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Title: The Governor of Chi-Foo Author: Edgar Wallace * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1300471h.html Language: English Date first posted: Jan 2013 Most recent update: Mar 2015 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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IN Chi-Foo, as in the Forbidden City, the phrase Iang-knei-tsi, which means "foreign devil," was one seldom employed, for Colin" Hemel, who in the days of the Manchu dynasty had the august and godlike ear of the Daughter of Heaven, was as terribly quick to punish now that he served a democratic president. As for Chi-Foo, Augustus Verrill sat there, and, brute as he was, he had still enough of the white man in him to resent Iang-knei-tsi.s
So it was Iang-ren that people said, meaning (so we persuade ourselves) "honorable foreign."
What they call foreigners in Chi-Foo nowadays I do not know, for Augustus Verrill is not there, and for this reason.
On a bright spring morning the interested but fearful people of Chi-Foo, straining their ears for the sound, were rewarded with the word they awaited. It was the word "shul!" which means "kill!"
A Chinaman with a thick padded coat of blue, his hands concealed in his sleeves, was picking a delicate way along the untidy street which leads to the Gate of a Thousands Regrets, when he heard the guttural whisper, and saw the crazy door of a house come flying outward.
He spun round on the heel of his felt boot, his eyes blinking in the strong sunlight, his lean brown face tense, and a grin of expectancy showing the white even rim of his teeth.
"Kill!" said the dog-faced leader.
The blue-coated Chinaman squared his elbow and a straight splinter of fire leaped from his hand.
The dog-faced man, with a grimace like one who swallows a noxious draught, went lurching against the white wall of the house, leaving it smeared and disfigured when he finally collapsed to his knees.
This was against all arrangement, for the Devil in Blue had left the inn outside the city gates, and in a second's space the Street of Going Forth was deserted save for the bluecoated Chinaman and the gurgling thing that was huddled in the mud by the wall. The blue Chinaman looked down, frowning.
"Insensate Chink," said he. "Blind and prejudiced instrument of fate —quo vadis?"
He took a white handkerchief from the fold of his sleeve and blew his nose, never removing his eyes from the dying man.
"Better you than me, by gad," he said earnestly, "from all over the world to die like a pig in a wallow of mud? That's no death for a gentleman."
All the time he spoke aloud in English, yet so cleverly was he made up, so scrupulous was the attention he had devoted to his toilette and the et ceteras of his character that none in the city of Chi-Foo knew him for any other than Li Wan, a small-piece mandarin charged by the Daughter of Heaven to inquire into certain irregularities at the Court of Mandarin Wen-Ho Hong, Governor of the Province of Chi-Foo.
He waited until the man was dead, then looked up and down the deserted street. The Gate of a Thousand Regrets was closed, though it was long before sunrise. The Captain of the Guard would explain the unusual happening, would also swear by his domestic gods that he saw no sight of brawling and heard no sound of shot.
At the other end of the street a little knot of small boys had gathered with folded arms, frowning curiously, and relaxing their attitude from time to time to point out, with their thin little arms stretched stiffly, the tragic consequences of the attack.
These melted as the man in blue, twirling his long-barreled Browning, walked slowly back the way he had come. The bazaar was alive with people—the bazaar which ran to the right from the street end to the very gates of the Yamen.
But even this crowd, silent and watchful, stepped on one side to give him a free passage. Once he heard a half-hearted "Shul!" and his quick ears caught the rustle of movement which is so ominous a sequence to such an urgent suggestion. Then a jagged stone whistled past his ear, and he heard the "Ugh!" of the man who threw it.
He was half-way to the Yamen, and did not turn until another stone caught him in the middle of his well-padded back.
He whipped round as the thrower was stooping for further ammunition, and covered him.
"Oh, man," said he, in the queer dialect of the river province, "I wish you a safe journey."
The thrower dropped his stone as if he had been shot.
"Come nearer to me," commanded the Blue Man, and the coolie shuffled forward through the mud, staring without expression into the gray eyes of the other.
"There is a wind on the river tonight," said the man with the pistol.
"I sail my sampan in the wind," stammered the other; and then, "Let me die if I have offended your honorable body."
"Walk behind me, brother," said the blue Chinaman, and continued on his way. The trembling coolie who had followed him did not see him grin, or know that the Devil in Blue was armed. He had used the password of the Mournful Owls—not for the first time—and here was a member of the secret society humbly serving him, though Chung-Win-Ti, the local head of the Order, lay stiffening in the mud not a stone's throw away.
The man in blue passed hastily through the gates of the Yamen, and entered the outer Court of Justice.
He swept aside an imploring secretary full of murmurs about the Mandarin's indisposition, and came without ceremony to the presence of the Governor.
Wen-Ho-Hong looked up as the Blue Man entered, and started.
"It is an honorable happening that you condescend to come to my hovel," he murmured. "Does your graciousness desire something?"
"My miserable carcass has come," said the Blue Man, a snarl on his lips, "despite the fact that your honorable assassins endeavored to send me on the journey; also, my noble prince, I fear that I have villainously slain an honorable servant of yours, Chung-Win-Ti, in the Street by the Gate."
The aesthetic face of the other did not so much as twitch.
"If you had brought your nobleness with the other honorable members of your Commission," he said gently, "I, unworthy as I am, would have sent forth my miserable guard to bring your felicity to the Yamen."
For a moment they sat, two Chinamen with shaven heads and plaited queues, their hands upon their knees, watching one another; then the Governor spoke:
"Will your lordship deign to enter my poverty-stricken inner room?"
The stranger hesitated a moment, then rose without a word and followed the Mandarin through the great lacquered door, which the Mandarin closed carefully behind him.
"Now, Mr. Hemel," he said, in English, "we can talk—what is the idea?"
Colin Hemel, the President of China's Secret Service, lit a cigarette.
"A few slight irregularities, Augustus," he said slowly, between his puffs. "Robbery of troops' pay—"
"That's nothing," said the other lightly. "Betrayal of the Government to the rebels—membership of a secret society."
"That's nothing either," snarled the Mandarin. "Isn't there anything else?"
Colin Hemel looked up at the beautiful carved ceiling of the sanctuary.
"When we were very young men," he said slowly, "long before you went Chinese—I suppose the fact that we were both born in the land makes our jobs natural—there was a girl at Shanghai; do you remember?"
The other licked his lips.
"I was rather fond of her, and so were you," Colin went on, "and when Li Hang took you up, made you his English secretary, and finally gave you a province to rule, I was jolly glad—it sort of left the way open to me."
The other smiled faintly, but Colin seemed not to see him.
"I heard all about your wonderful success at Pekin, how you had pleased the Daughter of Heaven, and your fine new appointment—the only American to hold such a job, aren't you?"
The Mandarin nodded.
"I used to talk about it to her, and she was a little wistful. One day she disappeared."
The man before him averted his gaze.
"She disappeared," repeated the Secret Service man, blowing out a cloud of smoke, "and she came here."
There was a dead silence, which the Mandarin broke.
"Well?" he asked defiantly.
"Well," said the other, "I have added to your crimes—that."
The man he called Augustus—he was an Augustus Verrill before his Chinese days—nodded.
"I somehow fancied you were on the track when I heard the Commission was appointed," he said; "naturally I tried—to stop you. I am rather a big chap with the Owls, and they do, well—they do things for me."
"Naturally," said the blue-coated man dryly.
"As for Miss—er—Mrs. Verrill, for, of course, I married her—you are quite mistaken if you think she is unhappy. You shall see her if you care—after this trial. I suppose it is a trial?"
Colin nodded. "The Commission will arrive in an hour. I came on ahead for reasons of my own."
"To secure news of her?" The Mandarin's eyes narrowed.
"Exactly. Can't I—can't I see her now?"
The Mandarin shook her head.
"Be reasonable, my dear fellow," he said suavely. "She is in the very best of health—lives like a princess and all that sort of thing—servants—and she's awfully happy."
Colin rose, and paced the parquetted floor of the room, his hand on his breast.
"That is all I want," he said, a little huskily. "I wronged you, Verrill—I'm sorry." He held out his hand. "I always thought there was a beast in you. Somehow I never thought of her as being happy. That—that was conceit, I suppose. I'll arrange the Commission for you."
Later he was to remember the attempt on his life, and wonder why —if the man had nothing to fear. But perhaps he feared for her, that this masterful officer, who now enjoyed the confidence of the Daughter of Heaven, would carry her back to her people perhaps.
He went to the sitting of the Commission with a light heart.
He who was called Wen-Ho-Hong swore by all his domestic gods, and by every sacred thing save his dead father—he was too much of a gentleman to so perjure himself—that he knew nothing of the world of the Owls, nor of any,other secret society. He was charged also with having been the cause of a mutiny in the army by withholding his soldiers' pay for a year, but here he saved himself without difficulty.
The Owls' business was more difficult to explain away to the commissioners from Pekin. Though he thrust responsibility upon a smallpiece mandarin named Ho-shi-lai, though he arrayed witnesses by the thousand—producing a sample hundred in the flesh before the grave Commission who sat, hands on knees, spectacled and impassive, in the court-house-to testify to his innocence, neither Li-hung-sao nor the teak-faced Mandarin with the winking eye, who sat at the end of the row of judges, were visibly impressed.
"The Daughter of Heaven" (they still preserve the faction of Royal Government in China), murmured Li-hung-sao apologetically, "is disturbed, and miserable sycophant as I am, and unworthy to discuss such high matters with Your Excellency, yet I must humbly ask for a better story to carry to the gate of the Celestial City."
"Prince," said the Governor lightly, and he glanced meaningly at Colin Hemel, "I have sworn by the Noble Dead, and I have brought witnesses to prove that I know nothing of the killing of the Sesu folk—I can do no more."
Li-hung-sao had glanced from time to time at the third member of the Commission.
"What does Your Excellency say to this?" he asked timidly, for president though he was, the last word was with the blue-coated man at the least important place.
Colin Hemel twisted round.
"I am unworthy to give an opinion," he said, and he was occupied in his mind with the important question—how little could he with decency fine this peccant Mandarin, before he delivered a mild admonition?
For he was anxious to have done with this farce of a trial—a farce which he had planned so tragically—and go to some place where he could see her over again and for the last time. How strange she would seem in the Chinese costume she would wear! She with her flaxen hair and gray eyes.
"Your Excellency knows," he began, when there was a stir in the crowd, a howl like the howl of a beast, and a figure dived head down between the soldiers. It fell on its knees before the grave court.
A coolie flung after and lashed at the quivering figure in his fear and rage.
"Excellencies," he stammered, "a woman from the kitchen—shameless."
"Mercy, 0 judges!" the thing on the floor mumbled and blubbered in Chinese, and raised its head and caught the staring eyes of the Mandarin in blue. He saw the cropped hair, the gray eyes, the wasted face, the skinny arms stretched in supplication.
"Mr.—Mr. Hemell" sobbed the wreck, and collapsed.
"Let this woman be taken to my chair," said Hemel softly; "in the name of the Daughter of Heaven, let no man harm her."
The court was very still; only the shuffling feet of the man who lifted the figure and the heavy breathing of the Governor of Chi-Foo were the sounds heard.
Then Hemel, white as death, leaned forward, consulting no man, and struck a gong with his bare knuckles. Through the side door curtained with gold and black tapestries came a man bare to the waist, dull-eyed and brown. He ran forward and sank on his knees before the judge, sweeping his lithe body till his shaven forehead touched the ground.
"Go, Fa-ti-sing," said Colin Hemel huskily, "taking with you His Excellency Wen-Ho-Hong, the Governor. Outside the city gate, near by the Plain of Ten Thousand Sorrows, you shall strike the head of Wen-Ho-Hong from his body. In the name of the Daughter of Heaven, tremble and obey."
So they took Augustus Verrill to the appointed place, and snicked off his head before an incurious crowd, and the members of the Commission went back to Pekin in their chairs.
All except the teak-faced Mandarin, who, with three soldiers at his back, rode out of the Gate of Great Assistance, and took the bumpy road for the hospital at Foo-sang, riding beside a palanquin wherein lay a Chinese kitchen-wench who was all the world to him.
"Who knows where I may sleep to-night.
On what dark moor or what wild shore?
With starry robes of Heaven for gown,
I'll lay my bruisèd body down.
My bed the em'rald bracken bright—
Who knows where I shall sleep to-night?"
IF it were not for the fact that this was Poggy's favorite ballad, Ferdie would have said nothing. But whenever Letty sat down and twiddled the keys and turned over the music and said, "I don't like that," or "That's a beautiful song, but I can't sing it properly," or strummed and hummed another, and finally ran her white hand down the crease of "The Song of the Zingari," Ferdie used to sit back and recite the multiplication table to himself until she struck the final chord. Poggy, of course, wrote the song. His name, E. Poglan Bannett, was stamped all over the cover, and he drew unbelievable sums in the shape of royalties. Amongst the unbelievers was Ferdie.
"I think it is a perfectly asinine song," said Ferdie. "Where the deuce do you expect to sleep?"
Letty dropped her hand on her lap. She would, with the slightest encouragement, have dropped one on his ear.
Picking up her fan, she walked across to the library table, which Mr. Revel insisted upon keeping in the drawing-room, and sat down. And they talked. And at the end of ten minutes...
"I suppose you know," said Ferdie, choking, "that you've simply blighted my whole life!"
Lettice Revel considered the matter, knit brows and pursed lips advertising her study.
"Like the Spaniard?" she suggested.
Ferdie had no acquaintance with vaudeville songs, being somewhat serious minded, but he did know that the Spanish were a romantic and melancholy people, and took the illustration in good part.
"I daresay the Spaniard is blighted under similar circumstances, and, for the matter of that, the Czecho-Slovakian. And the Transylvanian. You've made an absolute mess of my existence, Letty. You've simply hashed me!"
"Hash is Irish Stew, isn't it?"—really interested. "We had the funniest cookery mistress at school. We called her Doughnut Dora, because she simply specialized—"
"A man has a right to believe that, when a woman accepts a man's ring and says 'Certainly,' or whatever she says when the man says 'Will you, old dear?' that a woman won't go strolling over a man's suscep—sus—well, whatever it is— with spiked boots. If a man has principles and refuses to go to a party where you've invited a shocking little bounder, who simply makes a fearful ass of himself all the time, and thinks he's being funny because a lot of fearful asses laugh at his apish tricks—and as to his being a composer... he couldn't compose a rice pudding!—I say, if a man says, 'No, I won't go and I don't want you to have him,' if a man—well, dash it, Letty, can't you see...?"
She ran her fingers through her hair—it was a mass of golden floss—and leant back, resigned.
"Who is this man you're talking about—the fearful ass?"
"Me, of course," he said indignantly. "No, not that one, that's Poggy. I mean I'm the man you're talking about—I'm talking about!"
"0h!" said Letty quietly.
The wonderful eyes she turned upon Ferdie were grave, every contour that made up expression showed how much she realized the exceeding seriousness of the situation. Her diamond engagement-ring lay on the table by her side (she happened to be sitting on the table), well within reach of the wretched young man, who blinked alternately from the ring to the girl.
"No useful purpose can be served by prolonging an interview already too painful," she said primly. "We are experiencing the clash of ideals—"
"Come down off the table if you want to be dignified," said the young man miserably. "And all that clashing of ideals stuff sounds like the introduction to a cinema drama of love and sacrifice."
"Let us part without a scene," she said gently, and held out her hand. "I shall never forget you, Reggie."
"I won't even trouble to tell you that my name is Ferdinand. It would only make you more comic."
The ring he gathered up with a sneer.
"Don't you dare throw it in the fire!" she warned him as he lifted the trinket to the level of his eyes.
"It cost a hundred and twenty-five pounds," said the disconsolate young man. "They gave me a ten per cent discount because I knew the managing director. Am I likely to throw it away? I was looking to see if you'd damaged it. You've been very careful. Good-bye, Letty."
Her speculative gaze held him.
"Are you going to shoot lions?" she asked. He appealed to her mutely. "0r build a house in some fever-stricken swamp in Central Africa? Once I believed in you, Ferdie, and ordered black. Once I put an advertisement in the newspapers asking Central African newspapers to copy. And the same night I saw you in Chiro's, teaching Molly Fetinhough the new tango step. Ferdie, you are speaking to a woman who has suffered!"
"I lost the boat," he said lamely.
"Did you find it looking down that bony creature's back? You will not go away. Tomorrow night you will be here."
She pointed to the exact spot on the carpet where he would grovel. Ferdie examined it curiously.
Through the open window came the soft harmonies of church bells and the hushed music of a band playing carols. It was the Salvation Army band. Ferdie recognized the flat E of the cornet.
"And is this Christmas Eve!" he said bitterly.
"It is—the twenty-fourth," she said informatively. "Didn't you know?"
"Tomorrow, when you're entertaining your beastly bounder friend, Poggy, or singing his 'Who Knows?' and splitting your sides over his fatuous, infantile jokes that he cuts from Life and keeps in a scrapbook—I've seen it," he added treacherously. "There isn't a boat for Asia Minor tonight, but perhaps you'll think of me in my lonely apartment drinking beer all alone— "
"Surely you don't want assistance to drink beer!" she said coldly. "I've always understood that it wasn't strong enough to necessitate the calling in of help. Ferdie, I wish you a happy Christmas. There is no reason in the world why we shouldn't be good friends. I've realized for a long time that, temperamentally, we were unfitted for one another. A woman has the right to choose her friends."
"A woman!" he scoffed. "And the year before last I was coaching you through the holidays for your school certificate! Who sat up half the night trying to knock the first idea of the integral calculus into your nut?"
"The past is dead," she said, with dignity, and switched her fan.
"Do that again," he said, fascinated.
"Do what? The fan? It is an old trick I learnt years ago."
"In the kindergarten? Go on, do it. That's cute. I'll bet Poggy taught you that. What a lady!"
She was on her feet now, delicate trace of eyebrows arched. She might, with profit to her reputation as a well-bred lady, have maintained the pose. Instead of which:
"Now, Ferdie, are you going? Or shall I call Arthurs to chuck you through the window?"
Ferdie bowed. In the presence of vibrant maidenhood he was dumb— temporarily.
"I only want to say—" he began.
She walked to the fireplace and put her finger on the bell, and there was a look of sinister curiosity in her eyes. So might Caesar's wife, above suspicion and well out of reach, have looked when she saw her first Christian martyrs introduced to the lions.
Mr. Ferdinand Stevington stepped out into Portland Place and turned up the collar of his overcoat. It was a rainy night, a warm westerly breeze was blowing—typical Christmas weather.
Standing by the iron railings that separated the street from the cavernous area, he gazed, dim eyed, at the yellow blind which hid from his view all that had been desirable in life. He had an immeasurable sense of poverty, and his heart blazed resentfully against those who, rich in her respect and affection, refused him the crumbs which had so sparsely fallen from the feast her bounty provided.
The watchful Nobbins brought the Rolls from the center of the road, where it had been parked, and guided it noiselessly and cunningly to the edge of the sidewalk.
"No, thank you, Nobbins; I will walk," said Ferdie quietly.
"It's raining, sir."
Nobbins invariably told him the news. Many a murder would have passed unscanned but for Nobbins.
Ferdie glanced up at the copper-hued sky and laughed bitterly.
"I hadn't noticed it," he said.
A raindrop fell straight into his eye and he cursed.
"No, I will walk," he said.
He was wearing the thinnest of shoes, and the pavement was wet and muddy. Wet feet had turned many a robust man into a wan and listless invalid about whose cot red-eyed women hung breathlessly, praying that the past could be wiped out and cruel words recalled. Ferdie walked in the gutter.
The Salvation Army band at the corner of Duke Street was inviting Christians to awake. Most of the Christians in Duke Street had been awake for hours, and were only just beginning to take an interest in the overcrowded state of the dancing-floor. Those Christians who were asleep were in the smoke-rooms of respectable clubs, where only the head waiter or the house steward is allowed to waken members.
And at this blessed time, when the servants' Christmas-box list is hanging in the hall and only three tables are laid in the dining-room, even head waiters hesitated to assist the carollers in their mission.
Ferdie strode on, shrugged at the collecting-box that was pushed timidly toward him by a bonneted adjutant, repenting, to return and donate handsomely. And then there occurred in his brain one of those seismic disturbances that send tidal waves of brilliant inspiration across the commonplace surfaces of his mind.
"Will you be good enough to take your band to No. 743 and play 'Where is my Wandering Boy Tonight?'" he asked.
She consulted the man with the silver cornet—he of the flat E—and it was arranged.
Ferdie went onward with a lighter heart. His flat in Devonshire Street seemed strangely lonely and empty. On the table lay a little package wrapped in thin silver paper and tied with blue ribbons, and at the sight of it, his spirits sank again. On the mantlepiece was a photograph of a girl. He averted his eyes.
"Nobbins is here, sir."
His valet made the announcement in his quiet way.
"Here, is he? Let him go home to his wife and family, Stephen; it is Christmas-tide. Go home to your wife and family!"
"I am not married, sir."
Ferdie turned upon the man.
"Have you a family?"
Stephen, a man with a beautiful mind, whose dream it was that some day he would be appointed a lay reader or a court missionary, gazed at his master with eyes that in dumb suffering were like unto a wounded beast.
"No, sir; it follows," he said gently.
Ferdie hunched himself round in his chair.
"What would you like to do tomorrow, Stephen?"
"I should like to attend the morning service at the Foundling Hospital, sir," he said. "In the afternoon I and some friends are giving a little musical entertainment at the Marylebone Workhouse. I play a little."
"The harp, one thinks!" said Ferdie.
"No, sir: the saxophone," replied Stephen modestly. "It is somewhat difficult to play."
"Go somewhere—and play it. Bring joy into suffering hearts, Stephen." He sat up quickly. "Can you play 'Where is my Wandering Boy Tonight'?"
Ferdie pointed to the door. Stephen bowed slightly and went out.
Tomorrow was Christmas Day. He had rejected every invitation but one. And that one...
