, a filling station, an inn and the village pond. They spotted a number of cottages and smaller farm houses at some distance from the castle, and they flew over the bigger village of Blandings Market, with such facilities as a train station, several public houses and a police station.
"If the pig is in a densely populated area, such as one of the villages, it can hardly be a secret, old boy," opined Bertie.
”Yes, I think we’ve covered all the possible hiding-places in the vicinity,” agreed Algy. ”Not that stealing a pig and keeping her within sight of the owner makes much sense to me,” he added as he headed the Auster in the direction of the castle again.
Bertie, struck by a disturbing thought, turned to Algy.
”You don’t think it’s one of those yes my lord, no my lord, households, do you?”
Algy, being a mere Honourable and not taking the whole thing very seriously, shrugged.
”Probably. What do you expect, with an old Earl and one of the most imposing castles in the country?”
”I’m sick of hearing my lord all over the place. I’m not having any of that, thank you!” said Bertie. ”Be a pal and present me as plain old Bertie, would you?”
”Might be too late,” pointed out Algy. ”I wouldn’t be surprised if Gaskin sold us in as representatives of the Yard peerage.”
”Well, if he didn’t, you won’t sell me out, will you?”
Algy grinned, considering a range of possible mischievous schemes, but he succumbed to the pleading look in Bertie’s eyes.
”All right, but you'd better mind what you say if you're going to fool anyone. No-one is going to buy that you're of solid middle-class stock if you start comparing the place with Chedcombe. All they will need is a quick glance in Debrett's Peerage.”
”Don't you worry about me,” assured Bertie earnestly, ”I will take the greatest care. And just for your information, I am Bertie Lissie, son to a decently prosperous beef merchant in the Midlands. If needs arise, I will elaborate on my cover story and let you know.”
”I'm sure you will...” said Algy solemnly, looking out for an appropriate strip of grass to put the plane down.
Landing presented no problem, and Algy parked the plane as close to the castle as he could, in the shadow of the yew alley.
”Let’s get out of here, old boy, before the gardener comes around and makes a fuss about the lawn,” suggested Bertie, remembering his childhood’s head gardener.
”I wasn’t planning on hanging around here,” assured Algy, ”not when there is a stunning garden close by.”
”Oh. You don’t you think we should tootle along and tell old Emsworth we’re here, and all that sort of thing?”
”Of course we will.”
They had a short walk up to the courtyard in front of the castle, where they were spotted by a liveried man, standing outside the great entrance. He went forward to meet them, eyeing them curiously but greeting them politely.
”Good afternoon, gentlemen. Can I help you?”
”Yes, good afternoon, I believe Lord Emsworth is expecting us. Mr Lacey and Mr Lissie, from the Air Police of Scotland Yard.”
”Indeed he is, sir,” agreed the footman. ”His lordship is taking tea in the amber drawing-room. Let me show you in.”
Inside the spacious hall, their path were intercepted by a butler, in his own way quite as majestic as the castle. He lifted his eyebrows to the footman.
”These are the policemen from Scotland Yard that Lord Emsworth is expecting, Mr Beach,” explained the footman.
”Good afternoon,” said Algy with a nod. ”This is Mr Lissie, and I am Mr Lacey.”
”Cheerio,” added Bertie.
A trained butler does not burst out in joyful exclamations, however terrific news he receives, but Beach permitted himself a slight smile and an affable tone when he bid the visitors welcome. He knew that his lordship was eagerly awaiting their arrival, and the wellbeing of his employer lay the butler close at heart. He bade the gentlemen to accompany him to the drawing-room for a cup of tea, perhaps some buttered toast and cucumber sandwiches, and to meet his lordship.
”Please bring in two more cups, Thomas,” was his parting words to the footman as he, in a dignified manner, showed the policemen the way through a few more grand rooms until they reached their goal. Beach let them in and presented them as if they were the latest arrivals at the country ball.
”Mr Lacey and Mr Lissie, of Scotland Yard, my lord.”
There were two men in the drawing-room; one tall, lean and scruffy-looking with a haunted look on his face, the other a dapper little man with a black-rimmed monocle in one eye and a vivacious air.
The tall man, who was draped like a heap of discarded clothes in an armchair, stared vacantly at his butler.
”Yard? What about the yard? It looked all right this morning.”
”The policemen, your lordship,” Beach clarified. ”From Scotland Yard.”
”The chaps who are going to help you look for the Empress, Clarence,” interpreted the Honourable Galahad Threepwood.
”How do you do, Lord Emsworth,” said Algy politely, not taking the risk of reminding the peer that they had met before. ”I am Air Police Sergeant Lacey, and this is my colleague, Mr Lissie.”
”Good afternoon,” added Bertie.
Lord Emsworth’s face cleared, and he rose with new energy.
”The policemen? Capital, capital, welcome, my dear fellows. Perhaps you would like to see some photos of the Empress, so you will be able to identify her?”
”You must mind your manners, Clarence,” said the Hon. Galahad reproachfully. ”You can’t expect anyone to look at photos of fat pigs without something to fortify themselves with.”
He had himself forfeited the usual tonic for an Englishman in distress, tea, for a whisky and soda. Tea was a lethal drink, he always claimed, mentioning the death of his friend Buffy Struggles, soon after he had started drinking tea, as proof. The fact that his friend had been run over by a hansom cab did nothing to change Gally’s mind.
He smiled encouragingly at Algy and Bertie. The Hon. Galahad had been pinched or admonished by a great many members of the police force in his days, and his general opinion was that policemen should be kept on a short leash. But he was a kind and sociable person, ready to welcome anyone who came to the rescue of his older brother in the search for the unsurpassed sow.
”Tea or something stronger, gentlemen? I am the younger brother, by the way – please call me Gally.”
”Tea, please,” said Algy firmly.
”Beach, perhaps you would be so kind? Our sister Constance would normally do the honours, but she has for the moment deserted us,” Gally explained, a look on his face that bore no similarities to Romeo pining for Juliet.
While Beach ceremoniously prepared to serve the tea, Gally turned to Bertie.
”Lissie? I knew a Lissie once, Archibald Lissie of Ched-something. Quite a nice fellow but somewhat crazy. He was the only one I ever met who was thrown out of the old Gardenia in the nineties because of his dress sense; something about a fez and a bow-tie, I believe. Or was it from the Criterion? A relative, perhaps?” he beamed.
”No, no,” said Bertie hastily, with difficulty keeping his curiosity about his forefather in check. ”I most assuredly have no connection with Chedc – something. I come from a long line of simple beef farmers in the Midlands. No Ched-something around there, no by Jove!”
