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Title: Collected Short Stories, Vol. V Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1300971h.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.
"YOU'LL not do it," the big woman said decisively.
Ethel Carne merely smiled by way of reply. And yet she had lived long enough in that wild North West to know that a warning like this was not to be disregarded. Perhaps it was the fitful spurts of sunshine which gave her courage. Perhaps she derived the strength and inspiration from the steely blue of the sky, bent like some metal dome above her head. Already along the fainter blue of the horizon a few pallid stars were powdered, shining dimly like jewels upon the neck of beauty in the dawn.
"You'll not do it," the mistress of the stores repeated, with finality. "You'll never reach the Spurs before dark. And the snow will be up in an hour, happen though it does look so bright and cheerful now. Far best stay the night."
The big woman with the kindly eyes and shrewd face was speaking no more than the truth, and very well in her heart of hearts knew it. They stood together in the doorway of the log store, looking up the sweeping mountain paths which led by zig-zag stages to the Spurs. It was no far cry on a summer's day, being a matter merely of a few miles. But when the snow came down and the north-easter swept across the valleys, then the swinging pine trees spoke of danger and told of disaster dead and gone. Away up to the left the dark woods lifted their shoulders high, the great massed battalions of the pines stood like grim sentinels watching and warning. Just for a moment they lay like a sombre flash against the steely blue, steadfast and immaculate, then a flying squadron of the coming gale beat them almost flat till they roared again with heads bent over against the fury of the wind. The cold, icy breath came down the pass, sweeping in through the open door. A million sparks, crimson and purple and gold, roared up the stove through the hot chimney.
Ethel Carne set her little white teeth together. "It's very kind of you," she said, in a low-pitched, modulated voice, so different from the hard, nasal tones of her companion. "I know you mean well; but I must get back to the Spurs to-night. I am quite alone. My help left me yesterday unexpectedly, and my little girl is alone in the house. Oh, I couldn't rest here, knowing that she was all by herself, and the Christmas Eve, too. Think of the disappointment! And then she might be frightened."
The speaker touched the square parcel which she carried under her arm. She had been down to the Fort making her slender purchases for the festive season, for it is a poor heart that never rejoices, and it was one of Ethel Carne's boasts that so far she had lost neither her self-respect nor her courage.
Who she was and whence she came people neither knew nor did they seem to care. That she was English went without saying. That she was a lady was patent to the meanest observer who frittered away his weekly earnings in the many saloons which tempted miners to forgetfulness and destruction. All that most people knew was that George Carne had vanished mysteriously two years before and that he had never been heard of since. He was by way of being a gentlemanly adventurer. But, then, they were all adventurers at the Spurs for the matter of that, where each man at any moment might "make his pile," alluvial gold mining, or incidentally sweat out the last years of his life for a mere pittance of bread and shelter. For the most part the latter was the lot of the majority of them, though occasionally one or two, more fortunate than the rest, drifted West with their pockets full of money and their heads humming with the poison—miscalled whisky in that remote spot.
There was no scandal or outcry when George Carne was seen and heard of no more, for it was part of the unwritten etiquette of the Spurs to ask no questions when some gentleman of fortune disappeared as mysteriously as he had arrived. Few men there were properly entitled to the names they bore, and biography as a pastime or relaxation was sternly frowned upon by the community who made up the settlement.
And so long as Ethel Carne made no sign it was nothing to anybody else. There were other women in the settlement, and in their rough, sympathetic way they were not unkind to the gentle stranger, whom they recognised as one made of far superior clay to themselves. Gradually, and by degrees, Mrs. Carne drifted into the position of dressmaker to the settlement. She had good taste and a deft needle; also, she was the possessor of a sewing machine, which was an object of interest, not to say awe, to her sisterhood at the Spurs. As a matter of fact, Ethel Came fitted into the picture. She learnt to shift and do for herself. She acquired a strength and reliance which was as unexpected as it was pleasing. And if down in her heart she felt all the bitterness and grief of a woman deserted in the full floodtide of her beauty she made no sign. The blue eyes were as clear and serene now as they had been in the early days. The mouth was as sweet and tender. There was just a thin, drawn line between the brows and no more: for Ethel had her child, who was growing up in that clear mountain air as strong and erect as one of the pines which tossed its plumes against the everlasting snows. There were a comfortable home and many friends waiting for Ethel in England had she but chosen to hold up her little finger. But for the present she preferred to obliterate herself. She wanted no sympathy and no pity. Her proud soul would have revolted against the slightest touch on the edge of the wound which had never yet healed, and never would.
