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Title: Gleanings, Volume I : 1903-1909 Author: E. Phillips Oppenheim * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1300341h.html Language: English Date first posted: Jan 2013 Most recent update: Feb 2013 This eBook was produced by: Roy Glashan Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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gleanings, pl.n.— Things that have been gathered bit by bit—the gleanings of patient scholars. The American Heritage Dictionary.
THE hoarse striking of a distant clock broke in upon his meditations. Nine o'clock! His day of slavery had commenced. He laid down the book upon the wooden stall before which it was his custom to linger for a minute or two most mornings. Something had lodged in his throat; it might have been a sob! He had been so absorbed that he had forgotten where he stood, whither he was bound, it all came back to him with such grim yet facile insistence. London Bridge Station, disgorging its crowd of suburban business men, the heavy atmosphere of Bermondsey down the steps below— Bermondsey, with its nauseous odors, its smoke-stained warehouses, in one of which his own stool was awaiting him. It was disillusion, complete, entire—a veritable mud bath after the breath of roses.
For this book had spoken of very different things. It had spoken of heather-crowned hills, of gorse bushes yellow with sprinkled gold, of a west wind, fragrant, melodious in the pines; of flower-wreathed hedges and blossoming trees; of the song of birds and the glad murmuring of insects.
A dull flush stained his sallow cheeks. For once he lost his stoop and stood almost upright. It was the one moment of inspiration which seems to be the heritage even of the very meanest creature who ever walks the earth. The spirit of rebellion leaped up in him like a flame. His way lay, as it had ever done, down those fateful steps. Nine o'clock had struck, and 9 o'clock was his hour. He ignored it. He crossed the station yard and entered the booking hall.
"Then you won't tell me?"
"Won't tell you what?"
"Why you come here, in those clothes, and with no luggage. You must have some friends in Lidford."
He shook his head. "I never heard of the place before," he assured her. "I picked the name out from the time-table. It sounded like the country, and it was a long way off."
She looked at him with incredulity plainly written in her sedate, beautiful face. "Of course," she murmured, making a pretence at rising, "if you don't want to tell me—"
"Please don't go!" he interrupted, in alarm. "It is the truth, really! I know no one here. I only wanted to get away."
"To get away," she repeated, thoughtfully. "Do you mean that you have been doing something wrong?"
"Something wrong!" He repeated the words vaguely, with his eyes fixed upon her all the time. She had risen and was looking at him seriously. Her eyes were blue—such a wonderful blue, like the sky which he had been watching lazily all the afternoon, lying on his back in the deep cool grass; and her hair—ah! there was nothing which he had seen so beautiful as that! Then, warmed by her obvious gravity, he hastened to reassure her.
"No," he declared, "I have done nothing wrong. I have run away from my work, that is all. I read in a book this morning of the country, of the, sunshine, and the wind, and the birds, and—all this." He waved his arm aimlessly about. "I had to come—I couldn't help it."
"You have come from London—here?" she exclaimed.
"And your luggage?"
"I brought none."
"And your hat?"
"I threw it away. It was a very old, shiny hat, with ink on the bare places. What would have thought of me wandering about the fields in such a thing? It is bad enough as I am."
He glanced disparagingly down at his shabby black clothes and dark trousers, frayed at the ends, but carefully pressed and cleaned. She shook her head. She was a little bewildered.
"I am sure that your clothes are very nice." she said, "and you were wrong to throw away your hat. What are you going to do without one?"
"I have no idea," he answered. "But, then, I have no Idea what I am going to do with myself, so it really doesn't matter, does it?"
"I think." she said, deliberately, "that you are the very queerest person I ever met. Do go on talking to me! Tell me some more about—yourself."
"There is nothing interesting to tell," he assured her, a little wearily. "I would rather listen to you. Tell me some more about the birds."
She shook her head impatiently.
"What is your name, please?" she asked.
"Stephen Marwood," he answered. "I am an orphan, and a clerk in a warehouse. I get twenty-five shillings a week, and I add up figures and make out invoices from 9 till 6 in a cellar, with the gas burning all the time. I live in a long, ugly street, surrounded by miles of other streets. I am just one of a million. I work and I sleep, and I work again, and all the time my lungs are choked with fog and smoke and bad smells."
"It doesn't sound nice," she admitted.
"It isn't!" he assured her.
"And yet." she added, with a little, wistful sigh, "it is London."
"It is certainly London," he declared. "It might as well be hell."
She looked at him wonderingly. After all, he must be a little mad.
"And where," she asked, reverting once more to the practical, "are you going to sleep?"
"I don't know." he answered, dreamily, "and I don't care, if only I can smell this honeysuckle all night."
"And your tea and supper?" she asked, scornfully. "Will the scent of the honeysuckle satisfy your hunger as well?"
He closed his eyes for a moment. Removed from all distractions, he was forced to admit that he was hungry. "I shall go down to the inn." he decided. "I suppose there is an inn here. But you?"
She pointed downward to where the gray smoke rose in a straight, thin line from a red-tiled cottage. "There is no inn," she told him. "but my aunt will get you some tea, if you like. We often have parties."
"We will have it together, then?" he begged, eagerly.
"Perhaps," she answered, laughing.
A month afterward they met almost in the same place.
"Let us climb to the top and watch the reapers," he begged. "There is a field on the other side where the poppies are all in clusters, like specks of blood in a waving, yellow sea. I was watching them all this morning. By to-morrow they will be gone. The men seem to creep like insects, but all the time the grain falls."
She sighed. She was dressed in black. She looked thin and there were tears in her eyes. But more wonderful still was the change in him. He carried himself like a man; a healthy tan bad burnt his cheeks, his eyes were bright with health. Even his voice had acquired a new firmnesss. The drudge was no more. The yoke of his servitude was cast aside. To-morrow he might starve. His small savings, in fact, were almost spent. To-day, at least, he was a man.
"What strange fancies you have!" she declared. "The farmers hate the poppies, and these overgrown hedges which you admire so much ought all to be cut down and trimmed."
He laughed. "Give me the honeysuckle and the creepers," he declared. "I have seen enough of the ugly and the useful to last me all my life. Come, it is only a few steps further. Give me your hand."
Breathless, they reached the summit of the hill and the shelter of the little grove of pine trees. She sat down with her back to the trunk of one of them. He threw himself by her side. Below them the slumbering landscape, warm and mellow in the afternoon sunshine, and in their faces th« west wind.
"I believe in heaven," he murmured. "I have found it."
A delight, almost a fervor, was in his eyes as they wandered on and on to where the limits of his vision ended in a faint blue mist. She looked at him as one who seeks to read a book written in a strange language.
"I do not understand," she said. "It is beautiful here. I know, because everyone says so, and it is pleasant to sit and watch it all for a while. But I have sat here all my life, and I am weary of it."
"Weary!" he repeated, in amazement. "Weary of this country, of this life!"
"Sick to death of it!" she answered, with a vigor which was almost bluntness. "Who can sit and look at one picture all their lives, however beautiful? The fields and the hedges change only from winter to summer, from summer to winter. And the people change never."
He pointed to the little graveyard away in the valley. "It is not true," he declared. "They have their joys and their sorrows also. There was merriment enough at the harvest home the other day, and the whole village wept over that last little mound in the churchyard."
She shook her head impatiently. A strand or two of her hair was loosened; the sun flecked it with gold. He realized then that she was beautiful. She sat there like a self-enthroned goddess.
"The people are all very dull and very ignorant," she said. "Their lives are narrow; they sleep and they eat, and they die—but they do not live. They never live."
He was alarmed. "Go on," he said, in a low tone. "You, have something in your mind?"
"It is true," she admitted. "While aunt was alive, I was a prisoner. Now, I am free. I want to escape."
"Escape—from here?" he murmured. "Why, this is Paradise!"
She laughed softly, but with her mirth was mingled a subtle note of mockery.
"You are a very foolish person." she said, "you do not know what ambition is. I do not want to sit upon the bank all my life."
"There are many who drown," he murmured.
"I will take the risk," she answered.
All the joy and freshness seemed to fade away from his face. Something of the old haggard despair came back to him. This was the end, then, of all his dreams.
"Yesterday," he said, in a low tone, "I walked to Market Deeping. I got a situation with Sheppards', the auctioneers, and Mrs. Green, in the village, has promised me a room."
Her lips curled a little. "If it satisfies you—" she began.
He interrupted her. "Don't mock me!" he cried, roughly. "Nothing satisfies me if you go away. You know that."
"That is foolish," she said, "for I am most surely going away."
"Yes. I have written to my cousin there."
"It would have broken your aunt's heart," he said.
"While she was alive I obeyed her," the girl answered, defiantly. "Now she is gone my life, is my own."
"Yes." he murmured, "yes. Our lives are all our own. See how the corn falls, Esther. . . . They have reached the last belt, and all the poppies are gone."
At first she wrote to him. He carried her letters with him backward and forward, reading them, studying them, always treasuring them. Save only for this one sorrow , the sorrow of her absence and his constant anxiety concerning her, his life had become a joy to him. His work was simple, and he did it better than it had ever been done before. His little office was bright and clean, his window looked out upon a quaint old cobbled market-place. In front was a garden, bright even in these late autumn days with simple flowers. Backward and forward he walked to and from his work, and the wind and rain and sun seemed each in their turn the sweetest things he had known. He grew in stature and in breadth: the latent possibilities of his manhood asserted themselves. In the little village he became a popular person. He attempted gardening, and every one was willing to help him with advice and bulbs, and the promise of seeds. He even ventured to discuss the crops with the farmers whom he met on the way . He remembered that he had once, before the evil days, called himself a Christian, and one Sunday morning he found his way to the village church. He came out with a curious sense of removal from that part of his life which was still something of a nightmare to him. Henceforth the memory of it never troubled him. He had come into real and intimate kinship with these simple folk among whom chance had brought him.
And then her letters ceased. He wrote and wrote again, but there came no reply. He bore it as well as he could, and then, one day, a chance remark brought the stinging color into his cheeks, and his heart for a moment stood still. He applied for leave of absence and went to London.
The address which she had given him was No. 127 West-st., Edgware Road. But when he reached it he felt again for the letter in his pocket. No. 127 was a public house. Yet that was the number at the head of her letter. He pushed open the swing doors and entered.
There was a smell of stale beer and fresh sawdust. An unwholesome looking youth, collarless and unwashed, was cleaning the stains of beer pots from the marble-topped tables. A couple of carmen were wrangling in a corner, a dissolute looking person in seedy black was drinking at the counter and carrying on a desultory conversation with a young person, behind the bar. Marwood addressed himself to her.
"Can you tell me if Miss Day lives here?" he asked. The young person looked at him curiously.
"Used to!" she answered. "She's gone away now."
It was true, then. Esther had really lived in a place like this. He looked about him wondering, and back at the young person behind the bar, who seemed undecided whether to resent his scrutiny or to encourage him as a possible admirer.
"Can you tell me—her present address?", he asked.
The young person jerked her head toward a swing door, leading apparently into an inner bar. "Don't know," she said. "I dersay Mrs. Molesworth can tell you. She's in there."
Marwood pushed open the swing door. A stout, florid woman stood behind a circular counter flanked with a gorgeous array of mirrors and glasses. She was apparently engaged in the task of turning sundry black bottles upside down and holding them up to the light to estimate their contents.
"I beg your pardon." he said. "I believe that Miss Day has been staying here. Can you give me her present address?"
The woman set down the particular bottle which she was examining and looked at him fixedly.
"And what might be your business with Miss Day?" she asked.
"My name is Marwood," he said. "I knew Miss Day down in Somerset."
The lady nodded her head vigorously. She became, if possible, a little redder in the face.
"Then all I can say is that it's a great pity you didn't keep her in Somerset." she answered. "What's the use of a girl like her, with scarcely a rag to her back, coming up here with such notions? Wouldn't do this, and wouldn't do that—as particular and finicky all the time as you please. Drat the girl, I say, niece or no niece!"
"I am sorry," Marwood said timidly. "I daresay it was a great change for her up here. Can you tell me where I shall find her?"
"No, I cannot," the lady answered, as though incensed at the question. "And, what's more, if I could I wouldn't, and good-day to you, sir."
She swung around and disappeared through a door leading to an inner room.
Marwood left the place with hot cheeks. Some shadow of the humiliation which he could well imagine had been her lot seemed also to have fallen upon him. For two days and two nights he sought her in all manner of places and thoroughfares. Then chance befriended him. She was standing beneath a lamp post, and he was in the shadows. There was no one to see the tears which filled his eyes, to hear the sob which rose hot in his throat. She was tall and thin and pale. Her eyes, were larger, there was a pinched look about her features. Her clothes were shabby. He thanked God for that. She was talking with a man—a gentleman, he seemed to be, well dressed, good humored, debonaire. Marwood listened.
"And how does the show go?" the man asked her.
"Oh! I am no judge," she answered, wearily. "It seems stupid enough from the wings. I am only in the chorus, you know. I have nothing to do, really."
"We are going to alter all that," the man said, swinging his cane. "I shall speak to Randall and hammer a small part out of him, somehow. But, by Jove, Miss Day, you look awfully pale!"
Then Marwood saw her stumble for a moment, as though she.were dizzy. She recovered herself almost immediately.
"I am—quite well," she said. "A little tired, perhaps."
The man suddenly threw away his cigarette.
"Look here, Miss Day," he said, "you've done a very foolish thing! You've missed your luncheon. You girls are always forgetting your meals. I never do. Come along. No, I insist!"
Her faint protestations were of no avail, and Marwood felt the blood run cold in his veins, for he had seen for a second what no one can ever see and mistake—the wolfish gleam of hunger in her eyes, come and gone like a flash, but more eloquent than any spoken words. Then the restaurant doors before which they had been standing opened and they disappeared Inside. Marwood waited. It was an hour before they came out. The transformation in her was amazing. The lines seemed to have been smoothed from her face: there was color in her cheeks and light In her eyes. Marwood, who had been standing on the opposite side of the street, started to cross the way, but he was too late. Somewhat unwillingly, as it seemed to him, her companion hurried her into a hansom, and followed.
Marwood caught a glimpse of the man's face under the gas-lamp—it was sufficient. When the cab drew up before a row of flats a little west of Pall Mall he was already turning the corner. He saw Esther alight, hold, out her hand: he could see her hesitation, her reluctant footsteps. He caught the man's eager tone as he bent over her hand—
"For a moment—not more than five minutes. I must show you the little play—and I believe that the part would suit you admirably. We will keep the hansom, it you like. I will send you home."
Marwood called out, but his voice sounded weak even to himself. The door was closed.
He leaned for a few moments against the palings. He was out of breath, and to him there had been something tragic in the disappearance of those two, the man and the girl, behind that closed door. His imagination ran rife. He saw hideous things. Almost he was ready to creep away—to escape—to forget. Then, as he returned to a more sane state of mind, he saw her as she came first to him, her hands clasped behind, her head. thrown back as she walked blithely through the clover-scented meadows, humming some forgotten tune. With an oath, he trod the flags and rang the bell. A liveried servant let him in and led the way toward the lift.
"Which floor, sir?" he asked.
"I want the gentleman's rooms who has just come in with the lady," Marwood answered, his hand in his pocket.
"Mr. Borrodale—fourth floor, sir," the man remarked, closing the gates of the lift.
The man servant in plain black livery blandly denied Mr. Borrodale's presence. His coat and hat on the hall table, however, emboldened Marwood. He pushed his way in.
"It's no use; you can't see the governor!" the man declared, angrily. "Out you go!"
The veneer of civility had departed. He attempted the bully. Marwood heard a woman's cry, and he struck the man on the mouth. Then with an oak chair he thundered upon the closed door of the room from which the cry had come. A man swore and a woman sobbed. Marwood sent a panel crashing out of the door, which was suddenly thrown open. He caught one glimpse of her face, pale and terror-stricken, as she flitted by. He would have followed, but master and servant were too many for him. The latter struck him from behind, and he spent the night in a hospital. When he sought her again it was in vain.
So Marwood returned to his country life and his routine work. One day, old Mr. Sheppard, his employer, called him into his private office.
"Marwood." he said bluntly. "I am getting on in years, and I want a rest. I have saved a little and I have only my daughter to think of. Will you take the business—and marry her?"
Marwood sat still and thought. He watched the dusty floor specked into gold by a long shaft of sunlight, and he saw things there which the four walls of that room had never held. Presently he looked up.
"I want a month's holiday," he said. "When I return I will answer you."
The old man grunted, but gave his consent. Once more Marwood travelled up to London, and renewed his search. This time he succeeded very easily. Esther Day was well known now. Her name and her pictures were in all the papers. She was acting at the Frivolity, and she had made a "hit."
He called upon her, and he felt his courage oozing away. He felt the slow dissipation of the one romance of his life as they talked together. She was well dressed, prosperous, more beautiful than ever, with all the light smartness of the modern Londoner. To their last strange meeting she made no allusion. She gave him tea, and showed him her new poodle. She talked of theatrical matters as one in the know—and to him it was jargon. When he stood up to go, he made one effort to break down the barriers which seemed to have grown up between them.
"And you have, found," he asked, holding her hand for a moment, "the things you sought for?"
"I have learned wisdom," she answered. "I have learned how much to expect."
He fancied that she hurried him away. As he left the door a brougham drove up, and a young man alighted—a young man of the type he knew nothing of—immaculate in dress and person, good-looking, languid. Marwood went back to the country that night.
Yet he delayed his answer, though old Sheppard grew more and more impatient every day. Marwood passed through a curious phase of his emotional life. Mary Sheppard was pretty in her way, and waited only for him to speak. Yet he hung back with something of the feeling of a man called upon to sign his own death warrant. An impending sense of the finality of life seemed to him to be inevitably coupled with the decision which the old man and the girl were now awaiting with almost obvious eagerness. He had no great aspirations, nothing which could rank as ambitions. Yet behind the trend of his daily life, his ordinary, well-performed tasks and simple pleasures, he felt at times the dim, unrealized presence of greater things, a more quickening and satisfying life. Sometimes, in the night, he sat up in bed and stretched out his arms—for what he scarcely knew. He wandered up on to the hilltop and watched the reapers. Some shadow of a far distant, impossible dream seemed to still torment him with intangible and unsatisfying longings. And all the time the old man and the girl waited. In the end they had their way.
She came into his little office—a curiously incongruous presence in her fashionable clothes, bringing with her the subtle air of the city and of all those nameless things, the presence of which had so estranged him on his last visit to her. But this time he had no consciousness of them, for she looked into his eyes and it was the look for which he had prayed so often.
"My friend." she murmured, "you were right. I am weary of it all. When you came to me I was brutal. I owe you so much, and I wanted to escape the debt. I have come to pay it, if I can."
Her hands had stolen into his. It was, after all, like a dream—a beautiful dream poignant with unutterable bitterness.
"Come out with me." she murmured. "I want you to take me through the meadows and up to the hill where we watched the reapers. Will you come?"
He let fall her hands, and a great sob rose to his throat.
"I cannot!" he said.
A fear stole Into her eyes.
"Don't tell me that you have changed!" she pleaded.
"I have never changed," he answered gravely; "but I am married to Mary Sheppard. It was her father's last wish, and it seemed to matter so little."
She laughed—a curious, dry, mirthless laugh.
"I hope that you will be happy," she said. "Somehow, I never thought of this. And, after all, my coming was only a whim. I must act to-night, and to-morrow night—and all the days of my life."
He heard the rustling of her gown as she left him. He heard the office door swing to and close. He sat on his hard chair, and once more he looked steadily with fixed, sightless eyes into that long shaft of golden dust. Then his head sank lower and lower—into his hands. He leaned forward upon the desk. Before him stretched the long, level vista of weary days—the treadmill of an unlived life. Some one shouted to him from the top of the stairs. It was like the sentence of his doom—
"Stephen, are you coming up to dinner or are you not?. Everything will be cold!"
He rose slowly and ascended the stairs.
"Mr. Anderson, I am sure. I recognised you directly. What a strange chance that we should come across one another in this out-of-the-way part of the world!"
I had risen to my feet, of course, immediately she had taken me by surprise by halting in front of my small table. It was not possible to avoid taking the delicate long hand with its white fingers so frankly held out to me. We shook hands solemnly while I ransacked my brain for some coherent speech of apologetic denial. And then something in the expression of her wonderful brown eyes, a faint meaningful contraction of the eyebrows as she looked straight at me, altered the whole situation. She knew quite well that my name was not Anderson; she was perfectly well aware of the indubitable fact that these were the first words which we had ever exchanged.
I mumbled something idiotic, and she turned to glance down the room. The old man with whom she had entered, a decrepit, weak-faced, but aristocratic-looking, Englishman was shaking hands with an Italian, whom I had been told was a native of the place, and who had evidently come in to dine. They were out of earshot, and for the moment were not observing us.
She leaned over towards me.
"I have seen you here for the last few evenings," she said, hurriedly. "Tell me your real name."
"John P. Shrive," I answered. "I am an American."
The corners of her lips twitched slightly, and those wonderful eyes, which for several evenings I had done little else save sit and admire from a respectful distance, were filled with laughter.
"So I thought," she answered. "I wonder—I wonder whether you would care to do me a service?"
My words tripped one another up. I was incoherent, but earnest. For two days I had been vainly trying to find some excuse to speak to her. I had attempted a conversation with her father, and suffered the ignominy of a chilling repulse. A service. There was a very little in the world which I would not have attempted for her.
"After dinner, then," she said, "do not sit out in the front. You will find some seats at the back of the house. Order your coffee there, and I will come when I can. And remember this. If my father or Count Perlitto should speak to you don't be drawn into any conversation at all. Be rude to them if you can. Don't tell them anything about yourself or your business."
"Count Perlitto," I observed, "is the little dark gentleman with the brushed-up moustache?"
"Yes! But it is my father who is most likely to ask you questions. Please don't think that this is a conspiracy, or anything very terrible. I will explain it all to you presently."
With a little smile and a nod she turned away and joined the two men at the other end of the room. I ordered double my usual quantity of wine and began my dinner.
Now, for two evenings I had dined alone at this same little table, which I had carefully chosen because it afforded me the most satisfactory view of the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in my life. She was tall and very slight, her hair was lightish brown, and here and there a glint of gold, and she had that French trick of laughing with her eyes which I never could resist. She wore delightfully cool muslin gowns, and about her whole person, her jewellery, her shoes, and the care of her hands, there was a certain inexplicable daintiness which was as much a part of her as that delightful little laugh which seemed to me the most musical thing I had ever heard in my life. But to-night things were different. I myself had become an object of the most surprising interest to her two companions. I saw the girl lean forward and talk to them as she trifled with some new and highly-seasoned hors d'oeuvre, and the effect of her words was instantaneous. Her father fumbled for a moment with an enormous horn-rimmed monocle, having successfully fixed which in his left eye, he turned and transfixed me with a most tremendous stare. The little Italian displayed a similar interest in slightly different fashion. He kept darting sidelong glances towards me, showing his white teeth and curling his black moustache, and all the while talking in most animated fashion to his two companions. This sort of thing went on more or less during the entire progress of the meal, to my great discomfort. No sooner did I raise my eyes to steal one of my customary glances towards the young lady than either the horn monocle with its blank, unwavering stare, or the little Italian's keen black eyes were fixed upon me. Between curiosity and annoyance, my dinner was completely spoilt. I missed a course, and was in the act of rising when I saw the whole party hurriedly leave their places and bear down upon me.
Her father, who only yesterday had responded to some attempted advances on my part with truly British hauteur, stopped at my table and smiled genially upon me.
"If you are taking your coffee outside this evening," he said, "will you join us? This is my friend, Count Perlitto, who is a large landowner in the neighbourhood; my daughter I believe you have already met."
I glanced towards her and found a decided negative engraven upon her frowning forehead. On the whole, though I was burning with curiosity to know what the whole thing meant, I was glad to have an opportunity of asserting my independence.
"I'm very much obliged to you, sir, for the suggestion," I said, "but I'm afraid it's quite impossible. I have a great deal of writing to do to-night, and the mails out here are a trifle scanty."
I distinctly saw the two men exchange rapid glances as I mentioned the writing.
The Count interposed. "The writing. Oh, yes," he said, "but afterwards? The evening is positively too fine to be spent within the doors—beneath the roof—ah, you understand? Besides, you are a tourist, is it not so, from a great country? We would wish, we who live here, to show hospitality to those who come so far from the large cities where all the sightseers find their way. Here it is very different. Here you see the true Italy. You will do us the honour, signor? There is some liqueur, not of the house, which is to be recommended."
Guidance was before me in the frown, now even more forbidding.
"Very sorry, Count," I said firmly. "It is quite impossible for me to join you this evening."
He departed with a polite expression of regret. The girl smiled at me over her shoulder, which I took to mean that so far I had done the correct thing. I sat down in my chair, poured out a glass of wine and tried to puzzle out where I stood. The Count, who was, as I well knew, the great landowner of the place, and whose aversion to tourists was a byword, and who had several times passed me on the road with an insolent stare, was suddenly more than commonly anxious to make my acquaintance. The father of the young lady who had been the object of my respectful, but vehement, admiration, after repulsing my advances in the most freezing manner, was displaying at least a similar anxiety. The change in both of them dated from the moment when the young lady herself had directed their attention towards me. The undoubted inference then was that she had told them something or other concerning me which had aroused their interest. I determined to go and find out what it was.
The place to which I had been directed was deserted when I arrived there, and deservedly so. There were a few iron chairs, a patch of scanty grass, a long line of outbuildings, and beyond the sloping vineyards. I lit a cigarette, but decided not to advertise my presence there by ordering coffee. In a very few moments I heard the soft rustle of advancing skirts, and she came round the corner of the grey stone building.
Whatever this matter was in which I was becoming involved, it apparently savoured more of comedy than tragedy, to judge by the suppressed laughter in the girl's face. I wiped the dust from a chair with my handkerchief, and she sat down beside me with the utmost composure.
"I suppose, Mr.—Shrive," she began, "you have made up your mind that I am a most forward young person."
"If you want me to tell you exactly what I think of you," I answered, moving a little nearer, "all I can say is that I'm ready to go straight ahead."
She nodded composedly.
"Yes," she said, "you look like that sort of person."
"What sort of person?" I asked.
"The sort of person who goes straight ahead. It's a characteristic of your country-people, isn't it?"
"When one's mind is made up," I said, firmly, touching, as though by accident, the back of her chair.
"There are some necessary explanations," she murmured. "Afterwards—"
She looked at me. I withdrew my hand.
"Please go on," I said.
"My father's name is Derwent," she said. "He has come out here to look at a silver mine belonging to Count Perlitto. He wants to buy it."
"Yes," I said, encouragingly. "The Count looks like the sort who have silver mines to sell. We get plenty of them out in Boston."
"My father thinks he is a good business man," she continued. "As a matter of fact, he has lost nearly all his money speculating in things which he doesn't understand a bit. He has about twenty-thousand pounds left. That is all we have to live upon. The Count is asking twenty-thousand pounds for this mine. If my father buys it we shall be penniless."
"Sure the mine's no good?" I asked.
"Absolutely," she answered, with the first note of impatience in her tone. "Ask yourself what the probabilities are. My father knows nothing about mining himself, and he has not even an expert's opinion upon it. He goes entirely upon the Count's word, and what the Count chooses to show him. Why, the mine isn't being worked—hasn't been worked for thirty years."
"Perhaps," I suggested, "the Count hasn't the capital to work it. Labour out here's mighty cheap, but up-to-date mining takes a lot of money."
She looked at him with a faint frown. The smile had gone from her lips.
"The mine is worthless," she said, simply. "I am sure of it. I have read up its past history, and if ever there were silver there at all it has been exhausted long ago. But even granted that there is a chance in favour of the mine—which there isn't—I want you to remember that this twenty- thousand pounds is all that stands between us and beggary."
"In that case," I said, decidedly, "your father is mad even to think about the deal."
"I knew," she said, "that you would agree with me. You can understand, can you not, the trouble I am in? My father's mind is practically made up. He means to buy the mine. I saw a telegram to his lawyers, ordering them to realise our last securities. The moment the money comes, my father will sign the deed of purchase."
"Has he no friends," I asked, "whose opinion he would take?"
"Not one," she answered. "He has always been so foolish that I think everyone is tired of advising him. He always goes his own way in the long run. He is so painfully obstinate. I do not think that there is anybody who can help me—except you."
Her hand fell upon my coat-sleeve, and mine promptly closed over it. She made no movement to draw it away. I felt that I would have pitched the Count down one of his own shafts with pleasure if she had asked me.
"What can I do?" I asked.
"I will tell you," she said. "A plan came into my head when I saw you sitting there alone this evening. Somehow—you looked helpful, and—I had an idea that—you know you behaved rather badly, haven't you?"
"You mean that I have looked at you a good deal," I answered. "I couldn't help it, Miss Derwent, indeed. It wasn't impertinence. I just felt that I wanted to know you badly, and the next best thing was to sit in my corner and watch you. You are rather nice to watch."
"Am I?" she asked, softly.
"You couldn't give me greater happiness," I said, "than to help you—if, indeed, that is possible. You see, helping implies a reward, doesn't it?"
"You want bribing, then?" she asked, with affected coldness.
"Call it an incentive," I answered.
"At least—if it is all I can get—a word of gratitude from you will be worth all the trouble you can give me."
"Is that all—you will expect?" she asked softly.
I felt my heart thumping against my ribs. I wanted to raise her fingers to my lips, and draw her close to me, and I dared do nothing of the sort. I knew well that she was half playing with me, that she permitted herself this badinage because she had decided rightly or wrongly that I was a person to be trusted.
"If I dared to ask all that I would wish to claim," I said, earnestly, "I am afraid that you would say that my service was not worth the price."
An incomprehensible smile played about her lips. I have often wondered since exactly what she was thinking of at that moment.
"Supposing," she suggested, softly, "that we waive the question of incentive—or reward."
"I will willingly leave it," I said, "to your generosity."
She sighed. Her tone when she spoke again was more practical. I felt that a delightful little interlude was over.
"To go back to my plan," she said. "What I want you to do is very simple. I want you to transform yourself into one of those creatures who go about and report on mines—experts you know."
I looked at her steadily.
"Ah!" I said.
"In fact," she continued, "so far as my father and the Count are concerned, you are one already. I told them that your real name was Anderson, that I met you at Mrs. Murgatroyd's, and that you were something to do with mining. You must have noticed their sudden change of manner towards you."
"Yes," I admitted, "I noticed that."
"Of course," she continued, "you won't want to give yourself away all at once. Keep up the tourist as long as you can. But in the end I want you to let father think that you have been sent here by another syndicate to report upon the property, and that your decision is most unfavourable. That ought to stop him buying it, and, in short, that is my plan."
I remained silent. I felt her eyes upon me.
"Do you mind?" she asked timidly. "Is it too difficult? Or perhaps you don't like saying what isn't true?"
"I don't mind a bit," I assured her. "I think that your plan is wonderful, and I will do my best to carry it out."
"I shall never be able to thank you enough," she murmured. "Poverty is hard enough as it is, but destitution!"
I took her hand again. It was soft and cool, and faintly responsive. I felt that I would have lied till I was black in the face for her. But I wondered—
The Count was the first upon the field. He caught me smoking an early cigarette in the cobbled square of the little town, and at once waved his hand in friendly salute.
"Ah!" he cried, as though the sight of me were some unexpected boon conferred upon him by Providence. "It is Mr. Anderson, is it not? Good morning! Good morning!"
"My name," I answered, "is Shrive. John P. Shrive!"
The Count shrugged his shoulders. Suddenly he came close up to my side and looked round to be sure that we were alone.
"Come," he said, "you are an American; you are a people of great affairs; you like, I think, that one talks business with you. Whatever your name may be, you are here to make a report upon my mine—the Great Fortuna Mine. Is it not so?"
"My dear Count," I said, "I guess you are a long way off this time. I know no more about mines than a babe unborn. I'm junior partner and buyer in a firm of dry goods men in Boston, and I'm on my way to Genoa to buy silk. I just stopped over a day or so to get a bit of your country at first hand, and to see your pictures."
The Count listened to me with marked impatience, tapping his leg all the while with his long riding whip. When I had finished he smiled at me serenely.
"Very good, very good, my dear sir. I understand perfectly that it is necessary for you to act secretly. But I will be frank with you. The mine is as good as sold."
I was careful to let an instantly smothered little exclamation of dismay escape me. The Count heard it with a smile of triumph.
"To whom?" I asked.
"To the Englishman, Mr. Derwent," the Count answered promptly. "I am quite open with you—as you see. I cannot treat with your principals, whoever they may be."
"My principals," I answered, "don't buy mines. We deal in dry goods."
"Yes! Yes!" he ejaculated impatiently. "I know all about that. But let us talk like sensible men, eh? The mine being sold, your report is useless, is it not so? Come, you shall not have your labour for nothing. I will buy it from you."
"If the mine is already sold," I remarked, "of what value can my report be—supposing I have made one?"
"As good as sold," he interrupted. "It is the formalities only which await completion."
"Then I still do not see," I said, "of what value my supposed report could be."
The Count fixed me with his little black eyes.
"For the purposes of business," he said slowly, "no! It is not worth the paper on which it is written. But I will show you how frank I am. Mr. Derwent, he, too, knows that you are Mr. Anderson, the mining expert. He will come to you for your verdict. He will, perhaps, try to buy your report. Now, you have had no opportunity to inspect the property properly. It may be—I cannot tell—that you have even prepared an unfavourable report. If so I will buy it from you. I do not wish to cause the good Mr. Derwent any uneasiness."
"The uneasiness," I remarked, "will come later on."
"What you mean?" he asked, quickly.
"I know nothing about mines," I said. "I am a dry goods man. But somehow I don't take much stock in the Fortuna Mine."
"For how much you not say that again?" he asked. "Not any more at all. For how much you say it is a good mine?"
The little Count had got there at last. I pursed up my lips and stood as though thinking. The Count watched my face anxiously.
Fortunately for me intervention came in the shape of Mr. Derwent and his daughter, who called to us from the front of the hotel. I could not but admire the ease and grace with which the Count cloaked his annoyance. He took me by the arm and let me across the square, all smiles and bows.
"For how much, dear friend?" he whispered in my ear.
I shook my head.
"You're rushing this a bit, Count," I answered. "I'll think it over."
The Count muttered something which sounded very much like "damn," but was probably something worse. A moment afterwards we were shaking hands with the Derwents.
Miss Derwent, in a broad-brimmed picture hat trimmed with roses, and a white flannel gown, looked more charming than ever. Her greeting, too, with its delicate insinuation of our secret understanding, was exactly what I had looked for. She had talked to me in undertones of the beauty of the place, the clearness of the sky, the wonderful early sunlight in which the distant vine-covered hills were bathed. But of the other things which lay between us she made no mention, nor did she attempt in any way to draw me apart from the others.
Our déjeuner—I seemed to be included in the meal as a matter of course—was quite a success. The Count chatted gaily and well of the beauties of the country where, he told us, with a little burst of pardonable pride, his family had ruled for ten centuries. He spoke of art and the things appertaining to it with the ease and fluency of one who was master of his subject. Of his mine, too, he spoke vaguely as the repository of hidden treasures which would long ago have been dragged to light but for his love of the quiet countryside.
"You English," he said, "and you," he added, addressing me, "you do not understand that feeling. It is well for you that you do not. You are a utilitarian people. It is you who work hand-in-hand to-day with the great forces of the world. But with us here it is different. We are guilty of the terrible weakness of leaning upon our past. The people round here are my people. I want to see them husbandmen and wine-growers, not miners with pale faces, sowing the seeds of weakness in the next generation. I love to see my hillsides covered with vineyards as they have ever been. I do not love the tall shafts, the roar of machinery, the country made black and scarred with the entrails torn out of the earth. And yet these things must come," he murmured, leaning back and lighting a cigarette. "For many years I have struggled against it, but no longer. Ah, it is not possible."
I looked across at the Count with unfeigned admiration. His beautiful eyes were filled with sadness. He leaned back in his chair, looking out upon the distant hillside as though already those shafts had come into existence. Miss Derwent permitted herself the faintest of smiles as she glanced across at me. Mr. Derwent seemed intent upon the great dish of strawberries which the Count had sent down from his own villa.