Lord Emsworth waited with ill-concealed impatience while the policemen were served tea and sandwiches. He paced around the room until Algy – after a first bite of the cucumber sandwich – asked for information about when and how the loss of the pig had been discovered.
”I was forced to go to London for a few days, and when I returned the Empress was gone. The keeper, Miss Simmons, is on holiday, they tell me, but no-one knows what precautions were taken to take care of the Empress. One can't turn one's back without having one’s home overrun with thieves. The Government is far too slack about these things! I knew I should have refused to leave her side, but Connie insisted.”
Lord Emsworth was a firm believer in that most things evil had its origin in the Metropolis. His commanding sister, Lady Constance, at times made him go to London to fulfill his obligations as a peer of the realm and the head of a considerable family, but he was never happy until he had arrived home in the country again.
”She has been missing for four days by now, and goodness knows what it will mean to hear health. She is a delicate animal, only too ready to refuse her meals on the slightest provocation. And Augustus Whipple is quite firm that a pig needs at least fifty-seven thousand and eight hundred calories per day to keep her shape,” fretted Lord Emsworth.
Bertie, who had recently heard a female relative explain the latest low-calorie diet, tried to envisage a meal of such impressive proportions, but gave up somewhere at the second serving table.
”Yes, but didn’t anyone notice if something was going on around the sty?” said Algy patiently. ”Who was the last person to see her?”
”Clarence, or quite possibly Miss Simmons,” put in Gally, when his older brother failed to provide a succinct answer. ”But, unfortunately, we don’t know exactly when Miss Simmons saw her charge for the last time before she left.”
”And, of course, you don’t know where Miss Simmons is so you can ask her?” said Algy, resignedly.
”That about covers it, my dear fellow,” agreed Gally affably. ”Clarence checked the sty just before he left, Thursday morning. He rose the alarm when he returned, Friday evening.”
”She might even have been gone five days,” murmured the harassed Earl, after an intense arithmetic operation. He tried to find strength from a photo, which he presently passed on to Algy.
The two air policemen politely studied the huge pig in the photo, taken at some kind of prize cere-mony.
”You don’t really pick up a pig that size and walk away. You must have seen some kind of tracks by the sty? Tyre marks you don’t recognise, for instance?”
”She hardly left on her own,” asserted Bertie. ”Pigs don't jolly well fly, you know.”
Gally was on the verge of correcting the visitor, pointing out that Bertie was himself living proof that ’pigs’ did indeed fly, but for once in his life chose silence. Such a remark would only lead to unnecessary confusion since the joke would have to be explained to Lord Emsworth in great detail.
Instead, he shook his head with a mournful expression.
”I’m afraid you over-estimate our knowledge of the vehicle park, dear boy. We wouldn’t recognize the estate tractor if you served it on a silver plate. We’re of the indolent class, totally dependent upon others.”
”I take it you haven’t asked any of your staff; someone who drives the tractor, for instance?”
”Indeed, what a capital idea,” agreed Gally. ”We’ll hound up the poor man for you to interrogate.”
”We understand the local constable has been on the case, and all that,” put in Bertie. ”Perhaps he spoke to the tractor-chappie?”
”I’m certain he didn’t,” fumed Lord Emsworth. ”All that oaf Evans did was to look for a second around the sty, and then he said that he couldn’t see anything because I had walked all over the place.”
”I suppose you have searched the cabins around here? We spotted several from the plane when we flew over the estate.”
”And made enquiries around the local butchers,” added Bertie, helpfully.
Lord Emsworth stared, aghast, at Bertie.
”Young man, are you implying that someone would want to murder the Empress?! But that would be monstrous!!”
Lord Emsworth collapsed in his armchair, a look of hunted agony on his face. His younger brother hurried to his side while Algy gave Bertie a reproaching look.
”There, there, Clarence,” said Gally comfortingly. ”Of course no-one would think to harm the Empress. Not even that snake Parsloe could think he could get away with it.”
”I understood Sir Gregory had given up pigs,” ventured Algy.
On hearing the name, Lord Emsworth collected himself enough to sit upright and flame of righteous indignation.
”I made constable Evans search Matchingham Hall, and he swears there are no pigs there, but I don’t trust him. Parsloe has had an eye on the Empress for years!”
”Young Parsloe is not to be trusted,” agreed Gally, seriously. ”He’s a blot on the shield of British knighthood. I’ve known Parsloe for thirty years, and I can tell you that the word fair play is not in his vocabulary. I remember when I was matching my dog Towser against his Banjo in a rat contest, one evening at the Black Footman public-house in Gossiter Street. A hundred pounds a side. But when the rats were brought on, Towser was dozing in a corner with his stomach bulging. When I called him, I’m dashed if he didn’t just give a long yawn and rolled over and went to sleep. I sniffed his breath, and it was like opening the kitchen door of a Soho chophouse. That scoundrel Parsloe had inserted a full evening meal of steak and onions in Towser, to make certain that his Banjo should win by default, mark my words!”
”Towser! I say, what fun, I had a dog called Towser once too,” said Bertie, a fond smile on his face while he was polishing his eyeglass and remembering his mongrel terrier. ”A jolly little feller. Do you remember the havoc he caused when he chased that black cat out right in front of A Flight, Algy? Well, you would, wouldn’t you – you were A Flight, weren’t you?”
”I’m trying very hard to forget,” muttered Algy. Then, since he had given up hope of extracting any useful information from the Threepwood brothers, he suggested: ”We might at least check around the sty today.”
Chapter 3: The Sty
Lord Emsworth led the little party out of the castle, past a huge and well-tended garden and down a well-trodden path. Algy slowed his pace to admire the garden while passing, and Bertie matched his speed to exchange a few words.
”Perhaps we should have flown over Matchingham Hall while we were at it. There is bound to be another half dozen cottages and sheds around there, too.”
Algy rolled his eyes.
”Not if we can avoid it,” he averred softly. ”To be honest, I can’t imagine we’re going to find the blessed pig this way. Who in their right mind would steal a pig, and hide her in the nearest cottage?”
”Well, you did say several of the Threepwood juniors have done it...”
”In their right mind, I said,” reminded Algy.
”Good point, old chap,” agreed Bertie. ”Not a youngster in love around, it would seem. Still, as long as we don’t find any other clues, all we can do is to look into everything that is large enough, isn’t it?”
Algy nodded with a marked lack of enthusiasm, and they walked on to catch up with Lord Emsworth and his brother.
The piggery had a magnificent view, surrounded by meadows and looking out over the lake. Further away were fields, a glade and a larger forest area. After four – or possibly even five – days, the policemen had little hope of finding any kind of convincing evidence at the site of the crime, but they wandered around, conscientiously looking for anything that would seem out of place. The area around the sty was well trodden, but as far as they could make out most of the tramping had been made with shoes of the same size that Lord Emsworth was wearing.