* * * * *
"I tell you I must go," she said. "I am merely wasting the precious moments here, and that child all alone in the cabin... with nothing but the light of the stove... And presently it will be dark."
She turned abruptly away, and grasped the parcel all the more firmly. She was not in the least tired. Her stride was free and elastic as she wended her way up the path towards the Spurs. It was curiously still in strange weird patches. At times she could actually hear the bleat of sheep and catch the distant voices. Then for a moment the stinging fury of the gale broke out again, like the headlong charge of white cavalry, and she bent her supple body, whilst the cold wind seemed almost to stop the beating of her heart. As she struggled up the path the intervals of ominous quiet became less and less. A thin, filmy powder came in whirling drifts across the steely blue of the sky. There was a sting like whip-lashes on her cheek, and behold, here and there as if in the twinkling of an eye snowdrifts in the road and white caps weighing down the soughing branches of the pines. A few more scuds like this and the path would be wiped out, leaving but the sombre fringe of the trees on either side. The danger yet was vague and intangible; but Ethel Carne had lived there long enough to know how real it was.
And yet she was not afraid, though she knew that the mile or so would tax her strength to the uttermost. But she was not thinking of her child or herself now, she was not feeling the weight of the white scud beating freely upon her neck and hair. Her mind had gone back into the past. The faint, intangible spirit of Christmas was upon her. It was just about this time two years ago that George Carne had gone off hotfoot and at a moment's notice, westward. He had left a note to say that he had been called away imperiously, and that there was no time to be lost. He had hinted vaguely of some good fortune looming in the distance which he would keep to discuss with Ethel when they met again.
And from that day to this there had come no sign. It had been very good of Raymond Raife to stand by Ethel as he had done, for he had been George's chum, who refused to believe anything but the best of his old partner. And then, almost unexpectedly, Raife himself had been summoned home, and from that moment it seemed to Ethel that she was absolutely alone in the world.
She never stopped to analyse her feelings. She had not dared to ask herself whether her prevailing emotion was one of contempt or despair. Commonsense told me that she had been deserted, and she was content to let it go at that. But she had made no sign. She had known how to take her punishment.
But now everything seemed to be different. Now she caught herself wondering for the first time if Raife had not been right. Raymond Raife had never told her in as many words that he cared for her. A woman's instinct had filled her with that consciousness. But that was a matter that would not bear analysis.
She struggled on and on against the increasing fury of the gale, white and battered from head to foot now, breathing slowly and painfully, with a prayer on her lips that she might win through and reach the little log cabin at last. She thought of its warmth and comfort. She thought of the clear glow of the wood stove, of fragrant coffee and hot cakes, of all the pleasant things that make the chill blast of the open air a comfort and a consolation. She thought, too, of the child waiting so patiently there with her handful of cheap toys and wondering how much longer mummy was going to be. Then the white fury of the gale came down with a snarl and a roar, and just for the moment the woman stood there dazed, beaten and half unconscious. She wiped the white stinging powder from her eyes. She beat her chilled hands to her breast. She staggered forward again, peering through the thickness for the first sight of the dull glow that would show her that home was close at hand. Then, just for a moment, the white, howling veil lifted, and the hoarse singing roar of the pines ceased. High on the shoulder of the hill a tiny red glow shone out; the core of the flame seemed to find its way straight to Ethel's heart and warm her as some generous spirit might have done. There was a fresh strength in her limbs now, for she knew that she had won through and that the goal was reached, She staggered up the narrow path leading to the cottage, she fumbled for a moment with the latch then the door gave and she stumbled inwards. A moment later the murderous breath of the night was shut out, a delicious sense of warmth and drowsiness overcame her. She sat down to the table with her head on her hands. She was just conscious of a pair of soft arms about her neck.