After breakfast we were served with coffee and some delicate green liqueur, and then Mr. Derwent took his hand in the game. He began by moving his chair close to mine, and making clumsy efforts to get rid of the Count and his daughter. At this sort of game the Count was his master, and with very faint help from Veronica (I knew her name now), his attempts for some time were unsuccessful. At last, however, in obedience, as I suspect, to a vigorous under-the-table injunction from her father, Veronica rose languidly to her feet.
"I am afraid," she said, "that I am in an extravagant frame of mind this morning. After all, I think that I must have that ivory cross. Count, will you come and interpret for me?"
The Count rose to his feet with much less than his usual gallantry.
"Will you not charge me with the commission, signorina," he said. "My shop-people, when they see an English lady or an American, are, I fear, inclined to be exorbitant. Leave it to me, and I will promise you the cross at much less cost."
Veronica hesitated. Mr. Derwent interposed.
"Nonsense, my dear!" he exclaimed. "I have seen the cross, and I think the price very reasonable. Go with the Count at once and secure it. I insist! It is only fair that we should spend a little money in a town where we have been so well entertained."
Veronica lifted her white skirts just far enough to show me a delightful little foot, and turned toward the Count. It was not possible for him to hesitate any longer. He made a vigorous effort, however, to include me in the party.
"You, too, Mr. Anderson," he said passing his arm through mine. "Oh, I insist. There are, indeed, some valuable curios to be seen. It is an opportunity which you must not miss."
I am convinced that Mr. Derwent would have detained me by main force had I not saved him the trouble. I rose from my chair as Veronica passed, but excused myself with some emphasis.
"Sorry, Count," I said, "but I'm afraid I'm very unlike most of my countrypeople in that respect. I've no use for curios. I like my ornaments and my furniture clean and modern. I'll keep Mr. Derwent company."
The Count threw me a look over his shoulder, evidently intended to remind me of our uncompleted bargain. Veronica nodded to me from underneath her parasol, and crossed the square at a pace which the Count must have found maddeningly slow. Mr. Derwent leaned over towards me and opened the ball straight off.
"I—er—was hoping to have a few minutes' conversation with you this morning, Mr. Anderson," he said, slowly adjusting his eye-glass. "From something which my daughter let drop in—er—the course of conversation, I gathered that you were to some extent interested in—in short, in mining properties."
"You wanted to ask me," I suggested, "about this mine of the Count's?"
"Exactly!" he admitted. "Now I am free to confess that I am not a mining expert. I came out to have a look at the property, meaning—er—to have an independent opinion in case I thought it likely to interest me. I find, however, that there is no room for any delay in the matter. Our good friend the Count—very decent, hospitable sort of fellow he seems—is, between ourselves, hard pressed. He means to sell, and to sell at once. He says that his brother is even now in London with a power of attorney. However that may be, it is certain that I have no time to get an expert out. I must rely upon my own judgment and the Count's honesty."
"Of the two—" I murmured.
"Eh?" Mr. Derwent interrupted.
I stirred my coffee vigorously and disclaimed speech. Mr. Derwent glared at me from behind his monocle.
"It occurred to me," he went on, "that you might in this dilemma be inclined to help me with a word of advice. I am aware," he went on with a little wave of the hand, "that such a course is a little unusual. I refrain from asking you any personal questions. What your position here may be I do not know. I do not enquire. It is not my business. You may be—er—representing other interests. I will take my risk of that. I have ventured to make out this cheque for one hundred guineas;" he pushed it towards me. "Consider me for the moment as a client. Is the Great Fortuna Mine worth twenty-thousand pounds?"
I tore the cheque into small pieces. "It is not worth twenty-thousand pence," I answered.
He suddenly dropped his eye-glass and leaned forward. I scarcely knew him. A certain vagueness of expression was gone. He spoke and looked like a wide-awake astute man.
"Come," he said, "I don't like your tearing that cheque up. You could have given me value for the money, and no man should be ashamed to take what he has earned."
"No man," I answered, "can serve two masters. That's a mighty true saying, Mr. Derwent."
"There's only one thing I'm afraid of about you," he said, eyeing me keenly. "I can't be altogether sure that Veronica hasn't been getting at you."
"Do you allude," I asked guardedly, "to your daughter?"
He ignored my question, but I could see that his suspicions were growing.
"For some reason or other," he remarked thoughtfully, "Veronica is dead set against this deal. I never knew her to interfere in a business matter before. I can't understand it at all."
"Your daughter," I said gravely, "may surely be pardoned if she takes some interest in a matter concerning her so closely."
"But for the life of me," he protested, "I cannot see how it does concern her."
"Speculations such as this," I said severely, "may be the pastime of the rich; but to gamble with the shreds of one's fortune is unpardonable."
He looked at me in amazement.
"You—I—but you must be acquainted with my daughter, I suppose. You must have some idea of what you are talking about?"
"Naturally," I answered tersely.
"Then upon my word, for an intelligent young man," he said, "you're about the best hand at talking nonsense I've come across."
"You ought to be a judge," I answered. "However, for your daughter's sake, here's the best and safest tip you've ever had. Let the mine alone."
"I'm inclined to think you're right," he admitted with a sigh. "It is a risk, especially if your people, whoever they might be, are 'bears.' I hate to come all this way and do no business, though."
"Why don't you stay at home, then," I said, severely, "and for your daughter's sake put the little you have in a good railroad stock?"
He set down the liqueur glass which he had been in the act of raising to his lips, and looked at me for a moment in utter astonishment. Then he leaned back in his chair and laughed till the tears came into his eyes.
"I don't know who you are," he said weakly, "but you're the funniest young man I ever came across. Never mind. I believe you're right about the mine. We'll start back to London this morning."
I was perhaps as astonished as he was, but I said nothing, for the Count and Veronica were close at hand. The former looked at us both anxiously.
"Come," he called out, "we have triumphed. The ivory cross is ours. And now, if you are ready, Mr. Derwent, my carriage is here. The notary will be at my villa in an hour's time."
Mr. Derwent rose to his feet.
"One moment, Count," he said.
They stepped aside. Veronica turned to me. There was the most becoming little pink flush upon her cheek.
"Well?" she exclaimed.
"I think that your father is persuaded," I said. "He will not buy. He is telling the Count so now."
She laughed softly.
"My friend," she said, "I shall be for ever in your debt."
"I would rather," I answered, "that you paid."
She looked at me and down at her feet.
"He would have signed last night," she said, "if I had not invented you."
The Count and Mr. Derwent came towards us. The former was pale with rage. I am convinced that nothing but the arrival of a telegraph message at that instant prevented his assaulting me. He tore open his message, and as he read he became a changed man.
"Alas!" he exclaimed, turning towards Mr. Derwent with ill-concealed triumph, "I can no longer argue this matter with you. Your time was up last night. You have exceeded it, and, behold, the mine is no longer mine to deal with. It is sold."
Mr. Derwent looked sharply at me.
"Sold to whom?" he asked.
The Count shrugged his shoulders.
"It is my brother in London who has arranged the matter," he said. "He has power of attorney, and he has received the money. The purchaser is a Mr. Charles Ellicot."
Mr. Derwent looked at his daughter.
"What do you know about this, Veronica?" he asked.
"Tell you presently, father," she answered. "Just at present I want to talk to Mr. Anderson. Please come here."
I followed her obediently round the hotel to the gardens in the rear. She made me sit down, and took the seat next to mine. As though afraid that I might seek to escape, she laid her hand upon mine. It was not necessary.
"First of all," she began, boldly, "I'm engaged to Charlie."
I held her hand tightly. I was not capable of articulate speech just then.
"Father wouldn't hear of it," she went on. "He said that Charlie was too poor, and had never done anything. He didn't believe in Charlie. I did."
She paused. I think she found my silence a little disconcerting.
"Charlie heard of this mine," she went on. "He sent over two experts and got two magnificent reports. Then he sent about trying to raise the money to buy it. Unfortunately, father heard about the mine too, and he decided to come over and look at it. I came with him to try to stop his buying it, if I could. All the time Charlie was trying to raise the money in London. Yesterday he wired me, 'All promised. Shall conclude to-morrow.' I was almost at my wit's end, for father had arranged to conclude the purchase last night."
"This is where I come in, I suppose," I remarked feebly.
"They really put the idea into my head," she said. "My father wondered whether you were not here in connection with the mine, and the Count looked mysterious and smiled to himself. So I spoke to you last night, and afterwards I told them that you were a mining-engineer. That put father off at once, for he saw a chance of getting an expert opinion."
"He had it," I murmured.
"It was awfully sweet of you," she declared. "You see how beautifully it has all come off!"
"Then it wasn't your father's last twenty-thousand pounds!" I remarked, suddenly.
"Of course not," she murmured. "My father is really Lord Derwent. He prefers to travel incognito because people bother him so."
For a moment the humour of this thing possessed me. I recalled my sound advice to a multi-millionaire, and I laughed till the tears stood in my eyes. Suddenly I remembered that I, too, had a confession to make.
"By-the-by," I said slowly, "did you say that your—your friend—"
"Charlie," she murmured.
"Had had two favourable reports on the mine?"
"And has bought it?"
She nodded. I looked at her sympathetically. After all, it was impossible for her marry a pauper.
"I am very sorry to hear it," I said hypocritically. "Perhaps the most extraordinary part of this affair is that I am really a mining engineer, and have been preparing a secret report upon this property."
She looked at me in amazement.
"Are you in earnest?" she asked.
"I am sorry to say I am," I answered. "I came over on behalf of a New York syndicate, and I posted my report to them last night. I told your father the literal truth. The Great Fortuna Mine is not worth twenty thousand pence."
"What a fraud the Count is," she sighed, "and what a lot of money people will lose."
"Yes, but Charlie!"
She laughed softly.
"Oh, it makes no difference to Charlie," she said. "I believe he had to pay an awful lot of money for those favourable reports, but he's sold out to a syndicate for a hundred-thousand pounds. He got the signatories and raised the money of them to buy the mine. The syndicate will sell to a company, and, of course, the public who buys shares will be the people who will lose their money. I think Charlie's quite clever, don't you?"
"I should imagine there's no doubt about it," I assured her.
We sat for a few minutes in silence. Our hands were still very close together. I was feeling exceedingly depressed.
"We spoke," I remarked, "of something in the nature of a reward."
"It is quite true," she admitted. "You have earned it. Please sit still."
She rose to her feet and bent over me.
"Close your eyes," she whispered.
I obeyed her. To this moment I can remember the touch of the sun upon my shut eyelids, the rustling of the soft, lazy air through the orange trees, the drowsy humming of bees in the garden. I felt her face close to mine—and suddenly the touch of her lips, one whispered word in my ear! I had had my reward.
For a second I remained there, motionless. I lacked the power or the will to tear myself away. Then with a little cry I sprang to my feet and hurried round the corner of the hotel. I was too late. The hotel omnibus, laden with luggage, was rumbling across the square, the Count stood upon the pavement waving a florid farewell. A little white hand flashed out of the window. It was the last I ever saw of Veronica.
But one morning, some two months later, I received a packet in an unfamiliar handwriting. When I opened it I found one hundred shares in the Great Fortuna Silver Mine, and a little scrawl of paper:
"Charlie says these are very good to sell—quickly!"
THE woman sat alone in her dressing-room. For the second act, her costume needed no change—a dash of powder, a trifling rearrangement of the hair, had completed in a few seconds her necessary preparations. She had dismissed her maid, and denied herself to a lady journalist who represented a fashion paper, and wanted to talk about her dresses. She felt the need of solitude.
The girl with the large dark eyes— who was she? Had she been looking into a mirror, back down the long avenue of years to the days of her own girlhood, when she, too, had gazed out upon life with, something of the same mysterious wonder? Fashions move always in a circle. She, too, had twisted her hair somewhat in that fashion, had worn a rose instead of a ribbon, had sought with something of the same almost plaintive eagerness to understand, if only dimly, the life which throbbed on every side of her.
Who was she? A ghost? An actual unit of the audience, a living and breathing person, or a creature of the fancy only? The violins of the orchestra swayed less and less, the music died away. There was silence, and then the tinkling of a little bell. The curtain had risen.
In a few minutes, she was on the stage again, face to face with a situation round which, even in these days of the play's assured success, controversy raged fiercely. A false note, and daring became grossness; a gesture, even a look, and the forbidden was manifest. To conceal it utterly was the most exquisite triumph of art. That night, perhaps for the first time in her life, the woman wholly succeeded.
Again the curtain fell amidst a storm of applause, and again the woman sat abstracted and thoughtful in her dressing-room. This time she was not left undisturbed. A man came in to her, tall, graceful, but with the tired face and wrinkled brows of premature age.
She took no notice of his entrance. He paused to light a cigarette.
"I congratulate you," he remarked, drily.
"Your versatility. You have given a new rendering of Mona to-night. You have stripped her of the flesh, lifted her wholly off the clogging earth. But I warn you, Emily, the critics won't like it."
"People are so like sheep. They need some one to direct them. They do not see the ass's skin, only the mantle of the prophet. And our friends of the press do not like to be trifled with."
The woman sat still, with her back to him. The perfume of his cigarette, his presence in her room, the easy nonchalance of his manner, stung her.
She still looked into the mirror, and still she saw the same things.
"I must play the part," she said, in a low tone, " as I feel it."
"Is not that," he remarked, holding his cigarette thoughtfully between his fingers, "a little hard upon those who have to play up to you? Last night you were flesh and blood, the arrogant courtesan, a marvelous creation. You almost frightened me with the reality of it, and one could hear the audience holding their breaths—it was supreme. To-night you rise phoenix-like to a virtue which holds evil things abashed. If you are the actual courtesan, you are also the embodiment of all the opposite things in life. It may be a triumph in originality—your rendering, I mean—but it is deuced uncomfortable for me."
The woman smiled, faintly. She understood quite well the reason of his annoyance. He was the puppet-actor, born of the times, only possible in this period of uninspired plays, a man of graceful presence and musical voice, who owed his position to these things, and these things only. The genius that made it possible for her suddenly to purify a situation which it was rumored had worried the King's censor, had fired no answering impulse in his slower wits. His acting had been constrained and unimpressive. He had felt himself at sea, and he had shown it. Man-like, he was aggrieved. He had been robbed of his meed of applause, the only stimulant not wholly physical which appealed to him. This was the hundredth night, too, and the critics were in the stalls.
"I am glad that you felt the change," the woman said, slowly. "Why not adapt yourself to it?"
"Why change?" he answered, irritably. "The piece went well enough before. You seem to be trying to transform a magnificent piece of realism into an idyll. At this theatre, we do not play to school-children."
She abandoned the subject a little abruptly. It did not interest her to discuss these things with him.
"I wonder," she said, "if you know who some people are, in the third row of the stalls—two elderly ladies, rather oddly dressed, and a child with large eyes."
He prided himself upon knowing everybody, and he did not fail her.
"Two old maids from the wilds of Scotland, and their niece," he answered. "Nugent Campbell, their name is, I think—the girl's father is the Sir Henry Nugent Campbell who did so well out at the war. Beautiful eyes, hasn't she?"
He was examining himself negligently in the mirror; the fold of his tie did not altogether please him, or was it his pin that was a trifle crooked? Presently, however, he glanced toward her. She was sitting quite still, and her hands were clasping the arms of the chair. The natural pallor of her complexion seemed intensified. There were things in her face which he did not understand.
"You're seedy, Emily," he exclaimed. "Let me ring for your woman. Have some wine, will you?"
She moved her head toward the door.
"Go away!" she said.
"Nonsense! I can't leave you like this. The curtain will be up in five minutes. Let me get you a glass of champagne."
"Cannot you see that I wish to be alone?" she said. "I am quite well. Please go away."
He shrugged his shoulders and departed, closing the door behind him.
From outside came a momentary wave of strangely mingled sounds, the shifting of heavy scenery, the murmur of conversation from the audience, of muffled laughter from the wings, the throbbing of violins from the orchestra. Then the door closed, and there was silence. The woman rose swiftly, and turned the key in the lock.
The duke stopped his sisters on their way out. He addressed them with a severity which was belied by the twinkle in his eyes.
"Amelia!" he exclaimed. "I am astonished. Fancy bringing the child to see a play like this!"
Amelia, who had had qualms, looked at him, anxiously.
"I am very sorry, Robert, but I had no one to consult, and they assured me at the library that it was quite the thing to see. If you had kept your promise and come in to tea yesterday afternoon, I had a list of plays which I had intended to submit to you."
"You mustn't scold aunt," the girl declared, smiling up at him. "I have never enjoyed anything so much in my life. If only it were not so sad!"
"You were lucky to-night, anyhow," he remarked. " I have never seen Emily Royce act like that before."
"She is beautiful," the girl murmured. " How I should love to see her off the stage!"
The duke hesitated, and then laughed to himself.
"You shall," he said. "I'm going behind. Hundredth-night celebration, you know, and I'll take you if you like."
The girl's eyes were bright with joy.
"Auntie, do you hear?" she exclaimed. "Isn't it glorious? Do you mean that I shall really see her to speak to?"
"Robert! You are joking, of course," Miss Amelia exclaimed. "You do not seriously propose to take that child behind the scenes?"
He smiled. "Why not? I'll take all of you. Huntingdon will be delighted, and it's quite the thing to do, I assure you. Your friend, Lady Martin, and her daughters have gone."
Miss Amelia sighed. "I am sorry to disappoint Esther," she said, "and I do not dispute what you say, Robert, but I cannot part with all my old prejudices so easily. I do not approve of the theatre. I will not sacrifice my principles to the extent of accepting hospitality from the ladies and gentlemen who have been kind enough to amuse us."
The duke nodded his head approvingly. He thoroughly enjoyed his sisters.
"Quite right," he remarked, "quite right. Never mind, Esther," he added, seeing her gallant effort to hide her disappointment, "I'll take you. You'll find my carriage outside, Amelia. Take it home, and send it back to the stage door for us. I'll look after Esther."
"You dear!" the child exclaimed, clinging to his arm. "You don't mind, Aunt Amelia?"
Miss Amelia sighed. "Your uncle would not suggest anything unbefitting, my dear," she said. "Our approval is, of course, quite another matter."
So, presently, Esther found herself in the strangest place she had ever imagined in her life. She was on the stage, shut off now from the house by the drop-curtain, and thronged with crowds of men and women in evening dress. Servants in livery were handing round champagne and sandwiches; all present seemed to be talking a great deal, and enjoying themselves immensely. Leverson caught sight of the new-comers presently, and came hurrying up.
"A little niece of mine from the wilds of Scotland, Leverson," the duke remarked. "Stage-struck, of course. I've brought her to see what ordinary people you all are with your war-paint off. Mr. Arthur Leverson, Miss Nugent Campbell."
The child was shy at first, but Leverson laid himself out to amuse her, and it was very easy. He showed her how the lime-light was worked, and explained the moving of the scenery.
They were standing a little apart, talking, when Emily Royce came in.
"Oh, I wonder—!" the girl exclaimed, eagerly.
He looked down at her with an amused smile.
"Could I—would she speak to me just for a moment?"
He was a little annoyed, but he hid it admirably.
"Of course. I'll take you to her."
Emily spared him the effort. She detached herself from a little group, and came toward them. Leverson murmured the girl's name.
"I saw you in front, didn't I?" Emily said, smiling. "Somehow, I fancied that the theatre was almost a new place to you. Was I right?"
"Absolutely," the child answered.
She was no longer in the least shy. No one had ever looked at her quite so kindly as this wonderful woman.
"I have never been inside the theatre before," Esther admitted. "My aunts are—a little old-fashioned, and we live so far off from everywhere.
"Go and talk to the Esholts, Mr. Leverson," Emily said. "I am going to take possession of Miss Campbell for a little time."
Leverson withdrew with a subdued grumble meant to sound good-natured, but not altogether successful. Emily made the girl sit down on a lounge by her side.
"I noticed you quite at the beginning of the play," she said, smiling. "You seemed so absorbed, and you know we people on the stage love to act to people who are interested."
"I think it is marvelous," the child said, still a little shyly, "to think that any one can act like you do. I can scarcely believe that I am really here talking to you."
"Tell me about your home in Scotland, and your life there," Emily said. "Do you mind? I should so like to hear about it all."
The child was ready enough to talk. She spoke of the old, gray castle, with its prim, well-ordered life; the wonderful hills, with the mystery of their inaccessible, mist-wreathed summits; the deep, tree-hung glens; the salmon river which came rushing down from some hidden spot; the purple moors always so lonely, and growing bleaker and bleaker as they rolled away northward. The woman by her side smiled and listened and prompted her every now and then with some questions. Behind it all was the strange background of gay conversation, the popping of corks, the ceaseless hurrying hither and thither of servants.
"You have very few friends, then?"
"Very few. My aunts are not fond of strangers or visitors. Sometimes it is very dull, especially when the rains come, and the whole country is hidden in mists."
"But your father—is he never with you?"
The girl shook her head, gravely.
"Very, very seldom. He is a soldier, you know, and he is always away fighting somewhere. I think that he does not like being at home."
The girl's eyes, very grave and steadfast, were suddenly troubled. Something in the set immobility of Emily's features chilled her.
"I am afraid," she said, "that I am wearying you. I do not know why I have talked so much of my little concerns, when I Would so much rather have had you tell me about your own wonderful life."
Emily shook her head. The faint smile which parted her lips was at least reassuring.
"You do not know how interested I have been," she said. "Some day, I hope that we shall have another talk."
"We are in London for two months," Esther said. "Might I come and see you?"
"I think—we must see," was the unexpectedly evasive answer. "I shall write to you."
A man who had just come in looked at the pair for a moment or two with a curious expression. Then he went up to the duke.
"Ernham," he said, "did you bring your niece here?
"By Jove, I did, and I've forgotten all about her," the duke answered. "Where is she?
"Sitting on the sofa there, talking to Emily Royce. You had better take her home."
The duke raised his eyebrows.
"Do you know what Emily Royce's name was when she first came on the stage?"
"No idea," the duke admitted, cheerfully. "Never can remember those things."
"Some one might have reminded you," his friend remarked. "It was Emily Heddon."
The duke was staggered. He looked toward the couch. This was the woman, then, whom his brother had married, and Esther—
"Great heavens!" he muttered.
"Esther, I am sorry to interrupt you, but we must go at once," he added, a moment later.
The girl held out her hand to Emily. "Good-bye," she said, simply. "I hope that I shall see you again." She felt the touch of her fingers warmly enough returned, but for some reason Emily was silent.
THEY were sitting together in the Park—not for the first time. The girl looked very sweet and fresh in her plain muslin gown and large hat, but her clear eyes were a little troubled.
"You are so much older and wiser than I am," she said, "that I suppose you must be right. But I do not like it. I do not think I can come any more."
"But how else can I see you?" he protested. "You know that your aunts dislike the stage and everything connected with it. They would never allow me to visit them."
"It is very perplexing," she admitted. "Aunt Amelia is really very kind to me, but—"
"Perhaps," he whispered, leaning over toward her, "you do not want to see me any more."
She looked at him a little shyly. Her eyes were full of reproach. She was adorably pretty."
"It is not kind of you to say that," she murmured, "because you know that I do."
He touched her fingers for a moment, and she felt a guilty thrill of joy, inexplicable, wonderful. He had had so much experience in these matters, every little move was known to him.
He began to talk, and she to listen, the color coming and going in her cheeks, a whole world of new emotions roused, quivering into life by the soft, passionate words which came so readily to his lips. Of course, he triumphed. It was a foregone conclusion, the battle altogether too one-sided. Soon he was walking by her side toward the gates.
A victoria was stopped close to them, and a woman all in white descended. She was paler even than the chiffon which hung from her parasol, but her eyes seemed lighted with smoldering fire. Leverson swore under his breath. Even Esther felt that there was something inappropriate in the glad little cry of welcome which sprang to her lips.
"How fortunate that I should see you both!" Emily exclaimed. "Miss Campbell, I want you to do me a favor. I want you to jump straight into my carriage, and let my people take you home."
"Alone?" the child exclaimed. "But you are coming, too! May I not drive with you?"
Emily shook her head. She denied herself a great deal.
"The carriage will return for me here," she answered. "I have something particular to say to Mr. Leverson."
Mr. Leverson did not seem at all enchanted at the prospect. His appearance was, to say the least, sulky. Nevertheless, his protest was almost inarticulate, and Emily simply turned her back upon him. She saw the child into the little victoria, and waved her hand in adieu. Then she returned to Leverson. They stood face to face upon the broad path.
"My friend," she said, drily, "I hope you will believe that your flirtations and liaisons, of which I am told you are somewhat proud, are, in a general way, matters of supreme unimportance to me. In this particular case, however, I have something to say. I insist upon it that you discontinue your clandestine meetings and all correspondence with that child."
There were times when Leverson was not handsome, and this was one of them. His manner was shifty, his indignation petulant.
"Really, Mrs. Royce," he said, "I scarcely see that our relations are such as to give you the right to dictate to me in such matters."
She smiled, faintly. She had been the humiliation of his life of amours, and she knew it.
"We will not discuss that," she answered. "I know you through and through, Arthur Leverson, and I am going to appeal to your only vulnerable spot—your self-interest. You obey my wishes in this matter, or you leave the theatre."
"You are not serious?" he exclaimed.
"I am very serious indeed. I can do without you—you cannot do without me. Our play is the biggest success London has known for years, and your share in it is not worth a snap of the fingers. Yet you share with me the honors and the profit. So it shall continue unless you disobey my wishes in this matter. If you meet or speak to that child again unchaperoned, you go."
"This is monstrous!" he exclaimed. "I have a vested right in the play."
"You might force me to withdraw it," she answered, "but that would not trouble me in the least. I am a rich woman."
He turned on his heel with a little exclamation, and walked away. Emily sat down and waited for her carriage. The immediate effect of Emily's intervention was the following note duly delivered at Leverson's rooms on the next evening:
16, MERSHAM STREET, W.
I have been so unhappy ever since yesterday, and you have not sent me a line. Do write and tell me what it all means. Why should Mrs. Royce mind our being together?—for I feel sure now that she did. You are not angry with me for obeying her? I was not sure what you wished me to do. You said nothing! You did not even come with me to the carriage. She stood between us, and though, when she looked at me, she seemed kind, I felt that she was very angry with you. Why? Do write me, dear, and tell me. You know that nothing could change me. I shall always be your loving,
P.S.—Aunt Amelia has been so kind today. I felt that I must tell her about you. Would it matter very much, do you think?
Leverson received this note on his return from a supper-party after the theatre. He spent a few minutes in deliberation, and then sat down and answered it.
55, BLENHEIM MANSIONS, W. C.
MY OWN DEAREST CHILD,
You ask me to explain a very difficult thing, but I shall try. I am obliged to see a great deal of Mrs. Royce, aind I have so few other women friends that I fancy she has fallen into the way of considering me her own special property, to be ordered about and made use of just as suits her convenience. I swear to you, dear, that there has never been anything at all between us. I have never given her the least cause to believe that I cared for her, but you know the great fault of all the women on the stage is jealousy, and I fancy that something of that sort was the cause of Mrs. Royce's bad temper on Thursday. Please do not think me a conceited ass, dear, to tell you these things, but you asked me for the truth, and you have it.
How I have missed you! Yesterday, I really believe, was the longest and dreariest day I have ever spent. What a little witch you are, to come and steal your way so easily into my heart!
You must not tell your aunt anything yet. I shall explain all when we meet, but it would spoil everything to be in too much of a hurry. You are going down the river for Sunday, so we cannot meet till Monday. I have a little plan for then, which I hope you will like. I want you to come here, and have tea with me. There! It sounds terrible, doesn't it, but there is really nothing to fear, and it is much the safest way of meeting. I have wired to my sister to come up and stay with me so as to make everything quite right for you, but, of course, in London no one pretends to be quite so conventional as in the country. I would not ask you if it really mattered in the least, but I can assure you that up here it is quite a common thing. Do you realize, sweetheart, that, as yet, I have never really had you quite to myself? Perhaps that is why I am looking forward to Monday more than I have ever looked forward to anything in my life. You will not disappoint me, dear? No; I am sure that you will not. Get here about four o'clock, and I shall be waiting to open the door myself. Ever your fond lover,
He despatched the note, and laughed softly to himself as he lighted a cigarette.
"She will come," he murmured. "She is such a dear little fool."
He was right. She came, but it had cost her a great effort, and even his most impressive greeting, and the touch of his arm about her waist, did not wholly reassure her. Her hands were cold, and she was trembling a little.
"Where is your sister, Arthur?" she asked, looking round the room with dark, anxious eyes.
"She will be here directly, dearest," he answered. "Her train is a little late. Come and sit down in my own easy-chair, and tell all about these last few days. Do you know that I have not yet had even one tiny little kiss from you!"
She kept him away from her for a moment. She was looking very grave, and there was even a suspicion of tears in her dark eyes.
"Arthur," she faltered, "of course, it is delightful to be here with you, but I have all the time the feeling that I have done something dreadful. Tell me, dear—please tell me the truth. Is it very horrid of me to come? Listen! Is that your sister, do you think?"
He smiled reassuringly at her, and opened his arms. For the moment, he wished that he had not invented that sister.
"Very likely, dear," he answered. "My man has orders to let no one else in. We are quite safe."
But Leverson had not reckoned with the temptation of gold to a servant whose wages were very much in arrears.
The door was thrown open, and Mrs. Royce entered. Behind her was the duke. Leverson felt his ro1e of heroic lover slipping away from him. His knees began to shake. He did not like the way the duke closed the door.
Emily went straight up to the child.
"My dear," she said, "you ought not to be here. You must go away."
Esther disengaged herself, not without a certain quiet dignity.
"I know that I have done wrong, Mrs. Royce," she said, "but I really do not see—"
She could not finish her sentence. Emily was humanized. Even the child saw the tenderness quivering in her soft eyes.
"Oh, I know you mean kindly," she cried, " but why do you want to come between Arthur and me? His sister will be here directly."
His sister! Emily held the child's hands tightly. The quickest blow was the kindest.
"He has told you, then, of a sister whom he does not possess; has he told you, I wonder, of a wife whom he does?"
The girl turned deathly pale. Leverson, without means of defense, turned his back upon them.
"Mr. Leverson," Emily continued, "has a wife, singing, I believe, in an East End music-hall, and from whom he cannot procure a divorce owing to their mutual irregularities. He is a coward, and a liar, and a dishonorable person. Ask him any questions you like. I want this parting to be final."
"Will you turn around, please, Arthur?" the girl asked, quietly.
He faced them—self-proclaimed a craven. The girl looked into his face, and she turned very white. Then she turned to Emily. She did not ask him any question at all.
"I have been very foolish," she said, softly. " I did not know—that there were people like this in the world. Will you take me away?"
The duke remained behind. He was a strong man, and Leverson was a coward. Leverson did not play that night, nor for many succeeding ones.
A CRITIC in the stall shook open his programme.
"These revivals," he murmured, "should be prohibited. There are no plays written nowadays which can stand the test."
"You chaps always talk like that," grumbled his companion. "What do you come for?"
"Bread and cheese, of course. But come, I will be honest," the critic continued, settling down in his seat. "It is not altogether so with me in this case. If the chief hadn't sent me, I should have paid my own ten-and-six, and come, and if there hadn't been a stall, I should have brought my own camp-stool, and joined the cranks who besiege the pit."
"And if you had overslept yourself?"
"I should have taken my chance at the gallery. Failing that, I should have pawned my watch and secured a box."
"In plain words," his companion remarked, "you meant to come."
"I was bound to come," the critic said, almost gravely. "Wild horses could not have kept me away."
"Of course, you will explain," his friend murmured. " I always looked upon a real professional critic as superior to enthusiasm, curiosity or honesty. Are you going to disillusionize me?"
"Perhaps," the critic answered. "Do you really want to know why I was so keen to come?"
The critic folded up his programme. The orchestra were beginning to tune their violins.
"I will try and tell you, then. Forgive me if I am not very lucid. It is a very hard thing to put it all into words. The play was always a remarkable one. From the first, Emily Royce gave us a wonderful representation of the heroine. But here comes the point of it all. Up to the night of its hundredth celebration, we came to one play; from that to its three-hundredth, we came to an entirely different one. I do not believe that a single word of the play was altered. The cast, except for Leverson, who never counted seriously, remained precisely the same. And yet it was a different play. One woman's supreme genius transformed it all."
"Go on!" his companion begged. "I am interested."
"There is so little more to say," the critic continued. "For some reason or other, on the night of the hundredth performance, Emily Royce chose to transform her whole rendering of the part. That accounts for the extraordinary diversity of opinion you meet with concerning the play. There are women who say that when they came they preferred a dark seat, and would sooner have taken their daughters to the old Moulin Rouge. There are others of equal discernment and judgment, who protest that it is the purest and most moral play they have ever seen. Both are right. A woman's genius lifted it from the grim fascination of inimitable, but awful, realism to an idyll. Psychologically, I have never met with such an interesting circumstance. I have the idea, somehow, that the change was a momentary inspiration of Emily Royce's. I do not believe that Leverson, for instance, on that hundredth night, knew where he was. He had not the wit to adapt himself, and he floundered horribly. Emily Royce did well to get rid of him. He was always an overrated man. Now, we shall see."
Half-way through the first act, his friend whispered to the critic: "Which is it going to be?"
"The realism!" the critic answered. "Look at that gesture! Ugh!"
A little party who had arrived late stole into their places, a tall, gray-haired man, followed by a younger one, both deeply bronzed, both obviously soldiers—a beautiful girl with wonderful eyes, and the duke. The critic reached suddenly for his glasses.
"Watch Emily Royce," he whispered. "She is ill."
She certainly swayed for a moment, and seemed to forget her part. The time for her exit had arrived. She cut a wonderful speech and departed, leaving the audience unimpressed. The curtain fell upon the act, and the critic sighed.
"I am sorry I came," he said. "She has lost her power. That speech was the crucial point, and she lost her nerve. What a pity."
Nevertheless, an hour or so later the critic showed that he was human. He, too, with all those others, stood up and shouted till the roof seemed to shake with the thunder of acclaiming voices. He, too, felt his eyes dim, a curious lump in his throat. It was marvelous that a woman could play like this upon the heartstrings of hardened men.
Emily Royce did not answer the shouts which seemed almost to demand her presence. A great actor, who for once in his life felt himself a nonentity, presented her excuses. Mrs. Royce was only just recovered from a serious illness. She had acted against her physician's advice. She was very deeply grateful to them for their magnificent summons, but she was not able to answer it. So the lights went out, and the people unwillingly departed. The hush of a wonderful enthusiasm seemed to hover still over the house like a live thing, compelling reverence, forbidding the interchange of all after-theatre inanities. The critic strode into the street, and walked straight to his club without saying a word.
Emily Royce sat in her room, trembling in every limb, very white and very miserable.
"It was cruel of her to come!" she murmured. "She must know!"
She did not hear the knock at the door. Swift footsteps crossed the floor, a pair of arms were thrown around her neck. The child was there on her knees.
"I have never thanked you," the child cried. " I never could. I have brought—somebody else."
A bronzed man held out his hands.
"It was my wretched temper, Emily," he declared. "You saved our child—God bless you! Won't you take pity on me?"
The duke stole out, and drew the young man after him."
"Here, Morton," he said, "Esther can spare you for a moment. Cut round to the Savoy, private room for five. Tell Joseph I give him carte blanche. I'll bring the family party along presently. Tell him I'll break his head if it isn't the best supper he's ever served."
The duke listened anxiously at the door for a moment. Then he drew a sigh of relief, and lighted a cigarette.
"It'll be all right," he declared, softly.
STOURTON forgot at once the gloomy, half-lit appearance of the house, the cold, uninhabited air of the hall and passages, the sombre bearing of the solitary manservant who had ushered him in. This grey-headed old lady, with the delightful face and quaint air of having stepped out of some mediaeval picture, but whose unfortunate deformity was only too apparent, charmed him at first sight. She sat in a great chair before a fire heaped with logs of wood, whose pleasant heat seemed to strike a reassuring note after the draughts and general chilliness through which he had passed. Her smile of welcome lent her features a sweetness which was more than sufficient compensation for those misshapen shoulders. A cloud of vague misgivings vanished as he bent over her outstretched hands.