...His maniacal laughter reached the butler's pantry, where Stephen and Nobbins were exchanging cigarette cards.
"One can excuse much on Christmas Eve, Nobbins," said Stephen charitably. They were both members of a Brotherhood, but Stephen was the more brotherly. "You wouldn't like to drop in at the Marylebone Workhouse tomorrow afternoon?"
"Am I drunk, too?" asked the chauffeur reproachfully.
But Ferdie was not drunk. He was not even intoxicated. He was just broken-hearted and crushed and baffled. He wanted to do something that was exceedingly reckless, such as rescuing a child from a fire. The fire, for preference, to be in Portland Place, immediately opposite No. 743. He wanted to grow a beard and go away to sea before the mast. Or, if necessary, he was willing to give the mast a start. And then he wanted to come back bronzed and bearded, and be knocked down by a motor-car, preferably Letty's two-seater, and be picked up and carried into 743 Portland Place and hear Letty cry, "Why, it's Ferdie! What have I done?"
He wanted to sink lower and lower in the social scale (without necessarily surrendering his large holdings in Conifers Corporation, which yielded a steady 8 per cent) until he was the inmate of a common lodging-house. He wanted Stephen also to sink lower and lower in the social scale until he was the inmate of a common lodging-house too. Stephen could sleep in the next cubicle and bring his tea in the morning.
And by day he would sell things in the gutter, such as shoe-laces, matches, and pitiable little toys. And Letty would come along and buy something. Then, looking down at him, she would pale and say, "Ferdie! Have I brought you to this?"
Ferdie rang the bell at this point.
"Bring me a glass of milk," he said.
"Hot or cold, sir?" asked Stephen.
"I am indifferent," he said. He was in his most dangerous mood.
Christmas! He remembered a story he had read, one of Dickens', or it may have been some other Johnny. After consideration he decided that it was Dickens. He had a wonderful memory for names. The story was about a curmudgeon of a fellow who hated Christmas. Sneered at the serried ranks of deceased turkeys that hung in the poulterer's shop, snarled at the rosy-faced apples, at the grocer's, loathed plum-pudding, and despised holly and mistletoe. Ferdie's heart warmed toward... Snoop, was it? Or Gooch, or Groodge... Scrooge! That was the chap's name. Scrooge! He remembered perfectly. His memory was uncanny where names were concerned.
Ferdie hated Christmas too. He hated everything that was bright and cheery. He turned down the gas fire to make the atmosphere of the room attune with his sentiments. Stephen came in to say good-night.
"And a merry Christmas to you, sir."
"A merry Christmas!" said Ferdie through his nose. He had never snarled in his life; but Scrooge snarled.
"Have you a cold, sir?"
Stephen could be fatherly.
"No, I haven't! Christmas! Put out that fire! Have you locked up the bread and butter? Do it, Stephen, in case some of the poor break in. Your wages are reduced. I'll do without you next week. Did I promise you a Christmas-box?"
"You are good enough, as a rule..."
It hurt Ferdie to laugh through his nose; it was like champagne that went the wrong way. Nevertheless he laughed.
Stephen went back to the Butler's pantry.
"Nobbins," he asked earnestly, "will you join me in a short prayer for our master?"
"If it is short," said Nobbins.
It was toward twelve o'clock when Ferdie put out his hand and clawed toward him the little flat package in silver paper. He untied the blue ribbons thoughtfully, carefully removed and smoothed the paper, and pressed the spring which held together the two sides of a small jewel case. Gleaming and glittering in its blue velvet bed was a diamond and platinum pendant. It had cost a lot of money. Letty would have given him in exchange a cigarette-holder or a walking-stick or a manicure set. Poggy would get it now. He ground his teeth at the thought. And Letty would be disappointed and hurt. He must send it on and then go away. Whither, he knew not; to some obscure foreign town where nobody would dream of looking for him. But who would look for him! He asked the question of himself, and his lips curled. Stephen would miss him, but he would soon find a new master. The income-tax collector would miss him and write to his lawyer. Letty!... She would go, uncaring, through life, holding her slim sides and rocking with laughter, with Poggy twittering like an ape at her side and asking if she'd heard the story about the plumber and the Colonel's knee?
Stephen came in with a knock.
"What time would you like your tea in the morning, sir?"
Ferdie bit his lip deliberately.
"I may not want tea in the morning, Stephen. My plans are unsettled. At any moment I may have to go away. Don't look for me. Dewberry, Hokey, Middleton, Parker and Sutton will pay you your wages."
"Would you like your letters forwarded, sir?"
Ferdie sighed his impatience.
"I may be dead," he said simply.
"Very good, sir. Good-night and a merry—good-night, sir."
The fellow was impressed, Ferdie could see that. And other people would be impresesd. He looked up the first train to Bournemouth.
But the package must go. A letter should be enclosed, just a brief, courteous, and yet not too courteous greeting. "Yours sincerely, Ferdinand Stevington." Or, " Wishing you the Christmas you deserve "? No, Ferdie could never wish her the least harm.
"Dear Letty," he began, altered it to "My dear Letty," and began again.
"My dear friend,—This trifle" (he originally wrote 'inexpensive trifle' but cut out the adjective) "comes to you with all my best wishes..."
He ought to make her feel that all the blame was not hers. It was only fair.
"I am afraid I have been rather a bear. Forgive me!! I am going a long journey, and we may not meet again—"
He paused here to consider whether he ought to add "for a day or two," but decided to let it go without qualification. It was cruel to raise false hopes.
"I have left your ring in an envelope. It will be found with other little intimate relics of a life that has not altogether been wasted. Who knows where I may sleep tonight?"
This he blotted smugly, read every line, picturing her distress when she read it. Reluctantly he folded the note inside the silver paper, tied again the blue ribbons, and dropped the whole into a long envelope. At twelve forty-five he stole up to the door of 743 Portland Place, opened the flap of the letter-box and dropped the letter in; it was addressed, with rugged simplicity, "Letty, from F.S."
On three points he was satisfied. It was a big, a magnanimous thing to have done. There was something innately fine in the act. The deed was worthy of the man. The three statements passed unchallenged. Ferdie knew that he had not judged himself unfairly. There was no sterner critic of his actions than himself. This he also admitted as an incontrovertible truth.
Ferdie wriggled in his chair and looked hard at the shoes he had taken off.
Had he not lowered himself in her eyes? Was it not an abject surrender on the part of one who was, and had been all the time, entirely in the right? Was it not a fulfilment of all her scornful predictions? He remembered the identical spot on the carpet where he must abase himself!
Would it not have been better to send a Christmas card? There was one on his mantlepiece. It had come from his old nurse and was a picture of a blue cottage and white moon. The ground and roof were covered with Epsom salts that glittered in the light and was a fair representation of hoar-frost.
"May Christmas cheer this day be yours,
Of sorrow may you ne'er have cause"—
was appropriate—singularly so.
This time he bit his upper lip, and when a man bites his upper lip he is in doubt. She would laugh at him. Poor fool! How quickly he had come to heel!
Ferdie rose, kicked off his slippers so that when he did make up his mind, he could instantly dash into the kind of footwear that his decision called for. Whilst he was thinking, he might as well put on his street shoes.
She would tell Poggy, of course...
He took down the Christmas card, underlined the pious hope in the second line of the stanza, and, scribbling a line, "Merry Xmas, F.," put it into an envelope.
There was a pair of ice tongs somewhere about—curved silver ice tongs, with handles like scissors. He had thought everything out.
"I would have made a wonderful criminal," said Ferdie regretfully.
With the tongs in his coat pocket, he drove in a taxi to Langham Place, dismissed the machine, and walked up Portland Place. A thin fog assisted the drizzle to make England what it is at Christmas-time. A new and livelier herd of carol players were jazzing "Good King Wenceslas" brightly. Ferdie found himself stepping unconsciously. And the clock struck two.
No. 743 was in darkness when he stepped up to the door. In a second the ice tongs were in the letter-box and had gripped. He drew out a package of a familiar shape and dropped it into his pocket.
"What's the idea?"
In his agitation Ferdie released his ice tongs, and they fell with a clatter.
"I beg your pardon?" he said, and added seasonably, "A merry Christmas!"
"And a happy New Year!" said the big man who had come noiselessly behind him. "You're coming to Marylebone Lane with me."
"If you imagine I'm going to take a country stroll at this hour and in this beastly weather, you're mistaken. Give me the lanes of England by all means—but on a summer day with the meadow-sweet and the may-weed and the dog-roses on the hedges..."
"Are you coming quietly!"
There was something very tremendous in the question. Ferdie reeled and gripped the railings, tight.
"That sort of thing went out with the suffragettes," said the detective testily.
"You're a policeman!"
"Sergeant—M'Neill. Now come on, my lad, I've been watching you for an hour."
He took Ferdie's arm unaffectionately, and they walked on.
"Where's your pal. Lew?" asked the officer.
"Loo—do you mean Waterloo?" Dazed but brave, Ferdie endeavored to be intelligent.
At the station, a bright steel dock and a very stout and annoyed station sergeant who put down his pen and surveyed the prisoner with disfavor:
"My name... Smith."
"Very original—John or William?"
"Caractacus," he said.
The sergeant at the desk lifted his upper lip cynically.
"Buckingham Palace, ha, ha!" said Ferdie dismally.
Such jests had been made before.
"Refuses address—yes, sergeant, what's the charge?"
"Letter-box stealing. I found him extracting letters from 743 Portland Place with the aid of an instrument or tool."
The instrument or tool was laid on the desk.
"Did he get anything?"
The detective laid a package on the table, and Ferdie scratched his chin. His little present had been in a long envelope. This was not in any kind of envelope. Moreover, it was tied with lavender ribbon.
"'From Poggy to Lettice,'" read the detective.
Ferdie staggered out of the pen, but the detective pushed him back.
"A diamond and emerald ornament in the shape of a grand piano," announced the desk-officer.
"What execrable taste, and may I add how singularly vulgar!" said Ferdie.
"Have you anybody you wish to notify of your arrest? You will be in custody for three days," said the sergeant.
"A word from a woman could save me," said Ferdie brokenly. "I am too proud to ask: we Smiths are not without our proper pride."
A weary gaoler appeared; Ferdie was searched. A pocket-book containing a fabulous sum of money, a gold cigarette-case, divers articles of gold and silver.
"You've had a good day, son," said the sergeant respectfully. "Put him in No. 6, Wilkins..."
The cell door did not clang, Ferdie noticed; it "ooshed"!
The Revels never opened their Christmas presents until the dinner-hour, when all kind donors were on hand to be thanked, enthusiastically, ecstatically, or just thanked. "You really ought not to have got such a beautiful handbag. It is just the thing I wanted! I'm getting so used to the other twelve."
There was a master to the house, one George Palliter Revel, P.O., M.P. He paid for everything and approved of everything. Lettice Gionvanna Revel was another master. She merely gave orders, and said who might come to dinner and who might not. Everybody loved Lettice. People wrote poems about her, even people who could not write poetry. She had a speed-car, a bull-terrier, and a signed photograph of Douglas Fairbanks framed in gold. She liked men to be strong and manly and silent. Purposeful men who picked girls up in their arms and strode through the dim aisles of the primeval woods. Ferdie had never picked her up, except in a figurative sense. She loved him as a mother loves a helpless babe.
She mentioned this fact at dinner, being entirely without reticence.
"Ferdie isn't here, papa, because I told him not to come."
"Dear me!" said Mr. Revel mildly. "I thought that you and he...?"
She smiled indulgently.
"It was merely a boy-and-girl courtship," she said.
Mr. Revel rubbed his left ear.
"How old are you now, Letty?"
"Nineteen and a bit," she said. "I'm a woman, daddy—you sometimes forget that. My love for Ferdie is purely maternal."
"Dear me!" said Mr. Revel, more mildly than ever.
He was by nature mild, being one of those large-faced men with pannier cheeks and a bald and wrinkled forehead. He owed his eminence to his mildness, for, when his party was in power, he was so mild that the opposition thought he was sympathetic, and when they came in they offered him a seat in the Cabinet, only to discover that he was mildness itself to his former colleagues, and by them was confirmed in his office when they, in their turn, came back to power. To any Government, mild opposition is more acceptable than violent support.
"Now for the presents!" said Mr. Revel.
Poggy Bannett grew melancholy.
"You quite understand why mine isn't here, Letty? The wretched burglar took it. I've been half the day at the police station, identifying the thing. They wouldn't let me bring it away."
She smiled with her eyes. It is awfully difficult, but if you practise before a mirror for an hour a day it can be mastered.
"It was too good of you, Poggy, my dear. I'd much rather have had a signed copy of your lovely song. Honestly, I dislike Christmas presents. They are so unreal—so... you know."
Poggy nodded. He was a thin-faced young man with a sharp, out-thrust nose. Even amateur artists found him easy to draw.
"And, of course, I don't expect anything from Ferdie. He wouldn't dare— "
She looked at the envelope and frowned.
"If he has returned the pipe I gave him last Christmas, I shall be very angry," she said. The envelope torn: "0h! How perfectly wonderful! Oh, but he shouldn't! Isn't that just like Ferdie, papa? He really has the most exquisite taste!"
He looked at the little price ticket that Ferdie had left on, and rapidly calculated what 10 per cent, discount on £95 might be.
The letter she read slowly, her lips moving.
Poggy saw her pale... She passed the letter to him without a word.
"Oh, nonsense!" said Poggy. "Twiff! Skittles! He's all right! You don't imagine...pooh! He's done it before!"
Her eyes shone like twin stars.
"If Ferdie says he will do a thing, he will do it," she said.
"What is it, my dear!"
When Mr. Revel asked a question, he signified his intention by fixing his pince-nez.
"Ferdie may have committed suicide," breathed Lettice.
"Dear me!" said Mr. Revel, and took off his glasses. He had no further questions to ask. All day long he had had a feeling that it would be an interesting evening.
"Stuff!" said Poggy hotly. "I like his nerve quoting my verses: 'Where will I sleep tonight?'—that's practically plagiarism."
She drew a long, long breath that swelled her all up momentarily.
"Where do you think he is?"
The author of "Where Will I Sleep Tonight" smiled.
"I'll tell you a story," he said. "A South American once asked an Irishman—"
"Will you reserve your quotations from Life until a more appropriate occasion?"—icily. "I asked you what do you think he has done?"
"You asked me where he was," responded the aggrieved composer. "He's in his own rooms; that's where he is—sulking and causing everybody trouble! I'll bet a thousand!"
He got up from the table excitedly.
"I'll go and bring him!" he said. "With my bare bands I will drag him from his hiding-place. He can't fool me. My friend Cruthers has a flat on the same floor. Wait for us!"
He dashed from the room. Mr. Revel, who had dozed, looked up.
"There will be an inquest, of course," he said, addressing the ceiling. "Happily I shall not be called."
She looked at her progenitor, pain in her eyes.
"Father!" she said, and he winced at the word. "How can you! Ferdie isn't the kind of man who would allow you to be called."
Mr. Cruthers, the good friend and former schoolmate of Poggy Bannett, was dressing for dinner when Poggy was announced. He was as a rule an early riser, and seldom missed his luncheon, but today, there being no racing and no daily newspapers and consequently no sin in the world, he had slept on until seven o'clock in the evening.
"No, I haven't seen Ferdie; his man told my man he was going away; in fact, he hasn't been visible since last night."
"Skulking and sulking," said Poggy. "I've knocked at his door. No answer. Naturally! I'm going to get out of your window and walk along the fire parapet and have an independent investigation."
"Do you mind waiting until I've changed my undies?" pleaded his friend. "It's so unpleasant with the window open."
Poggy seated himself with folded arms.
"I can wait," he said.
Not until his friend was nearly dressed did he raise the sash and find his way along a narrow iron gang-way. Ferdie's bedroom window was open at the top; therefore it was openable at the bottom; quod erat demonstrandum. He lifted the sash and stepped in.
"Ferdie, my boy," he called, "the game's up. Come, come! Don't be naughty!"
Silence answered him. He switched on the light. The bedroom was in order. The cupboards and wardrobes held no more than made life supportable to a gentleman of fashion.
The dining-saloon had the tidiness of an empty room. Ferdie's slippers were before the fire. On the table was a stack of letters of a seasonable character. The spare bedroom, the study where Ferdie studied the sporting press, the bathroom, box-room, valet's room, pantry, and kitchen were empty.
On the mantlepiece in the dining-room was the framed portrait of a woman, a woman of nineteen and a bit. Across the foot was written a message that was in no sense maternal. Poggy's brows met. They had not far to go. He felt that in a sense he had been deceived. A woman who signs herself " Yours for eternity, darling" wasn't being matronly at all. He seized the photograph viciously. This he would produce to her embarrassment or relief. At any rate it was hardly a fit possession for one who had outlived Letty Revel's eternity.
The lights he extinguished, opened the window, and stepped out. Mr. Cruthers's light was also extinguished when he reached the window; the sash was fastened also. Mr. Cruthers had probably thought that Poggy would make his exit via Ferdie's front door. It seemed the simplest method.
Poggy considered the matter for a moment. What was wrong with the fire escape? He went down the narrow iron staircase, dropped the last few feet into the yard, and then an interested spectator came from the shadows.
"A merry Christmas!" said the stranger. "Coming a little walk along with me?"
"Certainly not!" said Poggy. "I don't know you; and I don't want to know you. Good evening.—"
The stranger caught his arm.
"My name is Sergeant M'Neill, C.I.D., and I shall take you into custody for breaking and entering."
With rare presence of mind, Poggy took the photograph from his pocket and dropped it on the ground.
"Thank you," said the officer of the law, and picked it up. "Been collecting art treasures? I've watched you for two hours. Where's your friend Ike? I haven't seen him for years."
At the station:
"Smith," said Poggy, pale but inventive. The photograph episode was damning. And Sergeant M'Neill, who all morning had been pestering him to identify the diamond piano, had not recognized him, and the station sergeant of the morning was away on leave.
"John or William?"
"Haydn," said Poggy musically.
The gaoler went over him and enumerated his finds. Then, in a state of exaltation, Poggy said:
"I think it is only fair that you should know that my name is Bannett, and I am the composer and author of `'Where Shall I Sleep Tonight?'..."
"The answer is, No. 6!" said the station sergeant.
Ferdie heard the key turn and the cell door swing open. He sat up, interested, and Poggy recoiled at the sight of him.
"Ferdie!... You here!"
Ferdie was not surprised.
"Sit down and make me laugh," he said. "What are you in for—murder?"
"This is the second case today," said the magistrate awfully, "where a prosecutor who should have come forward and identified stolen property has failed to realize his responsibilities to the public. The cases have been remanded for a fortnight, yet neither Mr. Stevington nor Mr. Bannett have appeared to aid the police. I have sent the other man to prison for a month as a suspected person; you also will go to prison with hard labor for a month, and I warn you..."
A month later they left Pentonville Model Prison together. Ferdie bagged the only taxi in sight, and when Poggy reached Portland Place, Letty was engaged. He waited an hour. She was still engaged. The footman thought she would be engaged for some time.
Her head of gold floss was on Ferdie's shoulder.
"Go on!" she whispered.
"Two nights later I arrived in Constantinople, despair in my heart. I knew I had lost you; there was nothing to live for. Should I dash madly into the desert, perhaps never to return!"
"If you had only cabled!" she breathed. "When Poggy didn't return I knew that he dared not face me. Oh, my dearest darling, I didn't dream that you would take such awful risks. You will never run away again! I can't bear it! Where have you come from now!"
"Penton Villia—a suburb of Rome," said Ferdie. "As I was saying, I might have joined the dervishes..."
"Do you think it is any use my waiting!" asked Poggy.
The footman, an honest man, shook his head. The back of the drawing-room settee was exactly opposite the keyhole.
TOM CURTIS said nothing. He fiddled with his bread-knife, stared out of the window, apparently absorbed in the phenomena of nature, in the gray of flying clouds, in the drunken lurchings of poplars, in everything except the enormities of Chesney Blackland. When he did speak, it was to remark that it was going to be a real snorter.
"I suppose," he said thoughtfully, "that one ought to have a snowy Christmas once in forty years to justify the Christmas cards."
Margaret pressed her lips tightly together, and her fine eyes glittered ominously.
"You're a slug, Tom," she said.
Tom closed his eyes in patient resignation. He was a slug, and was proud of his lowliness. He stood six foot three, was broad in proportion, and had little interest in life outside the fluctuations of the industrial market and the very excellent pack he hunted in the Cresmore country.
"There will be no hunting for weeks," he said pathetically.
"Hunt Everstein," she snapped. He looked at her in mild reproof.
"Really, Margaret, you're unreasonable," he said. "Everstein has been acquitted by a jury of his fellow-countrymen, and there's an end of it. I admit he's a poisonous little beast; I'll go so far as to say that if every man had his due, Everstein would be breaking coke in Dartmoor —or whatever they break. Which reminds me that I've been asked down to Devonshire Hunt on Thursday. It's a pretty sporting country—"
Margaret leant back, a picture of despair.
"I can't get father to see it, but it's little short of a crime —it is a crime—that this horrible man should be basking in the sunlight at Monte Carlo, his wretched pockets filled with our money. I think Mr. Blackland is as bad as he. Everstein is a criminal, but at least Mr. Blackland has some pretensions to being a gentleman."
She looked to her father for confirmation, but the Colonel did no more than shift uncomfortably in his chair and fidget with his serviette.
Colonel Robert Curtis had been described as "a beautiful old man." He was gentle, sweetnatured, weak. He hated trouble of any kind, and Heaven knows he had had trouble enough this past six months; for there had come into his life, a little more than two years before, a most plausible financier, with a scheme for amalgamating industries, and the Colonel had joined his board. Some of the industries were represented by genuine factories which prepared and distributed real commodities that people bought, but there were a few which were little more than derelict buildings and rusted machinery. They did not appear that way on the balance-sheet: they were most important assets, and few people realized their utter worthlessness until the crash came and Mr. Everstein was arrested.
