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Title: Collected Short Stories, Vol. II Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1300931h.html Language: English Date first posted: Mar 2013 Most recent update: Mar 2013 This eBook was produced by: Roy Glashan Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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APART from numerous novels, most of which are accessible on-line at Project Gutenberg Australia and Roy Glashan's Library, Fred M. White published some 300 short stories. Many of these were written in the form of series about the same character or group of characters. PGA/RGL has already published e-book editions of those series currently available in digital form.
The present 17-volume edition of e-books is the first attempt to offer the reader a more-or-less comprehensive collection of Fred M. White's other short stories. These were harvested from a wide range of Internet resources and have already been published individually at Project Gutenberg Australia, in many cases with digitally-enhanced illustrations from the original medium of publication.
From the bibliographic information preceding each story, the reader will notice that many of them were extracted from newspapers published in Australia and New Zealand. Credit for preparing e-texts of these and numerous other stories included in this collection goes to Lyn and Maurie Mulcahy, who contributed them to PGA in the course of a long and on-going collaboration.
The stories included in the present collection are presented chronologically according to the publication date of the medium from which they were extracted. Since the stories from Australia and New Zealand presumably made their first appearance in British or American periodicals, the order in which they are given here does not correspond to the actual order of first publication.
This collection contains some 170 stories, but a lot more of Fred M. White's short fiction was still unobtainable at the time of compilation (March 2013). Information about the "missing stories" is given in a bibliographic note at the end of this volume. Perhaps they can be included in supplemental volumes at a later date.
DICK OXENHAM had a fascinating subject and a pretty audience of one. Naturally, with every condition favourable to silken dalliance, there was but one crumpled leaf in the heart of the lotus-flower. If only Lady Logsdail were a little less fond of the scent of the tuberose.
The charming drawing-room was faint and sickly with the odour of it. And Oxenham was a healthy man who always slept with the windows open. Still, the inert fragrance troubled him less than usual this afternoon for reasons presently to be unfolded. He never appreciated the careful carelessness, the dainty harmony of Lady Logsdail's salon more than at this moment.
In some fluffy nocturne in black and orange Lily Logsdail sat listening. The dim light, filtered through silken blinds and feathery palms, glistened upon diamonds and almond eyes and amber hair belonging to the cleverest woman in London. With practically a pauper husband, Lily Logsdail had contrived to stem the tide of impecuniosity, to keep up Logsdail Waters and 99A, Hill Street, with never a tradesman with the shibboleth of "account rendered" to trouble her. How the thing had been and was done remained a mystery. But then Lady Logsdail passed for the cleverest woman in London.
"You don't know how you interest me, Dick," she murmured.
"Extraordinary thing, isn't it," said Oxenham. "And it's been going on for months. By some means or other, every dispatch from the Foreign Office to our Embassy at Emsdam gets tampered with. And that's why I have been chosen by the Chief to take over the next important communication."
"What do the thieves gain, Richard?"
"Oh, well. Fair play to them, they don't do much harm. It has something to do with speculation on the London and Berlin Exchanges. Look what happened last week. Nicholson had the Emsdam dispatches. He swears they were never out of his possession for a moment, and yet, before they were fairly delivered, our wily birds were operating with a full knowledge of the contents of those letters. Any amount of money has been spent to probe the mystery, but absolutely in vain. And it's a decided feather in my cap that the Chief has chosen me for the next venture."
"Your merits are voluminous," Lady Logsdail laughed; "but I fancy that a little word or two dropped by myself to Sir James Sawbridge had its weight. He promised me he would test your mettle the first opportunity."
Dick murmured his thanks. He was a little disturbed by the information. He stooped down and picked up a glittering bauble from the floor.
"You'll lose that wonderful Medici ring of yours some of these days," he said. "Why don't you have it made a little smaller? If I had a unique diamond like that, I fancy I should take more care of it. A historic gem, too."
Lady Logsdail carelessly replaced the priceless trifle.
"And so you are going to baffle these mysterious gentry," she said. "Of course everything you say to your affectionate cousin Lily is sacred. Several of the cleverest men in the Foreign Office have failed where you hope to succeed. Now how do you propose to run the gauntlet of your foes?"
"I thought of something cunningly simple," Dick said lazily."A sort of spoof, don't you know. There was once a long-headed fellow in a tale I read, who wanted to hide something, so placed the thing where everybody could see it."
Lady Logsdail clapped her hands gleefully.
"The very thing," she cried. "I know the story you mean. It was written by Edgar Poe, and called 'The Purloined Letter.' Take my advice, and just place those precious dispatches in your portmanteau — an old, battered portmanteau, mind, that looks as if it wasn't worth owning. You can carry your dispatch-box with you, and fuss over it pompously. You might even go so far as to let your portmanteau travel by the luggage van."
"Think so?" Dick asked dubiously.
"Why not? There's your cunningly simple plan to perfection. Don't forget that you are dealing with amazingly clever people—people who know your errand whilst they are as trees to you. They will look for cunning and complexity, and never suspect a dodge like this. It is like the Fools' Mate at chess. And you say that you are carrying something important?"
"Very important, I fancy. Something between England and Germany and the Transvaal. If this thing is good, what a haul it would be for our financial friends! But they are going to be done this time, Lily."
Lady Logsdail was emphatically of the same opinion. She suggested several little improvements upon the scheme, such as Oxenham's seal being placed on his portmanteau.
"In fact," she concluded; "I have the very thing for you—a battered old Gladstone with half the hotel-labels of Europe on it. I'll have your initials placed on it, and send it round to you. What day do you start?"
"Thursday week," Oxenham replied. "To-morrow I'm going down to Tom Saxton's place for a week. When I've seen my tailor in the morning I'm free."
Lady Logsdail was interested. A badly-dressed man was a painful thing to her, and considering his face and figure, Oxenham was dreadfully lax as regarded sartorial matters. Lady Logsdail was emphatic that Dick wanted this and that and the other, and as the accredited agent of Great Britain to Emsdam it was his duty to go suitably attired.
"All right," Oxenham said meekly, "I'll send round the patterns and you shall choose 'em. Thank goodness, Felton, of Bond Street never worries one about trying on. He takes your measure and there you are. What is it—a new dress suit, a frock suit, and something neat in tweeds to travel in. Anything else?"
But Lady Logsdail was satisfied. A scheme had been hit upon which was certain to baffle the conspirators and bring the shining young light of the Foreign Office to the front. Her ladyship glowed with the virtuous feeling that comes from the knowledge of good things done for others.
"This is the first step to fortune," she said. "I don't despair of seeing you an Ambassador yet. With your birth and advantages—"
"And poverty, my dear Lily. Ambassadors are never poor men."
"But you could marry money; you could have done so a dozen times over. Look at the heiresses I have introduced you to."
Dick rose and groped for his hat. This was a subject that usually ended in driving him hence into a cold and unfeeling world.
"I never wanted to look at them," he said.
"As a rule they were not the sort of thing the poet and the painter would rave about. So long as you belong to another, what are all the women in the world to me."
Oxenham passed into the outer air. The pretty salon had been a thought stuffy. And Oxenham hated scents of any kind. With olfactory nerves freshened by the breeze he caught the suggestion of tuberose on his clothes.
"Why does Lily do it?" he muttered, as he lighted a cigarette. "I shall smell that confounded stuff for the rest of the day now."
When the time came, Oxenham saw that Lady Logsdail's instructions were carried out to the letter. The battered old portmanteau forwarded for the occasion might have belonged to the veriest tramp that ever made his home at "The Travellers." No station thief, with a proper respect for himself, would ever touch such a thing.
The portmanteau had been packed ready for the journey by Oxenham's man. Down amongst the contents, Oxenham thrust the precious dispatches. He had only to add the new dress suit that he was at present wearing—for he had been dining out—and the bag could be locked. With his own hands, Oxenham turned the key and sealed the lock with his signet ring.
"It's a bit of a risky game that I am playing," he muttered. "I have engaged to get those dispatches through untouched, and if I succeed very good. If I carried them in the ordinary way and was forcibly robbed, nobody could blame me. But if I came to grief and it leaked out that I had shoved the confounded things into my portmanteau—why—"
The thought was not a pleasant one, and Oxenham did not care to dwell upon it. The thing was done now and he would have to go through with it. Nobody could by any chance know of the scheme, and in any case the dispatches were in cipher. That would certainly baffle the thieves, who hitherto had had to be content with a lightning peep at the documents which they had managed to steal, and read and return without the carrier being any the wiser.
Nobody knew but Lady Logsdail. And of course she was all right. Even as Oxenham thought of her, the bedroom became faint with the smell of tuberose. Oxenham jerked open his window angrily.
"Confound the stuff," he cried. "I wonder where it comes from? I haven't seen Lily for days. And the room reeks with the perfume. What an ass I am to be sure! The smell comes from that old portmanteau. I shall carry the flavour of this wretched tuberose with me to Emsdam."
Oxenham was up betimes in the morning. The dispatch-box, his dressing-bag, and the mournful elderly portmanteau were all ready. There was plenty of time, and after an early lunch Oxenham found himself with a good hour to spare before he was due at the station.
"I'll go round and see Lily." he told himself. "She may have thought of another dodge that might come in useful."
But he found Lily Logsdail in no mood to discuss dodges artful or otherwise. The fair lady with the almond eyes and amber hair was on the verge of tears, or as near tears as a woman who values her complexion ever gets.
"What's the matter?" Oxenham asked. "Anything wrong with Jim?"
Lily Logsdail waved the suggestion aside impatiently.
"Do you think that I should distress myself like this over a mere husband?" she demanded scornfully. " I have had a great misfortune, Richard. My Medici ring—"
"Lost it. I suppose. I always said you would."
"That is the tenth time I've heard the same expression this morning. People who say such things ought to be led to the stake. Don't stay and worry me, Dick, there's a good fellow. I've been distracted since yesterday afternoon."
"I'm very sorry," Oxtnham said sincerely.
"I expect the ring will turn up again. Can I do anything in Zerlinden to-morrow? I stop there at night and go on to Emsdam in the morning. I shall dine with Lewis Annandale."
A quick spasm of pain crossed Lady Logsdail's face. She looked quite old and withered in the morning light for a moment. And the glance which she threw at Oxenham would hardly have been called cousinly.
"Give him my kind regards," she said. "No, you can do nothing for me, Dick, except to find my ring. Good-bye."
Oxenham accepted his dismissal philosophically. Under the circumstances, a tender parting was hardly to be expected, and, so far as the unfeeling man was concerned, the incident of the loss of the ring was soon forgotten, or remembered complacently by one who had prophesied the misfortune. But ere long the matter was destined to come back to Oxenham with tragic force.
Not without some misgivings, he saw his aged derelict of a portmanteau placed in the luggage van. Oxenham was more or less uneasy till Dover was reached, but the portmanteau was intact at Dover, and was still intact what time it was safely landed on the Zerlinden express.
"I won't look at the thing any more." Oxenham muttered. "It is certainly not beautiful, and any anxiety about the wreck might cause attention. And now let me go to sleep and forget all about it."
Sleeping, reading, and eating passed the time away until in the gloom of the next afternoon the express glided into the great glazed arch of Zerlinden station. Oxenham tumbled out sleepily on to the platform. It seemed to his excited brain that more than one pair of eyes were regarding him steadily. For it was here that the Emsdam dispatches were supposed to be perused by second sight, or something equally occult. And there were eyes upon Oxenham, but they belonged to a trio of detectives who were especially told off to follow the messenger. But of this Oxenham naturally knew nothing.
There was the ancient portmanteau on the platform. Oxenham handed it over to the porter who carried his dressing-bag and hat-box. The dispatch-box Oxenham appeared to be clutching affectionately. Not so much as a chip of wax was missing from the battered portmanteau.
Oxenham smiled grimly as he drove off to his hotel. He had outwitted the thieves this time. By means of their diabolical ingenuity they might have got a sight of the dummy papers in the dispatch-box, and much good might it do them. The simple scheme had worked like a charm.
The portmanteau was absolutely intact; a smell of tuberose was getting quite familiar by this time. And the dispatches were safe. Oxenham took out and unfolded his dress clothes lying on top and locked the leather bag away in his wardrobe. He had never felt on better terms with himself in his life than he did at that-moment. But, strange to say, the faint sickliness of the tuberose was still quite noticeable. As he drove towards the Lindenstrasse where Lord Lewis Annandale resided, the cab seemed to be full of it. Annandale was a man who posed as being out of suits with fortune. At a moment's notice he had foresworn all the delights of his native land, and taken up his residence in gloomy Zerlinden. A love affair, a curious twist of the brain, a penance were various reasons assigned for the freak. As to the rest, Annandale was a fine man, with a good record, and an intellect which had rendered him famous had he been a poor man. He greeted Oxenham with effusion, for they were old friends, and Oxenham had more than an inkling of his friend's story. After the first hearty greeting, Annandale fell back with his head in the air. His face paled, and he seemed to breathe with difficulty.
"Faugh!" he gasped. "You are scented, and with tuberose too! If this is a jest, all I have to say is, it is a sorry one."
Oxenham regarded his friend's flashing eyes and white lips with astonishment. The most placid of men was quivering with anger.
"My dear fellow," Oxenham stammered. "Really—"
But Annandale was himself again. He seemed to be almost childishly ashamed of his weakness.
"I'll explain to you presently," he said. "Now come in to dinner."
It was an excellent dinner, daintily served and cooked. Annandale was a man of taste and refinement; the table left nothing to be desired in the way of attractiveness, save that there were no flowers.
"I still retain my dislike to flowers of all kinds," said Annandale, expansive over the post prandial coffee and cigarette, "and you have often rallied me on the subject. The scent of blooms I abhor, and the scent of the tuberose I hold in special detestation. Hence my foolish heat just now."
"It was quite an accident," Oxenham hastened to explain. "I can trust you, so I'll tell you whence comes the odour of the tuberose, and why it is connected with my journey to Zerlinden."
And Oxenham proceeded to tell the whole story, not forgetting a meed of praise to Lady Logsdail en passant. Annandale listened intently. There was a bitter smile on his thin, sensitive lips. It was a long time before he spoke.
"I hope you'll come out all right," he said, "but I doubt it."
"What do you mean by that?-" Oxenham asked.
"I am about to tell you. I daresay that, in common with most people, you wonder why I chose to exile myself from England. Not so very long ago I was a penniless man, but somwhat envied because I was presumedly the heir to my uncle, Russell Annandale.
"He meant to leave me all his money, but he had a rooted objection to parting with any of it in his lifetime. And once upon a time I got into a deuce of a hole for want of a hundred or two, so I had to make a clean breast of matters. My uncle was at his Cheshire place at the time, and he asked me to go down and see him. The house was full of people, and 1 arrived on the day the old man was giving a big dance. I saw him, and a most unpleasant scene followed. Disgrace or not, my uncle refused to assist me.
"I had my consolation, for at the dance I met a girl whom I loved and who loved me in return. I had never expected to come across her there. She had been invited to the dance with friends with whom she was staying. I forgot my troubles for the time being. It was about supper time that something very unpleasant happened. As you know, the Annandale jewels are famous. There was one diamond in a particularly quaint setting—a Medici ring they called it— worth any money. And during the evening it had been stolen. My uncle had been showing it to a friend and had somewhat carelessly placed it on the mantelpiece in the library. Shortly after he found the case empty.
"Well, there was a fine to-do as you can imagine. The girl I spoke of was the only one who kept her head. She chaffed me merrily as to my prospective loss. And to console me for it she took a flower from her corsage and pinned it in my buttonhole. It was a tuberose."
Annandale paused as if lost in thought. Then he resumed:
"After the guests had all departed my uncle called me to him, and accused me of stealing the diamond. I was astounded. I demanded proof of my guilt. By way of reply my accuser handed me the empty case, quested that I should him what it was impregnated with. And surely enough it smelt strongly of tuberose. Then I knew why the prettiest and vilest woman in England had pinned that accursed flower in my buttonhole — the plain evidence of my crime to my uncle's eyes. Doubtless she had been watching near the library, and had guessed my uncle's suspicions as she saw him find the empty case and raise it to his nostrils.
"I was so astounded that I allowed myself to be literally driven out of the house with no protest on my lips. Oxenham, I was half mad that night with shame and anguish and the miserable knowledge that I had given my heart to such a woman. From that day to this I have not seen her, nor have I seen England. My uncle died before he could make another will, and so I am a rich man. And now you can understand why I abhor the scent of tuberose."
Oxenham was silent. His brain was in a whirl. That there was something more to come he felt certain. A feeling of helplessness, almost of fear, came over him. The Medici ring touched a harsh chord.
"Annandale," he said earnestly. "You are warning me in parables. Would you mind telling me the name of the woman who served you so badly?"
"Have you not guessed already, Dick?"
"I'm afraid so," Oxenham murmured.
"But I like to be certain."
"And so you shall, my dear fellow. The woman who has spoilt my life is none other than your cousin, Lady Lily Logsdail. Surely you need not ask now why I have told you this story."
"I've had a shock," said Oxenham, "a painful shock, and I won't deny it. And I would have staked the coat I am wearing on Lily's integrity."
"Dress coat, silk lapels, and all," Annandale replied cynically, "and yet there was a time when you swore to wear no evening attire with silk facings."
Oxenham regarded his coat with a strange puzzled expression.
"Tell you what it is," he said, "I'm going dotty. Two nights ago I wore this coat for the first time. No deception about it, for my name's inside. And I swear that the night before last the facings were plain. There's some underhand work going on here. Hang me if I don't feel frightened. The sooner I get my business over the better I shall be pleased. What are you smiling at?"
"You've made a mistake," said Annandale, "you must have done. My story has got on your nerves. Have a liqueur and another cigarette."
Oxenham returned to his hotel in due course with a heavy foreboding on his mind. He knew that something unpleasant was going to happen, but he would have been puzzled to determine what form it would take. Annandale's story had undoubtedly shaken him, and for the first time it seemed to Oxenham that he had been foolish to trust anyone with the mission that carried him to Emsdam. He knew now that his cousin was heartless and unscrupulous, and he began to fully appreciate the brilliant cleverness that had set the clumsy Logsdail bark afloat, and had steered it into the harbour of prosperity. There was something to Dick's mind especially repulsive in the cynical audacity that caused Lady Logsdail not only to steal the Medici ring, but also to wear it openly. True, Russell Annandale was dead, and his successor was not likely to expose the fraud in any case. But any woman with the slightest sense of shame would have kept the gaud under lock and key.
Vexed thoughts like these kept Oxenham tossing and turning the whole night long. He rose at length with a feeling of relief, nor was he himself again until he was fairly started for Emsdam.
The yellow portmanteau had been consigned to the custody of the guard again. It was absolutely intact, and in any case if the infernal jugglery had been practised, it had been done ere now. Not that Oxenham anticipated anything of the kind. The thing that most troubled him at present was the transformation of the facings of his dress coat. If he suffered from no mental delusion, some queer trick had been played upon him.
Oxenham's spirits rose as Emsdam was reached. The afternoon was well advanced, and the messenger knew that he had no time to lose if he were to see the Ambassador at Potsdam before the business day expired.
The dispatches were all right. Evidently they had not been touched. Once in his bedroom Oxenham hastened to don his frock coat and shiny hat as he stowed the dispatches away. Manlike, he had tumbled half the contents of his bag on the floor. His evening coat lay uppermost. Oxenham regarded it with dilated eyes.
The facings were absolutely plain! A queer, strange feeling of having been there and having gone through it all before possessed the bewildered man. Had his mind gone wrong over this trivial matter? Oxenham had heard of things of the kind, a passing delusion, some figment of the imagination.
"I'd better go and finish my business,and then go in for a lot of exercise," Oxenham muttered as he crept none too steadily down the stairs. "I'm a bit off it. And I fairly cry aloud with the smell of that diabolical tuberose."
The British Ambassador received Oxenham gravely. Though his lips were stern and set, there was just a suggestion of mirth in his grey eyes.
"Your papers appear to be intact, Mr. Oxenham," he said, "and now tell me what design you invented to baffle our mysterious enemies."
Oxenham complied with some little pride. The Ambassador listened with the same stern lips and germ of a smile.
"Excellent," he said; "under ordinary circumstances. it would have succeeded. But those opposed to us foresee everything."
"My lord," Oxenham cried, "you don't mean to say that—"
"1 do indeed, Mr. Oxenham. Some time yesterday and by some amazing means those people contrived to see and read your papers. I am convinced of that because to-day in Paris and London the same parties have been operating in stocks and shares which are naturally enhanced in value by these dispatches. You see, I knew pretty well what to expect. So you see you have failed, Mr. Oxenham, as others have failed before you."
"But, my lord," Oxenham grasped, "how in the world was it possible? Nobody could have touched my portmanteau. The seal was intact, the packet intact also. On the journey anything of the kind was out of the question. I shall wake presently and find it is all a dream."
The Ambassador was kindness itself. He saw that Oxenham was terribly distressed and shaken by his failure and disposed to take it keenly to heart.
"I hold you absolutely blameless in the matter," he said. "Your scheme was a good one, but, like many good schemes, has failed. I have a little plan of my own for teaching these people a lesson, but of that more anon. And now may I have the pleasure of your company at dinner this evening?"
Oxenham made the best excuse he could under the circumstances, and in sooth he was in no mood for the trivialities of social enjoyment. He wanted to be alone where he could think the matter out step by step.
So Oxenham ate his solitary cutlet and sipped his claret reflectively. Ere the subsequent cigarettes were finished his brain grappled the problem. The claret was pure and generous, the sense of bitter disappointment was passing away, and Oxenham's brain was no longer under the cloud of suspected delusions.
"Somebody has played a fine conjuring trick upon me," he muttered. "Of course, the coat I wore last night was not the same. A healthy chap like myself does not have that kind of delusion. Now, I wonder whether Lily had a hand in this thing. It was her influence that got me this job, and it was her scheme. After what Annandale tells me I am quite prepared to believe strange things of Lily. And there must be some clever way in which she has worked up the Logsdail finances. Now, let me see."
For a long time Oxenham lay back in his chair smiling, with a far-away look in his eyes. Gradually and bit by bit he began to see daylight before him. He was not given to romance as a rule, but this business had stimulated his powers of imagination. He was on the track at last.
Then he rose to his feet, and cast his cigarette into the fire.
"I've got it, by Jove!" he muttered. "That's it, right enough. First of all, I had better go and examine my portmanteau thoroughly. Nothing like making absolutely certain about this kind of thing."
In his bedroom Oxenham emptied his portmanteau by the simple expedient of turning it upside down on the bed. As he did so, a glittering object fell from a mass of underclothing and rolled on the floor. Oxenham grabbed it up, and held the flashing, flaming jewel to the light.
"Well, if this doesn't beat everything!" he gasped. "Now, I wonder how the lost Medici diamond ring got in here!"
By the time that Oxenham reached Dover, the situation was clear to him. At the psychological moment the key had been supplied, and the solution to the puzzle was in his grasp. But he had to be sure of his facts first.
It was some consolation to find that the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office was not inclined to be too severe upon the unfortunate messenger.
"On the contrary," the great personage said, "your scheme was a very neat one. The thieves have latterly had an uneasy feeling that they were suspected, hence the fact that they had to look for their information in another direction. Before a month is over we shall give them a lesson they are not likely to forget."
Oxenham did understand. If the smart coterie who were working the scheme ventured to speculate on the next information that fell into their hands, dire would be their financial confusion.
From the Foreign Office Oxenham drove away to his tailor's in Bond Street. The interview was not a long one, but quite satisfactory to Oxenham. He had information in his possession now that cleared up the whole mystery.
From there Oxenham returned home, he found his man, grave and subdued as usual, ready to receive him. The master studied the features of the man keenly. Hill's grave face was absolutely without expression.
"James," Oxenham asked abruptly, "what time did you pack my portmanteau on the evening before I started for Emsdam?"
"I did not pack it at all, sir," Hill replied.
"I had an urgent message to meet a friend and I left it to Emily, the housemaid here. She knows your wants quite as well as I do. sir."
"And at what time did you go to keep this appointment?"
"About five, sir. My friend didn't turn up, sir. He was going to Paris with his master, and I expect something detained him."
Oxenham passed off the matter with a trivial excuse for asking the question. A little later and he had an opportunity of a word alone with the pretty little housemaid. Oxenham's first query drove the colour from her cheeks and left her white and trembling. Emily had a great deal to say and took a long time to say it, but the stammering story was complete at last.
"You won't send me to prison, sir," she implored. "I—I didn't know."
"I fancy vou have been more a fool than anything else," Oxenham said. "All you have to do is to be silent, and you will hear no more of the matter. I know you will do this for your own sake. Now go."
A little later and Oxenham was on his way to Lady Logsdail's. He was fortunate in finding the almond-eyed, amber-haired divinity alone. Lily Logsdail was in the best of spirits; she seemed to find the world a pleasant one. She fluttered forward with a smile of welcome on her lips. But somehow Oxenham managed to drop into a chair without taking the outstretched hands. The perfume of tuberose floated breast-high in the warm air.
"You are a successful general," Lady Logsdail cried.
"On the contrary, I am a lamentable failure," said Oxenham. "The enemy were too sharp for me. To quote a card-player's expression, they saw my hand, and went one better."
Lady Logsdail looked ravishingly sympathetic.
"Poor fellow," she murmured, "and such pains as I took too."
"Your pains may have their reward yet," Oxenham said significantly. "But do not let us pursue so painful a topic. Have you found your ring?"
Lady Logsdail had not, needless to say. The loss hail caused her infinite grief. She had positively aged under her affliction.
"1 shall never see it again," she cried. "Never, Dick."
"There you are quite mistaken," Oxenham said grimly, "because the Medici ring is in my pocket at the present moment. I found it in my portmanteau amongst my clothes at Potsdam."
Lady Logsdail gasped as Dick produced the ring. Her face was ghastly pale, save for a red splash stippled on either cheek.
"I must have dropped it into the portmanteau," she said.
"No doubt," was the grim response; "but you see it was in the middle of the clothes. I expect it slipped off your linger last Wednesday afternoon when you came to my rooms and packed my portmanteau for me. You remember—the day you and the housemaid got Hill out of the way, and you were provided by the housemaid with a duplicate set of linen so that you could pack the duplicate portmanteau."
A ghastly pallor crept over the flush-red of Lady Logsdail's cheeks.
"You are either mad or dreaming," she said hoarsely.
"I am neither," Oxenham retorted. "My housemaid has confessed. The old portmanteau you gave me had a duplicate. You managed by visiting my chambers to get a duplicate set of linen, also an impression of my seal. Then you had the audacity to order from my tailor dual garments to those you knew I was going to take with me to Emsdam. When Felton's bill came in it would be as easy for the housemaid to keep it back till it came again as an 'account rendered,' you knowing how very careless I am with figures. Do you follow?"
Lady Logsdail nodded. Words were as jewels just then.
"Of course the portmanteau, facsimiles inside and out, were dexterously exchanged at Zerlinden by your confederates, and thus you had the dispatches in your possession for a whole night until the changes were rung again on the morning when I finally reached Emsdam. I congratulate you, Lady Logsdail."
"Give me my ring," the woman cried.
But Oxenham coolly replaced the bauble in his pocket.
"That goes to the proper owner, Annandale," he said. "He told me the story of the ring and the bloom of the tuberose a night or two ago. But for his catching the scent of that infernal flower, he would never have told me the history of his trouble and of the theft. After hearing that recital, and finding that ring where it was, I began to guess the rest. Take my advice, and abjure strong, sensuous perfumes for the future."
"How clever to find me out!" Lady Logsdail murmured softly.
The sly malice underlying the silky tones aroused Oxenham.
"Have you no sense of shame?" he cried.
"Not a bit," the woman said. "For the sake of the family you will not betray me, and as to the rest I have made £100,000. All's fair in love and war, my dear Richard. Are you going?"
"Going! Why should I stay! I was never rude to a woman in my life yet, and I never had a better excuse or a more fitting opportunity."
Lady Logsdail laughed. Dick can yet see the pearly flash of her teeth.
"Really," she said, "I fancy I should enjoy it. The sensation—from a man—would be so novel. My dear Richard, I—"
Oxenham had gone, slamming the door behind him.
"What strange creatures men are!" Lady Logsdail murmured. "They always hate a woman to be clever. And Dick was such a dear boy. Upon my word I am quite sorry, really I am very sorry—he found me out."
PARKER paused in her walk, fearful lest the slightest noise should betray her. It was not dark yet, and Parker had no difficulty in recognising the features of the speakers. One of them, indeed, she knew perfectly well; for William, the second footman, was by way of being an admirer of hers, a state of things forced upon him against his better judgment.
"A very pretty gal is Parker," he had declared. "Parker's got style; and there's times when she might pass for quite the toff. But she's uppish, and nobody in the servants' 'all's good enough for her. A nice gal, but not the sort to make a man 'appy and comfortable."
So it came about that Parker, the Honourable Nora Vandeleur's maid, spent very little of her spare time with the rest of the servants. There was a legend extant that her father had once been a colonel in the army. Before the end of her first month she had found herself left severely alone.
Usually Parker spent an hour or so after the family had gone in to dinner rambling about the grounds. At that time the law was somewhat relaxed, and the housekeeper forgot to frown. Parker found this by far the pleasantest hour of the day. This evening she felt specially free from trouble, it was a balmy August evening, the hour close upon 9, and the light was just beginning to fade. Those two male voices in the shrubbery seemed to boom against the still air.
Parker had almost blundered upon the speakers before she saw them. That a listener was near neither of them dreamt for a moment. Peeping through the acacias Parker could see the others quite plainly.
One was William. Of that fact there could be no doubt. His companion was no stranger either, Parker had met him before under circumstances which did not redound to the credit of the stranger.
"William," said the latter earnestly, "is it good enough?"
"Joseph," William replied as solemnly, "it is. It's gold plate, my lad; a presentation service from some hemperor or another to the late Earl. Ambassador or some such tricks, he was, and it's all in a safe as you could rip open easy as I could crack a walnut."
Parker stood perfectly still. It seemed to her that on the present occasion eavesdropping was quite compatible with good breeding. Besides, had she not seen the gold plate on the dining-room table a dozen times?
"Of course I shall want a pal, Bill," Joseph remarked.
"Why?" William asked uneasily. "Haven't I explained to you the very place where the safe is? Haven't I promised to dose the butler? I'm not going to take any risks beyond leaving a door open for you."
"You always were a coward, William."
"You're right there," the second footman agreed with perfect candour; "I never had the pluck of a mouse. Ain't got the nerve for it somehow. But you can't deny that I've put a deal of business in your way, Joseph. No, you must collar the swag. You must get rid of it and send me my share. Then I can chuck this crib and move off, on the hunt for another plant of the same kind."
"All right," Baxter growled. "What night is it to be?"
"Wednesday. Nobody dining here 'cept the house party, and as they're all off early the next day on the razzle-dazzle, they're sure to be in bed by 11. I heard the captain say so to-night."