Bertie, remembering how the stolen bulls had been injected with tranquilizer, made a point of looking for vials around the through.
”If you put that sow to sleep, you would need a crane to move her,” snorted Algy. Nevertheless, he spent some time deliberating how far an empty vial might be thrown and walked an extra round at a plausible distance.
One gardener and one driver were collected to give evidence about the faint tyre marks that led up to the sty. Both of them scrutinized the ground with somber expressions, but shook their heads and said in unison that the marks very well might be from vehicles on the estate.
Algy looked speculatively out over the tranquil lake; there was only a short distance from the sty to the lake, and more to the point, a small pier. Not that trying to lure an oversized sow on to a boat seemed a better idea than using a tranquilliser dart, he admitted to himself, but one might as well be thorough.
”Where can you go on the lake? Is it all on the estate?”
”I rather think I spotted a derelict boat-house on the other side,” offered Bertie. ”But if there is a road there, it’s completely hidden in the wood.”
Gally thoughtfully polished his black-rimmed monocle, and Bertie followed suit.
”That building must have been abandoned for decades, but I believe we used to row there as kids,” Gally declared. ”Yes, I remember distinctly, we tried to abandon Connie – or was it Dora? – there once. To get a little peace and quiet, you understand. Having a house full of sisters can make the strongest man fall to temptation. We enticed her with the prospect of a full-size dolls house, and no-one can say that there wasn’t plenty of space for dozens of dolls in that boat-house. But she suspected something once we got there; always had a nasty mind, Connie. Or am I thinking about Hermione? Anyway, the boat-house is almost certainly part of the estate, but I suppose it would be difficult to go there by land these days. The track must be quite overgrown by now.”
Lord Emsworth’s eyes flashed.
”That track ended on the Matchingham side,” he pointed out. ”It would be just like that scoundrel Parsley to clear a path to be able to bring the Empress up from the lake!”
”It seems like a very cumbersome method to move a pig,” said Algy, dubiously.
”I vote we take a trip and check out the boat-house, and all that,” declared Bertie. ”I suppose there is a boat down there we might borrow, old – ah, my lord?”
”And you will do the rowing, I suppose?”
”Me? You know I’m no bally good with oars, old top – cows, that’s all I know, remember? Hereford and such. Strictly a grass and field person. You’re the one with sea-legs, I seem to remember that you’ve spent more than one holiday on one yacht or another.”
”You don’t normally have to row a yacht,” replied Algy dryly.
”Of course there is a boat you can use,” declared the Hon. Galahad. ”In the rather better preserved boat-house down there. You will have no trouble getting there and back, and still be back in time for dinner. And don’t worry about evening-dress, we’re quite informal when it’s only Clarence and I.”
”Jolly good,” said Bertie. ”Come along, old boy, perhaps we’ve cracked the case in less than two hours.”
”Don’t hold you breath,” murmured Algy, but he shrugged and followed his colleague down to the lake with a wry smile. If he couldn’t enjoy the garden, a tour on the glittering lake would be an agreeable way to spend an hour.
When the policemen arrived to the derelict boat-house, they found it to be quite empty, except for a lot of weed and the pitiful skeleton of a sea-bird. They went with great care on the pier outside the house to look at the track through the forest, but it took some looking to identify the old pathway.
”I wouldn’t like to try to drive even a wheel-barrow through there, no by Jove,” affirmed Bertie, looking down the forest.
”I wouldn’t like to try to drive that pig in a wheel-barrow, full stop,” retorted Algy. ”Come on, there’s no use wasting any more time here.”
”Right you are,” agreed Bertie. ”We don’t want to miss dinner, do we?”
They strolled back on to the pier.
”Perhaps my lord would care to try some rowing,” suggested Algy ironically when they stepped down in the boat.
”No, thank you, old boy,” declined Bertie seriously. ”I need to keep up my cover. No lakes in the Midlands, what?”
Algy shook his head sadly, but his mouth was twitching when he picked up the oars.
”Dozens, I should say. It’s not the Gobi desert, you know.”
”Anyway, our cows had their drink strictly from a somewhat narrow stream. Much too small for a rowing boat,” continued Bertie imperturbably. ”I remember it as if it were last week, how they ambled down to the waterfront. We had one or two troughs around the place, too. Sometimes I had to pump up water to fill them, when I was a mere lad.”
”Well, if you can use a pump, you could probably use a pair of oars,” opined Algy.
But Bertie didn’t rise to the bait; he was too preoccupied with his family background of cows and beef.
”Let’s see, our prize bull was... What do you think about the name The Duke? I say, I think it has a nice ring to it, Duke the Hereford bull. Old grandpa was mad for the Duke of Wellington, that’s where the name came from, I think. Grandpa Lissie was the one that managed to buy some land, to go into beef in a big way, but he had grown up with cows. How about that? And he had the good fortune to marry some money and could expand a bit. Ye-es, a clergyman’s daughter or something.”
”You know, I could be wrong, but somehow I don’t think your average middle-class beef merchant is so obsessed with telling everyone their family history.”
Bertie considered his experience of the middle classes.
”You could be right there, old boy. What do you suggest that I talk of instead?”
”How should I know? I don’t know any beef merchants. Why don’t you talk about the weather, like any other Englishman? Or better still, don’t talk about yourself at all. Just make soothing sounds when the Earl tells us about his pig.”
As it turned out, very few soothing sounds were required from the dinner guests since the Earl spent most of his dinner staring vacantly out in the air. Only from time to time did he remember that he had guests, and on one such occasion he gave them the benefit of his opinion about how the matter of security for domestic animals ought to be handled in the House of Lords. So far, he hadn’t decided whether a major increase in the number of village constables, considerably harder sentences, or permission for all pig-men to carry arms and shoot first and ask questions later, was the best option.
”Some of those flying contraptions might come in handy. Just the thing to patrol all major estates day and night,” concluded Lord Emsworth, before he once more collapsed into silence.
The Earl’s brother, on the other hand, was perfectly able to fill out any unwelcome stillness. He told anecdotes from his youth and named policemen in the West End of London that had pinched him during earlier escapades.
”I say, a bit before our time,” Bertie managed to interpose before Gally continued to entertain the guests with stories from the races and assorted nightclubs.
Bertie felt awed; he had for several years cultivated the art of cheerful chattering, which could provide a splendid smoke-screen when you wanted to act upon an opportunity that happened to pass by. He prided himself on having achieved some success in the matter – the episode with the shark teeth was a particular favourite – but he realized that he was in the presence of a true master.