The Colonel had been a director of the parent company, and the smash had cost him a lot of money. How much, Margaret did not know. She did know that after Everstein's arrest her father had taken to his bed, and for three weeks had talked brokenly of the ruin which faced him, and had even gone as far as inviting an estate agent from Oxford to value Deeplands and its contents. But he did not go any further than this: the threatened sale was never held, and the only servant dismissed was a chauffeur who disposed of two worn tires without his master's permission.
"Everstein brought father to the very verge of ruin," said Margaret tragically. "If father hadn't been able to borrow money from his friends, we should have been living in some wretched little villa and owing the landlady money."
"Rot!" said her practical brother. "Suppose Blackland hadn't defended Everstein, or suppose he had defended him and Everstein had been sent to jail for seven or eight years, what difference would that have made? Chesney is one of the best fellows in the world, and anybody but an idiot knows that it's the duty of a barrister to defend his client to the best of his ability. He would have been a skunk if he hadn't."
"And you call him a friend of yours" said Margaret witheringly.
"He's a very good friend and a ripping fine fellow! If you weren't such an unreasonable goose, I should have asked him to come over to spend Christmas Day with us."
It needed but this to drive Margaret over the edge of reason. She got up and, her hands clutching the cloth, leant over the table towards him.
"Tommy!" she said intensely. "If you bring Chesney Blackland here, I will leave the house! I would not spend an hour under the same roof with him. Have you read his speech for the defense?"
She flung towards the little secretaire which stood in a corner of the room, wrenched open a drawer and brought out a folded newspaper.
"Listen: "'There is no doubt,' counsel went on, 'that Everstein had amongst his shareholders some of the most credulous and simple-minded people in England. In effect, however, whatever onus attaches to the prisoner from that cause is attached also to Everstein's fellow-directors.'"
She put the paper down and glared at her brother. "In other words," she said deliberately, "this wretched man said that father was as big a thief as Everstein... and this reptile is your friend!"
Tom rubbed his nose and looked at his father. That aristocratic gentleman shook his head and closed his eyes, as though he could not bear either the contemplation of his son or the thought of Blackland's enormity.
"Anyway, counsel have got to say all sorts of things," said Tom stoutly. "It's silly to bear malice against a barrister for what he's said in the defense of a—" He fizzled out lamely.
"If you dare ask Chesney Blackland here, Tom, I will never forgive you." She pointed a minatory finger at the big young man. "Father would forgive him, of course, because father forgives everybody, and he's a Christian and all that sort of thing."
"It's Christmas time," murmured Tom.
"It would make no difference to me if it were August Bank Holiday," said Margaret. "If you bring Mr. Blackland to Deeplands, I will go out. I would rather die than be in the same room with him. He has slandered father, he has let this scoundrel loose upon society, he is worse than Everstein himself; and if you had any self-respect you would write to him and tell him just what you think of him."
Tom grinned. "Why not send him a Christmas card and write all these admirable sentiments on the back?" he demanded, and Margaret shivered at his vulgarity.
She had to go into her father's study soon after breakfast to consult him about the following day's arrangements. The Colonel stood with his back to the fire, a pipe in his mouth, a look of settled gloom on his fine-cut face.
"I don't think I should bother Tommy about this man Blackland if I were you," he said. "Blackland's really a nice fellow. Didn't you meet him when you were up at Cambridge last May week?"
She gazed at him blankly. "The thing is finished and done with," her father went on hurriedly. "I see no advantage in bearing malice. We shall —er—battle through. Blackland was a good fellow: I liked him."
Colonel Curtis was one of those fortunate people who can convey the most subtle of expressions by an innuendo. You never realized that he had enemies until he forgave them. He had borne his troubles bravely and silently, and Margaret had not realized how badly he was hit until there came the valuer with his notebook, examining legs of chairs and weighing the silver on the palm of his hand. It is true that the legs of the chairs were still planted on the carpets of Deeplands, and that the silver graced the table at every meal, but the atmosphere of near ruin was established.
The Colonel had never complained about Everstein's duplicity or Blackland's treachery, but in those simple words, "Blackland was a good fellow: I liked him," she read the Colonel's crushing disappointment when he had discovered that this good fellow whom he liked had stood up in a crowded court and had basely hinted that Everstein was not alone in his guilt. And Margaret loathed Chesney Blackland more than ever.
"You will be in this afternoon, Margaret?" said the Colonel, changing the subject. "I have asked the Walshes to come over, and I thought we might have a rubber of bridge."
Margaret shook her head. "Tom can make a fourth," she said. "I am going to drive over to Cheltenham to see old Mrs. Gurney and take her Christmas present."
The Colonel's face fell.
"The post, of course, is gone—it might have been sent direct from the shop—"
"I want to take it myself, Father," said Margaret decisively; and when she spoke in that tone of voice, the Colonel seldom opposed her.
She had intended going that morning, but old Mrs. Gurney's woolen coat did not arrive until after lunch; and by the time she had packed the little hamper with the whisky, and the plum pudding, and the body of a cockerel slaughtered that morning, it was three o'clock.
Tom, who had taken his gun out on to the Priory fields, came into the hall as she was making her preparations for departure. He was sheeted white from head to foot.
"It's snowing like the dickens," he said. And then, as she was fastening her coat: "You're never going out in this weather?" he added in amazement.
"I'm running over to Cheltenham," replied Margaret, with that note of finality which as a rule suspended all argument.
"You're driving to Cheltenham in that wretched thing?" Tom's blue hands pointed to the two-seater at the door.
"Don't be silly," said Margaret. "You don't imagine a little snow will stop me?"
Tom walked out into the road and looked up at the skies, which were filled now with whirling white specks.
"You really oughtn't to go, Margaret," he remonstrated. "Send Downes over—or, if you must go now, let me drive you. You'll get snowed up as sure as fate."
"It will be even more certain if a fat man like you is in the car," she said, with a smile.
"If you want to be helpful, put that hamper and parcel into the boot."
As she settled herself in the little car and drew a fur rug over her knees, she raised a warning finger to Tom.
"I'm very serious about Chesney Blackland," she said, "and if you have some Machiavellian plan for bringing him here tomorrow"—Tom wriggled uncomfortably—"I want you to alter your plan, Tommy: if he comes here, I shall go to town and spend Christmas Day with the Readings."
"Beastly prejudice," muttered Tom, and from his guilty demeanor she guessed that she had not been far wide of the mark when she suggested that he had already formed a plan for inviting the hateful Blackland.
She smiled triumphantly as she sent the little car down the snowy drive and turned on to the Witney Road. The hood of the machine was raised, but the snow blew persistently under the canvas, and although her tiny electric screen-wiper worked frantically, it was difficult to see more than a few yards ahead, and that through a blurred surface.
The road was fairly good, and the car held its way without any more than an occasional skid, and she came through the deserted streets of gloomy Witney in excellent time. She had left the town and was climbing up on to the plateau which separates Witney from Cheltenham when she experienced her first sense of misgiving. It was nearly dusk. The storm had abated just before she reached Witney, and there was little or no wind, but the snow was falling thicker than ever, and once she plunged into a drift which lay athwart the road. It was not very formidable: the bonnet of the car sent the fine powdery snow flying, and she was through almost, before she realized she had hit an obstruction.
Her spirits rose when she came on to a stretch of road which was almost free of snow, being protected by a belt of trees which ran for half a mile along the roadside; but her satisfaction was shortlived. Dipping down into a valley, she met a recrudescence of the storm, and she slowed almost to a crawl, for now it was absolutely impossible even to see the road, and she could only guess her position by observing the stone wall which marked the boundary of a farm on her right.
It grew dark with surprising suddenness, and, looking at her watch, she saw with dismay that it was past four o'clock. Where she was she could only guess, but the road she followed went downhill and that did not seem right. Presently she came to a place where another road joined that on which she was traveling, and, getting down from her seat, she plodded to a sign-post, the face of which was so covered with snow as to be indecipherable. Taking her umbrella from the car, she managed to clean the face of the indicator, and her jaw dropped in consternation. She was on the wrong road: by following the stone wall she had been led miles out of her track.
Margaret took counsel with herself and decided that the only sane thing to do was to return to Oxford. She got into the car and backed up the road, intending to return on her tracks. But to come downhill was one thing, to go back up that long and tiring slope was another. She had accomplished less than a third of her journey when the car struck. She must continue along the wrong track, hoping to work her way back to the main road.
Hers was a very small machine, ordinarily easy to turn, but in thick snow the smallest of motor-cars becomes a little unmanageable. Backing to the hedge to give herself room to turn, she suddenly felt the wheels sinking, and before she could reverse, the back part of the car settled gracefully into a ditch.
"Blow!" said Margaret.
She might have said something stronger, but it was very dark and she felt rather frightened. She felt that this was not the moment for profanity. Nearly a mile farther on she had passed a small lodge and a pair of big gates, suggesting that somewhere behind the pine and the laurel was a human habitation. With what philosophy she could summon she trudged up the hill, slipping and sliding in the snow, and came, hot and weary, to the lodge gates.
The lodge proved to be empty; but the iron gates opened readily, and she followed a serpentine path which led her at last to a white lawn that stretched before a small Elizabethan mansion. She sighed with relief when she saw a light glowing in one of the windows, and with great labor made her slow way across the lawn and knocked on the old-fashioned double door.
It was immediately opened by a middle-aged woman, obviously, from her sedate alpaca and her trim lace cap, the housekeeper. In a few words Margaret explained her predicament.
"Come in, miss," said the housekeeper. "I will send a man down to get your car. Why, you're wet through!"
Margaret gazed ruefully at her sodden feet. "You have a telephone here?"
She saw the instrument standing on a table in the wide, flagged hall. "I want to telephone to my people—"
The housekeeper shook her head. "I'm afraid, miss, the line must have broken. The master was talking to a gentleman in Oxford a quarter of an hour ago when he was cut off. But you must change, miss. I will see Mr. John."
She disappeared through an open door, and Margaret had a glimpse of a cozy library, the lights of which she had seen from the drive. There was a murmur of voices, and the housekeeper came back.
"Will you come this way, miss?"
She led the way up the broad stairs and opened the door into a comfortable bedroom, which was obviously a man's room, for she saw certain striped garments folded on the bed.
"I may be able to get you some silk stockings, miss, but I'm afraid I can't give you anything better than the maid's shoes. We have no lady in the house," she said. "Mr. John is a bachelor."
There was a bright fire burning, and before this Margaret changed as many of her garments as were necessary, accepting the unknown maid's skirt and stockings with gratitude. She strolled to the open casement window, and by the light which streamed from the room she saw that the snow was still falling heavily.
The housekeeper, who had been to make inquiries, returned with somewhat disconcerting news.
"There is no possibility of a car getting away from here tonight, miss," she said. "Mr. John will send the gardener to the nearest telephone with any message you wish to send to your parents."
Margaret gazed at her in amazement.
"Do you mean to say that I shan't be able to get away from here tonight?"
The housekeeper shook her head.
"No, miss, I'm afraid you won't," she said. "The roads are quite impassable and it's still snowing."
"But I must!" insisted Margaret. "I simply can't stay here... in a bachelor's house."
"I stay in a bachelor's house, miss," said the middle-aged lady, with dignity.
"Yes, yes, I know. But don't you see—" began Margaret. And then the absurdity of the situation struck her and she laughed. "I'm afraid you and Mr. John will think I'm very ungrateful," she said. "I'll write a message."
She scribbled a note to her father, headed with the telephone number, and then: "But I can't stay here: this is Mr. John's own room, is it not?"
"I'm having a room made ready for you, miss," nodded the housekeeper, "and Mr. John has asked me whether you would like to come down to tea."
"I'd like to come down, if only to thank him," she said. "Will you send this message?"
She handed the paper to the woman, who went away and came back almost immediately to announce that tea was waiting.
A slim man, soberly attired, rose as she entered the library. He might have been thirty, but might as easily have been forty. He was very tall, with a slight stoop, and her first impression of him was that he was rather goodlooking. She guessed, from his preter-natural solemnity, that he was a doctor.
"I ought to bless the snow for bringing me a visitor, Miss Curtis," he said. (He had rather a charming smile, she thought.) "But I expect at this moment you are hardly sharing my view?"
"I am not," she said frankly. "Is it really impossible for me to get away tonight?"
"I'm afraid it is," he answered, with a return to his grave manner. "I have sent a man out to telephone to your people, and I can only hope that the snow will stop falling, and that tomorrow morning we shall be able to get you back to Oxford. In the meantime, are you partial to muffins?"
He raised the lid of a dish, and Margaret, who by this time was very hungry, speared a crisp brown morsel to her plate.
"Do you live here alone?" she asked.
He nodded. "I usually spend winter in Switzerland," he said, "but this year my work has kept me at home. You see, the Christmas vacation is a very short one."
She put down her cup. "Are you a lawyer?" she asked, and he laughed softly at the dismay in her voice.
"You don't like lawyers?"
"I like some lawyers," she admitted, and adroitly he turned the conversation into another channel.
It was a jolly little house. She could quite understand that even solitude had a charm in these paneled, low-ceilinged rooms. Once or twice between tea and dinner she sounded him about her bête noir, but Mr. John skilfully evaded discussion of Chesney Blackland and his villainous deeds.
It was after dinner; they were sitting before the log fire in the library, she in one deep armchair, he in another, when—
"Do you know Chesney Blackland?"
He did not answer.
"Mr. John, do you know Chesney Blackland?"
"You don't like him?" said the lean-faced man, looking into the fire. "And yet, he likes you rather a lot. He once saw you, though he never spoke to you, and carried the memory in his heart for years and years—"
"You do know him?" She sat up.
"Yes," said the man quietly; "I am Chesney Blackland."
"Then you—you told them to call you Mr. John... to deceive me..."
She was on her feet now. "No; I am Mr. John to Mrs. Buckingham. My name is John Chesney Blackland."
She was looking down at him with a deep frown.
"I am very grateful to you for your hospitality," she said stiffly, "and I can only regret that I have given you so much trouble."
"Where are you going?" he asked, jumping up as she moved to the door.
"To get my coat, and then I'm going to walk back to Witney," she said.
In two strides he was between her and the door.
"You'll do nothing of the kind," he said violently. "Why, it is madness! You will be caught in the storm: you haven't a ghost of a chance of getting back!"
"I am going to Witney," she said steadily. "Will you please let me pass?" And then, in a sudden burst of resentment: "I would rather die than remain in the same house with you, Mr. Blackland! You have insulted my father, you have helped a blackguard to escape justice. I hate you!"
For a second she saw the bleakness in his eyes and shivered.
"I don't mind your hatred," he said in a low voice, "but I cannot allow you to leave this house."
"But if I insist?"
He was silent.
"Will you please let me pass?"
For answer he pointed to the chair before the fire. "You may go, of course, but before you go I want to tell you something that apparently you do not know."
"Nothing you can say will alter my view, Mr. Blackland—" she began.
"At least I am entitled to a hearing," he interrupted. "I cannot prevent your leaving this house. I suppose you would make it so unpleasant that I had no other course. But if you go, I must accompany you, whatever be the consequences."
"If I go, I go alone."
He nodded slowly.
"At least you will allow me to tell you the secret that lay behind the Everstein case?"
She hesitated. "Nothing you could say would convince me—" she began irresolutely, and then, to her own amazement, went back to the chair she had vacated.
"May I smoke?" He filled a pipe from a silver box, lit the tobacco carefully, and, settling down in his chair, puffed for a moment or two, his eyes fixed on the blazing logs.
"The man you call Everstein is my brother," he began, and her eyes opened wide.
"Your brother?" incredulously.
"But he is a Swiss—"
"I am Swiss, too," said Chesney Blackland. "Isaac Everstein is my brother, though I am not proud of the relationship. He is a swindler! I knew him to be a swindler. But he has a child—she is in the house at this moment."
"Here?" He nodded again.
"A sensitive girl of fifteen, who had no illusions about her father, and yet loved him passionately. By some mischance she learnt that Isaac was under arrest, and the shock nearly killed her. Had he been sent to penal servitude—"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"I know you hate me," he went on. "Your brother was on the telephone to me a few minutes ago: I was coming over to spend Christmas in your house. I suppose you didn't know that? It was a scheme of Tom's, who knew you disliked me, but thought that if we met, you might modify your point of view. I defended my brother, and was prepared to involve any person in the world rather than that he should be sent to prison. If you ask me whether I like him, I reply that he is utterly loathsome to me. I should not have turned a hair if he had been sent to the scaffold. But all the time I was pleading in that fusty court, I had one thought and one thought only—the child, stretched upon a bed of pain, who was waiting, waiting.. dreading the sound of the telephone bell..."
He stopped abruptly. Margaret was listening open-mouthed.
"But nobody knew this?"
He shook his head. "You are the first person I have ever told."
"And the child?"
"She is slowly recovering. The trial will have left its mark upon her—that is natural. But imagine, Miss Curtis, what would have been the consequence if—Isaac had been sent to penal servitude for a term of years?"
"I'm sorry," said Margaret, and on the impulse of her emotion leant forward and laid her hand on his arm.
He shrank back at the touch.
"No, no, please don't sympathize with me," he said, as he rose quickly, and she thought she understood.
"I'm sorry I've been such a fool. Won't you forgive me?"
She held out her hand and he took it.
"I wonder if you will forgive me?" he asked.
"Why, of course. And now you can teach me picquet, as you promised: I am quite sane. May I see your little niece?"
He shook his head.
"She will not be fit to see visitors for many weeks," he said gravely.
Margaret was wakened from a dreamless sleep by a hideous view-halloa from the garden below, and, jumping out of bed, she ran to the window and looked down. It was Tom, and, standing before the porch of the house, was an old victoria and the four horses that he had hired from a livery stable. Snow had ceased to fall; the world lay under a thick carpet of white.
"Merry Christmas!" yelled Tom. "Can't you get down and let me in? Nobody seems to be up in this establishment."
In ten minutes she was dressed and downstairs, but one of the servants had already opened the door, and Tom was warming his chilled hands before a hastily kindled fire.
"How do you like Chesney?" asked Tom. "You did stay under the same roof, after all, old girl."
She raised her hand in quiet protest. "I know a little more about Mr. Blackland than I did," she said. "I'm afraid I was rather uncharitable."
"He's a nice-looking fellow," said Tom. "What about having him over for dinner tonight?"
Margaret had already decided that her uncharitable ban should be lifted, and her invitation to "Mr. John" had been given and accepted.
"The governor's worried to death about you," said Tom. "He made me get up in the dark and commandeer this old bus to bring you back to civilization. Hullo, Chesney!"
Chesney was coming downstairs in his dressing-gown.
"I've got to rush my sister back to Oxford: the Colonel is all nerves about her," said Tom. "No, no, I won't stop to breakfast. Something hot to drink, and a bite for the young lady..."
Coffee and rolls were forthcoming almost immediately. They stood before the hall fire talking, Tom apparently oblivious to the signs Which his host had given him, until, in desperation, Chesney Blackland said: "I'd like to see you for a moment before you go, Tom. Will you come into the library?"
"Not now, old boy," pleaded Tom, putting down the cup. "You're coming over to dinner—I must get back: there's some more snow coming."
"I wanted to tell you—" said Chesney, but Tom was out in the open, giving directions to the ancient driver of this extemporized four-in-hand. "We dine at seven, but you'll come to tea," said Margaret, as she held out her hand with a smile. "And you really do forgive me?"
"I'm wondering whether you're going to forgive me," groaned Chesney Blackland, as he took her hand in his.
"For what? You mean, for the things you said about father? Of course!"
There was a roaring invitation from Tom outside, and the girl hurried into the victoria. The flakes were beginning to fall again, and there was reason for hurry, Tom explained, as they began their climb to the Witney Road.
"If we can make Witney we shall be all right, but the road is rather like High Street, Siberia."
To their intense relief, they reached the main road without mishap, and in a quarter of an hour Witney lay beneath them, a gray, cheerless town in a hollow.
"That's a quaint place of old Chesney's," said Tom.
"It's a very pretty house: has he had it long?" asked the girl.
"Lord, yes," said Tom, lighting a cigarette with some difficulty. "It's been in the family hundreds of years. It was a gift from King Charles to one of the Blacklands."
Margaret's pretty face came round, the picture of amazement.
"A gift of King Charles? But they're not English: his brother is—"
She stopped. Obviously Tom was not interested in Blackland's confidence.
"His brother!" scoffed Tom. "Why, he never had a brother. I knew the family: I was with Chesney at Eton."
The girl did not speak till they were clear of Witney, and then:
"Are you sure?"
"What about? About Chesney? Why, of course I'm sure. Old man Blackland only had one son and five daughters."
"What nationality was Mr. Everstein?" she asked, with outward calm.
"He was a Swiss Jew."
With an effort Margaret controlled her voice. "Has he any children?" she asked.
"Fourteen, I am told."
"Will you stop the carriage? I want to walk a little way," she said unsteadily.
Tom roared a direction to the driver and got out, a very much perplexed man.
"Now what on earth—?"
"Tom," she said, when they had walked some little distance from the victoria, "you must send to Mr. Blackland and tell him he cannot come to the house."
"Great Moses!" he gasped. "Why?"
"Because—he is a liar! Oh, the brute, the brute! To play on my feelings..."
Bit by bit the story came out. Tom listened, and, to the girl's surprise, did not laugh.
"Yes, that's a lie," said Tom. "Chesney has no brothers. Of course, he told you that story to prevent you from making a fool of yourself, as you undoubtedly would have done."
"He's hateful!" she stormed.
Tom shook his head. "He's not so hateful as you think, Margaret," he said quietly. "And now I'm going to tell you the truth. What he said about father was true."
She stared at him uncomprehendingly.
"Father was in the Everstein swindle right up to his neck," Tom went on. "He was a party to the faking of the balance-sheet, and it was only by a fluke that he didn't stand in the dock with Everstein."
She was white and shaking now.
"Is that true" she asked in a low voice.