"The captain! Do you mean to say as he's here?"
"Certainly I do, Joseph. Do you know him?"
Joseph Baxter ground out something lurid between his teeth. It seemed to the watcher that his face was diabolical in the failing light.
"Don't I?" he hissed. "I shouldn't have been nearly killed all over an innocent lot of welshing at Sandown three years ago but for Captain Vandeleur. And about twelve months ago there was a pretty girl I met at Esher. She took out her purse to give me a bob, and it was full of quids. 'Tisn't my fault. Why did she go tempting a poor chap down on his luck in that way? And if there was a bit of a struggle, they'd no call to go and put it in the 'ditement as 'ighway robbery with vi'lence. And who should come up agen and give me a cowardly blow when I wasn't expecting it but the captain. And they gave me nine months' hard for that!"
William noted the beauty of his friend's law with a glance of sympathy.
"I'd pay him out," he said.
"I'm going to; I'm going to have my revenge if I swing for it. I'll put a knife into him first chance, sure as my name's Joe Baxter."
Parker crept quietly away. She had learnt all she required and more. For the rest of the evening she remained unseen by the other servants. It was past 11 before she found her way to Nora Vandeleur's room.
"Well, my dear," Nora said cheerfully.
"Well, Nora," Parker replied. "I have had an adventure to-night."
Miss Vandeleur's aristocratic features relaxed in a smile. The Earl of Malcombe's handsome daughter appeared to be remarkably free with her servants.
"You saw Rupert Gaunt with Mary Cresswell in the conservatory, then? You have noticed how shamefully they are flirting together?"
"I saw him kiss her last night," Parker said, calmly.
"And you are not furious about it. Your features are placid. I am certain that your pulse is beating normally. How glad I am, Dorothy."
"Well, I'm rather glad myself now. I admit that my life the last month has not been all a bed of roses, but at any rate my eyes have been opened. Rupert Gaunt is not likely to pay off his mortgages with my money."
"And Mary hasn't got a single penny!"
"Mary is a very pretty girl. She is quite innocent in this matter, and I am very sorry for her," Parker said judicially. "I was foolish enough to think that Rupert loved me, and you always protested he did nothing of the kind. I'm very glad now that I sank Dorothy Dean, the heiress, in the role of Parker, the Hon. Nora Vandeleur's new maid."
Nora's eyes sparkled. She had certainly cured her dearest friend of her passion for the handsome yet faithless Rupert Gaunt, but a good deal still remained to be done. The restoration of Dorothy Dean's faith in (male) human nature, for instance. At any rate Nora's brother, Captain Charles Vandeleur, could not be accused of fortune-hunting—a rich old aunt had saved him that stigma—and he was genuinely in love with Dorothy.
Dorothy was quite aware of the fact. And the Honourable Nora had not planned the present little ruse entirely to save Dorothy from a loveless marriage. There was an arriere pensee, and Captain Vandeleur was the inspiration.
In her present capacity Dorothy could watch without being seen. It was very easy for her to keep out of the way of the house-party, even had not her cap and apron and severely banded hair formed an efficient disguise. Even Vandeleur was perfectly unconscious of the little comedy.
"No use defying Fate," Nora remarked, sententiously. "It is quite evident to me that you and Charles are made for one another."
"I shall never marry," Dorothy interposed.
"Oh, nonsense! Do you suppose that Charles was at hand to save you when you had that adventure with the tramp at Esher for nothing?"
This remark of Nora's brought Dorothy down to mundane matters again.
"It is very strange you should mention that affair," she said. "Do you know I have seen my modern Duval this very evening?"
"You mean that horrid tramp?"
"The same. He did not see or hear me, which on the whole is a good thing for all parties concerned. This Joseph Baxter was in the shrubbery engaged in earnest conversation with William, the second footman."
"A burglary? What fun! We'll put the matter in Charlie's hands, eh?"
"Be serious, Nora. I assure you this is no laughing matter. Let me tell you there is a plot on foot to rob the house. Baxter is coming here on Wednesday night to take away the presentation plate; a door is to be left open for him, the butler is to be drugged, and all things made very comfortable for Baxter."
Nora's eyes gleamed.
"What fun!" she exclaimed. "We never had a burglary here."
"But it is not fun," Dorothy replied. "That awful Baxter went on fearfully about Charlie—I mean Captain Vandeleur. He has sworn to be avenged. If they meet I know some fearful mischief will be done."
But Nora laughed at Dorothy's fears.
"Those people always talk like that," she said, evidently with a lofty knowledge of burglars and their tortuous ways, "whereas they are the most cowardly of men. Dorothy, I won't say anything about this to anybody but Charlie, and he shall arrange to catch the thief. If other people get to hear of it, it may reach William's ears, and the mischief will be done."
Dorothy was precisely of the same opinion. Only Charles was so very headstrong.
"And do urge him to be careful," concluded Dorothy, "he is so rash. If anything were to happen to him I should never forgive myself."
Again the Hon. Nora's eyes sparkled.
"You would remain single for his sake," she whispered. "My dear, I would much rather you married to please him. Goodnight!"
THE second footman in the seclusion of his room was engaged in certain mystic rites, in which a kettle of boiling water played an important part. In other words, he was holding over the steaming spout an envelope purloined from the letter-bag, and which was addressed to a certain Captain Fitzroy in Captain Vandeleur's hand.
For the last day or two William had been laying his plans for an exodus from Vandeleur Park when once the ambassadorial plate should have found its way into the hands of Baxter. There was not work enough here, the conscientious William had informed Captain Vandeleur in a burst of confidence, could the captain help him. And the good-natured captain had promised to write Fitzroy, who wanted a man.
On the fifth day the letter had been written as William's diurnal examination of the postbag displayed. And being a cautious and cunning rascal, William quite appreciated the advantage of knowing the captain's opinion of him. Hence the hot water, and the letter which yielded to gentle pressure. But inside there was no allusion to William's virtues. The letter ran:
"Dear Jim,—I want you to come down here particularly; not later than Wednesday noon. I can promise you some sport, the like of which you have never had before. Don't fail me, because there is a deal at stake and be mum when you do come. But I know that I can rely upon you.—Yours as ever, C. V."
Some frigid sensation seemed to be darting up and down William's spinal column.
"Now how did he find it out, I wonder?" he muttered; "and does he suspect me? If that letter don't allude to Baxter's little game I'm a Dutchman. On the whole it would be just as well for the gallant captain not to get this letter. So I'll keep it in my pocket, and ask Baxter's opinion."
A post-card, properly worded, brought Baxter on the scene next day. When he saw the letter, his language was 'painful and frequent and free.' After a little time the frown lifted from Baxter's forehead.
"We'll do the captain brown, and I'll pay off old scores at the same time. The captain's tumbled to something, but he means to keep it to himself and catch us 'in flagrante dellicto,' as a Judge once remarked over a little affair we had together. And you're like to find yourself in Queer-street at the same time. Might just is well have the swag all the same. I'll manage that."
"But how?" asked the palpitating William. "We'd better bolt."
"Why bolt? They'll be after both of us in any case; and so long as we've got the name we may as well have the game. The captain's going to act the diplomatic dodge. But suppose I get him out of the way, and keep him out of the way, until the job's done, and we've had time to poach a good start."
"You can't do it, Joseph."
"I can and will. Now you leave it to me, William. Go about your business as if nothing had happened till Wednesday night. I ain't going to ask you to help me, because I don't trust you. But keep your window open on Wednesday night, and when you hear me whistle get up and dress and come out. There'll be a trap, waiting beyond the lodge gates. Do you tumble?"
William nodded gloomily. Words were very scarce with him just then. All the same he swallowed his fears, and went back to work with an assumption of gaiety which he was far from feeling.
Wednesday evening came, and with it no signs of Captain Fitzroy. Vandeleur said nothing, though he appeared to be annoyed about something. But Nora, the only one in the secret, did not allow her serenity to be ruffled.
"Make your mind quite easy." she said to Dorothy just before retiring. "Charlie has made all arrangements, and the thief is certain to be caught. Meanwhile I shall go and sleep as if nothing had happened, taking the precaution of locking my door. Ain't you glad Rupert Gaunt and Mary have gone?"
But Dorothy was too anxious to waste any time over her recreant lover. She knew Vandeleur to be brave to the verge of rashness.
"Captain Vandeleur is not even in the house," she said.
"I know," Nora responded sleepily. "He's gone down to the village to see one of the fishermen who has been taken ill. Morgan sent for him. But Charles will not be long, you may be sure of that."
Then Nora literally bundled her friend out of the room and locked the door. Dorothy retired like Macbeth, and like him, 'but not to sleep.' With her door just open she listened. An hour passed, two hours, and there came no sound. Then from the park arose a soft whistle, followed by steps in the corridor. Unable to bear it any longer, Dorothy peeped out.
Along the dimly-lighted corridor William, fully dressed, was creeping. He stopped just for an instant before a black object and grinned. Instantly Dorothy was alive to what had happened. Actually whilst she was waiting there, the plate chest had been rifled, and the whistle was a sign to William that his ally had got clear away.
Then came a more disturbing thought still. Where was Captain Vandeleur? Nothing in the ordinary way could have detained him. Had the thieves discovered anything, and had there been any foul play?
The mere idea was quite enough for Dorothy. It came to her like a flash of light that if anything happened to Vandeleur, life would be worthless to her. The discovery seemed to anneal her courage. Without delay she followed William. She was fully dressed save for her hat, which mattered little on so mild a night.
The hall door stood open. On a table there lay a case which Dorothy recognised. She pressed the spring, and a pair of revolvers stood disclosed to a velvet bed. Dorothy was no stranger to the weapon. She saw they were both loaded, and she carried one in her hand. Then she started out to stalk her quarry. William loomed on a hundred yards ahead until the road was reached. Here he paused till another figure joined him. As Dorothy crept closer she made out not only Baxter but a horse and trap pulled up by the side of the road.
"Got the swag?" William asked, hoarsely.
"Ay, and got the captain, too," Baxter chuckled. "I don't think as 'e's likely to give any further trouble. So come along with me and see a spree."
"Don't be an ass," William retorted. "Let's get away."
"And miss my vengeance? Not me. I ain't going for a good hour yet. And the moon's getting up proper. You come along with me down to the Blackrock Bay, and you'll see a sight, I promise you. You've got to come."
William departed gloomily and full of fear. What was Dorothy to do? The lodge was kept by a solitary old woman, the village was two miles away in the other direction, and help might be urgently needed.
Dorothy's mind was made up. She knew quite well how to unharness a horse, and she proceeded to put her knowledge into practice as soon as the rascals were out of earshot. And this was done. The animal was turned into the park and a vigorous slash with a briar sent it madly across the yielding turf.
"I've cut off their retreat, anyway," Dorothy said between her teeth.
Then she turned and followed quickly in the direction of Blackrock Bay, a little sandy cave with far-stretching sands and shut in by high cliffs. By this time the laggard moon was creeping up out of the deep.
The pallid light served to throw up two figures in high relief. They were those of William and Baxter standing on the lip of the sea. The tide was creeping in slowly up to the white post on the sands which served to mark the spot beyond which the drift-nets might not be shot.
Suddenly Dorothy gave a little gasping cry. Surely there was another figure at the base of the white post, something that looked horribly human, and at the same time as still as if death had overtaken it. A coarse word or two and sounds of mocking laughter Dorothy could understand.
Heedless of danger she began to scramble down the cliffs. By a miracle she reached the sands without accident. Then she cautiously made her way towards the white post, covered, and screened by the rocks here and there. She paused at length under shelter, some thirty feet away from the two. And now the incoming tide rose to the watcher's ankles.
What she had dreaded to find she saw. Captain Vandeleur, an ugly wound on his forehead, but otherwise calm and contemptuous-looking, was bound to the post. He evidently intended to meet his fate with resignation.
"This is murder!" he said. "And you are certain to be found out."
"I'll risk that," Baxter chuckled. "You little thought what was going to happen to you when you got that bogus message. And it was a pretty little smack of mine that laid you out. And when you came to yourself why here you was. Ah, my gallant captain, it's my turn now."
"So," said the captain, "you are that scoundrel Baxter?"
"The same, noble gamecock. I want to hear you scream and cry for mercy. I want to see you kick and struggle till the water fills your throat and you drown. I'd have given ten years of my life for this."
"You are going to murder me, then?"
"That's about the size of it. One good turn deserves another, captain. You are going to die, and I'm going to get off with the plunder. You've got a lot of friends here, captain. Why don't you call for them?"
Vandeleur shut his teeth hard.
"I'm not going to call at all. You will be denied that luxury."
Baxter grinned savagely.
"You will," he said, "when the water begins to rise. I shall stay here and see you drown. I shall watch you helpless—quite helpless."
Bang! There was a flash of light, a thundering report echoing amongst the rocks, at the first sound of which William turned tail and fled without further ado. Baxter raced round savagely. The rascal was not devoid of pluck. He made for the spot with the agility of a tiger.
Now or never, Dorothy came out and faced him. In all the course of her life Dorothy had never watched a drama so forcible and thrilling. On the fate of the new tableau her very being depended.
"Drop that gun or it will be the worse for ye," Baxter yelled.
Dorothy's only reply was to fire again. Her heart was hammering against her ribs, but her hand was steady enough. She heard the bullet ping and thud. She heard Baxter scream and saw his left arm drop helplessly. With a bitter curse Baxter turned and fled. Discretion under the circumstances was forced upon him; revenge would have to keep. Dorothy plunged into the water.
"Have you got a knife?" she asked Vandeleur.
"In my waistcoat pocket," Vandeleur responded. "Why, Dorothy!"
"Never mind that now. Don't ask questions. I never was so ashamed of myself, never half so frightened in my life. Now then."
The cords fell away one by one, Vandeleur was free. He checked a wild impulse to catch Dorothy in his arms and kiss her. Then a desire to be even with Baxter took the place of the tenderer emotion.
"We'll catch that rascal yet," he muttered.
Meanwhile Baxter was making his way back to the trap. The great thing to do now was to put as many miles as possible between himself and his pursuers without delay. This being so, his rage and passion at finding his horse no longer there can be imagined. Tears of anger stood in his eyes.
"There's no help for it," he groaned. "I shall have to look to myself. I can't even take the swag with me. Lor, if I only had that gal by the neck for a minute."
He plunged into the park, and then across to the cliffs again. The pain in his arm made him faint and sink. Worn out at length he crept under some pines, and fell into a heavy sleep. When he came to himself it was broad daylight. As he staggered to his feet he came face to face with a stalwart man in blue.
"Mr. Baxter," said the latter, "I want you. We've got William, we've got the swag, and now the game's complete. Come along, Baxter."
* * * * *
"But, Dorothy! I don't see any reason—"
"Don't you?" Dorothy said tearfully. "I'm awfully ashamed of myself. Perhaps Rupert Gaunt was really to blame. Anyway I found him out. And here I have been in the most shameful way pretending to be a lady's maid."
"And saving my life at the same time. You darling."
"Charlie, don't please. I ought to be scolded."
"Nothing of the sort. You are a real heroine, Dorothy. Dot, you saved my life. What do you propose to do with it?"
Dorothy blushed scarlet.
"I have been fearfully punished," she said.
"Well, that's no reason why you should punish me. It's a bit unkind, but Nora has given you away. Gaunt—"
"I never want to hear his name mentioned again."
"Very well. We'll put Gaunt aside. If you care for me—"
"Oh, you are going to make love to me again."
"I can't help it, Dorothy. You know that I love you. If you don't care for me you have only to say so."
Dorothy looked up archly through her tears.
"Shall I say so?" she asked.
"If you really and honestly can."
"Charlie, like George Washington, I cannot tell a lie."
Vandeleur said not another word. But there was no need for speech until Dorothy deigned to proclaim that she was the happiest girl in the world.
COUNT ULRIC VENDOZA swore softly, but with fervour, as the sergeant of the guard saluted. The man's very moustache was an outrage.
"Look at the fellow," Ulric muttered to himself. "A complexion like oak bark, beard rugged as mountain's torrent, and a nose like a scimitar. And those beautiful white scars all over his face! Prince Thor couldn't call him a 'pretty boy.'"
Wherein lay the source of the trouble. Frince Thor was six feet two, deep-chested as an ox, for had he not carried the gates of Manchi on his shoulders in the face of the army of Farsala? Wherefore it is unkind for such a one to speak of such another as Ulric as "pretty boy."
There was truth in it, and there the sting lay. Ulric was fair as a girl, his skin shone clear under a varnish of bronze gold, his eyes were blue, and the abbreviated moustaches were yellow. A pretty boy, a squire of dames, something to prick and prance in ruffles and point lace in the perfumed atmosphere o£ a ball-room. Oh, 'twas bitter!
And yet this boy possessed a strength beyond his years; he had a cool daring all his own; the finished record of flood and field was his. A wicked young rascal, too, who knew his Paris and London by heart, equally at home in Mayfair or Monte Carlo, under the green trees in the park, or by the green cloth where the lights are low and men's eyes gleam with the gambler's lust. For drinking and fighting and gaming had ever run in the blood of the Vendoza's from the day when they began to carve out the kingdom of Farsala from the slopes of the Balkans and painted it on the map of Europe in blood and fire.
Prince Thor of Sharlock, cousin of the King, Ulric's master, knew all this, of course. But Thor made enemies recklessly, as a man of his inches and courage can afford to do. For he was a disappointed man, and but for the accident of circumstances would have carried the crown of Farsala himself. He and the King were outwardly the best of friends, though Thor never scrupled to conceal the fact that he would turn the tables some day should chance present itself, whereupon King Max, a very Hercules in anything from war to wine-cup, would smite him lustily on the back and bid him try.
All these things passed in the mind of Count Ulric as he mounted upwards from the Castle of Narasoo—where the Court lay in the dewy sweetness of the morning. As he mounted higher over the crags and the scrambled foliage of the hillside, he could see far across the valley to where Farsala, the capital of the State, lay slumbering also.
"It's all very well for the King," Ulric muttered, still harping upon his pet aversion, Thor, "but some day that man will get his chance. The King holds his own over the most audacious and superstitious set of cut-throats in Europe by sheer force of will and courage. Thor is the Devil; and people forget. It's hard to hold the people who live in legends."
Ulric rose higher and higher. He passed the hunting-lodge of the King and turned almost mechanically into a black-throated gorge—a natural amphitheatre through which an amber stream flowed swiftly—a dizzy kind of place, with steep, precipitous rocks, a false step on which would plunge one into the stream below.
"A fine theatre for a fine deed," Ulric muttered. "Here it was that King Max won his crown and his wife, Grod bless her! But those days are over; no white-throated wolf will ever stray down the Devil's Windpipe again, for the legend is fulfilled, and the old story will some day be forgotten."
As Ulric spoke a low growl came from the bushes on a ledge in front of him. The growl was followed by a shrill scream, a cry of rage, and yet there was some chord of outraged dignity in it.
Ulric started. His ears were acquainted with the note of every bird that flew and every beast that lurked there. The note was strange to him. The cry was something between that of a tiger and a jackal. Then the bushes parted and a mass of grey fur flashed down almost at Ulric's feet.
It was a great grizzled beast the size of a mastiff. It had the long, lean, vicious head of a wolf, the rugged lines of yellow teeth flashed and snarled. Red blood dripped from the muzzle, the thick pads were stained in the same way. In a dreamy kind of way Ulric was conscious of a pair of green eyes filled with fire, a thin, cruel tongue like pink leather. From the point of the quivering jaw to the dewlap, in vivid contrast to the grizzled face, was a band of soft, white hair like a patch of silken snow.
"A white-throated wolf!" Ulric cried. "And they are supposed to be extinct. What a chance for the 'pretty boy,' if he only had a weapon!"
There was also a fine chance for the wolf, though the logical point escaped Ulric in the excitement of the moment. But the wolf had no stomach for fighting, evidently. The bloody jaws and dripping pads pointed to a surfeit of another kind. The strangled cry of rage was merely a proclaimed sovereignty of the place. With a growl that shook the lean flanks the wolf plunged into the undergrowth again.
Ulric strode downwards full of the excitement of his find. He would have that wolf. He would show Prince Thor what the "pretty boy" was made of. The last white-throated wolf ever seen in Farsala had fallen to the strong arm of the King, for the white-throated wolves were the Arms of the State, and the legend on which the very crown rested was rooted in that strange vulpine tribe.
Ulric came down to the Castle full of the news. He found a table with a white cloth and scarlet flowers laid out on the terrace under the grim walls of the fortress, and here King Max and the Queen, with Prince Thor, were breakfasting. There was a dish of trout in cream, flanked by a pie of boar's head, red wine simmered in large three-handled cups, a variety of fruit blushed on the table. No servants were present, and the Queen poured out the coffee with her own hands.
"Come and join us, Ulric," the Queen cried.
"Madam," Ulric stammered, "in this dress I cannot."
He had snatched off his cap and would have passed on. A pair of knickerbockers and golf-stockings are not usually associated with the fierce light that beats upon a throne. Whereupon the King rose in the exuberant buoyancy of his seven-and-seventy inches, and, picking up Ulric like a baby, deposited him in a chair.
"Never mind your bib, little man," Thor cried.
The two sons of Anak roared. They seemed to dominate the place with their majestic presence. Till the grey creeping of the dawn they had sat over a hunting supper with the dead flagons thick as the leaves in Vallombrosa, and here they were fresh and pink as the clean run salmon down yonder in the pool.
"You are annoying the Count," Queen Corona protested gently.
She was tall and dark as the night, with great clear eyes like forest pools, and a face cleaner cut than any cameo. Her voice was a caress, her lips velvet geraniums. In all South-Eastern Europe none held sway with so fine a silken thread as Queen Corona of Farsala. Max paused in his raffish sport.
"Ulric doesn't mind," Thor growled.
"Indeed, I do, your Highness," Ulric protested. "I am no child, remember. Would you like to test me at the end of a rapier, sir?"
Thor laughed hugely and declined the proffered honour, for, young as he was in years, Ulric was old in reputation as a swordsman. The big prince lifted a cup of wine to his lips, nor did he lower it till a good pint had passed down his capacious throat.
"No, no," he cried; "the ox has succumbed to the sting of the hornet before now. But I like your spirit, lad. When I have ousted the King from his throne I shall be glad to have you by me."
"I don't fancy you will, sir, if my mind be the same as it is now," Ulric said dryly.
The big, shaggy eyebrows contracted in a frown. Thor reached out a hand to Ulric, but the Queen's slim fingers interfered.
"I command this to cease," she cried. There was will and majesty in the tones. "We never doubted your desires and intentions, cousin, nor do we doubt the bad taste of your remarks just now. Ulric, you have news—I see it in your eyes."
Prince Thor subsided into the wine-cup again. The King glanced impatiently at his watch. Far down in the courtyard the dogs were gathered, for a great chase was afoot, a long day's sport, to end with another carouse at the hunting-lodge. Next week the Court would adjourn to Farsala for the opening of the two Chambers; meanwhile le roi s'amuse.
"I have news to interest his Majesty, madam," Ulric replied as quietly as possible. "I have just seen a thrilling sight—a white-throated wolf."
The Queen started. Her face turned deadly pale, a strange hope looked from her eyes, a captive behind prison bars.
"Max!" she said hoarsely. "Max, can this be so?"
Prince Thor had relinquished the goblet. His eyes gleamed with a peculiar light. He sought those of the Queen, but they avoided him.
"Impossible," he muttered, "absolutely impossible. Where did you see it?"
The question was in the form of a harsh command. For a moment Ulric made no reply. A sudden idea, a sudden inspiration had come to him. Why should he not have all the kudos of his discovery!
"The King says I am mistaken, sir," he replied. "After that I am dumb."
Thor turned away, his eyes gleaming with a strange, unnecessary fury, or so it seemed. The King bent and kissed his consort on the lips.
"Adieu, sweetheart," he cried gaily. "A little more colour in your lips when we return. Come, cousin; we must not keep the dogs waiting."
THE clank of boot and clink of spur died away. Ulric watched the splendid swaggering figures with an admiration he could not conceal. Two other such men Europe could >not produce. If Farsala had only--
"Ulric, dear Ulric, you must help me now."
"Your Majesty--" Ulric stammered. "Why, you are as pale as death." Queen Corona had fallen into a chair. The vivid pallor of her features caused the Count to feel a sudden alarm. Down in the valley the dogs were flinging their music to the breeze.
"If you cannot help me, I am ruined," the Queen murmured.
Ulric protested passionately. He would die for his sovereign. Let her only command him and the thing was done. For his wit was as neat and nimble as his sword, his courage as finely tempered.
The Queen smiled again and a little colour crept into her cheeks.
"Are you sure," she asked, "that you saw a white-throated wolf to-day?"
"As sure, madam, as I am your devoted slave and servant."
"Well, there is comfort, aye, and truth in that, Ulric. You must slay me that wolf and bring the white fur to me. You wonder why this pressing need, and I am going to tell you. What is the most precious possession in our regalia?"
"The emerald crown, your Majesty, beyond a doubt."
"Spoken truly, Ulric. And what is the most precious part of that crown?"
"The band of white wolf's fur that surrounds the base, your Majesty."
"Yes, yes. Everybody knows that. When we go to open the popular Chamber in Farsala next week we shall wear that crown. And what think you would Farsala say if the white fur were missing?"
A cry came from Ulric's lips. The light of a perfect understanding flashed in upon him—practically speaking, the kingdom of Farsala was tied up by that strip of white wolf's fur. For the Farsalans dwelt in a world of dreams and legends when they had no war to whet their appetites upon.
Time ago Farsala had been vassal to Turkey. Above them, further up the Balkan slopes, were the tribes of Suazi, a warlike people who, when other means failed, drove the hordes of white-throated wolves down the passes, so that Farsala knew the harry of a constant terror. And then there arose a great warrior to Farsala who swore a mighty oath to exterminate the scourge, and he kept his word. At the end of his generation a white-throated wolf was as a black swan for rarity, and the Suazis came down the passes bringing honey and olive branches as a desire for peace.
All this was according to the prophecy of the Wise Woman of the Hills. The white-throated wolves would turn upon the chiefs of Suazi until not one remained. And when a chief of Farsala rescued the last child of the last headsman of Suazi from the teeth of the last wolf, then Suazi and Farsala should be made one, and a kingdom should arise as the fruit of their loins.
Strangely it fell out that this same thing came to pass. Ten years before, Queen Corona, sole survivor of the royal Suazi line, had been attacked by the last of the white-throated wolves, and Prince Max of Farsala had come up in the nick of time and rescued her. With his hands alone he had attacked the wolf, he had torn the white throat out of the beast; and from that day Farsala, in spite of the hereditary claims of Prince Thor, her anointed leader, was ruled by King Max. So the white throat of the wolf was bound around the emerald crown, and so long as it remained there so Farsala stood on the living rock of safety. It was no legend now, it was part of the Farsala religion.
It all came buck to Ulric with vivid force. If aught had happened to the white fur, then the King stood in deadly peril. His splendid strength and magnilicent courage could not save him. The thing would pass as a manifestation of Divine displeasure, and Thor had a strong party behind him.
"Prince Thor has done this thing," Ulric cried.
"I fear so," the Queen murmured. "He has made no secret of what he would do, did Fortune smile upon him. He has proclaimed it over and over again with a brutal frankness. Yet the King clings to him." *
"He has saved the King's life twice, madam."
"Oh, I do not doubt his courage. He would save even his bitterest enemy from flood and fire. But we are wasting time. The emerald crown has been stripped of its most precious possession—how, I cannot say. It may be treachery, it may be that Prince Thor has possessed himself of the keys of the strong-room; but the bitter fact remains. I only discovered the truth this morning. I should have told the King, but you came up, it seemed to me, in time to save the situation. When I heard you tell of the white-throated wolf, I knew that Heaven was on our side. Ulric, if you can only get that wolf "
The Queen paused significantly. The whole matter flashed through Ulric's brain with the rapidity of lightning. Thor had done this thing with his splendid audacity. To tax him with his perfidy would merely elicit a frank confession of his fault. To try and wrest the precious possession from him would be as the snatching of flesh from the teeth of a tiger. There was a chance now to open the King's eyes and remove from the State a magnificent danger.
Truly the hand of Heaven seemed to be guiding this business. The last, positively the last, of the white-throated wolves had come skulking down from the untrodden slopes of Suazi, for the sheer purpose of a sacrifice to uphold the throne. His white, sanguine throat should repair the mischief.
"You want me to kill this wolf for you, madam?" Ulric asked.
"Yes, yes," the Queen responded eagerly. "Track him, slay him, bring his skin to me. There is still time, and I have those about me who will keep the secret. A day or two will suffice to make good that which is lost. Farsala will be none the wiser. An imitation would be out of the question, for Prince Thor would set tongues wagging, and all would be lost. Can you do this, Ulric?"
Ulric made the most of his inches. He would show Prince Thor what a "pretty boy" was made of. He had the most stupendous of State secrets in the hollow of his hand, he alone of all the Court had been chosen as the friend of his sovereign. His heart swelled with the pride of it.
"I can and will do it, madam," he cried. "And this very day."
The Queen looked swiftly around her. Nobody was in sight. Then she stooped swiftly and kissed Ulric on the forehead.
"God bless and preserve you!" she whispered. "Go, and may you be successful. I shall know no peace of mind till you return. And if you fail--"
She said no more, for her words ceased like the snapping of a harp-string. Her head had fallen, her splendid eyes were unutterably sad, as she turned away and disappeared into the Castle.
But there was no fear or sadness in the heart of Ulric. The royal lips had touched his brow, the royal safety lay in the grasp of his fingers. The danger of his enterprise was uplifted into glory.
"I'll not fail," he said between his teeth, "though I dare not use firearms, for fear of ruining the work before it is accomplislied. Take heart of grace, sweet Queen, for failure is no word of mine."
Ulric's preparations were of the slightest. A suit of leather, soft, yet tough, a long, curved hunting-knife sufficed. To find the lair of the wolf he knew would be no difficult matter. But to make the attack in the daylight was quite a different thing; added to which was the danger of encountering the hunting-party in the forest, or the possible chance of discovery and all dreaded publicity to follow.
For this thing would have to be as secret and as silent as the grave. There was nothing for it now but to wait until the shades of night had fallen, unless, indeed, it were possible to follow the trail of the wolf with an eye to a surprise.
Trained in woodcraft from a toddling child, Ulric had nothing to learn in this respect. He would follow the trail as far as prudence permitted. It would be easy to avoid the hunting-party, which was numerous and necessarily noisy, and which had gone forth that morning in pursuit of boar only.
At any rate, anything was better than the intolerable suspense of weighing out dull minutes in a scale of lead. So it came about that early in the afternoon Ulric mounted upwards to the gorge where he had encountered the white-throated monster, and cast about for the spoor.
He found it almost at once, the mark of the great pads was plain as print to the eyes of the woodsman. There were four or five sets of marks coming and going to the brink of the river.