His admiration gave way for a certain anxiety, however, when Gally turned to him with an amiable smile.
”Are you quite certain that you’re not related to old Archibald, my dear fellow? You do look a lot like him. If only I had a fez somewhere...”
”No, no,” assured Bertie. ”Must be pure chance, if you know what I mean. No lords in my closet, absolutely not.”
”I don’t believe I said anything about any lords in old Archie’s family,” said Gally, mildly.
”Ah well, you know, to us who aren’t personally involved, lord is a sort of umbrella name for the whole aristocracy. They come in so many different models. I mean to say, who can tell the difference between a Knight or a Duke or an Honourable anyway? I remember a chap I trained with at the RAF flying school. He started out as the Honourable Leonard, and then all of a sudden he became Lord Bettle-something, when his older brother went west, and two weeks later he was Lord Heacham because his guv’nor, the Earl, kicked the bucket. Three different names in a month, that was a lot to cope with. The CO was a bit miffed, I remember, because they had to change his papers all the time. And the chap looked like the same old Leo, whatever the name.”
”Of course,” agreed Gally amiably. ”So much easier to tell the difference between a Hereford and a Jersey; at least you can see it on the outside.”
”Absolutely, no chance of confusing those two, no by jingo! Of course, my family don’t have a lot of Jersey cows since we concentrate on beef. You can’t beat Hereford for a tender sirloin. Old Duke – that’s the prize bull of the family farm – produced very good steak in his offspring. We do have some Jersey cows for the daily milk, but they’re far too skinny to make good beef.”
Gally turned to Beach, who was watching over the dinner table.
”Beach, don’t we have an old fez lying about? I’m almost positive there was one when we were kids. Sometimes, we were forced to act some silly play or other, and we were dressed out in old rags from the time of Edward the Confessor and onwards,” he explained to the house-guests.
”I regret to say, Mr Galahad, that I do not know. I was not in service in this house when you occupied the nursery,” reminded Beach, somewhat reproachfully.
”Of course not, Beach! I did not mean to imply anything of the sort, but you usually have such a first class knowledge of everything. If you need to know anything about Blandings Castle, ask Beach, that’s what I always say! Do give Clarence a nudge, would you, I want to ask him if he remembers the fez.”
Beach’s face, which had started to clear in the face of flattery, froze in shock.
”I couldn’t do that, sir! That would be most improper.”
”All right, then, just wake him up, would you.”
Beach solicited Lord Emsworth’s attention to his brother’s request.
”Eh? What? A fez? Really, Galahad, how can you think that I could worry about old hats when the Empress might be starving this very minute? Yes, yes, I remember the fez, I believe Ann used it in a Midsummer Night’s Dream. But I have no idea where it might be.”
Gally, who hadn’t really counted on his brother to know where to find anything except the sty and the best way to avoid his sisters, thoughtfully polished his monocle.
”Ann? I should have said it was Julia. But never mind, if we can’t find the fez we can’t. A pity, though, I would have loved to try it out on Mr Lissie. Old Archie knew exactly how to put it on in just the right rakish angle.”
Bertie couldn’t help a little sigh of relief, when it became clear that no fez was to be joining their company. Algy stared woodenly at the wall straight ahead and concentrated on his food; only a slight shudder of the shoulders betrayed his mirth.
”I say, jolly good meal. This Beef Wellington and glazed vegetables remind me of how... dear old Mother used to cook. Nothing tastes like Mother’s cooking, does it? And having fresh vegetables and potatoes in your garden makes all the difference, such a change from living in London,” said Bertie, eager to keep the conversation away from anything that had to do with head wear or his rela-tionship with Chedcombe Manor.
”Obviously, we eat a lot of beef in my family,” he continued and turned to Algy. ”But I suppose you ate lamb, most of the time, old boy, living in Wales? And it’s closer to the sea, so perhaps you had seafood, too? Not much seafood in the Midlands, if you get my meaning.”
”Don’t forget the cheese,” said Algy promptly. ”Nothing compares to Black Bomber Cheddar.”
In spite of Bertie’s brave prattle, Gally was not to be diverted from his line of inquiry.
”I did see old Archie in his crown once, on the way in to the House of Lords. It was a tad too big for him; almost fell down over his ears. Perhaps that’s why he preferred that old fez? It was red, with a darkish tassel. He was preparing a speech about finding a way to produce a cushiony asphalt, I remember, because it was such a dashed nuisance when you took a fall in the street. He strongly objected to paving stones. I don’t know if he ever got around to bring up the subject, though. It wasn’t a lot sillier than the average speech in the House at the time, I should say.”
”Talking about aristocracy,” put in Algy when Gally had to stop to take in breath, ”does the Empress require any kind of special food? Something that could be traced? Since we assume that she’s been taken by someone who appreciates her size, he wouldn’t want her to lose weight.”
It might not be the most brilliant of methods to find a lost pig who was no doubt quite happy to live on whatever was growing in the vicinity, he thought, but at least it served to wake Lord Emsworth from his dormancy and to provide a change of subject.
When Lord Emsworth had finally concluded his lecture on appropriate food for the Empress – the staple ingredients being barley meal, maize meal, buttermilk and potatoes – the policemen were relieved that Gally was willing to let the subject of ”old Archie” drop. The remainder of the dinner conversation was sparse and mostly concerned the weather.
As they later walked to their allotted bedrooms, Bertie contentedly turned to Algy.
”I say, I think I’m getting the hang of this middle-class existence, yes, by Jove! No-one has as much as breathed my lord to me. What do you think, old warrior?”
”Since you’re asking, I think your imitation of solid middle-class stock would be more successful without the monocle,” answered Algy. ”Good-night!”
Chapter 4: The Castle grounds
After breakfast the following day, the two grounded air policemen found their way out of the castle to continue the investigation.
”They never did tell us whether the cabins around here have been thoroughly searched,” said Algy. ”I’ll eat my flying cap if the pig is in any of them, but let’s check them out and have it over and done with.”
Bertie agreed that this was a sound strategy.
”After all, there might be a lovesick nephew that we haven’t heard of, working on a plan to get some money out of the estate. We’d look pretty silly if we missed that the sow was around the corner, if you get my meaning!”
”You’ve got the map. Where had we better start?”
”To the right or to the left, just as you please,” replied Bertie, graciously. ”There is one cottage in that grove on the lake side, not far from the piggery. The others are on the other side of the castle.”
”All right, let’s check the one closest to the sty first,” decided Algy.
They strolled along the garden and walked briskly over the meadow, passing the sty at some distance before they struck a small group of trees that hid their target from view.
The cottage was situated in a clearing, on the edge of a larger grove. It was a simple wooden cottage with thatched roof. By all accounts, no-one had made any kind of repairs for a long time.