"All right, dearie," she said hysterically, "I shall be myself in a minute or two. Then we shall have some delicious hot coffee and cakes, and I will tell you all my adventures. Do you think you could get the lamp for me?"
The child came back a moment or two later bearing two lamps in her hands. The mother looked at her interrogatively.
"You have forgotten," the child said gravely. "Surely you have forgotten the beacon lamp which we always put out for daddy on Christmas Eve. You light the two, mummy."
"Yes," Mrs. Carne whispered, "I'll light the two."
The beacon light stood in the little window with the curtain half drawn. The soft hiss of the snow drifted against the panes, and Ethel smiled at her little one's suggestion. After all said and done, it was impossible that the beacon light might be of advantage to some belated wayfarer struggling up from the Fort, though few of the miners would risk the white peril to-night. The stove gave out a cheerful heat. The coffee and cakes were things of the past, and already Ethel was busy decorating the walls of the little sitting-room with such evergreens as she had gathered the day before. She was quite herself again now. There was a deep, abiding thankfulness in the knowledge that she was safe at home and that all danger had been left behind. The brown-paper parcel had been hidden judiciously away with a promise that its many wonders would be displayed on the morrow. It was getting late now and the mists were beginning to dance in little Ethel's blue eyes.
"Just a little longer," she pleaded at the mother's suggestion of bed. "It isn't Christmas Eve every night, and, really, I am not a bit tired. I want to wake up in the morning and help you."
Ethel Carne yielded weakly enough. She felt a strange desire for human companionship to-night. She knew how recently she had been face to face with death and she could not forget it.
"Very well," she said. "But you mustn't dance about any longer. Come and sit on my knee and let me tell you a story." The child came obediently enough:
"Please," she asked. "But let it be a real story—one of the things that used to happen to you when you were a girl at home in England. I like those stories better than the book stories."
And so it came about a few moments later that Ethel Carne in the spirit was wandering about English meadows, under the shade of cool trees, and picking primroses by the brookside. The story came to an end at length, and with it a sound from without as if someone were knocking feebly at the door. Just for a moment it occurred to Ethel that her imagination was playing tricks with her, then came that uncertain sound again, as if some exhausted animal were scratching for admittance. Ethel put the child off her knee and drew back the latch. There was a burst of murderous cold air, a rushing whirl of snowflakes, which came hissing and spitting as far as the stove, then a form half rose from the doorstep and staggered into the room. It all happened so quickly, so dramatically, that for a moment Ethel could only stand there, the air cutting like knives across her face, her hair dishevelled in the wind. Then it was borne in upon her that the place was getting icy cold and that the figure of a man lay there on the floor chilled, unconscious, it even might be, exhausted to the verge of death. It was a fight to close the door, to shoot back the bolts into their places, and draw the heavy portiere of bearskin across the panes. The child stood there open-mouthed and waiting, but yet not alarmed, for accidents were frequent in the hard life of the Spurs, and it was not the first time that Ethel had looked death in the face.
"Get me the brandy bottle, dearie," Ethel murmured, as she raised the man's head from the floor. She chafed his cold hands vigorously. She dragged him nearer to the stove by sheer personal strength, so that the grateful warmth might thaw the cuirass of snow which had frozen on his breast like armour. She managed at length to coax a few drops of spirit down the man's throat. He shuddered convulsively, and his eyes opened. Then he glanced round the room, not vaguely nor confusedly, but with the air of one who had been there before.
"Ethel," he whispered, "that was a close call."
The woman recognised him. She had recognised him almost before his grey eyes were turned to the light. She seemed to take it as coolly and collectedly as possible. Now that he was once back again it seemed the most natural thing in the world. There was no wild fluttering at her heart, no overwhelming joy, no contempt, regret, or any other gamut of emotions which ought, by all the rules of the game to have gripped her at that moment.