"It is Mr. Ronald Stourton, I am sure!" she murmured. "You've done me so great a kindness that I scarcely know how to welcome you."
He laughed good-humouredly and began to unfasten his travelling coat.
"You expected me, then?"
"Max, my nephew, telegraphed that you would bring me the letter. I cannot tell you how important it is to me, how thankful I am to you."
He produced a long, leather case, and taking a letter from it, carefully replaced the portfolio in his pocket.
"It is a very small matter, this, for gratitude," he said. "Only I am afraid that I must ask you to excuse my remaining here, even for a moment. Technically I believe that I am guilty of a misdemeanour in paying even this hurried call. I have to be in Downing Street as quickly as possible."
She poured out a cup of coffee from an arrangement of wonderful appearance which stood by her side.
"Do not stay for a moment longer than you wish," she murmured: "but you must positively have something to warm you before you go. I am sure that you are cold. I know what crossing is like in such weather. Ah! I see that you are smiling at my machine. Well, coffee is one of my hobbies. I always make it myself, and my friends are so good-natured as to pretend that they like it. You must give me your honest opinion. Will you pardon me if I just glance through this letter? There is a question, then, which I want to ask you about Max."
He accepted the cup of coffee, as he would have accepted almost anything from such a delightful old lady. He sipped it first. It was strong and of a delicious flavour. He drank it off and set down the cup. Suddenly, as he stood upright again, a queer giddiness assailed him. His hand went up to his head and he staggered back. The floor rose beneath his feet. Strange sounds throbbed in his ears. He clutched at the air with outstretched hands. He tried in vain to drag his limbs towards the door.
"Good Heavens!" he cried. "Let me out! I am ill! Let me out! Send—for a cab! Eighteen—Downing Street!"
He collapsed and lay stretched upon the floor. The little old lady sat and watched him over the top of her letter. The smile which parted her lips now was of altogether another order.
"For your muscles," the girl said, looking up at his averted face with a quiet smile, "I must always entertain a most profound respect. But as for your manners, I think that they are abominable!"
The man was a little startled. He looked at her quickly, and meeting the laughter in her eyes, drew himself up stiffly.
"I am sorry if I have given offence," he said. "May I ask in what way I have laid myself open to such a rebuke?"
She leaned a little forward, as though to look into his face, but his broad-brimmed hat was pulled well over his forehead, and his profile was as expressionless as though carved out of stone. She raised her eyebrows humorous self-expostulation, The man was impossible but so tantalising.
"Well," she said, "your first appearance upon the scene was opportune enough. I came round the corner running for my life, and after me the tramp. I was so overjoyed to see you that I forgot to look where I was going, caught my foot in the root of a tree, or something horrid, and over I went."
"I trust," he said, "that you are not going to attribute your sprained ankle to my appearance."
"Don't be foolish!" she answered. "It is your manners I am attacking now. There I lay stretched upon the ground—a pretty object I must have looked—waiting for someone to help me up, and you, well, you ignored me in favour of the tramp. It is detestable!"
He bit his lip—it might have been to check a smile.
"I had an idea," he said, "that you were in no hurry. The tramp was!"
"In no hurry!" she repeated. "Heavens! have you ever tried lying on your face, with half of you in a furze bush, your skirts all disarranged, and no positive assurance that your leg wasn't broken?"
"I have never tried it," he answered "but I was very anxious to make the acquaintance of your tramp."
"So anxious that you ignored me!" she retorted.
"I thought," he said, "that you would wait."
The girl leaned right forward this time, and to look into her companion's face. What she saw to some extent satisfied her.
"You took a great deal for granted," she replied. " And I think you were very brutal to the tramp."
The man's lip curled slightly.
"Shall I go back and apologise?" he asked. "As for being brutal to him that is nonsense. He deserved punishing, and he got it."
"And I had to pick myself up!"
"My dear young lady," he exclaimed [...], "the other affair was more important."
The girl frowned slightly. After all, there was something of the boor about this man.
"My name," she said, "is Esther Stanmore. My father will wish to add his thanks to mine. Will you let me know your name, and where he will find you when he returns?"
Then the man really smiled. He seemed for the first time to find a grim humour in the situation.
"My name is John Paulton," he said. "I am a friend of your father's gamekeeper, Heggs, and he has lent me his cottage for the summer. I believe your father has taken him up to Scotland for a few months."
If he had expected to surprise her, he was disappointed. She accepted his information as the most natural in the world.
"I remember hearing about your coming, Mr. Paulton," she said, "and I have seen you in the woods. I am ever so grateful to you, of course, but I wish you would notice that I am limping."
He slackened his pace at once.
"I am very sorry," he said." Is there anything I can do to relieve you? Will you rest here while I go up to the house for a pony?"
"How can you think of such a thing," she exclaimed, "after the fright I have had?"
"Then I really don't see—" he began.
"You might offer me your arm," she suggested. "I don't think that I can walk any further alone."
He did as she asked in silence. She leaned heavily upon him, and they moved slowly along the path. He seemed determined not to encourage any conversation. She, however, was of another mind.
"Are you quite alone in Heggs's cottage?" she asked.
"I have a friend with me," he answered.
"A dark, clean-shaven man, rather pale?" she inquired.
"He was standing at the gate when I came by," she remarked.
"And I recognised him," she continued.
"He used to be my cousin's servant," she remarked. "The best man he ever had, I have heard him say."
He bit his lip.
"It is quite probable," he answered shortly. "I believe that he used to be in service, before—before he saved some money."
They emerged from the wood. The footpath which crossed the field in front of them led past a cottage built of grey stone, and with an ancient, red-tiled roof. A man was leaning over the gate, smoking a pipe. Directly he saw them, he thrust the pipe in his pocket and disappeared. The girl smiled.
"Your friend," she remarked, "is shy."
The man muttered something underneath his breath. The girl's smile deepened. She pointed to the cottage.
"I shall not try to walk any further," she said. "I am going to beg the hospitality of your porch. Do you think that if we asked your friend very nicely, he would go up to the Hall for me, and tell them to send a groom down with a pony and a side-saddle?"
He opened the gate and motioned her to enter, with a gesture of grave politeness.
"I will find you a chair," he said, "and then, if you will permit me, I will go myself to the Hall."
His anxiety to escape was a little too obvious. She answered him coldly.
"That must be altogether as you wish," she declared. "I am only sorry to give you so much trouble. If my foot were not very painful, I would struggle on somehow or other; but I am sure that I could not manage the stiles."
"If you will excuse me for a moment," he answered, "I will fetch you a chair. There is not the slightest necessity for you to walk any further."
She heard his voice inside—quick, imperative, alert, the other man's smooth and respectfully acquiescent. The girl smiled to herself. This was so like the conversation of two friends! Did he really think that she was to be so easily hoodwinked?
Presently he came out, carrying a chair, which he placed carefully in a corner of the tiny lawn overgrown with wild flowers.
"You will excuse my not asking you in," he said shortly. "The rooms are small and stuffy. It is much pleasanter out here."
"I have no wish at all," she answered stiffly, "to intrude upon your hospitality. Thanks very much for the chair, though."
"Is there anything I can do for your—ankle?" he asked uncomfortably. "Would you like some—er—some hot water?"
She looked down at her foot gravely.
"You might feel whether it seems to you very much swollen," she answered, lifting it a few inches from the ground.
He stooped down and took it carefully into his hand. It was a long, slender foot, very soundly but daintily shod, and there was a faint silken rustle as she moved it carefully backwards and forwards. He held it for a moment very lightly—perhaps for a little more than a moment. Then he rose abruptly to his feet.
"I cannot feel any swelling at all," he announced.
She was much relieved.
"I dare say, then, that it is nothing serious," she declared cheerfully. "I am so glad. If there is anything I detest, it is having to stay indoors."
"It is certainly tedious," he admitted. "I do not think that you need fear anything of the sort in this case, though."
"I am so fond of walking—in the woods," she murmured.
Left rather abruptly alone, the girl found herself confronted with a moral problem. Mr. John Paulton, as he had called himself, had excited her curiosity. The means of gratifying it were close at band. Was she justified in using them? The man inside the cottage was, of course, his servant. He had stayed once at the Hall with her cousin, and would doubtless answer any of her questions. It was not, she admitted to herself reluctantly, a nice thing to do; but, on the other hand, Heggs had no right to lend his cottage to mysterious strangers who might be biding from their creditors, or from even worse things. It was inconsiderate of Heggs, especially as she was alone at the Hall. She decided that she had the right to investigate the matter thoroughly. And of course she did nothing of the sort. Even when the man came out a few minutes later to once more offer her some tea, she let him go without a single question. It was not possible.
He was back again in less than half an hour, followed by the groom with a pony. He helped her into the saddle and stood bareheaded to see her go.
"I feel," she said, looking down at him with a very expressive light in her soft, grey eyes, "that I haven't thanked you half enough."
"Please do not think any more of such a trifle," he protested. "Your game keeper would have done all that I did just as effectually."
"But my gamekeeper was not there," she objected.
"It was my good fortune," he answered gravely. "Nothing more."
She gathered up the reins and smiled down at him. The men whom Esther Stanmore smiled upon seldom forgot it.
"I shall have to confine my afternoon walks to the home woods," she remarked. "They are just as pretty, really. Good afternoon, Mr. Paulton. We are such close neighbours that we are certain to come across one another again soon, I hope."
But Paulton, though he bowed, did not echo her wish.
And yet in less than three weeks they had reached the end, the last barrier through which one looks into Paradise.
"They were seated on the trunk of a fallen tree, the sunshine distorted into queer, zigzag stripes and gleams playing away from their feet into the heart of the silent wood. A squirrel had just scampered across the path. From the hidden places beyond, a pigeon was calling softly to his mate, a woodpecker was busy amongst the branches of a beech-tree, and all the while the west wind sang in the rustling canopy above their heads. They alone of all the living things were silent.
"I think," he said, at last, "that up to now I have dreamed, not lived. The commencement of life is here."
She looked at him a little wonderingly.
"You are losing your sense of proportion," she remarked, smiling. "It is here, if you will, that one may dream of life and be happy. Yet it can be nothing save an interlude. Life is not in these woods—no, not the commencement or the end of life. It is the Paradise of dumb beasts, this. We, alas! have to seek for our Paradise in different places."
"A month ago," he said slowly, keeping his eye fixed upon the ground, "I should have needed no one to have told me where Paradise lay. If I were the Ronald Stourton of a month ago, I should not hesitate for a single second to grasp it—now."
"Ronald Stourton!" she repeated softly. So you are Ronald Stourton!"
"Yes," he answered. "I have heard you speak of my people."
"I thought you were in Paris."
"I was. I came to England on an important mission from the chief to the Prime Minister a month ago. I bungled it hopelessly. I was taken in by a trick which should not have deceived a child. There isn't any particular secret about it now. I brought across a draft of the proposed understanding between France and England as to their neutrality in the Russo-Japanese war. The draft was stolen from me by an agent of the Russian Government or by someone who means to dispose of it to the Russian Government. I am suspended for the present. Immediately the draft is transferred to the Russian Ambassador, and the thing comes out, I shall be dismissed the service."
She looked at him? as a woman knows how to look at such times. Her hand rested lightly upon his shoulder.
"Oh, I am so sorry," she said softly. "I felt all the time that you were in trouble. But can nothing be done? Can't the person be found who stole the paper?"
"The cleverest detective in England has the matter in hand," he answered, "and it was at his particular request that I disappeared. The person whom he strongly suspects is being watched day and night, and it is supposed that he has not yet had an opportunity of disposing of the papers. That is why I am still merely on leave. It is a sickening story, but I am glad that you know the truth. You will understand now why I must go away."
"I understand nothing of the sort," she answered decisively. "Of course, it is shocking bad luck; but even if you have to give up your profession, there is plenty of other work in the world for a man, isn't there? How old are you?"
He smiled. He thought her manner charming, but it was certainly original.
"I am thirty-four next birthday. Too old, you see, for any of the services. I might go abroad, of course; but it is a far cry from diplomacy to ranching."
She looked at him thoughtfully.
"You are well off, aren't you?" she remarked. " Most of your family are."
"Yes," he answered drily, " I am well off. I am spared the luxury of having to work for a living, at any rate. But I am a sorry idler."
"Quite right!" she assented. "I detest men who do nothing. It always ends in their dabbling in things which they don't understand at all."
"Don't!" he begged, digging his stick savagely into the ground. "I can see myself —a J.P., perhaps a county councillor, a director of City companies—Heaven knows what!"
"Aren't you a little premature?" she said, smiling. "You are not sure yet that you have finished with diplomacy."
"I am perfectly certain that diplomacy has finished with me," he answered ruefully. "Pardon me!"
He picked up the letter which had slipped from her waistband and handed it to her. His eyes by chance fell upon the address, and he started.
"Miss de Poulgasky!" he repeated. "Forgive me, but I could not help seeing. It seems strange to see that name here."
She nodded sympathetically.
"It is her father, of course, to whom those papers will be sent," she remarked. "I was at school with Corona, and we write to one another now and then. My uncle, who came down last night, seems very friendly with them. This letter is really from him. And that reminds me. I am no longer without a chaperon. I want you to come and dine with us to-night."
He shook his head.
"Don't ask me! I am not in a fit humour to meet people."
"There is only my uncle, and I think that perhaps he may amuse you. He is such a thorough cosmopolitan. I believe that he is equally at home in every capital of Europe, and he has the most marvellous collection of anecdotes. Come and dine, and afterwards I will show you my rose-garden."
"If you will—" Their heads came very close together. He seemed to have a good deal to say, and she was very well content to listen. In the end he forgot for a brief space of time all hid troubles. And she forgot to post her letter.
He was watching the sunset from the terrace. Behind him was the empty drawing-room. He had arrived, after all, a little early; eight o'clock was only just striking by the stable clock. She could scarcely be down yet. He had left her barely an hour ago, and he was in no humour for a tête-à-tête with this wonderful uncle. So he leaned over the worn, grey balustrade and wondered which way the rose-garden might he. Were other men so much the sport of Fate as this, he asked himself bitterly, that the greatest joy of life should shine down upon him whose feet were fast set in the quagmires—a tantalising dream—an impossible—yes, an impossible—?
Then the chain of his thoughts was snapped. Every pulse of his body seemed to cease beating. He was listening. Behind, in the drawing-room, someone was talking to Esther, and the voice—what folly! He turned slowly round as one who expects to confront a ghost. Esther was standing in the window, and by her side a smooth, clean-shaven old gentleman in glasses, who smiled benevolently upon him and went on talking. What folly! He dragged himself to meet them. He was ill at ease, scarcely conscious of where he was. But he watched Esther's uncle. His manner was certainly queer, but he watched. He saw things which sent the blood rushing through his veins at fever heat.
Dinner was served at a small, round table drawn close up to the open window. The Stanmore cook was famous, and Esther's uncle had had a word or two with the butler about the wines. Nevertheless, it was an ill-balanced trio, and Stourton especially was talking all the time at random. Mr. Heslop Stanmore was quietly entertaining, but Esther was too worried at her guest's strange demeanour to find much pleasure in her uncle's conversation. She made several attempts to establish more natural relations between the two men, but without the least success. She felt all the time that there was nothing they both of them desired so much as her absence. At last she got up and left them.
"I shall give you a quarter of an hour, no more," she said, glancing at Stourton. "You can smoke where you choose here."
The butler with great care set the Château Yquem and port upon the table and withdrew. Then Mr. Heslop Stanmore leaned back in his chair and laughed softly.
"My dear fellow," he exclaimed, "you have my sympathy. You have indeed. All the time you have been getting surer and surer, longing to get up and take me by the throat; and instead you have had to swallow your dinner and make polite speeches. Come, you can relieve yourself now. All your suspicions are correct. I am the little, hunchbacked lady of Hyde Park Terrace. I stole those papers? it is my profession, you see. I am very sorry indeed to have inconvenienced you; but one must live, and I am a younger son."
"Where are they?" Stourton asked between his teeth.
Mr. Heslop Stanmore shrugged his shoulders.
"My young friend," he said, "I am thankful that you did not ask me that question a few hours ago, or I might have been compelled to have resorted to subterfuge. I have had the utmost difficulty—by the by, you really ought to try this Château Yquem. No?—the utmost difficulty in disposing of them. I have been watched day and night, and so has Poulgasky's house. However, I have managed it at last. My niece Esther, with whom, by the by, you seem to be on remarkably good terms, is an old school-friend of Corona Poulgasky's, and I got her to enclose my papers this morning in a letter to her. The post went out, 1 believe," he continued, raising his wineglass and looking critically at its contents, "at four o'clock. A delivery is made in London to-night. It is just a question—rather a near thing, I should imagine—whether those papers are not already in Poulgasky's hands."
"Did Es— Miss Stanmore know what she was doing?" Stourton groaned.
"My dear fellow," her uncle remonstrated, "do you think that I should dare to give away my secrets to a child? She has not the slightest idea!"
Esther stepped suddenly in through the window. Her forehead was slightly wrinkled. She held something in her hand.
"My dear uncle, will you ever forgive me?" she exclaimed. "I started for the post, but I forgot all about my letter."
What followed was probably the most amazing thing Esther had ever witnessed. Her uncle made a spring for the letter which she held in her hand, only to find himself caught by the throat and flung back into his chair. Stourton stood over him, grim and threatening. Just in time he saw the glint of steel. The revolver fell harmlessly upon the floor; a strong hand held him like a vice. Then Ronald turned to the girl.
"Esther," he said, "will you give me that letter?"
She was very pale, but she did not hesitate for a moment.
"I do not understand why," she answered; "but if you ask for it, of course I will."
Mr. Heslop Stanmore, with Stourton's knuckles very near his throat, did not find speech easy. But he said one word!
They opened his wedding present a little dubiously. It was a copy of Harrison's "First Steps in Diplomacy." They looked at one another and laughed.
"I am afraid," she said, wiping the tears from her eyes, "that my uncle is a very black sheep, but he certainly has a sense of humour."
Stourton put the book carefully on one side.
"We will treasure this volume," he remarked. "Some day, when your uncle has a birthday, I will send him a little text-book I have on the art of 'Making Up.'"
STOURTON, for the first time since he had left Downing Street, released his hold of the despatch-box. Both doors of the railway carriage in which he was seated were locked, on both windows was pasted a modest oblong label announcing that the compartment was reserved. There was no lavatory, and he had already looked carefully under the seats. Outside on the platform a liberally tipped servant of the company stood before the carriage door to prevent any attempt at intrusion. Stourton, with a little sigh of relief, set down the box on the middle seat opposite to him, lit a cigar, and opened the evening paper.
The great black headlines, which for the the last four hours had been placarded all over London, took up one half of the paper.
CHINA AND JAPAN.
DECLARATION OF WAR.
JAPAN APPEALS TO HER ALLY.
BARON NAGASKI AT THE FOREIGN OFFICE.
CABINET COUNCIL NOW SITTING.
The headlines themselves told all that was known. The news had come without warning, and following hard upon a slight Japanese reverse on the Yalu. But the news itself was incomplete. Already the mighty engines of Fleet Street were at work. To-morrow morning's papers would provide even more sensational reading. Barely two hours ago startling intelligence had been flashed across the Channel. Orders for the mobilisation of the French Fleet had already been posted. The two great Powers, who had, only a few weeks ago, amidst a shower of congratulations, concluded an agreement which seemed likely to ensure a permanent peace, were, with a suddenness which had no parallel in the modern history of nations, on the very brink of war.
The whistle sounded for the departure of the train. Suddenly Stourton was aware of some disturbance upon the platform. A tall, fair-haired woman, whose long opera-cloak imperfectly concealed her evening clothes, was trying to make her way past the official who stood before the carriage door. Stourton, with an exclamation of alarm, sprang to his feet and let down the window. Even in that moment of astonishment he did not forget his caution. He caught up the despatch-box and held it in his left hand.
"Esther!" he exclaimed. "What is it?"
The official stood aside. The train was already moving. She had almost to run to keep up with it.
"Heslop Stanmore is in Paris!" she cried breathlessly. "I found my maid sending him a telegram. He wanted to know-- exactly--when you left. Take care!"
She could keep up no longer. She was already flushed and panting. He waved his hand reassuring and shouted a farewell. Then he fastened the window and resumed his seat.
"The little grey lady," he muttered to himself. "Esther's maid bribed--made friends with her down at ---- of course. He can't think that I'm such a blithering fool as to walk into another trap. If he tries it--"
Stourton's fingers clasped something in the pocket of his overcoat, and his face was suddenly hard. He was thinking of the weeks of misery which this man had caused him less than a year ago. Another conflict might end differently.
Stourton's nerves were almost perfect, but he would scarcely have been human if he had not been conscious of some anxiety. Any successful tampering with his mission might mean the kindling of the war-torch throughout the world. It might mean the pouring out to waste of the accumulated millions of centuries of industry, it might retard the whole progress of civilisation for many decades. The bare possibility of the thing was appalling. And yet when he stopped for a moment to reflect, the absolute security of his position was borne in upon him. He carried a fateful message with him, but it was a verbal one. There were no means of wresting from him words which his memory and tongue could alone make real. He had important papers, too, but they were in cipher...
[-- Portion of text missing from source file --]
...brought him a certain amount of consolation, but he did not for a moment relax him watchfulness, though the train was speeding now on its way to Dover without any intervening stop. He sat quite still. The despatch-box was within his reach, a loaded revolver upon his knee.
At the pier station he descended, making his way along the platform and across the gangway to the steamer. Two men of unobtrusive appearance, quietly but unfashionably dressed, were his nearest neighbours, one walking a little behind, and one in front. No sign of recognition passed between Stourton and them, yet he knew very well who they were and what their presence meant. On board the steamer he made his way at once to the cabin which had been reserved for him. The two men ordered deck-chairs outside. With the cabin door locked, and two of the shrewdest detectives from Scotland Yard within a few feet of him, Stourton felt fairly secure against even such a man as Heslop Stanmore, yet he never relaxed his watchfulness. He neither ate nor drank. He simply sat and watched the despatch-box.
At Calais the same programme was repeated, only this time, without speech but as though by previous arrangement, the two man shared his coupé in the train. Stourton, ignoring their presence, behaved exactly as though he had only himself to rely upon. With the despatch-box upon his knees, covered over by a thick travelling-rug, he sat alert and sleepless throughout the whole of the journey. Still nothing happened. Paris was reached without incident.
Here on the platform the two men closed in upon him, one on either side. Although they had no luggage, they chartered a small station omnibus, and a few minutes after the arrival of the train they were on their way to the British Embassy. The grey twilight of dawn was already breaking over the city, but there were traces still on the boulevards of the excitement which throughout the night had kept the streets and cafés thronged with people. The news from the East had stirred Paris in the same degree as London. Everywhere it was agreed that a favourable reply from England to the appeal of her ally must mean war, and already momentous steps had been taken. Stourton smiled slightly as he looked in upon one of the still brilliantly lit cafés. He carried the news which was to decide the question of peace and war. A word from him, and these people might have gone quietly home to their beds. And that word was to be spoken during the next few minutes.
The omnibus drew up at last before the great white stone front of the Embassy. The three men alighted, and his two companions watched Stourton admitted. Then, raising their hats slightly, they turned away. Their errand was finished.
Stourton breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped inside the hall.
"Is Sir Charles better, Morton?" he asked the man who admitted him.
"His Excellency is complaining of his head a good deal, Mr. Stourton," the man answered. "Monsieur Camillon sent for him about midnight, and has only just returned. You will find him in the study, sir. He gave orders that you were to go straight in immediately you arrived."
Stourton did not hesitate for a moment.
Already he was beginning to think of his bath and a whisky-and-soda. A few more such errands as this, and even his nerves would suffer. He crossed the hall at once and entered the study.
The room was dimly lit, but a familiar figure rose at once from the couch.
"At last, Stourton. Come here to my desk, and we'll have some more light. You have the despatches?"
"You are better, Sir Charles?" Stourton asked, as he drew out his keys and laid the box before him.
"Better, but abominably ill," the Ambassador answered wearily. "Everything here is in a ferment. Camillon has lost his head. There isn't a man in the Cabinet who can discuss the position of affairs calmly. What is it to be, Stourton?"
"Peace, Sir Charles," Stourton answered. "The whole thing will fizzle out in a few days. As a matter of fact, I think even you will be surprised at the message you will have to carry to Camillon."
"You have it there? Good! Ring the bell and order a carriage. I am nearly beside myself with pain, but Camillon is waiting."
Stourton glanced at the clock. It was barely six. Sir Charles was certainly in a very queer way. His voice sounded hoarse and unnatural. His movements were the movements of a man racked with pain.
"It will take me an hour, sir, to reset the cipher," Stourton said. "In case of urgency I have the gist of the whole matter in a verbal message. Would it not be well if you delivered that unofficially to Monsieur Camillon, and I would undertake to have the despatch copied for you by eight o'clock?"
"It is a good idea," Sir Charles said wearily. " Give me your message."
"It is short enough," Stourton answered. "You are to assure Monsieur Camillon that England refuses absolutely to recognise China as a Power, and the fact of her alliance with Russia, although a source of regret to us, does not come within the scope of our obligations. We pledge ourselves not to move a single warship eastwards or to act in any way so as to disturb the present balance of power."
"The news," Sir Charles said quietly, "is good. Be so kind, Stourton, as to ring the bell. I will be off at once."
Stourton moved to the bell, and Sir Charles, drawing up the blind, for a moment looked down upon the street below. But though his fingers rested for a moment upon the knob, Stourton never pressed it. When Sir Charles turned round, he looked into the muzzle of a revolver.
"Are you mad, Stourton?" the Ambassador asked, taking a quick step back.
"I am not sure," was the calm answer. "At any rate, I am taking no risks. If you move a step backwards or forwards, I shall fire!"
Sir Charles became at once as motionless as a lay figure. Stourton leaned forward and switched on the electric light all round the room. Then he moved towards Sir Charles. He was beset by a horrible perplexity. He had either made a must ghastly blunder, or he was the victim of an extraordinary piece of necromancy.
"Tell me the cipher exchange for March!" he asked with dry lips.
Sir Charles shrugged his shoulders.
"Your journey seems to have upset you, Mr. Stourton," he said calmly. "Be so good as to address me, if at all, with more respect."
"The cipher exchange--for March," Stourton repeat«d doggedly.
Sir Charles laughed shortly,
"Do you imagine," he said, "that I am going to submit to a cross-examination from you? Have done with this folly, Mr. Stourton. Stand aside and let me pass!"
"You do not go alive from this room," Stourton answered hoarsely, "until--until--"
He leaned forward, and a sudden cry broke from his lips.
"If you attempt to escape, I shall shoot you like a dog!" he cried. "You are not Sir Charles. You are a wonderful masquerader, I admit, but that is what you are--an impostor. Come, off with your mask! Who are you, and what do you expect to get by this? Remember, you are covered, and I shoot straight. What have you to say?"
Sir Charles laughed--and at the sound the sweat broke out on Stourton's forehead.
"You there I" he gasped. "Where is Sir Charles? If you try to escape, I'll kill you!"
"Escape, my dear nephew-in-law?" was the smiling reply. "How is it possible? I am not armed, and I am not fond of firearms. Escape! Why should I think of such a thing? I am interested here--interested and even amused."
Stourton was past taunts. To think that he had been outwitted after all was maddening, but his anxiety kept him cool.
"Where is Sir Charles?"
"Doubtless at Monsieur Camillon's," was the suave answer. "I believe that the first arrangement was that he should wait there for your coming. Unfortunately a violent attack of headache compelled Sir Charles--in my person--to return unexpectedly."
"And what do you propose to do now?" Stourton asked grimly.
Heslop Stanmore shrugged his shoulders.
"My young friend," he said, "I have no plans. I am in your hands. Lock me up if you will. Put me anywhere, so that, it is not necessary for you to stand with that diabolical little weapon pointed at my head."
Stourton walked to the door, locked it, and put the key in his pocket. Then he sat down in an easy-chair and tried to think.
All the time his eyes were fixed upon the pseudo-Ambassador.
"By means of a trick, more or less ingenious, certainly lucky," he said thoughtfully, "you have obtained from me some very valuable information. The question which puzzles me is, how are you going to profit by it? That information will be placarded all over Paris by midday, and until midday you will certainly remain--my guest."
"I see your difficulty, my young friend," he remarked. "Let me help you, if I may. I had a use for your information, provided its tenor had been different. Five minutes earlier knowledge of war might have meant a good deal to me. The pacific intentions of your government are simply of no interest to me. Take my parole, dispose of me as you will. I simply am not interested. If it had been more fateful news--that which you have so kindly vouchsafed to me--it might have been worth my while to have risked something to have got away. As it is, you may treat me as a harmless lunatic."
Stourton suddenly sprang up. He heard a familiar voice in the hall and a sound of footsteps. He unlocked the door, and almost immediately it was thrown open. Sir Charles entered. He addressed Stourton sharply.
"What infernal muddle is this?" he exclaimed. "Surely my instructions were clear enough? I have been waiting for you at Monsieur Camillon's."
"The explanation, sir, is there," Stourton answered, pointing to the further end of the room.
The Ambassador and the pseudo-Ambassador were face to face. Sir Charles gazed at his double in horrified silence. The latter, with a gently deprecating smile, appeared to be making a deliberate examination of the details of Sir Charles's dress and person.
"Heavens, sir! who are you?" Sir Charles exclaimed at last.
Stanmore waved his hand towards Stourton.
"This young gentleman will explain," he said suavely. "Forgive my close observation; I am always interested in these little studies of mine. I perceive that I have libelled you in one or two small details. The height and presence I could not hope to gain--I was obliged to remain seated; but it vexes me extremely that I should have parted my hair at least an inch too much to the left. Nevertheless, Sir Charles, I trust that you will not consider me altogether a caricature."
Sir Charles had regained his composure. He eyed him up and down grimly.
"On the contrary, sir," he said, " I congratulate you. The resemblance is at any rate close enough to warrant your acquaintance with a French prison. Now, Stourton."
Stourton explained rapidly. An immense relief came into the Ambassador's face as he delivered his message.
"Thank Heaven!" he exclaimed fervently. "I will go at once to Monsieur Camillon's, and take this effigy with me. No, I can't do that. We mustn't give ourselves a way. Keep him under lock and key, Stourton, till the news is on the boulevards, and then kick him out. Work out your draft despatch and send Blount round with it. He will be here in half an hour."
Sir Charles hurried away. Stourton took his troublesome connection up to his own quarters, made him relinquish his wig and moustache, and brought him back to the study. He established himself in an easy-chair with a little sigh of relief.
"If one might venture to suggest a cup of coffee--" he remarked; "and--Sir Charles does not smoke. I do. I have been suffering for the last two hours."
Stourton ordered the coffee and threw him his cigarette-case. He made himself quite at home. When he had finished his work, Stourton rose and faced him sternly. Already the din on the boulevards had commenced.
"Stanmore," he said, "this is the second time you have tried to ruin me. Now it is my turn. What is to prevent my handing you over to the police? You are here under false pretences. In the eyes of the law you are a burglar."
Stanmore shook his head.
"My young friend," he said quietly, "you know very well that you cannot do it. You dare not admit that you were--pardon me--so easily deceived. Your Embassy would be the laughing-stock of your fellow-diplomats. Besides, the French police know me. They would examine the charge with perfect gravity--and release me!"
"If I let you go," Stourton said, "will you give me your word of honour to leave me alone in future? Try your tricks on someone else, if you will. I've had my share. I am fond of the Service, and I have had two narrow escapes--through you. Give me your word of honour that this shall be your last escapade where I am concerned, and you can go."
Stanmore shook his head gravely.
"My dear Stourton," he said, "believe me, in your own interests, I cannot do this. You are, I am pleased to say, a connection of mine, and I am very much interested in your career. The two--er--incidents to which you have referred have brightened you up amazingly. You have no idea how much you have improved already. If I were to give you that promise, you would relax your vigilance at once. No, no! It is much better as it is. Always be on your guard against me. I may turn up at any moment."
Stourton opened the door in silence. His uncle-in-law walked out.
Sir Charles asked Stourton to lunch with him next day. The Ambassador was in the nervous state of a man just recovering from an immense strain, and in the midst of a shower of congratulations there was one point on which he was particularly irritable. He alluded to it as soon as they were alone.
"I don't like these stories of enormous buying of English Consols and French Rentes just an hour before Camillon issued the news," he said. "They say that it was one man on both markets. They watch that sort of thing at Downing Street. I only hope they don't suspect a leakage."
Stourton answered Sir Charles's unspoken thought.
"I did not let him go," he said, "till the news was on the boulevards."
Sir Charles grunted and dismissed the subject. But it came into Stourton's mind again when at breakfast-time one morning, about a fortnight later, Esther, with a cry of delight, opened a large morocco case.
"Ronald! Did you ever see anything so beautiful?" she exclaimed breathlessly.
Stourton was reading the note.
My dear Niece--and Nephew-in-law--
I have always felt that my wedding present was a most inadequate offering, and I hope that you will allow me, now that Fortune has been more kind, to make atonement. I do not often speculate, but I am thankful to say that my last venture was crowned with complete success.
My best regards to your husband. I envy his luxurious quarters at the Place Diplomatique. The view from Sir Charles's library down the Boulevard St. Antoine especially commends itself to me.
Believe me, my dear
Ever your affectionate Uncle.
Esther looked over her husband's shoulder.
"What does he mean, Ronald?" she asked, perplexed.
Stourton threw the note into the flames.
"I have not the least idea," he answered.
A DOZEN lanterns showed him the sea-stained, rotting steps. A chorus of hoarse, cheerful voices bade him welcome. A score of willing hands dragged him through a cloud of spray on to the wave-swept, creaking jetty. Then, as he stood for a moment to regain his breath, from somewhere behind in that thick, black gulf through which he had journeyed came the sound of a dull grinding, the crashing of timbers, the hideous, far-off shrieking of human voices. A rocket went hissing up into the darkness, piercing with a momentary splendour the black veil.
"By Heaven, she's broken in two!" a voice cried. "She's gone!"
The rescued man turned sharply round. The light of the rocket was waning, yet he was just in time to see the slow heeling over of the huge, indistinguishable mass which a few hours ago had been a splendid liner.
"You're the last one saved," someone muttered at his elbow. "The boat's going back, but it will be too late. God help the others!" The rescued man nodded solemnly.
"There are less than half-a-dozen left," he said, "and they had their chance. It was a big jump into the boats," he added. "Queer little cockle-shells they looked, too, from the deck. I've stood there for the last two hours, worrying the people in. I've thrown over a dozen, who dared not jump."
A clergyman pushed his way through the group. He was drenched to the skin, bare-headed, and breathless. He carried an old-fashioned lantern in his left hand. His right he extended to the dripping man, who stood there looking like a giant amongst them.
"I've heard of you, sir!" he exclaimed. "You're John Waters, I'm sure. You did a man's work there. There's a mother up at the vicarage now, with her two children saved, sobbing over them and blessing you. You rigged up a windlass, they tell me, and let them down. I only wish that I had room at my house for you, sir, but the whole village is packed."
"You're very good," the man answered. "I'm used to roughing it, and any place'll do for me. Somewhere near a fire, for choice; your salt water's chilly."
The clergyman raised his lantern and looked anxiously round the little circle of faces.
"We're seventy souls in the village," he said; "it's nothing but a hamlet, and we've found beds for over two hundred. We'll fix you up directly. I've one or two names left yet upon my list."
A slim woman's figure came battling her way along the jetty. She heard the clergyman's last words, and laid her fingers upon his arm. He turned sharply round. There were not many women about that night, and this one seemed frail and small to battle her way alone in the storm.
"My dear Miss Cressley!" he exclaimed. "How ever did you get here?"
"I couldn't rest at home," was the quiet answer. "It was too terrible. And I had no one to send. I want to be of use. Can't I take someone in—a woman, or some children? I have a spare room and a fire lit ready."
The clergyman gave a little exclamation of relief.
"My dear lady," he declared, "you are just in time. Here's our last man, and I was at my wits' end to know what to do with him. A hero!" he whispered in her ear. "He has saved no end of lives there. Bless you for coming, my dear, brave Miss Cressley," he added. "It's just like you—just the sort of thing you would do."