"That's a discovery, at any rate," Ulric muttered. "The brute comes down here nights to drink. I shall find him here some time after dark. And a better place for an attack than this flat, cliff-like ledge of rock couldn't be imagined. Uncommonly close to the hnnting-lodge, though, but that can't be helped. By the time Lupus comes down for his libation those people will be well into their third flagon and making noise enough to drown a thunderstorm. After all, I don't sunpose there will be any real risk."
Night was falling like a grey curtain over the caps of snow and the sombre pines of the forest as Ulric came to the battle-ground again. He could see the darkness rolling down in waves; he saw the faint, straw-coloured lights in the hunting-lodge grow brighter and more ruddy as the heart of the night throbbed over the forest; he could catch bursts of laughter getting wilder and louder in the passing hours. A thin moon behind torn masses of clouds gave a feeble ray upon the rocky platform.
Darker grew the night, the wind sobbed in the pines, high up overhead Ulric could see the twinkling lights of the hunting-lodge. It seemed to his strained fancy that he was alone there with the weight of the world pressing on his shoulders. For on a single fling of the dice his empire rested.
He began to throb and glow with the thought of it. Despite the vivid experience of his years, those years only numbered twenty-four, and all illusions are not fired at that age. The future of Farsala had been entrusted to him; out of all the brave hearts and loyal swords about her, Queen Corona had chosen him alone to save the dynasty.
Then, as the flood-tide of exultation ebbed away, Ulric grew cool and cautious again. That a terrible danger loomed before him he knew. That it might be the man or the wolf who came out uppermost he knew also.
But Ulric was going to take no risks. He had the discretion which should ever accompany true courage. He cast about him with an eye to strategic advantages. The field of battle had to be taken into consideration.
On one side of the rocky platform was a fringe of bushes from which the wolf would assuredly emerge when he came down to water—indeed, Ulric had already proved this by the spoor. On the other side of the platform was a rugged, steep slope of rocks overhanging the river. Down this slope the wolf would in all probability make his way.
Near to the end of this miniature cliff was a shelf or ledge of rocks under which a man could hide himself. There was just a chance that Ulric might lurk there and deal the wolf a treacherous and fatal stab as he passed. It was no time for the nice honour of attack.
"It's a case of the Devil and the baker," Ulric muttered. "If possible, I mean to be the Devil on this occasion. But waiting is weary work, worse than fighting, a great deal. Will he never come?"
The night wind moaned in the pines, the leaden-footed minutes crept on to the burial of the lagging hour, and yet the quarry came not. Wafted on the breeze from the fortress below, twelve o'clock struck on the big bell. At the last stroke Ulric's ear caught something.
He peered out eagerly. Lights still winked redly like wine from the hunting-lodge as they were likely to wink for some time to come. Ulric felt for his knife and fastened the strap of it about his wrist.
The hour had come and the man was ready. He could hear the soft footfall of some creeping thing, he could hear the crackle of dry twigs and the flutter of leaves. Then something between a purr and a snarl broke the silence. Nearer and nearer it came; a peculiar, sweaty odour, mingled fur and grease and foul miasma, filled the air. The wolf paused and growled uneasily as Ulric held his breath. The brute scented danger and advanced more cautiously, but still he advanced, till Ulric from his hiding-place could see the long, lean, ragged form quivering there.
The wolf was close to him now, so close that he could have touched him with the tip of his fingers. With nerves strung to the highest tension, Ulric was filled with hysterical impulse to rush blindly out and grapple with the foe.
But hereditary instinct and ingrained woodcraft restrained him. He crouched under the shelf with knife upraised, waiting for the wolf to proceed. The heavy russet coat of the wolf rustled and quivered; Ulric could almost see the snarling fangs, but he waited, waited with the patience of the Guards at Waterloo. With patience the game must assuredly be his.
Still the wolf advanced, the foetid odour became nauseating. The long, lean flanks came on and on, not more than a foot from Ulric's knife. His hand shot out as he caught the near hind-leg in a grip of steel. A scream of rage and pain and fear smote on the startled air.
A grey muzzle pointed with black and armed with two rows of shining teeth whipped round with the rapidity of light. The white ivory trap snatched at Ulric's breast as he raised his knife.
The blade flashed, there was a dim half-circle, like the fading glow of a star that falls, the steel met flesh and bone and sinew,and shearing them as if they had been a carrot, cut the limb away.
A cry of triumph burst from Ulric. With three legs only the wolf would be at his mercy. Its instinct would be to turn and fly, pursued by the victor, who had only to track his prey down until, exhausted by loss of blood, the end came. Farsala was saved!
Not yet, not yet. This was no ordinary breed of wolf, as Ulric might have remembered. With an amazing energy and tenacity the beast turned and faced his enemy. He could see Ulric now, and, lying under the ledge of rock, the latter was at a terrible disadvantage. Foaming with rage and filled with lust to kill, the white-throated wolf came on.
The terrible hurt seemed to give him fresh life and energy. The evil-smelling muzzle came down under the shelf of rock as Ulric made a lunge with his reeking knife for the heart. Cramped and hampered as he was, the stroke lost force and direction, merely glancing from the wolf's jaw and penetrating the ground.
Before Ulric could recover and strike again, the wolf had him by the thick leather jerkin that protected his chest. As if he had been a blind kitten in the mouth of some feline mother, he was carried out into the open. As Ulric fought to save himself, the knife slipped from his hand. The knife was attached by a thong to his wrist, it is true, but he dared not reach for the haft now.
He had business of a much more pressing nature on hand now than the speedy despatch of the foe. For the moment Farsala and its depleted crown were forgotten. He lay on his back fighting for his life.
His throat, his throat, if he could only protect his throat. The stiff leather collar about it stood him in good stead now, and, fortunately for him, those sharp, tearing claws were more or less useless, seeing that the severing of a leg had deprived those nervous loins of their power. Still, the whole weight of the beast lay like lead on Ulric's chest, the dripping, foaming jaws were tearing his collar. The breath of the wolf was hot, the foetid smell of it horrible. A physical sickness turned Ulric's soul to water for the moment.
He was nearly, nearly lost. When he came to himself again he realised that his leather collar was getting soaked and sodden with saliva and torn to ribbons by those cruel teeth. In the blindness of despair Ulric shot a hand out and gripped the wolf by the lower jaw.
In a moment the wolf was practically powerless. Given strength enough, and a man might hold a tiger thus, gripping the lower jaw and the tongue simultaneously. If only Ulric could reach and use his knife.
As yet he dared not try for that, the opportunity might come presently. The wolf jerked his head upwards, wrenching Ulric almost to his knees. That he would not be able to maintain his hold he knew perfectly well. But the wolf must be bleeding, bleeding slowly, and every instant's delay was precious as water in a dry land. So far Ulric could hug himself with no delusion as to the fading of that nervous strength; still, he clung with the bulldog tenacity of despair. He could only set his teeth and wait.
With a muffled snarl the wolf tugged afresh. The force of the struggle rolled him clean over, Ulric following, still glued to the dripping jaws. Then Ulric found himself slipping and rolling down a ledge of rock, there was a sudden fall as through velvet space, and then as sudden a shock, a cold, gapping plunge, and the two, still locked together, were fighting in the rapid mountain stream.
They had fallen some twenty feet or so into water which, though shallow, was sufficient to break the force of the fall. On either side the wall was sheer, below a bridal-veil fall of the river, above a deep, black pool.
Ulric lay breathless and exhausted upon a yellow spit of sand that cropped out of the torrent. He saw no way of escape, for to go down was death, and to try and swim upstream was impossible. No man in Farsala, save the King, could have done it.
Ulric eyed the wolf grimly.
"It's you or I, or both of us, now," he muttered. "Not much chance of either of us getting away from here, anyway. The only thing is—will they find me in time to save the situation, or will they come too late? 'To be or not to be? that is the question.'"
But wolves, white-throated or otherwise, are not much interested in Shakespeare's philosophy. The beast had made, like Ulric, for the spit of sand, a proceeding Ulric resisted, seeing that there was only room for one, therefore the other would have to yield the palm and take the mercy of the roaring stream.
Ulric had his knife again now. As the wolf crawled snarling up to him he made a motion to strike—a mere feeble motion, for his strength was being exhausted and the coldness of the water chilled him to the soul.
Still, it sufficed, for from a wound in the neck the red blood came pouring. The great beast with one convulsive spring was on Ulric again and bore him down deep to the wet sand. Once more did Ulric grip the jaw and tongue, and then, despite himself, and with a sullen shame for his weakness did he open his lips and scream for "Help! help!"
It was once and only once, it was the confession of the limit of human fortitude. Not for a kingdom would Ulric have called again. He felt his strength ebbing away, and at the same time he knew by the sobbing breath of the creature above him that the wolf was in extremis also. Which would last the longer? which would come through the fire?
"God grant it may be me," Ulric muttered. "Not for my sake, but for hers. Would Heaven sacrifice a kingdom for this carrion? Nay, nay."
And then a voice from the river's bank called Ulric by name.
NEW life and vigour flashed meteor-like in every limb. The voice was that of the King.
"Where are you, Count?" he cried. "I heard you call."
Ulric explained with a brevity fitting the occasion. The next instant the mighty figure of the King no longer loomed large, for its place was absent. Then came a plunge in the black heart of the pool, and King Max was by Ulric's side.
A huge hand shot out, there was a groan and a rattle, the splash of a body in the pool, and the King stood neck-deep in the flood with the white throat of the wolf in his hand. He had torn the throat out as he had done on one great occasion before. "Tbe body," Ulric faltered, "the body!" "Will go over tbe waterfall into tbe pool below, never to be seen any more. You seem to have forgotten tbat anything once there never rises again. Get on my back."
Ulric knew that tone and instantly obeyed. Then the King did perhaps the greatest exploit of all his splendid romantic career. With that dead weight he swam a good rifle-shot up a rapid, smooth as ice and as cold, until he landed his burden safely. He shook the water off him like a big dog, and his laugh set the shadows ringing. Yet his shoulders rose and fell, Ulric could hear the beating of his heart.
"You are unhurt?" he asked.
Ulric was unhurt, but utterly spent and weary. The throat of the wolf was in his hand now, for the King had gracefully surrendered it.
"I shall accompany you to the Castle," said the King.
"But, your Majesty," Ulric stammered, "there is no necessity. Your companions—"
"Consign my companions! For the time I am sick of them. I stole out to get a breath of fresh air, and when I heard you cry I recognised your voice. The rest of them will think I have gone home. And it seems to me, my dear Count, that I have yet much to learn concerning your adventure. The prelude and the prologue are yet missing. Tell me."
There was no help for it now, the truth would have to be told. Ulric placed the white throat of the wolf in the hand of the King.
"I would prefer that her Majesty told you, sir," he said. "For myself, I am not afraid of the issue."
Late though it was, lights were still burning in the Queen's private apartments. The faint grey streaks of the dawn were glinting on banners and bars and stained glass before Ulric looked on the face of the King again.
"A trusty messenger has already been despatched to Farsala with the crown," he said. "Yes, the Queen has told me everything. Of your share I say nothing at present. What I owe you I shall repay in deeds, not in words. I was wrong to keep my crown here, and I see it now. My egotism seems to have been commensurate with my physical powders."
"You will send Prince Thor away?" Ulric asked eagerly.
The King nodded. A dark frown had settled on his forehead. Ulric had never seen this mood before, there was a majesty in those broad shoulders strange to him.
* * * * *
"Wait till to-morrow," he said, "and you shall see."
Prince Thor came down to the great hall where breakfast was prepared. Most of the Court were gathered there, something seemed in the air. State formed no part of the doings at the Castle generally. Then, as the Queen came sweeping down in her robes, all rose, for she wore the emerald crown on her head.
One glance, and Prince Thor rose to his feet. His eyes were staring at the crown. The King watched him with contempt in his eyes.
"What does it mean?" Prince Thor gasped.
"We do you honour to-day," the King cried. "It is to give you the respect due to you on your departure for foreign lands. Gentlemen, Prince Thor leaves here to-day for an indefinite period. The decision has been come to suddenly, but it is not for us to throw obstacles in the way. Everything is ready, and in an hour the Prince will be on his way to the capital. You would hardly imagine it in one so robust, but the air of this place does not agree with our royal cousin. The blow of his departure will be severe, but we shall survive it in time. There is no need for me to say more, except that, as token that we part in amity, I extend to my cousin my hand."
The King crossed the room and extended his hand. Thor hesitated, but only for a moment. Like the strong man he was, he recognised the crushing force against him. He had been tricked and fooled, but he did not know how—indeed, he was not destined to know.
"It is all for the best," he said. "Your Majesty is kind. To the Queen I kiss—my —hand; and long may she continue to wear the emerald crown. For thrones—are slippery things."
The Queen smiled unsteadily. Her glance fell on Ulric's proud face.
"Not when they are cemented with the hearts of my people," she said.
TWISTING the card in his fingers, Lancaster Vane stood, impatient. He had all the novelist's scathing, lightning-flash passion for puerile interruption.
"Didn't I tell you—?" he growled. Then he paused, with the surging sense of humour uppermost. The black-and-white starched parlour maid was wilting before his scathing indignation. "Don't you know that I once murdered a maid who disobeyed my orders like this? Show the man in."
The girl gurgled and vanished. Then followed a man with a gliding step and a moist gray eye, that took the whole room and the trim garden beyond and even the novelist in like the flash of a camera, and held the picture on the mental gelatin for all time.
"I am afraid I am intruding upon you, sir," the stranger suggested.
"Oh, you are," Vane said quietly. "Don't let that trouble you, though. I always work in the mornings, and I play golf all the afternoon. I make this arrangement so that if people waste my time in the mornings I can make up for it by sacrificing my pleasure after luncheon."
Inspector Darch, of Scotland Yard, ventured upon a smile.
"I come upon business of importance," he said.
"I guessed that from the card. Had you not been a policeman I should have declined to see you. In search of copy I have spent a deal of time in police and criminal courts, and I am bound to say I have a certain affection for the average constable. He has imagination—the way he generally gives his evidence shows that. He is a novelist in the nut."
Inspector Darch looked searchingly at the speaker. He was just a little disappointing. He was not tall and pale, with flashing eyes and long hair; on the contrary, his hair was that of the athlete, and he might have passed for a pugilist of the better class. The sensitive mouth and fine gray eyes saved the countenance from the commonplace. Thus it was that, after a second searching gaze, Darch seemed to see a face kaleidoscope from broad commonplace into the rugged suggestion of a young Gladstone. Here was no ordinary man. But then everybody who had studied Lancaster Vane's novels knew that.
"My complaint is, that we all lack imagination," the inspector said. "Of course, what you so playfully allude to is inventiveness. Young policeman always invent—they fancy that their first duty is to get a conviction. But they have no imagination. I've got a name and a good reputation, but no imagination."
"You have come to a deadlock in some case you have on hand?"
"That's it, sir. And I've made so bold as to come and ask for your assistance."
"Come out into the garden and smoke a cigar, then," Vane said suddenly.
Darch complied willingly. Vane's thatched cottage was on the river—a tiny place consisting of a large study, a smoking room, and a dining-room, with quarters at the back for bachelor friends. Hither he had come earlier in the season than usual, with the intention of finishing a novel, before turning from "his beans and bacon," as he phrased it, to the butterfly delights of the London season. For Vane's books were satires for the most part, and he knew his world as well as any man living. Audacity and insight were the jewels in the wheel of his style. He had a marvellous faculty for seeing through a thing, a faculty that made him both respected and feared.
The garden was a riotous delight of daffodils and tulips, primulas and narcissus. There was no finer show of those pure spring flowers to be seen anywhere. Vane had a perfect passion for flowers, especially the spring varieties. He could name a bulb as a savant can locate the flint or the sandstone. With an eye for detail, Darch did not fail to notice that there were no less than 16 varieties of daffodils.
"Here I live for my work and my flowers," said Vane. "When down here, I smoke a pipe and live more or less on fish and bacon. When I am in town, I am nice over my wine and critical to rudeness over my friend's cigarettes. You are fond of flowers, Mr. Darch?"
"At present I am deeply interested in them," Darch replied.
"And thereby hangs a tale," said Vane. "Go on."
"There! I knew you were the man for me," Darch said admiringly.
Vance smiled; for even a novelist is only a man in disguise.
"Heavens! If I'd only got that insight of yours! It's a murder case, sir."
"You have a murder case on hand that utterly puzzles you?" Vane had dropped into a rustic garden seat, where he was thoughtfully pulling at his pipe. "And the matter is not remotely connected with flowers," he concluded.
"Got it again, sir!" the delighted Darch exclaimed. "You see, it's like this. I've read all your books—indeed, I have read most novels that make the study of humanity, and I don't deny that I've learnt a lot that way."
"Have you really?" Vane said quickly.
"I don't mind your little joke, sir. I've learnt that an innocent man can show exactly the same terror as the guilty caught red-handed; I've learnt—but no matter. And many a time it has struck me what a wonderful detective a first class novelist would make. I don't mean in little things, such as tracking criminals and the like—I mean in elucidating big problems. When we exhaust every avenue, his imagination would find a score of others, especially if he had a good psychological knowledge of his man. Now, I've got a case on hand that I believe you can solve for me, sir."
"Possibly," said Vane. "But where does my psychological knowledge come in? Seeing that there is no suspect, and that the victim is a stranger to me—"
"The victim is no stranger to you Mr. Vane; I've found that out. And because you know him, and because of your novels, I am here today."
"This is getting interesting," Vane murmured. "The victim?"
"Ernst Van Noop. He was found dead in his cottage at Pinner last night, and there is not the slightest trace of the murderer. Van Noop lived in his house quite alone, and he seemed to have no hobby or occupation beyond his little garden and greenhouses."
"Except when he was spouting sedition in Hyde Park on Sundays," said Vane. "I'm sorry to hear about this. Really, Van Noop was a perfectly harmless creature, and at heart as gentle as a child. A little eccentric, but that was all."
Darch dissented mildly. He was bound to regard the doings of the dead Dutchman with an official eye. The man had been an anarchist of the worst type; his Sunday orations would never have been tolerated in any other country; his doctrines were, to say the least, inflammatory.
"You are quite wrong," said Vane. "Poor Van Noop would not have injured a fly. In his way the man was a genius, and genius must have an outlet, or it is apt to become chargeable upon the rates. Anarchy was Van Noop's safety valve. He and I came together over the common table of flowers—bulbs especially. He could have worked wonders in the way of hybrids and new varieties had he lived. Your dangerous character theory won't hold water. I defy you to prove to me that the poor old Dutchman consorted with notoriously dangerous characters."
"Then why did he ask for police protection?" Darch demanded. "What was he afraid of? He had no money or valuables, he never went near any of the Soho clubs; so far as we can tell, nobody suspicious ever went near him. Yet for the last few days that man has been frightened out of his life—afraid of being murdered, he said. At the same time he refused to give any account of the party or parties who held him in terror, and he point-blank declined to open his mouth as to the reason for any threats or danger."
"You fancy he was a Nihilist who had fallen under the ban of the order?"
"I feel practically certain of it, sir," Darch replied. "He has been murdered by those people, and they have left no trace behind. That is why I am here."
Vane smiled in a manner calculated to annoy anybody but a detective.
"I don't fancy you are far wrong to appeal to the imagination of a novelist," he said, "especially to a novelist who knows the victim. I don't know the murderer, any more than you do, but I'll prophesy for once. Within a week you shall have the assassin within your hands. Come, isn't that assertion enough even for a writer of fiction?"
"You can put your hand upon the Nihilist?" Darch cried. "You know him?"
"I don't know him, and he isn't a Nihilist," Vane replied. "I haven't the remotest idea who the murderer is, and yet I stick to my opinion. I am going entirely on a theory, which theory is built upon some knowledge of the dead man's past. You will, perhaps, be glad to hear that it is a theory that would only occur to a novelist; therefore you were perfectly right in the line of policy that brought you here. Now, perhaps you will be so good as to tell me all the details."
"The details are nil, practically," Darch replied. "The policeman on duty near Van Noop's cottage had certain special orders. He noticed that the door was not open late in the afternoon, and he could not make anybody hear. Then he burst open the door and found Van Noop lying dead in the kitchen with a wound in his side. There were no signs of violence; indeed, Van Noop must have been taken quite by surprise, for just under his heel, as if he had slipped upon it, was a small smashed onion."
"Onion!" Vane cried. "An onion! Great Scot!"
The mention of that homely yet pungent vegetable seemed to have the strangest effect upon the novelist. He glanced at Darch with mingled contempt and pity, a great agitation possessed him as he restlessly strode to and fro. Then he dropped into his seat again, and his shoulders shook in a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
"You will pardon me," he said, after a pause; "but your apparently commonplace words swept all the strings of emotion at once. And yet you say there is no clue. Now, could you have any clue stronger than an onion?"
"You are slightly too subtle for me, sir," Darch said, not without heat.
"I beg your pardon," Vane said contritely. "But I should very much like to see that onion."
Darch replied that the request might be complied with. He would have permitted himself the luxury of satire with anybody else but Vane over the matter. But then Vane had made him a cold, concrete promise that he should handle the quarry within seven days. From a novelist who had consistently refused to be interviewed, the promise carried weight.
"Was there anything else?" Vane asked.
"Nothing so prominent as the onion," Darch replied. "I, of course, made a close examination of the body, and in the right hand I found a flower. It looks to me like a periwinkle. Of course, it is much faded, and perhaps you may attach some importance to it. Being an ordinary man, it conveys nothing to me?"
Vane's eyes were gleaming. The lines of his sensitive mouth twitched. If he was moved to laughter anymore, he laughed inside.
"I don't suppose it would," he said thoughtfully, "seeing that Van Noop was a lover of flowers. He might have been looking at the bloom at the moment when the fatal blow was struck. It would be quite natural for him to keep the flower in his grasp. You have it, of course?"
"Yes, sir," said Darch. "One never quite knows. Didn't some great man once say that there are no such things as small details?"
"Details are the cogwheels of great actions," Vane said sententiously. "Give me the flower."
Darch took the withered bloom from his pocketbook. It was wilted and lank, with a grass green stem and some dank velvet tassels hanging forlornly to the head. Had it been some precious treasure of the storied ages Vane could not have examined it more tenderly.
"What do you make of it?" Darch asked carelessly.
Vane shook his head. "The bloom is too far gone at present," he said. "It might be possible to revive it by plunging the whole in tepid water, with a little salt added." And yet, in spite of his assumed indifference, Vane's voice shook a little when he spoke.
"You had better leave this with me," he said. "In any case, it will be quite safe in my hands, and as the inquest on Van Noop's body is over, you will not need it for the present. At the same time, I am quite in earnest over my prophecy. If you will come here this day week at 6 P.M., I will go with you and assist you, if necessary, in arresting the murderer."
Darch departed, somewhat dazed at the result of his interview. But there was no smile on the face of the novelist, nothing but eager, palpitating curiosity, as he proceeded to plunge the wilted flower into water, to which a little salt was added.
"I'll go for a long pull on the river," he murmured. "I can't stay here by that thing. I should get an attack of nerves watching it expand. I wonder if it is possible that—"
He came back at length, two hours later, and proceeded to the study. Then he drew the flower from the water, and, behold! a glorious and pleasing transformation. The dead, crepe-like petals had filled out to a velvety, glossy softness, black as night and lustrous as ebony. There were five of these black petals, and in the centre a calyx of deep purple with a heart of gold. Vane's hand shook as if with wine as he examined the perfect flowers, his eyes were glowing with admiration.
He flicked the water from it and dried it carefully. Then he held it where the sun might play upon the velvety lustre and shine upon the perfect dead blackness. Vane's eyes were like those of a mother gazing at a child back from the gates of death.
"Now I know what Van Noop was hinting at," he said. "He said he had a fortune in his pocket, and he was right. And I am the only living man who has been as yet permitted to look upon a black narcissus."
It was characteristic of Lancaster Vane that he should throw himself heart and soul into his undertaking. It had occurred to him more than once that the typical detective officer was lacking in imagination, and crime in the abstract interested him, as it must interest all writers of fiction; and more than once he had found his theories of some great case not only at variance with the police, but absolutely right when they had been as absolutely wrong.
That marvelous audacity and insight had rarely failed Vane when dealing with living, breathing humanity. And he had no fear of failure here.
All the same, Inspector Darch began to grow uneasy when the sixth day came and nothing had transpired—at least, nothing of a tangible nature. He came down to the cottage late in the evening with a sufficiently flimsy excuse for seeing the man of letters.
Vane was seated in his study, reading by the light of a shaded lamp. The vivid blood-red line of the fringed silk was but one crimson spot in a dim, shimmering blackness. The novelist half sighed, and then smiled as he laid down his book.
"I had forgotten all about you, Darch," he said.
"You don't mean to say you have done nothing, sir?" the inspector cried.
"On the contrary, I have done a great deal, my friend," Vane replied. "I meant that I had forgotten you for a moment. I am reading a novel here which in my humble opinion is the best that Dumas ever wrote."
"Monte Cristo?" Darch murmured. "Hear, hear!"
"No, it is not Monte Cristo," Vane replied. "I am alluding to 'The Black Tulip.' Later on you will appreciate the value of the work. Imagination and education do a great deal for a man, but a judicious system of novel-reading does more. Some day our prophet shall arise and tell the world what an influence for good the best novels have wielded. Do you know the book?"
Darch admitted having skimmed it. He had found the characterisation feeble—at least, from a detective's point of view. Vane smiled.
"I shall change your opinion presently," he said. "Have you discovered anything?"
"As to Van Noop, you mean? No, sir. Have you?"
"No," Vane replied. "I am still quite as much in the dark as yourself."
"But you promised me that within a week—"
"I would show you the man. Well, I am going to do so. I haven't the remotest idea who he is yet, but I am going to meet him tomorrow afternoon. When I have done so, I shall send you a telegram to Scotland Yard giving you the man's address and the hour you are to meet me there. Does that satisfy you?"
Darch expressed his thanks but feebly. All this was very irregular. Also, though it had an element of gasconade about it, it was impossible to look into Vane's strong, grave face and doubt that he believed every word that he uttered. If this were detective's work, why, then, it amounted to genius. And thus Darch departed, with a strong feeling of uncertainty.
It was a little after 12:00 the next day that Vane set out to walk from Pinner Station on the Metropolitan to the cottage recently inhabited by the unhappy Van Noop. Nearing his destination he felt in his pocketbook for certain news cuttings and a printed circular he had there. And this printed circular was to the effect that on this same date the whole of the garden produce, plants, flowers, bulbs, and apparatus generally belonging to the late Ernst Van Noop, were to be sold by auction, by order of the landlord, under a distress for rent. By the time Vane came to the cottage a free sprinkling of gardeners and florists had arrived, for, though the sale was a small one, Van Noop had been fairly well known amongst the brotherhood, and there was just the chance of picking up an odd parcel or so of hybrid bulbs which might become worth their weight in gold later on.
A lover of flowers and a man keen on anything new in that direction, Vane was respectfully recognised. Most of the dealers present were gathered in the kitchen of the cottage where the bulbs were set out in little coarse blue paper bags. Most of them were properly labeled and catalogued, but there were three packets, of four bulbs each, to which the most trained florist present would have found it hard to give a name.
Vane pushed his way through a little knot of dealers. One of them touched his hat.
"Anything new here, Harris?" he asked.
"Well, sir," was the reply. "Van Noop was a close sort of party. I did hear something—in fact, I read it in the 'Garden Herald' today—as Van Noop had some wonderful black bulbs here, but maybe it's all nonsense. I can't make head or tail of those little packets yonder, and I should be sorry to risk a sovereign on the chance of them turning out anything beyond the common. The other bulbs look good, but we could all show as fine a variety."
"I'll speculate," said Vane. "There's a commission for you, Harris. You can go up to five pounds each for those particular packets, but not a penny beyond. Of course, it will be throwing money away, but nothing venture, nothing win. And it may be possible that the 'Garden Herald' was right, and Van Noop had invented the black tulip, after all."
Vane had spoken loud enough for everybody to hear. Then he left the cottage and strode down with the air of a man who has important business before him. He came back later and lounged into the cottage unconcernedly with a pipe in his mouth. The small knot of buyers were still lingering there. Vane came up to Harris languidly.
"Well," he asked. "Do you want my cheque for those mysterious bulbs?"
"No, sir," Harris replied, "and in my opinion you're quite well out of it. I bid up to five pounds, and then a stranger raised a sovereign a bag, and I dropped it, of course. There he is, sir. You don't often get a chance to see the amateur enthusiast at his best; but he's only a foreigner."
This with the finest insular contempt. Vane glanced carelessly at the slight, stooping figure and thin, pinched features of the man who had incurred the florist's displeasure. The eyes he could not see, for they were behind glasses.
"Evidently an enthusiast, like myself," Vane said. "We all have our philosopher's stone, Harris."
"I dare say we do," Harris replied sententiously.
Vane smiled again. He passed over to the auctioneer and, after a few minutes with that worthy, scribbled out a telegram in pencil. When he looked round again, the foreign connoisseur had disappeared. Harris was busily engaged in directing the package of his own small purchase.
"I am coming over tomorrow to see that salmon auricula of yours," said Vane. "I am sorry to say that mine are doing indifferently. Not enough shade, perhaps.'
"That's it, sir," Harris responded. "Aristocratic flower, naturally, is the auricula. Put 'em in an old garden along the borders under apple trees, and you can grow 'em like peonies. It's only county people who can grow auriculas."
"I'll put a coat-of-arms over mine," Vane laughed. "By the way, as you are passing a station, will you be good enough to send this telegram for me?"
The telegram merely contained an address, followed by a single figure, and was directed to Darch's registered address at Scotland Yard. To the casual reader it conveyed nothing. Then Vane made his way into the road.
He walked on for a mile or more until he came, at length, to a pretty little cottage, a double-fronted one-story affair, covered with creepers. There was a long garden in front, a garden deep sunken between trim, thick hedges, the black soil of which was studded with thousands of flowers—hyacinths, tulips, narcissus, nothing was wanting.
Vane's artistic eye reveled in the lovely sight.
He stood thus feasting his soul on the mass of beautiful colors before him. The more important mission was forgotten for the moment. There was something of envy in Vane's glance, too, for with all his lavish outlay he could not produce blooms like these. And the owner of the place was obviously a poor man.
"A better soil, perhaps," Vane muttered, "or perhaps it's because these beauties get the whole attention of the grower. Flowers want more attention than most women. When those gladiolus come into bloom—"
Vane paused in his ruminations as the owner of the cottage came out. He had a black skullcap on the back of his head, around which gray hairs straggled like a thatch. As he stood in the path of the setting sun Vane noticed the long, slender hands and a heavy signet ring on the right little finger. They were not the hands of the toiler or workman, and yet to Vane they indicated both strength and resolution.
"I am admiring your flowers," he said. "They are absolutely perfect. I am an enthusiast myself, but I have nothing like this."
"Nothing so perfect?" the old man said. "Won't you come in, sir?"