Algy eyed the derelict building critically.
”I’d say it would be attempted murder to keep anything alive in here,” he declared. ”It looks as if it’s ready to collapse if a mosquito happens to land on it.”
It took less than a minute to confirm that the cottage, with three minute rooms, did not contain a pig. Neither was there anything to indicate that it had done so; there were no traces of food, water or droppings. There was very little to be found in the cottage at all, only a few pieces of furniture that were too ramshackle for civilized homes, some forgotten china and a few old magazines. Big chunks of plaster had fallen off, the wood was decaying, and planks were missing in walls and the ceiling.
Bertie looked thoughtfully on the steep stairs, leading up to an attic.
”I’ll just take a dekko up here.”
”Don’t be a fool, Bertie!” Algy sighed. ”There’s no chance you could get a pig the size of the Empress up those stairs – it looks more like a ladder. And a rotten one at that.”
”Of course, but you never now, someone might have left some incriminating evidence. I won’t be a tick.”
”All right, but do be careful, it’s likely to fall under you,” Algy warned, taking care not to walk straight under the stairs. He glanced at some forlorn pieces of china that was left on the iron stove while Bertie cautiously climbed the steps up to the attic.
It was difficult to see anything in the attic, where light only found its way through breaches and from the opening down to the ground level. From his position above the stairs, Bertie could see no signs of human activity, and he decided he would have to take a walk to conduct a search. He carefully went out on the uneven floor, taking care to avoid the biggest rifts.
Algy absentmindedly picked up a chipped cup with a rose pattern, and turned it over to look for a maker’s mark, when he heard an ominous creak over his head. He glanced up, and saw the whole ceiling swaying gently. He shook his head and turned to put back the cup on the stove.
”That floor doesn’t seem very safe...” he observed, when suddenly a plank broke with a crack and came tumbling down over him.
”Oh, I say, you could say that again, old boy,” exclaimed Bertie, rising on unsteady legs on the attic, where he had managed to jump to safety with reflexes worthy of a former fighter pilot. ”The bally floor simply disappeared from under my foot, that gave me a nasty turn, I must say. But at least we’ve done a proper job of examining the place. Algy? Algy!?”
Bertie scrambled down the stairs to find Algy lying on the floor, under the broken plank and a lot of smaller debris. He lost no time in heaving the wooden plank away.
”Oh here, I say, don’t give me shocks like that,” said Bertie anxiously, when Algy stirred under the debris. ”Are you all right, old top?”
He helped Algy to sit up, and took the handkerchief from his breast pocket to clean his friends face from dust and blood.
”You hit your head on something, old boy. You’ve got a cut there, but I don’t see any splinters.
Now, if it wasn’t a bit of wood... Of course, you must have knocked yourself on the stove on the way down.”
”Bertie,” said Algy grimly. ”if there ever is another war, I swear I will have you enlisted on the other side!” He shook his head to try to clear it, but stopped with a groan.
”That’s right, old boy,” said Bertie, soothingly. ”I’ll volunteer to old Erich himself, if is makes you any happier. Here, let me help you up. You’d better rest for a while... there, that old sofa will do nicely.”
Algy gave the proposed resting place a critical glance, but when he tried to stand up got other things to worry about than derelict furniture. He felt a sharp pain in his ankle and would not have been able to stand upright without Bertie’s support.
”Damn, it’s that ankle again,” he grated. ”I twisted it looking for you and Ginger on that treasure-hunt in the Aden protectorate.”
”If you’ve sprained it once, it’s likely to come back,” agreed Bertie, in a light tone. ”You just rest here while I check out the cottage in the wood on the other side of the castle, and then I will come back and see how you are. We’ll get some kind of vehicle, or perhaps a horse, if you can’t walk when I’m back.”
”All right. Be whatever you do, don’t try to walk on any more crumbling attics. We don’t need you to have an accident, all on your own,” admonished Algy, sitting down cautiously on the old wooden sofa.
”Whatever you say, old boy,” promised Bertie. ”Now you just stay right there, and I’ll see you in a while. Cheerio!”
On the way out, Bertie paused to ponder the existence of some cans of petrol outside the door. A weird place to stash petrol, he mused, but failing to see how the cans could be connected to the pig-napping case he decided to leave that particular mystery for later. Perhaps he and Algy could get their teeth in some real crime while they were in the neighbourhood, Bertie thought.
After a quick look on the map, Bertie started to walk briskly towards the next target, situated in a small clearing inside the West Wood. It was, he had been told, an old gamekeeper’s cottage, and had, in fact, once been the clandestine home for the Empress during an earlier pig-napping.
But this time the bandit had opted for another hiding place, Bertie could ascertain in two minutes when he finally reached the place. There was an attic in this cottage too, and he carefully climbed the stairs but contented himself with having a look around from the uppermost step.
He gave the map a quick glance again, and decided to check out two other small buildings he had noticed from the air. The trip would only take him a bit out of the way back, and some extra time would hardly do Algy’s ankle any harm, he reasoned.
The third target proved to be a gardener’s shed, crammed so full of tools that only the thinnest of piglets could have found her way in. The fourth was an old pig-sty that looked as if it had been abandoned for some time.
”Ah well, that’s that,” murmured Bertie philosophically. ”I suppose we’ll have to borrow a car to conduct a search outside this place.” He looked at his watch. It had taken him some time to locate the gamekeeper’s cottage inside the dense forest, and breakfast seemed a long way back.
”Time to hoof it back to old Algy,” he decided.
When he walked past the formal garden on the way back, he stopped for a quick glance. Bertie wasn’t very keen on gardening himself, but he had to admit that it was a well kept and quite beautiful corner of the park, with all the colours of the rainbow represented in handsome flowerbeds.
Suddenly the Hon. Galahad materialized, greeting him cordially.
”A splendid day, isn’t it? I’m glad to see that you are up and about, it makes my heart warm to think that the tax-payers are getting their pennies worth out of the police force. Not that I pay a lot of tax, I hasten to add, being a penniless younger son. There’s no getting away from it, the British aristocracy don’t have any use for younger sons. You should discuss the subject with Clarence one day, he has one called Freddie... And how is the investigation progressing? You haven’t found the Empress, I suppose? Clarence is lamenting in the drawing-room, I’d keep away from there if I were you. Unless you prefer the atmosphere around you to be something that Ibsen could have thought of on a rainy night? There’s no accounting for taste, after all.”
When Bertie finally managed to edge a word in, he kept it short:
”No, I’m afraid we’ve looked in all possible places on the grounds, and not so much as an oink.”