"Yes," she murmured, mechanically, "How was it?"
The man had risen to his feet by now. Every passing instant seemed to add to his stature and his manhood. The glow crept back to his cheeks now. His eyes were clear and bright. He stripped off his furs and stood before the stove, the picture and embodiment of perfect humanity. He did not seem to see that the child was dancing about his knees now that she had recognised him, and that she was calling him by name. Without knowing it he lifted her in his strong arms and kissed her tenderly.
"I always knew you would come back," she said.
"Of course, dear," he said gravely. "I never meant to do anything else, only I have been a little longer than I expected. And now, don't you think you had better go to bed. I have much to say to mother, and to-morrow I shall show you all the presents I have brought you. Oh, I have heaps and heaps of presents for both, only I had to hide them by the wayside or else I should never have got here at all. Put the child to bed, Ethel. As for me, I daresay I shall know where to find something to eat. I feel as if I hadn't had a meal for years."
The man spoke cheerfully and naturally enough, and yet there was a certain constraint in his manner which Ethel did not fail to notice. Her lip curled somewhat contemptuously, but she obeyed the suggestion without demur. And then, when once the child was between the blankets, a certain demure shyness came upon her and it was a long time before she had the courage to return to the sitting-room. George Carne was seated by the stove, his head in his hands, evidently deeply immersed in thought.
"Come and sit down," he said. "We have a good deal to say to one another. There is so much to explain. And yet I don't think you would blame me if you knew everything."
"Perhaps not," Ethel said mechanically.
"No, we had better go back for a bit. You will remember the day I went away. You were away from home for the time, and I had not a moment to spare. It was Raymond Raife who brought me the news—- a cablegram from home, saying my father was dying and desired to see me without delay. I can never understand—in fact, I shall never understand—my father's bitter opposition to our marriage. I suppose we were both too proud to ask for explanations, and that is the real reason why we drifted apart. But when Raife brought me that cablegram I began to see hope ahead. It seemed to me that I was going to be taken back into favour again, for my father would hardly have sent for me all that way if it had not been to give me his forgiveness on his deathbed. Then we would go back to England again and renew our proper position in society. I was more glad, I think, for your sake and the child's sake than my own. I did not hesitate a moment. I went off there and then. I made up my mind to say nothing to you till I could send you some really good news. My idea was to get matters settled in England and then come and fetch you two home again. I hope you won't think I am hard and callous; but I have never ceased to regret what I brought you to here, all the more so because you were always so brave and uncomplaining."
Carne paused, but no reply came from Ethel.
"And when I got home I found, to my surprise, that my father had been dead for the last year or more. He had made no sign. He had made no attempt to communicate with me, but, at the same time, he had made no alterations in his will, so that I found myself master of the whole property. They had been advertising for me everywhere, and it was only by pure good fortune that I discovered the truth. But the strange part of the whole thing was this:—I could find nobody ready to admit the dispatch of that cablegram. I was too busy to write to you. I was saving it all up for a glad surprise later on. I never dreamt for a moment that anything was wrong. I never dreamed that I was the victim of a false friend who had played the vile conspiracy on me. How should I know that the cablegram had been deliberately concocted by Raymond Raife to get me out of the way! How could I guess it?"
A sudden, leaping crimson flamed into Ethel Carne's face. In an illuminating flash she saw the true inwardness of many things now. Burning letters of flame scorched on the arch of memory which had been so many trivial words in the twilight of innocent misunderstanding. For the first time Ethel saw.
"Is this true?" she stammered.
"Oh, it's true enough. I was to be got out of the way and it was to be inferred to you that this action on my part was nothing else than a cold-blooded desertion. But Raymond Raife found you impervious. He recognised the hopelessness of his ambitions and he came back to England to find me. As a matter of fact I found him lying in a hospital with a broken spine, and on his deathbed he told me everything.... Well, I forgave him everything, for I could do no less. Still, I grudged the wasted years... Ethel, surely there is no occasion for me to say any more. You believe me?"