She gave a little start, and looked doubtfully at the tall, dripping figure. In his soaked clothes, his long brown beard, and his hair tossed wildly all over his face, he presented a somewhat singular appearance.
"My dear madam," he said, in his deep bass voice, "don't please refuse me because I am not a woman or a child. I'll give you less trouble than either, I promise you. I won't smoke or swear. I'll do whatever I am told, if I can only see something to eat, a bed, and a fire."
She held on to the railing of the jetty with both hands. Her voice sounded thin and quavery against the background of the storm.
"I shall be very glad to take you, and to do what I can," she said, a little doubtfully. "I mentioned a woman or child because I know more about them and their needs, and because I live alone. Will you come this way, sir?"
He turned and followed her, waving his hand in answer to a chorus of "Good nights." They passed down the sea-soaked jetty between a little line of curious, sympathetic faces, and reached the village. She led the way up the steep street, and looked into his face a little timidly.
"My cottage is close here, sir," she said. "It will only take us a few minutes."
A gust of wind almost swept her off her feet. He put out a great protecting hand and steadied her.
"One moment," he said. "Let me help you. So!"
He turned for a last gaze seaward. There was no sign of light or life upon the black chaos of waters—nothing save the clouds of white foam, flung up almost into their faces, and the sullen roar of the breaking waves.
"God help the rest of them!" he said, with a sudden note of reverence in his tone. Then he turned to his companion.
"Madam," he said, "I am ready."
Together they climbed to the summit of the hill. She gently disengaged her arm from his.
"I am so much stronger than I look," she declared, apologetically. "Really, I can manage quite well alone. My cottage is last upon the left. You can see the light. We shall be there in a moment."
He walked by her side in silence. She wondered, with a sudden perturbation, whether he were offended. His face was invisible; she could not tell that he was laughing softly to himself. Perhaps he was mistaken in her years. He had taken her for sixty, at least.
They reached a little wooden gate, over which he calmly stepped while she fumbled with the latch, passed up a trim garden path, and into the tiny hall of the tiniest cottage he had ever seen. Despite her warning, he bumped his head upon the ceiling. She turned up the lamp, and he looked around him a little ruefully. His size made the place appear like a doll's house.
"If you will step upstairs," she said, bravely disregarding his dripping state, "I will show you your room."
He looked at the stairs, with their neat carpet and shining brass rods, and he looked down at himself.
"Look here," he said, "haven't you a back kitchen where I can strip and have a rub down? You'll have to lend me a blanket while my clothes dry. Good Lord!"
He was looking at her in blank surprise.
"Is anything—the matter?" she asked, frightened.
He burst out laughing.
"Nothing!" he answered. "Only I thought that you were a little old lady."
She blushed desperately, and thrust back the curly waves of fair hair which had escaped in the wind. She was certainly not more than thirty or thirty-five, slim, with nice features and grey eyes, colourless, perhaps a little unnoticeable.
The laugh died away. He stood and looked at her as she turned to ascend the stairs, as one might look at a ghost.
"There are some clothes here which belonged to my father," she said. "Will you go to the room on the left? It is the kitchen."
"It is the little Cressley girl, of course," he said to himself, as he stood on the red tiles and reached out towards the fire. "Little Mary Cressley! Shy little baby she used to be."
Suddenly the smile spread once more over his face.
"Great Scot! I kissed her once!" he muttered. "Good thing she doesn't recognize me!"
She came back in a few moments with a bottle and an armful of clothes. He decided that she had been practicing a severe expression in the glass, but she avoided meeting his eyes.
"My father was a minister," she said, "and he was not quite so large as you; but you must please do the best you can with these clothes. There is a bottle of brandy here, and some hot water in the kettle there. When you have changed your clothes, if you call out, I will come and get supper ready."
He looked at the clothes, clerical and severe in cut, with a grin. She turned her back upon him and went out. He helped himself to the brandy and hot water, and then commenced to strip off his things. All the time he laughed to himself softly. He remembered the Rev. Hiram Cressley well, and the idea of wearing his garments appealed to his sense of humour.
He called out to her as soon as he was ready. She kept her face averted when she entered, but he could have sworn that he saw the corners of her mouth twitch.
"If you would step into the sitting-room," she said, "I will prepare supper."
He shuddered at the thought of the sitting-room.
"I'm such a clumsy fellow," he said. "I shall break half your pretty things. Couldn't we have supper in here?"
"Just as you like," she said, struggling to hide her relief.
He dragged the table into the middle of the room.
"Come on," he said; "I'm going to help."
In the night the wind died away, and the storm passed down the Channel, leaving behind a piteous trail of disasters, small and large. John Garland opened his window, and looked out with a little exclamation of amazement. The sky was a soft deep blue; the sunshine lay everywhere upon the picturesque village, with its red roofs and grey cottages, its background of hills and rolling moors. From the little garden below, all ablaze with colour, came sweet rushes of perfume—of lavender, of rose and pinks, all dashed and drooping with their burden of raindrops, glittering like diamonds in the sunshine. Garland drank it all in with delight.
"England at last!" he murmured, as he began to prepare for his ablutions. "Lord, what a doll's house this is! I feel as though I were going through the floor."
He dressed rapidly and hurried into the garden. Miss Cressley was there, busy tying up some of her dashed flowers. She started a little at his hearty greeting, and avoided his eyes. All night long her conscience had been troubling her. The memory of that supper was like a delightful scourge. She had been much too friendly. She had quite forgotten the impropriety of the whole thing, and had laughed and talked almost like a girl again. With the morning reflection had come—reflection like a cold douche. And with it other things! The perfume of the flowers, the soft west wind, the aftermath, perhaps, of the joyous evening, were creeping into her blood. Had she done anything so desperately wrong after all? It was the vicar himself who had sent this man to her. As she well knew, every cottage in the village was full. Still, her cheeks went furiously red at the sound of his voice.
"Why!" he exclaimed, "forgive me! Good morning!"
"You look different, somehow," he explained. "Forgive my noticing it. I've been so long in a world where manners don't count, that I've forgotten mine."
Her cheeks burned. She could not remain unconscious of what he meant. She had arranged her hair differently—she was tired of the old way—and her white dress was certainly her most becoming one. The cluster of lilac, too, which she had drawn through her waistband—it was so seldom that it pleased her to wear flowers!
"Won't you come in to breakfast?" she said, shyly.
"Breakfast! Hurrah!" he answered. "I'm afraid I'm eating you out of house and home, Miss Cressley."
She led the way into the sitting room, which seemed to him more than ever like a chamber in a doll's house. He sat very gingerly upon his chair, and was afraid even to move his legs. The moment the meal was over he escaped into the garden and produced a pipe.
"I'm off to the village," he announced, "to see some of the people. Won't you come?"
"Thank you," she answered, "I have things to do in the house."
"I'll do the marketing," he announced. "I'll send some things up for dinner."
"It is not in the least necessary," she declared, with her chin in the air.
He laughed in her face.
"Necessary or not," he declared, "either I do the marketing or I dine at the inn."
He was an impossible person to argue with—so big and strong and forceful. The things he said seemed somehow right because he said them. She gave in, and the magnitude of his purchases amazed her. He brought them up himself, wearing a ready-made suit of fisherman's clothes, and carrying the clerical garments in which he had started the day in a parcel under his arm. He took not the slightest notice of her protests, and he spent the next hour between the kitchen and the garden, strolling with his hands in his pockets and an air of being absolutely at home.
Three days passed—four. As yet he had not even alluded to his possible departure. At first she had wondered, had been gently troubled as to what the villagers might be saying about her entertainment of this good-humoured, easy-going giant. Gradually the place was being emptied of its unusual crowds. Surely, she thought, he must speak soon of his departure! And, with a sudden start of mingled shame and alarm, she realized that she dreaded the very thought of his absence.
She fled into her room and locked the door. With blurred eyes and beating heart she looked out seawards and fought against this folly—this folly which seemed to her so egregious, so unmaidenly. For ten years—ever since her father's death—she had lived there alone a life of prim and delicate orderliness, quietly useful to many people—a life, it seemed to her now, colourless, flat, impossible. She looked in the glass. Yes, she was a young woman still! Her cheeks were still pink, her eyes bright, her hair soft and full. With trembling fingers she took it down, rearranged it more after the fashion of her youthful days, and pinned a ribbon around her throat—ribbon of the colour which matched her eyes. After all, she was a woman. She had not sought this thing—it had come unbidden, undesired, she told herself, breathlessly. She had a right to do what she was doing. Nevertheless, her cheeks were hot with shame when she saw him again.
He was standing in the garden, reading a telegram, with a frown upon his face. She went out to him shyly, and he looked at her for a moment in amazement—as one might look at a ghost.
"Why—why, what have you done to yourself?" he exclaimed. "You grow younger every day! If only I could do the same," he continued, with a twinkle in his eyes, "you might remember the farmer's son as well as I remember the minister's daughter!"
She stared. Then a wave of recollection came to her. There had always seemed something familiar about his tone and manner.
"Why," she gasped, "you are John Garland—John who ran away from home!"
"I kissed you once, Mary," he said, "up the lane there."
She blushed furiously.
"I do not remember it," she said, mendaciously—a statement which was scarcely likely to be true, considering that it was the only embrace to which she had ever submitted.
"I'd like—" he began, and stopped. She was stooping over her roses.
"You have been away a long time," she said, softly.
"A long time," he repeated. "Everyone seems to be dead and gone. I am afraid I shall find the old country a lonely place."
"Luncheon is ready," she said. "Shall we go in?"
Afterwards he produced the telegram.
"This afternoon," he said, calmly, "I must go."
She caught at her breath. She could not keep the frightened look from her eyes, but she was able to control her tone.
"Isn't it a little sudden," she asked.
He nodded gloomily.
"I'm a man of affairs now," he said, "and I'm wanted."
She saw him off. She scarcely heard his farewell words. Every faculty she possessed was devoted to the desperate effort of preserving her secret. She saw him go, felt the touch of his fingers, heard the sound of his kindly voice, and turned away a little abruptly, just in time to hide the blinding tears. Then she walked back to her cottage, seeing no one, walking like one stumbling through a dream. It was very quiet, very peaceful, there. The smell of tobacco still lingered about her tiny hall. There was nothing else. Her knees shook as she fled up the stairs to her room.
Tragedy that year came not only from the sea, but from the land, to the little village of Pargeth. Dinneford's bank failed in the neighboring town, and half the village lost their savings. Mary Cressley lost more. She lost everything. When the winter came, and the worst was known, she found herself face to face with ruin.
She went to her landlord, a red-faced sporting solicitor of bibulous habits. She had known him all her life, and hated him. He had been expecting her visit, and received her a little grimly in his bare, untidy office.
He interrupted her timid explanations.
"I know all about it, Mary Cressley," he said. "Your money is lost—Dinneford's will never pay a farthing—and you can't pay your rent, eh?"
"Not just yet," she admitted.
"Not just yet or ever," he interrupted. "How should you pay it? You've got nothing."
"I was going to ask you to wait for a little time, and I would try and get some lodgers," she said.
He laughed scornfully.
"You'd get no one before the summer," he said; "and how do you suppose you're going to live and pay your rent out of boarders?"
"I can't think of anything else," she said, desperately.
"I can," he answered. "You must do what you'd have done years ago if you'd been a sensible woman—marry me!"
She rose at once to her feet.
"That," she declared, "is impossible."
"Is it?" he answered. "Well, then, it's also impossible for me to wait for my rent. I'll give you a week."
She went away without a word. For three days she hesitated. Then she sat down and wrote to John Garland. He had spoken truthfully when he said that he had become a man of affairs. His name was everywhere in the papers lately—the new Colonial millionaire, the owner of gold-mines and townships. Pargeth, it seemed, had entertained a Prince in disguise.
She wrote the letter, and as soon as she had finished it she tore it up. Her head was buried in her arms.
"I can't!" she moaned. "I can't!"
Then legal documents came to terrify her. A man made an inventory of all she possessed—a man who handled her precious pieces of china as though they had been jam-pots, and even counted her household linen. The terror came again! She thought of the workhouse—the cold, grey building on the hillside—its bare rooms, the long-drawn-out days of agony. Again she wrote to John Garland. This time she would have posted the letter, but Fate sent in her way a newspaper. She learned that he had purchased a great county estate, and announced his intention of marrying. The name of the lady was mentioned—the daughter of a poverty-stricken peer, a reigning beauty for several seasons.
Mary tore up her letter and went down to look at the sea. If only she had the courage!
Her landlord, Peter Sewell, came once more—the night before the sale. He was flushed, and he smelt of drink. He talked in a loud voice, and he had a good deal to say about her folly. In the end she turned him out of the house. It was her last luxury, and she enjoyed it.
There were barely a score of people at the sale. Amongst them was the vicar, flushed and anxious, with a little list in his hand which he kept consulting. When the auctioneer mounted his chair the vicar for a moment intervened.
"May I," he said, turning to face the few people, "say just one word? You all know the painful circumstances under which this sale has become necessary. You all know very well our dear friend, Miss Mary Cressley. A few of us have subscribed to buy her furniture, and thus keep a home for her amongst us until the spring. Pargeth, unfortunately, is not a rich place, and the sum which we have been able to collect is, after all, very small. But I should like you all to know that when I bid, I bid for those who wish to return to this dear lady her few household goods."
There was a sympathetic murmur from the bystanders, a nod of approval from the auctioneer, and a growl from Sewell. A red-faced lady, who kept the inn, turned indignantly towards him.
"What I say is, let the poor lady keep her bits and bobs of furniture!" she exclaimed. "Who'd be the better off for them, I should like to know? And what's a matter of a bit of rent behind, eh? Hasn't she lived here respectable, and paid her way, all her life? Shame on them as is pressing her like this, I say."
Sewell turned upon them all a little fiercely.
"Look here," he said, "there's been enough of this sentimental rot. This is a business meeting. Get on with the sale, Cobb. If any of you think you're going to indulge in a little cheap charity, you're wrong. I'm here to buy myself. Now then, Cobb."
The sale proceeded. The vicar bid timidly for the first few lots. Sewell scornfully outbid him and secured them. Then there was a commotion outside. A great motor-car had swung up to the door. A man, head and shoulders taller than most of them, pushed his way in.
"What the devil's the meaning of this?" he exclaimed, looking around.
The vicar recognized the new-comer and scented a friend. He ignored the expletive. In a few words he made the situation clear.
"Right!" John Garland said, leaning his back against the wall. "You can leave the bidding to me, vicar. I'll take a hand in this."
Sewell glared across the room.
"Cobb," he said, turning to the auctioneer, "remember this is a cash affair. You can't take bids from strangers without the money." John Garland laughed dryly, though there was little sign of humour in his face.
"My name is John Garland," he said. "I've a thousand pounds in my pocket, a few hundred thousands in the bank, and a few million behind that. Like to examine these notes, Mr. Auctioneer?" he added, holding a packet out to him.
The auctioneer waved them away.
"Quite satisfactory, Mr. Garland," he said.
"Go on with the sale," Sewell shouted. "Confound you! I'll make you pay for your interference!"
No one else thought of bidding. Without turning a hair John Garland paid twenty pounds for a tea-pot and seventeen for a china ornament. Then came the piano. Sewell started it with an evil smile.
"Ten pounds!" he said.
"Absurd!" Garland murmured. "Twenty!"
"Thirty!" Sewell replied.
"Fifty!" Garland bid.
The room became breathlessly still. These were sums which belonged to fairyland. The last bid was Sewell's—one hundred and forty pounds. Garland paused for a moment.
"Is that Mr. Sewell's bid?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," the auctioneer answered, waiting.
Garland leaned over and struck a few notes upon the piano—a miserable, worn-out affair, barely worth the amount of the first bid. He shook his head.
"I don't believe Miss Cressley cares about this piano much," he said. "Half the notes seem to be gone, too. I think I'll let Mr. Sewell have it."
There was an instant's breathless silence—then an angry exclamation from Sewell, drowned in a roar of laughter from the company. The auctioneer's hammer descended.
"It's a rascally swindle!" Sewell roared. "I sha'n't pay for it. Put it up again."
John Garland smiled.
"I certainly didn't pledge my word to buy everything," he said. "I dare say there'll be pickings for you, Mr. Sewell."
Sewell flung himself out of the room, and the sale was over in half an hour. The vicar wrung John Garland's hand.
"God bless you, sir!" he said. "You couldn't find a better use for your money than this, I promise you. She's the sweetest, most unselfish little lady that ever breathed."
"Glad to hear you say so, sir," Garland answered. "I'm going to marry her to-morrow."
The vicar looked amazed.
"My dear Mr. Garland!" he exclaimed.
"Quite correct," Garland continued. "I've a special licence here. I suppose you can arrange it some time to-morrow?"
The vicar took the document into his fingers.
"To-morrow is Christmas Eve," he said, "and they'll be busy decorating all day. But I dare say we can manage it," he added, with a smile. "By the by, is it a secret?"
"You can tell anyone you like," John Garland answered, "except Miss Cressley, in case you should see her first."
"Doesn't she know?" the vicar gasped.
"Not yet!" John Garland answered.
Late in the evening Mary Cressley came stealing back from the farm on the moors where she had spent most of the day. A fine snow was falling, and a cold wind blew through her thin clothes. She remembered that there would be no furniture nor any fire in her stripped home, and a sob came into her throat. Perhaps they would have left a rug or something—her clothes she was not sure about. Tears dimmed her eyes as she made her way down the little lane. It was her last home-coming.
Below were the lights of the village—cheerful enough—the ringers were practising a Christmas peal, the sound of the bells came with extraordinary distinctness through the clear air. Then she turned the corner and gave a little start of surprise. There were lights in her own cottage. Some neighbors must be there!
She walked more slowly. When she reached the gate she peered in, and her heart almost stopped beating. The furniture was all there! Nothing had been taken away!
She began to tremble. She scarcely knew how she pushed open the door. From the kitchen came a pleasant smell of cooking—the parlour door was open. She peered in. A great figure rose from his knees.
"It's this infernal grate again," said a familiar voice. "I can't make the thing go. Never mind. Supper's ready in the kitchen."
She swayed upon her feet.
"Mr. Garland!" she exclaimed.
"May as well call me John," he answered, "as we're going to be married to-morrow."
She fell into his arms. Her hat was crushed, and the little fair curls came tumbling out over her ears. He took the pale face in her strong hands, and kissed her upon the lips.
"Mary, you little fool," he said, "why didn't you send for me?"
"I didn't know," she murmured, weakly. "I thought you were going to be married."
"So I am, to you, to-morrow," he answered. "I've fixed it up with the vicar. Come in to supper and I'll tell you all about it."
He led her out of the room, his arm around her waist. She forgot that she had ever been wet and cold and lonely. For a moment she believed that she had died upon the moor and been taken up into heaven. And then he kissed her once more upon the lips, and she knew that she was on earth!
THE MAN who was lurking in the shadows, close to the heavy curtains which shielded the windows, glanced impatiently at the clock for the third time. It seemed impossible that time could move so slowly. It was barely five minutes since he had clambered in through the window and hidden himself in the silent room. Five minutes! Surely an eternity!
He had none of the coolness of the practised criminal. He was forty-seven years old, and for the first time in his life he was prepared to lift his hand against his country's laws. No wonder that his lips were dry and his breath came in a little short. It was no small thing, this, which he had in his mind. A man's life lay at the end of it.
The room was large, and handsomely furnished. Save for the somewhat conspicuous absence of books, it was the typical library of an English suburban residence. There were handsome prints upon the wall, little statuettes--not ill-chose--upon the mantelpiece, a soft, rich carpet, and several pieces of heavy, solid furniture. In a corner of the room stood a writing-table of dark walnut wood. There were papers there--laid out as though in readiness, a green-shaded lamp, the photograph of a woman, a bowl of roses.
The man who waited felt himself grow harder and colder as the moments went by. So this was where he sat, then, this enemy of his! In this room, probably, that his own ruin had been worked. John Wilkinson felt in his pocket, and his finger closed upon the butt of his revolver. There was no pity in his heart for the man whom he had come to kill. There was nothing but an intense desire to get the thing over--to meet him face to face, to say those few words, and to shoot! Others might call it murder. He knew very well that it was but an act of common justice.
The clock ticked, and a corner of the burning log fell on to the open fireplace. Then at last came a sound from beyond. A door somewhere in the house was opened and closed. Footsteps were coming along the passage. The man's whole frame stiffened. He stole out from his hiding-place and stood waiting.
It was a woman who entered, a woman tall and fair, dressed for the evening, with jewels upon her throat and bosom, only partially concealed by the open cloak of white lace which she wore. The man would have stolen back to his hiding-place, but it was too late. The woman saw him, and stopped short. She looked at him in amazement.
"Who are you?" she asked. "What do you want?"
"A few words with your husband," the man answered.
"With my husband?" the woman repeated. "But he told me that he was expecting no one except his secretary to-night. Does he know that you are here?"
"No!" the man answered.
She turned up the lamp and looked at him more closely. He was tall and thin, and, although his face was not the face of a criminal, there was something in his expression and the nervous tenseness of his answers which alarmed her. She moved swiftly towards the bell, only to find her arm grasped by his fingers.
"Madam," he said, "you must not ring that bell. I have a few words to say to your husband. If he knew that I were here he would not see me. I cannot allow you to interfere."
The woman stood for a moment looking at him, and the fear in her heart grew.
"How did you get in?" she asked.
"Through the window," he answered, grimly.
She opened her lips, but his hand swiftly closed them.
"Madam," he said, "I am not going to allow you to ring the bell. If you call out, you know very well what will happen. Your husband is in the adjoining room, and he will be the first to rush in. The moment he crosses the threshold I shall shoot him through the heart. Understand that. If you call out, you bring him to his death."
He released her. She stood looking at him with white, scared face, but his words had had their effect. She made no further attempt to raise an alarm.
"Sit down in that chair," he said, "and be quiet. I am sorry you came, but since you are here I cannot afford to let you go." She recovered a little of her courage. After all, the man's face was not an evil one.
"What do you want with my husband?" she asked. "What are you going to do?"
The man laughed--a little nervous, dry laugh.
"An act of justice," he answered. "It's rough luck on you that you should be here, especially as he is your husband. You'd better go over to the window when you hear him coming."
Once more the horror seized her. She read the purpose in his face.
"You have come here to commit murder?" she cried.
The man smiled bitterly.
"I have come to kill your husband, madam," he said, "if that can be counted as murder."
She shrank away from him.
"You are mad," she faltered. "You know what happens to murderers. You will be hung!"
"I think not," he answered, indifferently. "I have friends below waiting to help me, and I shall try to escape. If I fail, I shall shoot myself. As well that as a beggar! Listen!"
He leaned forward towards the door. The woman, too, strained her ears. At the moment she would have screamed, but her voice seemed paralyzed. The man's eyes were upon her. She opened her lips, but no sound came.
"A false alarm!" he remarked, coolly. "Never mind. He cannot be much longer."
"Tell me why you want to kill him?" she faltered.
"Because he is Philip Angus, millionaire, and I am John Wilkinson, beggar," the man answered, bitterly.
The woman's courage seemed to be returning. Her eyes flashed; she drew herself a little more erect.
"You coward!" she exclaimed. "Because my husband has been fortunate, where you have been unfortunate, you would steal in here like a thief, and kill him without a moment's warning! You shall not do it. I will throw myself in the way. You shall kill me, if you want a victim."
The man listened as one might listen to a child.
"If you have a life to throw away, madam," he said, "pray risk it if you will, but you will not save your husband. My revolver has six chambers, and it is very carefully loaded."
Once more the courage left her. She listened frantically for the footfall outside that she knew so well. He could not be more than a few minutes now! There seemed to be no sound whatever in the house, no sound to break the stillness but the ticking of the little clock which stood upon the table. A wild thought came to her.
"You want money!" she exclaimed. "Of course it is money that you want! You shall have it. Take my jewels. They are very valuable--very valuable indeed. They will make you rich."
Her hands were at her throat, but he stopped her with a gesture of contempt.
"You do me an injustice," he declared, coldly. "It is not money that I want, or your jewels. I want your husband's life. Let me tell you this--it is a terrible thing to say, it is a shameful thing for you to hear, but it is the truth. There are hundreds of men and women who, when they read to-morrow morning that Philip Angus is dead, will breathe the more freely."
"It is not true!" she muttered.
His face darkened.
"Madam, it is the God's truth!" he said, with a sudden note of fierceness in his tone. "Your husband is one of those who have made the name of a millionaire infamous. He has made a great fortune. Do you know how? I will tell you. He has built it up by lies, by deceit, by treachery. He hasn't even been faithful to his friends. He has filled his pockets with the savings of the working people whom he has ruined."
A shadow of indignation passed across the white, terrified face of the woman to whom he spoke.
"It is not true!" she declared. "It is not true!"
The long, lean figure of the man seemed suddenly to expand. His eyes blazed. He reminded her for the moment of some Biblical character--some prophet, whose words were charged with woe.
"Madam," he cried, softly, "it is God's truth! Do you need to be told what your husband's reputation is? Are there no newspapers? Isn't it in the air wherever you go? Can you look me in the eyes and pretend to be ignorant of it? There isn't a jewel on your body that's honestly earned. Oh, I daren't think of it, or I know that I should kill you, too, where you stand, for the things you represent!"
Once more the woman looked toward the door. His coming was long delayed. Was it a good or evil omen, this? "Shoot me, then!" she muttered. "I am not afraid."
The man shook his head.
"No!" he said. "I have no quarrel with you. It is your husband whom I am going to save from one last sin. I am going to kill him before he can sign those papers."
"What papers?" she demanded, eagerly.
"Nothing that you would understand," he answered. "They simply represent just one more of those wonderful deals which go to the loading of your body with jewels, and bring honest men to this."
He dropped his hand for a moment. Her eyes were fixed upon his face almost hungrily. All the time she sought for some sign of weakness.
"You mean the Bridgport hills amalgamation?" she asked.
"Yes!" he answered. "You know something of his affairs, after all, then?"
"Yes--yes, I know something!" she admitted. "What have you to do with the Bridgport Mills?"
The man's whole frame stiffened. His eyes flashed. He spoke rapidly--almost fiercely.
"What have I to do with them? God in heaven! Why, they're my mills. I am John Wilkinson, who went to Bridgport with two hundred pounds, saved from my wages, and started business twenty-five years ago in a shed. I made money honestly. I found employment for hundreds of poor people, who earned wages which they had never dreamed of earning before. Bridgport was a poor place when I went to it. I have made it a prosperous city. My works are the finest in the country. My workpeople are the best paid. I was prosperous, honest, and respected. Then your husband comes upon the scene! He knows nothing of manufacturing, nothing of those honest and legitimate means by which a man can earn wealth for himself, and at the same time add to his country's prosperity. Your husband came like a great spider, hungry for blood, for money with him is the blood of all things. One by one he bought up my competitors. Before I had time to realize what was happening, there was a great trust formed against me. I had money and I had credit, the money and credit of an honest man. But what are these against the weapons with which your husband fights? They are gone, both of them. My mills will close down this week until he chooses to open them. Even my name will be his, to wheedle money out of poor investors, to make a great gambling scheme of an honest business. You were right, madam. It is your husband who has been fortunate, and I unfortunate. But there is a price that he must pay."
The man paused, breathless. She leaned towards him.
"Supposing he doesn't sign those papers?" she asked, eagerly.
"He never will," the man answered.
She listened once more, and wrung her hands.
"Oh, you can't mean this!" she exclaimed. "It is too horrible! Besides, what do you gain? If you kill him, this deal will go through all the same. It VAR make no difference to you; someone else will take his place. The papers will surely be signed--if not by him, by another. Give me a few minutes. Let me talk to him. I have influence. Often he does as I wish. I will plead with him."
The man shook his head.
"Many have tried to plead with Philip Angus," he said. "What have they gained by it?"
"But I am his wife!" she cried. "I can do more than anyone else in the world with him. Give me ten, five, even three minutes!"
The man laughed--a hoarse, unpleasant sound.
"Three minutes," he exclaimed, "to melt Philip Angus!"
The woman clutched at his arm.
"Remember that I am his wife," she cried. "Let me try. Oh, let me try! A few minutes can make no difference to you. If you stand over there by the curtains, he will never see you. He is almost blind."
She stopped suddenly and turned her head towards the door. A little moan broke from her lips.
"He is coming," she whispered, hoarsely. "You will give me those five minutes! You must--you must!"
The man hesitated--hesitated gravely and deliberately. One gathered from his appearance that it was not a matter of weakness--only of calculation. In the end he pointed toward the clock.
"You see the time? When the clock strikes, your husband dies. Until then, I will hear what you and he have to say together. Hush!"
He stole softly away towards the curtains. The advancing footsteps were now clearly audible. The woman turned towards the door with a little sob.
"So few minutes," she said to herself, "and Philip sometimes is so difficult. God help me! God give me words--show me how to move him. Ah, Philip!"
The door was opened at last. A tall, thin man, in dinner-clothes and smoking jacket, entered and paused for a moment on the threshold. He wore heavy spectacles and carried a stick, with which he seemed to feel his way.
"Margaret!" he exclaimed. "Where on earth are you? They told me that you were here."
She moved towards him impulsively.
"I have been waiting for you, Philip," she said. "I came in to say good-bye. How long you have been! Let me take you to your chair."
He suffered her arm to rest upon his shoulder, but he frowned a little at the inference of her speech.
"Thank you," he said. "But I am not quite blind yet. You are alone, then? I thought I heard voices."
He seated himself before the table and took up the topmost of the papers that lay there in readiness. She lingered by his side.
"Quite alone, dear," she said. "I was reading. I have been reading those documents."
"Dry work for you, my dear," he answered, calmly.
"I have been reading," she continued, a little tremulously, "of the Bridgport Mills amalgamation. You are not angry, are you?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Angry? Of course not! But why do you bother your pretty head about business? Where are you going to-night?"
"I was going," she began, "to Lady Purcell's box at the Opera, but--but--"
"Ah, to the Opera!" he interrupted. "I see you have your jewels on. Good girl! They look well on you, Margaret."
"Do they, Philip?" she murmured.
"No one in the world, mind," he continued, impressively, "can have finer stones than you have in that necklace. In a few days' time, perhaps," he added, glancing fixedly at the paper upon which his hand was still resting, "I may be able to make you a little Christmas present which you will find worth accepting."
She shuddered a little.
"Philip," she said, "I want no more presents. I told you that I was going to the Opera. I have changed my mind. I have a headache. I don't want to go. I want to talk to you instead."
He accepted her decision with the equanimity of a man of placid temperament married to a woman of many caprices. "Capital!" he said. "Well, I'll just sign these things, and then we'll have a cosy chat."
He took up his pen, but her hand suddenly covered the place where he would have set his signature.
"Philip," she said, "it's about those papers I want to talk to you. Don't sign them."
He turned round in his chair, looking at her in amazement.
"Don't sign them!" he exclaimed. "Why, my dear girl, what do you mean?"
She kept her hand firmly pressed upon the blank space.
"Philip," she said, "you know that I read these over to you when they came up from the office. I have been thinking it all over. You are to buy the mills and machinery and everything, aren't you, for a trifle--seven thousand pounds, or something like that--just as much as the people owe?"
"And they are worth?" she asked.
"To us," he answered, "to the corporation, that is, anything up to a hundred and fifty thousand pounds."
She drew a little breath, and glanced behind her uneasily. That somber-looking figure had drawn a little closer, or was it only her fancy?
"I suppose, then, Philip," she went on, feverishly, "that you have these people--these Bridgport Mills people, I mean--cornered? They can't keep on in business against you? They must either sell or fail?"
Her husband nodded.
"Precisely!" he remarked. "The thing has been engineered in a thoroughly satisfactory manner. They never really had the ghost of a chance."
She drew a little closer to him. Her right arm had stolen around his neck.
"But, Philip," she protested, "I do not understand. These are honest men, are they not, who built up this concern? They had a right to refuse to join you if your terms did not suit them."
The man shrugged his shoulders.
"A right? They had a right, of course. The only trouble was that they ran up against a stronger corporation."
She looked earnestly into his face.
"Tell me, Philip, is this quite honest?" she asked, fearfully.
The slight frown upon his forehead deepened. His voice became almost harsh.
"Honest? What on earth do you mean, Margaret? Honest? I don't recognize your use of the word."
She took up the papers for a moment and replaced them.
"I am thinking of the man whose name appears here--John Wilkinson," she said. "You are ruining him to make another fortune for yourself. I am thinking of his wife and family, Philip. Is it worth while? We don't need the money."
He looked at her as one might look at a child.
"My dear Margaret," he said, "everyone needs money. Very often the more you have the more you need. We'll talk about this presently. Harrison wants these papers down to-night."
He turned a little round in his chair, took up his pen, and dipped it in the ink. Her hand closed upon his feverishly. She glanced around into the shadows of the room. Slowly creeping nearer, she saw the figure she dreaded.
"Philip, you shall not--you shall not!" she exclaimed. "I don't want you to sign those papers."
For the first time he showed signs of distinct annoyance.
"You are hysterical!" he exclaimed, shortly. "The papers must be signed--and in a very few minutes."
"Philip, don't do it," she begged. "Call it a whim of mine. We have enough money. Send for this man Wilkinson, and let him run his mills for himself; or give him a fair price for them."
A fair price! He stroked his wife's hair indulgently. How could one reason with a person so ignorant of every law of finance?
"My dear heart," he said, soothingly, "this comes of a woman trying to understand business. You don't even understand the first axioms of barter. A fair price is the very least you can get the other man to take. It has no relation whatever to value. That is another matter."
She glanced at the clock, and back into the room. The ineffectiveness of her words made her almost hysterical.
"Philip, you are wrong, dear!" she exclaimed. "I do not often ask you for anything," she continued, a little wildly. "I beg you to listen to me now. See, I am on my knees. I have been thinking of the wives and children of these men. The jewels you gave me would seem always like their tears. I could not wear them. I should hate them. Think, Philip, if you were this man John Wilkinson, and I your wife. Think what it would mean if we had to go out into the world again, penniless."
He laughed dryly.
"My dear girl," he said, "you do not flatter me. I can assure you that I should never have placed myself in such a position."
"Dear, you cannot tell!" she exclaimed. "Don't you think that sometimes we--you and I--take life a little too easily? It is all so engrossing. It runs away with us. If we were to die to-night," she continued, nervously, and with a quick glance behind; "if we were to die to-night, Philip, you or I, would you feel that your hands were quite clean if you had signed those papers?"
"Why not?" he answered, sharply. "We are all here to do the best we can for ourselves."
"And for others, Philip!" she cried.
He drew a little sigh, as of one anxious to be tolerant, and yet tried beyond his powers of endurance.
"The man who was in business with those Utopian ideas, my dear Margaret," he said, "would very soon go under. You are talking about matters which you do not understand. Business is a great duel, in which the weapons are brains and opportunity. The man who fails to make use of both goes down. The rules of the game are thoroughly understood. Both sides go in with their eyes open. There is no quarter to be given or expected. The man who allowed sentiment to even creep into his calculations, to weaken for one moment his arm when the time came to strike, would be crushed to death on the spot. The fittest survive, the weakest go under. I don't make the rules, but there they are. If you play the game you must abide by them."
Once more he took up the pen. Despair held her nerveless for a moment. The clock had begun to strike! She dared not look round. Already she fancied she could hear stealthy footsteps.
She waved her hand frantically towards the unseen intruder. Then she wound her arms around her husband's neck and breathed for a moment more freely.
"Philip," she cried, "listen to me. I have been a good wife to you. I have begged for nothing as I am begging now. I may know nothing about business, but sometimes we women see the truth, even when it is hidden away in the darkest corner. I see the truth now, Philip," she continued, straining his face towards her. "I see it as though heaven itself were open. What are all these things worth--gold and jewels, the pride of great possessions, the power of wealth? Even if you stand to-day with your hands upon the levers that guide the world, death may come to-morrow; death may come at this moment to you, to me, to either of us. What about your rules then? What advantage has the strong man over the weak? Whose tale will reach God's ear the sooner--the cry of the beggared victim or the triumph of the conqueror? Philip, my husband, my love! You are so wonderful, so clever. I am very ignorant, but I have seen the truth. Tear up those papers, dear. For God's sake, tear them up! Let us have done for ever with this accursed money-making, with these bargains which leave behind the trail of misery and broken hearts. Give them to me, Philip. Only an hour ago you asked me what I would have for my Christmas present. I \trill have those papers. I will have you promise me that this man John Wilkinson shall come into your trust on fair terms, or that he shall be allowed to run his mills in his own way and for his own good."