”Of course not! The Empress is somewhere on Matchingham’s soil, depend upon it. But we’ll get her back from the clutches of that scoundrel, sooner or later. I see that you are admiring the garden? Some people like these things,” confided Gally, ”my brother is potty about his flowers, for instance. I have to confess that to me, one rose looks pretty much like any other rose.”
”My colleague is looking forward to a chance to stroll in the garden. He claims the rose garden is quite unsurpassed.”
”So it is, so it is, at least if you ask Clarence. By the way, where is you friend? Surely he can’t have lost his way? The castle is like a beacon to a seaman in need, after all. You only have to look up to see what way to set sail.”
”Not at all. He had a little accident in the cottage over there,” said Bertie, making a vague gesture, ”and he’s been resting while I’ve checked out some other places.”
Gally clicked his tongue.
”Oh dear, nothing serious, I hope. Some of the shacks around here are positively murderous.”
”No, no. Dashed nuisance and all that, but I hope he’ll be able to walk by now.”
”I see. I’d better come with you, and see if I can be of assistance,” Gally decided, and strolled along with Bertie, chatting happily.
When they had passed the meadow, the smell of smoke reached their nostrils.
”Someone is having a bonfire,” remarked Bertie. ”Perhaps some old odds and ends finally bit the dust, what?”
The Hon. Galahad hesitated, and stopped to polish his monocle.
”That is conceivably so,” he said as they passed through the small cluster of trees that separated the meadow from the cottage.
Bertie stopped dead in his tracks, stared and dropped his monocle, too preoccupied to remember to catch it. There was no cottage on the edge of the wood. All that remained was the chimney and the iron stove, black of soot, and the smoking remains of a wooden structure.
”Yes, I didn’t want to bring it up,” said Gally thoughtfully, and carefully picked up Bertie’s monocle, ”but I rather think I’ve heard that the local fire brigade had permission to burn it. As an exercise, you understand. There are so few real fires around here, the poor chaps need to make one of their own now and then, in order not to forget what it looks like.”
Bertie continued to gape at the smoking remains, momentarily bereft of speak. The he blurted:
”But I say, you’re joking! I can’t go back to my chief and tell him I left Algy in a cottage that burned down within the hour. He’ll kill me!”
”Dashed inconvenient, I can see that,” agreed the Honourable Galahad.
Bertie stared at the remains of the cottage. Once he had got over the initial shock, it wasn't that he was seriously worried about Algy – not even the most amateurish band of fire fighters would set fire to a building without making a thorough check for living creatures inside, he reasoned.
”I hope they gave him a lift to the castle,” he said, turning on his heel.
Chapter 5: Happenings at the Castle
But there was no sign of Algy in Blandings Castle. Bertie rushed around countless corridors, drawing-rooms and studies to search and ask questions, and he even ventured into the servants’ territory and looked into the kitchen.
”Sorry, and all that, but I thought old Algy might have wanted some tea and crumpets to cure his headache,” he excused himself and hurried along before the cook and the kitchen maid had had time to collect their wits enough to ask what was going on.
”Stark mad, just like his lordship,” muttered Mrs Willoughby and went back to her pudding.
When Bertie finally had visited all parts of the castle where he dared go without fear of getting lost, he returned to the ground floor and found Gally in the amber drawing-room.
”Ah, there you are, young man,” said Gally. ”I have been trying to find out who might have been involved in the fire exercise. Beach found a footman who thinks that one of the stablehands has a cousin who might know. I am waiting for him to arrive with the latest news.”
”I suppose Lord Emsworth doesn’t by any chance remember whom he was speaking to, when he gave permission for the cottage to be burned?”
Gally gave Bertie a pitying look.
”My dear boy...”
”No, of course not,” muttered Bertie. He sat down the closest chair and stared morosely at the first thing that caught his eye, which happened to be a particularly frightful portrait of a man with a censorious expression.
”An appalling picture, I’m afraid,” said Gally, apologetically. ”It’s our sister Conny, she insists on having what she calls ’dear Papa’ in a prominent place. Rather impressive, the way the artist managed to capture that look of his; he could open an oyster at sixty paces with a single glance. I have been trying to offer it to the Chamber of Horrors at Madam Tussaud’s, but Connie is adamant in her opposition... But here comes someone.”
Bech entered the room in his usual, dignified manner.
”Beach, don’t hesitate to tell us the good news. You do have some good news about our lost policeman, don’t you?”
”I wouldn’t dare to say that, sir,” said Beach, ”but I have ascertained that the stablehand’s cousin, Mr Jones of Wode Cottage, is a member of the volunteer fire brigade. However, the stablehand did not have certain knowledge if his cousin was meant to participate in today’s exercise.”
”It is a start, Beach, and a start is not to be sneezed at,” declared Gally.
”Jolly good, and all that. Let’s give the chappie a call straight away,” interposed Bertie. ”He might know who was in charge.”
”I’m sorry, my dear boy, I realize we must seem a poor, backward lot to you, but the fact is that Mr Jones is not likely to possess a telephone. I understand the telephone wire company is working overtime to install this great technological invention all over rural Britain, but they have yet to reach the darkest parts of Shropshire.”
”All right, if you can lend me a car I will drive to whats-its-name Cottage and ask.”
”I can see that you are a man of action, Mr Lisse, but Mr Jones is almost certainly not to be found at Wode Cottage at the moment. He is a thatcher and is quite likely to be hard at work somewhere else in the county.”
”I say, this is a bit thick. Almost solid, in fact,” complained Bertie, making a hopeless gesture. ”Surely there must some way of finding him.”
”Certainly. Beach, please send the chauffeur and the stablehand to look for Mr Jones. Mr Lissie will be more comfortable here, waiting for news. Mr Lacey might still find his own way back.”
Beach acknowledged the direction with a slight inclination of his head, and moved out to carry out his instructions.
Bertie looked around the room to find something to do, other than staring at the eight Earl, and finally picked up a leaflet from a table by his elbow. It turned out to be a circular from the Shropshire, Herefordshire and South Wales Pig Breeders Association, and he glanced through it without really seeing what it was all about.
After a while, Lord Emsworth ambled in, taking no notice of the glum face of his guest. As far as Clarence, the ninth Earl, was concerned, Blandings Castle was a house in mourning and Bertie’s dejected expression was perfectly appropriate.
”Ah, Galahad, I’m searching for my copy of ’On The Care Of The Pig’ by Whipple. Have you seen it, dear fellow?”
Gally looked up from polishing his monocle and suggested:
”It might be that book you’re grasping in your left hand, Clarence.”
Lord Emsworth peeped surprised at the book he was carrying around.
”Bless me, so it is,” he agreed, and tottered out again to find a quiet corner of his castle to search solace in the words of Mr Whipple.