The question was asked with a certain mixture of humility and high courtesy that seemed to take Vane back over the bridge of the centuries. The man before him was bent and shaken by the palsy of old age, and yet his eyes were full of fire and determination. His English was thin and foreign, yet he spoke with the easy fluency of the scholar. Again Vane forgot his mission. An hour or more passed, the sun had flamed down behind the fragrant hawthorn, and Vane was still listening.
He had met a man with an enthusiasm greater than his own. Vane was standing in the presence of a master, and he knew it. The man was talking excitedly.
"I was a rich man once," he said. "The Van Eykes were a power in Holland at one time. And I have ruined myself over flowers as Orientals ruin themselves over their harems, and as the visionary in seeking for the elixir of life. Flowers have ever been my mistress—I have given my all for them, my life to the study of the secrets of nature. If I could only go down to posterity as the inventor of something new—"
"A black tulip, for instance," Vane suggested.
The dark eyes behind the glasses flashed. Vane looked at his watch.
"Oh, yes!" Van Eyke cried. "It was that fascinating romance that first set me thinking. Perhaps you, too, have had your dreams, sir?"
"I confess it," Vane smiled. "You see, I am a novelist as well as a florist. I am still sanguine of seeing a black, a velvety black, flower. It will be soft-stemmed when it comes, and, as you know, it will be a bulbous plant."
"Perhaps I shall be able to show it to you."
Van Eyke spoke quietly, yet with a thrill in his voice. His hand trembled with something more than the weight of years. His glance wandered toward the house.
"I had it almost within my grasp five years ago," he said. "I was living near Amsterdam then. You should have seen my hybrids—black, and white, and patches, and the black pre-dominating. Heavens! how I longed and waited for the next springtime!"
"You are speaking of tulips, of course?" Vane asked carelessly.
"Oh, no," said Van Eyke. He paused in confusion, the red thread of his lips paled. "Yes, yes, of course I meant tulips. The black tulip. Ah, ah!"
His gaiety was not a pleasant thing. It was too suggestive of the butterfly on the skeleton.
"Oh! I waited for the springtime," he went on. "Aye, I waited as a prisoner for freedom. And they all came pink! My children had been stolen! Sir, you are a novelist. You can understand the frame of mind in which one commits murder."
"Did you track the man who had robbed you?" Vane asked.
"After a time I did; but it was years. Sir, I am talking nonsense."
"You may have said too much in the excitement of the moment," Vane said coolly, "But certainly you are not talking nonsense. You tracked your man, and you killed him. Why?"
Van Eyke's hands went up with an almost mechanical gesture. At the same moment a step was heard, crunching the gravel outside, and Darch appeared. Vane made a motion with his hand in the direction of Van Eyke's bent, quivering figure.
"You have come in time," he said. "This is Mr. Darch, of Scotland Yard. And this is Mr. Van Eyke, the man who killed Van Noop a few days ago."
Darch was too astonished to speak for a moment. The dramatic force of the situation had almost overpowered him. For crime as a rule is sordid enough, and the heroic in the life of a detective is only for the pages of fiction.
"This is a poor return for all my courtesy," Van Eyke said, not without dignity. "I have never even heard of the gentleman you mention."
Darch looked helplessly at Vane. The suggestion that he was about to be fooled was painful. Never had the mantle of the majesty of the law lain more awkwardly on his shoulders.
"It is quite possible," Vane said, "that you never heard of Van Noop by that name. But assuredly you knew all about the man at Pinner, the man who was murdered, and some of whose bulbs today fetched over five pounds a packet, or nearly two pounds per bulb."
"I have not heard of that," said Van Eyke.
"Strange, seeing that you purchased them," Vane went on. "This is nonsense, Mr. Van Eyke. I saw you at the sale, and I am surprised that you did not see me. However, all this is beside the point. You bought those bulbs at an extravagant price because you believed that they were the bulbs of the black—"
"There is not a black—a black tulip in the world."
"Who said anything about a black tulip?" Vane retorted. "What you were after was a black narcissus. Perhaps you will deny the existence of that?"
"I should like to see it, above all things."
The sneer passed over Vane's head. He stepped close to Van Eyke and opened his overcoat. In the lapel of his coat, the stem carefully preserved in water, he wore Van Noop's black narcissus. The flower was slightly ragged at the edges, but it was all there, like a lovely woman past her prime.
The effect was staggering. Van Eyke fell, as if some unseen power had beaten him to his knees.
"Where did you get it?" he asked hoarsely. "Where did you get it?"
"Surely you need not ask the question," said Vane. "It was the one Van Noop was holding in his hand at the time you murdered him."
Van Eyke rose slowly to his feet. He made no further denial of the grave charge, he seemed to be absolutely unconscious of the danger hanging over his head. He had only eyes for the flower in Vane's coat. Darch watched the scene with lively admiration.
"Let me see it, let me hold it," said Van Eyke. He spoke like a man in a dream. "I don't care what you do, I don't care what happens to me, so long as I can hold that flower in my hand. You need not be afraid. I will not injure it. Injure it? Bah! Would a mother injure her firstborn? I have sold my soul for it, as Faust sold his for Marguerite."
His eyes had grown soft and pleading. It seemed impossible to believe that the gentle, quivering creature could have the blood of a fellow creature on his hands. Vane passed the flower over, in spite of a glance of disapproval from Darch. It seemed like madness to hand over to the prisoner's custody the strongest link of evidence against him and how frail that link was!
Van Eyke bent over the flower and pressed it to his lips.
"This is mine," he said, "Mine! For 20 years I have labored to attain this result. Another hand grew it, another hand feuded it and fostered it, but the child is mine. Van Noop stole my black and white hybrids two years ago, and from them he has developed this. He has been no more that the clod who has made the frame and varnished the canvas, for the picture is mine. And I killed him."
The confession was out a last. Darch stepped forward. The man was merged in the official. For the moment he forget to admire Vane and the wonderful way in which he had elucidated the mystery. He became a mere detective again.
"I must warn you," he said, "that all you say will be taken in evidence against you."
Van Eyke smiled. Then he handed the black narcissus back to Vane. "What does it matter?" he said. "What does anything matter? I have seen all the fond hopes of years gratified, and I can die happy. I care nothing whatever whether Van Noop or myself gets the credit for the black narcissus, so long as it is there. He robbed me—I found him—and I killed him—killed him with the very thing I coveted in his hand. He died with it in his hand, and I never knew it."
"It is two years since I tracked Van Noop to England, after he robbed me. Then I settled down in this cottage, waiting my time, and for two years he lived within a mile of me, and I never knew it—never found it out. A month last Sunday I was in London. I was passing through Hyde Park when I heard an anarchist addressing a mob. Something in his voice impelled me to draw near. It was my man, the man who had robbed me of the best part of my life.
"I followed him home. I found where he lived, and I waited my opportunity. It came. I slipped into the cottage when the door was open, and there he was, bending over a pot with a flower growing in it. I made a noise, and he turned and saw me. I fancied that it was his fear that caused him to break off the flower in the pot, but I had only eyes for my foe. Then with a knife I struck him to the heart, and he died without a murmur. For an hour I remained there, searching the house, but I could not find what I was searching for. I was looking for the black narcissus. Gentlemen, that is all."
"One question," said Vane. "Had you been hanging about Van Noop's cottage?"
"For three or four weeks, yes," Van Eyke replied. "I was seeking for my opportunity."
"Is it possible that he might have discovered this?"
"Oh, it is possible, all these things are possible. Why?"
"I was merely asking for my own information," said Vane. "There was a point to be cleared up, and you have done it for us. I am sorry for this, very sorry. It seems a pity that so fine and innocent and beautiful a place should be mixed up in a sordid crime like this."
Van Eyke shrugged his shoulders. There was no trace of fear in his eyes now; indeed, it seemed to Vane that those eyes were blazing with a fire beyond the bright glow of reason.
"Most of the brightest jewels in the world are stained with blood," Van Eyke said, "and if the orchids in your millionaires' houses could speak, what tragedies they might tell! Sir, I am in your hands. Sir, I wish you good night."
The Dutchman turned from Darch to Vane with a stately courtesy. He might have been a lordly host bowing out two objectionable visitors. A little later, and the prisoner found himself with a stolid policeman in the back of a dog cart. Darch lingered a moment before he took his seat.
"Mr. Vane," he said, "this is really wonderful."
"It is exceedingly painful and squalid to me," Vane replied. "But I see you are puzzled. You have seen the problem finished, and naturally you are anxious to have the moves all explained. If you will come to the Lotus Club after dinner tomorrow night, I will make everything clear. Say nine o'clock."
"Mr. Vane," Darch said emphatically, "I will be there."
"And now, Darch," said Vane, as he finished his coffee daintily, "I am going to be egotistical. I am going to talk about myself to the extent of some one thousand words. As a rule, I get some 20 guineas per thousand for my words—but that is another story.
"The other night you came to me with a story of an anarchist—he had done something wrong in the eyes of other Nihilists, and feared for his life. You came to me, in the first place, to obtain inspiration from a novelist, and, secondly, because the victim was, like myself, an ardent lover of flowers.
"Now, in the first place, permit me to correct a wrong impression of yours. From your point of view I should never make a good detective. I decline to believe in the theory of obvious deduction. Dupin and Sherlock Holmes were steeped to the lips in it. My word! What blunders they would have made had they reduced those theories to practice! Holmes takes a watch, and from a keyhole, by the scratches, deduces that the owner is a man of dissipated habits. But suppose he had been partially blind or suffering, from paralysis, eh? No, that's no good, save in fiction.
"Now, I knew Van Noop. I knew him to be incapable of injuring a fly. His socialism was merely a safety valve. The man might have been a visionary, but what he didn't know about flowers wasn't worth knowing. And more than once he had hinted to me that he was on the verge of a great discovery. As bulbs were his hobby, and as he was a Dutchman, also, as he was a great admirer of Dumas, I guessed he was after a black flower. They are all after it. And it was not to be a tulip, because Van Noop didn't care much for tulips.
"Then you came to me and told me he had been murdered. You told me about the mysterious way in which he had asked for police protection, and instantly it flashed across my mind that somebody had discovered his secret and was trying to get it from him. When you brought me that withered flower, I was sure of my argument; and when you spoke of that smashed onion, I was positive. You made me laugh over that onion, you remember. That probably was a bulb of the black narcissus, though as a layman you were quite justified in taking it for that succulent vegetable.
"After you were gone I developed that black narcissus. There before me was a motive for the murder. It seemed to me that there had been a struggle for it, and that Van Noop had destroyed the flower and crushed the bulb just before he was killed. Then, as a natural sequence to this important discovery, the story of 'The Black Tulip' came into my mind. I had to find the man who committed the crime for the sake of the narcissus. And this is where the novelist comes in. It was not a case for obvious deduction, it was a case of introspection. You would have gone blundering your head against Nihilist revenge and the like. I simply had to weave a romance round that flower, a romance with blood in it. And gradually my art and my imagination led me to the true and only possible solution of the mystery. Van Noop had been murdered for the sake of the black narcissus beyond question, and the assassin must be an enthusiast and a madman, like himself. You will call this intuition.
"Then I had to draw my man. I found out when the sale was coming off, and a man who knows the address of every amateur gardener in London posted a special circular I had printed hinting that Van Noop's collection held rare things to buyers. When I reached Van Noop's cottage on the day of the sale I had no idea who the murderer was, but I felt absolutely certain that he would be present, whether he had my circular or not. Then, in a stage whisper, I asked a florist to purchase a parcel or two of bulbs for me at a fancy price. As I expected, on my return I found they had been bought over my head by somebody else. And then, my dear Darch, I knew the man who had murdered Van Noop. I had only to go over to the auctioneer and obtain the address of the man who had given a large sum for a parcel of bulbs which he fondly hoped contained the black narcissus. I obtained that address and followed Van Eyke to his cottage."
"Wonderful!" Darch cried. "I should never have thought of it."
"Of course you wouldn't," Vane replied. "Crime for crime's sake would be the only motive that appealed to you. And why? Because it is impossible for the detective trained in the ordinary way to appreciate or understand the poetic side of crime. And yet I defy you to find anything sordid in the case. The whole thing is absolutely medieval. In this prosaic age it seems extraordinary that a man should commit murder for the sake of a flower. And yet in Van Eyke you have a man who would not have shed a drop of blood for all the mines of Golconda."
"You are right, sir," said Darch thoughtfully; "and I was right also. I knew that a man of imagination would be required here, and I found him. And I don't mind confessing that I should never have dreamt of connecting that crime with a simple flower."
"You might," Vane replied. "When everything else failed, you would probably have started to look out for the owner of the flower, going on the theory that the dead man had snatched it from the coat of the murderer. Another time, perhaps, I may show you how my detective theory can be worked out in another fashion. And the next time you find an onion, be quite sure it is an onion, and not a priceless bulb worth a king's ransom."
A COUPLE of wagons floundered on in the darkness. It was clear overhead now, with a rugged wrack of cloud trailing over a waning moon. There was mocking hope of thaw in the air, yet the sleet had stiffened on the wagons and the horses like a shining suit of armour.
Eustace beat his numbed hands together. Huddlestone, his subordinate, staggered on sleepily. Everywhere the white pall lay like a winding-sheet over the lost hope of France, save on the far right, where the pine forest of Marny rolled black and grim to the skyline. Away to the east lay a red zone of camp fires, and beyond them came the faint, crisp cackle of rifle shots. They were franc-tireurs firing on the vanguard of General von Zieden's column, holding up the lines between Soissons and Paris.
A coldness like the grip of Death held France. The snow pall lay everywhere. Europe had known no such bitter weather for many a year. The frost froze the raw wounds of the horses till the congealed blood glowed like carbuncles; hundreds of birds lay dead upon the snow, and through this white desolation Eustace and Huddlestone had pushed grimly with Red Cross stores for Paris for five weary weeks. They thrust forward now with that dogged determination that has gone so far to make our nation great.
They were half-frozen, dog-tired, and morbidly hungry. A blinding sleet-storm had swept the valley soon after nightfall, and when the air cleared, Eustace awoke to the fact that five out of his seven wagons had gone astray. They would turn up again on the morrow; meanwhile the two Englishmen were left with nothing but the wagons containing hospital stores, and, so far as they could see, no house was in sight.
They were bound to push on. To be out for the night under the tilt of a wagon, with no more protection from the bitter cold than a couple of blankets, was madness not to be dreamt of.
"Wake up, Huddlestone!" Eustace said sharply. "For Heaven's sake, pull yourself together! You can't sleep here!"
"Can't I?" Huddlestone said, not without a certain grim humour. "I could sleep on a hot gridiron comfortably. What a fool I was to come out here!"
Indeed, Eustace's thoughts ran in a somewhat similar groove. They were both voluntary agents, getting nothing for their hazardous undertaking, and both were men of considerable substance. Eustace looked out over the dreary white waste. A cold blast brought the tears to his eyes, and they froze on his cheek. Nothing could he see beyond the black splash made by a fallen bird or the more grotesque outline of a dead horse. Then suddenly a figure rose from behind the blown hideousness of a dead charger, there was a spit and a flash, and a revolver bullet struck the cover of the first wagon with a ring like steel on steel.
"Come out of that!" Eustace cried. "Would you fire on the Red Cross, man?"
The fugitive dropped his weapon and staggered to his feet. He was young, he had a skin of dazzling fairness, and as yet there was no down upon his lips. A ragged greatcoat reached to his knees; below them his legs were wrapped in hay-bands. Yet there was something strong and manly about the face, and the gaze turned upon Eustace held the look of one who is accustomed to be obeyed.
"Pardon!" the fugitive said hoarsely. "I had forgotten myself for a moment. I thought you were Germans. For two days I have tasted nothing. I lay down in the snow there and I grew delirious. Give me food, for the love of Heaven, give me food! A crust, a handful of oatmeal, anything."
Eustace explained the position of affairs. Beyond a sip of brandy from his own flask, his hospitality was necessarily restricted.
The young Frenchman gulped down the raw spirit, and a little life crept into his blue limbs. He pointed to a cleft in the distant woodlands.
"Safety lies there," he whispered. "It is a matter of three miles. Nothing to you, but to me as unattainable as Paradise. Listen to me, messieurs. Away yonder is the house of my father, Count Kobert Fleury. It was there I was working for when my strength failed me. Convey me yonder, and I promise you stabling for your horses and fire and food for yourselves. Yet, before you comply, I must warn you of your danger."
"No danger can be much worse than our present pass," Huddlestone muttered.
"You fancy so. Ah! you are wrong, because I am a spy. It was I who got into Von Zieden's lines, and my information that brought about the German disaster at Laon. But for the gross blundering of General Massau—blind frog that he was—the line to Paris—But I dream dreams. I escaped from St. Dinaud two days ago, and they are looking for me everywhere. There is a price upon my head. If I am discovered in your company, m'sieurs—"
"I'll risk it," said Eustace. "We are not supposed to know. I'm quite certain that my friend shares my opinion."
"I am open to any conviction that leads up to warmth and food," said Huddlestone grimly. "What do you say, Eustace?"
A minute or two later young Armand Fleury sat under the tilt of the foremost wagon, directing the way as well as his weak, spent condition would permit. In grim silence the Red Cross agents dragged their weary limbs along. It was growing colder now, and the touch of the wind was like the blow of a thong. They staggered and stumbled on over the white waste, until at length they came to the semblance of a road terminating in a grove of trees amongst which arose the ghostly outline of an ancient château.
Into a ruined courtyard, the gates of which had been blown away, the jaded cavalcade turned at length. No lights could be seen; the place seemed utterly deserted and forlorn. Presently, in response to a peculiar whistle from Fleury, two peasants crept from out the darkness, bearing lanterns. They commenced to dance and chatter with extravagant gesture as they beheld Fleury.
"Enough of this!" the latter cried. "See to those horses at once. Two of you must go down to the old chapel, and wait there till daylight. At the slightest sign of a Prussian helmet, I am to be warned at once—mind, at once. You nave heard what will happen to me, if I am taken again."
"Ah! yes, young master," one of the peasants murmured. "Jean and myself shall go. Captain Marchelle and a regiment of francs-tireurs are behind the woods at Lorelle, five miles away. If you could join them—"
"In the morning, when I am rested—yes. To move further at present would be simply to court my death. You understand?"
The peasant bowed low. His eyes were full of tears. His simple features betrayed a joy to which they had long been a stranger. Fleury held out his hand to the faithful servitor, who carried it to his lips.
"Sleep well, little master," he whispered. "No harm shall come to you to-night."
Armand Fleury staggered forward. He smote upon a door before him, and then, as it opened, he fell exhausted into the arms of an old man, who caught him as he fell.
THE Englishmen were conscious of a grateful glare of warm, white light. They sniffed an air filled with the subtle suggestion of violets. They saw a large square hall, the polished floor of which was covered with skins; a portrait or so decorated the walls. How grateful it was! how soothing and refreshing after the cruel white hardness of the outside world, the struggle for life under the fading red moon!
"Gentlemen, you are thrice welcome. My boy—you have brought my boy back to me."
Eustace pulled himself together. Polished man of the world as he was, he could only gaze with vain and fatuous vacancy at the speaker.
"Pardon," he murmured; "the sudden light nearly blinded me."
He saw more clearly now. He saw a tall man who should, in the ordinary course, have been bent with the weight of passing years. He saw instead an old, old man upright as a bulrush. His white hair streamed over his shoulders and was caught with a knot of riband behind. His delicate, high-bred face was clear as wax, and yet was graven with hundreds of wrinkles, like the delicate marking of a melon. His blue eyes were lustrous as those of a child. A pair of long, slim hands were covered with flashing rings.
A velvet, peach-coloured coat with wide skirts, and fastened with a jewelled button, enveloped him. At the throat and wrists were ruffles of old point lace. Knee breeches, silk stockings, and patent shoes completed the attire. A rapier was buckled upon the left hip.
An innate sense of the proprieties alone saved Eustace from rubbing his eyes with amazement. Count Robert Fleury was less a real man than a picture of the last century come to life again. Eustace was in the snow again, dreaming of some brilliant eighteenth century comedy.
No, it was real enough, a pleasant note in the tragedy of war. The old, old man had turned from the strangers to his son. He held Armand in his arms and looked down into his face with tender affection.
"I am afraid he has fainted," he said calmly, though his lips trembled. "The boy is brave to rashness—ever a failing with our family."
Armand opened his eyes and staggered to his feet again.
"I am all right now," he said with an effort. "Food—food is what I require!"
At a call from the Count two menservants came forward and led Armand away. He returned presently in more suitable garb, whilst a room had been placed at the disposal of the strangers. A gong sounded, and one of the menservants conducted Eustace and his companion to the dining-room.
The apartment was a large one, and apparently had escaped the attention of the predatory Prussian; indeed, the forest of Marny was the last spent wave of the tide of war. Still, the fine old château had suffered from the force of an erratic shell or two, for, beyond the hall and dining-room, no apartment suitable for occupation remained save on the ground floor.
A great wood fire roared in the fireplace; two lamps glowed upon a table covered with a fair white cloth; there were violets arranged in great silver vases. On the sideboard stood a pleasing array of bottles.
Count Fleury stood there to welcome his guests. He might have been an emperor awaiting the arrival of the ambassadors of Europe. Despite the weight of years, his voice was clear and strong—the voice of one who had commanded men.
You are hungry," he said. "My daughter will be here presently, and then we will begin."
Some cold chicken, flanked by a ham and a piece of beef, stood on the table. There were eggs also, and potatoes nicely fried. It was hard work for the famished visitors to keep both eyes for their host.
Then a door leading out of the big dining-hall opened, and a girl entered. She was tall and slim and fair like a lily. She had the same delicate features as her brother, with the same fearless look in her eyes; indeed, the resemblance between them was astonishing.
"My daughter Louise," Count Fleury said, with gentle pride. "Major Eustace and his friend, Mr. Huddestone."
Louise placed a hand light as the laughter of a child in that of the two Englishmen.
"I have to thank you for saving my brother's life," she said simply.
"So far," said Armand. "There is danger yet, Louise."
The girl's face grew still more pale.
"How can that be since you are here?" she asked. "Ah! the Prussians would kill you if they knew; but they cannot know."
"Dear Louise, they know everything. Nothing seems to be concealed from them. In yonder German camp beyond Soissons I might mention some friend between Brest and Dijon, and some German there would tell me all about him, down to the number of sous he had left in his pockets. Deceive not yourself, Louise. They may not come here to-night, but they will come. To-morrow I join Marchelle; meanwhile Jean and his brother are keeping a watch for the first sign of danger."
A gentle sigh fluttered from the lips of the girl. She sat throughout the meal with her eyes fixed on her brother; she watched the languor fade from his eyes, and the slim frame gather strength as supper proceeded. Of the depth and sincerity of her affection for Armand there was no question.
"You will permit me to stay here," she said simply, as the meal was finished. "Indeed, I shall like the smell of your tobacco. And there is no other apartment fit for use in the château save my bedroom. And that is really the drawing-room."
Count Fleury's eyes flashed as he lay back in his chair.
"Times are changed for France since I was a boy," he said. "Then, indeed, we had generals and a man to command them. Now we have puppets—aye, and puppets who have not scrupled to sell their own country. Bazaine in Metz with a hundred and fifty thousand men, M'Mahon at Sedan with more. Heavens! that I should have lived to see the day when nearly half a million Frenchmen should fall without a blow! And I live to remember the man who gave me that!"
There were tears of mingled pride and grief in the eyes of the old man as he laid his slim fingers on a cross on his breast.
"The great Napoleon pinned that there," he said simply; but his voice thrilled like the humming of a broken fiddle-string. "Ah! with his own hand."
Eustace and Huddlestone were impressed, as well they might be. To find themselves face to face wdth the survivor of the Old Guard was thrilling. Nearly sixty years had elapsed since the power of Bonaparte had been finally throttled by Wellington on the field of Waterloo, and yet here stood perhaps the last of the Old Guard, alert and vigorous as he might have been on that decisive day.
"You were at Waterloo?" Eustace asked.
"I was, sir," the Count replied. "I counted that no disgrace, for we were fighting fearful odds after a campaign that will be remembered as long as there remains a nation on earth. And when I think of those glorious ten years, 1805 to 1815, I wish that I had fallen on the field you call Waterloo."
The Count paused, and something like a tear glistened in his eye. His arm went up and his hair bristled as if he were still wielding a sword for France. A flush was on his waxen face. Eustace watched him with frank admiration. He was so old in years and yet so young in spirit. And the gall had entered in his heart, the iron was in his proud soul.
Still, the zest and sweetness of life had not altogether deserted him. With an eye that flashed and a hand that quivered with a strange virility, he spoke of bygone campaigns, of the delirium of Moscow, of the breathless Peninsular struggle—in short, of all the lights and shadows of a great career.
As he spoke he seemed to grow younger. He stood up in all the strength of his manhood. One by one the wrinkles seemed to peel from his face, his voice vibrated in the carved rafters of the dining-hall. Young Armand followed him with eager eyes. All his lassitude seemed to have fallen from him. He saw France rise bleeding from the fray to a fresh vigour.
It seemed all so strange and unreal to the Englishmen. The old-world atmosphere, the white-haired figure in the full-bottomed coat, the air and environment of the First Empire surrounded them. And here was a man who had fought by Bonaparte at Waterloo, and had been with him when at length his tired fingers relaxed the sword.
"Not sixty years ago," the Count cried. His voice ran clear as a trumpet. "Not sixty years ago, and look at France now; the same people, and yet not the same people. Why has the glory departed? Is it because our overtaxed strength has not recovered from that glorious struggle?"
"I was at the Alma and Inkermann and the fall of Sebastopol," Eustace observed quietly, "and I saw no decadence of the arms of France then."
The Count flashed him a grateful look.
"We are not decayed!" he cried. "The heart of the people beats as stout and true as of yore. It is the corruption and cowardice and incompetence of our leaders. France has been betrayed by those who have sworn to die for her. Napoleon has ever been surrounded by knaves and adventurers. Ah! if I could only live to strike one more blow for France!"
The Count touched his rapier significantly. An almost painful silence followed. Outside were the stars and frosty solitude, beyond the plains the armies of France were melting away.
"One last blow for home and Empire!" Fleury cried again.
A step outside, a shout, the banging of a door, and then a peasant with white face and blazing eyes rushed into the room.
"The Prussians!" he gasped—"they are all round the house! They think to take you by surprise. Fly, my little master, fly!"
A STREAM of icy air cut into the room like a knife, a puff of smoke went up from the lamps. It seemed as if that frigid breath had taken all the sweetness and warmth out of life. The peasant was shivering, and his teeth chattered, but not with cold.
Armand Fleury started for the door, then paused irresolutely. He was pale, yet there was no fear in his blue eyes.
"It is useless for me to fly, my good Jean," he said. "If the château is surrounded, escape is impossible. As I feared, the Germans have traced me here. Fool that I was, to expose those I love to this danger!"
"It seems to me," Huddlestone said significantly, "that, had you done otherwise, you would have been past all earthly danger by this time."
Louise came forward; the white pallor of the lily was on her cheeks, her eyes gleamed with a strange, lurid light. Evidently some desperate plan had occurred to her. She motioned the trembling peasant to wait outside.
"There is no time to be lost," she said. "In half an hour at most those men will be here; when they come, you must be far away, dear Armand. There is just one desperate chance for you. Wait."
Louise darted into the inner apartment which she had reserved for her own bedroom, only to reappear presently with a bundle of clothing under her arm.
"You feel quite yourself again, Armand?" she asked.
"Thanks to the food and the warmth, I feel equal to most things now," Armand replied. "It was only the dire need of those things that drove me here."
"Ah! do not blame yourself thus. Once beyond the German cordon, you will be able to reach Captain Marchelle's force?"
"With Jean for a guide," Armand responded. "Once with Marchelle and his francs-tireurs, I should be safe."
Louise spread out her bundle on the floor.
"I have here the means of safety," she said. "You and I are marvellously alike, in height we are just the same. You will put these things on, and Jean will accompany you. You are going to the village to succour a lady who has been taken ill, and who requires nursing. Quickly, Armand. The plan may be a poor one, but there is no other."
Count Robert Fleury smiled in grim approval. A slight flush came over the fair features of Armand. He allowed the deft fingers of Louise to do their work, and with incredible swiftness he was transformed into the semblance of an exceedingly pretty and attractive girl.
"No chance of being recognised now," he muttered, as he glanced into a mirror. "There, Louise, you cannot improve your handiwork."
Armand pushed his sister gently away. Her critical eye ranged over him. She shook her head, and a frown contracted her snowy forehead. She raised her hands to her head, and her luxuriant nut-brown hair fell gloriously about her waist. The gleam of the lamp shone on the glorious mass, turning it to a dull gold.
Eustace uttered a protesting cry as Louise snatched a pair of scissors from the table. The shining glory was roped in one dexterous twist, and an instant later it was severed from the head of the girl.
Nobody spoke. The rapier swiftness of action seemed to paralyse all tongues. Something like a groan burst from the Count's lips. Louise laughed gaily. She was deadly pale, but a bright red spot was stippled on either cheek.
"My hair will grow again," she said, "and I have but one brother. Open the box where the medical stores and bandages are kept. Quick! Now, give me some of those long strips of plaster. There, m'sieurs, what think you of that?"
Deftly she banded the hair across Armand's forehead, allowing the graceful red gold coils to hang over his shoulders. A hood lined with swansdown completed the disguise. Louise smiled unsteadily at her own handiwork.
"You will pass," she cried; "that long hair hanging over your shoulders is quite realistic. It is as if you had risen hastily to visit a sick friend. Now go!"
The girl threw her arms about Armand's shoulders and kissed him tenderly. The Count held out his hand. In the lamplight the jewels on his fingers streamed and shimmered. His lips moved, but no sound came from them.
Louise stamped her foot imperiously.
"Why don't you go?" she cried. "Every moment brings the Germans nearer. When they search the house they must find me here, and then they will know they have been fooled. And they have horses."
Outside in the hall the peasant stood waiting. In a few words Louise explained to him the part he was expected to play. Then she opened the great hall door and thrust the two out into the white cold night. She watched them until the tears blinded her and she could see no more.
The fugitives passed along in silence, Armand leaning on the arm of his companion. He desired to husband his new store of strength as long as possible. Ere long the Germans would discover the way they had been tricked, and pursuit would follow. At the angle of the road three Uhlans were waiting.
"Courage, Jean," Armand whispered. "This it the critical moment. We must try and pass those men as naturally as possible."
A curt, hoarse call brought the fugitives upstanding. A lieutenant of Uhlans demanded their business and where they were going.
"I am Louise Fleury," said Armand, in a voice that might have been a gift to any woman. "I go to see a sick friend in the village."
The lieutenant approached. The sickly gleam of a lantern flickered on Armand's face, and on the hair floating over his shoulders. The German saluted. There was admiration in his eyes as he cocked up his moustache.
"Mademoiselle's brother has reached the château?" he asked.