"When Everstein was sent for trial, and Blockland went to Brixton Gaol for consultation, Everstein told Chesney the truth, and said that if he was convicted he'd bring down father... that he wasn't going to suffer alone. And Chesney played the game: he came to see me and told me this. Of course, it was no use telling the governor; anyway, he was in bed, sick with fright."
"But why did—Chesney—take all that trouble?" she asked unsteadily.
Tom's reply was rather like Tom, frank to the point of brutality.
"Because he saw you a few years ago, and, like a chump, fell in love with you. That's the truth! Chesney was unscrupulous in his defense: it was the talk of the Bar. But he fought like a demon to save Everstein from conviction, because he knew father would be involved, and, through father, you."
The snow was falling heavily now. She looked back to the old victoria and the steaming horses. "He is a liar, anyway," she said, as she walked slowly towards the carriage.
"Tom, will there be any shops open in Oxford this morning?" she asked, as the victoria bowled along the homeward road.
"There may be: why?"
"I'd like to buy a present—for Chesney Blackland's niece," she said, with pleasant malice.
THEY called Ian Cranford "Iron" Cranford.
Lest it be thought that the employees of the Cranford Manufacturing Corporation were possessed of the sense of poetry, or that they bestowed a romantical and even heroic nickname upon their managing director because they loved and admired him, it may be explained that there was about this time another and a more public "Ian," a popular figure in London boxing circles who was also addressed as "Iron," less as a tribute to his robust constitution than in the exercise of the Cockneys' immemorial right to give any pronunciation he chooses to any word he employs.
And Ian Cranford was not beloved. He was likewise called by other names.
A girl, red of face and trembling with suppressed wrath, came out of Cranford's private office, and slammed the door behind her. Six pairs of youthful eyes surveyed her in joyous anticipation. The seventh pair of eyes did not look up from the note she was transcribing, and her typewriter, alone, clattered and clicked through the buzz of eager inquiry and heated reply which followed.
"If he thinks he's gotta slave to deal with," said the red-faced girl as she banged the cover down on her typewriter, "he's made a mistake so far as I'm concerned! I ses to him, 'If a young lady can't take a day off when her head's splitting so that she could get a doctor's certificate for the asking, you'd better get somebody else!' 'Oh,' he ses, in his sarcastic way, 'and is it necessary to take the 9.55 for Brighton to cure your headache? I happened to see you getting in the train.' 'Well,' I ses, 'if I can't go down to Brighton and see my poor dear mother, it's pretty hard,' I ses. 'You can go and live with your poor dear mother at the end of the week,' he ses. 'I'll go now,' I ses, 'and as for you, you can go to hell!' I ses."
A most gratifying chorus of admiring gasps.
"'Yes, you can go to hell!' I ses. That's the way to treat 'em," said the red-faced girl, with trembling pride. "There's no other way for fellers like that! He hasn't got a heart, that Iron Cranford; he's not human! If ever I tell my young man the things he said to me—"
A sudden and violent rattle of space-bars and six fluffy heads dropped, as though at the word of a drill sergeant, over six banks of complicated keys. A man stood in the doorway of the private office, the type of man who wears rough blue serge, soft loose collars, and smokes a straight, short pipe. He was nearing the forties, with gray at the temple, hard-jawed and resentful of eye.
"Haven't you gone?"
His voice had a snap and a bite which sent shivers down six young spines.
"No, I haven't gone yet, Mr. Cranford," said the girl in a milder tone than might have been expected.
She was all for a dignified exit, but her knees wobbled annoyingly.
"I am going when—I am going when—" she choked.
"You are going when you please, I suppose?" said the man in the doorway. "You should worry about me, ha, ha!"
There was no mirth in his "ha, ha1" but a hint of sardonic laughter.
"Now, you girls!"
Six backs straightened to attention, the seventh was still bent over the machine, though her hands were idle.
"I am firing Miss Wilkinson, as she has probably told you," said Cranford. "You ought to be told the reason I am discharging her. It is not because she took a day off; any girl can take a day off if she has a headache. I am sending her away because she lied, and because on Saturday morning I saw her in company with a type of man with whom I do not want any of the girls in this office to associate."
Miss Wilkinson's trembling became a visible ripple of wrath. It was a ripple which swayed her shoulders and her head and produced an alarming elongation of neck.
"Be careful what you're saying!" she shrilled. "You take people's character away, and you can be had up in the court. You—you—"
"Get on with your work," said Cranford shortly. "Miss Glynn!"
The seventh stenographer rose at his nod, gathered her notebook and pencil, and followed him into the office. She was a slight, pretty girl, rather white of face and tired of eye. There were some in the office who feared Ian Cranford. Some perverted souls who adored for the very reputation of brutality which was his. Some, like the shivering Miss Wilkinson, who alternately loathed and fawned upon him. But Doris Glynn, his confidential secretary, alone hated him consistently and silently.
She never joined in the chorus of abuse, which at intervals rose against him; she never identified herself with those informal services of absolution that followed some act of justice on the part of Ian Cranford, which bore the appearance of generosity.
She hated him for all that he was, and all that he had. She hated him for his undeviating ruthlessness because he kept to his way, walking down the strong and the weak who stood between him and his objective. And mostly she hated him for what he would some day think of her.
She sat meekly by his desk, her notebook on her knees, and Ian Cranford stroked his trim moustache thoughtfully.
"Wilkinson is keeping bad company," he said. He always referred to the girls by their surnames, another abominable practice of his. "She is a poor, brainless, flighty fool, without a single decent instinct which I have been able to discover."
He scratched his big jaw, then he reached for the telephone and gave a number, which she recognized as police headquarters.
"I want to speak to Mr. Holding," he said; and after a minute's silence, "That you, Holding? It's Cranford speaking. You remember that long-firm man, Sawerson, who runs fake selling-agencies and did a term in jail some time ago... you remember him? Good. Well, he's taken up with a girl in this office whom I have just dismissed. A Miss Wilkinson, I will send you her address. She had access to my list of customers, and I should say that was what he is after."
Evidently the man at the other end of the wire asked a question concerning Miss Wilkinson, whose complaining voice was still audible through the closed door of the office.
"No, no, she is nothing," said Cranford. "Just a Nothing. She hasn't the brains to be a crook. Good-bye."
He hung up the receiver and swung round to the waiting girl.
"Now, we'll get on with that correspondence with Mrs. Bristow," he said. "Write to Harbury and instruct to call in all the mortgages on the quarries. I hear that Mother's darling son has been sent down from College and has arrived home with a sackful of unreceipted bills."
He stared down at his desk awhile, then:
"I shall never ruin Mrs. Bristow," he said, "nor pierce her of her colossal vanity."
"I don't know that I want to ruin her anyway," he said. "I merely want to—" He stopped. "That woman had had too much money anyway."
The girl made no reply, merely jotting down a note in her book; then suddenly, and to her surprise, he said: "I understand you are married —Mrs. Glynn?" She was taken aback for a moment.
"I have been married," she said quietly. "I am a widow."
He frowned at her.
"One," she said, her anger rising.
His frown grew deeper.
"You are very young. Why didn't you tell me you were married when you came? Why did you call yourself Miss Glynn? There was no need to lie about it."
"I didn't lie about it," she said hotly. "I was only married for a year—somehow I never think of myself as married."
She might have added that that year was the most wretched year of her life. The street accident which ended the life of her drunkard husband was the only happy memory of three hundred and eighty days of purgatory —she used to count the days.
"Some employers do not like married women in their offices," she went on, more calmly, "especially young married women, and that is why, when I was addressed as Miss by your cashier, I did not correct him."
"All right," he said, and as she rose:
"I am going down to South Devon in the morning."
She listened, holding her breath. "Come to me before I go for the key of my safe. The tender for the Shaftesbury Power House must be delivered personally at five minutes to twelve, not a minute before or a minute later, to the architects at Winchester House. They are received up to twelve o'clock, but you ought to allow yourself five minutes in case of accidents. Not before, you understand? I don't trust that architect of theirs, and he'll be tipping off our price to somebody else if he gets it too soon. You'll find it in the bottom drawer in the safe."
She nodded, and again made a note in her book.
"Benson leaves for Rio in the afternoon: give him three hundred pounds in banknotes; you'll find them in the same drawer. Note the numbers and get a receipt. Remind him to telegraph... Send Wilkinson's address to Inspector Holding, New Scotland Yard..." He fired a dozen other instructions before he dismissed her with his curt nod, and she went back to her desk with the last of her qualms seared out of existence.
He was not human, there was nothing human about him. His talk of Mrs. Bristow, that aged widow whom she had once seen in the office... A pompous, white-haired lady, insolent it is true, but still a woman—and an old woman. His lighthearted blackening of poor Lilly Wilkinson's character, his slander about an architect—these things were as a tonic to strengthen her in her resolve.
She hated him, she hated him! She wanted to hate him more. She could not hate him enough. For hatred was a narcotic which was to deaden the pain and drown a voice that whispered "No, no no!" all the day and all the night.
The office staff was allowed an hour for lunch—no more and no less. Doris Glynn alone was given an extra half-hour, that being the additional time which Cranford allowed himself. The half-hour was especially desirable today, and she permitted herself the unaccustomed luxury of a taxi-cab. She had to get from the city to Devonshire Street by a quarter-past one. Of course, she could have asked for extra time, but the idea of making such a request to Cranford was in itself abhorrent.
She reached the house of the great chest specialist at the same minute as a woman turned the corner of the street, leading a little boy by the hand, and Doris walked toward them with a smiling welcome for the child.
"It is awfully good of you to come, Mrs. Thomas. I don't think I could have got home in time."
The motherly woman with the child arrested the flow of thanks with a bluff "Nonsense!" and together they walked up the steps and passed into the specialist's house and into the gloomy waiting-room. He did not detain them very long. Presently a nurse came in and beckoned the mother and child, and they followed into Sir George Crisly's consulting-room.
The specialist shook hands with the girl and led the boy to the window, scrutinizing him sharply.
"Well, Mrs. Glynn, when are you going?" he asked. She was fidgeting with her handkerchief, and started as he spoke. "I—I don't know," she stammered. "I have the passports—thank you, doctor, for getting those for me. I shall never be able to repay you for your great kindness. Do you really, really think that a year will make all that difference to the boy?"
He nodded. "I not only think, but know," he said. "Of course the child is very young to have a crisis, but undoubtedly he is in that pathological condition when the next twelve months will make all the difference in the world to his future health. There is undoubtedly a dispostion to tuberculosis. The mountain air is absolutely certain to destroy that tendency and give him something to build up on. I suggest Argentière because the air there is particularly good for such cases. There are nice pensions where you will be able to live very cheaply, and the journey is an easy one." He smiled. "I think you are exceedingly fortunate in being able to go at all. So few people have saved their money as you have against a rainy day."
She nodded slowly, and had he looked at her closely he would have seen her bosom rising and falling as though she found a difficulty in breathing.
"I don't mind telling you, now that you have decided to go," Sir George went on, "that to have lived in England would have killed your boy."
She closed her eyes, and he walked quickly to her side and took her arm.
"I'm awfully sorry; I thought you knew," he said gently.
"Oh, I knew, doctor," she smiled bravely. "Of course I knew, only I wouldn't let myself know, if you understand."
"I think I do," said he. "Anyway, you've nothing to worry about now."
He turned to the child and patted him on the head.
"Good-bye, little man," he said. "Come along and see me in twelve months' time and I shan't know you!"
The girl waited until the child and his motherly guardian had turned the corner before she began her walk in search of a cab to take her back to the office. She was numb with fear, with apprehension, with doubts, but the greatest doubt of all had vanished. No longer could she hesitate or allow any false ideals to stand in her way.
At parting she had made her final preparations. For a small sum paid weekly the goodnatured Mrs. Thomas, who occupied an apartment on the same floor in the tenement where Doris had her home, took charge of the small boy during the day. She was to bring the child and the two portmanteaux, already packed, to Waterloo Station that night in time to catch the Havre boat-train. Doris had allowed herself two hours to do what she had to do. She closed her eyes tight, with a little wince of pain, as she thought of what those two hours would hold.
Passports, time-tables, tickets, little notes on the route, all these were in her bag. She would tell Mrs. Thomas that she was going to Italy, and had already hinted as much to her.
That afternoon the office was purgatory to her. She was filled with an immense sense of desolation and loneliness. It was as though she was living in another and a more enviable world, and she did envy these light-hearted girls with homes of their own, mothers and fathers who cared for them and would worry about them if they were late. She envied their freedom from care, their silly chatter about boys and clothes. Somehow the office appeared in a more pleasant light than she had ever viewed it, a more homelike place than she had ever dreamed it could be, and she was amazed to discover the tears rising to her eyes at the thought that she would not again see this big prosaic room with its rows of desks. Cranford was out until half-past three, and he came back more truculent than ever. He dictated three slashing letters, a bite in every line: one to his works' manager at Bletchley, one to the solicitor of the unfortunate Mrs. Bristow, and a third to a second solicitor, no less than the advocate chosen by the discharged Miss Wilkinson to vindicate her character.
"Delivered by hand, was it?" he growled. "I know the solicitor, a dirty little police-court practitioner. A decent man wouldn't have had the time to sit down and write straight away. Sue me for slander, will she! Huh I take this...!"
Her pencil flew over the paper, and there was need for speed, for when Ian Cranford was annoyed he spoke very quickly. She was in the midst of taking a milder correspondence when he stopped and said suddenly:
It seemed that her heart stopped beating. She could only stare at him open-mouthed.
"Passport?" she managed to say at last.
She was as white as death, but he was not looking at her.
"That diplomatic passport which I received from the Government during the war," he said, "you are to return that to the Foreign Office. I am not engaged on Government business in France now, and there is no need of it. Remind me tomorrow that I return it."
She could have swooned with relief. As it was, her limbs felt like water and her mouth and throat were dry. One of the girls saw how pale she looked and, much concerned, brought her a cup of tea, and she drank it and felt refreshed. At half-past five the staff left, and she was still taking down Cranford's notes, now upon some new construction in which he was interested, now an article for a technical newspaper, always at top speed in a voice which seemed to hold an everlasting complaint.
At half-past six he finished, tidied his desk neatly, and closed it with a bang. He looked at her as she turned over the leaves of her notebook.
"You've got two hours' work there," he said. "You may go early tomorrow to make up."
"I think that is all," he said after a while. "You know my address in Devonshire. Here is the key of the safe; don't lose it. Good-night."
The "good-night" was his usual curt farewell, and only her lips moved in response. She went back to her desk and tackled her work.
Her fingers flew over the keys, and by eight o'clock she had gathered together the typescript, signed and enveloped such letters as she had authority to send, laid the copy of his article on his desk, and had covered her own machine.
It was dark. There was only the light above where she sat and the solitary light which she had switched on in Cranford's office. Save for the caretakers, whose brooms she heard thumping in the corridor without, she was alone in the building.
She opened her bag, dived her hand into its depths, and took out the key. She felt surprisingly calm. Did other criminals feel the same? Often she had wondered how burglars and murderers could have brought themselves to commit their cold-blooded deeds, but now she understood. There was no tremor in her hand, and when she walked into the inner office, her step was steady and she felt no inclination to faint as she had feared. It was very easy. She did not know what reserves of strength she was exhausting.
She opened the safe, pushed back the heavy door, and pulled out a drawer. On the top lay the sealed envelope containing the tender for the Shaftesbury Power House.
This she carried to the desk, wrote on a slip of paper, "To be Delivered by 12.5 certain" even underlined the 'certain'—pinned it to the envelope and laid it in the chief stenographer's basket. Then she went back for the money. it lay in two wads, the money that was usually kept there, supplemented by the £300 which had been drawn from the bank that morning to pay the expenses of Benson, who was leaving for South America. It was this £300 she took, and it was when those notes were in her hand that her nerve broke. She felt the break coming and tried to fight it off, but in an instant she was leaning against the safe, sobbing softly.
"Oh, it's wrong, it's wrong," she sobbed. "Nothing can make it right, nothing, nothing!"
The voice was behind her, and she turned round, her mouth open to scream.
Cranford had come in and had half closed the door behind him. His remorseless face was a mask, his steady gray eyes were fixed upon her. She did not faint, she did not scream; she clutched the hard steel corner of the safe to hold her erect and looked at him. She could not even think, though she had a picture of a little boy who would be waiting for her in two hours' time at a London terminus, and there was the winter ahead, and the greatest specialist in London had said frankly that the winter would kill him. She did not think of herself or what it meant to her. If she saw anything, it was only the supreme and horrible tragedy which centered round the white-faced little boy who was her greatest treasure and her greatest sorrow.
"Nothing can make it right," said Cranford in even tones.
She lurched forward, but he caught her before she fell and propped her into a big chair at his desk.
"I'm sorry," she muttered.
He watched her for a while in silence, then reached for the telephone, and she shrank back as though he were going to strike her. He called a number. She was faintly familiar with it. Cranford was on speaking terms with the police and knew somebody at almost every station, and she braced herself to hear her doom.
When the call came through, she recognized the man whose name he mentioned as a business associate of his.
"I'm not going down to Devonshire tonight," said Cranford. "Just let me know what happens."
He made no explanations as to his change of plan, because that was not Cranford's way. Slowly he removed his light overcoat, hung this and his hat on their usual peg, and pulled up a chair to the position which she usually occupied when she was taking notes. She was still holding the money in her hand, unconscious of the fact, indeed, her arm was still rigidly held as it was when he had surprised her.
"Well, what is this all about? he asked, and she looked at him wonderingly, and he repeated the question.
"I was stealing your money," she said.
"I guessed that," said Cranford dryly; "but you're not the kind of person who steals money, Mrs. Glynn?"
She shook her head. "No—I'm not," she 'answered helplessly, "but I was stealing. What are you going to do?"
"Why were you taking that money?" demanded Cranford. "That is the first point. I will decide what I am going to do afterwards. By the way, I will relieve you of that."
He took the notes from her unresisting hand and slipped them into his pocket. Then he got up, closed the door of the safe, and locked it.
"Well?" he said.
She told him simply. It was the story of a mother's fight for her delicate boy, told without excuse, without emphasis, and might have moved any man. Apparently it did not move Cranford, and she would have been surprised if it had.
"You were taking money to send your boy into the mountains?"
"Who was the doctor?"
She told him, and he nodded. "Where do you live?" he asked.
"In Clerkenwell," she said, and he rose.
"Get your things on," he said. "We will go to your house in Clerkenwell."
"But—" she began.
"Put on your coat," he said in a voice which allowed no argument.
She obeyed, delaying her return to his room just long enough to wipe the evidence of tears from her face. He was dressed waiting for her, and without a word led the way from the office and the building. No word was spoken on the journey. For the second time that day she had the unusual experience of traveling by taxi-cab, but this time in a different mood.
She mounted the narrow, ill-lighted stairs, and ushered him into a tiny flat. Two bags stood packed in the hall, and in the little living-room the child was being dressed for the journey. At a sign from Doris Mrs. Thomas came to the passage.
"I just want a few minutes," whispered the girl. "Mr. Cranford wishes to see my boy."
She came back to find Cranford and the child solemnly surveying one another.
"That's your boy, eh?"
She nodded. "He doesn't look very ill. He's white, but I wonder how children can be anything but white in London."
Presently his survey ended, and he turned his impassive face to the girl. "I suppose you have your passport and ticket?"
Her lips trembled, and she could only assent with a gesture.
"All right," he said, rising. "You are going by the Havre boat, I presume?"
She assented again.
"Well, I'll meet you at Waterloo at half-past nine," he said. "You had better look for me by the bookstall. Give your trunks to a porter and he will register them for you." She stared at him wildly.
"Mr. Cranford!" she faltered.
"Do as you are told," he said, and was gone before she could gather her scattered thoughts.
He was waiting for them at the station, and had secured a carriage. To her amazement he himself got in with them, also to her embarrassment, because she held third-class tickets, whilst the carriage he had reserved was first-class.
"But you are not going, Mr. Cranford? You have no passport."
"I came up to bring my diplomatic passport to you for you to return," he said. "That is why I called at the office. I have it in my pocket."
She found a bundle of papers, and on arrival at Southampton she was to learn that he had reserved a cabin for her and the boy.
There never was, perhaps, so strange a journey or such queer fellow-passengers as these two who journeyed through France, from Havre to Paris and from Paris to the golden valley of Chamonix, without speaking any more than was necessary to announce that dinner was served or that a change of trains was scheduled. And so they came to Argentière, the girl still in a maze, still without understanding, and it was not until they were lunching at La Planet that he discussed any aspect of their amazing journey.
"I know one of the Alpine guides who lives in this village," he said. "He has an extremely nice home, and his wife is a very kindly sort of person. I have arranged for your little boy to stay with them for a year. He is old enough to enjoy the life and too young really to miss you. He will have excellent food, and there is no reason why you shouldn't come out two or three times a year to see him."
She smiled at him through her tears.
"Why have you done this, Mr. Cranford?" she asked. "Why have you been so—so wonderful to me?"
And then for the first time in her life she saw him smile, and it was a smile of singular sweetness and, too, singular sadness.
"Mrs. Bristow will tell you one of these days," he said shortly, and changed the subject, leaving her more bewildered than ever.
She left the boy without a pang. He waved her so cheery a farewell from the brow of the little hill on which La Planet is built, that it would have been the sheerest selfishness if she had felt grieved at the parting. So far she had been upheld by the tremendous novelty of the situation, by the gratitude which had welled and bubbled up from her heart, gratitude to the man who had saved her boy and had saved her. She was beginning to understand all that her act and her plans had meant. She could look down from the brink of the precipice and see herself, a strange and remote figure engaged in an act which she could neither understand nor sanction in her normal mood.
But most astounding of all the experiences which had been crowded into three days, Ian Cranford was indefinably changed, though still monosyllabic of speech, silent and unsmiling.