Beach came back to report on the proceedings.
”I have instructed the men to try to ascertain the location of Mr Jones, Mr Galahad, and otherwise to look into the public houses nearby and ask for information about the fire brigade.”
”Very well, Beach. Perhaps you would be so kind and get me a whisky and soda while we are waiting for lunch. And I’m certain that Mr Lissie would like a drink, too.”
Before Bertie had time to place an order, the telephone rang. He threw the pamphlet from the local Pig Breeders Association back on the table and looked expectantly at the phone.
Beach went to pick up the receiver.
”Lord Emsworth’s residence. His lordships's butler speaking.”
After a short pause of listening he said, ”one moment, sir”, put the receiver down and majestically turned to the two gentlemen.
”Excuse me, sir, there is an Inspector Bigglesworth on the telephone; he asks to talk to one of his men.”
Bertie startled; he had no wish whatsoever to try to outline the situation to Biggles.
”Can’t you tell him I’m out,” he wailed, without any real hope of a reprieve. In his experience, butlers did not take kindly to being asked to lie.
He was slightly taken aback when Gally sprang up, and with a heartily ”With pleasure, dear boy, with pleasure,” grabbed the phone and got started.
”Hello, is this the famous detective-major Bigglesworth? Gally Threepwood speaking. So glad to talk to you in person, we have heard so much about you. And there was that piece in the paper the other decade. I don’t seem to remember the details, but I gather you had done something impressive. Flown over the Atlantic ocean, perhaps? No, that must have been that other fellow, no doubt you know whom I am thinking about. I always thought being a pilot must be such an interesting occupation. I mean to say, how do you know that you’re flying in the right direction? Must be awfully difficult to spot anything, what with the clouds blocking your view. Sorry? Oh, you wanted to speak to your men. I’m so sorry, but they don’t seem to be around at the moment. No doubt they are still snooping around for clues in the sty or collecting witness statements from the birds and the bees. I saw one of them, not an hour ago, looking for pig-prints in the rose garden. Yes, I quite understand that you must be getting on with your work. Do give my best to Mrs Bigglesworth if there is such a lovely creature. Good-bye!”
With that, the Honourable Galahad put down the receiver and beamed at Bertie.
”I say, what a nice chap.”
Bertie stared thoughtfully into thin air.
”Perhaps I should take the Auster and see if I can spot old Algy,” he murmured, longing for a safe and familiar place.
Chapter 6: What happened to Algy
Algy woke up to a general commotion outside the cottage. He had laid down on the sofa to get some rest, deciding to take the risk that it would crumble under him, and had dozed off. Judging by his headache, and the state of his ankle, he hadn’t been sleeping for long, and a quick look at the watch confirmed that Bertie had been gone less than half an hour. Anyway, not even Bertie could single-handedly make so much noise, he thought, and decided to look out and see what was going on.
Outside half a dozen men, with dark jackets and steel helmets, were occupied with stacking firewood around the cottage and sprinkling petrol over the walls. None of them noticed when Algy limped out through the door. A van was parked a bit back, on the dirt road that went in the opposite direction from Blandings Castle.
Algy cleared his throat.
”Excuse me. Could you please tell me what is going on?”
He got all the attention he could have asked for. All the men started, turned and stared incredulously at him, petrol-sprinkling and wood-stacking temporarily forgotten.
”Hey, where did he came from,” said one of them.
”I told you we should check the cottage,” said another.
”It was empty an hour ago,” protested a third man, surly. ”I checked it properly when I stashed the petrol here. This bloke has no business to get in the way of our fire exercise.”
”Well, we should check anyway. I wouldn’t even want to set fire to a squirrel.”
”Pah, if they can find their way in, they can find their way out, that’s what I say.”
”Does this mean I should stop pouring the petrol?”
Algy patiently waited until the excitement had died away, and all the men had had their chance to make a comment on the unforeseen development.
”I’m a guest of Lord Emsworth’s and I was resting for a while inside since I’m having a spot of trouble with my ankle. I’m afraid his lordship forgot to mention that this cabin was marked for destruction.”
One of the men chuckled.
”Forgot to mention, that’s a good one! Good thing we have our permission in writing!”
”All right,” said another, ”no harm done. I suppose you were alone in there, so we can get on with this? Only I need to be back at the station, with the van, to collect some goods for the Emsworth Arms. That is, if you don’t mind the place running out of drinkable, my lads?”
No-one seemed prepared to take such a risk, and the work continued.
”Just a second,” said the squirrel-loving man and hurried towards the door, ”I’ll take a quick look around before I build a fire inside.”
”Do be careful if you go up on the attic,” Algy called after him.
The cottage being judged fit to burn, one of the men made a simple torch and started the fire with a heap of wood inside the kitchen and then around the walls. The dry wood started to burn almost instantaneously, and for a while the Blandings volunteer’s fire brigade was occupied with containing the fire.
When all that remained of the cottage was a smoldering ruin, they started to pack their things and move towards the van. The owner of the vehicle gave Algy a thoughtful look.
”Hurt you ankle, eh? I suppose it wouldn’t be sociable of us to leave his lordship’s guest outside a burnt-down cottage. Jump into the van, I’ll leave you with my aunt Hilda while I make the delivery for the Emsworth Arms. Then I’ll come back and give you a lift to the castle.
”Thank you, that’s very kind, but I’d better stay here. My friend is coming back, I’ll just wait for him.”
But Algy found himself carried away by a small and enthusiastic avalanche of well-wishers, who supported him on all sides and practically lifted him to the van.
”Nonsense, it will take ages before they find a vehicle to fetch you down here,” said the van-man, firmly. ”Aunt Hilda lives only a short way down the road to Matchingham, it will take no time to go from there and back to the castle again.”
A while later, the van turned off the main road and to drive through the woodland on a winding dirt road. It finally stopped in front of a charming cottage, its stone walls partly overgrown by ivy and roses. The driver hurried into the cottage while some of the men helped Algy out, and soon an old woman dressed for garden work came out to greet him.
”Bye, auntie, I’ll be back as soon as I can,” promised the driver and jumped back into his vehicle.
”Very kind of you to let me wait here,” said Algy, when the van had disappeared around the corner.
”Not at all, dear boy. Our Ed told me what happened – I always did think that those volunteer fire fighters are likely to be a greater menace than any fire could be. Enjoying themselves too much, they are. Please do sit down, I will make us a nice cup of tea in a minute, I only need to finish something first.”
Algy sat down at plain bench in front of the cottage and took a look around, while the lady disappeared back into the cottage. There were a couple of smaller buildings close by, and a small but charming garden. Algy let his eyes linger on the flower beds, crammed with classical cottage plants such as delphinium, foxglove, hollyhock and lavender. He half smiled when he spotted a geranium, not unlike the one he had bombed outside a German Aerodrome once when he was young and hot-headed.