"I'm not here to answer questions," was the reply. "As you are on your way to the château doubtless your curiosity will soon be satisfied. May I remark, Herr Leutenant, that the night is very cold, and that you are detaining me."
There was nothing but chill indifference in Armand's voice, though he had work to repress a desire to fly. Jean's face was blue and his teeth were chattering with terror. A little more of this and he would certainly betray himself.
The lieutenant drew aside, saluting again.
"You may pass, mademoiselle," he said, "though I doubt not that I should provide you with some kind of escort. The sorry clown by your side is not fitted for so enviable an undertaking."
Armand curtsied somewhat mockingly.
"My honest Jean does not love the Prussians, he says, and he has cause to fear them. I wish you good-night, m'sieur."
A moment later and the pine woods closed in on the fugitives. Armand tore off the clinging skirts and the hood from his head. But the curling ropes of hair he placed tenderly in his pocket.
"Quick!" he whispered; "quick, Jean! Give me the cloak and the cap. We have no moment to spare. In half an hour they will be after us hot-foot. And God grant no harm may be done yonder!"
Then they hurried forward over the crisp, dry snow.
IT was a breathless half-hour for the little party in the château. As the minutes crept along, the strained anxiety in Louise's eyes gradually faded.
"He must be safe by this time," she said. "If I could only conceal myself somewhere till the search is over! But they must see me sooner or later, and then they will understand. Father, I am going to bed."
"But they will insist upon searching everywhere, my child."
"I know, I know! But they must not enter yonder room so long as you can keep them out. You understand. You must threaten, storm, prevaricate, delay. Not until actual violence is at hand shall I appear. Every second you can detain them is as another year added to Armand's life."
With a graceful bow and smile to the Englishmen, Louise vanished. Hardly had she shot the bolt of her room before there came a thundering blow on the door of the château and the sound of raucous voices demanding admission.
A frightened manservant answered to the call, and then without ceremony a captain of the Uhlans, accompanied by a lieutenant and his two troopers, entered the dining-hall. They stood there, gaunt and still, gloved and coated, with the white hoar-frost thick on their moustaches. Count Fleury stood erect, white as a statue, yet with eyes like frosty stars.
"Am I to understand that you seek my poor hospitality?" he asked.
"I seek your son, Armaud Fleury, the spy," was the brutally frank response. "He has been traced here to-night. I may tell you at once that any idea of escape is out of the question. Where is your son?"
The fighting light was rising in Count Fleury's eyes. For the moment he was no longer an old man heavy with the burden of years, but a soldier of the Empire, once more ready to strike a blow for France. His hand wandered mechanically to the rapier at his side, his breath came thick and fast.
"My son is not here," he said quietly.
The captain turned from Fleury to Eustace and his companion.
"Is this true?" he demanded.*
"We are the guests of Count Fleury, and we have partaken of a hospitality sorely needed," Eustace said pointedly. "As men serving under the Red Cross, we do not propose to take any part in the matter."
The captain tugged angrily at his beard. He was a man who did not appear to be burdened with an exaggerated amiability.
"I may find means to make you speak," he growled.
Eustace laughed contemptuously. He knew the full value of this bluster.
"Search the house!" the Uhlan cried. "Search every nook and cranny. Begin yonder."
He pointed to the door leading into Louise's room. Fleury crossed over and placed his back against it. He stood erect and defiant, his eyes gleaming bright as the rapier he had half drawn from the scabbard.
"Not there," he said. "My daughter is in there."
"Then you will be good enough to request your daughter's presence here whilst I satisfy myself that the apartment is not otherwise tenanted."
Fleury made no motion to comply. His breast was heaving now, and a fine pink colour had crept over his pallid cheeks.
"My word has never been doubted during the seventy-odd years I have understood the virtues of truth and honour," he said painfully, as one who finds difficulty in breathing. "I give you my word, gentlemen, that my daughter is in there alone."
"It is false!" the lieutenant cried. "I had speech with Mademoiselle Fleury not half an hour ago on the outskirts of the village. From her own lips I had it that she was on her way to see a sick friend."
Fleury's lips quivered in a faint smile.
"There must be some mistake here," he said. "I give you my word of honour that my daughter is in the room behind me."
A sonorous Saxon oath burst from the captain's lips.
"You have been tricked and fooled, then, Von Arlin," he said. "If this is so, the spy has escaped us disguised as a woman."
"Impossible, my captain. The one I spoke to was a lady, and a beautiful one at that. The lady's hair in itself was a dream. No, no; Von Arlin flatters himself that he knows a woman when he sees one."
"This, then, is trickery here," the captain muttered. "Open that door, sir!"
The Count's eyes flashed a negative. With a contempt for his white hairs the Uhlan bully advanced and thrust him rudely aside. In an instant the thin, blue blade flashed from Fleury's scabbard and whirled with a dazzling flash round the head of the burly Saxon.
"Have a care, old man," the lieutenant said grimly, "you are playing with the finest swordsman in the German army."
Half in jest, half in earnest, the captain drew his sword. He would give the old man a lesson to remember; he would humble this insane pride.
The blades crossed and the Uhlan pressed to the attack. Then a slight annoyance came over him. Three compatriots were grinning there, and it behoved him to show his skill without loss of time. Instead of that, something alive seemed to be creeping all over him. The Count's rapier played in a sheet of lambent flame around him; fiercer and fiercer grew the attack, and still the Count stood there, with the same thin smile of contempt on his hps.
It was maddening. He was the champion of fence, cunning beyond his peers, and there was an old man staggering under the load of years, yet with a wrist like a silk rope for strength and pliancy.
"It's you or I now!" the Uhlan cried— "one of us must fall!"
A sudden madness seemed to possess Fleury. He seemed to see the light of the old days, to hear the yell of victory and triumph on many a hard-fought field; he seemed to be young again, when the heart of France beat true.
"A last blow for France!" he cried. "Vive l'Empereur! Vive la France!"
Sparks flew from the crossed blades, the white steel gleamed and twisted like the wild spume of the sea-wrack, there was a lunge forward, the quick flash and a turn of a ruffled wrist, and the big Uhlan threw up his arms and staggered to his fate, pierced to the heart.
No cry escaped him, no groan came from his lips. Just for an instant there was a faint pulsation of the eyelids, a twitch of the lips, and then all was still. With a cry of fury at the death of his captain, Von Arlin dashed forward. His sword flashed in the air as he fell upon the Count, full of passion and impetuosity. At the same moment the door of the bedroom was flung open and Louise stepped out.
White and trembling from head to foot she came. The clash of swords, the fall of the heavy body to the floor had been more than she could bear. For Armand's sake she had remained silent and undiscovered till reason began to totter under the strain. Whilst she remained there her father might be going on to his death. With a scream she burst open the door and stood there.
"Father!" she cried, "father! what does it mean?"
For one fatal instant Fleury glanced over his slioulder, his point fell, and Von Arlin thrust full for the chest of his adversary; the steel blade went home below the right breast, and Fleury sank slowly to the ground. Louise was quiet enough now; she raised the white, loved head upon her lap, she smoothed the long, white hair tenderly. A strange calm came over her. She looked up at the dazed lieutenant with mournful eyes.
"Had you taken the word of a gentleman," she said, "this would not have happened. Take your dead away and leave us to look to ours. You are fine soldiers, to war with old men and girls! Begone with you!"
The lips of the dazed lieutenant moved, but no sound came from them. He was slowly piecing the puzzle together until at length the whole truth dawned upon him; then he signed to the two Uhlan troopers, who raised the body of their captain from the floor and started out with it as stolidly as if they had been carrying fodder to their chargers.
The great hall-door drifted behind them with a bang, and then Louise rose to her feet.
"God be praised that they are gone!" she cried. "See, my father is not dead; you can feel that his heart is beating. Get me bandages and help me to stop the flow of blood. Only these people must never know that they have failed. And you will carry my father in and lay him on the bed. By this time Armand must be beyond pursuit. May Heaven defend him from another night like this!"
It was a little later that Fleury opened his eyes. He was faint from loss of blood, but no weakness seemed to quench the fire in the eyes of the soldier of the Old Guard; his lips trembled like red threads; his voice came hoarsely.
"I struck a blow for France to-night," he said. "The little Corporal told me once I was the finest swordsman in Europe. Ah! and that swaggering boor found to his cost that I had not forgotten. Vive—vive la France!"
His poor head fell back, his lips were parted, and he slept.
* * * * *
IT was many months afterwards that Eustace and Huddlestone saw their friends again. It was in Paris, after the conclusion of peace. An open carriage was proceeding at a foot-pace along the Bois de Boulogne. In it sat three people: an old man with a waxen face and hair like the eternal snows, a young man, and a girl of great beauty, which beauty was rendered none the less piquant by the fact that her hair was cut short like a boy's.
Huddlestone waved his cigar at the carriage.
"Do you recognise them?" he asked Eustace.
"Aye," Eustace replied. "If France had her proper share of men like that, we might have been in Berlin to-day, instead of Paris."
"DO you wish to speak to me, General Sherlock?"
"My dear boy, I desire to do more than that," the veteran replied. The white head was bent, the tired eyes were heavy with trouble. "I wish to save you from a ghastly tragedy."
There was a nervous thrill and intensity in the words enough to carry force under any circumstances, but, coming from one absolute stranger to another, they seemed to bite into Ralph Cheriton's consciousness like a saw.
Yet, under other circumstances, he would have laughed. But a gentleman does not usually deride the beard of the veteran who has seen sixty distinguished years in the service of his country.
"These are strange words, General," he replied.
The war-worn soldier sighed. His hair was white as the Afghan snows, his face was covered with deep lines; what the man had once been was mirrored only in his eyes. And those eyes were unutterably sad.
"You are absolutely a stranger to me," he said. "Beyond my own household, I have seen no fresh face for years. My excuse for calling upon you is that this house once belonged to my family. An aunt of mine died here, my grandfather died here—he committed suicide."
"Indeed!" Cheriton murmured politely.
"Yes, he threw himself out of the dormer window, at the top of the house. Within a year, two uncles of mine and an old family servant also committed suicide in a precisely similar manner. I make no attempt to explain the strange matter—I merely state the fact."
"A most extraordinary thing," Cheriton replied.
"More than extraordinary. Do you know that I often dream of that dormer window in the night, and wake up with a strange longing to come here and throw myself out, as my relatives did before me? One night, in the Afghan passes near Kandahar, the impulse almost deprived me of reason for a time. Now you know why that window was bricked up."
Cheriton was profoundly impressed. He would have repudiated any suggestion of superstition, the hard enamel of a hard-ended century had long been forged over that kind of folly. Still, the fact remained. Only recently Cheriton had sold out of the Army and purchased Bernemore House, the scene of the tragedies mentioned by Sherlock. Of the evil reputation of the dormer window he had heard nothing. The fret of seventy years had rubbed the story from the village tablets.
It was a little disturbing, because for some time Cheriton had had his eye on that built-up dormer window. It was a double one and a fine bit of architecture.
Accommodation downstairs for the irresponsible bachelor was limited, and it seemed good to Cheriton to unseal the windows and make a luxurious smoking-lounge of the room originally lighted by them. This thing had been done, and only the previous evening the room had been greatly admired by such men as were even now staying in the house.
"Only yesterday I heard what you were doing," the General remarked, after a long pause. "Believe me, it is painful to drag myself thus from my solitude. But my duty lies plainly before me. To sit down quietly and allow things to take their course would be murder."
Sherlock's words thrilled with an absolute conviction. There was none of the conscious shame of a man who whispers of Fear in the cold ear of Courage.
"But, surely, General," Cheriton stammered, "you don't suppose that this family curse, or whatever it is, holds good with strangers?"
"Indeed I do, Captain Cheriton. Did I not tell you that a valued old servant of our family met his death in the same horrible way?"
"But his mind might have become unhinged. You are, of course, aware that suicide sometimes takes the nature of an epidemic. No sooner does a man destroy himself in some novel way, than a score of people follow by example."
A little pool of light glittered in the General's eyes.
"You are an obstinate man, I see," he said.
"Well, I like to get to the bottom of things. To be perfectly candid, if I do what you suggest, I shall be laughed at. It is only a very brave man, or a very great fool, who is impervious to ridicule. And I'm bound to confess to a strong desire to investigate this business further."
"Then you won't close that window again?"
"General, this is the beginning of the twentieth century!"
General Sherlock drew himself up as if shaking the burden of the years from his shoulders. He seemed to expand, his voice grew firm, the tiny pools in his eyes filled them with a liquid flame of anger.
"I see I must tell you the whole shameful story," he said. "My duty lies plainly before me, and I must follow it at any cost. My grandfather was an unmitigated scoundrel; he broke his wife's heart, he drove his daughter and his sons from him. There was also a story of a betrayed gipsy girl, and a curse—the same curse that was to fall on this house and those who dwelt there for all time—but I need not go into that. For years my grandfather lived here alone, with an old drunken scoundrel of a servant to do his bidding; indeed, it was rarely that either of them was sober."
The General paused, but Cheriton made no response.
"Well, the time was near at hand when the tragedy was to come. It so happened, one winter evening, when the snow was on the ground and the air was cold, that a coaching accident happened hard by. It so happened also that one of the injured was the daughter of my grandfather, to whom I have already alluded. She was badly hurt, but she managed to crawl here for a night's lodging. It was quite dark when she arrived, dark and terribly cold. Ill and suffering as she was, my poor aunt was refused admission by that scoundrel; they thrust her out in their drunken fury, to perish if she pleased. She staggered a few yards into the courtyard, she lay down with her face to the stars and died. No words of mine could convey more than that.
"The room with the dormer window was my grandfather's den. It was late the following afternoon before he came from his debauched sleep; the setting sun was shining in the courtyard as he looked out. And there, with a smile upon her face, lay Mary Sherlock—dead.
"A cry rang through the house, the cry of a soul calling for mercy. Then, in a dull, mechanical way, the wretched man drew to the window, he flung back the leaded casement, and cast himself headlong to the ground. Then—"
The General paused, as if unable to proceed, and held out his hand.
"I can say no more," he remarked presently. "If I have not convinced you now, then indeed my efforts have been wasted. Good-bye. Whether or not I shall ever see you again rests entirely with yourself."
"I am not unmoved," Cheriton replied. "Good-bye, and thank you sincerely."
Under ordinary circumstances they were a cheerful lot at Bernemore. Cheriton was a capital host, he chose his company carefully, and Ida Cheriton, a wife of six months' standing, had charms both of wit and beauty.
She looked a little more dainty and fragile than usual, as she sat at the foot of the dinner-table; her grey eyes were introspective, for there was another joy coming to her out of the future, and it filled her with a soft alarm. In her own absent fit she did not notice the absence of mind of her husband.
It was summer time, and no lights gleamed across the table, save the falling lances of sunshine playing on flowers and bloomy grapes. The air was heavy with the fragrance of peaches and new-mown clover.
There were perhaps a dozen people dining there altogether. Dixon and his wife, of Cheriton's old regiment; Michelmore the author and his bride, with a naval lieutenant named Acton, and Ida Cheriton's brother Charlie, a nervous, highly strung youth, with a marvellous record still making at Oxford.
"What's the matter with Cheriton?" Acton demanded, when the last swish of silk and muslin had died away. "Pass the cigarettes, Dixon. Out with it, Ralph."
"I dare say you fellows will laugh at me," Cheriton remarked sententiously.
"I dare say," Acton replied. "I laugh at most things. You don't mean that you have found a tame ghost or something of that kind."
"It isn't a ghost, it's a story that I heard to-day. I'm going to tell you the story, and then you can judge for yourselves."
Cheriton commenced in silence, and finished with the same complimentary stillness. On the whole, Acton was the least impressed.
"I am bound to confess that it sounds creepy enough," he remarked. "But a machine-made man can hardly be expected to swallow this kind of thing without a protest. I'll bet you on one thing—no unseen hand could ever lure me to chuck myself out of that window."
"I wouldn't be sure of that, Acton," Michelmore said gravely.
"Ah! you're a novelist, you have a profound imagination. A pony I sleep in that room to-night, and beat you a hundred up at billiards before breakfast to-morrow."
No response was made to this liberal offer, for latter-day convention is not usually shaken off, influenced by neat claret imbibed under circumstances calculated to cheer. Only Cheriton looked troubled.
"Well, somebody's got to knock the bottom out of this nonsense," Acton protested. "General Sherlock has done some big things in his days, but he's eighty years of age. Let us go up to the smoking-room and investigate. There's a good hour or more of daylight yet, and we may find something."
With a certain contempt for his own weakness, Cheriton complied. Once in the room, he could see nothing to foster or encourage fear. The apartment was furnished as a Moorish divan; it was bright and cheerful. From the dormer window a charming view of the country was obtained. Acton threw the casements back and looked out. His keen, sunburnt face was lighted by a dry smile.
"Well, how do you feel?" asked Dixon.
"Pretty well, thank you," Acton laughed. "I have no impulses, nor do I yearn to throw myself down, not a cent's worth. Come and try, Charlie."
Charlie Scott drew back and shivered. Cheriton's story had appealed vividly to his sensitive, highly strung nature.
"Call me a coward if you like," he said, "but I couldn't lean out of that window as you are doing, for all Golconda. I could kick myself for my weakness, but it is there all the same."
Acton dropped into a comfortable lounge with a smile of contempt. Scott flushed as he saw this, and timidly suggested that the windows should be closed. With a foot high in the air, Acton protested vigorously.
"No, no," he cried. "Believe what you please, but do not pander to this nonsense. If you should feel like doing the Curtius business, give us a call, and we'll sit on your head, Charlie. But in the name of common sense leave the windows open."
A murmur of approval followed. The line had to be drawn somewhere. As yet no note of tragedy dominated the conversation. Acton and Dixon were deep in the discussion of forthcoming Ascot, and Cheriton joined fitfully in their conversation. Only Michelmore and Scott were silent. The novelist was studying the sensitive face of his young companion, a face white and uneasy, lighted by eyes that gleamed like liquid fire. His glance was drawn to the open window, he sat gazing in that direction with a gaze that never moved.
Thien, in a dazed kind of way, he rose and took a step forward. His eyes were glazed and fixed in horror and repugnance. He looked like a man going to the commission of some vile crime against which his whole soul rebelled. Michelmore watched him with the subtle analysis of his tribe.
For the moment Cheriton seemed to have thrown off the weight from his shoulders. He was lying back in a big arm-chair and discussing the prospects of certain horses. And he was just faintly ashamed of himself.
But Michelmore's quiet, ruminative eyes were everywhere. He was watching Scott with the zest of an expert in the dissecting of emotions, but ready in a moment to restrain the other should he go too far.
It was a thrilling moment for the novelist, at any rate. He saw Scott creeping gently like a cat to the window, groping with his hands as he went, like one who is blind or in the dark. The horror of a great loathing was in his eyes, yet he went on, and on, steadily.
Michelmore stretched out a hand and detained Scott as he passed. At the touch of live, palpitating human fingers he pulled up suddenly, as if he had just received an electric shock.
"Where are you going to?" Michelmore asked in a thin, grating voice.
"I was going to throw myself out of that window," he said.
"Oh! So Cheriton's story had all that effect upon you. Take my advice, and chuck your books for the present. You are in a bad way."
"I'm nothing of the kind, Michelmore. I'm as sound in mind and body as you are. Even if I had never heard that story, the same impulse would have come over me on entering this room. You'll feel it sooner or later, and so will the rest of them. The impulse has passed now, but after to-night you do not catch me in here again."
Michelmore did not laugh, for the simple reason that he knew Scott to be speaking from sheer conviction. His was no mind diseased. It was impossible to note that clear skin and clear eye, and doubt that. Michelmore stepped across the room to answer some question of Acton's, and for the moment Scott was forgotten. When the novelist turned again, a cry of horror broke from him.
He saw Scott rise to his feet as if some unseen force had jerked him; he saw the victim of this nameless horror cross like a flash to the window. Then he darted forward and made a wild clutch for Scott's arm. At the same instant Scott had dived for it clean through the window. There was a vision like an empty sack fluttering from a warehouse shoot, and then a dull, hideous, sickening smash below.
Though the whole room took in the incident like a flash, nobody moved for a moment. Who does not know the jar and the snap of a broken limb, the sense of all that is to follow, and the void of pain for the merciful fraction of a merciful second? And then—
And then every man was on his feet. They clattered, heedless of necks, down the stairs, all save Acton, who crossed to the window. He saw a heap of black and white grotesquely twisted on the stones, he saw a slim white figure in satin staring down at a bruised face no whiter than her own.
"God help her!" Acton sobbed. "It's Mrs. Cheriton."
It was. She stood motionless like a statue until the men reached the courtyard. Scott had fallen at her very feet as she was passing into the garden; a single spot of blood glistened on her white gown. She made no sound, though her face twitched and the muscles about her mouth vibrated like harp-strings. Cheriton laid a shaking hand on his wife's shoulder.
"You must come out of this at once," he said hoarsely.
But the fascinating horror of the thing still held Ida Cheriton to the spot. If she could only scream, or faint, or cry—anything but that grey torpor and the horrible twitching of the muscles!
Not until the limp form of Scott was raised from the flags did sound come from Ida's lips. Then she laughed, a laugh low down in her throat, and gradually rising till the air rang with the screaming inhuman mirth.
Cheriton caught Ida in his arms and carried her into the house. The curse of Cain seemed to have fallen upon him. It was he and he alone who had brought about this nameless thing. With a sense of agony and shame, he averted his eyes from those of his wife. But he need not have done so, for Ida had fainted dead away upon his shoulder.
Meanwhile, they had laid Scott out upon a bed brought hurriedly down into the hall. He still breathed; a moan and a shudder came from him ever and again. The horror of his face was caused by something more than pain. Then Cheriton came headlong in.
"Can I do anything!" Acton whispered.
"Yes, yes!" Cheriton cried. "For the love of Heaven go for the doctor! Ride in to Castleford, and bring the first man you can find. Go quickly, for my wife is dying!"
Scott was not dead. The fall had been severe and the injury great, but the unfortunate man still lingered. It was nearly midnight before an anxious, haggard doctor came downstairs.
Cheriton was waiting there. For the last two hours he had been pacing up and down the polished oak floor chewing the cud of a restless, blistering agony.
"My wife!" he gasped, "she is—?"
"Asleep," Dr. Morrison replied. "She is likely to remain asleep for some hours. To be candid, Mrs. Cheriton is under the influence of a strong narcotic. There was no other way of preserving her reason."
"She has not suffered in—otherwise? You know what I mean. Morrison, if anything like that has happened, I shall destroy myself!"
The man of medicine laid a soothing hand upon the speaker's arm. He noted the white, haggard face and the restless eyes.
"You would be none the worse for a tonic yourself," he said. "Mrs. Cheriton is suffering from a great shock. Apart from brain mischief, I apprehend no serious results. What we want to do for the present is to keep that brain dormant. In any case, it will be some weeks before Mrs. Cheriton is herself again. You must be prepared to find her mind temporarily unhinged."
Cheriton swallowed a groan. Then he asked after Scott.
"No hope there, I suppose?" he said.
"Well, yes, strange as it may seem. There is concussion of the brain and a fractured thigh, but I can detect no internal injuries. I can do no more to-night."
Ida Cheriton was sleeping peacefully. There was no sign on her face of the terrible shock she had so lately sustained. She breathed lightly as a little child. As Cheriton entered, Mrs. Michelmore rose out of the shadow beyond the pool of light cast from a shaded candle.
"I am going to stay here till morning," she said.
Cheriton protested feebly. But he was too worn and spent to contend the point. The last two hours seemed to have aged him terribly. The crushing weight of terror held him down and throttled him. General Sherlock's face rose up before him like an avenging shadow. A wild longing to fly from the house and its nameless horror came over him.
Quivering and fluttering in every limb, Cheriton crept downstairs again. A solitary lamp burned in the hall, the house had grown still and quiet. Acton sat in the shadow, smoking a cigarette.
"I have been waiting for you," he said. "The others have gone to bed. It seemed to them that they would be best out of the way, only, of course, they earnestly desire to be called if their services are required."
"Hadn't you better follow their example?" Cheriton asked.
"What are you going to do, then?" Acton suggested. "My dear fellow, I simply couldn't go to bed to-night. Not that I am impressed by this horrible business quite in the same way as yourself—I mean as to its occult side. It's a ghastly coincidence, all the same."
"It may be," Cheriton said wearily. "Heaven only knows!"
With a heavy sigh he rose from his place and crossed the hall. A deadly faintness came upon him, he staggered almost to his fall. His eyes closed, his head fell upon his breast—a strange desire to sleep came over him.
"I'll lie here and close my eyes for a bit," he said.
In a long deck-chair Acton made his friend comfortable. Exhausted Nature asserted herself at length, and Cheriton slept. A minute or two later and the sound of his laboured breathing filled the hall.
"He'll not move for hours," Acton muttered. "Now's my chance."
He moved away quietly, but with resolution. The level-headed sailor, with his logical, mathematical mind, a mind that must have a formula for everything, was by no means satisfied. He would get to the bottom of this thing. If he could do nothing else, he would rob the situation of its unseen terrors.
Without the slightest feeling of excitement, and with nerves that beat as steadily as his own ship's engines, he proceeded to his room. From thence he took a fine hempen rope, and, with this in his hand, proceeded to creep along till he came to the chamber of the dormer window.
Quite coolly he passed in and closed the door behind him. He switched on the electric light and opened the windows wide. Then, with a smile of contempt for his concession to popular prejudices, he proceeded to scientifically arrange the rope he had brought with him. An hour passed, two hours passed, and then Acton rose laggardly to his feet. His face had grown set and pale, his eyes were fixed upon the open window.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, Cheriton had been sleeping like a man overcome with wine. An hour or more passed away before the nature of his slumber changed. Then he began to dream horribly—awful dreams of falling through space and being drawn down steep places by evil eyes and mocking spirits.
Then somebody cried out, and Cheriton came to his consciousness. His heart was beating like a steam hammer, a profuse sweat ran down his face. All the dread weight of trouble fell upon him again.
"I could have sworn I heard somebody call," he said.
He listened intently, quivering from head to foot like a dog scenting danger. It was no fancy, for again the cry was repeated. In the stillness of the night Cheriton could locate the direction easily. It came from outside the house. From one painted window a long lance of moonlight glistened on the polished floor. Outside it was light as day.
With trembling hands Cheriton drew the bolts and plunged into the garden.
"Who called?" he asked. "Where are you?"
"Round here, opposite the courtyard," came a faint voice, which Cheriton had no difficulty in recognising as that of Acton. "Bring a ladder quickly, for I am pretty well done for. Thank goodness somebody heard me!"
Cheriton found a short ladder after some little search, and with it on his shoulders made his way round to the courtyard upon which the dormer window gave. At this very spot the tragedy had taken place.
"Get the ladder up quickly!" Acton gasped.
Cheriton complied as swiftly as his astonishment permitted. Acton was suspended some fifteen feet from the ground by a rope firmly tied about his body. He was hanging head downwards, and making feeble efforts to right himself and get a good hand-purchase on the rope. As the ladder was reared he contrived to get a grip and a foothold. He panted and gasped like a man who has been forced under water till his strength is exhausted.
"In the name of Fortune," asked Cheriton, "what does it mean?"
"Get me free first," Acton gurgled. "This rope is sawing me in two. You shall know all about it presently. Just for the moment I would pledge my soul for a glass of brandy and soda-water."
Cheriton sawed through the cords with a pocket-knife, and then helped the limp figure of Acton to the ground. A minute or two later, and the latter was reclining on a chair, with a full tumbler clinking against his teeth. The colour filtered into his cheeks presently, his hand grew steady.
"I wouldn't go through the last half-hour again for a flagship," he explained. "After you had gone to sleep, I made up my mind to test the dormer window business for myself. So as to be absolutely on the safe side, I fastened the end of a coil of rope to the stone pillar inside the window frame, and the other end I made fast round my own waist. Then I lighted a cigarette and waited.
"It was perhaps an hour before I experienced any sensation. Then I found that I could not keep my eyes from that window. I abandoned the struggle to do so, and then I had a mind-picture of myself lying dead on the stones below. I could see every hurt and wound distinctly. A violent fit of trembling came over me, and I was conscious of a deep feeling of depression. My mind was permeated with the idea that I had committed some awful crime. I was shunned by everybody about me. The only way out of the thing was to take my own life. Then I rose and made my way to the window.
"I give you my word of honour, Cheriton, I struggled against that impulse until I was as weak and feeble as a little child. I had entirely forgotten that I was protected from damage by the rope. If I had remembered, I should have most certainly been compelled to remove it, and by this time I should be lying dead and mangled in the courtyard. I would not go through it all again for the Bank of England. The horror is indescribable.
"Well, I fought till I could fight no longer. With a wild cry I closed my eyes and made a headlong dash for the window. I flung myself out. I fell until the cord about my waist checked me and nearly dislocated every limb. Then came the strangest part of this strange affair. Once I was clear of that infernal room, the brooding depression passed from me, and my desire was to save my life, to struggle for it to the end. I was myself again, with nerves as strong and steady as ever, and nothing troubling me beyond the weakness engendered by my efforts to get free. I was forced to cry for help at last, and fortunately you heard my call. And I'm not going to doubt any more. For Heaven's sake have that window blocked up without delay!"
Cheriton turned his grey face to the light.
"I will," he said. "It shall be done as soon as possible. How faithfully General Sherlock's prophecy has been verified I know to my sorrow."
Scott would recover. There was an infinite consolation in the doctor's fiat, which he gave two days later. His recovery would of necessity be painfully slow, for the injuries were many and deep-rooted. But youth and a good constitution, in the absence of internal injuries, would do much.
As yet Scott was unconscious. Nor was the condition of Ida Cheriton very much better. It had been deemed prudent to tell her the good news so far as Scott was concerned, but it seemed to convey very little impression.
For, sooth to say, the patient was not progressing as well as she might. She did not seem to be able to shake off the strange mistiness that clouded her intellect, she could only remember the horror she had seen. Charlie was dead, and she had watched him come headlong to his destruction. During her waking hours she lay still and numb, the horror still in her eyes.
"It isn't madness?" Cheriton asked hoarsely.
"No," Morrison replied. "I should say not. The shock has caused the brain to cease working for a time. Personally, I should prefer delirium. I can only pursue my present course of treatment. When the trembling fits come on, the drug will have to be administered as ordered. I will take care that you have plenty of it in the house."
There was no more to be said, no more to be done, only to wait and hope. One or two drear, miserable days dragged their weary length along. The house was devoid of guests by this time; it was better thus, with two patients there fighting for health and reason, and the whole place was under the sway of two clear-eyed nurses whose word was law.
As yet no steps had been taken to have an end put to the cause of all the mischief. Under the circumstances that was impossible. Anything in the way of noise would have been sternly interdicted, and it was out of the question to dispense with din and clamour with masons and bricklayers about. Not that there was any danger, for everybody shunned the haunted room like the plague. Not a servant would have entered it for untold gold.