Angus hesitated. For her it was a moment of agony. Already, in imagination, she could see close behind her the shining muzzle of that levelled revolver. He was signing his own death-warrant! If only she could make him understand!
The seconds ticked on. With a little shrug of the shoulders he handed over the papers.
"You are trying me pretty high, my dear Margaret," he said.
"You consent?" she cried. "You must consent!"
"You have always chosen your Christmas gift," he said. "We cannot break precedent."
The pieces of torn paper fluttered down on to the carpet. She fell on her knees with a little sob of relief. He stooped down and kissed her lips.
"I wonder if you have any idea," he said, "how much that little Christmas present of yours has cost me?" She shook her head. Already her nervously strained ears had detected the closing of the window.
"There is another price," she murmured. "Thank God!"
THE two young men stood on the Embankment pavement. On their left the dark, turgid river, framed on the far side with a curving row of lamps; in the background a brilliant medley of sky signs; on their right, the two huge hotels, alight from basement to attic, pouring out warmth and brilliancy upon the chill November air. The younger and thinner of the two—also, by the way, the shabbier—pulled his companion by the arm.
"Richard," he exclaimed, "look! Our first walk in London is, after all, allegorical. We stand between the dark waters of despair and all the fire and splendour of life. We stand here with wet feet, cold, half starved, amongst the outcasts. Enough of it, Richard. There is no middle way. For me, at any rate, it shall be the pinnacles—or that!"
He pointed with a fierce downward gesture to the river. His companion—a youth of stouter build and more phlegmatic appearance—shook his head slowly.
"I am not sure that I agree with you, David," he said, slowly, "you want so much—you always have. I am ambitious, too, but I should be satisfied with something less than the topmost places, and nothing in the world would ever induce me to take my own life—nothing whatever!"
His companion laughed and dragged him along.
"Come," he said; "this is one of the backwaters of life. The whole place depresses me. Let us see what is on the other side of those palaces. Come quickly, Richard. You are always so slow."
They climbed the Savoy hill—tragical figures had they but known it—country lads called like moths to the candle by the far-off tumult of life. Three hundred miles north, the mother of David, wife of the Reverend David Barstow, Methodist and boot-maker, prayed by candle-light in her tiny bedroom for her truant son. And within a few hundred yards, Mr. Richard Skelmore, a grocer and coal-dealer, brooded in silence over his pipe, glancing sometimes into the fire, sometimes into the worn face of the woman who sat at the opposite corner of the hearth, pretending to darn his socks, weeping silently behind the shelter of her spectacles.
"Them boys'll come to no harm, mother," he said once. "They're young and strong. They can stand a lot of knocking about. Besides, from what one hears London's no such a bad place. There's money to be made there, and Richard's a shrewd lad. They'll come to no harm, mother."
His ++fife's reply was choked by a sob.
"Please God!" she murmured. "Please God!"...
Up the Savoy hill to the Strand, a few steps to the left, and they became entangled with the stream of carriages and motors turning slowly into the courtyard of the great hotel. Richard, diffident though stolid, would have hung back, but David laughed at his hesitation. Together they joined the supper-going throng. Speechless, they marvelled at the glossy silk hats, the white gloves, the strange uniformity of the men. But more wonderful still were the women—beautiful, fairy-like creatures, their lace skirts upraised as though to show their silk-clad ankles and satin slippers; women with golden hair and black, marvellously coiffured, flashing with ribbons or jewels, shaking perfume from their clothes which robbed the November night even of its dourness. Their voices, their laughter, their gestures were all strange. It was Venusberg to the peasant; the magic of it leaped through their veins. They pressed closer to the great glass front. They saw the splendour of the spreading vestibule, the blaze of lights, the banks of flowers, the women without their cloaks—bare-necked save for their jewels, the men in their immaculate dress-coats and white waist-coats, the servants with powdered hair and gorgeous livery. They even caught a whisper of the distant music—music which seemed to strike a keynote of this sudden glimpse of Paradise—thrilling, voluptuous, inspiring. David drew a long breath, a breath that came through his teeth like a sob.
"My father would call this Hell!" he whispered.
"Mine would never believe in such things," Richard muttered. "Man, it is wonderful."
Their presence became noticed, and a person in uniform—tall and splendid—swept them away. Loiterers were not allowed. Back into the Strand, into the streets, to the river—where they chose. David laughed harshly.
"Shall you ever forget that, Richard?" he asked.
"I shall never forget it!" Richard answered.
"They turn us away because we are poor!" David cried. "They are right! There is no place in this world for the poor! Some day we will come back, you and I, Richard! Some way or other we will forge the golden key!"
But Richard said nothing. His face was set and hard, and his eyes seemed to have grown closer together. But he, too, had sworn an oath!
Ten years of solid, strenuous labour, of dogged persistence, of mechanical industry which one by one overcame the barriers which guard promotion, slowly but surely Richard moved upwards. His clothes—characteristic clothes they were, too—marked his progress. He wore a silk hat now—a silk hat carefully chosen, bargained for, ironed every night himself by some secret process, glossier always than any other in the office, although none cost less. His trousers were freshly creased every morning in a home-made press. The age of his black coat—second-hand to start with—was incredible when one considered its smoothness and fit. His linen was a fraud, though its defects were hidden. His gloves—carried and never actually worn—seemed likely to remain new to all eternity. The great Mr. Driver, of Holmes and Driver, Holborn Viaduct, found nothing to complain of in the appearance of this young man whom he had just met by appointment in Spiers and Pond's bar at Cannon Street Station. He shook hands condescendingly. Richard had raised his hat.
"Until we have settled this little matter of business, Mr. Skelmore," the great merchant said, "it is just as well, perhaps, for your sake, that we are not seen too much together. My motor is outside, and, if convenient, I propose that we take our luncheon in the West-end."
"Just as you wish, Mr. Driver," Richard answered. "I am quite at your service."
So then, for the first time, Richard passed the threshold of the Milan Restaurant. A commonplace, insignificant young man, looking exactly what he was—a City clerk, a son of the people—took his place for the first time with those gayer and brighter children from the world he knew nothing of. He showed no signs of what he was feeling. His attitude of respectful attention to every word which fell from his companion's lips never wavered. And yet his heart was thumping against his ribs. It was premature—this. He had not meant to breathe this atmosphere as an outsider. He did his best to render himself unconscious of it—to forget the pleasant sense of warmth, the flutter of women's dresses, their soft laughter, the delicate cooking, the yellow wine. So far as he could, he steeled himself against his environment. Every day he lunched for sevenpence in a grimy hole underground, where the smells of countless dinners hung about the walls, where the few waiters were listless and dirty, where the appointments were coarse, the linen none too clean, and the gas burnt day and night. It was an interlude, this—no more. His day had not yet come.
"I see no reason, Mr. Skelmore," his host said, while they were waiting for a moment between courses, "why we should delay entering upon the subject which has brought us together. I understand that you are thinking of leaving the services of Messrs. Medbury, Smith, and Co.?"
"I am prepared to do so," Richard answered, cautiously, "if I can find a suitable position."
"And what," Mr. Driver asked, "should you consider a suitable position?"
Richard was silent for a moment.
"A suitable position," he said, slowly, "would be one where I should be paid, in actual salary or prospects, what I am worth."
Mr. Driver smiled. He had been told that this was a confident young man.
"Who is to decide," he asked, "that important question?"
"I shall be content to leave it to you, sir," Richard answered. "I will tell you only what I can do."
Mr. Driver nodded.
"That sounds reasonable," he said. "Please go on."
"Your turnover last year," Richard said, "was three hundred and forty-seven thousand pounds."
"How the deuce do you know that?" Mr. Driver exclaimed.
"Never mind," Richard answered. "The point is this. Next year I could raise your turnover to five hundred thousand pounds; the year after to seven hundred thousand pounds."
Mr. Driver raised his eyebrows.
"That's tall talking," he remarked.
"I speak within my figures," the young man said, calmly, producing a piece of paper from his pocket and laying it upon the table. "You will see transactions here, sir, to the value of two hundred thousand pounds. They have all been arranged by me. The blanks represent the source of supply and the customers' names. The day I joined your firm I could fill them in."
Mr. Driver glanced through the papers which his companion had gently pushed across towards him. He checked off item after item, and his opinion of the young man with the wooden face and close-set eyes underwent a sudden change. It was genius. There was no other word for it.
"I might add, also," Richard said, "that the credit of your firm being better than the credit of Messrs. Medbury, Smith, and Co., I could doubtless obtain more liberal terms for you than those figures show. I refer more particularly to the export department, of which I have had sole control, and where cash payments are much appreciated."
"Supposing we come to terms and take over this business," Mr. Driver asked, after a short pause, "what would become of Medbury, Smith, and Co.?"
"Their business would be ruined," Richard answered, calmly. "They would be in the Gazette in two years' time."
Mr. Driver looked curiously across the table at his guest. He was a hard, unscrupulous man himself, but such callousness moved even him. "I wonder you haven't approached them," he remarked. "They might give you a partnership."
"I should not accept it," Richard answered, deliberately. "They are on the downward grade. I prefer to associate with capital and enterprise. I want—to get on."
"I shouldn't wonder if you didn't," Mr. Driver remarked. "What salary are you getting now?"
"Four hundred a year," Richard answered.
"What do you want from us?" Mr. Driver continued.
"Five hundred a year, one per cent on the increase of your turnover, and a junior partnership in three years," Richard said, glibly.
"Prove your figures and it's a bargain," his companion declared.
Richard smiled for the first time.
"I am alone at the office after five this evening," he said. "You shall see the books. You can take any one of the items on that list and verify it."
They went out together half an hour later. A young man—pale, with dark eyes, clean-shaven, and with slightly worn features, rose suddenly from his chair and caught Richard by the arm.
"By Heaven, it's Richard!" he exclaimed.
"David!" the other exclaimed.
They shook hands. There was a moment's embarrassed silence. They had seen nothing of one another lately. Richard had been too engrossed for friendships.
"Curious that we should meet here, David," he remarked.
David laughed gaily, and pointed out of the window.
"That is where we stood," he remarked. "Have you been down below yet? Have you penetrated into the holy of holies?"
"Not yet," Richard answered.
"Nor I," David declared. "I'm afraid poetry will never take me there. You are doing all right?"
"Pretty well, thank you," Richard answered.
"We'll meet there some day yet," David declared, laughing. "Look me up when you've time. I change my abode pretty often, but I'm always to be heard of at the Wanderers' Club."
So they met and passed on, these two who had once been swayed by a common and passionate impulse. David was thoughtful for a moment. Then he turned to his companion—a middle-aged man, with classic features and flowing grey hair.
"Studley," he said, "that young man and I came from the same village in Westmorland. We literally ran away from home to make our fortunes. I remember the night after our arrival. We were walking along the Embankment—the river on one side, these palaces of light on the other. It was all fairyland to us. We were excited, emotional. We came over here, pressed our noses against the great windows, and watched the people going into the restaurant."
His companion laughed.
"I'd like to have seen you," he said.
"We were queer youngsters," David continued. "Remember that we came straight from a tiny village, that we had never even been in a town larger than Kendal, or seen a woman in evening dress. It was a sort of Arabian Nights to us—a Paradise, if you like. I remember even now how thrilled we were. I think we joined hands on our way homeward, and swore a common oath to attack the great citadel of Life from that moment. We went for our fortunes hammer and tongs, and I think that the height of our ambition at that time was to wear a swallow-tail coat, a white waistcoat, a white tie, and attend a lady with fair hair, a low-necked dress, black silk stockings, and high-heeled shoes down the corridor there and into the restaurant."
Studley laughed quietly.
"Your friend," he remarked, "seems to be still climbing. You, my dear David, might realize your ambition when you chose. If only you'll promise to write that story for me in the way I have pointed out, I'll advance you five hundred pounds on account."
David smiled. His eyes were suddenly fixed—reminiscent. He saw a country lane whose hedges were wreathed with honeysuckle and wild rose, a low privet hedge, more roses, pinks, and clematis, a cottage, and a girl. He smelt the new-mown hay. He heard the drowsy evening sounds. He heard the whisper of his own name as the girl came down the trim garden path. His lips parted—his smile became a laugh.
"Are you going to accept my offer?" Studley asked.
"Not I!" David answered. "I was just trying to think how Anna would look in a low-necked gown!"
There is a little space above the foyer at the Milan where the men-folk wait while their womenkind leave their theatre coats, smooth their hair, arrange their jewels, and bestow a final glance upon themselves in the long gilt mirrors before sallying forth to conquer. There David and Richard met once more, stared at one another doubtfully for a moment, and then exchanged embarrassed greetings. Richard had grown portly, his hair was a little grey, his cheeks were still pale, his eyes deeper set than ever. He was dressed in the very height of fashion—dressed, too, by a good tailor. His links and studs were all that they should be. His white waist coat was cut according to the fashion of the moment. His tie and collar were both correct. David, alas! fell very far short of such perfection. His dress-coat was a little shabby; his shirt had only one stud-hole and a distinct bulge; his tie, carefully arranged though it was, had evidently been through the cleaner's hands. His face, still thin, still a little worn, was brown with health; his mass of dark hair, sprinkled with grey, picturesque; his mouth and expression as delightful as ever.
"Queer thing that we should meet here, Richard!" he exclaimed, with a little laugh.
"It is certainly a coincidence," Richard declared.
David patted him on the back.
"I hear that you are a merchant prince," he said. "You look the part—you do, indeed, old man!"
Richard accepted the compliment unmoved.
"I have been fortunate," he admitted. "You remember we set our hands to the plough the same night."
"Remember! Of course I do," David answered, gaily. "Well, we've neither of us done so badly, eh? I'm a pauper still, but here and there a fool buys a copy of my poems, or an editor lets me spoil his pages. So I live! What can a man do more?"
Richard looked for a moment as though he scarcely understood.
"I am glad," he said, slowly, "that you are content."
"I am afraid my small measure of prosperity," he said, "would never satisfy you. Mine is a tiny income; but down in the country one doesn't need much. Studley is giving us some dinner here to-night—the editor I impose myself upon most frequently."
Richard—by the by, he was Sir Richard now—toyed with his gold chain for a moment.
"Your views on life," he said, with some show of curiosity, "have altered since we stood in the gutter and recorded our vow."
"Again and again," David laughed. "Thank God for it! What was a real picture to me that night has become allegorical. The gods have touched my eyes." Sir Richard said nothing. He did not understand. But it was envy, no doubt, which made his less fortunate friend of former days change his point of view. "You are married?" he asked.
"To the dearest little girl in the world," David declared. "You'll see her directly. By the by, I remember reading of your wedding. Half a column in the Morning Post, you lucky fellow!"
"I married the widow of my late partner," Sir Richard declared. "I am sorry that we are giving a dinner-party to-night, or I should have been glad for you to have joined us. We are entertaining the Lord Mayor unofficially—my wife's cousin. You will see our table as you go in—on the left, covered with pink roses."
"I'll look out for it," David declared, good-humouredly. "Ah, here's Anna!"
The women, curiously enough, came out together—as strange a contrast as any two figures in the ever-moving crowd. Lady Skelmore was short and stout. Her face, for all its coating of powder, was red; her hair, for all its blaze of diamonds, was stiff and ungainly; her gown of white satin was cut by a celebrated dressmaker, but her ladyship's instructions had been followed blindly and her figure was scarcely adapted to the Directoire style. Her neck blazed with jewels. She was very confident, very self-satisfied. And by her side came a tall girl, with large brown eyes and a sensitive, humorous mouth. She wore a simple black gown, which certainly was cut after the fashion of a few seasons ago. Her uncoiffured hair was arranged with the utmost simplicity. She wore no ornament nor any jewellery. Sir Richard did not flinch. The introductions followed and were duly acknowledged. Lady Skelmore, however, looked in something like amazement at this young woman whose acquaintance she had made. What was Richard about, she wondered! A girl here at the Milan in a home-made gown—such a cut—and not even a brooch! Lady Skelmore did not linger. She did not think it necessary to make any apology for her haste.
"My dear Richard!" she exclaimed, as they sailed through the foyer. "Whatever induced you to introduce me to such people?"
"I ran away to London as a boy with Barstow," he answered, apologetically. "I am afraid he has made rather a failure of things. But I came face to face with him there, and it was a little awkward."
His wife shrugged her profuse shoulders.
"One isn't likely to see them again," she murmured.
Anna was almost disturbed. The pleasure of her evening was threatened.
"David," she pleaded, "Is there anything wrong with me? Am I so very dowdy?"
David threw back his head and laughed—laughed like an angel.
"Here's old Studley!" he exclaimed. "Let's ask him!"
Southwards over the white roads, through the scented twilight, the great car with its two blazing eyes leaped and tore, always on fourth speed, always reckless alike of the police who challenged and the scattering crowds. On the front seat the chauffeur, leaning a little forward, and with face like a mask, sat alone. Inside was but one passenger—Sir Richard Skelmore, knight and member of Parliament. Richard was a little older now—a little shaken. The starch seemed to have gone from his frame, his cheeks were flabby, an unpleasant light was in his eyes. Sometimes he lifted the flap and looked behind. Sometimes he pored over the papers with which the little table in front of him was strewn. Sir Richard was ill at ease. He raised the india-rubber tube to his lips and spoke to the chauffeur.
"How far are we from Southampton, Murray?" he asked.
His tone was apologetic, for it was a question which he had asked often before. The man's answer, however, betrayed no sign of impatience. "Thirty-seven miles, sir. Good road all the way."
Sir Richard laid down the speaking-tube and drew a little breath between his clenched teeth. After all, there might be a chance! Then there was a sharp corner, a grinding of brakes, a shout, a crash, chaos! The car had run into a half-a-dozen stray cows. Sir Richard crawled out. The chauffeur, covered with dust, limped his way to the engine.
"We're done, sir," he announced, half sobbing. "I did my best, but we had to take risks."
"Can't you tinker her up?" Sir Richard asked, hoarsely.
The man almost laughed.
"Not in a week, sir," he answered. "If it could be done, I should do it, you may be sure. A hundred pounds was a fortune to me. I did my best."
Sir Richard filled his hand with gold. Money was of little use to him now. Then he started down the lane. He had some vague idea of walking, he scarcely knew where. Perhaps he would come to a town where he could hire a car.
He walked swiftly, but he was unused to exercise. There were no lights in front—no sign even of a village. How far could he walk, he wondered. Already his feet were weary. Perhaps there would be an inn soon. Then he came to a sharp corner in the road, and immediately afterwards a small house lying a little way back—a long greystone building, almost covered with clematis and creeping shrubs. He paused in front of it for a minute and looked in. The air was almost faint with the perfume of roses. There were sweet peas and clematis, tall hollyhocks and fragrant borders of mignonette. Sir Richard hesitated for a moment. Then he lifted the latch and walked quietly up the path. There were no blinds. The curtains of the little drawing-room were undrawn. He could see a man lying in a basket chair. A lady at a piano was just finishing a song, the last word of which floated out to him as he walked softly up the grass border. She came toward the man, who rose from his chair holding out his hands. He passed his arm around her waist and suddenly pushed open the French windows.
"Come out and listen, Anna," he said. "Perhaps our nightingale is singing."
They came face to face with Richard, standing like a statue in the middle of their narrow path—Sir Richard, bare-headed (for he had lost his hat in the accident) and with the rising moonlight full in his face. The two men gazed at one another in amazement, and David removed his pipe from his teeth.
"By Jove, it's Richard!" he exclaimed. "Sir Richard, I beg your pardon," he continued, with a whimsical laugh. "Do you really mean that you have come to see us? You must have dropped out of a flying machine," he added, looking outside for some trace of a vehicle.
Sir Richard cleared his throat.
"I was motoring to Southampton," he said. "We had an accident a quarter of a mile back. I was walking to where I could find a vehicle to take me where I could hire another motor."
David laughed reassuringly.
"My dear fellow," he said, "you can't get any farther to-night. There's no town within miles of us, and no one round here has a motor-car. We can put you up, and glad to. Come along in and let me give you a drink to start with."
Sir Richard shook his head. The black fear was upon him. He showed it in his white face and twitching lips.
"I can't stop," he said. "I must get on board my yacht to-night. To-morrow will be too late."
"To-night!" David repeated, in amazement. "But, my dear fellow, be reasonable. It isn't possible. Make the best of things and have a shake-down with us."
"Do, please, stay, Sir Richard," the lady begged, and, even in his terrible plight, Sir Richard knew that the voice was sweet.
"We will do our best to make you comfortable. I will see about some dinner at once."
She turned toward the house. Sir Richard let her go.
"Is anything wrong, Richard?" David asked.
"Everything is wrong," the other answered. "Don't you read the papers?"
"Never, if I can help it," David declared.
"I am ruined, and worse than ruined!" Sir Richard said, unsteadily. "Worse than ruined! Do you hear that? Can you understand now why I must be on my yacht to-night? It is that or a convict prison!"
David dropped the pipe he was holding. All the natural gaiety seemed to have faded from his face.
"Richard," he said, gravely, "is it as bad as that, really?"
"It is that—no more nor less," Sir Richard declared. "Have you a telephone to your house?"
"There is no telephone within ten miles," David answered. "Perhaps you could rest quietly here, and they would not find you."
Sir Richard looked about him alike a hunted man. A cart drove by, and he drew back into the shadow. The two men were close up against the window of the little drawing-room. Suddenly he gripped David by the shoulder and pointed in.
"You are a weak creature, David," he muttered. "Don't you remember that night when you dragged me up from the Embankment? Don't you remember swearing that for you it should be the pinnacles or the river? Why, man," he continued, "your words ate into my brain. They rang in my ears year after year. They were the motto of my life. Didn't I set myself to conquer fate—to become one of those whom we saw? Thousands by thousands I built up my fortune. I cared not a whit for the stepping stones. I made myself into a machine for money-making. The rungs of the ladder for me were as though they had never existed. Every action of my life was shaped toward that one end. I reached the pinnacles, David. I have been there. And you—you whose words spurred me on—you have been content with the lesser things. Curse you, David! I wish that I had never seen your face, or heard you speak!"
He had turned toward the road, listening once more, but David rested his hand lightly upon his shoulder.
"Richard," he said, "I was a young fool in those days; but you, too, you were not over wise. You did not understand. When we looked in through the windows that night, what we saw—what we both saw—seemed to me to represent everything that was best in life. There was beauty and luxury, freedom from care, happiness. It was for that I strove, and, as the years go, the material goal changes, but the desire remains. I, Richard, I never sought anything less than the pinnacles, and I have found them—in there."
Sir Richard gazed, and his narrow eyes grew narrower. It was a long, low drawing-room, with a grand piano in one corner, water-colours hanging upon the white walls, bowls of flowers everywhere, red-shaded lamps, comfortable chairs. And coming toward them the beautiful woman, whose smile still brought the light into the younger man's eyes. Sir Richard turned away. He had no words. He walked a little into the shadow, and David did not follow him. Then an unfamiliar sound broke the summer silence. A great car with flashing lights pulled up at the door. Two men sprang down. The voice of one of them rang out distinctly upon the silence.
"He must be here!" one said. "Watch the lane, Gregory."
Sir Richard held out his hand to his friend.
"Stay where you are," he said. "It shall not be here, I promise you that. It shall not be here!"
He moved farther back into the shadow—they heard him go crashing through the hedge. The two men stopped to listen. Then there was a sharp report, a groan, and silence! They all moved toward the spot. Anna came running out of the house.
"What is it, David?" she cried. "What has happened?"
He led her back.
"Nothing that you or I can help, dear," he said. "Nothing that concerns us."
"But Sir Richard? What has happened to him?" she asked, fearfully.
David shook his head.
"Dear," he answered, "he set up the false gods. Come into the house. There is nothing that we can do."
"THAT," Felix declared, pointing from the club window down into the square below, "is the one thing from which all the resources of our civilization seems powerless to save us. It is in that revolutions have been born."
His companions followed his gesture, and looked up at him as though for an explanation.
"We have school-boards," Felix continued, "charitable institutions, philanthropists without number in every great city. Theoretically there should be no such class as those who sit there. Yet there isn't a city that hasn't something of this sort to show."
The elder of his two companions, Mayne Richards, a lawyer, wealthy, and a professed cynic, smiled a little scornfully. "My dear Felix," he said, "no system of life can ever provide for people who declined to be provided for. The men who sit around down there are the men who will not help themselves. You will find them in every great city, and you will find exactly the same look in their faces. They are the men who will not be helped. They are the lazy good-for-nothings of life, the victims of drunkenness and the other vices of their order."
"You don't believe in such a thing as ill luck, then?" Felix asked quietly.
"Not to any extent," the other answered. "Nowadays, if a man comes to that, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred it is his own fault. The very faces and attitudes of those people speak for themselves. They are a shiftless, impossible lot."
"I think Richards is right," the third man remarked, taking a cigar from his mouth. `All this talk about the unemployed, and the hard life the laboring classes lead, is mostly electioneering trash. I bet you there isn't one of those fellows who couldn't get work if he wanted it."
"Put it this way," Richards said. "I should say there wasn't one of them who would do the work honestly if it was offered to him. There aren't many things which an employer demands of the British workman—reasonable honesty, reasonable sobriety, reasonable intelligence. I bet you'd find there isn't one of those fellows who spend their days lounging there who is to be trusted half a yard.
"I am willing to make a bet with you about that," Felix declared.
"Formulate it, then," Richards answered. "I'll back my opinion, with pleasure."
"Come down into the square with me," Felix said. "We will walk slowly round past the seats where the men are sitting. I will select three, and I will entrust them, each of them, with a different commission. Then I will make a bet with you that each one of those three will fulfill his errand honestly."
"They might deliver a letter," Richards said, "or anything of that sort, because there would be nothing to be gained by doing otherwise."
Felix laughed. "I mean a real test," he said. "The three men whom I select shall each have a sum of money to take to a certain place."
"Then I trust," Richards said, "that you will make the sum small, for you will certainly lose it as well as your bet."
"We shall see about that," Felix answered. "Remember, I choose the men and I choose the stakes. I \rill bet you fifty pounds that the three men whom I pick out will do their errands honestly."
"I will give you odds," Richards answered. "The bet as it stands isn't fair. I will bet you that two out of the three will not deliver the money with which you entrust them, and that you never hear of them again except by accident."
"Done!" Felix declared. "Get your hat, and we will go down into the square. Come, Andrewes," he added, turning to their companion, "you shall come, too, and be umpire."
The three men left the club, crossed the street, and entered the square together. It was by no means a cheerful-looking place. There were three or four flower-beds, empty now, for it was midwinter, and a deserted fountain-basin standing in the middle of the waste of asphalt. At regular intervals within the railing were iron seats, and upon these were dotted about here and there a miserable little company of human beings. At first glance they seemed all the same class—men upon whom misfortune had had a pernicious effect, men whose eyes were either fixed upon vacancy with dull, unseeing persistence, or who looked downward to the ground under their feet, most of them with their heads supported by their hands. They were of all ages, too, although the man who was a little past middle-age seemed to predominate. There was very little conversation among them, very little curiosity, very little interest in the passers-by or the traffic in the streets beyond.
Felix drew a little breath. "Poor chaps!" he said softly. "They look hungry, too, most of them. We must pretend to be talking as we walk round. I've picked out one already—and another. I shall take that boy for the third. Now I am going to ask them to come into the club while we explain what we want."
He went back and spoke to a strongly built, middle-aged man with hollow eyes and iron-grey beard.
"My man," he said, "do you want a job?"
"Yes!" was the prompt reply. "When?"
"At once," Felix answered. "Get up, please, and come with us. I want three altogether. I am going to speak to the other two."
He moved on a few seats, and spoke to a tall boy, thin and haggard of feature, miserably clothed, and with great holes in his shoes. "Do you want a job?" he asked him.
"Yes!" was the quick, almost feverish, reply.
"Come with us, then," Felix said.
Then he stopped to speak to the third whom he had chosen—a tall, powerful-looking young man, apparently about twenty-five. He had a fair, smooth face, a little strained as though with hunger, a little reckless about the mouth and eyes, a little hard, too, about the jaw.
"Want a job?" Felix asked.
"Yes!" the man answered, almost fiercely.
"Come with us," Felix answered. "You see, there are two other of you. I want three altogether. Please follow us across to the club there."
Felix and his friends reentered the club, followed by the three men. They led the way into a small room on the ground floor. Felix placed three chairs in a row, and bade the men sit down. Then he rang the bell.
"Presently," he said to them, "I am going to give you something to eat. First of all, I am going to give you a cup of coffee. Then I will tell you what this job is."
"Is it something I can do?" the young man asked eagerly.
"And I?" the older one exclaimed.
"I will do it," the boy muttered, "whatever it is, if there's money to be earned!"
Felix smiled at them encouragingly. "It will be the easiest thing in the world," he said.
"We shall leave you for five minutes while you drink your coffee. I will tell the waiter to bring you some rolls with it. Afterward you shall have something more substantial."
They went out into the hall and entered the smoking-room. Richards was laughing softly.
"My dear Felix," he said, "you are the strangest mortal I ever met. There is no end to your experiments, but some day I think there will be an end to your optimism. However, why should I grumble?" he added, lighting a cigar. "I am going to make fifty pounds—fifty pounds, that is, I suppose, less the cost of the dinner, which I shall have to stand you."
"It's a foolish bet, Felix," the younger man declared. "There aren't many of those young fellows hanging about unless there is a reason for it."
"You don't believe that a man can have ill luck, then?" Felix asked.
"Not to that extent," Andrews answered. "Odd bits of bad luck we all have now and then, but the man who's sober and honest, and who wants work, gets it. That's my experience, anyway."
Felix smiled. "My young friend," he said, "as you have been down from college only a year, and spend half of your time in town, I don't believe you know a thing about it. As for Richards, well, he has formed his opinions and I have formed mine. We shall see. I think we can go back to them now."
They were sitting just where they had been left. In front of each was an empty cup and an empty plate. Felix sat upon the edge of the table, a few feet away from them.
"Look here," he said. "I will tell you what I want you to do. I have three letters which I want delivered, one in London, one in Kettering, and one in Cambridge. These letters each contain a small sum of money, which I wish conveyed to the person to whom the letter is addressed. I shall give you your train-fare, and enough money for all your expenses. All that I ask is that at exactly this time, or as near it as possible, the day after to-morrow, you bring me back, from the people to whom the letters are addressed, a reply, and I shall then give you each a sovereign."
They were all clearly puzzled. The elderly man looked at him blankly.
"Perhaps I ought to explain," Felix continued, feeling for the first time a little diffidence, "that this offer of mine is the result of a bet. It doesn't make any difference to you, does it? All you have to do is to take the train to the place the letter is addressed to, and bring a reply back to me. It's easy work, and you will be well paid for it."
The elderly man and the boy rose to their feet eagerly.
"Are the letters ready?" the former asked.
"Will there be enough money for the night's lodging?" the boy demanded.
"Plenty," Felix answered. "While you sit there, I am going to write the letters."
The third man rose to his feet. There was something in his eyes which Felix did not altogether like. His lips were tightly drawn, and for the first time his unusual height seemed to become noticeable.
"So this is a bet, is it?" he asked, "a bet upon our honesty?"
Felix assented gravely. "One of my friends," he said, "has offered to wager me fifty pounds that I could not select three men from among you out there who would perform an errand like this honestly. I have accepted his bet. I have chosen you three, and I am quite sure that you will deliver your letters, bring me back the receipts, and earn the sovereigns which I promise you."
"And what about the fifty pounds that you win?" the man asked calmly.
"That is my business," Felix answered. "It is nothing to do with you. Will you take your letter?" he asked.
The man hesitated. "Yes, I'll take it," he answered shortly.
Felix went to the writing-table. He wrote three letters, and in each, without any concealment of the fact, he placed two five-pound notes. Then he sealed and addressed them, and took them back to the writing table.
"Now listen," he said, "if you cannot find the person to whom these letters are addressed, you can bring them back here. To-day is Monday. I shall expect you here on Wednesday afternoon between four and five o'clock. I am going to give you each a little more than you should need for your expenses. You can tell me what you have spent, and we can arrange for the balance."
He place a letter and two sovereigns in the hand of each one of them. The boy and the gray-haired man grasped theirs eagerly and went out with scarcely a word. The other one lingered.
"You don't ask for any promise from us?" he asked.
"No," Felix answered. "The promise goes without saying."
"Mind, I give none," the man said. "I do not promise to return. I do not promise I will not steal the notes which I saw you place in this letter."
"If you do so, it will be dishonest," Felix said. "I can only say that I hope you will do nothing of the sort."
The man wheeled about without a word and left the room. Richards, who was sitting in an easy chair, slapped his knee and burst out laughing.
"You silly ass, Felix!" he exclaimed. "Eighty-six pounds you have thrown away this afternoon. Eighty-six pound! Well, all I can hope is that you mill learn a little wisdom from it."
At a quarter to four on Wednesday afternoon, Felix drove up in his motor-car and entered the club.
"Anyone been asking for me?" he inquired of the doorkeeper.
"No one special, sir," the man answered. "Mr. Andrewes and Mr. Richards said that they were in the smoking-room when you came in." Felix nodded, and joined his friends.
"I've ordered the dinner," Richards said. "I suppose we may as well have it tonight."
"Certainly," Felix answered; "only I am not at all prepared to say that I shall not be host. Wait a moment."
He sent a message down to the doorkeeper that anyone who asked for him should be admitted.
"In the meantime," Richards remarked, "we'll have a rubber of bridge."
At six o'clock Felix sent down another message, but the doorkeeper announced that no one had inquired after him. At seven o'clock he asked again, and met with the same reply. At eight o'clock they sat down to dinner. Richards raised his glass and proposed a toast.
"This is my wish for you," he said, "that to-night's lesson may teach you to keep your head from the clouds."
"And your feet upon the earth," Andrewes echoed.
Felix sighed. "I am disappointed," he admitted simply.
"It's just about a year," Richards remarked, turning away from the club window, "since our friend Felix looked down into the square there and make the most ridiculous bet that was ever proposed."
"Three days before Christmas, wasn't it?" Andrews remarked. "How the fellows did chaff him for weeks afterward!"
"He is an impossible person," Richards declared. "He needed just such a lesson as that. I only wish, for his own sake, that he'd learn a little common sense in the management of his business."
Andrewes nodded sympathetically. "Not doing over well, is he?"
Richards sighed, but made no answer. Almost at that moment Felix entered. Something of the old blitheness seemed to have gone from his manner. He looked much older, and there were lines in his face.
"Cut in for a rubber of bridge, old chap?" Andrewes asked.
"Oh, I don't know!" Felix answered. "Anything you like."
A servant from below came up with a letter upon a tray. Felix opened it listlessly enough, but as he read his face changed. He sat suddenly up in his chair. Something of the old enthusiasm lit up his features.
"Listen, Andrewes!" he exclaimed. "Listen, Richards! I want to read you this letter."
"It's from one of the three?" Richards exclaimed suddenly.
"It is," Felix admitted. "It's from the middle-aged man—the one with the iron-gray beard. His name is John Elwick. Listen to what he says:"
33 High Street, Barnet.
Sir: I write you these few lines at last with much misgiving, and yet I cannot keep silence any longer.
You will doubtless remember who I am. A year ago you gave me a letter to deliver at an address in Kettering. I went there and found that there was no such place and no such person. I knew quite well what I ought to do—to go back to you and help you to win your bet. I didn't do it. I will tell you the truth. I was very angry. I had had a hard struggle, fighting against misfortune year after year. I have a wife, who has been my devoted companion, and who on the day I saw you was practically dying of starvation. I thought of her. I thought of my long fight against ill luck. And I thought of you, with your comfortable life and wealthy friends, to whom the sufferings of such as myself had become a jest. Never before had I done a dishonest act, but I did one then. I tore open your letter, and found, as I had expected, nothing but the two five-pound notes. I went for my wife, and I came to this place in search of work. I had had a small drapery business until I lost it through no fault of my own, and with your ten pounds I bought a share in a very small business in a side street here, from a man who was consumptive and could not work it himself.