So far she had borne herself well, but the reaction came that night on the way back to Paris. They were alone in a first-class compartment. He was dozing in a corner, a traveling rug over his knees, and she was vainly attempting to sleep, lying full length upon a seat. Then she began to cry, softly at first, but, as she lost control, melting into a very passion of tears. Before she knew what had happened he was sitting by her, his arm about her, her head upon his shoulder.
"Poor little mother, poor little mother!" his soft voice came to her ear. "You've stood it splendidly, you brave dear soul!"
She felt his lips brush her cheek, and sank into delicious unconsciousness. She spent the night in his arms, sleeping like a child.
Two days later Doris Glynn was back at her desk in the room which she had not expected to see again, as grave, as imperturbable as ever, yet with a certain softness of voice and manner which was remarked upon. None knew the turmoil of her mind or the film of half-answered questions which flickered through her head.
Why had he done it? Why for her? Why of all the women in the world had he chosen a weakling who saw no way out of her difficulties other than the way of theft?
She could only think with awe of that awakening in the gray light of an autumn dawn with her cheek against his, his strong arm around her, and the low-spoken words of homage and love...
The recollection of it caught her breath, and she stopped with her hand poised over the keyboard. Then the door of Cranford's private office flung open and his bull-voice roared for her. She went meekly, notebook in hand, and the door closed behind her.
"My Gawd!" said one stenographer to another, "I wouldn't have that girl's job for a million a week!"
Inside the office Mr. Cranford had visitors: one, a stately, gray woman who did not deign to notice the girl. Mrs. Bristow was accompanied by her solicitor, and evidently the least pleasant part of the negotiations had been concluded before Doris was called in.
"I think you've been extremely hard," the lady was drawling, "and really your terms are ruinous. After the quarries are gone I shall hardly have £5000 a year to live upon."
She shook her head mournfully.
"People have starved on less," said Cranford, and the old lady's eyebrows rose in resentment at the flippancy.
"You have been very hard, Mr. Cranford," she said. "By the way, are you one of the Cranfords of Cranford Bassett?"
Ian Cranford shook his head.
"And yet the name is familiar to me," said the old woman as she rose. "I have known many Cranfords. There was Stanley Cranford. You remember, Stiles "—she addressed the elderly solicitor—"a perfectly charming boy. And then there was a Mrs. Cranford; who was she? Oh, I remember," she nodded; "a very estimable person. My housekeeper, for some time. What happened to her, Stiles? I seem to remember that there was something disagreeable."
"You prosecuted her for theft," said the solicitor.
"Of course, of course," said Mrs. Bristow complacently. "She had ideas far above her station, poor soul; stole jewelry, did she not, to educate her son, or some such nonsense? Did she go to prison?"
"For six months," said the solicitor.
"So she did, so she did! Good morning, Mr. Cranford."
She held out her hand, but Cranford did not take it.
"You have been harsh with me, very harsh indeed. I hardly know which way to turn, and my poor boy..."
She was still talking to herself when the girl opened the door for her, and they heard her complaining voice growing fainter.
Doris turned to meet Ian Cranford's eye.
"A nice woman," he said grimly; "she believes she is ruined with £5000 a year."
"I think she was trying to be horrid," said the girl.
"Sit down, dear." Cranford's voice was unusually soft. "You've been wondering why such a disagreeable beast of a man—" she put her hand on his to stop him, but he went on: "You wonder why I have been..."
He stopped himself and was at a loss for words. "I always liked you, but I loved you that moment when I came in and found you sobbing as if your poor heart would break with my money in your hand."
"But why?" she asked in amazement.
"For your sacrfice," he said, "because you were doing what another woman did, what Mrs. Bristow's housekeeper did for my sake, that I might go to a good school and start fair in the battle of life."
"For you?" said the girl, staring at him, and he nodded.
"For me," he said simply. "My mother was Mrs. Bristow's housekeeper. She stole to keep me at a decent school, and Mrs. Bristow, though she knew all the circumstances, prosecuted her."
He looked out of the window and licked his dry lips.
"My mother died in prison," he said softly. "She died in prison!"
And then Doris Glynn understood.
THE effect of wine upon temperament is a subject for study which the psychologists have neglected.
Jake's brother Bill was the only man who ever tackled the question in an earnest spirit of research, and although his studies were frequently interrupted by circumstances over which he had no control, he never forsook his course of study. On one point he was emphatic, and it was that champagne produced an overwhelming sense of patriotism. He reached this conclusion in the week he was expelled from college for painting a pacifist professor's motorcar red, white and blue.
He had to break into the garage to do it, and he spent the whole of one night at his task, but neither his enterprise nor his nobility of purpose saved him from being expelled.
When he was in prison for violently assaulting the police in the execution of their duty, he developed his theory to the extent of marking rum as a "revolutionary stimulant which arouses the basest resentment against established law."
He used to write long letters to Jake, setting forth his views.
It is to his credit that he never drank rum again. Jake insists that he did one memorable evening at Funchal, but the truth is not yet known, for Bill is somewhere in China, having escaped from Funchal on a fruit boat which "he did unlawfully seize by piracy, and did cast away by neglect upon the foreshores of Algiers "—to quote the indictment on which, in his absence, he was tried and sentenced to death by the Government of Lisboa.
All the trouble came about over a girl who was also a ward of Government.
Wards in Chancery are frequent phenomena, but a ward whose guardians changed with the fluctuating fortune of political parties was a surprising circumstance even to Jake Harrison.
And the only thing that ever surprised Jake was Q.Z.H., who lived at the Vigo end of the cable. Q.Z.H. had a name and an identity, but nobody at Funchal ever knew him, except by the initials which preceded the messages he relayed. And he was certainly a poor operator.
"It is surprising to me that that fellow holds down his job," said Jake at odd intervals.
Jake came to the South-Eastern from the Western Union. He left the Western Union from sheer ennui.
Wall Street prices were his specialty, and after five weary years of fraction tapping, he threw up the work and came to the South-Eastern, which carries a line of romance and unexpectedness. For the South-Eastern drains China and India, Africa and Australia of their surplus news, and there is generally a little war near one sensitive, trembling antenna of the service, and Funchal got all the news that was going.
Jake was a Canadian, a brilliant operator and a misogynist. Or he was until one day, strolling up the long hill road that skirts the Grand Canyon, he met a girl who had no other duenna than a half-bred terrier pup.
At the sight of her Jake stood still and stared. Women did not usually take him that way, but this girl was amazingly different. Her father had been, in his lifetime, a native of Funchal, which meant that the blood of two proud Latin races had flowed in his veins. In his native land he had been a marquis, or something of the sort, but Jake never troubled to inquire. In Funchal he had owned banana lands of vast size.
The girl's mother was a Miss Macverney, and pretty.
In the person of Inez Savalla the warm south and the austere north fought, gigantically, for expression, and neither side lost. Her hair should have been black or flaxen. Instead, it was of swarthy gold. South won in the creamy complexion, but the north triumphed in her blue eyes. The pride of the Clan Macverney (who are really Brodies) compromised with the hauteur of a race that once lived on the borderline of Castile. The carriage of her, the swing of hip and shoulder, the tilt of her head, and the long black eyelashes through which the blue eyes flashed sideways as she passed him, these were pleasantly southern.
Jake stared after her as she strode down the hill, and he blinked twice.
"That is a pretty nice girl," he admitted.
He observed that she was very simply dressed, and this puzzled him. Simplicity is very uninformative. She might have been a tradesman's daughter, and therefore within the possibilities of his acquaintance. On the other hand, she might be one of those grand ladies of the Island who live on so exalted a plane that nothing meaner than the officers of a visiting man o' war, or a consul-general, or a distinguished man of affairs breaking his journey to Cape Town, might meet on terms of equality.
"That is an extraordinarily nice girl," said Jake with a sigh, and followed her with his eye until she was out of sight.
Society on the island of Funchal is notoriously exclusive, but is neither as exclusive nor as outspoken as the mess of the South-Eastern Cable Company. Here reputations go cheap, as is only natural, for if the officials of the S.E.C.C. are punctilious in the matter of secrecy, and it is considered bad form even to discuss the contents of cables outside the instrument-room, the knowledge of private affairs gained professionally has very naturally an influence on the attitude of the individual mind. To the mess-room the folks high and low of Funchal were just Funchalese, with or without endearing adjectives.
The mess had few friends outside, and depended upon Fanelly to supply all that was requisite of local gossip. Fanelly, who spoke the language like a native, was an inveterate collector of news. To him Jake went.
"A girl with gold-black hair!" Fanelly knitted his youthful brows. "It sounds like Inez Savalla: do you know Colonel Pinto Muello, the fat man with the mole on his chin f"
"I have seen the swine," said Jake inelegantly. "Don't tell me she is his daughter!"
"Her name is Savalla, I tell you—how can she be his daughter, eh!"
"Well, what about him!" asked the impatient Jake.
"She is going to marry him, that's all," said Fanelly, with an air of finality.
Jake fingered his lean brown cheek and a light shone in eyes that at least were as blue as Inez Savalla's.
"She isn't," he said.
The young man resented this refutation of news which was practically official.
"I tell you the marriage has been fixed by the governor, who is her guardian. Old Savalla was an eccentric old devil, and he left his daughter a ward of the governor."
"But this governor is a new man—Almedez only came to the island six months ago."
"That's the joke: whoever is governor is her guardian. Almedez is a great friend of Muello's, they went to the same chiropodist in Lisboa—"
"Cease your facetious commentaries," said Jake, laying his big hand on the young man's shoulder, "and when you go calling on your dago friends, pass the word around that the engagement has been dissolved."
"Who by?" asked the startled youth.
"By whom, is better English," said Jake gently, "but if you are asked that question, hand 'em my card... does she speak English?"
"With a strong Aberdeen accent," he said.
"Good!" nodded Jake in all seriousness. "Then the last obstacle to our happy union has been removed."
She spoke English very prettily, when she came upon Jake bandaging his ankle on the mountain road.
It was a sprained ankle for the time being.
"Are you English?" she asked, as she helped him to a convenient bank.
"Scottish," said Jake somberly. "Aberdeen—maybe you have heard of the place?"
He was a liar and a scoundrel, and was prepared to admit it. For the moment there was no necessity. She sat by his side whilst the half-bred terrier pup gnawed and pulled at loose ends of the bandage. And there was such beauty in the world and in his heart, that Jake Harrison was prepared to find excuses for the deception he was practising.
Funchal is a jewel of an island. Above them, as they sat, the scarp of the Sierra was a gray-banner flung against the blue. Beneath, the land lay in irregular squares of brown and emerald and gold. Funchal was a dainty toy-town, perched on a ledge of rock that jutted into the blue Atlantic. And the air was sweet with the aromatic fragrance of fruit and flowers.
"It is a wonderful island: I was born here," she said simply, "and I suppose I shall die here."
"God forbid," said Jake fervently.
He met her again the next day, and then every day, and learnt more than Fanelly could have told him. She certainly was engaged to Colonel Pinto Muello. She spoke of the fact without enthusiasm. And Jake discovered why she had not been married off before. Her successive guardians had successively administered her estate. Each governor stole a little on one pretext or another. Now there was nothing left to steal. She did not state the case as crudely. She spoke of "expenses of administration," but Jake was an impartial student of graft in all its forms, and supplied his own interpretation.
The last governor to arrive had discovered to his intense annoyance that the Savalla estate, which was and had been for years regarded as a perquisite of office, was no longer there to be "administered." Having nothing else to sell, he sold the girl. Pinto Muello was a rich man.
On the ninth day of meeting, Jake met the colonel. He was a stout, tightly uniformed man, with a heavy black moustache, which he twisted with a quick "wiping" gesture, the result of many years of practice, and Jake gazed in fascination at the large mole on the side of his chin and wondered how often the colonel shaved.
In manner he was fiery and made gurgling noises in his throat. This, Jake gathered, was an expression of his fierceness.
"You are the operator in charge?" he demanded insolently.
"I admit it," said Jake.
"There has not come a cable for me, yes, no!"
Jake Harrison shook his head with exasperating slowness. Moles were supposed to be lucky, he thought, yet he would not have changed places with the colonel. And Jake had no moles.
"Twice, four times, seven, I have come to this bureau," thundered Colonel Pinto Muello, thumping the counter, "and always it is no! You are certain? Have you messages I may look through to be sure none has escaped the observer! I have authority, eh! I am in command of military mens on the island."
"So I'm told," said Jake wearily, "but if a cable comes through for you, it goes through to you."
"If it comes through, it goes through?" repeated the colonel frowningly. His knowledge of idiomatic English was slight. "Remember!" he thumped the table again. "I have all authorities for search! I command military mens on the island—all of them!"
"I know 'em both," said Jake.
He related the conversation at tiffin to Jack Boynes; the senior operator grinned.
"Pinto is in a devil of a state of mind," he said. "He's been to the office twenty or thirty times the past two days."
"Maybe he's expecting a remittance," suggested Jake.
It was Fanelly who supplied the explanation.
"There is a whole lot of political trouble in the dear land that owns this island," he said. "Some people think there will be a revolution, and that Pinto is in it. Anyway, his police are pinching all sort of people on the island—why, they even shadowed me last night!"
"This is fearful news," said Jake.
"You can laugh, Harrison." Fanelly was very serious. "But it isn't a joke. Every new arrival on the island is being trailed."
"That's certainly tough luck on Bonson's baby," said Jake, and big Bill Bonson, whose wife had augmented the population that morning, howled his delight.
That afternoon the humorous aspect of the situation carried no appeal to Jake Harrison.
Neither the blue of the bay nor the scarlet of wild geraniums, nor the sun-blazed glories of the wispy clouds that trail from peak to peak of the Sierra Funchal, had form or color or beauty for him as he stood stricken dumb on the canyon road and listened to the halting words of Inez Savalla. He knew the worst when he met her, and saw the ravage the all-night tears had made.
"In three days..." she sobbed. "Oh, Jake... can't you do something, dear?"
So far had their friendship developed from the pleasantries, the sympathies, the shameless deceptions, and the other correlatives of a sprained ankle.
Jake thought powerfully. There was no ship leaving for three days, and though he might speak slightingly of Muello's army and his ragged gendarmerie, they were unpleasant facts. So, too, was the untidy prison on Tower Hill.
A fruit boat was entering the bay as he looked, a squat tub of a boat out of Cadiz—there was no help from there. She was under the command of Pietro Manzana y Manzana. Jake had once smitten Pietro and had been fined a hundred milreis for his brutality.
"You just trust to old Jake," was all he could say: the basis for such a trust was his faith in Jake.
He had hardly got back to his quarters before he received a letter. It was written on the yellow edge of Funchal's one newspaper, the Diaro del Funchal,
"I am a prisoner in the house; Muello has sent his aunt to stay with me, and there are soldiers on guard at the door. Do not expect me, dear; good-bye."
Jake read the penciled words and rubbed his head. Fanelly, coming into the reading-room where Jake was sitting, asked in his aimless way if he wanted anything.
"A red-hot miracle, my son," said Jake.
The headquarters of the South-Eastern in Funchal is as near to the shore end of the cable as is convenient. It had the disadvantage of accessibility, a considerable disadvantage, remembering that Funchal is essentially a relay station, for the business done on the island would not pay the board of the most junior operator.
The evening meal had finished, and all but Jake had gone their several ways. He alone sat at the table, his head on his hands, thinking wonderfully but ineffectively.
He had no more thought of his brother than he had of the Grand Khan of Muscovy. He had not thought of the erratic Bill for years, and yet into his solitary meditations came this last considerable factor.
The man who stood in the doorway was tall, dark, and untidy. He had a week's growth of beard on his cheek and his linen was even older. He came in softly, seeming to wriggle through a two-inch opening of the door, and he stood surveying the room and its rough comfort with an approving eye.
Between the tramp who shuffles the countryside and the tramp who stalks the world, there is a great difference.
The world tramp brings with him an air of self-confidence, and meets the most exalted personages on terms of equality. He is never abashed, never cringes, and is equally at home in the musty hold of a steamer or the gorgeous club-rooms of the colonial aristocracy.
With his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his stained and ragged trousers, he regarded the gloomy and unconscious figure of Jake with a smile of amusement.
Presently Jake looked round, took a good look at the newcomer, and rose slowly to his feet.
"Where in hell have you been, Bill!" he demanded, and a wise observer would have known immediately that Jake Harrison was talking to his brother, and by his attitude of domination, his younger brother.
Bill Harrison came forward to the table, seated himself, and viewed the scraps of food which were left with the eye of a connoisseur.
"I've just blown in," he said.
"0n the Onzona?"
Bill Harrison selected a piece of bread, buttered it calmly from a remnant left on the edge of a plate, and nodded.
"I knew you were here: I thought I'd come along and look you up. Let me see, it's nearly eight years since we met, isn't it, Jake?"
"Nine," said Jake. "Where have you come from?"
"Cadiz," replied the other. "Do you mind passing that loaf along? Thank you. Have you got a drink?"
Jake shook his head.
"A glass of Marsala?" suggested his guest. "Except for its melancholic reaction, Marsala is as innocuous as grape fruit."
"You'll get no drink here," said Jake. "Haven't you been drinking already?"
"I have drunk and eaten bananas for eight days," said his brother. "There should be a law passed making the growing of bananas a penal offense."
Jake made no comment, and the other went on. He cut a slice of bread, and Jake pushed toward him a plate of butter.
"I got to Cadiz," said the wanderer, "from Malta, on a C. and I. boat that was short of a steward. Before then I was in Alexandria: a pretty mean kind of place, but not so mean as Colombo. I tossed up whether I'd go across to Rio, or whether I 'd look in here, and you won."
"You won, you mean," said Jake.
"Very likely," said the visitor carelessly, and then: "what is wrong here? Has Funchal gone dry or is there an election in progress?" he asked.
"There are so many things wrong on this damned island that I couldn't start telling you," said Jake testily. "Why do you ask?"
The other shook his head.
"I don't know," he said, "except that I've been followed around by a cop ever since I landed."
"You don't tell me," said Jake sarcastically. "Why they should shadow a well-set-up young fellow like you is beyond my understanding. I will send a note to the governor." He winced at the word "governor," and his grimace did not escape the attention of his brother, who was a student of humanity.
Jake walked to the door and beckoned his relative with a jerk of his head.
"Come along, I'll find you a bed," he said. "! suppose I shall have to keep you for a day or two."
Ten minutes later Mr. Bill Harrison was sucking luxuriously at a long black cigar in his brother's room.
"You'll have to sleep here tonight. Tomorrow I'll get you a place in the town," said Jake.
"A glass of Madeira," murmured Bill, "and I should be in paradise. Madeira is a sedative, and excellent for the tired business man. Its pathological effects are exaggerated. And it is cheap."
"You'll drink ice-water," snarled Jake.
Bill Harrison nodded calmly.
"Ice-water is poison, but is not as deadly as the fruit of the musa sapientium, or as the vulgar describe it, the banana."
Later Jake had to vouch for his identity to a suspicious chief of police.
"No, I don't know who he is," said Jake icily. "He has come out with excellent credentials, and he is the guest of the mess for a week or two." He did not admit the relationship in which the visitor stood to him, for obvious reasons. It was just like Bill to come barging in at this moment of crisis, he thought bitterly as he went on duty that night. Only a fraction of his mind was on the instrument he manipulated; the best of his thoughts were with a girl and a stout colonel of infantry in a tight-fitting uniform.
At three o'clock in the morning came an urgent Government message. Jake was the only man on duty at the moment, Fanelly, his second in command, having been dispatched to make coffee. Jake wrote the words mechanically, and sat for a long time staring at the written message whilst Cape Town called frantically on his right, and Vigo chattered impatiently on his left.
Although he was a poor linguist, he could both read and write the language, and the message ran:
"To Colonel Pinto Muello, very urgent. By order of the Government you will arrest Almedez and assume the functions of governor. The Diaz Government has fallen. Long live the Revolution."
There followed a code-word which Jake knew terminated all Government messages, and guaranteed their bona fides. He sat for ten minutes, and then hearing the footsteps of Fanelly, thrust the message into his pocket. An hour later he was relieved, and went back to his quarters carrying with him a blank message form.
He switched on the light and kicked his brother awake. Bill Harrison sat up blinking.
"Bill, do you speak this lingo very well?"
"It is my native language," said Bill modestly, and then Jake outlined the wildest scheme that the mind of a cable operator ever evolved.
"It is not a job I like," said Bill, "and it is certainly not a dry job. This palace, I presume, will be well stocked?"
Jake swore at him for fully three minutes.
"It is all very well for you to cuss," said Bill, hurt. "You ask me to masquerade as a new governor appointed by the Central Government. You ask me to bestow a wife upon you, and yet—"
"You can have anything you like when it is all over," said Jake. "I'll borrow Bane's motor-boat, and the day after I'm married we'll get away."
Bill thought for a long time, then:
"Cut my hair, Jake, and lend me a suit of your society clothes. I have views about governing."
"The only thing I ask you—in fact. Bill, I implore you—is to cut out the champagne," pleaded Jake, and his brother eyed him coldly.
"I have forgotten that such a wine is made," he said.
At half-past five, when the dawn was coming up over the eastern seas, a Major Corelli was wakened from his profound slumbers, and into the hands of this dazed man was thrust a telegram.
YOU WILL TAKE CONTROL OF THE TROOPS; ARREST COLONEL MUELLO AND GOVERNOR ALMEDEZ. YOU WILL CO-OPERATE WITH SEÑOR DUSA, WHO HAS ARRIVED SECRETLY FROM LISBOA, AND WHO IS APPOINTED GOVERNOR OF FUNCHAL. YOU ARE PROMOTED COLONEL AND ARE DECORATED WITH THE SECOND CLASS ORDER OF ST. XAVIER.
Probably Jake's most artistic effort was the decoration of the new commander of troops. By eight o'clock in the morning the evolution was accomplished. At seven o'clock that evening, Jake Harrison was united in the holy bonds of matrimony to the Senhora Inez Savalla. And he was married in style by the Archbishop of Funchal. The new governor had insisted upon this, and when Jake heard the news he quaked, for when Bill Harrison was grandiose, he was usually drunk.