A great stillness lay over the house, for it was night again. Downstairs, in the dining-room, Cheriton dined alone, and smoked gloomily afterwards. The soothing influence of tobacco was one of the few consolations he possessed. He rose for another cigarette, but his cupboard was empty.
In the trouble and turmoil of the last few days the all-important tobacco question had been forgotten. It seemed to Cheriton that he had never thirsted for a cigarette as he did at this moment. He positively ached for it.
Then he recollected. On the night of the tragedy they had all been smoking in the room with the dormer window. There were a couple of boxes up there, both of them practically intact. To get them would be an easy matter.
Cheriton hesitated but a moment, then he passed up the stairs. As he opened the door of the haunted chamber and turned up the light, he saw the window was open, for nobody had entered since the adventure of Acton there. Cheriton grabbed the boxes of cigarettes and turned to leave the room.
As he did so he glanced involuntarily at the open window. He shuddered and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he found, to his surprise and horror, that he was some feet closer to the window than before. A cold perspiration chilled him to the bone, he tried to move and tried in vain.
When he did move, it was to advance still nearer to the window. Suddenly there came over him a wave of depression, the same feeling of dull despair so graphically described by Acton. It drew him on and on.
"Great Heaven!" he groaned, "I am lost! My poor wife!"
Then a strange thing happened. A light foot was heard coming up the stairs. A moment later and Ida stood in the corridor in full view of her husband. She made a sweet and thrilling picture, in her white, clinging gown covered with foamy lace; her shining hair hung over a pair of ivory shoulders.
"Ralph," she said, and her voice was low and sweet, "I want you."
She had risen from her bed in the temporary absence of her nurse. Something in her clouded brain bade her seek for her husband. In a dim fashion she saw him, knew that he stood before her.
She advanced with a tender half-smile. A sudden ray of hope jostled and almost released Cheriton's frozen limbs. Then he saw that the danger was likely to be doubled, the peril hers as well as his.
"Do not come any further," he cried. "Do not, I implore you!"
Ida paused, half irresolute. What was Ralph doing there, and why did he look at her with that face of terror? Then the cloud rolled back from her brain for a moment. It was from that fatal room that Charlie had gone to his death. A quivering little cry escaped her.
"Come to me!" she implored. "Come to me, Ralph. Why are you in that awful place? If you do not come, I must come to you."
She advanced with hands outstretched and eyes full of entreaty. And Cheriton made an effort that turned him faint and dazy. Once Ida entered that room, he knew only too well that nothing could save the pair of them. But he could not move, he could only wave Ida back and speak with dumb lips.
She came on, and on, until her hands lay on his. With a force that surprised Cheriton she pulled at his arms. There was no longer the light of madness in her eyes, but a desire to save him fighting the terror that overcame her. The slim, white figure had a strength almost divine.
"For my sake!" she cried. "Come, come, come!"
As her voice rose higher and higher, some of her strength seemed to pass into Cheriton. He no longer looked to the window. He raised one foot and put it down a good yard nearer the door. With a last mighty effort, and an effort that turned him sick and dizzy, and strained his heart to bursting point, he gathered Ida in his arms and cleared the space to the door with a spring. The lock was snapped, then the key went whizzing through a window into a thicket of shrubs, where it was found many days after.
Cheriton dropped in the corridor, and there he lay unconscious for a time. When he came to himself again, Ida was bending over him. Her sweet eyes were filled with tears, but in those eyes swam the light of reason.
"Don't speak, dear," Ida said tenderly. "I know everything now. I heard them talking as behind a veil when I lay there, but now I understand. Ralph, did you not tell me that Charlie would live?"
"The doctor said so, darling. Ida, you have saved my life."
"Yes, and I fancy I have saved my reason at the same time. Take me back to my room, please; I am so tired, so tired."
Ida closed her eyes and slept again. But it was the dreamless sleep of the child, the nurse said with a smile, and there would be no more anxiety now. All the same, Mr. Cheriton must go away at once. As to his wife, it was a mere matter of time; Nature would do the rest.
* * * * *
People who know the story of the dormer window are many, but of all those who speak with authority not one can explain what lies beyond the veil.
CLIFFORD HARDY choked down the horror that knocked at his lips for expression. He had come eastwards in search of paragraphs—come out hungrily and fiercely as a man does who is near starvation, and lo, he had found one. Since the cruel indiscretion that had cost him a post on the Telephone, and practically ruined his reputation, he had had no shuddering luck like this.
Instinctively Hardy began to cast round for a clue. He found it.
On the floor lay the body of a murdered man, and also on the reeking floor lay a long white suede glove—a dainty affair of the finest quality, soft, scented, redolent of Bond-street—the sort of glove that only smart women wear—the sort of glove that costs anything up to two guineas a pair. The third finger was missing, cut off clean at the palm—a right-handed glove.
Hardy folded up the thing, and placed it in his pocket. He yelled loudly for assistance, and immediately the doorway became filled with eyes—dreadful, fierce, bleared eyes, for the most part.
"I turned in here to avoid a street row," Hardy explained, impartially, but awkwardly, to the eyes, "and I found this. Does anybody know him?"
A tall spare man, with a suggestion of militarism about him, pushed forward. His shining attire was eloquent of the direst poverty, yet under happier circumstances he might have been a Caesar, Hardy thought.
"I know the man," he said. There was the real ring of command in his voice. "He was called Ratski—he was a teacher of languages. A fellow-countryman of mine also. We are both Asturians."
"I fancy I have seen you before," Hardy said. "The Exile World of London always has a strange fascination for me, and in happier times I studied it with a view to a book on the subject. Latterly, however, I have been so busy gathering the bare bread of life that—"
"You speak bitterly, Mr. Hardy."
"Ah! you do know me then! Give it a name. I never forget a name."
"Paul Demeter. You will recollect now, saving me from the polite attentions of those dock savages two years ago. I am sorry you were so cruelly used over that Presidential interview."
Hardy fairly gasped. How on earth did this seedy foreigner know of that fiasco in America! How did he know that Hardy had been sent to America by the Telephone in search of certain political information, and there Hardy, owing to sudden illness, had deputed his task to a fellow-journalist, who had betrayed him shamefully and obliquely held up the Telephone to public derision. All of which accounted for Hardy's sudden 'debacle;' and yet this fallen Asturian knew all about it!
Hardy fumbled in his pocket. There was tenpence in copper there. Would it not be judiciously invested upon this dilapidated Roman centurion—this man with the commanding eye and voice of a Wellington?
"A little glass of brandy?" he suggested.
Demeter bowed. He led the way to a foreign restaurant, where the brandy, unlike the company, proved to be beyond suspicion.
"Make use of me," Demeter said. "We are both poor comrades in misfortune."
"Tell me all about the murdered man," Hardy asked. "If I can get a column or two of this in a dozen papers to-morrow I shall be enriched by twenty pounds. If I can only procure some decent clothes again I shall have a chance. The editor of the 'Wire' wants me. Only I've got to make some kind of a splash first."
"It was a political crime," Demeter said.
"With a woman at the bottom of it?"
"Ah, you smile. You know something. Give me your confidence."
By way of reply Hardy produced the long suede glove. He had quite forgotten to hand it over to the police. Demeter took it with careless curiosity and spread it out on the grimy marble table. Then his face changed—the character of the man had utterly altered.
"There are bigger matters than mere murder here," he said. "Let that pass. If you have courage and a few pounds to spare, I can give you that which will make the editor of the 'Wire' your slave for life. Only you must be discreet and silent; you must forget what you are going to see to-night. Alphonse!"
The sleek waiter came silently. Was it possible to find a copy of the 'Morning Post' on the premises. Alphonse would get one for M'sieur assuredly. When the paper came Demeter scanned the fashionable intelligence intently. His stern features lit up presently in a smile.
"The search is ended," he added. "I know my London fairly well; but you know it better. Will you be guided by me?"
"I am entirely in your hands, friend Demeter."
"Good. There are certain places, so I am informed, where you can hire dress suits. Can you find the money?"
Hardy fumbled for his watch. The watch was gold—a presentation one, to which he had clung desperately—the one link that held him to respectability.
Hardy found himself struggling into clean linen and dress clothes presently with a feeling that he had been dreaming evilly, and that he had come back to potential things again. He allowed himself to be shaved, his hair trimmed; then he went in search of his companion. Demeter came forward. It was Demeter, for the mouth and the features were the same. Otherwise he was changed beyond recognition.
Here was either a great statesman or the finest actor in Europe. Hardy rubbed his eyes and gasped with astonishment. Of all the strange things the Exile World of London had held for him, never was there a stranger one than this.
"What am I to call you?" Hardy stammered.
"Merely address me as 'Baron,' nothing more," Demeter replied. "For the rest, you are to be discreet and silent and follow my cue in everything. Come along."
A cab was called, Demeter giving the directions in so low a voice that they were lost on Hardy. With a heart beating strangely fast, Hardy found himself presently driving along, his silent companion opposite him, and the blinds of the four-wheeled cab closely drawn.
The cab paused at length, and Demeter alighted. Under the lamplight he looked more imposing and commanding than ever. Yet there was a flush on his thin cheek, and his hands trembled.
There was an open doorway with the hospitable strip of crimson across the flags; behind, a great house, the hall all gay with flowers and palms, and electric lights gleaming down on pictures and statuary. A footman looked like awkward interrogations, but Demeter's clear, strong, commanding eye froze him into acquiescence.
"Pure audacity is the gift of the gods!" Demeter murmured. "First let us raid the supper rooms."
The supper rooms were found at length. Hundreds of gaily-dressed people were swarming through the magnificent suite of rooms and now and again some man of presence would regard Demeter in a puzzled kind of way and pass on. A Cabinet Minister focussed him with rimless monocle, a Marquis nodded, but Demeter seemed to see nothing but the game pie on his plate. He tossed off one glass of champagne swiftly; the rest of the meal was moistened with water.
"You don't know where you are?" he asked Hardy.
"My dear Baron, I haven't the slightest idea."
Those slim fingers dropped on Hardy's arm. Following Demeter's glance, he saw that a woman had come into the supper room alone. She was tall, and wonderfully fair, almost Albino; her pale blue eyes had a steely glint in them, the small, smiling mouth was framed for cruelty and kindness alike. A striking woman, a woman who would have been singled out for observation anywhere in any garb. In her scarlet silk and red flowers, and magnificent diamonds, she seemed to fill the eye to the exclusion of everything else.
"Her name matters nothing," Demeter whispered; "After to-night you are to forget everything but her marvellous personality. For ten years she has practically ruled the kingdom of Asturia, and that is all you need know. To-night her reign ends, and mine—But she is coming this way. We shall have much to say to Countess Matalie."
She came gliding along, like a swan on the river. The supper room was practically empty; the artistic confusion of wine and fruit and flowers gleamed under the frosted electric lamps. A faint haze of cigarette smoke hung on the air. The woman would have passed Demeter had he not spoken to her.
"Sit here!" he said quietly. "It is a pleasant corner."
There was a ring of command in his tone that brought the woman up all standing. A ghastly whiteness rendered her fair beauty almost repulsive.
"An unexpected pleasure," she said. How deep, yet caressing her voice was. All the silver in it rang and vibrated like chords in perfect harmony, "My dear Prince—"
"For to-night only. I came to see you,"
"I am flattered. Time was when you were somewhat prejudiced against me. Is this gentleman here to see fair play between us?"
"This gentleman is here by the accident of circumstance. It was he who found the dead body of Nicholas Ratski a while ago. It will be news to you, of course, that your old enemy, Ratski, has been murdered. Do you remember Malmaison?"
A warm flush spread over the woman's face, followed by a deadly paleness. Demeter leaned back in his chair, eyeing her mercilessly.
"We will not recall the incident," he said. "It was there that you lost the third finger of your right hand. And such a hand! Countess, please, remove your right glove."
The woman laughed uneasily. Something had really moved her at last.
Hardy saw the lithe fingers at work; he saw the peachy blossom of the skin as the long glove peeled away; he saw one finger whiter and more stiff than the others, and he saw that the third finger of the glove was missing. At any rate, he was wide enough awake now.
"The Countess is always gloved thus," Demeter explained. "The pressure on the artificial finger does not admit of the coverings being intact. Hardy has something in his pocket which will astonish you—nothing less than a long suede glove precisely similar to those you are wearing—with the third finger of the right hand missing. Hardy, the Countess would like to see that glove."
Hardy produced it without a word—indeed, he had no words just now. He was staggering along in the blinding light of a triple discovery. He knew now why Demeter had brought him here; he knew the mystery of the dead face that had smiled at him so recently; he knew that silence was going to be bought for a price. He knew certain other things also; but they were far better relegated beyond the limbo of wasted speculation.
"Put the glove on," said Demeter to the Countess; "put it on."
That long trembling hand crept out again. In a dazed kind of way, the Countess rolled the soft kid up her shapely arm. The fit was absolutely perfect, the gloves an absolute match.
"Where did you find this?" she stammered at length.
"In the room of the man you call Nicholas Ratski," Hardy explained.
"You have said enough," Demeter muttered significantly. "Once that glove is in the hands of the police investigation follows, and the political career of a beautiful and charming young lady comes to a sadly abrupt termination. You understand, Madame?"
"You will let me keep the glove, Prince. Surely you don't imagine—"
"That you actually killed Hermann, no. You may retain the glove, at a price."
"Your price? Quick—say it."
"Good! My friend Hardy is a journalist. Also he is a perfect stenographer. You will tell him and me the heads of the infamous treaty just concluded between John of Asturia and the Emperor of Austria. We shall require as much of the text as you remember, not only as a guarantee of good faith, but also for publication."
The thing was out at last. Here was Hardy's great scoop ready to his hand, in the professional enthusiasm of the moment he had no thought of the woman opposite. She had collapsed into her chair, a mere woman, pleading with a strong man for mercy.
"If I refuse?" Madame said tentatively.
Demeter flipped a filbert away with a contemptuous gesture.
"You are not going to refuse," he said. "You are not going to force me to tell the story to the police. In any case they will receive you with open arms in Vienna. Better Vienna than the Central Criminal Court. Come, I shall not further insult you by asking for your decision."
Still the countess hesitated. Demeter held out his hand.
"Then give me the glove," he said sharply.
A deep, passionate sigh broke from the countess. She held up her right hand half-sadly, half-admiringly. Then her lips moved.
"It is so perfect a fit," she murmured. "I never had a better. On the whole, sir, I have decided to keep the glove."
She covered her face with her hands, and two tears trickled through her fingers. Demeter looked on, curiously analytical, yet utterly unmoved. Hardy's notebook filled rapidly.
* * * * *
The supper room was empty now, and from a distance came the sound of music, a chatter of voices, the silken swish of dainty draperies. A dragon orchid fell from an electric epergne with a suddenness that fairly startled Hardy. Almost mechanically he placed the glorious bloom in his buttonhole. He was anxious to be away now, fearful lest anything should come between him and the 'Wire.'
"I am very poor," the woman said, presently. "And I am burning all my boats. If I had money, say £500—"
"I have no money to give you," Demeter interrupted impatiently. "Later on, perhaps. But you must do the best you can."
He turned to Hardy and noted his desire to be gone. Something like a smile crossed his stern lips. Those deep-set eyes seemed to see everything.
"Would you mind leaving me with this lady for a little time?" he asked. "I have a few words for her private ear alone."
Hardy wanted no second bidding. Demeter was telling him to go as plainly as possible—cutting a path for retreat for him in fact. As he rose, Demeter followed him to the door.
"Where shall I see you again?" Hardy asked.
"You will not see me again," was the stern reply. "You have to forget everything—myself most of all. Now go."
Hardy passed into the big office, where the green shades were down, and a score of white-faced men worked silently. The hum of machinery in the basement was plainly audible, and a steady stream of boys passed and re-passed through the clanging swing doors. A man with a white face and weary eye looked up and asked Hardy's business.
"I've got to see Sutton at once," said the other, crisply.
The weary-eyed man had some doubt of it. But for the dress clothes and the flaming orchid he would have been rude. The editor was dreadfully busy, and a long queue of visitors had been repelled from his doors. If there was any message or any manuscript or thing of that kind—
"I tell you," Hardy put in, "that I am going to see Sutton. Tell him Clifford Hardy is here, and that he has got the thing agreed upon."
The little great man, genius of the 'Wire,' beamed at Hardy from behind his glasses, and crisply asked his business. Hardy, laid his notebook on the table, and proceeded to read the data of the Austro-Asturian treaty without delay.
"Well?" Hardy inquired, when he had finished. "Well?"
"Wonderful!" said Sutton, totally unmoved. "A wonderful coup. Nothing like this has happened since the Declaration of War by France against Germany. But, all the same, I don't believe a single word of it."
"You don't? Why?"
"Because John of Asturia wouldn't commit regal suicide like that."
"But, my dear chap, this is to be a secret treaty. Still, if you won't take my word, and you won't use my information, I can take it elsewhere."
Sutton showed signs of vitality at length; the mere man was creeping from behind the armour of the editor.
"If it was right and I lost it I should pine and die," he said. "Would you mind giving me some idea how you got the information?"
But Hardy refused to do anything of the kind. The 'kudos' as things stood would be tremendous. To tell the story would be merely to proclaim the fact that for once pure luck had been on the side of predatory journalism. Hardy had got on a pedestal now, and he had not the slightest intention of coming down again. It is the cracked vase we hang upon the highest shelf.
"I don't think I dare," said Sutton. "If I had some confirmation—" He paused, as an excited voice rose high in the silent corridor. It was the voice of a woman, proclaiming the fact that she meant to see the editor of the 'Wire' without delay.
Hardy started. A wave of exultation came over him.
"See her!" he whispered hoarsely. "Ask the woman in. She is going to confirm my story. What magnificent luck! She has actually chosen you out of all the editors in London to sell her secret to. Here—I must hide somewhere."
He dived into an inner room as Sutton opened the door. Immediately a magnificent woman in red and diamonds entered. Sutton bowed gravely. The head of a great London 'daily' knows everybody worth knowing, and the countess was no stranger to Sutton, at least by sight.
"Need I mention my name?" the Countess asked.
"You need not," Sutton replied. "You come to see me on business?"
"I do. I have a secret to dispose of—a secret that concerns the future of Asturia. If I did not need this five hundred pounds—"
"Pardon me, madame," Sutton interrupted, politely; "but has your secret anything to do with a treaty between King John of Asturia and the Austrian Court?"
A cry of rage and disappointment came from the woman; her rings clattered as she smote her hand passionately on the table.
"I have it all here in black and white," said Sutton. "Still, I dare say we can meet you. My information is totally complete, but my informant necessarily has not your intimate knowledge of the situation. To-morrow we shall make a sensation with the news, and the next day we could make a further great sensation over an interview with you. If you will be good enough to meet me here to-morrow afternoon I have no doubt that you will be perfectly satisfied with the remuneration we shall be prepared to offer you."
The Countess tightened her gloves slowly. A smile came over her face.
"You are very kind;" she said. "I will come. Let me apologise to you for disturbing you at so busy an hour. Good-night."
"Smart woman!" Sutton murmured to Hardy. "Not the first time she endorsed a newspaper proprietor's cheque. Well, Hardy?"
"And now, can you find me something to do?" Hardy asked.
"I can," Sutton said with decision. "After tomorrow the Asturian capital will be the focus of attraction for some time to come. By some means or another you seem to have got the inside track of Asturian politics, and I should like you to represent me over yonder. What do you say?"
"Thank you!" said Hardy, quietly.
* * * * *
Of course there had been a great sensation; the 'Wire' got its boom, and portraits of the woman in the case were sold by the thousand. There were wide issues behind the Asturia-Austro embroglio, and for some days a big European war hung in the balance. It was then that King John of Asturia did the one unselfish and disinterested act of his life, by considerately committing suicide. The wise and good Paul reigned in his stead, and with one acclaim Poteskin was the cry.
Let the people have Prince Poteskin back again—the one Minister they ought never to have parted with. King John and the Scarlet Woman, who had engineered the infamous treaty, had driven Poteskin out into poverty and exile. Would he ever come back again? All these things disturbed good Asturians, and from the capital Hardy wrote those dramatic letters that were going far to make him famous.
But there was one dramatic episode that formed no part of the copy. Poteskin was coming back; Poteskin was already in the capital, and that very night would be seen for the first time at the palace. A huge multitude had gathered there, Hardy amongst the rest. Naturally he was curious to see the picturesque Poteskin. Would some friend kindly point out this Wandering Jew of politics to him?
"He is standing close to your elbow," the friend said.
Hardy beheld a tall man in a magnificent uniform, a man with a keen grey face and dark, penetrating eyes. And those eyes met Hardy's without the slightest sign of recognition, whilst the mind of the journalist went swiftly back to a mean, squalid room that framed a dead smiling figure lying on a long suede glove. Poteskin advanced and stood directly in front of him.
"Sir," he said, "I fancy that we have met before."
"It is impossible that I could have had the honour or I had never forgotten it," Hardy replied. "Still, if the Prince says we have met before, why, then, we have met before—whether we have met before or not."
The dark eyes smiled for a moment, the lips relaxed.
"Feros," he said, "introduce me to this gentleman. Connected with the press? Always try and stand well with the press. One of the fraternity once did me a great service, and I was fortunate enough to return the favour. Some night, Mr. Hardy, you must come and dine with me, and hear my story."
The Prince smiled and bowed and passed on.
THE big man stood winking and blinking in the sunshine. He might have been suffering from some hard-fought emotion, or just drawing back from the gates of a wasting illness. As a matter of fact, he was fresh from the gates of a gaol.
It all came back to him now, and the wiry threads of his full grey beard quivered. Was it four weeks or four years ago that he had lounged in the well of a whitewashed room and vaguely heard himself described as 'the Prisoner'? He could see the three sleek, well-groomed old gentlemen opposite him called 'the Bench'; he had wondered vaguely over the pink clearness of their cheeks and the amazing glossiness of their linen.
He hadn't done much; indeed, he and his 'pals' regarded the matter more or less in the light of a joke. There were eight thousand navvies, more or less, up in the 'Vale of Sweet Waters,' on that big Midland Water Supply Scheme—eight thousand men generally thirsty, and surely there was no great harm in the importation of a few kilderkins of muddy ale and a few gallons of raucous whisky. And if he, Long David, did make a modicum of profit on the transaction, why, it only covered the loss of glasses and mugs reduced to component parts what time the roysterers chose, to add to the doctor's account and the gaiety of nations. So long. Dave smiled and jingled the two 'quid' in his pocket—the usual penalty of shebeening—and hoped those pink-gilled Solons would hurry over the matter.
But they didn't. They took a serious view of the case and their own responsibility. There had been a good deal of illicit liquor-dealing amongst the huts. The prisoner must know that he was infringing the law; also he had used threats to Mr. Daniel Rhys, the smart local Excise officer who had so successfully brought him to book. The Bench were going to be lenient, yet firm. One month's imprisonment.
"One month's imprisonment!" He had never done anything wrong before; he had never robbed anyone of a farthing. Shebeening was mere sport, no worse than the predatory visits of a schoolboy to an apple-orchard. Besides, he had a little girl in Penymont Cottage Hospital. Couldn't he—
Well, it was all over now. The man who had lived in the open air all his life was back in the streets of Penymont again. He was wondering vaguely how he had lived through it all. As he looked down the narrow, white-washed street glittering in the sunshine, there was a hard, murderous lump in his heart. He had money in his pocket; the sign of the 'Oxford Arms' creaked invitingly, but he did not move. Then from the side street leading up to the hills came a procession.
There were some forty men altogether; big, reckless fellows, strapped as to the knee, with open-throated woollen shirts and caps of peculiarly villainous cut. They had come down from the hills to welcome Long Dave back again, to protest against the atrocity of his sentence. With the recollection of by-gone 'sprees' fresh in their mind, they could do no less. Gipsy and Dandy headed the deputation, the others glancing obliquely from the herd to the 'Oxford Arms.' Gipsy's big earrings flashed in the sunshine, the Dandy's unspeakable Newgate curl shed a halo over the proceedings.
"Well, old man," Gipsy cried cheerfully. "What O!"
"'Ow's the kid?" Dave asked sullenly and without the slightest apparent emotion.
"Spiffin'!" Dandy remarked. "Come to herself in the 'orspital 'ere same day as you was—was—well, it don't make no odds. Maddy's all right. Seems as she wandered away and got lost. Fell into a 'ole, she did. Some chap found her and brought her to the 'orspital. And never better than she is to-day. And as to yourself, Dave, why—"
"Come and 'ave a drop," Dave said shortly. "An' if you chaps is to keep friends along o' me, don't you go for to mention yonder place again."
"I knows what the feelin' is," Dandy said sympathetically. "Sorter 'ollowness in the pit of the stomach, first of all. Then you grows defiant—"
"Will you stow your jaw?" Dave cried furiously. "I put two quid in my pocket comin' down 'ere, to square the beaks, and I'm going to spend it. Come along."
The deputation yielded gracefully, no factious dissent marring the harmony of the proceedings. They flooded the big stone-flagged kitchen of the 'Oxford Arms,' they kept a sullen, and not too willing, landlord busy for some time. For Rees Thomas liked not the wild hordes from the hills—they scared his regular customers away, and during their rare visits the mortality of the crockery was enormous.
Into the midst of the fragrant group, rolling presently over the village street, there came a little dapper man in rusty black, a red-headed, foxy-eyed individual, with a fringe of rusty beard round his chin. His clean-shaven lips were shrewd and kindly, his slight frame suggested a deal of wiry strength. He was dressed in solemn black, a prehistoric top-hat rested on his head. A howl of derision greeted him.
This was no other than Daniel Rhys, the alert little Excise officer who had broken up so many happy little shebeens up yonder amongst the hills. Usually he had no lack of vituperative repartee, but he was fresh now from a meeting of chapel deacons, and he would fain have passed on in the brown study of contemptuous preoccupation.
"Lor'! what feet some people 'as!" Dandy said admiringly. "Just what I expected."
Mr. Rhys sprawled in the gutter as Dandy dexterously tripped him up, whilst Gipsy restored the ancient silk hat with a gesture of exaggerated politeness. Personal courage and cat-like sagacity ranked high amongst Rhys's virtues, but it was no time for a generous display of these attributes.
"Yess, you are a nice lot, whatever," Rhys said in the staccato tones of all true Llewellyns. "And I have not done with you yet—oh, no, indeed, look you. You hear that, Long David?"
Long David did hear it, and a sudden blind, unreasoning passion filled him. He stepped slowly forward as Rhys struggled to his feet and smote him heavily on the lips. Had the little man not been slightly off his balance, the blow might have been serious.
"Come out of it," Gipsy said anxiously. "I'm all for fun, and I ain't too proud to pay for it. But when it comes to a little lot 'without the orption,' I ain't on."
Rhys rose, slowly mopping his mouth as he did so. There was a deep crimson stain on his handkerchief as he removed it from his lips. Just for a moment a certain melancholy hung over the deputation. Rhys forced a smile to his lips.
"It's a day of atonement for us, yess," he said. There was just a suggestion of fanaticism about him. One often sees it in Welsh religious zealots. "A day for forgiveness. A kiss for a blow, look you. But there are other days. Long David, and we shall meet again, yess, sure."
"Aye, aye," Dave growled in his beard. "Any night you like. And there's more of the stuff where the other came from, and other ways o' hidin' it. If you ketch me out next time, you're free and welcome to do it, and no ill feelin' o' my side. But if I ketches you doggin' round o' nights, I'll kill you, sure."
He meant it, he meant every word that he said. And nobody knew that better than Daniel Rhys, who had lost a colleague not so very long ago. It was so easy for a belated officer to fall over one of those stone quarries in the dark, so difficult to prove that the disaster had not been absolutely accidental.
Rhys fell back from the ring of scowling faces around him, all of them looking murder, with the possible exception of Gipsy and Dandy. This keen warfare was all very well so long as a sovereign or two met the case, but gaol was a different matter. It would go ill with Rhys if he fell into the hands of these men on one of his midnight rambles, and well he knew it. The strong admixture of pluck and religious fanaticism that went largely to his making up blazed within him.
"I could get you another month for that, iss, sure," he said. "But no, my friend. You defy me! We shall see. Now you get out of my way, whatever."
Not without dignity he pushed his way through the jeering, soil-stained crowd.
Rees Thomas, discreetly irate, beckoned him into the shelter of the 'Oxford Arms.' With a final howl of derision the deputation went off, singing patriotic or other less desirable snatches, in the direction of the hills, where the claiming of the sweet waters went on night and day.
"A drop of brandy, Daniel Rhys?" the landlord suggested hospitably.
"Indeed, and I don't mind if I do, Rees Thomas," the Excise officer replied. "I never had no nastier blow than that, whatever."
"Blackguards!" said the other. "Why for you not tell him as it was you who picked up his little girl in the hills and brought her to the cottage hospital here, and your shoulder dislocated into the bargain? Why you no tell him that, Daniel Rhys?"
Rhys saw no reason for going into psychological details. As a matter of fact, he had stumbled over Long David's wild little slip of a girl up in the hills when nosing out shebeens. He had got out of a tight corner himself at the expense of a big jump and a dislocated shoulder-blade; but this had not prevented him shutting his teeth together and bringing the starved and unconscious child all the way down to Penymont, after which he and his assistant had gone back two days later and caught Long Dave 'in flagrante delicto.'
"He didn't know that I had anything to do with it, Rees Thomas," he muttered.
"Then you should have told him, yess, sure. Who saved that child's life, look you? Why, Daniel Rhys. And what does that blackguard do? Knock you in the mouth."
"But how could he know?" Rhys insisted.
The landlord, didactic—after the manner of his kind—could not see what that had to do with the nice ethics of the question. Nor could he understand that Rhys had a fairly high code of honour of his own; also he had an ambition to make his name a terror in the hills. Long Dave had challenged him again, and they should start fair. The child must not handicap either party to the fray.
"You are a great stupid donkey, whatever," said the aggrieved landlord. "And it's my belief as the girl is as bad as her father, look you."
Daniel Rhys finished up his brandy and went out thoughtfully. Unconsciously enough, Rees Thomas had let a flood of light into a dark corner. Perhaps, after all, that quick-witted, dark-eyed child had her uses. Also it was strange that he should have caught Dave red-handed after the child was out of the way, although for the last year his efforts in the same direction had been futile. On the whole, Rhys came to the conclusion that it was greatly to his advantage that child Maddy should know nothing as to the identity of the individual who had rendered her such timely assistance.
Long Dave's welcome back to the huts had done much to wash the prison flavour from his mouth. He was still silent and sulky, inclined to brood over what he called his wrongs, and a little too prone to harbour bitter feelings of revenge against Daniel Rhys, who, after all, was doing no more than earn the stipend paid him by a grateful country. If the conflicting elements came together again, the comedy might flame into tragedy of the most lurid kind.