Now I come to the strange part of this. Once when I was in a situation I saved sixty pounds. I bought a business with it, and I worked, I and my poor wife, till we were shadows, and it was all in vain. We lost our money, and I came to be what I was when you found me. Now, with this ten pounds which I stole from you, I made money from the first. Nothing could go wrong with me. I have moved three times during these twelve months, into larger premises. My wife is restored to health. I am sure now of a living for the rest of my days.
A week ago, for the first time, I told my wife the truth
about that ten pounds—there was a distant relative from whom I had
sworn that it had come. A few nights ago, as I say, I told her the truth. It
is she who has made me do this. I send you back your ten pounds, with
interest, and the address at which I live is at the head of this letter. If
you think it worth while, you can send me to prison. You know my story, and
from what I remember of you, you did not look like a man who would be too
severe upon his fellow creatures. Let me off, sir, and send me a line to set
our minds at ease. If it is any pleasure for you to know it, that ten pounds
has been the making of me, and saved my wife's life.
I am, sir,
Your obedient servant,
"What do you think of that?" Felix exclaimed breathlessly.
Richards laughed. "Well," he said, "I should call it a lucky theft."
"I don't care what you call it," Felix declared, rising and making his way to the writing-table. "I'm thankful now that I made the bet, and I'm thankful that I lost it. I shall write and tell the poor fellow so tonight."
"What about the other two?" Andrewes asked.
"A young man is in the hall, wishing to see you, sir," the servant who had brought up the letter announced.
Felix went down-stairs. From the first, he had a presentiment as to whom it would be. A tall, ungainly figure was waiting in the hall. Felix threw open the door of the strangers' room and bade him enter. Then he pulled up the blind and shook his head slowly.
"Well," he said, "what have you come to say?"
"I've come to see," the boy said sullenly, hanging his head, "whether you can't do something for me."
Felix shook his head slowly. He was an optimist, he had been an enthusiast all his days, but there are things which no man can mistake. The boy who stood before him bore, in his face and attitude and manner, every sign of evil. His hair was close cropped; his speech was sullen, almost defiant; his eyes were shifty; his clothes were ragged and untidy.
"Why should I do anything for you?" Felix asked.
"Because it was you that made me a thief," the boy answered. "I wasn't much of a chap, but I'd never stolen before until you played that silly trick on us. I dunno what the other two did. I know I just took out those two five-pound notes, and went for having a bit of fun. I'd starved long enough. When it had gone I stole more. I've been in prison twice. Give us something, guv'nor, to help me along."
"Until you can find an opportunity to steal again?" Felix asked quietly.
"I'll make a fresh start," the young fellow whined.
Felix rang the bell. There were limits even to his optimism. "You can go," he said. "I have nothing for you."
Felix knew that he was ruined. He sat in his office, and looked at the figures which a sympathetic but plain-spoken accountant had just laid before him.
"I am very sorry, Mr. Felix," the later said. "There is nothing for it but to call a meeting of your creditors at once. I should advise your doing so without any delay. Times have been bad, and there has been no one in your business who seems to have got a proper grip of things. You have given away a great deal more than you could afford, if you will allow me to say so—not only of your money, but of your time and thoughts. The result, I am afraid, has been disastrous."
"If you will come back in an hour, Mr. Malcolm," Felix said, "I will tell you exactly what I propose to do."
Mr. Malcolm took up his hat and went out. As he left the office, a tall man pushed his way in, followed by a protesting clerk.
"I cannot see anyone to-night," Felix said, rising to his feet.
"You will see me," the newcomer answered. "I shall not keep you long."
Felix was suddenly silent. It was the third man. He signed to the clerk to close the door and leave them.
"Well?" he said.
The newcomer took a seat. "You remember me?" he said. "My name is John Watts."
"I remember you," Felix answered. "Have you brought me back my ten pounds?"
"It would serve you right," John Watts said slowly, "if you never saw that ten pounds again. I am not sure that it would not serve you right if I took you by the shoulders and shook you. Do you know that you made a thief of me?"
"I deny it," Felix answered. "I put you to a test, and you failed."
"It was an unfair test," John Watts said. "Never mind, I made a deliberate choice. The fates have been against me all my life, although I had played the game straight. I thought I'd try my luck a little differently. I have done fairly well," he continued, "and so have you."
"So have I?" Felix repeated.
"Yes," John Watts answered. "I was an honest thief—I will say that for myself. You and I went into business together over in Mexico. You'll know all about it later. We've done well."
"Oh! Have we?" Felix answered.
"I put your ten pounds together with my muscle and experience," John Watts said, "but where the luck came from God only knows, for I've had the wickedest luck of any man that ever breathed—I should say that we had."
"You are not talking nonsense by any chance, are you?" Felix asked.
"You may call it nonsense if you like," John Watts said, "but the fact remains that you and I are the owners of the Infanta Silver Mine, and if you like to take three hundred thousand pounds for your shares, you can have it to-morrow. I'm not selling mine."
"You're mad!" Felix faltered.
"I'm not nearly so mad as I was at you once," John Watts said, "but I think we'd better shake hands and forget it. My lawyer's down at the hotel. You'd better put on your hat and come along with me. He'll show you just how things are. But first of all, let me ask you this. What became of the other two?"
Felix told him. John Watts nodded thoughtfully.
"Well, after all," he said, "two of us were honest thieves. I'm not sure that you didn't win your bet."
Felix arose with sparkling eyes. "We'll call in at the club and find Richards," he declared. "Come on."
Mr. Philip Letheringcourt, as he stepped out of his electric brougham and entered the premises of the London and Westminster Banking Company in Lombard Street, had certainly more the air of a man of fashion than of one interested in the everyday affairs of City life. He was immaculately dressed, handsome, debonair, from the tips of his patent boots to the bunch of violets which adorned his button-hole. He entered the bank with the air of one a little unaccustomed to his surroundings, and, approaching a vacant spot at the counter, drew a cheque from his waistcoat-pocket and carelessly filled it in for five hundred pounds.
"I'd like plenty of ten-pound notes, please," he said, holding it out to one of the clerks, "and one fifty."
The clerk accepted the cheque with a little bow, glanced at the amount, and then palpably hesitated.
"One moment, if you please, Mr. Letheringcourt," he said, turning away. "You want this in notes, I understand?"
Mr. Philip Letheringcourt raised his eyebrows.
"I certainly don't want gold, if that is what you mean," he replied.
The clerk hastened to a desk at the farther end of the bank and talked for a moment to a grey-headed man who sat there apparently entering up a ceaseless stream of amounts into a grand ledger. It was clear, even to Philip Letheringcourt—who felt only fairly interested—that the cheque which the clerk held in his hand was the subject of their conversation. The elder gentleman took up a telephone which stood by his side and spoke into it. When he replaced the receiver he nodded curtly to the clerk, who returned to his former place at the desk.
"One fifty, you said, and plenty of tens, I believe, Mr. Letheringcourt?" the latter remarked, beginning to count out the notes.
"That's right," Letheringcourt answered. "Why did you take the cheque up to the old gentleman? You didn't doubt my signature, I suppose?"
"Not in the least, sir," the man answered, civilly. "By the by, Mr. Jarndyse would like to speak to you, if you can spare half a moment."
"I haven't much time," Letheringcourt remarked, doubtfully. "If it's a matter of business, hadn't he better send for Weare? I don't interfere, you know, in the financial part of our affairs."
"I think Mr. Jarndyse would like to see you, sir," the clerk answered, "if you can spare half a minute. He is disengaged now, if you will come this way." Letheringcourt stuffed the notes into his pocket and followed his guide into the private office of the bank manager. Mr. Jarndyse rose to his feet as they entered, and motioned the clerk to leave them.
"Some time since we met, Mr. Letheringcourt," the banker remarked, pleasantly. "You do not often favour us with a visit."
"Why should I?" he answered. "I leave everything connected with the financial conduct of our business to Weare. Your young man said that you would like to have a word with me."
"Just so, Mr. Letheringcourt," the bank manager said. "Sit down for a moment, will you?"
Letheringcourt sat down a little unwillingly.
"I'm afraid I can only spare you a moment," he said.
"I shall not detain you," the bank manager answered. "The fact of it is, Mr. Letheringcourt, I was looking into the figures connected with your firm this morning. You have, as doubtless you are aware, an authorized overdraft with us of twenty-five thousand pounds, against which we hold various securities. I find that you are overdrawn at the moment rather more than thirty thousand pounds, and that there is a draft of fifty-five thousand pounds to Cunliffe and Peabody due to-morrow."
Letheringcourt looked across at the manager in blank amazement.
"Really, Mr. Jarndyse," he said, "these are matters in which I never interfere at all. I presume that whatever obligations the firm has entered into will be duly met."
"I trust so, Mr. Letheringcourt," the bank manager answered. "At the same time I do not think that you should allow matters to be run quite so close. If you will pardon my saying so, I think that you ought to keep a stricter personal control over the financial side of your business."
Letheringcourt was a little taken aback.
"You don't mean to imply, Mr. Jarndyse," he said, "that Ambrose Weare is not so careful as he ought to be? He has been in our employ for over fifteen years, and for the last ten years, at least, he has absolutely controlled our finances."
"I wish to imply nothing," the bank manger answered; "but I do not think it is good financing to leave so large a sum as nearly sixty thousand pounds to be provided on the very day when the draft is due."
Letheringcourt took up his hat.
"I agree with you," he answered. "It doesn't sound exactly the thing. I'll speak to Weare about it. Very likely he has a number of bills of exchange which he did not wish to discount until the last moment. Bank rate's pretty stiff just now, isn't it?"
"There are, no doubt, explanations," the bank manager remarked. "At the same time, Mr. Letheringcourt, if you will pardon my saying so, I think that you will be well advised to take a little more personal interest in your business."
"Thanks!" Letheringcourt answered, a little curtly. "I'll remember what you say."
He was thoughtful during the drive home; he was thoughtful during the one rubber he had time for at the club; and he was even thoughtful over the tête-à-tête dinner alone with his wife, for which a series of mischances was responsible. Mrs. Letheringcourt, at the conclusion of the meal, rose to her feet with a little yawn and strolled to the mantle-piece.
"Philip," she remarked, lighting a cigarette, "a dinner à deux doesn't seem to amuse you."
He sat up with a little start; he had been gazing fixedly at the tablecloth, speechless, for the last five minutes.
"I am awfully sorry, Joan," he said. "I am afraid that you must have thought me a perfect bear."
"Your conversation certainly hasn't been brilliant," she remarked, quietly. "Please tell me what it is that you have been thinking about." He shook his head.
"The affairs of Holt and Letheringcourt!" he answered.
She raised her eyebrows.
"Business?" she repeated. "Well, it isn't very often you allow that to trouble you."
"You are quite right," he admitted. "It is very seldom that I think about it at all. And yet this afternoon something happened—just a trifle—which gave me a most unpleasant quarter of an hour."
"Go on," she said. "Tell me about it."
They were sitting in one of the smaller rooms of their house in Berkeley Square, half study, half morning-room. It was an evening on which they had planned to dine out and to go to the theatre, but some friends had disappointed them, and at the last moment Letheringcourt himself had begged for a quiet evening. His wife, always good-natured, had acceded readily enough—it was not often that their social engagements permitted them to spend an evening together. A small dinner had been served to them in an impromptu fashion.
"Tell me, Philip," she said, "exactly what it is that is bothering you."
Letheringcourt threw away the cigar which had burned out between his fingers and lit a cigarette. In a few words he told his wife of his visit to the bank that afternoon. When he had finished she looked across at him with wide-open eyes.
"It certainly seems most odd!" she exclaimed. "What did you say to Mr. Jarndyse, Philip?"
"I told him, of course," Letheringcourt continued, "that for a great many years Ambrose Weare had had the sole control of the finances of my firm, that during all that time no complaint had been made, and that the business generally had been exceedingly prosperous. Yet I don't fancy that he was satisfied. I didn't like the way he twice advised me to take a more personal interest in my own affairs."
"Do you think that he mistrusts Ambrose Weare?" she asked.
"Such an idea is preposterous," Letheringcourt declared.
"You believe in him implicitly yourself, then?" she demanded.
"Implicitly!" Letheringcourt answered. "The man is as honest as the day. I am sure of it."
"I don't know much about business," his wife said, hesitatingly, "but to be thirty thousand pounds overdrawn at your bank and have nearly sixty thousand pounds to find the next day doesn't sound exactly comfortable to me."
"I agree with you," her husband answered. "I didn't like it at all."
"What have you done?" she asked.
"I rang Weare up from the club," Letheringcourt answered, "and asked him to come here to-night."
His wife nodded.
"He didn't make any difficulties, I suppose?" she asked. "He was willing enough to come?"
"Curiously enough, he wasn't," her husband replied. "He reminded me that never during the whole of our association had we transacted any business, or spoken of it, after office hours. He added that he personally, during all that time, had never set foot west of Temple Bar. He asked me to wait until the morning."
"You insisted upon his coming, I hope?" she exclaimed.
"I did," he answered. "He evidently did not like it, but he agreed to be here at half-past nine."
"What a curious sort of person he must be!" Mrs. Letheringcourt remarked. "Tell me, what is he like?"
Letheringcourt smiled faintly.
"He might have stepped out from some book of Dickens's or Anthony Trollope's," he answered. "Trim, grey-headed, old-fashioned, with formal manners; always dressed in black, never been known to be sixpence wrong in any account in his life. Everyone at the office swears by him."
"Ambrose Weare!" she remarked. "It's a singular name."
"He's a singular person," Letheringcourt answered. "I have never heard of his having a friend or a relative; no one even knows where he came from! By the by, there is someone in the hall now. He is coming up, I believe."
Joan Letheringcourt picked up her novel.
"I am going to my room for a little time," she said. "I shall be down again—perhaps before your man has gone. I am rather curious to see him."
She swept out of the room with a little farewell nod—graceful, good-natured, beautiful—a delightful wife and hostess. Outside, she passed with a pleasant smile a little man following a tall footman. The little old man started, but she had already gone by. The footman threw open the door. "Mr. Ambrose Weare, sir, from the office," he announced.
Letheringcourt turned in his chair and welcomed his visitor.
"Come and sit down, Weare," he said. "Will you have a glass of port or some coffee? It is your first visit here and I shall expect you to take something." The clerk bowed a little stiffly.
"Thank you, sir," he answered. "I am afraid that I must ask you to excuse me."
"As you will," Letheringcourt answered, carelessly. "Sit down there by the table, please. There are just one or two questions I wanted to ask you. I am sorry to have fetched you up after office hours, but the fact is that I have been a little uneasy."
The footman had left them; the two men were alone. Ambrose Weare was certainly a somewhat curious character. His face was white, and dry as parchment. His eyes were very bright, although he wore spectacles, and he had still an abundance of grey hair neatly parted in the middle. His clothes were old-fashioned, considering his position as head cashier of a well-known City firm. He wore a frock-coat, pepper-and-salt trousers, a black satin tie which resembled a stock, and a collar of ancient shape. He folded his gloves deliberately and placed them inside his silk hat. Then he turned towards his employer.
"I have come to answer any questions, sir," he said, "which you may care to ask."
"Oh, I am not going to put you through a catechism!" Letheringcourt declared. "You know much more about the conduct of the business than I do, of course. I will tell you exactly what it is that made me send for you. I happened to go into the bank this afternoon, and Jarndyse called me into his office. He pointed out that our account was thirty thousand pounds overdrawn, and that we had a draft due to-morrow for fifty-five thousand pounds. Of course, he didn't doubt but that it would be all right, for a moment, but he simply thought that it would be a great deal better not to run things so close. I must say that I agreed with him. It didn't seem to me to be exactly in accord with your methods, Weare, to leave so large a sum to be covered on the actual day."
Ambrose Weare inclined his head slowly. His fingers were interlocked. He was leaning a little across the table.
"There is not the slightest chance, sir," he said, "of its being covered!"
Letheringcourt looked at him for a moment as a man might look at a visitant from another world. It was impossible that Ambrose Weare should have said this. His hearing must have played him some strange trick.
"Do you mind repeating that, Weare?" he said.
"Certainly, sir," the clerk answered. "I regret to say that there is not the faintest chance of Messrs. Cunliffe and Peabody's draft for fifty-five thousand pounds being honoured to-morrow morning."
Letheringcourt sat like a man only half conscious of his surroundings.
"I don't understand," he said. "Do you mean to tell me that we are short of money, Weare?—that there is any real difficulty about meeting our engagements?"
"We are very short indeed, sir," the clerk answered. "We have been very short for a long time. The financing of your business has been an exceedingly difficult operation during the last few years. I must admit that the task has now grown beyond me."
Letheringcourt grasped the sides of his chair and looked around him wildly. For a moment he thought that he had fallen asleep and been visited by a nightmare. Everything else about him was as usual. There were all the evidences on every side of his luxurious home. And in the midst of it sat this strange, still figure—the Ambrose Weare whom he had known all these years, and yet—another man!
"If this is a joke," Letheringcourt exclaimed, hoarsely, "it's a—a bad one! Do you know what you're saying, Weare? You should know your place better—"
"I know it far too well," the man interrupted, "to joke upon such a subject. Your firm, sir—the firm of Holt, Letheringcourt, and Company—has been losing money for something like twelve years. Chiefly owning to my efforts, your credit has remained unimpaired. It is impossible, however, to preserve it any longer. To-morrow the crisis comes!"
"You must be mad!" Letheringcourt exclaimed, rising unsteadily to his feet. "Why, no one has ever breathed a word of this to me! You yourself have said nothing! Year by year you have brought me into my private office balance-sheets showing large profits. Last year you told me that we had made seventeen thousand pounds. I have been extravagant, but I have not spent money like this. What has become of it? Where is all this money? Our capital stood at one hundred and seventy thousand pounds seven years ago."
"It is all gone," Ambrose Weare said, calmly. "Perhaps it was never as much as that."
"But the balance-sheets!" Letheringcourt exclaimed—"the balance-sheets! You have brought them to me year by year. Not one has ever shown a loss."
"They were made out, alas," Ambrose Weare answered, "from the ledger of my imagination."
"In plain words, then," Letheringcourt cried, "we are ruined!—we have to fail! Is that what you mean?"
"Precisely!" Ambrose Weare declared. "I have not the figures with me, but I believe that we could not, at the moment, pay a fraction more than two shillings in the pound."
Letheringcourt swayed upon his feet. Then he leaned forward and struck the table before which the other man was sitting.
"Look here!" he said, fiercely, "if you are in earnest, answer me this. Why have you deceived me, year by year, with false balance-sheets? Why have you let me believe that the business was making large profits? Why have you even urged me to spend money—placed sums to my private account, time after time, which I scarcely needed? Tell me why you have done these things, Ambrose Weare?"
"It is a long story," the clerk answered, calmly.
Letheringcourt broke loose. Nothing but the sense of his own great strength and the other man's fail physique prevented his taking him by the throat and shaking the words from his lips.
"Long or short," he cried, "I must have it! Do you know what you have done? For the last ten years I have spent something like fifteen or sixteen thousand pounds a year, believing honestly that I was living within my income. I saved not a penny. Why should I? I knew nothing of the business myself. I have no idea how to do even a clerk's work. What am I to do? What am I to say to my wife?"
Ambrose Weare rose slowly to his feet. There was something almost spectral-like about his long, grey figure as he stood there, leaning slightly forward, his manner unruffled, his tone still calm and even.
"You have no wife!" he said.
Letheringcourt stared at him for a moment and then burst out laughing. After all, perhaps this was the explanation.
"You're mad!" he exclaimed—"mad or drunk, Weare! What is the matter with you, man? Has your mind given way?"
"I am sane enough," Ambrose Weare answered. "Better pray that you remain so. I repeat—you have no wife."
There was the sound of a trailing skirt. The door was softly opened. Joan Letheringcourt, humming a light tune, came in.
"Philip," she said, "have you nearly finished your talk? Shall I be in the way? I am tired of being alone."
"Yes, come in!" Letheringcourt answered. "Come here, Joan. Now tell me, Ambrose Weare," he added, pointing to his wife, who was crossing the room toward the two men, "who is that lady if she is not my wife?"
"She is mine!" Ambrose Weare answered, calmly.
Letheringcourt took him by the shoulders, lifted him up, and finding him as helpless as a baby flung him back into his chair. His wife ran forward with a little scream.
"Philip!" she cried. "Philip! What is the meaning of this? Who is this person? Why does he say these things?"
"God knows!" Letheringcourt answered. "For fifteen years he has called himself Ambrose Weare. If all that he has told me is true, I should say that he is the very Devil himself! Look at him, Joan. Have you seen him before?"
She bent forward, scanning his features eagerly. Ambrose Weare was pale and breathless, but he had strength enough left to rise to his feet. There was still no colour in his cheeks, no sign of emotion save the breath which came in little pants through his clenched teeth.
"Let her look!" he said. "Let her look! Perhaps she will understand."
There was an instant's breathless silence. Then her eyes seemed to be lit with a sudden, strange fear. She staggered back, holding her hands in front of her face as though to shut out some awful sight. She, too, was pale now. She, too, had the air of one who looks upon terrible things.
"No!" she cried. "No; it can't—it couldn't be!"
"Madam," Ambrose Weare said, "The impossible has happened. You have believed what you wished to believe—that the Nicholas Seton who died at St. Thomas's Hospital sixteen years ago was the man to whom you had been married. It was not so. I am Nicholas Seton, and, whatever you may call yourself, you are still my wife."
She shrank away to a corner of the sofa and sat there, sobbing quietly, pale, stricken, absolutely dazed. All the time she was muttering to herself. All the time she kept her back to the man who had told her this terrible thing.
Letheringcourt staggered toward the side-board and poured himself out some brandy. Then he came back and stood by the table, looking down upon the other man.
"Come," he said, "let us understand this matter. You are the Ambrose Weare who came to my firm as a cashier fifteen years ago whilst I was at college. My father trusted you implicitly; my uncle trusted you. When they were dead and I came into the business I found you all-powerful. There wasn't a clerk or a manager in the place who didn't speak of you with respect. I have believed in you—I have believed in the figures you have shown me; I have thought myself always a rich man. Now you sit there and tell me that your connection from the first with the firm has been one long tissue of lies and deceit. Why? What is the meaning of it all? Why has it pleased you to keep silent—to drive me on towards ruin?"
The man turned half round and pointed towards the woman who sat still upon the sofa. He pointed with long, trembling forefinger; but he said nothing.
"I have done you no harm," Letheringcourt cried.
"She was my wife," Ambrose Weare answered.
Letheringcourt was a strong man, and he kept sane.
"Even if this horrible thing were true," he said, "why should you seek to revenge yourself upon me? You deserted her. She had every reason to believe that you were dead. When I first knew her she told me of her former marriage. She honestly believed you dead."
"It is a lie!" Ambrose Weare said, slowly. "She saw luxury, and she stretched out her hand to grasp it. She took her risks. Things have gone her way for a good many years. I wrote to her. I told her that I would return when I had earned enough to keep her and the child in comfort. Her father hated me because I was poor. He allowed them enough to live on so long as I was out of the way."
"I had no letter," she sobbed. "If it came, my father destroyed it. He swore always that you had ruined my life—you knew that."
"So it is for these fancied wrongs that you have set yourself to ruin me!" Letheringcourt said, bitterly. "Well, there shall be a reckoning yet. If my money has gone as you say, where is it?"
"Safe," Ambrose Weare muttered, "in Paris, in Frankfort, in New York—a thousand or so here, a thousand or so there. For twelve years I have stripped the business. There is little enough now left for anyone except the bones. She left me once because I was poor," he cried, pointing to the woman who sat shivering upon the sofa. "To-day I am rich, if I choose, and you are a beggar!"
Letheringcourt laughed harshly. He touched the telephone which stood on the table by his side.
"Do you imagine," he said, "that I shall let you go scot-free? Do you imagine that I shall ever let you leave this room?"
"It makes no difference," the clerk answered. "I tell you to your face that I have robbed you, but I am the only one who knows. There are no books, no papers to prove it. On the contrary, there are bundles of accounts in the safe which I shall swear have been submitted to you year by year, and which show a steady loss. Those which it has been necessary to destroy I shall swear that you destroyed. You know you told me not long ago that I was the Napoleon of figures. It is true. I have used them like soldiers, and they have won my battle!"
Some new thing seemed to have come into Letheringcourt's face. Those of his friends who had known him for the last ten years might almost have failed to have recognised him now. At heart he was a man. He stood looking down at the thin, frail figure at the table with a curiosity almost impersonal.
"I wonder," he said, grimly, "that I can stand here and listen to you. I wonder I don't shake the life from your miserable bones. In all the world there cannot breathe a creature so despicable as you! You deserted your wife—you let her believe that you were dead," he added, pointing to the figure upon the sofa. "What kind of a creature can you be to bear an eternal grudge against me because I have tried to make her happy?"
"There was the child," Ambrose Weare said, and for the first time his thin, precise tone seemed to shake. "She deserted him."
The hands fell away from before her face. She looked across the room with blazing eyes.
"It is a lie!" she answered. "My husband has been as good a father to him as ever man could be. He is at Rugby now, captain of the school. Look!"
She sprang to her feet, and taking a photograph from the mantelpiece, she laid it on the table before him. Ambrose Weare staggered to his feet. He was like a man who has received a blow, but still withholds belief in the thing which he has heard.
"Look!" she cried again. "There is Nicholas! Don't you recognize him? Won't you believe now? He was going into the Army, and now, and now—" She sobbed.
Ambrose Weare took the photograph and turned his back upon them both. For a few moments there was nothing to be heard in the room but the ticking of the clock. Then there was another sound—the sound of a dry, hard sob. Ambrose Weare laid down the photograph and took up his carefully-brushed silk hat and gloves. There was no sign of emotion in his face. It seemed impossible that the sob could have come from him. He turned as though in farewell to Letheringcourt. His manner was once more the manner of the confidential clerk of fifteen years' service.
"There has been a mistake," he said. "You will be so kind, sir, as to overlook my rash statements. I have thought it better for the interests of the firm to invest large sums of money abroad. You will find the particulars here," he added, laying a roll of papers upon the table. "There are one hundred and forty thousand pounds invested in European banks, and nearly sixty thousand in New York. You can obtain credit to-morrow by cabling. You will excuse me, sir, if I hurry away? There is a little matter—a little matter left."
He was at the door before they could stop him. Husband and wife looked at one another in fear and wonder. The shadow of this terrible thing was still between them—the man who had left the room—Ambrose Weare, her husband!
"In God's name," she cried, "what can we do?"
From outside came the answer to her question. They heard the shot, the sound of a fall, the hurrying of servants. They did not need to be told! A white-faced footman threw open the door.
"The gentleman who has just left, sir!" he exclaimed, breathlessly.
"Well?" Letheringcourt asked.
"He has shot himself in the hall, sir," the man answered. "He is dead!"
"Of all the absurd proceedings, Dick," the woman said, yawning, "I think that this is absolutely the maddest I ever heard of. For heaven's sake, be reasonable and tell me why you have dragged me out of bed before sunrise to bring me to this scene of desolation."
The man shipped his oars and, jumping from the boat, pulled it up on to the bench. Then he held out his hand to the woman.
"If you will allow me," he said quietly, "I think that you can land now without wetting your feet."
"But why on earth should I land at all?" she asked impatiently, "Why have you brought me to this wilderness of a place? Do you expect me to play Man Friday to your Robinson Crusoe?"
He held out his hand again—a little insistently.
"With your permission," he said, "I will offer you an explanation when you are landed. I do not think that a sea bath would be altogether—"
She jumped lightly out—a very dainty person, indeed, and not at all inclined to spoil her white flannel dress and trim patent leather shoes by the immersion which seemed imminent. He secured the boat and quietly lit a cigarette.
"We will sit here," he said, motioning her to a flat rock, and, contrary to her custom, she obeyed.
"Well?" she asked.
"I have taken the liberty of bringing you here," he said, "in order to secure an undisturbed tête-à-tête with you."
"Really," she murmured, "you might have been more considerate."
"I doubt it," he answered coolly. "The hour after breakfast belongs, believe, to Major Duncan. Then there is your game of shuffleboard with Ellison, with which, I believe, nothing is allowed to interfere, and Forsyth is invariably waiting to claim you directly afterward. After luncheon Duncan, I believe, reads to you—"
"Oh, that will do," she interrupted, looking at him curiously. "You desire a tête-à-tête with me, and you have secured it in a somewhat original manner. I am waiting to bear what you have to say."
He nodded slowly.
"Very well," he said, "you shall hear. We have been married five years, I think, Louise?"
"What a memory!" she murmured.
"From the third day of our honeymoon until today," he continued coolly, "I have apparently shared your society—that is, if I can be said to have shared it at all—with a long array of admirers in, whose number there may have been safety, but whose continual presence—you must forgive me—I have found a little bewildering. Don't misunderstand me, I make no serious charge against you. Only I am weary—weary to death of seeing you day after day monopolized by whatever good-looking or interesting man may be around."
She looked at him with a faint smile.
"You are—jealous?" ?
He looked steadily at the yacht moored a little way out in the bay.
"Well," he said, "perhaps I am. At any rate, I have brought you here to explain exactly how I feel and to ask you whether you are disposed to make a clean sweep of the whole thing. I am weary of seeing other men hang over your chair and offer you the attentions of a lover. I propose to land them all at Newton and take you for a cruise alone. Do you agree?"
"My dear man," she exclaimed, "you are joking!"
"I was never," he assured her, "more in earnest in my life."
"You mean it—seriously?"
"Subject to your consent, I mean it seriously."
"It is absurd," she answered. "We should be bored to death —both of us."
For a moment he seemed to wince, but he recovered himself almost Immediately. His tone was a shade colder perhaps—a certain almost imperceptible nervousness had passed from his manner.
"Ah," he saId, "there is always that possibility, of course. Nevertheless, Louise," he continued, turning slowly toward her. "I feel that I have played the part of complaisant husband long enough. I am sick of your affairs and your followers. I propose to end it."
She laughed softly, yet a little uneasily. She studied him for a moment. Really he was almost good looking, A certain amount of grimness became him. She smoothed her skirts over her knees and, suddenly looking up, laughed in his face.
"And how," she asked, "do you propose to accomplish the miracle?"
"Stand up," he said. "I want to show you something."
She rose to her feet, and her eyes followed his outstretched forefinger. On the slope of a slight eminence was a long, one-story house, built of wood, with a veranda thrown out toward the sea.
"Why, I thought that the place was uninhabited!" she exclaimed.
"It is," he answered, "save for the man and woman who look after that shanty for me."
"For me. I should explain that the island belongs to me. I bought it for a mere song a few years ago for the sake of the sea bird shooting."
"Indeed!" she remarked. "I had no idea that your possessions were so extensive."
"The place is a stony waste," he said. "It did not cost me so much as the simplest of the jewels which have the privilege of adorning your person every evening."
She was a little uneasy. He was talking in a manner which was strange to her.
"I still," she said, "do not understand why you have brought me here. And, see, there is another boat putting out from the yacht What is it, I wonder?"
"It is your luggage," he answered, "your maid has packed everything you are likely to want"
She looked at him in amazement.
"My luggage! What on earth for?"
"You are going to stay here for a little time," he said coolly.
"I am going to stay here!" she repeated, "is this a ghastly joke, Dick? I never heard anything so absurd in my life."
"You are going to stay here," he repeated steadily. "You will. And the bungalow fairly comfortable, and Peters and his wife are very civil people. I'm landing your friends this afternoon at Port Newton on account of your sudden indisposition. They will believe you to be in your cabin."
She burst into a fit of uncontrollable yet not altogether natural laughter. She was in reality in a state bordering on hysterics.
"A delightful scheme!" she cried. "You and I alone in a paradise—such a paradise!" with a little wave of her white hand. "Dick, you must be mad!"
"You mistake me," he answered quietly. "I am not proposing to inflict my company on you."
"Alone! Am I to be left here alone?"
"Exactly," he agreed, rising to his feet. "Now listen to me, Louise."—
He stood over her, and the lines about his mouth were hard and merciless. He was tall, well over six feet, and she suddenly remembered that she had always admired tall men.
"You will be dull here," he said, "in a certain way. So far as the capacity lies In you, you will suffer. Yet I would have you remember this: All your little pains and weariness will never amount to anything compared with the torture with which you have blackened my days. I married you for love. The misfortune is that I must love you for all time. I have done what I could to make you happy. It is obvious that I have failed. You see, I am frank with you. I hate the sight of the men who accept my hospitality and think it sport to make love to my wife before my eyes. I choose to end it in this fashion. After a time I shall come or send for you. For the present, goodbye!"
He turned away to escape the outburst which he regarded as inevitable. To his surprise, she did not speak. Her silence unnerved him. He lingered and looked behind. She was still sitting on the rock, and her face was inscrutable.
"I think you have said goodbye," she remarked.
"Your luggage is there upon the beach," he said, and Peters and his wife are waiting on the balcony. They will come down directly we have all gone. You will find them very decent people. I hope—that you will be comfortable."
It was very lame, but the unexpectedness of her manner confused him altogether. Suddenly she held out her hand and raised those wonderful eyes to his. There was the ghost of a smile upon her lips, but her manner was quite serious.
"Do you mind shaking hands?" she asked.
He set his teeth hard and slowly retraced his steps. For the storm of tears and passionate anger which he had expected he was prepared. This was different—far worse. He took the little hand in his, and then, suddenly bending over her, he kissed her passionately on the lips. Then he hurried away, steeling himself all the while against the appeal which never came. He looked back from the boat. She was still sitting upon the rock, a strange and somewhat desolate object, her face still turned seaward. She waved her hand to him. He bent over his oars and groaned. Louise as she rose to her feet and shook out her skirts was in a curious mood. She had expected to be furiously angry. She was intensely surprised to find herself on the brink of tears. She watched the two boats until they were out of sight, and then she walked aimlessly along the beach toward her trunks. A tall, stalwart man had already taken possession of them. He touched his cap awkwardly.
"I'm taking your things up right along, ma'am," he said. "My missis is waiting to see to them for you. She was a lady's maid before we were married, and I'm sure we'll do our best to make you comfortable, though it's a roughish sort of a place for them as aren't used to it"
Louise nodded absently.
"Thank you very> much," she said. "You can tell your wife to unpack all she can and get me some breakfast."
Like a good many other people who have never known what solitude means, Louise found the first few days almost refreshing in their complete novelty. She read and slept and walked— and finally yawned. At the end of a week she was bored.
Then the wonderful thing happened. She was awakened one morning by the sound of guns. She jumped out of bed and, throwing on a dressing gown, stepped on to the piazza. A strange yacht was in the bay. Below, in a sheltered spot near the beach some men were busy erecting a couple of tents. Louise dressed hastily and went outside. Peters was there, looking at the yacht in amazement.
"What does this mean, Peters?" she asked.
"I have no idea, ma'am," he answered. "I was just going down to see."
"We will go together," Louise said.
On the beach three or four sailors were busy erecting a tent Another man was bending over an oil cooking stove. There were several others standing about with guns under their arms. Louise stood upon a hillock, looking down. She raised her voice and addressed them.
"May I ask what you arc doing here? You are perhaps not aware that this island is private property?"
A dozen faces were turned toward her in blank amazement. Then several caps were furtively raised. A tall, dark man in tweed shooting clothes and gaiters moved a step forward.
"We are really extremely sorry." he said. "We understood that the island was uninhabited. Mr. Curtels, to whom it belongs, I believe, gave us permission to shoot here."
"Did Mr. Curtels know that you were coming just now?" Louise added, with a faint smile at the corners of her lips.
"I must admit that he did not" the spokesman of the party answered. "It was about this time last year that I told him we thought of yachting In these waters, and he gave me permission then to land here at any time I chose. My name is Lord Willerton. May I ask whom I have the pleasure of addressing?"