The woman rose tremblingly from her seat beside the stove. Then she crossed the floor, and her arms went like two white wreaths round her husband's neck. She wanted no more. She was content to know. And in that instant it seemed to her that she had never doubted George Carne's return. For a long time there was silence between them, a blissful silence filled with a pleasing spirit of the happy Christmastide. Neither wanted more than that.
"My word, it was hard work to get here," Carne said more cheerfully, as he stretched his long arms out to the blaze. "They warned me down at the Fort that I couldn't do it. But I laughed at them and pushed on my way. I would have come to-night if all the powers of darkness had barred my path. But I don't mind confessing that I was beaten more than once. In the ordinary way I should never have managed it. And I struggled on and on, dazed and half-blinded by the snow, until at last the beacon light shone out clear and bright, like a guiding star to beckon me on. I tell you it was like new blood—like sparkling champagne in my veins. And yet even then it was a close call. But for that light and the grace of God I should be lying out in the snow now stark and stiff."
Ethel Carne colours guiltily.
"Let me make a confession," she said, in a whisper, her head close down to her husband's shoulder. "I had forgotten all about it. For two years I have been growing more and more callous and forgetful. For two years I have been steadily losing the hope which I tried to stifle. It was little Ethel who brought me the lamp, little Ethel who reminded me that I always lighted it on Christmas Eve. And now, if you can only forgive me—"
"Forgive you what?" Carne asked. "My word! if you can take me back to your heart again like this it is little I have to complain of. But, all the same, it is going to be a really happy Christmas for us three, sweetheart."
TOM MACEY glanced across the room at his wife from under his thick eyebrows as if he were ashamed of something. He was not usually given to the things that men regret, and just at that moment his thoughts were none the less bitter because he really had done nothing to be ashamed of. And now he was actually hesitating at the very time when he ought not to have given the matter a single thought. He would have condemned this hesitation in any other man, and yet, and yet, and yet—
First of all, there was the child to be thought of. She was the only one—a little girl of some four years of age, and the apple of Tom Macey's eye. She ought to have been strong and healthy enough, seeing that both Macey and his wife were made of the stern stuff which has laid the foundation of the British Empire. They were willing and ready enough to share privations together, and they had done so more than once before now. But somehow the child was different. Most of the youngsters thrive in the keen, dry air there beneath the snows of the Colorado Rockies, but somehow or another it was not the same with little Vera. And the only doctor for a hundred miles around had told Macey that if his daughter was not taken away to a milder climate she would die.
It was easy enough to say this, but how was the matter to be brought about? Macey had been mining away up there in One Tree Gulch for the last two years with the most execrable luck. He had all the sanguine temperament which goes to the gold prospector. He was holding on desperately with a feeling that his turn would come at last. The man was not without imagination; he was more impressed by local traditions and Indian legends than he would have cared to admit. He had studied these until he knew them by heart. There were stories to the effect that here and there, on rare occasions in the past, diamonds had been found in some of the canyons away under the spurs of those everlasting hills. Certainly Macey had found here and there a deposit of blue earth which suggested the presence of the most rare of all precious stones. And then his luck had changed, and he found them.
And they were only three, but they were diamonds right enough; Macey knew that, for back in the years of his youth he had spent some time in the Transvaal, and he knew a diamond when he saw it. He found no more; he had not expected any farther dazzling luck like this; but he was well satisfied, for here, if he sold his stones to the best advantage, was a matter of twenty thousand pounds. It was not a large fortune, but, at any rate, it was big enough to ensure luxury and comfort in the future—big enough to enable Macey and his wife to get away farther South and save the life of the child. All these things Macey had talked over with Nell in the evenings. Their plans were fairly forward now. And then the doctor had stepped in with a peremptory command that the child was not to be moved until the weather got warmer.
Macey heard the news in his tranquil, emotionless way, but it hurt him all the same. He knew perfectly well what the doctor meant. It was going to be a close call with the little one. If they could tide over the next two or three weeks the balmy breath of spring would be here and the terrible danger might be averted. The doctor might come along at any time now and utter his final verdict.