Long Dave tramped up from the big wooden town at Cumguilt to his own lonely hut up on a spur of the hillsides. In many ways it was an ideal spot for the exciting and slightly remunerative sport of shebeening. In the first place, there were high ravines on either side of the long, flat, artificial tableland, a tunnel at the far end, and a sloping path, at the foot of which lay a cluster of huts, from whence ready and sinewy aid could be commanded should the authorities make anything like a raid in force.
There was a thoughtful grin on Dave's dark face as he entered the hut. A lean-to shed full of tools was on one side. By extending the hut a foot or so a long gut of big water pipes could be covered—at least, so far as a section of it was concerned. Later on these pipes would convey water to the thirsting Midlanders; at the present moment they were naturally empty, and the cover of a manhole stood open. By a little ingenious alteration the manhole might be taken into the hut—or outbuilding, rather—and here, ready made, was a natural hiding-place for barrels and bottles, beyond the ken of the sharpest Revenue officer of them all. For the first time for a whole month Dave's face cleared.
He sat in his chair chuckling, secure in the knowledge that he would make Daniel Rhys a walking derision amongst the hills, until the door opened and a child looked in. She danced into the room with a glad cry, her dark, gipsy eyes gleamed, her feet flashed as if the blood in her veins were quicksilver. A wild, eager, alert child, black as the night and cunning as the fox. A queer, Miss-like little elf, loyal to her friends, and hating her enemies with a passionate whole-heartedness.
"Daddy!" she cried. "Daddy, daddy!"
Dave's grim face relaxed still further. He forgot all about his wrongs; the prison taint seemed to slip from his broad shoulders; something seemed to soften at his heart and melt away. He lifted the child from her feet and held her at arm's length.
"So you are all right again?" he growled.
"Oh! I got better directly. Of course, you could not come to see me, because—"
She paused, with the subtle instinct of her sex for the word that wounds.
"And the other man, the good man who found me, didn't come neither," she added quickly.
Dave nodded abstractedly. He was not in the mood at present to entertain anything like a large measure of gratitude to abstract humanity. Under ordinary circumstances he would have sought out Maddy's friend and made a friend of him.
"Didn't do more than say his name was Foxy," Maddy said dolefully.
Dave nodded again. Not for a moment did he connect the aforesaid Foxy with Daniel Rhys. On the other hand, Rhys had kept out of the way simply because Maddy was Dave's girl. The little man was exceedingly fond of children—perhaps because he had none of his own—but he wanted a fair field and no favour.
"I guess you's been very unhappy, Daddy," the child said suddenly.
She saw the big man's shoulders heave; she saw the strained agony of his eyes. Very slowly he took the girl upon his knees.
"Nobody's goin' to know nothin' 'bout that," he said. "I'd done no 'arm—never did a chap out of nout. An' a month—a month long o' thieves and the like. Don't you never mention it; never let me 'ear of it again. An' if the man as I've got to thank for this ever comes here some night. .. an' he'll come, too—"
Maddy caught the lurid glare in her father's eye, the dull glare she had seen in the eyes of poor jealous Dick Martin the night he killed his wife. And they had taken Martin away and hanged him.
Maddy was terribly frightened, though she had too much tact to say so. A queer, lonely, imaginative child who lived quite alone, she knew and understood enough to astonish Dave if he could have seen into her mind.
"Nothing happens to you whilst I keep watch," she said.
Dave nodded again, this time more cheerfully. He kept clear of his mates for the rest of the day, and by nightfall had completed the annexe to his hut. Two days later and his store of excisable liquor bloomed again; the manhole held it safe enough, though Rhys's subordinates brought news to the effect that a couple of barrels and a can of suspicious shape had been delivered at Long David's hut over the hills from Rhyader. The little man's foxy curtain of whisker bristled as he went gaily off in pursuit of a search-warrant.
But Sir Pryce Llewellyn would have none of it. He flatly declined to produce the necessary document, without which no search could be made, unless he had a sworn information. For the police to raid a shebeen and capture the culprits red-handed was one thing—to issue a search-warrant on mere assumption was another. Sir Pryce had great respect for the majesty of the law, also his dignity still rasped under the recollection of the one time when he had appeared in the pillory of a certain weekly paper.
"You ought to know better, Rhys," he said. "Can you swear an information?"
Daniel was silent. He was sure of his ground, but he could not swear an information. He set his teeth together; his little eyes gleamed.
"Not this morning," he said, "but to-morrow, Sir Pryce. By to-morrow I shall be able to do it, look you. I shall know all about it, iss, sure."
Whereupon the Excise officer departed, and Sir Pryce retired grumblingly to Lady Llewellyn with the prophecy that Rhys would get his neck broken some night, and further desired to know how a man could be expected to keep his pheasants if the authorities were always harrying the navvies over every cask of beer they swallowed.
But Rhys had another point of view entirely. Seven o'clock the same evening saw him creeping up the valley in the direction of Cefro Tunnel, in the neck of which Dave's hut was situated. Because he fully appreciated the danger, Rhys was alone. His assistant Jenkins was a good man and plucky, but his tongue was loose and the gift of silence had been denied him.
There was only one way up to the hut, as Rhys well knew, and consequently there was only one way of retreat in case of disaster. And Long Dave would assuredly keep his word. Rhys was taking his life in both hands, and he knew it.
It was not a dark night, with a ragged moon showing now and again behind a jagged, racing cloud. Down below it was all still enough—so still that Rhys could hear the sound of voices from the cluster of huts at the end of the cutting. Presently these huts would each yield a man or two, who would join Dave and partake of his illicit hospitality. Dandy and Gipsy and Doolan and Gammon all had their habitation there, all of them were known to Rhys. If he could reach the scrub outside Dave's hut and lie there, why, the search-warrant would come as a matter of course. Rhys had been there before—invariably too late. Some sort of a signal had heralded his coming, and what the signal was had hitherto been a puzzle to Rhys. Now he had a pretty shrewd notion that he had solved the problem.
He pushed his way cautiously along, creeping like a fox that he was until he came to the first fringe of dusty blackberry bushes. Behind he could hear something moving. There was just the faint suggestion of a whistle, almost inaudible as yet, but rising.
"Maddy!" Rhys whispered. "Maddy, are you there?"
The bushes parted with a sudden swish, and Maddy stood delightfully dazed. She had not the slightest idea that here was the enemy; indeed, her notions as to the utility or end of her sentinel's duty were hazy in the extreme.
"Foxy!" she cried. "Foxy come to me at last!"
It was not nice work, and rounded off badly with the fierce Nonconformist conscience which was a second nature; but the sophistical juggling of the theological mind was equal to the occasion.
"Then you haven't forgotten me?" he asked sheepishly.
Maddy's answer was practical and demonstrative. In the excess of her emotions she would fain have carried Rhys off at once to receive her father's warmest expression of gratitude. But Rhys was no chapel deacon for nothing, and he had his duty before his eyes. At the same time he was sufficiently human to wish that he hadn't come.
"Presently, presently," he remarked. "Plenty of time, whatever. And you won't leave here, my child?"
In Maddy's joyful emotion it never occurred to her to wonder whence Rhys had derived his local knowledge. But it did occur to him that he might gain all he desired without a primitive eclipse of himself in Maddy's eyes. Nobody could polish a drab lie into a pure white truth better than Rhys, but he shrank now from the child's gaze with an uncomfortable pricking of his cheeks.
"You just stay where you are for a minute," he said hurriedly, "because I want a word with your father alone. Then I'll come back presently, you see."
He departed with a mysterious nod, which to a more sophisticated mind would have suggested a shilling box of chocolates at the least. An occasional predatory lump of sugar was the extent of Maddy's education in the saccharine field. Still, she had imagination and anticipation.
Rhys crept on, feeling now that the ground was clear. If he could only look into the hut, only see the preparations made for the coming feast of reason and flow of soul, he would be satisfied. After that the search-warrant would follow as a matter of course, and then—
He had forgotten all about Maddy by this time. An exceedingly convenient cloud—no doubt designed by Providence for the especial purpose—had trailed darkly over the moon, a faint yellow light picked out the doorway and windows of the hut, from within came the dull stone clink of pottery, then the popping of a cork. Evidently Long Dave was going to celebrate his freedom with some style.
But the clink of the mug and the thud of the cork were by no means evidence in support of a search-warrant on the distinguished authority of Stone's 'Justice's Manual.' Moreover, Rhys was a Welshman to his finger-tips, and Eve was popularly supposed to be a Welshwoman. Rhys advanced cautiously and lifted the latch.
He looked in. He saw a long table and two lamps thereon. A half firkin of beer rested on the table, flanked by a dozen mugs and a tempting array of bottles. Then a shadow fell across the doorway, and an arm like a pillar of stone grasped Rhys by the neck and dragged him as a cork into the room.
"You dirty dog!" Dave said hoarsely. "So I've got your neck under my fist at last!"
The loquacity of his race was absent in Rhys at that moment. He was not so much keeping his breath to cool his porridge as to save his bacon. One eel-like motion of his head had sufficed to show him murder standing stark in Long Dave's two eyes.
Under any circumstances his feet had been planted amongst scorpions, but here he had caught David in flagrante delicto again, and, prosaically stated, that meant six months.
"What's your game, whatever?" Rhys gasped.
"I'm going to kill you," Dave replied. He spoke in a dull, mechanical way, yet with the air of a man after long deliberation. "I can swear that nobody saw you come here, and nobody will see you go. There's a deep pit full of water at the back of the cutting that they're filling up. This day week you'll be under forty feet of stone and shingle. D'ye hear?"
Rhys intimated by a gesture that he was alive to the situation. He had been more than once threatened with violence; indeed, he bore more than one honourable scar on his body; but this was a different matter altogether. With a sudden writhe and twist he slipped from Dave's grip and scrambled on hands and knees for the door. As Dave caught one foot the other struck him full in the mouth. With a stifled curse the big man drew Rhys to him and smote his head with a thud on the floor. For the next few minutes mundane affairs became as a dream to the unconscious Rhys.
Dave rose slowly with an ugly smile on his torn lip. He crossed over to the door of the hut and whistled. Immediately the answer came.
"Go down to the huts and bring the lads up here, Maddy," Dave gurgled. "Tell 'em as there ain't any danger."
Maddy flew off presumedly, for no further sound of her voice came. Dave was standing over the prostrate body of his foe when Maddy looked in with sharp, beady eyes.
"You just 'ook it back," Dave said shortly.
"But you told me there was no danger," said Maddy. "And seeing that Foxy was here, and that you must have finished your business—Ah, ah! what have you done to him? What have you been and gone and done to my poor Foxy, you bad old father?"
"Oh!" Dave asked blankly. "What d'ye call 'im?"
"Why, Foxy, of course. The man who found me starvin' and dyin' yonder; the man as carried me all the way down to Penymont, and 'im with a dislikated shoulder all the time. And you've gone and killed my Foxy."
She bent over the prostrate body and wiped the bleeding face. Then she poured some illicit whisky into a mug and forced it between Foxy's lips. She did not feel faint or flurried, nor was she in the least timorous or afraid. She had seen too much death and disaster for that; had seen the strong man bleeding and quivering, death in its most repulsive form.. .. Rhys opened his eyes with a desire to know where he was.
"Oh! you're safe enough, dear," she said, with her arms round the prostrate man's neck. "I expect Daddy took you for one of them Excise men."
"Did," Dave growled. "An' that's a (lurid) fact."
"But you see it was all a mistake, Foxy," Maddy went on.
Dave looked grimly uncomfortable. All the passionate anger had died out of his heart. He stood leaning sullenly against the table, big and powerful in the lamplight, whilst Maddy's little black eyes seemed to be picking up all the broken threads of the story.
"Why didn't you tell me about it afore?" Dave asked.
"Didn't mean to," Rhys snapped, his curtain of red beard quivering. "I'm as good a man as you any day, look you, Long Dave. And I wanted to meet you in fair fight, whatever. Come to tell you what I did for the child, and where are you? Nowhere. I beat you every time, and your hands is tied for thinking of the child."
"And you're the man what sent Daddy to—Oh, Foxy! how could you?"
Rhys shrugged his shoulders. There was nothing to be said, for the simple reason that explanation was impossible. The child was too young to understand, and, being a girl, naturally had the lack of logical sequence that renders the sex so charming. Also his duty lay plainly before him. He ought to have escaped in the confusion, and he ought to have gone down to Penymont and sworn an information against Dave without delay. As a matter of fact, he did nothing of the kind; instead, he stood there looking so like a fool that his subordinate Jenkins would have hardly recognised him. Was ever a clean conscience in so sorry a plight before? It was Maddy who broke the strained silence.
"You're not going to take Daddy to—?" she asked.
"If he wants to," said Dave, with an effort that caused the big drops to stand out on him, "I'm ready to go, and be hanged to him!"
"Lord!" Rhys gasped. "Here's a pretty state of things, whatever! If I go away—"
"You can't," Dave said suddenly. "The boys is comin' up the cutting. They'd have your blood; they'd never trust you, not on your oath. No mor'n if you were a Welsh policeman."
Outside the sounds of ribald mirth came nearer. Gipsy was leading a song. Dandy and the rest were roaring over the chorus. Rhys stood panting shortly with his back to the wall, not in the least afraid and yet horribly hysterical. Maddy was watching him with eyes that filled her face with a wild black blaze. She saw the danger now.
There was no escape. And there were men outside who were ready for anything. Moreover, Daniel Rhys was the only man they feared. They would have only been too pleased to take the matter of retribution out of Dave's hands. Once let Rhys escape, and there would be another visit to Penymont Petty Sessions, and the gaol for all of them.
"Tell them Foxy isn't going to do them any harm," Maddy suggested.
Dave fairly laughed aloud. Even Rhys smiled faintly. There was deadly war between himself and the tribesmen, and nothing less mundane than an archangel would have convinced them to the contrary. The humour of the situation was not lost upon David.
"Now you're going to enjoy yourself," he said grimly.
Rhys set his teeth tightly together. The ragged curtain under his chin trembled. There was no longer any question as to the genuinely hospitable intentions of his host. It was bitter to be compelled to shield himself behind the child; but life was sweet, even to a man with the snug theology of Daniel Rhys.
"There's some place I can hide, look you?" he suggested eagerly.
Maddy pulled at his sleeve. Her dark eyes were blazing fiercely. There was a tiny room at the back of the hut which was all her very own. Into this she fairly bundled Rhys and closed the door behind him as the first of the roysterers burst into the hut. They came, eager and excited, greasy and redolent of the soil, filling the hut with that faint, sour smell that goes to the midweek toiler, who literally earns his bread in the sweat of his brow. A hard, reckless, bitter lot, most of them with a past, and all of them anarchists in embryo. If the whole pack of them could have been wiped off the face of the hills, the head ganger would have been frankly grateful.
"Where is 'e?" the foremost hand cried. "We tumbled to your message, Dave."
The speaker rocked to and fro with exquisite enjoyment, tempered with a sudden fear as he looked round the hut. The rest of them laughed loudly; they were in a playful mood—the playfulness of the cat about to spring. Dandy stood a trifle heavy and sullen in the doorway; over his shoulder peered Gipsy's slightly anxious face. If murder was to be done, he was prepared to accept his share of the responsibility. But as a matter of fact, Gipsy was here for peace.
"Just you trot 'im out," another suggested.
"I dun no what you mean," Long Dave said stolidly. "'Oo d'yer mean?"
"Why, Rhys, of course. Come, where be you a-hidin' of 'im?"
Dave shook his head solemnly. Beyond the ring of grimy faces he caught Gipsy's eye. The latter winked slightly, and Dave's soul was uplifted. As ill luck would have it, at this same moment Maddy came into the glare of the lamps. One of the roysterers caught her up and set her on his shoulder.
"Who're you got in yer bedroom, Maddy?" he asked. It was a pure venture, but the child was taken off her guard for the moment.
"Only Foxy," she said innocently. "Nobody else."
It was a critical moment. 'Foxy' conveyed little to the visitors. Long Dave looked imploringly at Gipsy. If those fellows only knew for certain who was listening to them, Rhys's end was at hand. And here was all the damning evidence on the table. The little man with the big earrings rose to the occasion.
"I seen the dog this mornin'," he said. "Foxy 'ull make a good 'un, if you don't go for to give him too much meat, Maddy."
"That's just what I tell her," Dave remarked wisely. "Gels allus spiles their dogs that way." With rare inspiration Maddy said nothing. Something told her that her beloved Foxy was in danger, or why should Gipsy pretend that he was a dog? And she had the most profound respect for Gipsy's many-sidedness.
"Dorg," came a voice from the edge of the pack. "A terrier, most like. Let's see 'im. I 'ad a bull terrier wunst as killed three score rats in—"
"This ain't no terrier," Gipsy retorted contemptuously. His foot shot out and caught Dandy fairly on the shin. That individual took the hint without the tremor of a muscle. "It's one of them poodles like Mr. Marrin the engineer's wife's got. Maddy took a fancy to one of them, and I nicked 'im."
"What's the game?" Dandy whispered hoarsely.
"Rhys is in yonder," the Gipsy replied; "and Dave's a-shieldin' 'im for purposes of 'is own. If we don't stop this little manoeuvre, it's murder will be the matter. An' I ain't goin' to 'ave my neck stretched if I can 'elp it—"
"An' there ain't no dorg?" Dandy asked.
"No, nor a cat, neither. Chuck it, Bill! 'Oo wants to see a black doormat out of a bloomin' circus? If it was a bull terrier, now! Leave the girl alone."
Maddy slipped off and Gipsy breathed easier. The first speaker refused to reface his opinions so freely.
"I dunno as I shouldn't like a dorg like that for my kid," he said. "What colour, Gipsy?"
"Black as yer 'at," Gipsy said, with rising irritation. "Got to be painful sober to know which is the business end of 'im. Wicious little beggar, too. Got me through the finger afore I could say—"
"I should like to see the dorg as 'ud bite me," the first man remarked. "I 'ad a Airedale—"
"Oh! sit down!" Dave roared. "On the floor anywhere. 'Elp yourselves."
A liberal construction was placed upon the suggestion, and the dog subject was forgotten. A thick cloud of pungent blue smoke lay like a curtain across the table. The uneasy feeling that the proceedings might be interrupted by the arrival of the authorities added pungency to the tobacco that already possessed a reeking zest of its own. As every man filled up his glass or his mug he dropped twopence or threepence in a bowl on the table. Then the thin, wiry man who had opened the proceedings absorbed a second whisky before he spoke again. He had the air of a man who has something on his mind.
"I quite understood as you'd got 'im," he said thoughtfully.
"I ain't got 'im, and, what's more, I ain't goin' to get 'im," Dave growled. "You can 'ave what drinks you like, boys, an' all the coppers is goin' to the 'orspital fund. After all, this 'ere little Rhys ain't doin' no more than his dooty."
"I'd like to 'ear that again," the malcontent said politely.
"I'll ram it down your throat if you like," Dave growled hospitably. "Rhys 'as got to get his livin' same as you and I. 'E ain't going to injure me to-night, and I ain't goin' to injure him after to-night."
"Clean off 'is bloomin' chump," said the misanthrope sorrowfully.
Mugs stood neglected on the table, pipes were suspended in mid-air. There was a half-shamed flush over Dave's face, but his eyes were steady. Gipsy was watching him with a flattering interest. This was one of the comedies that he loved so well.
"We're fools!" Dave declared. "Just fools. Why do we do this 'ere sort of thing when we can get better an' cheaper stuff at the canteen? Why, because it's agin' the law. An' it's Rhys's duty to see the law is kep'."
"I've knowed gaol affect a bloke's 'ead like that afore," said the discontented one.
"Maybe as you've found good points in Rhys?" Dandy suggested.
Dave brought his fist down on the table to a dancing jig of mugs and glasses.
"I 'ave," he cried. "He came 'ere to-night, and—and I let 'im go." It suddenly flashed across his mind that Rhys would appreciate this way out of the difficulty better than the dramatic production of his person. It would be much more likely to fit in with his sense of duty. "Why did I let him go? Because I found out as he was the man what carried little Maddy down to the 'orspital at Penymont. An' 'im with a damaged shoulder all the time. And why didn't 'e tell me? Because he wanted to beat me without a handicap."
"Got the feelings of a real sportsman," said Gipsy.
The misanthrope shook his head sorrowfully, but the feelings of the meeting were evidently against him. Gipsy had gone over already to the enemy, and Gipsy knew perfectly well who was in the little bedroom listening to every word of the proceedings. And, moreover, Gipsy was grateful to the man whose modest courage had averted an ugly tragedy.
"I don't want," said the misanthrope slowly, "to say as Dave's a coward—"
There was a sudden uproar, terminating with the violent opening of the door and a dissolving view of the speaker disappearing in a paste of red clay. Then there was a distant rumbling of threats to be left darkly to the future, drowned by cheers for Dave and Daniel Rhys. Only a strong sense of fairness and decorum restrained Gipsy from dragging Rhys out into the fierce light of popular approbation. The jugs and bottles were empty at length, and the company, having no longer any rational or respectable excuse for staying, lurched heavily homeward. Gipsy and Dandy brought up the rear.
"Mean to say 'e was there all the time?" the latter asked unsteadily.
"Mean to say as 'e's there now," Gipsy responded.
"Good old Rhys!" Dandy remarked, and lapsed into gloomy silence.
* * * * *
Rhys stepped out, blinking his eyes. His gaze was scrupulously and steadily averted from the table where evidence of illicit traffic was thick as leaves in Vallambrosa. He held out a lean, sinewy hand, which Dave grasped largely and painfully. It was characteristic that neither man met the other's eye.
"I've—I've been wrong," Dave said shortly.
"But not in the future, whatever," Rhys replied. "I heard you say so, yess. And it's a good thing, for you are a good man, Long Dave."
"Never no more," Dave responded. "If it hadn't been for Maddy, I—"
He paused and Rhys nodded. He knew all about that. Then he picked the blazing-eyed Maddy up and kissed her. His wonted loquacity had suddenly failed him. He was glad, and yet sorry, as he walked along—glad to have made a friend of the dangerous enemy, sorry because he was going to fail grossly in his duty.
"Call yourself an honest man, whatever?" he muttered, with the dim lights of Penymont in his eyes. "To think that I should pass a night in a shebeen, and the police none the wiser! But what can I do more than plead for this miserable sinner, and leave the rest to Providence, whatever?"
With which comfortable shifting of responsibility, Rhys went to bed untroubled by any odd thorns on the rose of his tender conscience.
It required a good deal to flutter the stately calm of the Hotel Majestic. More than one foreign prince had attempted to do it all and failed, a famous actress periodically bereft of her diamonds had come within distance of success, a defaulting solicitor with over a million of liabilities, fluttered the great hall after dinner one night. But the place was so big, so majestic, the head porter carried his gold lace so superbly; that even South African millionaires slid meekly into the big chairs under the palms and meekly waited for their coffee like ordinary individuals.
But Frank Astley had honestly attracted attention. In the first place he was so young and so big, and so superbly handsome. Young as he was, he had successfully fought De Beers on their own ground, and soundly trounced them. Johann Lupus whispered to Carl Vulpus that he knew for a fact that Astley could compel De Beers to buy him out at any moment for six millions. And the women said that he might have been Bayard up-to-date. General Martinet swore roundly that Astley had been of more sterling use in South Africa than all our generals put together.
But Frank Astley did not appear to be flattered. He sat under a big palm sipping coffee and looking around him as if in search of something. His somewhat sad strong face suggested one who had dropped something precious out of life, without which life itself was rank and bitter to the taste.
The big hall was full of rich people down there for a breath of sea air from Saturday to Monday. Most of the chairs were occupied; the air was pink with the drift of cigarette smoke and fragrant of coffee. In the annexe under the big palms the band was playing something soothing.
Astley's companion was chattering away, Astley listening more or less with contemptuous silence. Rupert May, the well-known journalist, seemed to know everybody, and he was proud to be seen on confidential terms with Astley to-night. Usually, the latter found his chatter amusing. To-night he seemed to put him aside as one waves away a pet monkey. And May was not a discerning individual.
"You seem quiet to-night?" May hazarded.
"I am," said Astley pointedly. "Do you never think, my friend? I have found that kind of thing very useful in my career more than once."
"I dare say," May replied carelessly. "Are you looking for anybody, Astley?"
The searching grey gaze seemed to be more than ever pronounced to-night. It ranged away beyond the purple and gold cluster of electric lights over gleaming silks and satins and glimmering jewels to the banks of palms beyond. And the music was dreamy.
"I have been looking for somebody for years," said Astley.
"Lucky somebody," May laughed. "I hope you've got something to give him."
"I have. When we do meet I shall give him three millions of money."
Even May's interrogative tongue was paralysed for a moment. He scented paragraphs here, long 'specials' of price. But there was something about the droop of Astley's clean-shaven mouth that stopped the flow of questions. Then Astley went on to explain much in the fashion of a man who talks in his sleep. He seemed to be altogether unconscious of May.
May looked disappointed, and the little points of eager flame behind his glasses died out. As a matter of fact, he was deeply interested. All the same, Astley was not going to be led back. May felt like a fisherman when a big trout wriggles over the rim of the landing net.
"I didn't know you were fond of music," he said.
"Love it," Astley muttered. "I once had high aspirations as a composer. I'd give all I've got to stand in Sullivan's shoes. I shouldn't stay here if the music wasn't so good."
"It isn't bad," said May critically. "There's a chap here who's a bit of a marvel on the 'cello. We get solo from him most nights. Perhaps he will oblige this evening."
Astley nodded vaguely. Already his busy mind had passed on to something else. Meanwhile the band was playing dreamily, there was a kaleidoscopic flashing of gems and dresses up and down the big hall. From without came the hollow boom of the sea. The band became frivolous for a time and then stopped. Afterwards there was a thrum of strings and a 'cello began its mournful wail.
"That's the chap," said May. "Clever, isn't he."
Astley nodded. His cigarette, balanced on the edge of his saucer, burnt itself out in one long stream of thin-drawn pink. There was something like pain in his eyes. Presently the music changed. It was as if the melody had been a blow, a physical blow, to Astley.
As the music ceased in one long-drawn wail, Astley half started from his seat. May eyed him curiously. But Astley saw nothing of him, he was carried away six thousand miles over sea, even to the gates of Kimberley. Presently he rose and sauntered to the hall-door, followed by May.
"I'm going out," Astley said. "Wait here till I return."
May expressed his willingness in none too suave a manner. If Astley was going out, he seemed in no hurry to do so. He stood for quite a long time talking to the gilt-resplendent head porter, who was affable to few, and friendly with none. May sat puzzling over the dry bone of the problem until the band played the National Anthem, and straggled wearily out. The man with the 'cello came last, a tall slender man with a dreary handsome face and a sensitive mouth.
"A little gem, that last thing of yours," said May. "Original?"
"Yes sir," the 'celloist replied. "Most of my music is. Glad you liked it, sir."
He passed on with the air of a man weary of most things. There was a stoop in his shoulders that should not have been there in so young a man, the stoop of the failure, A fine, intellectual-looking face, too, May thought. He lighted a fresh cigarette and went down in the direction of the billiard-room, a little puzzled and annoyed.
For a long time, Astley stood on the broad marble steps looking out over the sea. It was getting late now, and foot passengers were not many. A broad streaming band of light picked out the pier. Outside some fishing boats were riding on the swell. But all this was lost upon the man standing there. His thoughts were far away. He still had the air of one who is seeking something with a suggestion as to having dubiously found it. He looked broad and strong and prosperous, so wholly self-reliant, and yet he was anxious and nervous as a lover might be who waits for the fiat of his mistress.
He stood there for quite a long time, until the straggling musicians had passed, even to the 'cello player with the stoop between his shoulders. Most of them went off noisily, the 'cello player turning in the direction of the lawns silently. As he passed, Astley could have touched him on the shoulder.
Instead of that he followed. They came at length to the edge of the lawn looking like velvet, grey green under the rays of the big arc lights. Astley ranged alongside the player, and then he spoke.
"Well, Phil," he said, "so I have found you at last."
He spoke quietly and evenly, but his heart was beating fast. He could hold his own with the keenest cutting tool of them all, but he was nervous as a child now. It was characteristic of the man that none of those emotions showed on his face.
The other turned and faced him with a hoarse cry. There was contempt, scorn, dislike in his eyes, and yet a kind of almost tearful yearning. Here was a man who could bitterly resent an injury, who would brood over it and nurse it for years, and yet a man whose resentment could change to love and pity at one kind pleading word. And it was the face, too, of a man who suffers, the eye of a man who had not too much to eat. All this came to Astley in a flash.
"Why did you and Nell desert me?" he asked.
The musician half turned away, so that Astley could not see the harpstring quiver of his face.
"I saw you in the hotel to-night," he said.
"And you were not going to let me know! Why?"
"Why! Because you are now a fabulously rich man. I have followed your career with interest, because of our old friendship, and because I—I once was fond of you. But you need not be afraid of me, I can do you no possible harm. If I told the world that half your wealth rightly belonged to me, nobody would heed."
"My dear Phil, I have been looking for you for four years to get rid of your share."
Philip now laughed bitterly. Yet he looked strangely moved, and the expression in his eyes was that of a dog who knows no wrong that he has done.
"If I could only believe you," he cried. "Oh, God, if I could only believe you. You were the only friend I ever had, the only friend I ever trusted. If I had twice your wealth at this moment I would gladly cast it aside to see the old Frank back again. To deceive me, to trick me, to rob me as you did was a bitter blow. And I would have given it to you, given it so cheerfully. But that was not your method. But you must needs telegraph me when I was down in Capetown that the De Beers had got the best of the arbitration, and that I was to let Hermann have my share for £1000. Then I sold our share to Hermann, and the next day I heard that De Beers had been utterly routed by you. That scoundrel was your agent, and you tricked me in that way! What did I care for the money?"
"What did you do with the £1000?" Astley asked.
"What matters? I had poor relatives. And Nell and I got away to England at once. But why do I tell you these things; why don't I spite you and go my way? Not that you care, not that you have any kind or feeling, or you would never have stopped me like this."
"And if I told you that all my money was gone?"
"I—I should be glad. No, no, I'm not vindictive. Perhaps the old Astley would come back."
"Phil, thank God the old Astley is here still, look at me."
Nye did so almost mechanically. Strange, he thought, that a man with such a face could play at so sorry a part. Those grey eyes were so steady and clear.
"I am going to tell you something," Astley said. "What you have been saying to-night is new to me. I never sent that telegram. It was a trick on the part of Hermann, who got a confederate to send you that wire from Kimberley. I had one cunningly phrased from Capetown, no doubt designed by the same wily brain. But I was not to be caught like that. And Hermann was found dead outside Kimberley two days later, shot through the heart. Then I came down to Capetown to find that you had vanished. On and off I have been looking for you ever since. Phil, dear Phil, you might have trusted me a little further than that. And Nell—"
"Nell will be the happiest girl in England to-night, Frank."
"And you shall have your money. Half of what I possess belongs to you. And you look as if you hadn't had enough to eat lately. Come along and take me down to Nell. Do you think—"
"My dear old chap, Nell would have forgiven you in any case. I live here."