"I am Mrs. Curtels," Louise answered. "If my husband gave you permission to come here, that is, of course, quite sufficient. I have often heard him speak of you, Lord Willerton. lsn't that—why, how do you do, Mr. Hammersly?"
A tall, fair-haired young man suddenly started forward with outstretched hand.
"Why. Mrs. Curtels," he exclaimed, "you surely cannot blame any of us for not recognizing you for the moment! Who would have expected to find you here?"
Louise smiled upon them all very sweetly,
"I suppose it la rather surprising," she remarked. "You see, I was a little bored, and I am trying the antidote of complete solitude."
"We have come then, I am afraid, to spoil the cure," Lord Willerton said, with a smile. "Perhaps, after all, we shall be on the way. Say the word. Mrs Curtels, and we will strike our tents and pack up." "It is not, she murmured. "in the least necessary. I think— in fact, I am sure," she added with a smile—"that I am very glad to see you all. Won't you let that nasty, smelly stove alone and come and have breakfast with me?"
Willerton, who had been eying the stove with some apprehension, breathed a sigh of relief.
"My dear lady," he said, "if you are in earnest we will come with pleasure. But there are five of us."
"I think," Louise answered, with a smile, "that Mrs. Peters can find us enough to eat."
She led the way to the bungalow, Willerton and Hammersly on either side. Several times she laughed—quite irrelevantly.
Curtels himself was suffering from a most profound dejection and weariness of spirits. London was empty, his club a desert Wherever he went he carried with him the memory of that wan little figure perched so daintily upon the rock in the midst of that island of desolation. Perhaps, after all, his scheme would only make things worse. She would never forgive him. He shuddered at the thought—he, who at that moment was hungering for a sight of her, the touch of her fingers, her lips, the sound of her voice. In a week the time which he had fixed would be up. In a week he would know his fate.
A man came in, bronzed and sunburnt, who greeted him cheerily. Curtels at that moment was glad to see anybody.
"How are you, Robertson?" he said. "Been up north?"
The newcomer, who was settling himself down in an easy-chair, shook his head.
"I've been yachting with Willerton and Hammersly. By the bye, when I left them they were just off to some desert island of yours, up in the North Sea somewhere, to shoot gray geese."
The paper which Curtels bad been holding slipped through his fingers He leaned a little forward in his chair.
"How—how long ago—when did you leave them?"
"Tuesday week," Robertson answered. "They were within a day's steam of the place then."
Curtels moistened his lips. They seemed unaccountably dry.
"Willerton and Hammersly," he said hoarsely. "Who else?"
"Franks and Appleby and a chap of no particular account— I've forgotten his name," Robertson answered, looking curiously over the top of his paper at Curtels. "Rather a warm lot. I'm not a prig, but I found them just a little too advanced for my taste. Willerton showed up shockingly in that Wardlaw suit."
Curtels left the room abruptly. In the hall he sent a telegram to the captain of his yacht. In an hour he was on his way north.
"Let's turn in," Hammersly said, yawning. "It's evidently no good waiting for Willerton. He's up spooning the little Curtels woman, and Lord knows what that'll lead to!"
"What's that?" one of the other men asked, suddenly sitting up.
They all listened. The measured beat of oars came to them through the darkness. A moment later they heard the scrunching of a boat's keel on the beach. Hammersly pointed to a light about half a tulle out.
"There's a yacht anchored there." he remarked: "must have come in since it got dark. I wonder who on earth it can be. I hope it isn't Curtels," he went on nervously. "Willerton's making a perfect ass of himself with that little woman."
They heard the sound of footsteps on the beach. A man was passing the camp on his way to the bungalow. Hammersly sprang up.
"If it's Curtels," he muttered, "there'll be murder. Hello there!" he shouted. "Who's that?"
The footsteps stopped at once. Hammersly lit the two lanterns which hung from the tent poles They burned steadily in the windless air, and almost immediately a dark figure stepped lute the little circle of light.
"Curtels, by all that's amazing," Hammersly exclaimed, with well-assumed heartiness. "Johnson, bring out the whisky and four glasses."
Curtels shook his head. His eyes were traveling round the little circle as though seeking for some one.
"You are perfectly welcome here," he said shortly. "By the bye, where's Willerton?"
Hammersly also glanced around carelessly.
"Somewhere about," he answered. "I fancy he's turned in. I heard him say that he was very tired."
There was a moment's silence. Hammersly's heart sank, for in the dim light he watched the sudden blaze in his questioner's eyes—heard the quick, sobbing breath which kept him speechless. Then Curtels moved a step forward, and the words seemed to leap from his lips—quick, tense things.
"Show me Willerton's tent."
"My dear fellow," Hammersly drawled, "don't disturb him at this hour of night. I remember now that he was complaining of a headache."
"Stand out of the way!"
Hammersly was whizzed backward, for Curtels was a strong man and Hammersly little more than a boy. He caught up one of the lanterns and lifted the flap of each tent. Then, without a word, he dashed the lantern upon the ground.
"If you dare to follow me," he said to Hammersly, "you or any of the others, I will shoot you like a dog."
The bungalow was sheltered from the wind by a grassy knoll. Curtels, though every drop of blood in his body went tingling through his veins in a wild fever, walked stealthily and finally sank on his knees. He was within a few feet of the broad piazza, and there, pressed against the side of the wall, his straining eyes saw plainly the figure of a man.
She was very dear to him. this dainty little woman, with her endearing ways, her delicate mannerisms, her quaint, almost wistful beauty. And it was his fault harm had come to her— his own stupendous folly. He remembered his courtship, all the shyness of her wonderful girlhood, afterward the admiration she had everywhere excited, the burden of his own silence and aching heart. He ought to have been frank with her, have taken her into his arms and pleaded for the old days together. And now there had come the agony of this moment—this moment of dumb, midnight silence, broken only by the low thunder of the sea rolling in upon the stones below. Curtels felt his self-possession going. He must call out. In a moment—
He held his breath. The man on the piazza had moved. He was tapping upon the window, which all the while had remained dark and unresponsive. Still silence. The man leaned over and tapped again. Curtels' finger-nails were buried in the soft ground, and there was blood upon his lips. A blind bad been drawn up. The window was open. Louise stood there, a slim white figure.
"Who is that?" she asked quietly.
Willerton laughed softly.
"At last" he murmured, stepping forward. "Louise!"
His arm touched her, but she evaded him.
"You, Lord Willerton! How dare you come here? How dare you knock at my window?"
The man's hot whisper came like the muffled singing of a night insect to Curtels' ears:
"A man dares a great deal, Louise, for the woman he loves. All these days you have been cruel to me. You will not speak to me alone. I could not sleep and think that you were here, only a few yards off. I had to come."
"You knocked at my window?to tell me this!"
His voice sank so low that Curtels caught only the passionate murmur of his pleading tones. He tried to take her into his arms. For the third time she stepped back.
"Lord Willerton," she said, "you talk about a man daring a great deal for the woman he loves. You have dared a good deal indeed, but it is I who am to pay. Do your friends know where you are? What do they think?"
"They think that I have gone for a stroll. I—"
"Liar! Coward!" she exclaimed, leaning suddenly toward him. "Listen! You and your friends will leave this island before sunrise tomorrow. Go!"
She would have slammed the window, but he caught it.
"No. by heavens, I won't!" he exclaimed, suddenly thrusting his hand upon her mouth. I—Good Cod, Louise!
There was a sharp report, a puff of smoke, and he sprang back with a little cry of terror. Louise stood once more in the window, and the steel of a revolver glittered in her hand.
"I am not quite foolish enough," she said quietly, "to open nay window to such a man as you without being prepared to defend myself. You and your friends wondered the other day why I practiced with my revolver for half an hour a day. Now you know."
Lord Willerton had at least breeding.
"Madam. I congratulate your husband," he said. "I perceive that you are in earnest. You have deceived—a good many people."
He turned and walked into Curtels' arms.
Half an hour later Curtels strode into the little camp and flung upon the ground a soft, groaning burden.
"I've brought you Willerton back," he said shortly. "Don't speak to me, Hammersly. If I find a single one of you on this island after sunrise tomorrow morning I'll shoot you without further warning."
He wandered on to the seashore and sat upon the rock where only a few weeks ago he had expounded his miserable scheme to her. There were faint signs of coming dawn across the waters. A chilly wind had sprung up, and he shivered. Suddenly he started. Louise, hatless, but with a great fur mantle wrapped around her, was sitting by his side.
"I don't think much of your experiment, Dick," she said quietly.
He was so staggered by her presence that for the moment he was speechless. Then something in the faint smile with which she was regarding him loosened his tongue.
"Louise!" he exclaimed, "you can't forgive me! Oh, you never can! I have been the biggest brute in the world."
"I might try," she murmured. "I have learned one thing, at least—that a husband can be a very useful person. Did you hurt him very much. Dick?"
"He is alive," he answered.
"I don't think I like—other men quite so much, Dick," she whispered, nestling up to him. "Don't dare ever to boast about your experiment, but I think—if you would carry me up to the bungalow; my slippers are cut all to pieces on these rocks, and I am very cold—I might try—I might try, I said—Oh, Dick!"
"I SAY, aren't we going on to Bushey at all?"
The boy stirred his head, lazy, yet impatient.
"Why should we?" he asked. "We won't find a better place than this."
The girl was apparently disappointed.
"A young lady in our room was there last week and said that the chestnuts were glorious," she announced.
"Think of the crowds!" he murmured, half-closing his eyes. "We have it almost to ourselves here."
The girl looked around with an air of mild discontent. Her back was against the trunk of an ancient oak. Her companion was stretched upon the ground by her side with his head in her lap. Their clothes, bicycles, and the fact that they had so disposed themselves within a few yards of one of the roads leading through Richmond Park sufficiently proclaimed their status. They were the toilers whom the June sunshine had drawn out from the hidden places of the great city.
"I have never known it so quiet here on a fine Sunday," the girl remarked.
"So much the better," the youth muttered. "Heavens! Don't we see enough of our fellow-creatures and hear their voice often enough six days in the week? It's a treat to hear something else—the wind in the leaves and the grasses, and the singing of the birds."
The subject was manifestly one which, if argued, might lead to misunderstandings. The girl stifled a yawn and changed her position a little, as though cramped. The boy, flat on his back, his hands pressed deep down in the cool grass, looked upward through the green leaves to the sky, dotted all over with little fleecy specks of white clouds.
"Cant you feel the quiet of it?" he asked. "No hum of machinery, no foreman rushing about the place to know when that work will be finished. I wonder—"
He stopped short. The frown upon his forehead deepened. He changed his position so that he could see into the pale, anaemic face of the girl with whom he sat.
"I wonder what we do it for?" he remarked, curiously.
"Do what?" she asked.
"Make bond-slaves of ourselves," he answered. "Ten hours a day for me, and nearly as much for you, and I don't suppose that my engineer's shop is a much livelier place than your dressmaker's room. One day's peace, of a sort, and six days with both feet upon the mill. What do we do it for, Agnes?"
"To live," she answered, with a hard little laugh. "Do you suppose I'd stand a single hour of the life if I hadn't got to?"
The boy was answered, but unsatisfied. He looked away from his companion, but the frown remained deep-graven upon his face.
"To live!" he repeated. "I'm not so sure. It seems to me that we do it so that other people may live. It isn't for ourselves we work—it's for the others."
"I work for fourteen shillings a week," the girl said, bluntly.
The boy shook his head.
"You don't," he declared. "You work so that the woman who employs you, and who calls herself a modiste, and has a flat in town and a little cottage up the river, can get all there is to be got out of life. You are one of the parts of the machine, and so am I. I think that we are foolish."
"What would you do?" the girl asked, curiously.
"I don't know," he answered. "I haven't thought about it."
"I shouldn't bother," the girl said.
"Perhaps you are satisfied with your life," he went on, pulling out a handful of grass and throwing it from him. "I'm not. Three times last week I thought of things which improved the working of the room. I reckoned it out on the back of an old envelope. Someone must have made pounds and pounds by my idea. I altered one of our filing machines on Monday, and it's done its work a lot better since. What do I get for it?"
"Twenty-eight shillings a week," the girl answered. "You see, we are labourers. I suppose you are one of them who call themselves Socialist?"
"I don't think I am," the boy answered. "I never talked with one, that I know of, in my life. And as for books, I never look inside them. But there's something wrong. If only one had time I would try and think out what it is."
"Better rest," the girl said, curtly. "You look as though you need it."
"And what about yourself?" he answered. "I haven't seen you with a speck of colour in your cheeks since the first time we met up on the hill there."
"What chance should I have to get colour in my cheeks, I wonder?" she asked. "Anyhow, it doesn't matter; I'm strong enough."
He turned his head and looked at her with new-born criticism in his eyes. Her cheeks were pallid, her eyes lustreless. Even her hair was dull and without life. Her mouth, well shaped once, had taken to itself a discontented turn. Her features, though good enough, were expressionless. Yet she was not without a certain natural prettiness, barely surviving the environment of her life. She bridled a little under his scrutiny and threw some grass into his face.
"Well, Mr. Impertinent," she said, "what do you think of me?"
"You are well enough, Agnes," he said, "but you've got the brand upon you. So have I. So has every man in my workshop. So has every girl, I expect, in your room. I don't understand it."
"Let's go down and get some tea," the girl suggested, yawning. "It won't do you no good to lie there puzzling your head about things that don't amount to anything. My, that's a fine motor-car."
The boy turned his head. The car had come to a standstill in the road, a few yards away. The man and the girl who were its sole occupants had turned to look at the view. In front, the chauffeur and footman, immaculate both in spotless livery, looked stolidly into space.
"In many respects," the man in the car was saying, "London is wonderfully fortunate. Our parks are magnificent. Fancy these thousands of acres free for all Londoners to come and sit about and enjoy themselves!"
His companion inclined her head faintly towards the boy and girl beneath the tree.
"Like that," she remarked, smiling. "Yes, I suppose they find pleasure in it."
The man at her side followed her gesture. It seemed as though the eyes of the four met at the same moment.
"Quite an idyll," he remarked, good-humouredly. "These people must do their love-making somewhere, I suppose."
"Why not?" the girl answered, nonchalantly. "How tired they look, though!"
She withdrew her eyes, into which, perhaps, for a moment, had passed some faint glint of pity. The man touched a button and the car glided on. The boy raised his head from the girl's lap and followed it with his eyes. His gaze was no ordinary one. It seemed as though within these last few minutes he had seen farther into life, as though the passing of these two, denizens of an unknown world, had kindled in him a new seriousness.
"I don't understand it," he muttered.
"Then you're a fool," the girl declared, hardly. "It's simple enough. They're rich and we're poor. They ride in motor-cars and we on hired bicycles. The girl wears silks and laces, and I have to be thankful for cheap linen. The man smokes cigars, and you can just run to a packet of Woodbines. It's easy enough to understand. They're rich and we're poor."
The boy seemed as though he scarcely heard her.
"I wonder!" he said to himself.
"Are you going to stand tea or aren't you?" the girl asked, a little wearily. "I'm almost famished, and the places'll be full unless we hurry."
He rose to his feet—five feet ten of long, lanky humanity, dressed in a ready-made blue serge suit, a clean collar, and a black tie, good-looking enough in his way, but with his shoulders already bowed beneath the burden—the burden of the toiler. Even as he held his companion's bicycle for her to mount, his eyes watched the cloud of dust left by the motor-car.
A year later he stood, perfectly at his ease, in the prisoners' dock, waiting for the sentence which was obviously deserved and would certainly be forthcoming. Throughout the brief proceeding he had listened to the evidence against him with the intelligent interest of someone quite removed from personal association with the case. The speech for his defence he had ignored. His attitude, in fact, for a first offender, had been so puzzling that the magistrate was prompted to ask whether he had anything to say on his own behalf. He shook his head.
"The gentleman who was kind enough to defend me," he remarked, "said a great deal more for me than I should have ventured to say for myself. It is quite true that I took the money—a hundred and seventy pounds, I think it was. I hoped to have got away with it, but the luck was against me."
"You realized," the magistrate asked, "that you were committing a dishonest action?"
"Not in the least," was the prompt reply. "The money to which I endeavoured to help myself was a very small portion of a great fortune which had been amassed by my employers by means of my brains and the brains of others like me. I have no personal grudge against the gentlemen who are prosecuting me, but morally I consider them at least as guilty as myself. They are not productive members of society in any sense of the word. They have left us, I and my fellow-labourers, to do the work, and they have spent the results in luxuries whilst we have been starved for necessities. I myself, in one room of that man's factory"—pointing to the somewhat pompous figure of the prosecutor—"have inaugurated changes and improvements which must have saved him in a single year ten times the sum I am accused of stealing. For this my wages were advanced two shillings a week. I am not saying," he continued, "that I could have got more elsewhere. None of my ideas were worth anything without the capital to buy the machinery and the established business in which to make use of it. But the fact remains that mine were the brains and his the opportunity. I was the worker and he the parasite. It didn't seem to me to be a fair bargain, and I saw no way of getting it set right, so I helped myself. I am willing to serve any sentence you may give me, but if you, sir, and the society proclaim me dishonest, I venture, with the utmost heartiness, to disagree with you."
The magistrate stared at him. There was a little ripple of interest though the court. A moment or two later the sentence was pronounced: "Six months' imprisonment in the second division!"
The youth, as he was being led from the dock, met the eyes of his employer fixed a little curiously upon him. It was thus almost that they had exchanged glances in Richmond Park twelve months before. There was nothing threatening about the appearance of this younger man, who followed the policeman obediently from the dock, yet his late employer went back to his works with an uneasy feeling that a new force was abroad in the world—something which he did not understand. He thought of it at dinner that night, and his daughter feared that things had gone ill in the City, and felt a moment's alarm lest anything might happen to prevent the purchase of a new steam yacht in which they had planned a cruise.
"Nothing wrong in the City, I hope?" she asked, after the servants had left.
Her father shook his head.
"Nothing at all," he answered. "Rather a curious thing happened today, though. Do you remember driving through the Richmond Park a year ago? We stopped to look at the view, and a boy and a girl who were lying on the grass under one of the trees stared at us curiously. I told you at the time the boy's face seemed familiar to me. I discovered afterwards that he was one of my employees."
"I remember perfectly," the girl answered, with interest. "I told you that I liked his face."
"To-day I had to prosecute him," her father continued. "He robbed us of a hundred and seventy pounds, and very nearly got away." She raised her eyebrows.
"I am sorry," she remarked, quietly. "He didn't look like a thief."
"Nor did he look like one in the dock," her father answered. "Nor did he talk like one. He even tried to justify himself. It's this infernal Socialism that's doing all the mischief with the half-educated working classes. Young men like this take it up and imbibe the most absurd ideas."
"Did he have to go to prison?" the girl asked, anxiously.
Her father nodded.
"Yes," he declared. "I couldn't have got him off if I would. He's gone to prison for six months."
Being naturally of a law-abiding temperament, and conducting himself, therefore, in prison with rare discretion, John Selwyn was a free man again in five months and eight days. Twenty-four hours after that period, however, he stood once more in the dock upon another and very different charge. This time he was certainly paler, and he was dressed in borrowed clothes, but his manner had lost nothing of its earnest composure.
"The most determined case, sir, I ever did see," a policeman explained. "Got on the steamboat pier and threw himself off in the deepest part of the river."
The magistrate nodded.
"I read the particulars," he said. "I understand that he even struggled with the lighterman who saved his life."
"Naturally," the young man in the dock interrupted. "I did not throw myself into the river with the object of being picked out again." The magistrate looked at him earnestly.
"Do you consider," he asked, "that you have a right to dispose of your own life in this fashion."
"Why not?" the young man answered. "It appears to me that for anyone in my position it is the most sensible and reasonable thing to do. I lived like a slave for a great many years. I made an attempt to better myself, and it failed. Now that I have been in prison my chances of getting on in the world are certainly less than they were. I really do not feel under the slightest compulsion to continue an unequal struggle."
"There is a place for every man in the world," the magistrate said, "if only he has the courage and wit enough to find it."
"You are doubtless right, sir," the prisoner answered, politely. "I would suggest, in that case, that a few signposts would be an advantage. I have never considered myself lacking in intelligence, but, so far as I am concerned, I have failed to find that place."
"You became a thief," the magistrate reminded him.
"That is a point," the prisoner answered, "upon which I regret to say that we disagree. But, in any case, I was driven to it. The day before I took that money, if it interests you to know this, I went to a physician. He explained to me that ten hours' work a day in an unwholesome atmosphere, without proper food or under sanitary conditions of life, was rapidly undermining my constitution. Another year of it and I should have been a dead man. I felt that it was time for me to make a change."
"If I discharge you," the magistrate asked, "will you promise not to repeat the attempt?"
The young man hesitated.
"Really," he said, "I have no wish to become a burden to the State, and I do not exactly see—"
The magistrate stopped him.
"There has come into my hands," he said, gravely, "a sum of twenty pounds. That sum is yours if you will promise to leave the country at once and not to repeat the offence with which you are at present charged."
"My I inquire the price of a third-class ticket to New York, and the sum of money I should be required to have to be allowed to land?" the prisoner asked.
"The police-court missionary," the magistrate answered, "will take you from here to an emigrant office, when you can learn all particulars."
"In that case," the young man declared, "I am willing to give my promise."
Eight years later Sir Henry Rathbone and his daughter stood talking together in the reception-room of one of London's principal restaurants. The eight years had dealt kindly enough with the girl, who had become a beautiful woman. The man had not improved. His face bore the marks of a life of pleasure. Here and there were lines which seemed to indicate anxiety. Just at present he had very little the look of a prosperous man.
"You can have the car for Ranelagh, of course, Violet," he said, "but I am quite sure that I shall not be able to go. My luncheon appointment here is a very important one."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"I wonder you men don't do all your business in the City," she remarked.
Her father laughed hardly.
"My dear girl," he said, "It is only with the utmost difficulty that I have managed to get this fellow Selwyn to meet me at all. He declined to come to the works, and it is only to oblige Haregood, his solicitor, that he agreed to lunch here to-day."
"I really cannot understand," she remarked, watching the people as they came in, "why a little machinery should be so important to you." Her father frowned irritably—his temper had not improved during the last few years.
"You don't understand anything about it, you see, Violet," he declared. "This man has invented some machines by which he can make my screws at about half the price it costs me to turn them out. Unless he'll lease me some machines, or sell me some, or amalgamate, Messrs. Rathbone and Co. may as well close their doors."
"What does it matter?" the girl answered, carelessly. "You have plenty of money."
Her father seemed to grow pale underneath his flushed cheeks.
"Plenty of money," he agreed, "but every penny in the business. Here they come."
"And here," the girl remarked, "is Lady Angerton. Good-bye for the present, then."
She went forward to meet her hostess at the same time that her father shook hands with his two guests. Selwyn had changed beyond recognition, yet as they took their places at the table Sir Henry was conscious of a vague sense of familiarity.
"Where did you learn the practical part of our industry, may I ask, Mr. Selwyn?" he inquired, as soon as it was possible to turn the conversation toward business.
"In your workshops, Sir Henry," the young man answered. "I was there eight years ago. By the by, perhaps I ought to remind you before I accept your invitation that I have been in prison. I stole a hundred and seventy pounds of yours once, you know. You got the money back again, but some people have prejudices about that sort of thing."
Sir Henry shook in his chair.
"Of course," he muttered, "I remember. I remember you now."
There was an awkward pause.
"I ought to have explained before," the young man murmured, with a quiet smile.
"Not at all—not at all," his host declared, hastily. "These things are best forgotten. This is a business meeting, Mr. Selwyn. I want to talk to you about those machines of yours."
"I shall be glad," the young man said, "to hear what you have to say."
They talked throughout luncheon, and in the smoking-room afterwards, and Mr. John Selwyn only resisted with difficulty an attempt on the part of his host to take him round to his club. He declined politely but firmly to pledge himself to anything. His idea in coming to England, he admitted, was to set down the machines to manufacture screws for himself. Sir Henry felt the perspiration break out on his forehead at the mere idea.
"Between ourselves," he said, "we need not mince words. You know, and I know, that if you do so, and if you refuse to sell or lease your machines, my firm will have to close their doors."
"Precisely," Mr. Selwyn admitted. "The fact had occurred to me."
"You mean to make us do it, by God!" Sir Henry exclaimed, suddenly.
"If you want the truth," the young man answered, "I do."
Sir Henry went away from the interview disturbed and uneasy. Nevertheless, negotiations were not wholly broken off. There were times when Selwyn seemed on the point of accepting some of the offers which the solicitors of Messrs. Rathbone and Co., Limited, were continually making him. Sir Henry himself spared no effort to win the good-will of his former employé. He invited him to his house—an invitation which, curiously enough, John Selwyn accepted. On one of these occasions he met Violet, and their mutual interest was so obvious a thing that she was feverishly incited by her father to take a hand in the game. Mr. Selwyn listened to all that she had to say, and was very polite. He even accepted further invitations, and more than once he was seen about with Violet Rathbone.
They sat together one Sunday morning in the Park. Her father, at the first opportunity, had made some excuse to hurry off and leave them alone. They talked the usual banalities, watched the people, and made remarks about them. Finally, Violet rose a little suddenly.
"Come and sit further back, Mr. Selwyn," she said. "I want to talk to you."
He obeyed at once. No one could have judged from his face what effect her words had upon him. They found two seats a little apart from the others. She looked for a moment at the lace of her parasol and then into his expressionless eyes.
"Mr. Selwyn," she said, "I am beginning to find the present position embarrassing. You know very well why my father leaves me alone with you, why he is always asking you to the house. I do not see why we should play at misunderstanding one another. My father tells me that it rests with you whether or not he is to lose the whole of his fortune and to watch the ruin of his business."
The young man nodded his head thoughtfully.
"Your father is quite right, Miss Rathbone," he said. "It rests entirely with me."
"There are ways," she continued, "of avoiding this, are there not? Compromises, I mean, which could be made? You would lose very little, for instance, if you leased your machines to my father or went into partnership with Rathbone and Co., Limited?"
"So far as the financial side of the matter is concerned," the young man admitted, blandly, "it would be a very reasonable and satisfactory settlement."
"It does not appeal to you, though?" she continued.
"It does not," he admitted.
She raised her eyebrows. They were coming to it at last, then!
"From your manner," she said, "one would imagine that you had some grievance against my father."
"I have," he admitted. "Not a personal one altogether, and yet, perhaps, it is a personal one. I have been in prison, you know, Miss Rathbone, for stealing from your father."
She laid her hand upon his arm.
"You must not talk about it, please," she said. "We have forgotten all that."
She did not move her fingers for a moment. She was twenty-six years old, very beautiful, but as yet heart-whole. She was beginning to feel that there was something remarkably attractive about this young man, if only he would be reasonable.
"I wonder if you remember," he said, "somewhere about nine years ago, driving through Richmond Park and stopping on the hill?"
"I remember perfectly," she agreed. "You sat on the grass with your head in a young woman's lap. I considered it at the time most shocking behaviour."
"It was the way of the world in which I moved," he answered, "the way of the world in which Fate and your father kept me. It is not that I have a personal animus against Sir Henry. He was my employer in those days, and he only did what others did and are doing; but, none the less, the wealth which he is so anxious that I should preserve for him has been built up on the bodies and the souls of hundreds such as I. Labour to him was labour, a weapon towards his end—some dead, inanimate thing, to be used as cheaply as possible and as effectively as could be. I had my brains picked week by week for your father's benefit. Those days are hard to forget, Miss Rathbone."
"I am not a political economist," the girl said, "but you must surely understand that it was not my father who fixed the conditions. What he did, he did because others were doing it. It is not possible, Mr. Selwyn, that you bear him a real and personal grudge for those days?"
The young man looked out across the Park, but he said nothing.
"It is an opportunity which makes the employer," the girl went on. "You yourself speak of starting great works. Will your men be better treated than my father treated you?"
"I intend to make some efforts, Miss Rathbone, in that direction," he remarked.
She looked down at her little patent shoe and beat the ground impatiently for a moment or two.
"You are so enigmatic," she protested, softly. "Can't we understand one another, Mr. Selwyn? Please speak out and tell me what is in your mind."
He looked at her thoughtfully. She represented the last word in wealth and elegance and education. Her delightful carriage was the outcome of her healthy, untrammeled life. No trouble had ever dimmed her beautiful eyes or carved a single line upon her still girlish face.
"Miss Rathbone," he said, "you and your father are both anxious to know my plans. It is better, perhaps, that I should tell you them. I will not admit that I have any personal feelings against your father. On the other hand, I hate, with a hatred which has been absolutely the mainspring of these recent years of my life, the means by which he made his wealth, the means by which he holds it. You have been very kind to me. Perhaps I have not deserved it. You beg for peace and I tell you that it must be war. I am here for that purpose and no other. Already the plans are out for my new factories. In two years' time—before, if your father is wise—he will close his doors. I shall find employment for his workpeople, and I promise you that I shall find it on very different conditions to any that Messrs. Rathbone, Limited, ever offered."
She looked at him, suddenly pale to the lips.
"Is this final?" she whispered.
"It is final," he answered.
They were very nearly alone, and she leaned so closely towards him that her soft breath fell upon his cheek.
"You are very hard, Mr. Selwyn. Could nothing—could nobody move you?"
She was offering herself to him—he knew that quite well.
"Nobody," he answered. "Not even the woman whom, in a few weeks' time, I hope to make my wife."
For a moment she neither moved nor spoke. Then she drew away and rose to her feet with a little shiver. Amongst the crowd at the corner came her father. She hurried toward him.
"Please leave me," she begged her companion. "I am going home. I have taken too much of your time already. Forgive me."
Late on the following afternoon John Selwyn set out to pay a call which he had already delayed for several weeks. He found his way to a certain address in Hanover Street, mounted to the first floor, and knocked at the door. A young woman dressed in black, with pins and needles stuck all over the front of her dress, threw it open. She stared at the visitor in surprise.
"The shop's downstairs," she remarked, "There's no one allowed up here. Madame is very strict about it."
John Selwyn's eyes travelled down the room. There were at least twenty girls sitting there at work—twenty girls with pale cheeks, and only one small window open. His conscience smote him because of those three weeks' delay.
"I am sorry," he said. "I came to make inquiries about a Miss Agnes Carton."
".Agnes Carton!" the young woman exclaimed. "Why, she left nearly four years ago. You'll find her at No. 55, Grosvenor Street." John Selwyn raised his hat and departed.
"I ought to have come before," he said to himself, repentantly. "Perhaps it is too late."
He walked quickly to No. 55, Grosvenor Street. The appearance of the place was a distinct relief to him. It was a neat little milliner's shop, clean and smart. He opened the door and found himself in a cool, handsomely-furnished apartment, which to his inexperience seemed almost like the drawing-room of a private house. A young lady came hurrying forward.
"I am in search of Miss Agnes Carton," he announced. "I was told that she was to be heard of here."
The girl was puzzled for a moment, then she smiled.
"Why, you mean madame!" she exclaimed.
"Madame?" he repeated.
"Certainly," the girl answered. "That was her name before she was married. Here she is. It is a gentleman, madame, who asks for you."
A tall young lady, very elegant, very stylishly dressed, and apparently very prosperous, came towards him with an inquiring smile. John Selwyn recognized her with a little gasp.
"My dear Agnes!" he exclaimed.
"Why, it's—it's John Selwyn!" she declared.
The assistant slipped discreetly away. They shook hands a little perfunctorily.
"I have come to ask you to marry me," he announced.
She laughed heartily.
"Well, if it isn't just like you!" she answered. "You haven't changed a bit."
"I mean it," he assured her.
"But you're three years too late," she laughed. "The idea of going away like you did and never writing me a single line, and then walking in one morning and expecting me to marry you off-hand!"
"I had no time for letters," he said. "I have been working hard."
"From your appearance, I should say that you've been making money," she declared.
"More than I shall ever be able to spend," he assured her. "If only you'd waited."
She laughed again.
"Don't be foolish," she said. "I want you to meet my husband. He's such a dear. We should never have been able to marry, though, but for—" A sudden change came into her face.
"Why, of course," she continued, "you were there. Let me tell you of my adventure. About a year after you left for America I was called down into the showroom one day and found a young lady there, looking at evening gowns. I was very tired—we had been up late the night before—and she was very impatient and hard to please. Well, I got trying on things for half an hour or so, and at last I fainted. I couldn't help it, but madame was very angry."
"And the girl?" he asked.
"Madame sent me away the next day, and I saw her in the street on my way home. She stopped her carriage and came up to me. I told her that I had lost my situation, and she was so angry that she went straight back to madame and told her that she would never set foot in her shop again. Afterwards she sent me to Hastings for two months, and when I was quite strong again she lent me the money to start in business here. I am proud to say that in less than eighteen months I was able to pay her back every penny."
"But what about this husband?" he asked.
"You remember my telling you about Mr. Mallison," she said. "He used to travel in silks, and I saw him now and then at madame's. He called here when I started and was very attentive. In a business like this, you know, one needs a man."
John Selwyn laughed. He was astonished to find how relieved he was.
"That's all very well," he said, "but I consider you've treated me shamefully."
"You shall tell my husband so," she declared. "He'll be here in a few minutes."
"We'll all go out to lunch," he suggested.
"And in the meantime," madame said, "let me tell you something strange. Do you know who the young lady was?"
"Howe should I?" he asked.
"Do you remember sitting in Richmond Park one Sunday afternoon when two people went by in a motor-car—a man and a girl? We all stared at one another rather strangely, and you told me afterwards that the man was your employer."
John Selwyn stood perfectly still.
"I remember," he said. "Go on."
"That was the girl—Miss Rathbone—who has done all this for me," madame declared, with tears in her eyes. John Selwyn sat down in one of the padded chairs.
"Upon my word," he said, slowly, "in those days I used to admit that I couldn't understand life. I don't understand it now."
Late that afternoon he called at Berkeley Square. Miss Rathbone was at home, the butler thought, after a moment's hesitation, but she had gone to her room with a headache, and was refusing to see callers. Selwyn persisted, and twenty minutes later she came to him in the darkened drawing-room. He was standing when she entered, and she did not ask him to take a seat.
"I did not expect to see you here again, Mr. Selwyn," she said. "Under the circumstances, I think perhaps you might have stayed away."
"I could not," he answered, simply.
She gave a little start.
"Perhaps it was my father whom you wished to see?" she murmured.
"No," he answered, "it was you."
She came a few steps farther into the room. He saw then that she was paler than he had ever seen her. It was the beginning of trouble, this—the beginning of the blow which he had dealt.
"I do not know," she said, "what you can have to say to me."
"You look tired!" he exclaimed, abruptly. "Won't you sit down?"
She hesitated and then obeyed him, sinking on to a couch with a little gesture of weariness.
"Miss Rathbone," he said, "I have come to thank you for your kindness to the woman whom I was expecting to marry."
She looked at him for a moment without comprehension.
"I mean the young lady," he reminded her, "whom you set up in business in Grosvenor Street, whom you saw with me nine years ago in Richmond Park."
She suddenly understood.
"It was she, then, whom you spoke of in the Park yesterday?"
"Of course," he answered. "I was going to marry her. It was only right. She and I were sufferers together. We belonged to the same world. My prosperity was to have been her prosperity. You know," he continued, with a sudden smile, "even amongst the lower orders you can't sit in Richmond Park with your head on a girl's lap for nothing."
"You were going to marry her, but you didn't care," she said, in a broken voice.
"I certainly did not care," he admitted. "I did not know," he continued, coming close to her, "that I cared for anybody. I did not believe that there was any room in my life for that sort of thing. I rather fancy that I have been mistaken."
"It's horribly like the end of a story," she murmured, loosening her arms for a moment from around his neck.
"Not the end, sweetheart," he answered; "the beginning."