”I’ll take a sunflower, any day,” he decided.
Suddenly he heard the unmistakable sound of an oink, and turned to scrutinize the nearby buildings.
The closest one had a small paddock, surrounded by a sturdy wooden fence.
”That’s a sty, if I ever saw one,” Algy murmured curiously, rose and limped over to the little building.
He stopped by the paddock and looked pensively at the animal inside. It reminded him of his early flying days when ”sausages” were a common sight in the air, tempting targets and potentially lethal at the same time. It was a pig, built along the lines of a balloon with four legs, a munching head and a tail, knotted in contentment. Algy was almost prepared to believe that she had taken to the sky on her own, gently flying away with the wind.
He bent down for a better view to check, and yes, it was no doubt a sow. Granted, the pig did not strike him as a nervous, high-strung animal prone to refuse her meals, as indicated by the picture that the ninth Earl of Emsworth had drawn. She seemed perfectly willing to feast on her recommen-ded fifty-seven thousand and eight hundred calories a day, and then some.
Having no real feeling of being in the clutches of desperate pig-nappers, Algy sadly shook his head and murmured: ”I bet there is a really simple, silly explanation for all this.”
”Enjoying the sight of her Highness, are you, love,” said a voice behind him, and the lady of the house came up to the fence carrying a large bucket, filled with potatoes.
”So I am,” agreed Algy politely. ”I suppose it is Lord Emsworth’s famous pig?”
”Of course it is. No pig like her in all of Shropshire,” said the woman, fondly. ”Won the silver medal three years in a row, haven’t you, Empress.”
”Quite. So how come she’s here, and not up by the castle? His lordship is a bit worried, you know.”
The woman, having deposited the content of the bucket in the throw, gave Algy a surprised glance and burst out in a hearty laugh.
”You don’t say,” she chuckled, when she had finished laughing. ”That Lord Emsworth, he would forget his own head if it wasn’t screwed on. My niece Monica is away for a few days, visiting with one of her sisters. I’m taking care of her Highness, but we agreed she would be just fine in my sty for a week, where it’s so much easier for me to do the job. Of course Lord Emsworth was told, but he forgets anything, given half the chance. I have been wondering why he hasn’t turned up even once to look at his precious pig. He can never stay away for more than an hour, or so they say. Anyway, Monica will be back the day after tomorrow.”
Chapter 7: The Conclusion
After lunch, Bertie roamed around Blandings Castle, impatiently waiting for news of the elusive Mr Jones, when he spotted a dusty van driving up the yew alley.
”Looks like a delivery, but one never knows,” he murmured to himself and kept an eye on the vehicle. When it drove to the courtyard, instead of choosing the small road that went to the back of the castle where deliveries to the kitchen were likely to be expected, he felt a surge of interest. And when the driver jumped out, went around and helped Algy out on the other side, he quickened his step.
He caught up with Algy just inside the front door.
”Where have you been, old boy? You really shouldn’t have left me like that!”
Algy limped to a chair and sat down carefully.
”I’ve found the pig, that’s what I’ve been doing.”
”Capital, old warrior! I always said you have a good head on your shoulders. How?”
”I spotted a broken twig in the forest, and from there I could see a faint impression of a pig’s hoof, so I continued to track through the forest. When I reached the road I found tracks from a rare sort of tyres, and the only vehicle with that particular kind of tyres around here is the van that makes deliveries to the local pubs. And the owner’s aunt Hilda happens to live in a cottage with an old pigsty.”
”Actually, I got a lift there. And a cup of tea. Quite a decent Darjeeling, as a matter of fact.”
Beach, who had heard Algy make his sensational announcement, lost no time in informing Lord Emsworth, and presently his lordship came running.
”Is it true, that you have found my pig?” he bleated.
”Yes, sir. She is safe and contented. Miss Simmons aunt Hilda is taking good care of the Empress, less than twenty minutes drive away.”
”Beach! My car!”
”I’m sorry, my lord, but Mr Galahad ordered that Voules should take the car and look for Mr Lacey. But I believe Thomas knows the essential facts about driving and the old car worked last year...” panted Beach, who had hurried after his master.
Lord Emsworth and Beach disappeared from the hall, to make the proper arrangements for transporting his lordship to his pig. Right on cue, the Hon. Galahad drifted into the room.
”Ah, there you are, my dear fellow,” said the newcomer in a cheery voice. ”The castle is alight with rumours that you have managed the impossible, and actually sniffed up Clarence’s pig. Good work!”
”Pure luck, believe me,” said Algy, dryly.
He looked thoughtfully at the bright, dapper elder man.
”I say, Mr Threepwoood...”
”Gally, dear boy, Gally! I remember you from when you were this high, you know. You parents stopped by here on their way back to Merioneth, from time to time.”
”Really, by Jove? I would love to hear about that,” broke in Bertie, with a cheerful smile.
”Gally, it strikes me as odd that a reasonably responsible pig-man...”
”Pig-girl, in this case.”
”Pig-girl would leave without making certain that someone else, besides Lord Emsworth, knew about this arrangement. She must have realized by now that he is a bit on the absentminded side.”
Gally removed his monocle and polished it thoughtfully.
”Now that you mention it, dear boy, it is a sound observation. I suppose that it is possible that she hinted something about it to Beach, or even to me. But we are all of us getting on in years. My memory is every bit as bad as my brother’s, I’m afraid. You can't understand what a handicap it is to get old, young man.”
The Hon. Galahad beamed.
”And what a stroke of luck, since fate brought you and your nice friend here to help us unravel the mystery. Unofficially, I haven't had this much fun since we put a luminescent pig in ”Plug” Basham’s bedroom.”
Algy stared into the twinkling eyes and decided it wasn’t worth the effort to try to get Galahad to confess anything out loud. One might as well try to talk a salmon out of the water.
”Quite,” he said. ”Any chance of some tea and sandwiches? I missed lunch, after all.”
”But of course, dear boy. If your friend will help you into the drawing-room, I will find someone to feed you.”
”Well, all’s well that ends well,” concluded Bertie, when they went into the amber drawing-room.
”There are still a few hours of daylight left, old boy. Do we pack up and fly home tonight?”
Algy sat down, looked out through the French windows over the garden and thought about the filing cabinet, the stuffy office by the smog-darkened Embankment and the sorry excuse for a patch of garden behind Mount Street.
”No,” he said decisively.
”No? What are we going to do?”
”I don't know about you, Bertie, but I'm going to enjoy the garden until dinner.”