Nye led the way into a small sitting-room, where a frugal supper was laid out. A tall, fair girl, with the sweetest hair and eyes and mouth, came gaily into the room, and then stopped short as she saw Astley. The colour faded from her cheeks till they were deadly pale.
"Nell," Astley cried. "I have come to ask you to forgive me."
"I am afraid it is out of my power," the girl said, "because—because, Frank, why have you been breaking our hearts all these years?"
She held out her hands with a gush of womanly tenderness that left Astley almost speechless.
He signed to Nye to explain. The genius of the 'cello was vaguely incoherent, but the girl's natural intuition picked out all the more lurid facts. Then gradually a sweeter and tender smile came to her lips as she advanced to Astley. He needed no words from her to tell him that he had found that which was lost.
"Can you ever forgive me, Frank?" she whispered. "And if you knew how I have missed you—"
"I do know, darling," Astley said, as he bent and kissed her. "And these years have not altogether been wasted. If I had only dreamed of this—but let us have all sunshine to-night. We are going to the Majestic, where we can have a private room and a supper fit for plutocrats, like Phil and myself. No more bread and cheese and a sauce of adversity. Put on your hat, Nell, and let me show everybody how proud I am of my future wife. Millionaires are popularly supposed to be most unhappy men. Not all, sweet little Nell, not all."
* * * * *
May came out of the billiard-room and met Astley on the stairs.
"Hullo," he said. "How bright you look. You said you had been in search of something. By your expression, I should say you had found it."
"Yes," Astley said, gravely, "thank God, I have found it."
A POOL of light fell upon the table from rose-tinted lamps half hidden in a mass of flowers and foliage—blood-red chrysanthemums and chestnut leaves. The rest of the room lay in ruddy shadow picked out here and there with a plate or a picture. One great carved bookcase had a suggestion of sombre life in its bold panels. In one corner stood an oak cabinet, and on it another shaded lamp glinting upon a magnificent hawthorn-blue jar and a small, deeply framed gem of Millet's. But for the shades, the electric light would have been garish, bizarre, out of place, a false note amidst surroundings almost mediaeval.
Under the small lamp, with his feet against one of the big brass dogs in a deep Cromwellian oak chair, the owner of Barsac Castle sat. A young man in the prime and vigour of youth, a man with clear-cut, resolute face, yet so pale that his black moustache looked vivid against his fine-grained skin. A powerful face, yet overcast with an expression of deepest sorrow, tempered ever and again by a suggestion of passionate self-pity. You can see the same look on the face of a soldier who has lost a limb, or a statesman in the hour of defeat. And when you looked again and saw those strong, sinewy hands feeling for something along the table, you knew that Count Ferdinand Barsac was blind. And you knew also in some subtle way that the affliction was of comparatively recent date, and that the strong man still fought passionately and rebelliously against the decree of Fate.
He looked swiftly towards the door as the curtains fell back and a servant entered. Barsac's face changed as if a mask had suddenly fallen over it.
"Well, Werther?" he asked, in the mingled tone of geniality and command generally assumed towards a confidential servant. "You are really getting too audacious. Don't you know that I am never to be disturbed after dinner? What is it? A pressing telegram or something of that kind?"
"A messenger from the Court of Queen Hilda, my lord," Werther replied. "He is charged with a message from the Queen herself."
"And is bound to deliver it in person," a muffled voice came from the door. "Werther, you may go. Upon my word, Count, you have magnificent quarters here. What would I not give for such artistic surroundings as these? Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian, Benvenuto, Cellini—all the treasures of all the ages, and the electric light to give it the one modern touch. It is a perfect dream of beauty."
Barsac made no reply for the moment. His face was all broken up and quivering with the lines of an ill-suppressed passion, as the ice on a river breaks up when the Spring comes. He rose to his feet and touched the dream of shaded light and high-piled floral beauty on the table.
"Brother virtuoso," he said at length. He spoke with deep, sarcastic note. "Here is a red flower, and here is a chestnut frond with five leaves. Behind you is a blue vase for which Valeria Barsac sold the honour of our house. I can name everything as it stands; I can see every flower and leaf arranged still as they were the last time I looked upon them. Heavens! Am I and my services to the kingdom of Farsala so soon forgotten that even the flaneurs about the Court are ignorant of my great affliction?"
The new-comer crossed the room and touched Barsac affectionately on the shoulder.
"My dear Ferdinand," he said, "your services and your misfortunes will never be forgotten by the Queen. Have you quite forgotten your old friend De Mormay?"
"De Mormay!" Barsac cried. "Well, I suppose I must make an exception in your favour, though you did find your way here by means of a trick. For five years I have denied myself to everybody, though I am but four miles from the capital. How your voice brings back the old times to me. Sit down, Antony. There are cigars on the table."
"Thanks, but I see no signs of your own cigar."
"I have given up tobacco. Most blind men do in time. There is no solace in a cigar unless you can see the smoke rising. All is well at the Court?"
"All is confoundedly ill at the Court!" De Mormay replied, as he pulled a chair up to the fire and lighted his cigar. "When I said I came with a message from the Queen, I stated no more than the truth. Often as I have longed to see you, my dear Ferdinand, I have ever respected your wish to be left strictly alone. Five years ago you went to Paris, one of the most envied men in Europe. You were young, rich, and handsome. Off your own bat you had scored the consolidation of Farsala and placed our beautiful young Queen securely on the throne. Then we heard suddenly that you had come home and that you had transformed yourself into a recluse of the deepest dye. You had lost your eyesight owing to an accident—"
Barsac rose to his feet, his face quivering with passion, self-pity, scorn.
"It was no accident," he said hoarsely. He paced the room with assured strides, his nervous fingers touched objects with the same assurance that one with sight had done. "It was the work of a vile scoundrel whom I trusted. There was a woman in it—'a rag and bone and a hank of hair,' as Kipling sings! Oh! it was no accident."
"A duel, perhaps?" De Mormay said. "No man could deliberately—"
"But I tell you he did. I found the scoundrel out; I could have exposed him. He discovered what I knew, and he took this diabolical means to render me helpless. But I am not going to speak of that—the story must ever be my own. I am lord of my own castle here, De Mormay, the last bit of the old feudalism in up-to-date Farsala. Some day my servants will find that man—they are looking for him everywhere. And when they do find him, he will be lured here and I shall have my revenge."
Barsac was speaking slowly now and lingering on his words. To watchful De Mormay there seemed to be a touch of melodrama in the situation. He could see those sightless eyes upturned, the hard vengefulness of the face, the grim determination of the lips. The surroundings were all in keeping, too—the dark walls, the oak panels, the feeling of strength and security. And four miles away the people were laughing in the theatres and screaming over music-hall stars. Without question, Barsac's wrongs had injured brain as well as sight.
"But that is all by the way," the Count resumed more quietly. "I am still deeply interested in politics. My faithful Werther keeps me well posted. The Queen will have to get rid of Rustmann. That fellow is in the pay of Russia. Still, so long as you keep strictly to the letter of my Deed of Convention, Farsala is safe and the Ural mines will ever replenish the exchequer. It was the finest thing I ever did."
De Mormay drew his chair up a little closer.
"It was the Convention I came to consult you about," he said. "Russia is making trouble, and Rustmann is backing her up. Russia claims the right of pre-emption in the mines under Clause V. This will touch Queen Hilda's private fortune also."
"My dear fellow, there was no right of pre-emption at all. I was particularly careful on that point. Clause V. was devoted to the Jewish poll-tax basis. There is one thing I pride myself upon, and that is my memory. I could repeat the Convention by heart."
De Mormay's gay face clouded slightly. From his breast-pocket he produced a large sheet of parchment and laid it on the table.
"That is very strange," he said. "Here is Clause V. set out exactly as Russia claims it. Let me read it to you.. .. What do you think of that, my friend? And yet you were so painfully careful that you wrote every word of this document yourself. It will be exceedingly hard for Farsala. What do you think?"
"I think," Barsac replied, "that the whole thing is a clever and audacious forgery. The parchment has been stolen and tampered with. By some ingenious means the least important clause in the agreement has been removed and this vital paragraph inserted. De Mormay, I have often longed passionately for my eyesight, but never as I long for it now. Unless some miracle gives me back my eyes, Farsala is helpless."
Barsac strode up and down the room impatiently. He shivered as with cold. He took a couple of logs from the basket and tossed them on the fire easily as a man possessed of sight would have done. De Mormay watched him curiously.
"The enemy had counted upon this," he said. "Our chief, our only witness, is as useless as a dead man. Could you but see, you could refute the forgery. The Russian minister told me somewhat cynically that if you could give legal testimony, he would have nothing further to say. Your eyes are not destroyed, Ferdinand?"
"No, it is paralysis of the optic nerve. A tiny thing, and yet so great. Specialists say that some day a ridiculously easy cure will be found."
"My dear fellow, it is found. I have the man who guarantees to cure you."
Barsac paused in his impatient strides. "Who is this man?"
"A brilliant mystery. He came to the capital a year ago, since when he has performed some wonderful cures. He makes a huge income, lives in the most extravagant style, and for amusement goes in for political intrigue. This Jasper Manton is especially great upon eye troubles. A friend of mine who had lost his sight owing to paralysis consulted Manton, and to-day he can see as well as I can. When the difficulty over the Convention arose, it occurred to me to ask the Queen what the source of your loss of sight was. When she told me, with one accord we both cried 'Manton!' For a special fee Manton will operate on you."
Barsac suddenly sat down again. He was palpably placing a great restraint upon his feelings. The long, sinewy hands were locked together.
"Does the man know who his patient is to be?" he asked.
"Well, no. First of all, you had to be consulted, and in any case it was best to keep the matter a secret as long as possible. I told you this Manton was fond of political intrigue, and he might guess too much. Besides, I want to spring a surprise upon the Russian minister. Manton knows that he is wanted for a friend of mine, and he is prepared to place himself in my hands at any time. Personally, I regard him as an unscrupulous adventurer; but so long as he serves our purpose, that matters nothing. You will have to lie up for a fortnight afterwards and be nursed, but all the details you can leave to me. The point is—are you willing to try the experiment?"
Barsac laughed unsteadily. He grasped De Mormay by the hand convulsively.
"Aye, aye," he said hoarsely. "You give me new life and hope. Anyway, things can't be worse than they are. I am ready for your man at any time."
De Mormay swaggered down the avenue to the place outside the great gates where he had left his carriage. On the whole he was exceedingly pleased with the success of his mission. He stood for a moment utterly unconscious that a woman was speaking to him. She was dressed as a nurse, she was tall and young, and presently it was borne in upon De Mormay that she was exceedingly beautiful. A born squire of dames, De Mormay was all attention.
"I know where you have been, Baron," the girl said breathlessly, "and why. You are going to try an experiment upon Ferdin—I mean Count Barsac—and it will be successful. But not for long, unless I am close at hand to ward off danger, the terrible danger that is sure to follow. Oh! I cannot say more—I have said too much already. You will want a nurse presently. I implore you to let me fill the post."
The girl spread out her hands with a gesture of passionate entreaty. Her beauty and the purity of her face touched the suspicious man of the world. "Surely an extraordinary request?" he replied.
"Oh! I know it. You must deem me to be a mad woman. And yet I am sane enough, and I know only too well what I am talking about. Unless you let me have my way, you will never succeed. Avail yourself of my advice and my assistance, and you will be glad of it all the days of your life."
De Mormay hesitated and was lost. A good judge of humanity, he could see nothing but honesty and sincerity here.
"If your credentials are good," he said, "I might—"
The girl gave a little cry of delight. Her face lighted up wonderfully.
"Then I am going to undertake the task," she said. "Dr. Sergius, the late Court physician, will speak for me. Here is my card, Baron de Mormay. Ask Dr. Sergius about me, but do not mention my apparently strange request. Then you can let me know."
De Mormay bowed and indicated his carriage.
"It is practically settled," he said. "And now may I have the pleasure of driving you as far as the capital?"
"No, no, it would be dangerous, too great a risk. Thank you a thousand times. Let me say 'Good-night,' and God bless you!"
She disappeared into the heart of the night, leaving De Mormay in a state of bewilderment that he had never experienced before.
The brilliant enigma called Jasper Manton was at breakfast. He had a fine set of rooms looking over the royal park in Farsala's capital, and here he was wont to entertain the wildest and wittiest who gathered round the Court of Queen Hilda.
There was a certain dainty femininity, a suggestion of the boudoir and the scent-bottle about the rooms that kept the more robust element away. The pictures were a little too French, the draperies too light. A smell of cigar smoke was painfully in evidence, objectionably so at that hour of the day; a litter of cards, hundreds of the polished black and red specks, lay on the floor.
The man himself sat playing nervously with a slice of dry toast and a glass of hot water, though the table was laden with tempting things. There was a certain tremor of the hand and a quivering of the drooping, furtive eyes that told plainly of a too reckless pursuit of pleasure on the night before. A small, lean, active man, a man built on feline lines, a dangerous enemy who gave the suggestion of striking deep, but ever in the dark.
"Bad to worse!" he muttered. "Did ever anyone have such cruel luck with the cards? And they were watching me last night, I am certain of it. I wonder if some of my quondam French friends have tracked me here?. .. . Come in!"
A servant entered with a card. Manton's face cleared. He poured himself out a small glass of brandy and swallowed it hastily.
"Shovel up those cards, Alphonse," he said, "and ask Baron de Mormay to come in."
De Mormay entered, suave, frostily polite, and with an assumption of faint contempt that brought the blood into Manton's face.
"You do me honour," the latter said.
"I do nothing of the kind, my dear fellow," De Mormay replied, "and you know it. I do not play cards, and I am practically a teetotaler. I used to play cards once—in France—and I learnt some queer tricks there."
"I don't quite follow your meaning, Baron."
"Not this morning, perhaps. As your intellect clears, you will divine my thoughts. Meanwhile, I am here on behalf of the prospective patient I mentioned."
"The mysterious man who desires secrecy," Manton replied. "In such case my fee is a heavy one. A thousand gold crowns—"
"A thousand gold crowns before we leave the room, and five thousand more, provided that your operation is successful. Will that suit you?"
"Princely!" Manton cried. His face cleared like an April sky. Here was a way out of a great difficulty. It seemed almost providential. "The money is as good as in my pocket. When shall I have the pleasure of earning it?"
"So that you may take up that forged bill of old Solomon Ernst's, due in a day or two," said De Mormay coolly. "For purposes of my own, I have taken the liberty of prying into your private affairs. You see, I want to convince you of the vital importance of giving yourself over heart and soul so far as this operation is concerned. Succeed, and you are safe. Fail—but, really, we need not discuss the possibilities of failure."
Manton waved his hand impatiently. A burning spot of colour flamed on either cheek. His professional honour was touched; unscrupulous as he was, he took the greatest pride and interest in his work. Here money was not the sole consideration.
"When am I to demonstrate my operation?" he asked.
"To-day. Now. Everything is ready, the nurse engaged; for a fortnight my friend has followed out your regimen to the latter. What do you say?"
Manton nodded. He was trembling from head to foot, and words were difficult to him. More than once lately his nerves had played him the trick on the threshold of a dangerous operation. De Mormay pointed cynically to the brandy decanter.
"A little more of that," he said, "and your professional career is likely to be brief. You are further gone than I anticipated. A few days' strict training—"
Manton filled himself a bigger glass of brandy and tossed it down with a swagger. A moment later he held out his hand across the light.
"There!" he said, "steady as a rock, light as a thistledown. Had I known of this visit of yours, my doors would have been barred to my friends last night. I am ready now to operate upon an emperor or an engine-driver. Lead the way."
A pair of high-stepping bays covered the ground between the capital and Barsac Castle swiftly. Manton chatted brilliantly all the time, De Mormay for once was grave and preoccupied. Presently the two found themselves in the big dining-room where Barsac usually spent most of his time. He was in his bedroom now, where he was likely to be for some days to come.
"A magnificent room," Manton murmured. "Handsome, massive, and yet with a suggestion of lightness, and all in perfect taste. The pictures are a dream; those portraits—who is that above the Flemish buffet?"
Manton's voice rose almost to a scream and then cracked suddenly. He was trembling from head to foot, smitten with some terrible overwhelming terror. Deeply preoccupied and ill at ease, all those emotions passed over De Mormay's head.
"Eh! what?" he asked. "What? That is Count Ferdinand Barsac. Do you know him?"
"I fancied I did," Manton stammered. "But I see now that I have been deceived by a chance likeness. Any relation to my new patient?"
"He is your patient," said De Mormay, and lapsed into a brown study again.
Manton crossed the room and looked out of the window. His face was ghastly grey and drawn; his overstrung nerves were twitching at the lips till they quivered. He half glanced towards the door, as a detected criminal might do. Then his hand fell upon a pocket lined with De Mormay's money; he thought of that bill of Solomon Ernst's, and he took a pull at himself. Old Werther came into the room.
"The Count is ready, Baron," he said. "Will you come this way, sir?"
Manton drew back for De Mormay to precede him. He looked more like a man marching to his own funeral than a brilliant surgeon going to a further triumph. The small bag of instruments he carried in his hand trembled and clinked. He took a big lozenge from his pocket and placed it in his mouth.
Barsac lay back in a large arm-chair facing a long window. A nurse flitted about the room, ever busy, but keeping her back towards the others, Manton took but slight notice of her. There was no butchery about the forthcoming operation, so that, until the whole thing was over, the services of the nurse would not be required.
"You are quite ready for me?" Manton asked. "Excuse me if I speak a little thickly; but I am handling a powerful drug, and I have to keep a sort of anaesthetic between my teeth."
"I am ready and eager," Barsac cried. "Pray begin."
Manton hesitated. He placed certain instruments on the table, moving them about in a vague, objectless kind of way. For some reason he seemed loth to begin. Then he opened a small phial of some pungent liquid and dipped a camel's-hair pencil into the drug. Barsac lay back with his face up-turned. At the first touch of the liquid on his face he blenched. Presently his eyes were covered with a thick brown scum. There was pain behind it, for the patient groaned. A cap was fitted over his head, and to this a battery was attached. For quite a long time the hum of the battery and the laboured breathing of the patient was all that could be heard. Manton's face was pale as death, great drops of sweat stood on his forehead.
It was all over at length, the business finished. Swiftly Manton bound a silk handkerchief over the patient's eyes. He stood for ten minutes like a statue with his watch in his hand. He closed it with a snap.
"Now raise the handkerchief, but only for an instant, and open your eyes," he said.
Barsac did so. Then there came from his lips a yell that rang through the Castle. He stood up almost defiantly before them.
"I can see!" he screamed, "see, see, see! Let me look at the man who—"
"For the love of Heaven get him down, gag him, strangle him," Manton said in the same low, muffled voice. "The nerve will be destroyed. A few seconds longer, and all the surgeons in the world could not remedy the mischief."
De Mormay fairly launched himself upon Barsac and bore him back into the chair, whilst Manton restored the bandage. Barsac was laughing and crying in the same breath.
"I am all right now," he said. "Naturally, I lost my head for a moment. And I was anxious to see the benefactor who had brought this merciful blessing to me. Doctor, are you there?"
"I am here," Manton said hoarsely.
"The last time I could see, I looked upon the most infamous scoundrel I ever knew. And just now, when my eyes were opened again for an instant, the same scoundrel was standing before me. Was not that strange?"
Manton exclaimed that there was nothing strange about it. He discoursed learnedly of the retina and the like, but he seemed to be terribly ill at ease.
"You will be all right now," he said. "To-day you are not to remove the bandage. To-morrow—in a darkened room—you may do so for five minutes twice. In a day or two I will come and see you again. But I will tell the nurse what to do."
He got away at length. He would walk back to the capital; he was ill, and the fresh air would do him good. He literally staggered from the room; a long, shuddering sigh burst from his lips once he was alone. The nurse was waiting him.
"I wanted to speak to you," he said. "If—Helen!"
He could say no more. He stood before the girl, bereft of speech.
"Yes, this has been a day of surprises," she said quietly. "First you find Barsac as your patient, and now you find me. Was it successful?"
"Absolutely. Why do you ask? Surely you don't—"
"I had forgotten that you wanted money desperately, and that you had been promised an enormous fee if successful. But there is danger for you now, and you would do anything to avert that danger once your fee is paid. It is to see that no further mischief is done that I am here. Do you understand me?"
Manton shook his head moodily.
"No, I don't," he said. "Clever as I am, I never professed to understand a woman."
Barsac lay abed thinking, dreaming, fighting the past, or planning for the future—anything but sleeping, which was his only and legitimate business there. The best part of a week had elapsed since the operation, and the patient had progressed satisfactorily. Only once Manton had been to see Barsac, and then merely for a moment in a darkened room. There was no occasion for him to come again, he said; time and a rigid adherence to the rules laid down by the nurse were only necessary now. Besides, Manton had an urgent call to Vienna which he could not possibly disobey.
To all this the nurse had listened in rigid silence. Barsac was inclined to talk at times, but the taciturnity of his companion drove him back on himself. Yes, she was wonderfully kind and attentive, she seemed to anticipate every want and requirement, she was always at hand. Barsac wondered if she were young and pretty; certainly her hands were soft and soothing, and the subtle fragrance of her hair suggested dreams of beauty. Her voice was not pleasing, it was too low and too hard. Well, Barsac's natural curiosity would be gratified in a day or two.
Hitherto he had been an exemplary patient. Now he was getting irritable and impatient. He longed to get the bandages off his eyes, he wanted to see the beauties of Art and Nature again. Surely a few hours more or less could make no difference?
So he lay there till the great clock over the stable chimed the midnight hour. How wonderfully still the Castle was! It might have been a palace of the dead. The marvellous quietness was getting on Barsac's nerves. He rose presently and half dressed himself. Then he felt his way down the stairs until he came to the dining-room. He moved now with a free and accustomed step.
He could touch every object there, he could see everything in his mind's eye; the recollection of everything, down to the Cellini spill-cups on the mantel, was perfectly clear. If he could only really see them! He switched on the electric light, then he stood trembling there like a child about to do wrong.
"I must see those things," he murmured. "I must."
He plucked the bandage from his eyes much as a child would have done. Just for an instant a red wave with points of flame in it filled the room, and Barsac sat trembling with something like fear. An instant later, and the mist passed away. There come pure joys at rare intervals in most lives, but never a sweeter and rarer than the joy that filled Barsac at the moment.
He had to hold on to himself as he sat in his chair. A round Florentine mirror close by showed him his own shining eyes. There was neither weakness nor suggestion of weakness there. He would never wear that bandage again.
His eyes were clear and bright as a star. Never had he so thoroughly appreciated the beauty of his home before. He saw the shaded lights glowing through the artistic tangle of flowers and fern he saw how the pictures stood out on the red-tinted walls. For a little time Barsac fairly revelled in it all.
Then his mood changed. He was filled with a passionate resentment against the man who had robbed him of five precious years. Only now he fully realised what he had missed. If he could only have that scoundrel here now and kill him, he felt that the full measure of his satisfaction would be running over. But he could track the fellow now. He would run him down to the end of the world.
As Barsac rose, a sudden cry smote on the startled air. It was a woman's cry of pain and distress, ending suddenly as if some strong hand had choked it. There was a sound overhead like somebody stealthily crossing Barsac's bedroom. A burglar, doubtless. In his slippered feet Barsac crept upstairs.
There was no doubt whatever about it. Somebody was in the bedroom. On tiptoe Barsac crept cautiously forward. He felt along the inside of the doorway for the electric switch, there was a sharp treble click, and the room was bathed in brilliant light. A man was bending over the bed. He looked up with a startled cry. As his eyes met those of Barsac, he fell back half paralysed on the bed.
Barsac fairly screamed with the ferocity of delight that filled him. Truly the stare were on his side just now. He stood there panting as a hound might do after he had pulled the quarry down.
"I am in luck to-day," he said between his quick, gasping breaths. "Oh! my good angel has been kind indeed to me! So I have found you, Adrian! You have come here after all the years, to your own destruction! Why?"
The man answered nothing. Speech was utterly beyond him. He had come prepared to find a blind and helpless man, he had found one with all the attributes of clean and vigorous manhood.
"I am going to kill you," Barsac said. All trace of anger had disappeared now. He spoke slowly and deliberately. "None saw you come, none shall see you go away. The moat is deep, and lead is here for the asking. You shall die."
Still the intruder said nothing. He sat there watching Barsac with a fascinated fear as a bird watches a snake.
"So you found out that I had recovered my sight," Barsac went on. "You discovered that Science had found a way out for me, and you were frightened. You knew that, once I could see again, I should follow you to the ends of the earth. It was not enough that you robbed me of the woman I loved, but you must also rob me of my sight. Time was when you were my friend, Adrian, a friend whom I trusted in spite of many warnings. Then I discovered what people had many a time hinted to me—you were a card-sharper. You knew that I was watching you, that I meant to denounce you. It was then that I allowed you to prescribe for me for the little trouble I had with my right eye. To make yourself safe, and to render me harmless, you destroyed my sight with your infernal drug. You would still have posed as my friend, but I discovered what had happened and I nearly killed you. There is the mark on your forehead now. Why should I not kill you?"
The other remained silent. He glanced towards the door. Barsac smiled grimly.
"No avenue of escape there," he cried. "You came here to-night to repeat your work. You could not have lived with the knowledge that I was my own man again. And you came too late, my friend. You might have screwed up your courage to the sticking-point a week ago. Do you know that I have been sitting downstairs thinking of bygone days—longing to meet you! And you are here. Get up!"
The last two words rang out clear and crisp. The trembling wretch on the bed obeyed. From over a writing-table Barsac took down two fencing-foils, rapiers keen and clean.
"Take one," he said. "I am going to kill you, but that does not of necessity imply murder. You shall have a chance for your life."
"Brandy," the other man gasped. "Give me brandy."
Barsac shook his head. He stood waiting before the foe until the latter should have summoned some of his lost manhood back again. Suddenly he made a furious lunge at Barsac that the latter had some difficulty in avoiding. The old trick of wrist and quickness of eye had not come back to him yet.
"Would you?" he said between his teeth. "Then come on!"
The two blades crossed vigorously, for the other man was fighting for his life, and well he knew it. Of the two, Barsac was incomparably the better swordsman, but there was just a chance for his antagonist to score.
There was a lunge, a quick gasp, and a tiny spurt of blood ran down the other man's collar. The room was filled with the din of clashing steel, the tramping of feet, and the quick breathing of the swordsmen, when the door opened and the nurse, pale and dishevelled, staggered in. Loudly as she cried out, nobody heeded her.
A long ebony cane lay on the table. The nurse Helen snatched it up and beat down the foils, heedless of her own danger.
"He struck me down and I fainted," she gasped, "or I should have been here before. There must be no more of this. Put those murderous tools away!"
"Helen!" Barsac gasped. "What does this mean? My good fortune must have turned my brain. I shall wake up from my dream presently."
"I have been your nurse," the girl Helen said. "I came to—to save you from a great danger."
"Ah! from that man yonder. He robbed me of my sight. Let me kill him!"
"Stop!" Helen cried. "He robbed you of your sight in Paris, and he has given it back to you again. You know him as Jasper Adrian. But he is your doctor—Manton."
Barsac dropped into a chair, utterly overcome.
"What does it all mean?" he asked feebly.
"I am going to tell you," Manton said suddenly. "When your friend Baron de Mormay brought me here, I had not the remotest idea who my patient was. When I found out, I made up my mind that the operation should not be successful. But five thousand crowns hung on that result, and I wanted them to keep me out of gaol. The operation was successful, and only yesterday De Mormay paid me for you. Why I came here to-night you can guess. I have no more to say."
Barsac turned somewhat coldly to the girl.
"Have you no explanation to offer?" he asked.
"Only this, Ferdinand. I came here to save you, I have been near you always. I wrote and wrote, but I got no reply. When I knew that my half brother was here—"
"Your what? Say it again."
"My half brother; Jasper is that. I should have told you before, but was ashamed. He robbed you of your eyes, but he restored them again. And I have saved you. Have a little mercy and a little gratitude, Ferdinand, and let him go. If any of the love you once had for me remains, let him go."
The girl was pleading passionately, her beautiful face shone behind her tears. A great struggle seemed to be going on in Barsac's breast.
"Follow me," he said. He led the way to the hall and flung open the door.
"Now go, and never let me see you again. Leave Farsala, and you are safe as far as I am concerned. Nor need you have any anxiety as to your sister; I will see to her."
Manton shot like a catapult into the heart of the night. Barsac led the girl to the dining-room and placed her tenderly in a chair.
"My guardian angel," he murmured. "Truly I have been blind in more ways than one. You need not tell me what happened this evening—I can divine it all. Helen, does a little of the old love remain? Mine has never ceased to burn bright and clear."
"Always the same," Helen whispered. "Semper eadem is our family motto. Ferdinand, I cannot stay here. I must go back to my old friend Sergius."
"For a brief space," Barsac replied meaningly. "Then Dr. Sergius must give you up to me for good and all. And I shall be an impatient lover."
Barsac lifted up the girl's hand to his lips, and then with a bow left the room and closed the door behind him, the happiest man in the kingdom of Farsala.
* * * * *
From the Staats Journal, Dec. 5, 19—:
"It is with feelings of the most profound satisfaction that we have to record a perfectly honourable and amiable understanding between Farsala and Russia over the Ural mines pre-emption matter. Count Ferdinand Barsac's mission to St. Petersburg has been crowned with success. Therefore the claims under a clause in the Convention have been abandoned. Whether or not there is anything in the rumour that the Convention had been tampered with, it is impossible to say; at any rate, now the drawer up of that document is happily blessed with sight again, anything of the kind was pretty certain to be discovered. The resignation of Count Rustmann opened the way to a better understanding with Russia, and all is well that ends well. Count Barsac arrives here on Friday next, when he and his beautiful bride are certain of a warm reception. It is not given to every statesman to win a great diplomatic triumph and a lovely wife within the space of a month. And Count Barsac is to be warmly congratulated upon both happy events.
"Also undoubtedly he has solved the problem as to who is to be Prime Minister in the near future."
The titles of works by Fred M. White listed below were found in the on-line index of the A.P. Watt Records #11036, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The material in this collection documents sales of authors' works to publishing companies, newspapers, magazines, broadcasting corporations, and film studios. The on-line index lists the authors' names and the titles of their works, but does not say where and when these works were published, nor does it indicate whether a specific work is a novel or a short story. The collection itself is organised in a system of folders, each of which is identified by two numbers separated by a period. The following list of titles displays the folder number for each item in parentheses. For more information on the A.P. Watt collection, click on the link given above.
No source could be found for a work entitled The Missing Blade, mentioned in the following citation: "Fred M. White, author of 'The Edge of the Sword.' 'The Secret of the Sands,' 'Anonymous,' 'The Missing Blade' etc." (Introduction to the short story "The Arms Of Chance," The Queenslander, Brisbane, Australia, 27 Jul 1918).
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