It was over at last, the five days' cause célèbre, the five days' long-drawn-out agony. To the man who sat alone upon the hard bench fixed close to the whitewashed wall of the little cell the whole thing seemed, now that it was over, very much like a dream. He was plunged once more into solitude. The distant sounds came to his ears in a sort of muffled chaos. The crowded court with its insufferable atmosphere; the white, parchment-like face of the judge; the bewigged barristers with their strange callousness, their slight jests, their artificial earnestness; the sea of closely-packed faces extending even to the door; the faces of friends, acquaintances, enemies—all seemed, now that the curtain had fallen, as though they were but images of what might have been, as though they had never had—never could have had—any real existence. And then the story—the hateful, impossible story—twisted and turned against him at every point, the lies of another man put into his mouth, the evil deeds of his partner heaped upon his shoulders. His first sense of fierce martyrdom had burned away into ashes through the furnace of those long days of torture and suffering. The result had come at last scarcely even as a blow. The horror of it had been discounted a hundred times over, discounted by all those curious, inimical faces, the scathing words of the prosecuting barrister—a member of his club, once a guest at his house—discounted even by the cold, carefully-balanced words of the judge himself, so studiously impartial, so weightily censorious. It seemed to him that nothing remained—no pain, no loneliness, no humiliation. His senses were steeped in a sort of torpor. He was barely conscious of the opening of his door, of the entrance of the visitor, fresh from the court, who was sitting now by his side in grave silence.
"I am very sorry, indeed, Mr. Harewood," the lawyer was saying, "that the case went so badly. Personally, I am quite convinced that a serious injustice has been done. If Carelton had only been alive, he would have been able to clear you in many ways. Without his evidence the Court, of course, have assumed that you shared equally with him in his speculations and rash schemes."
The convicted man made no reply. He appeared indeed almost to have lost the power of speech. The solicitor, who was really exceedingly sorry for his client, and honestly believed him guilty of little more than the folly of a pleasure-loving man of the world who has left his affairs to an unscrupulous partner, tried to impart a consoling note to his next speech.
"The sentence," he declared, "was far too severe. I have heard it universally condemned. I can assure you that we do not intend to let the matter remain here. There will be a petition to the Home Secretary, and I believe I may say that it will be signed by the principal counsel for the prosecution. In the meantime, if you have any messages, you will be allowed to see your wife for a few minutes. And as to letters—"
There was a considerable space of wooden bench between the two men, and Harewood's fist suddenly smote it a terrible blow. "Enough!" he said. "The thing is finished—my life is finished! I have no wife—no children! I wish to see no one. I will see no one."
"Mr. Harewood!" the lawyer protested.
A sudden fire flashed in the eves of the convicted man.
"Silence!" he ordered. "You did your best. I am grateful. For the rest, I repeat that what has happened takes me out of this world as surely as death itself. You can tell my people that from me. They had better make their minds up to it, for it is inevitable. My wife is a widow and my children fatherless. I suppose there is a little money left somewhere. They must shift for themselves, as well as they can. But as for visits or letters, no! Not the thinnest thread shall bind me to the past when once I enter the convict prison. Understand that finally."
"In a few months' time—," the lawyer began, soothingly.
"In a few months' time," Harewood repeated, "things will be with me exactly as they are now. I have been hardly judged, perhaps, yet according to my strict deserts. Mine was the sin of omission. I left Carelton to play ducks and drakes with our clients' money while I enjoyed life in my own way. I trusted Carelton and I had no right to trust him, or any man, with other people's money. It was more than foolish—it was wicked. I admit the justice of my sentence. I am prepared to pay."
"With regards to Mrs. Harewood—," the lawyer recommenced.
"So far as I am concerned," the convicted man interrupted, "there is no such person. Let her understand that, and let my children understand it. God himself could not blot out these last five days, or the memory of them. They have come and gone like an avalanche, and they have swept me from the face of the earth. You understand?" he wound up, rising to his feet at the sound of a key in the door. "Letters I shall not open. Visitors I will not receive. I shall enter the convict prison without a name, and if ever I leave it I shall leave it without a name."
"You will leave it a good deal before fifteen years," the lawyer declared.
"As to that I am indifferent," Harewood answered. "Indifferent, that is to say," he added, slowly, "save for one thing."
"Your children?" the lawyer murmured.
"No," Harewood answered, with a note of repressed passion in his tone; "the children of Stephen Carelton!"
The sovereign lay on the edge of the kerbstone, half hidden by a little sprinkling of dust. Carelton's companion pointed it out to him.
"Your sovereign, Stephen," he remarked. "Lucky fellow, as usual! A few more rolls and it would have gone down the drain."
Carleton stood on the middle of the pavement looking at the spot where the glittering edge of the coin was clearly visible. He made no motion to pick it up. His friend looked at him in surprise.
"I know you're a veritable Croesus, Stephen," he remarked, "making, money hand over fist, and all the rest of it, but I presume you don't intend to leave that sovereign for the sweepers?"
The young man drew a cigarette-case from his pocket and, selecting one, tapped it against the side and calmly lit it.
"For the sweepers, my dear Cyril," he answered, "I think not. To tell you the truth, I believe that Providence has some other destination in view for that luckless coin. That is the fourth time within the last five minutes that I have dropped it."
His companion adopted a practical attitude.
"Why don't you keep your gold in your waistcoat pocket?" he suggested.
"You are missing the whole point of my statement," Carelton declared. "I am convinced that it was not carelessness alone which caused the coin to drop from my fingers twice in the taxi-cab and twice when I sought for that loose silver to pay the man. Depend upon it, Cyril, Fate has its own use for that sovereign. I am clearly dispossessed."
His friend looked at him doubtfully. Carelton was a man of whims; but surely this was absurd!
"You can't mean," he said, "that you are going to leave it there?"
"Precisely what I do mean, my dear fellow," Carelton answered. "Come into the club and stand in the bay window. We shall be able to see the person whom Fortune has taken under her wing."
"There is not the slightest doubt about it," his friend remarked, decisively, "that you are more or less a fool, Stephen."
"I hope so," Carelton declared, fervently. "This world was not made for \ vise men. The workhouses and prisons are full of them. Come inside, Cyril, there's a good fellow. I am really interested to see into whose hands my sovereign is fated to pass."
The two men stood in the bay window of the club and watched. Stephen Carelton was tall and dark, with pale face, humorous mouth, and keen, grey eyes deep-set under his level eyebrows. He was still a young man, but ten years of exceptionally hard work, successful though it had been, had left its traces upon his features. Cyril Hanneford, his companion, was a man of slighter physique, more carefully dressed, a person of less marked characteristics, a loiterer amongst the byways of life, in the broad thoroughfares of which Carelton had already found for himself a place. As regards this particular incident, however, the two seemed to have changed identities. Carelton, the practical man of affairs, had yielded to the idlest of superstitions. Hanneford, the person to whom such things might well have seemed likely to appeal, was adopting the pose and tone of a cynic.
"A sovereign," he remarked, looking out upon the pavement, "is relatively a small sum. Yet, after all, my dear Stephen, there are possibilities about it. It is the price of a bottle of wine, a basket of violets for your good-looking typist, a stall at the Opera, a tip to a maitre d'hôtel. You might, even," he added, "entertain me modestly to luncheon upon that sum. And behold! there it lies," he wound up, pointing out of the window, "chucked away as a thing of no worth, left there to gratify the vaguest of superstitions. Upon my word, I've a good mind to go out and fetch it myself."
"Don't talk rot, Cyril," Carelton declared, good-humouredly. "Stay here with me instead and watch for the lucky person. See, there is someone coming now."
A boy went by with a parcel under his arm, whistling loudly, with his eyes fixed upon the windows of the great club. He did not even look upon the pavement. Then there came a couple of men, arm in arm, talking intently as though engrossed upon some matter of business. They, too, passed on without a downward glance. A woman leading a dog by a string followed, but she only looked at the ground to admire her well-shod feet. A beggar-woman came slowly along, and Carelton found it hard work to prevent his friend from rushing out.
"If someone's going to pick it up," he protested, "why not that poor woman? It looks as though it might do her a bit of good."
Carelton held his arm.
"If it is meant for her, she will see it," he declared.
"You are not such a superstitious ass," Hanneford demanded, "as to believe—"
"I believe nothing," Carelton assured him. "Only I intend that Chance, which four times brought that particular coin from my pocket, shall choose the person into whose hands it shall pass."
"To judge by his walk, then, here he comes," Hanneford declared. "He's got his eyes glued on the pavement all right. Two to one he'll see it! No, he's going by! By Jove, he's stopped! He's got it, Stephen! Did you see him pick it up? You can say good-bye to your sovereign now, old man. He doesn't look the sort of chap to part easily."
Carelton was watching eagerly the face of the man who, after a covert glance around, was preparing to quit the scene. He was certainly not a person of prepossessing appearance; but, on the other hand, his clothes and general air seemed to indicate the fact of his belonging to that class to whom a sovereign is a distinct consideration. He was of powerful build, thin but sinewy, with hard, weather-stained face and undistinguished slouch. He wore a ready-made suit of clothes, and he carried no gloves or stick. Yet there was something about him a little different from the ordinary wayfarer, something which excited the curiosity of both men as they watched him hurry off.
"The sort of man, that, who would take a great deal of placing," Carelton remarked, thoughtfully. "He was no ordinary waster, I'm sure."
"It's good-bye to your sovereign, at any rate," Hanneford laughed. "Hadn't you better order those whiskies and sodas?"
The man with a sovereign gripped in his hand passed down the street and disappeared. There was a curious lack of vitality about him and the way he moved. His walk was a tired plod—a physical action which seemed purely mechanical. If he brushed the sleeve of a passer-by, he started, as though alarmed, and shrank away. Notwithstanding his somewhat forbidding appearance, he had an air which was almost timid. An acute physiognomist might easily have placed him. His were the mannerisms and deportment of a man finding himself once more amongst his fellows after a long period of solitude.
He reached the Strand and pursued his way steadily along as far as Chancery Lane. Here he turned into a little square and came to a sudden standstill before a venerable pile of offices. Then, for the first time since he had stopped to pick up that sovereign, the light swept across his face. Exactly opposite to him was a large brass plate, on which was engraved the name of Mr. Stephen Carelton, Junior, with a list of legal distinctions in smaller type. The place had an undoubtedly thriving appearance. Through the wire blinds of the offices he could see rows of clerks. There were visitors coming and going all the time—barristers' clerks with silk hats and small black bags, and others more obviously clients. The man stood there for several minutes, motionless. His lips were slightly parted, his face had gradually become hard and cruel. He spoke to himself for the first time.
"Mr. Stephen Carelton, Junior!" he muttered; "the boy who was at Oxford. It is well that one of them is alive."
He hesitated for a moment as though about to enter the offices. Then he looked at the sovereign in his hand and changed his mind. Slowly he turned round to face another shock before he had taken half-a-dozen steps. A carriage was drawn up close to the kerb in Chancery Lane. A woman with uplifted skirts was in the act of descending from it. She was tall, graceful, and young; fashionably dressed, with pleasant smile and clear brown eyes, which rested for a moment upon the man who was staring at her. She was suddenly perplexed. A frown wrinkled her forehead. She even stood still in the middle of the pavement. The man shuffled on and her eyes followed him. Then she went on her way slowly. She entered the offices of Mr. Stephen Carelton, Junior, with a puzzled frown lingering upon her face.
Harewood strode on towards the Strand, with the fires of hate suddenly loosed within him—the yearning of a moment changed already to that passionate desire to kill which for many years had been all that had remained to him of sensation. He came to a standstill in front of a small shop in the Strand, where various secondhand articles were for sale. He looked in at the window, and after a casual glance entered the shop.
"How much for the small revolver?" he asked.
The shopman took it from the window and examined it.
"Fifteen and sixpence," he answered, laying it upon the counter. "Nice little weapon, too—good as new."
Harewood took it up and examined it.
"What about cartridges?" he asked.
"You'll have to buy those at a gunsmith's," the man told him; "but there are three or four here somewhere which came with it. You can have them, if you like."
He rummaged about for several minutes and produced them at last from a large box filled with oddments.
"They've been lying here for some time," he remarked, "but I expect you'll find them all right."
Harewood inserted them into the chambers of the revolver, thrust it into his pocket, and placed the sovereign upon the table. The shopman handed him four and sixpence.
"I wouldn't carry it like that if I were you," he advised. "A loaded revolver's not too safe a thing to have loose in the pocket."
Harewood nodded, but left the place without making any answer. In the street he was conscious of a sudden giddiness. He stopped short for a moment, and remembered that as yet he had tasted no food that day. His hand was shaking like a drunken man's. Reluctantly he crossed the road and entered a small eating-house. It was a waste of time this, but it was necessary. When he emerged, half an hour later, he walked with a new decision and with more rapid footsteps. In a few moments he had found his way once more to the little square off Chancery Lane, and, presenting himself at the offices of Mr. Stephen Carelton, Junior, made his inquiry at the clerk's desk.
"Mr. Stephen Carelton has just come in from lunch, sir," the boy told him. "Have you an appointment?"
"Yes," Harewood answered.
The youth took up a book and glanced down it searchingly.
"We can't seem to have any record of an appointment with anyone of your name," he remarked. "When was it made?"
"A long time ago," Harewood answered, grimly; "perhaps before you were in a position to record it. Tell Mr. Carelton that Mr. Harewood wishes to see him at once."
The name, audible this time to the other clerks, elicited a slight stir of interest, but it did not occur to anyone to connect the speaker with the quondam head of the firm. After a brief delay Harewood was shown upstairs. Trembling a little at the knees, he passed along the familiar way. Soon he was ushered into the private office which had once been his. Stephen Carelton looked up and greeted him with a brief nod.
"You wished to see me I understand?" he said. "I am Mr. Stephen Carelton. I didn't quite catch your name."
The boy had disappeared and closed the door behind him. Harewood calmly seated himself in the empty chair opposite to the young lawyer.
"My name is Harewood," he announced.
They looked at one another across the table. Stephen Carelton's expression was at first one of puzzled doubt. Suddenly a light seemed to break in upon him.
"My God!" he exclaimed. "You are Julian Harewood?"
The younger man held out his hand.
"You have taken us completely by surprise, sir," he said. "Allow me to say, however, that I am very glad to see you. We had no idea that—that you would be here so soon. Your behaviour as to letters has been a little extraordinary, you know."
Harewood looked at the outstretched hand as though at some poisonous thing. Carelton slowly withdrew it.
"You're not going to bear malice against me, I hope, Mr. Harewood?" he said, frankly. "I know that my father used you ill, but it was before my time. I know, too—"
"Be quiet!" Harewood ordered.
He drew the revolver from his pocket and fingered it almost affectionately.
"I was released from prison early this morning," he said, slowly. "I had only one desire when I came out; I have had only one desire all the time I have been a prisoner, and that was that I might kill you, or anyone else who bore your name, before night."
"What have I done to injure you, Mr. Harewood?" the young man asked, calmly.
"You are your father's son," Harewood answered. "Look at me. I am the broken-down wreck of a man, the shell of a man in whom the heart and the soul are dead. I am what your father made me. Fortunately for him, he is dead. Unfortunately for you, you are alive. Stephen Carelton's son, indeed! I, too, had children. What has become of them God only knows! A wife—she is dead, I hope. Say your prayers quickly, young man. A word will have to do. A few hours ago I was terrified lest I should lack the strength of this thing. I feared that I might have to kill you with my hands. Chance sent me the money to buy this," he added, patting the revolver; "a blessed chance. My curses on you, Stephen Carelton!"
He raised the revolver and, pointing it deliberately at the other's head, pulled the trigger. There was an empty click. He tried once more. Again the fall of the hammer upon some unresponsive substance. Carelton, who had been paralyzed by the unexpectedness of the attack, sprang up and gripped his assailant's wrists so that the revolver fell on to the office table.
"Harewood!" he exclaimed. "My God, are you mad?"
Harewood answered nothing. He seemed suddenly turned into stone. The failure of his weapon was a thing uncontemplated—an unimaginable catastrophe. He suffered himself to be pushed back into his chair. Carelton looked at him wonderingly.
"I know you now!" he exclaimed. "You are the man who picked up my sovereign in Pall Mall! Is that what you bought with it?" he asked, pointing to the revolver.
"Yes!" Harewood answered mechanically, "that and a meal. I wish I had never seen the sovereign. I should have killed you then, sure enough."
The young man felt his forehead. He was scarcely surprised to discover that it was wet.
"Mr. Harewood," he said, "if you had killed me you would have killed your son-in-law. I was married to Louise two years ago. I know that my father treated you badly, but I have done all that I can to make up for it. And so far as regards the business, why, I have been more successful than I deserved even. There's money for you and a new life, and there isn't one of your people, or even your old friends, who won't be glad to see you. There isn't a soul who hasn't come to the conclusion that your sentence was ridiculously severe, and for the last twelve months there has been quite a series of agitations for your release. It's your own fault that we haven't been able to let you know. We've tried every means in vain. One moment."
He walked to the door of an inner room and called to somebody. Harewood pressed the barrel of the revolver against his own temple.
"One of them must be good," he muttered.
He pulled the trigger—again the empty click.
"One more—the last one!" he whispered to himself, and stiffened his finger.
Suddenly the weapon was wrenched from his hand. He turned swiftly round. The girl whom he had seen stepping from the carriage was there on her knees by his side; her arms were around his neck; marvellous, incredible words were pouring from her lips; her cheek, even her lips themselves were pressed to his. He rocked in his chair. There was a lump in his throat, burning fire behind his eyes. The years were falling away with the hot tears—nothing could stop them now. It was a nightmare which had passed...
Carelton walked to the window which overlooked the square, with the revolver in his hand. He pulled the trigger idly. It went off at once with a loud report. He stood gazing at it in amazement—it was the fourth cartridge which had been good! Through the little cloud of smoke he seemed to see the sovereign lying in the gutter below.
The man looked up from his writing-table impatiently. Once more the door had opened and closed. He forgot even to be polite.
"What the dickens do you want?" he asked.
"I am your new secretary, Mr. Hardrow," the girl announced.
He laid down his pen and looked at her. She was very neatly though shabbily dressed, and very pretty.
"My new what?" he replied.
"Secretary," she answered, calmly.
"There's some mistake," he protested. "I haven't got a secretary; don't want one. I'm not looking for one."
"Pardon me, you do want one," she objected, firmly. "I arrived here an hour ago on quite different business, and found you were keeping no end of people waiting while you answered a few rubbishy letters yourself. Of course you want a secretary. A man who has just come back to England with a great fortune, and is getting invitations every minute, and visits from politicians, and all that sort of thing, must want a secretary. The only trouble seems to be that you did not know it. Shall I fetch my typewriter?"
He looked at her steadfastly for several moments. Notwithstanding the trim sobriety of her toilet, she was a most attractive-looking young person. She met his gaze quite fearlessly, and seemed to be absolutely unconscious that there was anything at all unusual about her attitude.
"What salary do you require?" he asked.
She considered the subject briefly.
"I get twenty-eight shillings a week at present," she said, "as I am a very rapid typist. You would doubtless be able to give more than that, but I am not sure how much. Suppose you give me thirty shillings a week for a month, and at the end of that time, if you keep me on, I expect I shall be worth a great deal more to you."
"I should think it very probable," he agreed, pushing a pile of letters away from him with an obvious air of relief. "By the by, what is your name?"
She hesitated for a moment, and there was something a little unconvincing about her statement.
"Miss Robinson," she said.
"Very well, then, Miss Robinson," he continued, "you may as well get your typewriter, and I will leave these letters until you return. The people who are waiting outside had better be shown in—one at a time, of course. Will you leave word as you go out?"
"Certainly," she answered. "I shall be back in less than an hour. By the by," she added, with a slight rush of colour to her cheeks, "would you mind advancing me two shillings?"
"Two shillings!" he gasped. "Why, with pleasure! What for?"
"To pay my cab," she told him, composedly. "It's Friday morning, you know, and I have spent my last week's salary. Thank you. I shall come back as quickly as I can."
She went out, and Hardrow looked after her with amazement.
"If she had asked for two pounds," he said to himself, "I should be pretty sure that she never meant turning up again. But two shillings! She is the most extraordinary young person—"
In rather less than an hour Hardrow returned to his rooms after a temporary absence to find his new secretary already installed, carefully wiping the keys of her instrument. She had taken off her hat, and looked very neat and workmanlike.
"Halloa! So you've come back?" he remarked, a little tritely.
"Naturally," she answered. "If you are ready to give me down those letters, I shall be glad to have something to do. You can give them down in shorthand, if you like, but I am afraid I am not very quick."
He frowned. A confession of incompetency from her seemed somehow out of place.
"A secretary should be quick at everything," he grumbled.
"Very likely I shall be able to take them down as fast as you are able to dictate them," she declared, with composure. "At any rate, we shall be through them in half the time you have been taking. Some of those, I should think," she added, glancing at the pile in his hand, "you can tell me what to say and leave the wording to me."
"There are at least forty letters amongst this pile," he said, "asking for donations to some institution or another. You had better go through those and mark them according to your idea of their deserts. Begging letters you can destroy at once."
"There is one here," she remarked, "from a man who says that he used to know you before you went abroad."
He glanced it through.
"Can't remember him," he declared. "Tear it up."
"He seems in a very bad way," she said, doubtfully.
"Send him ten pounds, then!" Hardrow exclaimed, with a note of impatience in his voice. "By the by, there is an envelope there with the Stoke Pagnall post-mark."
She knew very well where it was, and she slipped it underneath the rest.
"I'll let you know when I come across it," she promised.
"Don't forget," he said. "It's a begging letter, I suppose," he went on, carelessly, "but it comes from the place where I used to live before I went abroad. It's astonishing how people remember you when you've done well in the world, especially those who've made a mess of things themselves."
She bent a little lower over the machine. There was a dull streak of colour in her cheeks of which, however, he remained unconscious. If he had only known it, he had effectually destroyed all chances of ever seeing the contents of the letter in question.
"The invitations?" he said, dubiously. "Well, I scarcely know what to do about them. They're a hideous nuisance."
"I will get a plain calendar," she suggested, "and write them all in on the proper dates. Then you can just put your pencil through those you wish to refuse and a tick against those I am to accept."
"Good idea," he answered. "Excellent! I am going out now. I shall be back at four o'clock. You had better ring the bell and order lunch up here when you want some."
"Before you go," she said, looking fixedly at the sheet of paper which she had thrust into her machine, "I think that I ought to tell you something."
He stopped short in his journey toward the door.
"Well, what is it?" he asked.
She went on without looking at him.
"I told you that I had been getting twenty-eight shillings a week. It wasn't exactly true. It was what I wanted; but I have never had a permanent situation."
"I don't see that that matters," he answered. "You're engaged to me, anyhow, for a month at thirty shillings a week."
"And then as regards references?" she continued.
"Oh, don't bother me about trifles," he answered, turning abruptly away. "I'll take you on spec."
Miss Robinson went home that night with a smile playing around her lips and an entire absence of that strained look about the eyes with which she had commenced the day. She rode on top of a bus to Camberwell, and afterwards walked briskly for a quarter of an hour. She soon arrived at a tiny cottage at the end of a row—little creations of brick and mortar, all brand-new, which seemed as though they had come out of a German toy-box, and the road to which was as yet barely made. The front door, which she could easily reach from the street, opened into a sitting room, where she was welcomed with a shriek of delight by a very much smaller edition of herself.
"Mary, is it all right?" the child exclaimed. "Did you find him, and is he nice? Do tell me! And I'm so hungry!"
Miss Robinson smiled, and the sigh of relief which followed came from the bottom of her heart.
"It's absolutely all right, dear," she answered, kissing the child.
"Tell me what he was like, and everything about him!" the latter exclaimed. "Did he recognize you? What did he say? And when shall I see him? Is he coming here?"
Miss Robinson looked for a moment grave.
"Nora, dear," she said, "to tell you the honest truth, he hasn't any idea who I am. He didn't recognize me and he hadn't even opened my letter. When I found myself in the room and saw that he didn't know who I was, I simply couldn't tell him. I engaged myself to him as his secretary instead."
The child clapped her hands.
"How clever!" she exclaimed. "Did he mind?"
Miss Robinson laughed outright. It could not have been for vanity, because there was no one there to see, but her laugh certainly made her appear an extraordinarily attractive young woman.
"I rather took him by storm, I'm afraid," she confessed, throwing off her hat, "but I can see that I am going to be exceedingly useful to him. He was trying to deal with his correspondence himself, without a typist or anything. I was only just in time. It absolutely must have occurred either to him or to someone else, before the day was over, that he needed a secretary."
"But what fun his not recognizing you, Mary!" the child exclaimed, "and all the time you know who he was and all about him."
Miss Robinson turned away and hid her head in a cupboard. The humour of this non-recognition seemed scarcely to appeal to her; in fact, her lip had quivered for a moment.
"Now, I'm just going to make one cup of tea," she said, "and then I'll go out and get something to eat."
"But have you any money, Mary?" the child asked.
Miss Robinson looked searchingly around the sitting-room. Her eyes rested upon a little water-colour—their last—and she sighed.
"We soon shall have," she declared, cheerfully. "To-morrow I am going to ask him to pay me a week's money in advance. I've had to borrow two shillings already to get my machine taken up on a barrow. I told him a cab, because it sounded better."
The child looked perplexed.
"But why don't you tell him, Mary, who you are and all about us? I believe he'd give you a great deal more money. You always said that he was such a nice boy."
Miss Robinson let her hand rest for a moment on her sister's head.
"Dear," she said, "you are wonderfully wise for your years, but there are some things which you cannot understand, and this is one of them. Unless Mr. Hardrow finds out for himself, I would rather not tell him."
The child sighed and remained puzzled. She was only nine years old, but life had already shown her something of its complex side. The change from a comfortable country house, with large gardens and plenty of young friends, to a cottage on the outskirts of London at two shillings a week, with no servant, a few scraps of furniture, sometimes barely enough to eat, sometimes a grim suspicion that Mary had less even than she, was a change such as could scarcely fail to leave its mark. Somehow or other she had looked forward to Hardrow's return as likely to alter all this. He was to have been the fairy prince who provided all manner of desirable things. On the whole, she was a little disappointed with her sister's visit.
"Well," she said, wistfully, "I hope he finds out."
Miss Robinson laughed.
"If he doesn't," she declared bravely, "we are going to have quite a good time now. Thirty shillings a week! One can do a great deal with thirty shillings a week. You must go to school—even if it is only a very tiny school—in the mornings. And perhaps, later on, we may be able to take a cottage out in the country."
"Supposing," the child asked, shrewdly, "Mr. Hardrow goes back to Africa and doesn't want you any more?"
Miss Robinson was a little disturbed at the thought, but she only laughed.
"He'll want me, right enough," she declared. "I'm going to make myself so useful that he won't be able to do without me."
In a sense, her words undoubtedly came true. Hardrow scarcely realised even himself how much easier the days went because of her rigorous supervision of his affairs. He was always seeking her advice, too, and continually adopting it. One day he leaned back from a mass of correspondence with a perplexed frown upon his forehead.
"Stop that for a moment, Miss Robinson," he said. "I want to ask you something."
She ceased her work and turned around on her stool.
"You know that I have been refusing all invitations of a certain sort," he began. "I find that I shall have to change my front. It is necessary for me to go into society more or less. Some of my schemes—one in particular—must be pushed by people who have influence there."
She nodded and touched the keys of her instrument carelessly.
"There is not much difficulty about that," she remarked.
"Perhaps not," he admitted; "but I have got out of the way of it. I've lived in the open air too long, in wooden shanties or in a tent, fed out of tin things, cooked for myself, and played the boor generally. I want civilizing. How should you start about it?"
She looked at him critically.
"I should take off that ugly beard of yours," she declared.
He stroked it for a moment, and looked at himself in the glass.
"I suppose you're right," he admitted. "Anyhow, there's no need to keep the thing over here. Telephone down for the barber, please. Anything else?"
"You don't dress very well," she told him.
"Hang it all!" he objected. "I went to the best tailor in London."
"Yes, and I can see you there," she said, with a faint smile at the corner of her lips. "You probably marched into the place, caught hold of half-a-dozen bales of cloth, told them to make you a suit of each, and came out again in about three minutes."
"Just what I did," he agreed. "What do you suggest?"
"Let the tailor choose for you, if he's a good one," she answered, "and ask him about the ties and shirts to go with the clothes he sends you."
"You're a jewel," he declared; "I'll do it. And you'd better accept those last five or six invitations I gave you."
Thenceforth Miss Robinson saw a deal less of her employer. Vastly improved in his bearing, he became quite a popular figure at a great many social gatherings. The appearance, toward the end of a rather dull London season, of a good-looking bachelor, who was reputed to be a millionaire, and who had acquired his wealth in an exceedingly romantic fashion, was almost a godsend. Invitations came faster and faster, so that even Hardrow, whose energy was boundless and whose zest for this new amusement extraordinary, found it impossible to keep pace with them. Nevertheless, he managed fairly well, and kept in touch, too, with his affairs in the City. One day he suddenly realized how invaluable Miss Robinson was to him. He turned abruptly in the act of leaving the room.
"Miss Robinson," he said, "I don't know what I should do without you."
"I don't know what you would," she agreed.
"Our month has been up for some time," he continued. "Please double your salary."
"I am very much obliged," she answered, with beating heart. "Do you mean really double it?"
"Certainly," he declared. "You're very cheap at that."
He stood looking down at her. It seemed to him that he had forgotten for weeks how pretty she was. Her slim figure, too, looked at its best in the absolutely plain, tight-fitting black dress that she wore at her work. Her hand was resting upon the table. He took it up and held it in his. She snatched it away.
"Mr. Hardrow!" she exclaimed, breathlessly.
He laughed, and looked at her for a moment as though half deriding her agitation. Just then there was a knock at the door. He turned away. In a few minutes he left the room with his visitor, and when he reappeared the incident seemed to have escaped his memory.
Hardrow was by no means a bad fellow, but he was more or less what is usually described as being a man of the world. If Miss Robinson had been a trifle less good-looking, or the fascination of her quiet, demure speech a little less apparent, he would probably, in a few weeks more, have forgotten that she was a woman at all, and looked upon her as a very excellent part of his well-ordered life, whose use to him was purely a mechanical one. Unfortunately, she forgot one morning the strict control which she usually kept over her features, and laughed at some remark of his in perfectly dazzling fashion. Perhaps he considered the few words which she flung out, the quick upward glance which came naturally enough at that moment, as an invitation. At any rate, he stooped and kissed her. For a moment she seemed almost passive. Then she rose slowly to her feet.
"Mr. Hardrow—" she began, with trembling voice.
He took her face between his hands and kissed her again.
"Don't be a goose!" he exclaimed, and went out.
When he came back she was gone. Not only had she departed, but she had taken her typewriter with her. Upon his desk was a neat little statement of her account and a little pile of money, from which he noticed that, although it was Friday morning, she had omitted to draw any salary for the week. For several minutes he stood and swore profusely. He remembered with dismay that he did not know her address. His servant, whom he summoned at once, was equally ignorant of it. He dashed off two advertisements to the evening papers, commanding—begging for her return. He even sought out for himself the hall-porter of the residential hotel in which his quarters were situated, and endeavoured to discover whether in her comings and goings she had ever left any trace of her abode. But the suburb in which Miss Robinson lived was a very long way from Mayfair, and she certainly had no money now to spend in evening papers. The days passed by and he heard nothing. He advertised for a temporary secretary and selected a young man, who robbed him; replaced him with another, who was honest but stupid; and finally, leaving him behind to mismanage his affairs, went off to Scotland in disgust.
And in the meantime things went very ill indeed for Miss Robinson. Naturally of a sanguine disposition, and over-anxious to provide once more the necessary comforts for the child whom she loved so dearly, she found that she had saved very little. Early the next morning she recommenced the search for work in which she had been engaged when she read of the return of Mr. Hardrow to his native land and paid him that eventful visit. Alas! the search was no more successful than it had been before. Never, it seemed, were there so many typists wanting situations; never so few people who wanted typing done. The child Nora, too, was fretful and pale. The summer had been a long one and hotter than usual. In a week's time Miss Robinson had made up her mind to ask her employer for a fortnight's holiday, and to have taken the child into the country. All that, of course, was out of the question now. There was no holiday because there was no work to take a holiday from. And no work came. September passed away, and the tiny house was barer than ever. Nora was becoming alarmingly thin and often peevish. She was never tired of asking what had become of fir. Hardrow, why Mary had left, why she did not go back and ask him to help her find another place.
At last the time came when the rent was not forthcoming. With a little sob Miss Robinson put her pride in her pocket and walked to Mayfair. Mr. Hardrow was still away, she was told, travelling on the Continent. His secretary was upstairs in his rooms, and she could go up if she chose. She presented herself at the familiar door and, knocking timidly, turned the handle. She was a very different-looking person to the trim young woman who had taken Mr. Hardrow by storm a few months ago. Her clothes were worse than shabby now. She was much paler, her cheeks were hollow, and her eyes had lost all their brightness. The immaculate young man who occupied her former position scrutinized her closely though his eyeglass, and formed by no means a favourable opinion of her or of her errand.
"Mr. Hardrow is away," he announced, in reply to her inquiry. "It is quite impossible to say when he will be back in London."
"Will you give me his address, please?" Miss Robinson asked.
The young man dropped his eyeglass and stroked his chin.
"Impossible!" he declared. "Mr. Hardrow is away for a holiday. He gets too much—er—correspondence and that sort of thing when he is in England."
"Will you send on a note to him?" she persisted.
The young man was bored, and showed it.
"Mr. Hardrow does not wish letters forwarded," he said. "Do you mind closing the door as you go out?"
As Miss Robinson stepped out of the lift and passed from the hotel a new fear came to her. The streets and buildings seemed, somehow, strange. There was a pain in her head. Her knees shook so that people stared at her, and for a moment she had even to clutch at a lamp-post. She told herself that this was madness. If she were to give in now, what would happen? Then she remembered that she had had very little food that day, and less still the day before. She entered a shop, and, though her heart ached to part with it, she laid down sixpence and ordered some milk and a bun. Afterwards she walked back to Camberwell—a long walk and not a very cheerful one. Nora met her with red eyes. The man had called again for the rent and had been very rude. The child was trembling and obviously terrified.
"Mary, dear," she cried, "we must get some money! We must! Is there no one we can write to?"
"We've tried everyone," Mary reminded her, sinking into a chair. "I don't know, just for the moment, what there is that we can do."
"I know that I am very hungry!" the child exclaimed, bursting into tears.
It was the last blow. The room went suddenly round, and the rumbling in her ears became like thunder. Mary was unconscious for nearly an hour. When she recovered, the child was still by her side, almost in an agony of terror.
"Oh, Mary, Mary!" she cried. "What are we to do? You're going to be ill, I'm sure! I'm so frightened!"
"I'm going to be nothing of the sort," Miss Robinson declared. "I was just a little tired. You'll find three pence in my pocket. Do stop that milkman and buy three-penny worth of milk for your supper. Afterwards, we'll go to bed."
The child sighed.
"I should like something to eat," she murmured. "I'm so tired of milk, and so hungry."
They went to bed, and Nora, at any rate, slept. Mary lay awake most of the night, with hot eyes and a pain at her heart.
She got up in the morning, trembling a little and terrified. Before midday they were in the streets and the key turned against them. Their few remaining scraps of furniture would never pay the rent that was owing. The typewriter had long ago gone. Mary made a supreme effort.
"This must be the worst that can happen to us, dear," she said to Nora. "We'll go somewhere and sit down, and I'm sure we shall be able to think of something."
The child was half terrified, half starved. They walked wearily from the first—footsore and tired to death before they arrived at their destination. Somehow or other, they reached the Embankment and sank down upon one of the seats, and a few minutes later, though he was supposed to be on the Continent, Hardrow came along taking his first lesson at driving his new motor-car. By chance she turned and saw him, and, staggering to her feet, came out into the road, waving her hand. He barely escaped running over her, and the chauffeur shouted angrily. Just at that moment, however, Hardrow recognized her and sprang from the car.
"Miss Robinson!" he exclaimed, and suddenly took it all in. "Good heavens!"
She had meant to greet him with, at any rate, some attempt at dignity, to explain that a series of misfortunes of a temporary character had placed her in a very uncomfortable position—any rubbish so that she might have looked him in the face and held her own in words at least. But it was all of no use and all quite unnecessary. The faces of the two girls told their own story with pitiless truth. In a minute or two she found herself in the back of the car, with Nora by her side holding her fingers tightly. Hardrow relinquished his place at the wheel and ordered the chauffeur to drive to some restaurant.
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