Furthermore one of the first acts of the new governor was to issue a decree prohibiting the consumption of bananas.
Here was proof positive.
"He's got as far as the sparkling wines," groaned Jake when he heard the news, and hurried his preparations for departure.
The next morning he chartered a fiacre and drove up to the governor's palace. The decree against the consumption of bananas was being pasted upon the brick gateway as he drove in, and almost the first person he met in the large stone hall was the newly decorated commander of troops. He was looking a little wistful.
"You have brought a message?" he asked eagerly, recognizing Jake, but the operator shook his head.
"I cannot understand it," said the major. "It is inexplicable! No other instructions have come to me, and I simply await the orders of my Government."
Jake could have explained why no other messages came through. Some evil person had waded out at low tide, and had affixed an explosive charge to the cable connecting Funchal with Lisboa. He thought it wise not to mention this fact.
"I want to see the governor," said Jake, and the major's face lit up.
"What a man!" he said. "Only for two days has he been at the palace, and everything is reorganized! And what a voice!"
Jake's heart sank.
"Has he been singing?" he asked faintly.
"In every language," said the enthusiastic major. "To me alone, you understand: we are as brothers." He threw out his arms expansively.
"You can have him," said Jake in English.
He found Governor Bill Harrison in the governor's library, and there was in Bill's eye a gentle sadness which confirmed Jake's worst suspicions.
"Now, Bill," he said violently, when the door had closed, "you've got to cut this drink out. I've heard stories in the town that have kept me awake at night. I have the boat ready and we can leave tonight."
"You leave alone," said Bill grandly. "I have a duty to perform; a duty to a downtrodden people, crushed under the burdens imposed by successive tyrants. Every democratic fibre in my body vibrates to the call of their necessity. Will you have a drink?"
"No, I won't have a drink," shouted Jake. "You're a madman. Bill; you can't stay here. The Lisboa Government will send a warship, and I daresay there's one on its way already. And then where will you be!"
"I shall defy them," said Bill dreamily, as he sat easily in his chair, his legs crossed, his finger tips together. "I've already summoned a meeting of the Cabinet, and we have decided to resist any attack upon our sovereignty."
Jake drew a long breath.
"Is this the effect of Marsala!" he asked bitterly.
"It is a light German wine which I found in the cellar—pre-war stuff, Jake. You're losing the experience of a lifetime if you refuse my hospitality."
"What are you going to do!" asked Jake again.
Bill shrugged his shoulders and smiled serenely.
He had enlisted the services of a hairdresser. His little beard was trimmed to a point, his linen was faultless. Happily the late governor, now languishing in Tower Hill prison, had been almost Bill's size and shape.
"I have given instructions to the batteries to fire upon any warship that attempts to enter the harbor," he said briskly. "Tomorrow morning we're having a meeting of the Education Board. Funchal shall be educated into an appreciation of our democratic ins—institutions."
Jake could only stare at him open-mouthed.
"Do you imagine that you're going to be allowed to remain here in peace?" he asked, awe-stricken.
Bill nodded gravely.
"I think so," he said. "If those old guns don't bust!"
Jake walked out of the room like a man in a dream; it couldn't be champagne, he thought. Champagne did not induce in Bill's hard heart a love for the new people he had acquired. And it couldn't be rum, because he was so gentle and reasonable. Besides:
Bill's last words rang in his ears.
"You needn't worry about the champagne, because there isn't any in the palace," he said. "There's a legend about a dozen cases having been bricked up by the last governor, in the hope that he would be able to come back and enjoy them, and I'm having a search made, but I have no great hopes, Jake."
Jake had a very considerable sum in the bank, and this he drew before he went to the hotel where he had taken his wife.
"Inez, my dear, we're going to have a pretty bad time," he said, "and I don't exactly know where the first few years of our married life will be spent. But of all the troubles that are likely to come along, there is one which we shall be spared."
"What is that, Jake?" she asked.
"We shan't see much of Bill," said Jake grimly.
He spent the remainder of the night provisioning the motor-boat which he had hired on the excuse of taking a honeymoon trip to the Lesser Canaries. He had long since ceased to be an efficient member of the South-Eastern staff, but it may be said of them that knowing little, but guessing a lot, he carried with him a whole cargo of their good wishes when he slipped out of the tiny harbor in the early morning, and set the nose of the motor-boat for the nearest Canary island.
He was three miles out when ahead of him he saw a boat on the horizon, and fixed his glasses upon the tiny ship that was coming over the edge of the world.
"I thought so," he said. "It is a warship; poor old Bill!"
The words were hardly spoken before there came the sound of a deep boom from the island, and he looked round. They could not have opened fire on the incoming man o' war; that was beyond the range of their antiquated pieces. Again the gun crashed, and after an interval, it boomed once more. They were firing a salute, he realized, and wondered to whom this salutation was offered.
And then, above the governor's palace he saw a ball creep to the masthead and break. In the morning breezes fluttered the Union Jack, and Jake's jaw dropped.
"He's annexed the island to England!" he gasped.
Jake's brother Bill had found the champagne.
REX MADLON was a nice boy—one of those charming young persons who made friends more easily than he could make money. Mostly, his friends were other charming folk: somehow he had no affinity for hard-faced men who wore impossible neckwear and could put you on to the good things of the market.
On those occasions when he strolled into Denny Horli's office just before one o'clock, Denny knew that young Mr. Madlon had come out in a hurry and wanted a couple of pounds for lunch, or else had come to consult him in a professional capacity in regard to some wretched tailor who refused to wait longer than two years for the settlement of his bill.
Dennis Horll paid good-humoredly when it was a matter of a few pounds: once he had made a compromise with a tailor in regard to an overdue account. He liked the exquisite young man: more to the point, he loved the sister of this amusing youth.
Norah Madlon was hardly ever amused by her adored brother's shiftlessness.
The six hundred a year which her mother had left her, plus the eight hundred which had been settled on Rex, might have made life rather comfortable for them both. But Rex's eight hundred seemed to have no existence. His half-yearly dividend was earmarked months ahead. He had a vague idea that he could marry money; and he ended by promising to marry an unspeakable young lady whom he met in a night club.
From this entanglement Denny rescued him.
"I really don't know what to do." Norah's pretty face was paler than usual. "Rex is such a darling fool, but if anything happened to him I think I should die. Denny, surely you can advise him? He would listen to you."
She was very pretty and appealing, with red lips that quivered pathetically in moments of distress. And she was distressed now as they sat in the drawing-room of the little Queen's Gate flat.
"Darling, you must do something—Rex is in a terrible mess. He's given I.O.U.'s... debts of honor... and this horrible man threatens to go to Uncle Lewis."
Uncle Lewis was very old and very wealthy—a churchwarden and church trustee. He held definite views about the Revised Book, and had nothing but gas lighting in his house. He believed that dancing was an invention of the devil in the time he could spare from inventing playing-cards.
"Some day Rex will be awfully rich, but I'm terrified that Uncle will find out... you know, about that dreadful girl and the gambling."
Denny looked glumly into the fire.
If the truth be told, the vagaries of Rex had ceased to raise a smile. Though this she did not know, Rex was already in his debt to the extent of close on five hundred pounds, and Denny was not a rich man.
"My darling, I don't know what to suggest. Rex is such a waster—"
He saw her stiffen at this. The sanest, dearest girl in every other respect, she could not endure the least suggestion of disparagement applied to Rex.
"Well, he certainly isn't a saver, is he?" He tried to turn the phrase to its least offensive meaning.
"Rex isn't a waster!" Her voice was very cold. "He is just thoughtless, and depends too much upon Uncle Lewis and his money. It isn't very kind of you, Denny!"
Happily or unhappily, Rex interrupted the conversation at this point. He came in, a figure of gala, perfectly tailored, perfectly valeted —a tall, fair-haired young man with a disarming smile. Norah looked at the clock: it was a quarter after eleven.
"Are you going out again, Rex? I thought you said you were going to bed early?"
Rex laughed. "I'm going to have an inexpensive evening—Lord Levon's little dance. I must go—I promised."
"Nowhere else?" she appealed.
"Don't be absurd." His left eye closed humorously in Denny's direction. In a few seconds he was gone.
Denny walked to the window, pulled aside the shade and looked out into the street. Rex's little coupe was already moving at break-neck speed along the broad, deserted road—he had a passion for fast and costly machines.
"You can do something, Denny?" Her nerves were on edge, her voice more than a little impatient. "I always thought that lawyers could raise money."
"This lawyer can't," he said good-humoredly. "Is it much?"
She hesitated. "Four or five thousand pounds," she said, with an attempt at airiness; and Denny Horll groaned.
"My dear, I couldn't raise that except on very good security."
"On Uncle Lewis's will?" she suggested.
He shook his head. "Your uncle may change his will at any moment. Four or five thousand pounds?" He whistled. "My dear, that is impossible!"
He saw the red lips go tighter.
"Very well," she said. "But I did think you could help. You mustn't imagine, because you saw Rex so cheerful, that he isn't worried to death about it."
He pressed her for some particulars of the debt. Here she was rather vague, and he guessed that she knew very little. He did gather, however, that Rex was in the habit of playing baccarat at the house of "a friend."
She seemed unwilling to supply any details, if there were any she could supply. Their parting was a little distant, and he went home to his lodgings near Regent's Park a very unhappy young man.
Life had not been very easy for Denny Horll; he had followed his father, only to clear up the tangle which that light-hearted man had left behind. Ben Horll had had something of the temperament of Rex, and Denny found his practice more of a responsibility than a profit. For three ghastly years he had worked to right the number of wrongs, with the rectification of which his father had saddled him. He had to live down suspicions, that were in some cases certainties, attached to the name of Horll. But at last the nightmare struggle was over, and he had cleared away the wreckage, and was building on a new and solid foundation.
He was in the midst of a heavy morning's work next day when Rex came in.
"You had a bit of a row with Norah, didn't you—all about me!" He screamed with laughter. "You're a silly old ass! But honestly, Denny, what's the chance of raising that money?"
Denny shook his head. "Precious little, my son."
Rex pulled a long face, but was instantly his smiling self. "It's going to be deuced awkward," he said. "If old Lewis—who is pretty ill—would have the decency to pop off... but I suppose he won't."
"Are things really so bad?"
Rex strolled to the window and looked out.
"Ghastly place, Baker Street," he said. And then, carelessly: "Yes, the fellow who's got my paper is an absolute cad. I told Likstein, and he's furious."
"Who is Likstein?" asked Dennis.
"He's the fellow that runs the game—I mean, he's a friend of mine whom I meet occasionally." Rex became suddenly vague. "Come to lunch?"
Dennis shook his head.
"I'm afraid I can't. I've got a very important job," he said, and explained what it was.
That afternoon he had to go to the city to a consultation with another solicitor. When he came back he learned that in his absence Rex had called, and, after waiting a quarter of an hour, had gone again.
That night he had another interview with Norah, and this time she was a little more unreasonable. But he was not prepared for the sequel. On the following afternoon there was delivered to him a curt note and a half-hoop of diamonds. Denny Horll felt that the world had suddenly become a bleak, colorless place.
As he sat with his head in his hands by his desk, the telephone bell rang.
"Is that Mr. Dennis Horll?... Scotland Yard speaking. Inspector Boscombe... We have information that you've got a lot of money in your safe... never mind how we know. I should like to warn you, there's a fellow in town who specializes in burgling the offices of solicitors. A fellow named Darkey Cane. You want to be very careful. There was a burglary in Lincoln's Inn last night."
Denny listened with a smile, expressed his gratitude, and, restoring the receiver to the hook, he went to the safe to make absolutely sure.
Ten hours later...
Denny Horll walked slowly to the desk, opened a drawer, and took out the loaded Browning.
"Put that down—and lively!" He spun round, the pistol still in his hand. The long curtains that covered the window looking out on to Baker Street had parted. A man was standing there, an overcoat buttoned to his chin, his face hidden behind black silk—the top of a woman's stocking, in which two irregular ovals had been cut level with the eyes.
"Drop it—quick!" Mechanically he dropped the pistol to the floor.
"Stand over by the fireplace, put your hands on your head, and don't make a fuss, or you'll get it where the hen got hers!"
The mask reached behind and pulled the curtains close.
"Keys of the safe—throw 'em on to the table!"
Denny put his hand in his pocket, and flung the keys as he was ordered. The intruder backed to the safe and, with one eye on his victim, turned the key and the big door swung open.
"Stand over by the window where I can see you—thank you; sorry to bother you."
The tone was ironical; here was an experienced practitioner with a sense of humor.
He made a quick scrutiny, pulled out a thickly packed envelope marked "Steffan Estate". On its flap was the name of the Northern & Southern Bank.
"This will be a lesson to you—never keep real money in your office. You drew this three days ago to pay John Steffan when he arrived from America. If there hadn't been a fog, I'd have been late, shouldn't I? Still, that's part of the luck... we didn't know anything about it till last night. You've got a talkative friend—he's young, and he'll grow out of it."
Denny said nothing. He watched, fascinated, and saw the envelop disappear into the pocket of the burglar.
"I'll be on the other side of the curtain for two minutes. If you move I'll shoot you without warning. I may not be there—you've got to take that risk."
Denny's voice was unnaturally calm and steady. The burglar saw the pallor of the thin, aesthetic face, and chuckled to himself. "Color is the one thing you can't control," he said. "Good-night!"
He was through the curtains in a flash. Denny did not move, though he knew that his visitor would hardly wait a second on the balcony. He heard a shot, and then another, from the street below, and the shrill blowing of a police whistle. He leapt through the curtains and peered down into the fog. A man shouted up at him. Dimly he saw the helmet of a policeman.
"Man got over the balcony. lost anything?"
"I'll come down."
He went down the dark, uncarpeted stairs two at a time. No. 804 Baker Street was once a dwelling-house, but business had moved north from Oxford Street, and the house was now a collection of office suites. Denny Horll had his on the first floor—two rooms sufficed to carry on the dwindling solicitor's practice which his father had left him.
"You're working late, Mr. Horll." The policeman evidently recognized him, though he could not remember the man.
"Yes—clearing up before my Christmas holiday. Denny spoke quietly, monotonously; like a man dazed. He walked up the stairs before the policeman. The safe was still open. He indicated this with a gesture, and the policeman walked over and stared helplessly at the phenomenon.
"That's what he did, eh?" He saw the revolver on the table. "Held you up?"
"That's my pistol," said Denny. "I'm afraid I was a little late on the draw."
"Held you up!" repeated the policeman owlishly.
He put his electric lamp on the weapon. It was such a ludicrous, unnecessary action, for the lights were burning, that in any other circumstances Denny would have laughed.
"I—saw him coming down from the balcony on a rope, and nearly got him. He shot at me and missed—twice he shot. I couldn't chase him on a night like this—I ask you."
Then he became dimly aware of his responsibilities.
Denny licked his dry lips.
"There was a packet in the safe containing twenty-three thousand pounds, or rather a hundred and ten thousand dollars. It was the proceeds of the sale of the Steffan Estate. I drew it from the bank a few days ago. Mr. Steffan should have arrived tonight, but I think his ship has been held up in the Channel by the fog."
The policeman looked at him and shook his head. He was now out of his depth. The immensity of the theft brought the matter into the purview of high official Scotland Yard. The fact that the money was in dollars bewildered him: he could remember no formula in regard to foreign monies.
"Banknotes—American banknotes? I suppose you've got the numbers?"
Denny shook his head slowly.
"I'll use your 'phone."
His story to the station-house was a little incoherent. A balcony, a rope, a man, a shot: he insisted upon this; mentioned the theft as an afterthought. Somebody asked him a question at the other end of the wire, and he went over it all again—a man, a rope, a balcony, a shot in the fog...
"Absolutely impossible to chase a man in this weather, sir. You couldn't see your hand before your face in Baker Street... the man shot twice."
He sighed, hung up the receiver, and turned to Denny.
"Boscombe's there. He's been in our division all the night, looking for the gang that smashed Avington's, the jewelers. That's a bit of luck —Mr. Boscombe, I mean."
"Very," said Denny.
Boscombe, tall, thin, constitutionally sceptical, came in ten minutes' time, and with him two assistants. After he had questioned the constable, he sent the man back to the station to make his report.
"You didn't recognize the man, of course? Masked, wasn't he? The policeman thought so. Who knew you had this money in the office?"
Mr. Boscombe wrote down his name and address. "My clerk," said Denny.
Horll shook his head.
"Any of your relations?"
"I have no relations," curtly.
"Friends Are you married, Mr. Horll? No! Engaged, of course?"
A sour reply was on the tip of Denny's tongue.
"I am engaged, yes."
Mr. Boscombe looked at him, pulling at his nose thoughtfully.
"The young lady, now: would she know you had the money in the office?"
"No." The reply was sharp.
The sceptical Mr. Boscombe took a swift glance at him, folded up his notebook, and dropped it into his pocket before he went across to the safe and made another examination.
"The man wore gloves, you say? Cotton gloves"
"They looked like gray suede, but they could easily have been cotton."
Boscombe took the keys from the safe, laid them on a sheet of paper, and wrapped them up.
"I'll have a couple of men down to examine the safe door and photograph it," he said. "Anything in the safe of value? You can trust 'em, of course."
Denny shook his head.
Boscombe changed his mind, unwrapped the paper, and took out the keys, and locked the safe door; then he put the keys back in the paper.
"Bad luck on you, Mr. Horll. You're not insured, of course? Insurance Companies will not take risks on money. How is it you were working so late in the office?"
"I was doing a little work, clearing up for Christmas. I wanted to take a holiday."
The detective glanced at the desk: it was very orderly; there was no appearance of documents or books; the basket on the table contained a tied brief.
"You must have finished your work when he came in. The revolver, of course, you had in your drawer? You expected burglars?"
"I expected burglars after you had warned me," said Denny. He spoke with a great effort. "Naturally, having this money in the office, I took no risks."
"Naturally," murmured Boscombe. "I forgot that I 'phoned you—Darkey's work this: very typical."
He walked to the fire: it had burnt very low. On the top was a litter of ashes.
"You burnt that recently, I presume? What was it? It looks like a letter to me."
The ashes still bore the shape of a letter. There were innumerable black charred scraps that indicated the letter had been a long one. It required all Denny Horll's effort to maintain his assumption of indifference.
"Nothing particular; just a begging letter, as far as I remember."
The detective looked down at the ashes. The letter had not only been burnt, but it had been broken up by a poker. There was a suspicious depression in the low fire, as though it had been stirred especially for the purpose of destroying this document.
Boscombe looked at the table again, then into the wastepaper-basket, stooped, and took out a crumpled sheet of paper. Smoothing it flat, he read:
"Dearest, I don't know how—"
He found another sheet, and a third and a fourth, all the same size, and one began without address:
"You will understand—"
The detective looked at him hard for a long time.
"You've been trying to write a letter to somebody, Mr. Horll?"
Dennis nodded. "A friend of yours?"
There was no reply. Inspector Boscombe folded the sheets of paper and put them in his pocket.
"I'll come round and have a talk with you in the morning."
The fog still held, but was thinner on the outskirts of London. Not even the fastest of cars, chosen and stolen for the purpose, could contend against the handicap which nature imposed upon the brightest of "snap burglars."
Darkey Cane and his two companions threaded their way painfully through the misty streets.
"If it hampers us it hampers them," growled a confederate; and by "them" he meant those custodians of law and order whose duty and pleasure it was to checkmate such as he.
Darkey, who was sitting by his side, his heavy overcoat turned up to his ears, grunted.
"Fog has never stopped the working of a telephone yet. It's clearing —hit her up, Augustus!"
It was certainly clearing; one could see two street lamps ahead. Beyond Kennington Oval the fog was a thinnish mist; the car increased in speed. They flew through Deptford and up Blackheath Hill. At the crest of the hill the road was almost clear. The car increased its speed. Suddenly ahead of them they saw a red lamp waving.
"That's 'phone work," said Darkey philosophically, and added jocosely, "Kid him—he's only a copper."
The machine flew past the signaller at fifty miles an hour.
"I think—" began Darkey.
That particular thought was never expressed. They were a hundred yards past the red lamp when there were four explosions so loud that they seemed as one. The Flying Squad that was looking for Darkey had thrown a band of canvas across the roadway, and that canvas was heavily laden with upturned nails. The machine swerved left and right, crashed into a lamp standard, and turned a complete somersault. By the time Darkey was on his feet he was entirely surrounded by blue uniforms. A hated voice—for he knew this particular detective-inspector—hailed him as a friend.
"I want you, Darkey, for a job in Baker Street. Fan him, somebody."
Big hands fanned Darkey very carefully. They ran down his vest and under his vest, his back and legs, but they did not find the revolver, for he had thrown that over the balustrade of Westminster Bridge as they had crawled across.
"All right, it's a cop," said Darkey. His hand stole stealthily to his inside pocket, but before he could reach the packet the inspector had deftly removed it.
It was in Greenwich police station that the contents of an envelope marked "Steffan Estate" were examined. Fifty sheets of quarto notepaper were revealed before the astonished eyes of Darkey Cane.
"Well, I'm—" he exploded.
"You seem to have been caught," said the inspector, and examined the flap of the envelope again. He had not been surprised to find it open, thinking that Darkey had already made his investigations.
"I ought to be murdered for trying to hold up a crook firm like Horlls. His father was a twister, and I'll bet he's worse. It's disgraceful, the way these lawyers are allowed to steal."
"This is a matter, I think, which will interest Mr. Boscombe," said the police officer...
At half-past two Dennis was still sitting at his desk. He picked up the revolver again, looked at it for a long time, then dropped it into a drawer of the desk. The old agony was to begin anew: the suspicion attaching to the name of Horll & Son was solidified into a grisly fact. He could hear them saying, "Like father, like son." The Law Society would hold an inquiry, of course, and he would be struck off.