But this was not the only trouble. Goodness knows how, but the rumour got abroad that Tom Macey had found some diamonds and that they were hidden in his hut. The arm of the law in those parts was fitful and feeble enough, and more than once during the past two days Macey had had a warning as to the danger of keeping those valuables in a log hut amongst the snows miles away from the nearest habitation. There were three lawless scamps hanging about the neighbourhood, and up to a certain point Macey had said nothing of this to his wife. But returning home that night in the dusk a revolver bullet had pierced a hole in Macey's fur cap, and he knew now that the time had come when he must either run or fight.
In the ordinary way he would not have hesitated for a moment. There was nothing of the coward about him, but he was a married man, and he knew well enough when discretion was the better part of valour. Here he was tied by the leg by a cruel fate; here he was waiting for the doctor's last words, and his life in danger all the time. He might have compromised matters; he might have allowed himself to be robbed; but the mere thought of that sent the blood boiling through his veins and brought his teeth together.
He sat there thinking the matter out. He had told his wife. It was almost impossible to keep anything from her, and, despite all Macey's assumption of cheerfulness, Nell had seen at once that something was radically wrong.
"And now you know all about it, little girl," Macey said. "It is very hard. I can't understand how those chaps got to know."
"You haven't told me who they are," Mrs. Macey said.
"Haven't I? I think you can guess. There's Dick Blake and Ned Carson and Long Jim. If you searched the whole of the American Continent you couldn't find three greater scoundrels than these. And, you see, they have got nothing to be afraid of. There's no law here. Why, those three scoundrels might raid this hut any time, and murder the lot of us. And they would, too, if they weren't just a little bit afraid of my revolver. It isn't for myself that I mind; it's you and the kiddie. Of course, I might go down to Dolvertown and lodge the stones there. I could get there in a couple of days; but, then, suppose the doctor comes when I am away; suppose he wants something in a hurry. You can't do it. I tell you when I think of it my blood fairly boils. If we could only get away and sell those stones we should have plenty of money in future. We could take the child with us away down South, where she could grow well and strong again. You see what a dilemma I am in now. If I go now, and there is no man about when the doctor comes, little Vera may die. If I stay here we may be murdered in our beds by those three ruffians. It is maddening to think that health and prosperity are so near and yet so far away. I have thought and thought till my head aches. And, so far as I can see, there is only one thing to do, and that is to grin and bear it."
"If you were to hide the stones," Nell suggested.
"My dear girl, what is the good of that? It wouldn't prevent those skunks from shooting me on sight, or you either, for the matter of that."
Macey sank into sullen silence. As his wife watched him anxiously a brilliant idea came to her.
"Tom," she cried, "why shouldn't I go? What is to prevent me from slipping away and getting as far as Dolvertown? I know the road well enough; it is only a matter of some twenty miles, and I could walk it between now and to-morrow evening. You know how strong and hearty I am; you know that nothing hurts me, and there is not enough snow to constitute danger. Give me the stones. Let me hide them. I suppose those three ruffians are watching the house all the time, and if they see you here in the morning they will naturally conclude that I am in the hut too. Now, don't say 'No,' Tom. Why, I have gone farther than this before now to help a neighbour in trouble, and you haven't been in the least anxious about me. Do let me go."
Macey shook his head resolutely. He would not hear a word of such a mad project. Besides, it seemed such a cowardly thing to send his wife away upon an errand which he could not or dare not undertake himself. He would have run the risk of a journey to Dolvertown and back, but when he thought of the child lying there restless and uneasy with the fever upon her, his heart turned to water within him and all his manliness vanished, leaving him trembling and nervous. And yet he could not find it in his mind to purchase life and peace of mind by the sacrifice of those stones for which he had toiled so hard and long.