He pulled open the center drawer, brought an envelope into view, and brought out the half-hoop of diamonds. The cruel little letter Norah had sent he had destroyed. He gazed, fascinated, at the jewel....
He heard the knock on the outer door, looked up; the hands of the clock were pointing to a quarter after three. It was the police... Boscombe again.
He went slowly down the stairs, stopping to switch on the light, and opened the front door. Standing, a shadowy figure in the fog, was a girl. For a moment he could not believe the evidence of his senses.
"May I come in?" Her voice was little above a whisper.
He opened the door wider. Norah went swiftly past him up the stairs. She had disappeared before he reached the first landing. He found her standing by the dead fire, white-faced, hollow-eyed. "I'm sorry, Denny." Her voice was husky and low. "Will you forgive me?" Her hands closed on his, and their iciness shocked him to wakefulness.
"For God's sake, what are you doing out at this time of night Have you heard—"
She nodded. "Rex told me. He came home two hours ago. and, Denny, he was terribly—drunk! He was so boastful and weak that I couldn't even be sorry for him. And then he told me that the man he went to pay the money to wasn't there, and he gambled and won thousands. Denny, you've got to forgive him."
Her numb fingers fumbled at the catch of her bag; she opened it, and took out a large packet of American bills. She laid them on the table.
"He didn't touch a penny. He came in when you were out and took the money from the safe, and put a packet of writing-paper in its place. He knew where you kept your duplicate keys. It was horrible... beastly of him. And everything happened last night, Denny. Poor Uncle Lewis died."
Dennis took up the notes like a man in a dream.
"They are all there: I counted them—a hundred and ten thousand. You've got to forgive him, Denny: he's a weakling."
"We are all weaklings," said Dennis Horll slowly; and his mind went to the last long letter he had written to her, the letter that had taken so long to compose and which was an agony to put on paper, and absent-mindedly his hand touched the drawer where lay the revolver with which he had planned a swift end to all his troubles.
There were compensations other than the palpitating girl he held in his arms. The mental picture of the notorious Darkey cursing over a packet of valueless letter-heads was one of them.
ONCE upon a time, in the far-away days of war, there was a mythical or semi-mythical individuality whom the British Tommies named "Quiff." He was credited with a prescience which was quite inhuman. He knew when the divisions were mustering for attack; he warned commanders of impending raids; at his word battalion chiefs were superseded... for he had an uncanny instinct for weakness. He was the guardian angel of five hundred miles of trench line, and was visualized as a white-bearded gentleman, with a halo. When the enemy put a price on his head of 50,000 marks (in those days marks were real money), thus proving his tangibility, the line was immensely startled.
Nigel Porter was sitting in the shade of his porch one warm day in early December, reading a Vancouver newspaper. It was the anniversary of a battle in which the Canadians had been heavily engaged, and the writer of the reminiscences which he was reading recalled the fact that "Quiff" had warned the British higher command of the coming attack. This interested Nigel considerably. Later he saw a brief reference to himself, and the mention of his having been blown up by a land mine.... The paper dropped from his hands, and he jumped with an exclamation. He picked the paper up and looked at the date. Then he went into his house—too big for a well-to-do bachelor—and began routing out cablegrams. In four days he was speeding eastward with two suit-cases and a sense of guilt.
If anybody had asked him why he was taking that cold and very comfortless journey, he would have been ashamed to say. A man who owns farmlands in British Columbia views the barrier of the Rockies, which keeps in check the shrivelling winds that roar down from the frozen north, with the same satisfaction that a man, snuggled by a log fire, a pipe between his teeth and a book on his knee, might regard the frosted windows and the stout walls of the house that keeps from him the howling gale without.
And here he was, a lover of comfort, and a man who grudged every second of the cold months that took him from sight of the Pacific and smell of cedar pine, tossing and pitching in the gray, wintry seas of the Atlantic, in the teeth of a nor'westerly gale. The ship was not a large one, the accommodation was fairly poor, his fellow-passengers... but there was a Compensation.
The Compensation was amazing in many respects, for Nigel was not a woman's man, and was almost, if not wholly, unromantic. If you forgot the extraordinary mission which was bringing him across the December sea, you might have said that romance had no place in his equipment. The Compensation came aboard at New York, and their eyes met for the fraction of a second before she stumbled upon the slippery deck (it had been snowing) and was caught in his strong arms. There was a murmured apology, an embarrassed second of incoherence on his part, and then she had vanished. He did not see her till the second day out, and then, literally, he fell against her. He was on his way to the smoke-room, a journey which involved alternate climbing and sliding along the rubber-tiled alleyways, as bow and stern of the Beranic went up and down like delicately poised scales. Again she was in his arms for just as long a time as it might take to count three, quickly.
On the fifth day he found her on deck, stretched in a chair, inadequately covered by a rug. A little self-consciously, he arranged the covering without invitation and they talked.
Her name was Elsie Steyne, and she was traveling alone. She gave no explanation, such as fellow-passengers in the first moments of their confidence give to one another, for her solitary journey. When, after another day's acquaintance, he offered her the opportunity of telling him why she was coming to Europe in Christmas week, she hesitated.
"...It is a queer season for holiday-making in Europe," she confessed, after a long and thoughtful pause, and then immediately; "but I am going to see my brother. He went over last week; it was arranged that I should spend Christmas with my mother in Ohio. But somehow... I am a little worried about him. And you, Mr. Porter? I suppose you are traveling on business?"
Nigel's blue eyes twinkled for a second.
"No, not exactly," he said, and she looked up at him in surprise.
"The fact is," he said humorously, "I have a tryst with a ghost!"
To Nigel's astonishment he saw the color fade from her face. She struggled up into a sitting position and stared at him.
"A tryst with a ghost?" she repeated, and her voice shook.
For a moment he was dumbfounded by the effect that his words had produced on the girl, and he cursed himself for his grim jest. Probably she was nervous; there were people in the world in whom the word "ghost" produced a shiver.
"I am very sorry, Miss Steyne," he said apologetically. "I am afraid I startled you."
Her eyes did not leave his.
"What do you mean?" she asked huskily. "A tryst with a ghost? Where did you hear..."
She stopped suddenly and, seeing the quick rise and fall of her breast, the pallor of her face, the queer, hunted look in her blue eyes, Nigel Porter became almost incoherent in his efforts to undo the mischief which his ill-timed remark had produced.
"The fact is," he began, and then, realizing how fantastical and absurd the explanation that he was on the point of making would sound, he laughed. "It was a startling thing to say, wasn't it? I am afraid I have a latent streak of melodrama in my composition. Won't you please forgive me?"
She settled back in her chair, and for a while she gazed blankly out over the tumbling gray seas.
"It was stupid of me," she said, "but my nerves aren't in very good order. Would you ask the steward to bring a cup of tea?"
No further reference to his unfortunate faux pas was made. He saw her the next morning, when the ship was rolling through the English Channel and Devonshire was a gray blur on the northern horizon; and she was apparently so absorbed in the book she was reading that she only gave him a nod before she returned to a steadfast scrutiny of the printed page.
The morning on which they reached Cherbourg, Nigel made an unpleasant discovery. He had been out of his cabin all the morning, walking the deck, in the hope of seeing the girl. She did not put in an appearance, however, and he went down to his cabin to prepare for lunch, with an unsatisfactory feeling that the morning had been wasted. It was then that he had his shock. Somebody had been in his cabin. A trunk which was under the bed had been pulled out, and a brief examination of its contents told him that it had been subjected to a hurried but thorough search. His passport, which he kept with other confidential papers under his pillow, was lying open on the bed. He rang the bell, and presently the steward came.
"No, sir," said the man in surprise, "I've seen nobody in your cabin. I've been on this deck all morning. Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure," said Nigel irritably. "Look at this trunk. And that—I haven't opened that passport since I left New York."
The steward looked round inadequately.
"There's nobody been in your cabin, sir, as far as I know," he said. "Of course, I haven't been watching it all the time, because I've been in the other cabins, tidying up."
"Have you seen any of the passengers near the cabin?"
"No, sir—yes, I have," he corrected himself. "I saw that young lady in 87, Miss Steyne. She came down this alleyway by mistake. Her cabin is two alleyways farther along."
Nigel scratched his chin in perplexity. "Of course, it couldn't have been Miss Steyne," he said, and the steward, who was happy to agree that it could not have been anybody at all, nodded.
"It has been a clean trip," he said. "There are none of the gangs on board that usually work the line, and yours is the first complaint we've had—would you like me to report this to the purser?"
Nigel shook his head.
"It doesn't matter," he said.
When the steward had gone, he made a search of his belongings to find if anything had been stolen; but although the intruder had evidently made a systematic search of his cabin, nothing was missing. With his passport had been a letter of credit, and this apparently had not been taken from its envelope. He was a fool, anyway, to leave important papers lying around, he thought, and congratulated himself that he had not suffered any important loss.
For some reason he could not escape the conviction that the search of his cabin had been conducted with no other object than the examination of his passport. The intruder had been searching for a document. What that document was, Nigel could not guess, though he racked his brains for some plausible explanation.
He saw the girl on the tender at Cherbourg, and to his surprise she was not only friendly but communicative.
"I am going to Paris," she said. "You are going too, of course? Where are you staying?"
"I am not going to Paris," said Nigel, with a little smile.
Again that look of suspicion and doubt appeared in her eyes, but she made no further inquiries. He saw her through the Customs, and then made his way in a crazy taxi-cab to the town, where, if his cabled instructions had been carried out, the car would be waiting. He found it—an ancient French machine, but suitable for his purpose. His temptation was to stay the night in Cherbourg, but the time at his disposal was short. He had landed at the French port on the 24th, and he had less than twenty-four hours to reach his destination.
As the car bumped and jolted along the pavé road that makes at long last for Calais, he could only wonder at himself. It did not seem real, and yet it was true that, a little more than a fortnight ago, he had been sitting in the sunlight of British Columbia, when there had come to him, in the nature of a shock, the realization that he was fast approaching the Christmas of 1921. Once he remembered the date, there was no other course for him to follow, being the man he was. He did not regret his lost comfort; he did not feel sorry for himself; he did not even regret that he was in a car of uncertain age, rattling through a driving blizzard that obscured all view, that made the pavé so slippery that the car skidded every five minutes. And even when, tired and hungry, with the dawn just showing in a gray sky, he came into the station square at Ypres, he did not regard his adventure as being outside the limitations of common sense.
Ypres was changed, he noticed silently. Handsome red villas were going up in all directions. The Cloth Hall still pointed its maimed tower to the sky, and here and there, half covered with snow, he recognized a gaunt shell of a house that had been as familiar to him in those painful days of war as the Eros in Piccadilly Circus, or the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
Early as was the hour, there were workers abroad. A goods train was shunting noisily in a station which had been shelled out of existence in his days. Facing the station was a brand-new hotel, and he got down, gave an instruction to the weary-eyed French driver, and carried his bag into the dimly lit hallway. A sleepy man was sweeping the floor.
"Yes, monsieur, Major Burns is here, but he is leaving by the early train for England. He has twice been down to look for you. I will tell him you have come."
Nigel made his way to the big, bare dining-room, redolent of new paint, and lighted by one yellow carbon lamp. A table had been laid near the window for two. This he noted with satisfaction. Burns had evidently received his cable and the wire he had sent from Cherbourg.
There was a quick step in the hall, and the Major, wearing his long military overcoat and (as usual) his cap perched rakishly on the side of his head, hurried in and offered a gloved hand.
"I've been over to the station to fix my trunks. I'm going on a month's leave," he said. "So you've come back to the salient? They all do. Had some fellows here last week who knew you. We were talking of old 'Quiff.' Do you remember him? Wonder what happened to the old devil... never heard about him—hasn't even written a book! Do you remember that night when he tipped us off about the gas attack...?"
The Major rattled on reminiscently. He was a red-faced man, with a bright, twinkling eye, and he was obviously amused. Men who are amused at seven o'clock on a raw, wintry morning, amidst the sorrowful shades of Ypres, may be written down as possessing a strong sense of humor.
"I suppose you think I'm mad?" asked Nigel, when the other stopped.
Major Burns pursed his lips.
"I don't think so," he said at last. "No, I really don't think so. I suppose that, having lived in the midst of so much madness these past years, one takes a generous view of human sanity. 'Joseph'"—he beckoned the waiter—"'coffee.' I can give you half an hour," he said to his vis-à-vis. "And by the way, here is the plan so far as I can reconstruct it from the old operation plans of 1917."
He lugged out from his inside pocket a thin sheet of paper and spread it on the table.
"There's Kelners Farm, there's Dead Horse Lane, and that's Windy Corner. You'll recognize Windy Corner; it's one of the few bits of the old battlefield that have been left. I had to get this, by the way, from the Belgians, because it was on their front, I think, that this happened. I must tell you that Houthulst Forest has entirely disappeared; you won't find any trace of it, except a few straggling trees... it's a perfect beast of a place, Nigel."
Nigel was examining the plan, and now looked up as he folded the paper.
"Do you think I'm mad?" he said again.
"I don't, probably because my knowledge of the circumstances is more or less shaky. If I had a larger understanding of what occurred, perhaps I would be less charitable. I only know that you cabled me from British Columbia that you wanted me to discover the exact place where you had been blown up, because you wished to spend Christmas Day in the hole. Which reminds me that I had a Belgian officer in here yesterday—Colonel de Villiers—who said that the mine craters still exist."
Again Nigel nodded.
"It was lucky your being here. Luckier still that I remembered you were here, Burns," he said, and then: "I'll tell you the story. It happened on Christmas Eve of 1917. As a matter of fact, it happened on the twenty-third of December. I was attached to the French corps that was holding the southeastern edge of Houthulst Forest. I was working in connection with the Canadian Intelligence, and my instructions were to go over to discover the exact composition of the force that was holding the Belgian front. The G.O.C. wasn't at all satisfied with the intelligence he got from the Belgian staff, who were supposed to be au fait with these particulars, and of course the French had only recently come up, and were not in a position to give any accurate information."
He paused and looked out of the window, and it came to him sadly that this was not the Ypres he knew, that smouldering furnace of a town, bombarded daily, hourly, every minute; rocked and shaken by high explosive shells, a town that rumbled and thundered night and day, year in and year out; a gray, dusty town, where long files of men crept cautiously under such walls as existed, on their way to the muddy inferno which lay along the ridges of the north. Sadly, for he was thinking of all the brave hearts that were stilled and the bright, boyish faces that had gone and were no more seen.
"The curious thing was that, at the identical moment I went over into No Man's Land, a young German officer was sent to discover the exact composition of the French force that was holding this sector. We met half-way. To be exact, I stumbled over wire in the dark and slid down the edge of the crater—"
"Crater No. 17," murmured Major Burns. "The hole is about twenty metres away."
The other nodded.
"I was on the Hun before he knew what had happened. We both pulled our guns, and by the most extraordinary coincidence we both missed fire. It looked like being a real caveman's scrap, when the German chuckled and threw down his pistol.
"'I think, my friend,' he said, 'we had better both go home again. It would be stupid for us to batter one another with our fists, for that would probably mean that we should both be killed in attempting to get back to our lines in a condition of exhaustion.'
"The logic of it struck me, and we just sat down and talked. We not only talked, but we exchanged confidences of a highly compromising character. He told me that the 18th Bavarian Division was on our front, and I responded politely with the information that the 43rd French Division was on his front. He didn't seem as interested as he might have been. He produced a packet of sandwiches, I had a flask of whisky, and we sat and talked, until—
"'It will be daylight soon,' he said. 'I think we'd better go home.'
"So we shook hands, and we were half-way up the crumbling slope of the crater, when there broke out the most infernal fire that I had ever heard before or since. The air seemed to be so thick with traveling bullets and shells that you couldn't have put up a fishing-line without getting it cut in three places simultaneously!
"'I think we'd better wait,' shouted the German.
"So we retired again to the shell-hole, and prayed fervently—at least I did—that 'shorts' on either side would be few, and in other directions than ours. Dawn broke, and the fury of the fire did not abate. And then I found myself talking about things I never thought I would ever discuss with a German. He didn't tell me a great deal about himself, except that he was an officer in a Bavarian regiment. His English was perfect. I could have sworn, when I first saw him, that he was an American. Well, to cut a long story short, there we sat throughout the day. Christmas Eve came, and there was no slackening of the fire. Every gun, big and little, on both sides was in action, and we spent the night counting Verey lights and speculating upon what was the cause of this unseemly disturbance. Christmas Day came, but still there was practically no reduction of fire. I afterwards discovered that this was the preliminary bombardment to an attack which the French commander had planned, and which he hoped would bring the Forest into his hands. Poor soul! He never lived to know what a hell-trap that forest was! Later in the morning the fire seemed to die down just a little, and I crawled to the edge of the shell-hole to take observation. What happened I don't know. I woke up to find my head on the German's knee, and he was draining the last dregs of my whisky flask down my throat. My head was wet and aching, my eyes seemed to be filled with sand.
"'Shell fragment,' he said. 'I don't think you're badly hurt. I have two sandwiches and half a bottle of water left. We look like having a peach of a Christmas Day.'"
"What was his name—did you find that out?" asked Burns curiously.
"Karl—that was all he told me," replied Nigel. "That fellow was some prophet! I think both sides must have brought up all their reserves of artillery and trebled their stock of machine-guns. It was when I realized that we had had no 'Quiff' message from G.H.Q. that I knew the initiative was on our side. It was toward the evening that Karl said:
"'If we get through this, my friend, I should like to have a little dinner with you somewhere.'
"'When and where?' I asked.
"He thought a long time before he answered.
"'Maybe we shan't get through,' he said. 'But I'll tell you what I will do. If I am alive in four years' time, I will come and meet you here; and if you're not here, well, I'll keep a tryst with your ghost.'"
"Why four years?" asked Burns.
"He thought the war would last another three. He made it four to give us a chance of getting a peace. Of course, it was lunatic, it was childish, it was anything you like to call it, but there and then we made our agreement. It was the sort of thing that schoolgirls do, and... anyway, there's something peculiarly simple and infantile about the full-grown soldier.
"It was eleven o'clock that night that the French fired the mine. My own impression was that it was just underneath where I was sitting, but my recollections of the circumstances are necessarily hazy. I just remember saying to Karl that I had a passion for marrons glacés, when I felt somebody slapping my face, and looked up into the eyes of an English surgeon who was in his shirt-sleeves. I just remember hearing him say 'He's all right,' and then I sort of dozed myself out of Belgium and woke up in an English hospital. The body of Karl was found and buried on the very edge of the crater. We took the ground and lost it, took it again and lost it again, but I know he was found, because the officer who picked me up after the mine was exploded was in the next bed to me in hospital, and he told me all about it, how they found this poor chap quite dead and buried him."
"Hum!" said Major Burns, gulping down his coffee. "I think you're a fool, but it's the sort of fool thing I should have done myself."
He scrutinized the lowering skies through the window.
"You're going to have a cold Christmas Day, my lad," he said.
"I never expected any other."
Just before noon Nigel came out of the hotel with a basket, a bottle of wine, and a box of cigars, which he stowed away in one of the car's pockets. He himself went to the wheel, and in a few minutes was passing slowly westward. The car sped down a perfectly gravelled road, and passed cemetery upon cemetery crowded with white crosses, whiter for the rim of snow which lay upon their edges, and presently, turning abruptly from the main road, he came almost instantly into a region of desolation. The new red buildings were behind him. The road was no longer a road, it was a succession of deep holes and ruts. Sharp-cornered paving-blocks jagged up from the sodden earth, stark walls that had once been houses loomed through the sleet on either side. Broken and jagged barbed wire, red with rust, trailed its tangled lengths by the roadside, and here and there he saw the drunken outlines of block-houses where men had lived horribly and had died in fear. Presently the car was lurching between flat heaps of rubble that the rains of the years had washed and pounded into little unrecognizable plateaux. A village had been here once. Rotting weeds showed where love and life had been, and holes gaped in the roadway before a medley of black, wrought-iron crosses which marked a graveyard that had been set around a church. There was no church.
These sights were too familiar to sadden him, though now it seemed, in the years of peace, that the ugliness of war was emphasized more strongly. He came at last, by the aid of his map, and after constant backings and changing of direction, and guided at the very last by a miserable-looking man who lived with his family in a deserted dug-out, to the edge of what was once a forest but was now nothing. For all that was left of the trees were blackened stumps and dead white stems that stood starkly against the cold sky.
He stopped his car, got out and took his bearings, and instinctively he went straight to the place he sought. The hole was deep: it was half filled with yellow water. To the right was a smaller hole, also water-logged, and he smiled faintly, contrasting the calm of that winter day with no other sound in his ear but the sough and sigh of the wind that swept down from the dunes, and the tawny sea beyond, with the deafening fury of the storm that swept this spot four years before. There was the grave: he saw it at once, a small black cross above a slab of concrete that the Government had laid down to prevent farmers ploughing ground hallowed by sacrifice.
Bending down, he read: "Allemand." Karl was "Allemand." In small letters was the word "officer." It was not usual to distinguish the rank of the dead. That was all. It stood for life and humor and courage, and God knows what hope. It stood also for an enemy, but that was incidental and meant nothing to Nigel Porter, sitting there on the edge of the crater, with his fur collar pulled up about his ears.
His eyes roved around the starved landscape. It was such a foul setting for the rare jewel of a soul.
"Well, my friend," he said—his tone was one of heavy jocularity; insensibly he had recalled, and was reproducing, the very tone of the man whom he apostrophised—"here am I, after four years! I owe you an apology, because I nearly forgot my promise. If I hadn't read in a Vancouver newspaper some highly flattering references to my services during the war, I should certainly have broken my promise."
There was such quiet dignity in that black cross, such serenity in the truncated pyramid of concrete that marked the abiding-place of this "Allemand, officer," that his voice died down. The dead are so immensely superior to the living that he felt abashed.
He sat for a long time, his gloved hands crossed on his knees, his head bent forward in thought, and then he got up with a sigh and dusted his coat.
"Well—" he began, and his jaw dropped.
Standing on the farther rim of the crater was a tall figure, draped from neck to feet in a long, dark cloak. It was bareheaded, and the wind had blown a lock of fair hair across the forehead of the man. Nigel stared open-mouthed, speechless, and then:
"Karl!" he croaked.
The voiceless figure stirred.
"Thank God! I thought you were a ghost."
In a dozen strides Nigel had flown round the edge of the crater and gripped the outstretched hand.
"What are you doing here!" he asked huskily.... "Stupid question to ask, but you are—"
The other laughed.
"I'm keeping a tryst with a ghost," he said, with a twinkle in his eyes. "You see, I thought you were... dead. When our people took the ground they found a grave here."
Suddenly he gripped the other by the arm.
"Let's get out of this beastliness," he said. "My God! How hideous war is!"
They had nearly reached the sunken road where the stranger's car was waiting, when Nigel remembered that he had some responsibility in the matter of transportation.
"You can go back for it. I want to introduce you to my sister. By the way, my name is Steyne."
And there Nigel found the girl.
It was after dinner in the barrack-like dining-room of the Hotel d'Ypres that Nigel Porter heard and understood.
"No, I'm not a German," said Mr. Charles Steyne, pulling gently at his cigar, "I am an American. I was in the war from the very first month."
"On the German side?"
"Oh yes, I was on the German side. That is to say, I wore the German uniform and served in the German Intelligence Department. There were five of us originally, and we were employed by the most effective secret service that the world has ever known. I speak respectfully of Great Britain. Of the five only one is left alive. Taylor was shot in Hanover after being tried by court-martial for running the secret wireless by which the British were informed of the movement of German ships. Jack Holtz suffered a like fate on the Russian frontier, when he was trying to get through to the Russian headquarters the news of the German concentration—he owed his death to the treachery of the Russian General Staff, by the way; and Micky Thomas was killed by a night watchman at the German Foreign Office after he had got away with some very important documents which were necessary to your Whitehall. Long Bill Fenner was accidentally killed by an aeroplane bomb dropped by an American airman. And I was almost, but not quite, destroyed by the explosion of a mine.... Well, you know that story. If Elsie had only told me that she had met you on the ship, and had given me a hint about your keeping a tryst with ghosts—a phrase of mine, by the way, which, coming from you, so startled her that she nearly jumped out of her skin—"
Nigel was looking at the girl, and under his eyes the color came to her face, for she had anticipated the question which was coming.
"Why did you want to see my passport, Miss Steyne?" he asked.
"I think I can answer that," replied Charles Steyne. "My sister doesn't realize that war ever ends, and that the price the Germans put on the head of their pet enemy is no longer offered. She pictured you a member of the Government, tracking down the shy and elusive Quiff—"
"Quiff!" gasped Nigel. "Then you were—?"
The other nodded.
"I was on my way to the French lines to tell the General not to attack. If I had told you I was 'Quiff' you would not have believed me."
"Phew!" Nigel sat back in his chair and stared at the girl, but she averted her eyes.
"I'm glad... you're not exactly German," he said, a little gauchely. "I don't believe in mixed marriages.... I mean...."
The ghost smiled wisely.
AT Carolina, in the Transvaal, was a store kept by a man named Lioski, who was a Polish Jew. There was an officers' clubhouse, the steward of which was a Greek sportsman named Poropulos, and this story is about these two men, and about an officer of Hampton's Scouts who took too much wine and saw a pair of boots.
I have an intense admiration for George Poropulos, and I revere his memory. I admire him for his nerve; though, for the matter of that, his nerve was no greater than mine.
Long before the war came, when the negotiations between Great Britain and the Transvaal Government were in the diplomatic stage, I drifted to Carolina from the Rand, leaving behind me in the golden city much of ambition, hope, and all the money I had brought with me from England. I came to South Africa with a young wife and £370—within a few shillings—because the doctors told me the only chance I had was in such a hot, dry climate as the highlands of Africa afforded. For my own part, there was a greater attraction in the possibility of turning those few hundreds of mine into thousands, for Johannesburg was in the delirium of a boom.
I left Johannesburg nearly penniless. I could not, at the moment, explain the reason of my failure, for the boom continued, and I had the advantage of the expert advice of Arthur Lioski, who was staying at the same boarding house as myself.
There were malicious people who warned me against Lioski. His own compatriots, sharp men of business, told me to 'ware Lioski, but I ignored the advice because I was very confident in my own judgment, and Lioski was a plausible, handsome man, a little flashy in appearance, but decidedly a beautiful animal.
He was in Johannesburg on a holiday, he said. He had stores in various parts of the country where he sold everything from broomsticks to farm wagons, and he bore the evidence of his prosperity.
He took us to the theater, or rather he took Lillian, for I was too seedy to go out much. I did not grudge Lillian the pleasure. Life was very dull for a young girl whose middle-aged husband had a spot on his lung, and Lioski was so kind and gentlemanly, so far as Lil was concerned, that the only feeling I had in the matter was one of gratitude.
He was tall and dark, broad-shouldered, with a set to his figure and a swing of carriage that excited my admiration. He was possessed of enormous physical strength, and I have seen him take two quarreling Kaffirs—men of no ordinary muscularity—and knock their heads together.
He had an easy, ready laugh, a fund of stories, some a little coarse, I thought, and a florid gallantry which must have been attractive to women. Lil always brightened up wonderfully after an evening with him.
His knowledge of mines and mining propositions was bewildering. I left all my investments in his hands, and it proves something of my trust in him, that when, day by day, he came to me for money, to "carry over" stock—whatever that means—I paid without hesitation. Not only did I lose every penny I possessed, but I found myself in debt to him to the extent of a hundred pounds.
Poor Lil! I broke the news to her of my ruin, and she took it badly; reproached, stormed, and wept in turn, but quieted down when I told her that in the kindness of his heart, Lioski had offered me a berth at his Carolina store. I was to get a £16 a month, half of which was to be paid in stores at wholesale prices and the other half in cash. I was to live rent free in a little house near the store. I was delighted with the offer. It was an immediate rise, though I foresaw that the conditions of life would be much harder than the life to which I had been accustomed in England. We traveled down the Delagoa line to Middleburg, and found a Cape cart waiting to carry us across the twenty miles of rolling veldt. The first six months in Carolina were the happiest I have ever spent. The work in the store was not particularly arduous. I found that it had the reputation of being one of the best-equipped stores in the Eastern Transvaal, and certainly we did a huge business for so small a place. It was not on the town we depended, but upon the surrounding country. Lioski did not come back with us, but after we had been installed for a week he came and took his residence in the store.
All went well for six months. He taught Lil to ride and drive, and every morning they went cantering over the veldt together. Me he treated more like a brother than an employee, and I found myself hotly resenting the uncharitable things that were said about him, for Carolina, like other small African towns, was a hotbed of gossip.
Lil was happy for that six months, and then I began to detect a change in her attitude toward me. She was snappy, easily offended, insisted upon having her own room—to which I agreed, for, although my chest was better, I still had an annoying cough at night which might have been a trial to anybody within hearing.
It was about this time that I met Poropulos. He came into the store on a hot day in January, a little man of forty-five or thereabouts. He was unusually pale, and had a straggling, weedy beard. His hair was long, his clothes were old and stained, and so much of his shirt as was revealed at his throat was sadly in need of laundering.
Yet he was cheerful and debonair—and singularly flippant. He stalked in the store, looked around critically, nodded to me, and smiled. Then he brought his sjambok down on the counter with a smack.
"Where's Shylock?" he asked easily.
I am afraid that I was irritated.
"Do you mean Mr. Lioski?"
"Shylock, I said," he repeated. "Shylockstein, the Lothario of Carolina." He smacked the counter again, still smiling.
I was saved the trouble of replying, for at that moment Lioski entered. He stopped dead and frowned when he saw the Greek.
"What do you want, you little beast," he asked harshly.
For answer, the man leaned up against the counter, ran his fingers through his straggling beard, and cocked his head.
"I want justice," he said unctuously—"the restoration of money stolen. I want to send a wreath to your funeral: I want to write your biography—?"
"Clear out," shouted Lioski. His face was purple with anger, and he brought his huge fist down upon the counter with a crash that shook the wooden building.
He might have been uttering the most pleasant of compliments, for all the notice the Greek took.
Crash! went Lioski's fist on the counter.
Smash! came Poropulos's sjambok, and there was something mocking and derisive in his action that made Lioski mad.
With one spring he was over the counter, a stride and he had his hand on the Greek's collar—and then he stepped back quickly with every drop of blood gone from his face, for the Greek's knife had flashed under his eyes. I thought Lioski was stabbed, but it was fear that made him white.
The Greek rested the point of the knife on the counter and twiddled it round absentmindedly, laying his palm on the hilt and spinning it with great rapidity.
"Nearly did it that time, my friend," he said, with a note of regret, "nearly did it that time—I shall be hanged for you yet."
Lioski was white and shaking.
"Come in here," he said in a low voice, and the little Greek followed him to the back parlor. They were together for about an hour; sometimes I could hear Mr. Lioski's voice raised angrily, sometimes Poropulos's little laugh. When they came out again the Greek was smiling still and smoking one of my employer's cigars.
"My last word to you," said Lioski huskily, "is this—keep your mouth closed and keep away from me."
"And my last word to you," said Poropulos, jauntily puffing at the cigar, "is this—turn honest, and enjoy a sensation."
He stepped forth from the store with the air of one who had gained a moral victory.
I never discovered what hold the Greek had over my master. I gatherered that at some time or another, Poropulos had lost money, and that he held Lioski responsible.
In some mysterious way Poropulos and I became friends. He was an adventurer of a type. He bought and sold indifferent mining propositions, took up contracts, and, I believe, was not above engaging in the Illicit Gold Buying business. His attitude to Lillian was one of complete adoration. When he was with her his eyes never left her face.
It was about this time that my great sorrow came to me. Lioski went away to Durban—to buy stock, he said—and a few days afterwards Lillian, who had become more and more exigent, demanded to be allowed to go to Cape Town for a change.
I shall remember that scene.
I was at breakfast in the store when she came in. She was white, I thought, but her pallor suited her, with her beautiful black hair and great dark eyes.
She came to the point without any preliminary. "I want to go away," she said.
I looked up in surprise.
"Go away, dear? Where?"
She was nervous. I could see that from the restless movement of her hands.
"I want to go to—to Cape Town—I know a girl there —I'm sick of this place—I hate it!"
She stamped her foot, and I thought that she was going to break into a fit of weeping. Her lips trembled, and for a time she could not control her voice.
"I am going to be ill if you don't let me go," she said at last. "I can feel—?"
"But the money, dear," I said, for it was distressing to me that I could not help her toward the holiday she wanted.
"I can find the money," she said, in an unsteady voice. "I have got a few pounds saved—the allowance you gave me for my clothes—I didn't spend it all—let me go, Charles—please, please!"
I drove her to the station, and took her ticket for Pretoria. I would have taken her to the capital, but I had the store to attend to.
"By the way, what will your address be?" I asked just as the train was moving off.
She was leaning over the gate of the car platform, looking at me strangely.
"I will wire it—I have it in my bag," she called out, and I watched the tail of the train round the curve, with an aching heart. There was something wrong; what it was I could not understand. Perhaps I was a fool. I think I was.
I think I have said that I had made friends with Poropulos. Perhaps it would be more truthful to say that he made friends with me, for he had to break down my feeling of distrust and disapproval. Then, again, I was not certain how Mr. Lioski would regard such a friendship, but, to my surprise, he took very little notice of it or, for the matter of that, of me.
Poropulos came into the store the night my wife left. Business was slack; there was war in the air, rumors of ultimatums had been persistent, and the Dutch farmers had avoided the store.
A week passed, and I began to worry, for I had not heard from Lil. I had had a letter from Lioski, telling me that in view of the unsettled condition of the country he was extending his stay in Durban for a fortnight. The letter gave me the fullest instructions as to what I was to do in case war broke out, but, unfortunately, I had no opportunity of putting them into practice.
The very day I received the letter, a Boer commando rode into Carolina, and at the head of it rode the Landrost Peter du Huis, a pleasant man, whom I knew slightly. He came straight to the store, dismounted, and entered.
"Good morning, Mr. Gray," he said. "I fear that I come on unpleasant business."
"What is that?" I asked.
"I have come to commandeer your stock in the name of the Republic," he said, "and to give you the tip to clear out."
It does not sound possible, but it is nevertheless a fact that in two hours I had left Carolina, leaving Lioski's store in the hands of the Boers, and bringing with me receipts signed by the Landrost for the goods he had commandeered. In four hours I was in a cattle truck with a dozen other refugees on my way to Pretoria—for I had elected to go to Durban to inform Lioski at first hand of what had happened.
Of the journey down to the coast it is not necessary to speak. We were sixty hours en route; we were without food, and had little to drink. At Ladysmith I managed to get a loaf of bread and some milk; at Maritzburg I got my first decent meal. But I arrived in Durban, tired, dispirited, and hungry. Lioski was staying at the Royal, and as soon as I got to the station I hailed a ricksha to take me there.
There had been no chance of telegraphing. The wires were blocked with government messages. We had passed laden troop trains moving up to the frontier, and had cheered the quiet men in khaki who were going, all of them, to years of hardship and privation, many of them to death.
The vestibule of the Royal was crowded, but I made my way to the office.
"Lioski?" said the clerk. "Mr. and Mrs. Lioski, No. 84—you'll find your way to their sitting room."
I went slowly up the stairs, realizing in a flash the calamity.
I did not blame Lil; it was a hard life I had brought her to. I had been selfish, as sick men are selfish, inconsiderate.
They stood speechless, as I opened the door and entered. I closed the door behind me. Still they stood, Lil as pale as death, with terror and shame in her eyes, Lioski in a black rage.
"Well?" It was he who broke the silence.
He was defiant, shameless, and as I went on to talk about what had happened at the store, making no reference to what I had seen, his lips curled contemptuously.
But Lil, womanlike, rushed in with explanations. She had meant to go to Cape Town—the train service had been bad—she had decided to go to Durban—Mr. Lioski had been kind enough to book her a room——
I let her go on. When she had finished I handed my receipts to Lioski.
"That ends our acquaintance, I think."
"As you like," he replied with a shrug.
I turned to Lillian.
"Come, my dear," I said, but she made no move, and I saw Lioski smile again.
I lost all control over myself and leaped at him, but his big fist caught me before I could reach him, and I went down, half stunned. I was no match for him. I knew that, and if the blow did nothing else, it sobered me. I picked myself up. I was sick with misery and hate.
"Come, Lil," I said again.
She was looking at me, and I thought I saw a look of disgust in her face. I did not realize that I was bleeding, and that I must have been a most unpleasant figure. I only knew that she loathed me at that moment, and I turned on my heel and left them, my own wife and the big man who had broken me.
One forgets things in war time. I joined the Imperial Light Horse and went to the front. The doctor passed me as sound, so I suppose that all that is claimed for the climate of Africa is true.
We went into Ladysmith, and I survived the siege. I was promoted for bringing an officer out of action under fire. I earned a reputation for daring, which I did not deserve, because always I was courting swift death, and taking risks to that end.
Before Buller's force had pushed a way through the stubborn lines to our relief, I had received my commission. More wonderful to me, I found myself a perfectly healthy man, as hard as nails, as callous as the most-experienced soldier. Only, somewhere down in my heart, a little worm gnawed all the time; sleeping or waking, fighting or resting, I thought of Lillian, and wondered, wondered, wondered.
Ladysmith was relieved. We marched on toward Pretoria. I was transferred to Hampton's Horse with the rank of major, and for eighteen months I moved up and down the Eastern Transvaal chasing a will-o'-the-wisp of a commandant, who was embarrassing the blockhouse lines.
Then one day I came upon Poropulos.
We were encamped outside Standerton when he rode in on a sorry-looking Burnto pony. He had been in the country during the war, he said, buying and selling horses. He did not mention Lioski's name to me, and so studiously did he avoid referring to the man, that I saw at once that he knew.
It was brought home to me by his manner that he had a liking for me that I had never guessed. In what way I had earned his regard I cannot say, but it was evident he entertained a real affection for me.
We parted after an hour's chat—he was going back to Carolina. He had a scheme for opening an officers' club in that town, where there was always a large garrison, and to which the wandering columns came from time to time to be re-equipped.
As for me, I continued the weary chase of the flying commando. Trek, trek, trek, in fierce heat, in torrential downpour, over smooth veldt and broken hills, skirmishing, sniping, and now and then a sharp engagement, with a dozen casualties on either side.
Four months passed, and the column was ordered into Carolina for a refit. I went without qualms, though I knew she was there, and Lioski was there.
We got into Carolina in a thunderstorm, and the men were glad to reach a place that bore some semblance of civilization. My brother officers, after our long and profitless trek, were overjoyed at the prospect of a decent dinner—for Poropulos's club was already famous among the columns.
My horse picked up a stone and went dead lame, so I stayed behind to doctor him, and rode to Carolina two hours after the rest of the column had arrived.
It was raining heavily as I came over a fold of the hill that showed the straggling township. There was no human being in sight save a woman who stood by the roadside, waiting, and I knew instinctively, long before I reached her, that it was Lillian. I cantered toward her. Her face was turned in my direction, and she stood motionless as I drew rein and swung myself to the ground.
She was changed, not as I expected, for sorrow and suffering had etherealized her. Her big eyes burned in a face that was paler than ever, her lips, once so red and full, were almost white.
"I have been waiting for you," she said.
"Have you, dear? You are wet."
She shook her head impatiently. I slipped off my mackintosh and put it about her.
"He has turned me out," she said.
She did not cry. I think she had not recovered from the shock. Something stirred from the thin cloak she was wearing; a feeble cry was muffled by the wrapping.
"I have got a little girl," she said, "but she is dying." She began to cry silently, the tears running down her wet face in streams.
I took her into Carolina, and found a Dutchwoman who put her and the baby to bed, and gave her some coffee.
I went up to the officers' club just after sunset and met Poropulos coming down.
He was in a terrible rage, and was muttering to himself in some tongue I could not understand.
"Oh, here you are!"—he almost spat the words in his anger —"that dog Lioski—?"
He was about to say something, but checked himself. I think it was about Lillian that he intended to speak at first, but he changed the subject to another grievance. "I was brought before the magistrate and fined £100 for selling field-force tobacco. My club will be ruined —Lioski informed the police—by—?"
He was incoherent in his passion. I gather that he had been engaged in some shady business, and that Lioski had detected him. He almost danced before me in the rain.
"Shylock dies tonight," he said, and waved his enemy out of the world with one sweep of his hand. "He dies tonight—I am weary of him—for eighteen—nineteen years I have known him, and he's dirt right through—?"
He went out without another word. I stood on the slope of the hill watching him.
I dined at the club, and went straight back to the house where I had left my wife. She was sleeping—but the baby was dead. Poor little mortal! I owed it no grudge, but I was glad when they told me.
All the next day I sat by her bed listening to Lillian's mutterings, for she was very ill. I suffered all the tortures of a damned soul sitting there, for she spoke of Lioski—"Arthur" she called him—prayed to him for mercy—told him she loved him—
I was late for dinner at the club. There was a noisy crowd there. Young Harvey of my own regiment had had too much to drink, and I avoided his table.
My hand shook as I poured out a glass of wine, and somebody remarked on it.
I did not see Poropulos until the dinner was halfway through. Curiously enough, I looked at the clock as he came in, and the hands pointed to half past eight.
The Greek was steward of the club, and was serving the wine. He was calm, impassive, remarkably serene, I thought. He exchanged jokes with the officers who were grumbling that they had had to wait for the fulfillment of their orders.
"It was ten to eight when I ordered this," grumbled one man.
Then, suddenly, Harvey, who had been regarding Poropulos with drunken gravity, pointed downward.
"He's changed his boots," he said, and chuckled. Poropulos smiled amiably and went on serving. "He's changed his boots!" repeated Harvey, concentrating his mind upon trivialities as only a drunken man can. The men laughed. "Oh, dry up, Harvey!" said somebody.
He got no further. Through the door came a military policeman, splashed from head to foot with mud.
"District Commandant here, sir?" he demanded. "There's been a man murdered."
"Soldier?" asked a dozen voices.
"No, sir—storekeeper, name of Lioski—shot dead half an hour ago."
I do not propose to tell in detail all that happened following that. Two smart C.I.D. men came down from Johannesburg, made a few inquiries, and arrested Poropulos. He was expecting the arrest, and half an hour before the officers came he asked me to go to him.
I spent a quarter of an hour with him, and what we said is no man's business but ours. He told me something that startled me—he loved Lillian, too. I had never guessed it, but I did not doubt him. But it was finally for Lillian's sake that he made me swear an oath so dreadful that I cannot bring myself to write it down—an oath so unwholesome, and so against the grain of a man, that life after it could only be a matter of sickness and shame.
Then the police came and took him away.
Lioski had been shot dead in the store by some person who had walked in when the store was empty, at a time when there was nobody in the street. This person had shot the Jew dead and walked out again. The police theory was that Poropulos had gone straight from the club, in the very middle of dinner, had committed the murder, and returned to continue his serving, and the crowning evidence was the discovery that he had changed his boots between 7.30 and 8.30. The mud-stained boots were found in a cellar, and the chain of evidence was completed by the statement of a trooper who had seen the Greek walking from the direction of the store, at 8.10, with a revolver in his hand.
Poropulos was cheerful to the last—cheerful through the trial, through the days of waiting in the fort at Johannesburg.
"I confess nothing," he said to the Greek priest. "I hated Lioski, and I am glad that he is dead, that is all. It is true that I went down to kill him, but it was too late."
When they pinioned him he turned to me.
"I have left my money to you," he said. "There is about four thousand pounds. You will look after her."
"That is the only reason I am alive."
"Did you murder Arthur Lioski?" said the priest again.
"No," said Poropulos, and smiled as he went to his death. And what he said was true, as I know. I shot Lioski.
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