"I don't like it," he said. "Besides—"
"There is no other way," Nell went on, breathlessly. "Think what it all means to us. If I am successful in my errand—and there is no reason why I should not be—we shall be rich, we shall be able to take Vera away, we shall be able to turn our backs on this hateful life for ever. And if we stay here we shall lose everything. What would it matter to me, what would anything matter, if the child were to die? And by this time to-morrow everything will be safe. You will be able to go about and say that you have banked your diamonds, and those three rascals will be powerless for further harm. Oh, you must let me go."
Once more Macey shook his head, but he was weakening now, as Nell could see from the look in his eyes.
"I don't like it," he repeated, dubiously.
He crossed the room and opened the door and looked out into the night. The air was soft and balmy; the cruel, cold breath of it had vanished before the oncoming of the spring. The earth smelt warm and damp. There was a subtle fragrance in the gently swaying pines. It looked as if no more snow was likely to fall. It looked as if the journey to Dolvertown would be safe enough, if only those three lurking demons were in bed and asleep. Beyond a doubt, if they had seen Nell Macey leave the hut, they would follow her, guessing easily enough what her errand was.
But there was no sign outside, nothing but the breath of the wind whispering to the pines that spring was at hand; nothing but the smell of the good red earth still crisp and firm under its thin powder of snow. And Nell was a good walker, too; she could hold her own in a long day's hunting and fishing; she would make light of a tramp as far as Dolvertown.
"You are going to let me go?" she whispered.
"God forgive me if anything happens to you," Macey said, under his breath. "I suppose it is all for the best. You ought to reach the new camp at Byson River by eleven o'clock to-morrow morning, and when you get there try and find Patrick Walsh. I know he is down there somewhere, and you can trust him, too. I met him once some three years ago, and I was in a position to do him a bit of a favour. If you do get into any sort of trouble there is no one man on the American Continent who can help you as Patrick Walsh can. But you know what he is like."
Nell nodded eagerly. Everybody on the Continent, from the Rockies right down to the Pacific Slope, had heard of Patrick Walsh. He was by way of being an adventurer, a miner, a prospector, anything where danger lay and trouble was to be found first hand. There were spots on the map of America, now prosperous towns, which Walsh had actually founded. With all his courage and resource, with all his infinite talents, he had remained a poor man, a typical instance of the rolling stone that gathers no moss.
But his reputation was clean enough. He was a terror to evildoers; there was not a bully or bravado in half-a-dozen States who would have dared to stand up to Pat Walsh single-handed. More than one unspeakable outcast and cold-blooded murderer had been tracked down by Walsh for the pure joy of the thing. He had broken up gangs with the aid of nothing but his own revolver, and with it all he was a quiet, civil-spoken little man, looking the very last person in the world to hold a reputation such as his. If Nell Macey could find a friend like this, then she was safe indeed.
The stars were shining overhead in great glittering clusters behind the belt of pines as she set out upon her journey. Here and there she could dimly make out the snow lying in white battalions above the murmuring belts of trees. Here and there was a stirring in the undergrowth, and something like fear filled her heart when she thought of her child and her husband. But she went on steadily forward through the dim blackness of the night, until at length the east began to grow faintly purple, then pink, then burning saffron, as the sun climbed over the shoulders of the great snow-clad peaks and cast long shadows across the plain.
It was nearly nine o'clock before Nell came, footsore and weary, to a little mining camp by the Byson River. A handful of little huts were dotted on the hillside. Some adventurous trader had set up a saloon; here was the inevitable 'store' from which the necessities of life could be derived. It was getting warmer now—so warm, indeed, that one or two of the miners were sitting outside the house breakfasting in the open. The pine-laden air reeked with the smell of frying bacon. They were not a nice-looking lot of men, not at all the class that Nell had been accustomed to, for they were beyond the borders of civilization here, and the sort of individuals who came and went for the most part bore names which would have conveyed nothing to their parents before them. It was not the sort of camp where it was safe to inquire too closely into the antecedents of one's next-door neighbour. The few men gathered there eyed Nell with languid and slightly insolent curiosity. She would have moved on, but she was not more than half-way on her journey yet, and she knew the necessity of rest and food before she proceeded farther.
It was no nice thing to have to push her way into the store to procure bread and biscuits and tinned meat, but it had to be done, and then she sat down by the wayside to eat. One or two of the miners gathered round her, staring at her in a long, cool deliberation, which brought the blood flaming to her cheeks. One, more hardy than the rest, ventured to address her in words which brought the blood to her temples again and caused the angry tears to rise to her eyes. She was looking round for something in the semblance of manhood who might drive these hideous wretches away and give her the seclusion which she so much desired. Then out of the saloon opposite came a slight, fair man, dressed in a somewhat superior manner to the rest, who took off his hat politely and asked in quite a small voice if he could be of any assistance. A chorus of raucous laughter greeted this unwonted courtesy. In spite of her anger and alarm Nell smiled. It was much as if some boy had chosen to defy all the weight and force of authority.
"You are vastly kind," Nell said. "I am on my way to Dolvertown. I suppose those men mean nothing offensive, but if you could persuade them to go away I should be obliged to you."
By way of reply the fair little man took a seat by her side. What he might have said Nell had no opportunity of judging, for at that moment there came the sound of hoofs beating on the hard road, and three horsemen came at a trot into the camp. At the sight of the foremost Nell's face turned ashy grey. She gave a little cry of dismay which was not lost upon her companion.
"You are frightened," he murmured, softly.
"Oh, yes," Nell said, hoarsely. "Those men are following me. I hoped that I had escaped them; I hoped that they had not guessed why I am on my way to Dolvertown. You see, I have valuables in my possession—diamonds."
The words slipped from Nell's lips unconsciously. It was madness, perhaps, to trust this stranger, but for the life of her she could not help it. And what avail would he be against the grinning trio who had already dismounted from their horses and stood regarding her with an evil smirk upon three of the most infamous countenances that the Continent of America might produce?
"I know," the slim stranger murmured. "You are Tom Macey's wife. Do you know, you are the pluckiest woman I have ever come across. So you are going to Dolvertown with those stones, are you? I guess a courageous action like yours is worth better luck than this. If I were alone I should know what to do. As it is—well, I'll try my best. Now, then!"
The last two words were flung contemptuously in the direction of the three horsemen. They came with a rasping sound from the stranger's lips. They were hard and clear and defiant, and so full of a certain concrete courage that Nell, despite her alarm, turned to her companion with a glance of astonishment.
The foremost horseman came forward; his long, muscular form seemed to tower above the two sitting on the pine-logs there. There was not much to choose between those associates, but Nell knew from common report that, if one was worse than the others, it was the same Long Jim who was now addressing the man by her side.
"Stranger," he said, with a sneering drawl, "I guess you'll find this atmosphere isn't conducive to the health of a little man like you. Now you just run away back to mamma and tell her that Long Jim sent you. Otherwise—"
A burst of ribald laughter came from the other two. The slight, fair man sitting by Nell's side never so much as changed a line of his countenance.
"I've heard of you," he said. "Perhaps you will be so good as to introduce me to the other gentlemen. I was told I should find some choice rascality in this neighbourhood, and it seems to me that I am not going to be disappointed."
"You do me proud," Long Jim grinned. "This gentleman is Dick Blake, and the nobleman masquerading with the black eye is Ned Carson. Perhaps you might have heard of us; most people have."
"Your fame has travelled," the little man said, imperturbably. His eyes had narrowed down now to long slits that seemed to emit flashes as if flint and steel were struck together. "And now, perhaps, it would be just as well if I let you know who I happen to be. But perhaps you are not curious?"
"It was always a weakness of mine," Long Jim said.
"It shall be gratified. My name, sirs, is Patrick Walsh. It is just possible that you have heard of me!"
Long Jim displayed the balance of a set of teeth in a snarling grin, like a dog worrying a wasp; the other two turned away as if the affair was nothing of theirs. It was plain that the three ruffians were taken aback by this unexpected announcement. It was not much on the face of the earth that this class of bravo feared, but the name of Patrick Walsh was one of them. For here was a man who was known right away from the Rockies down to the Pacific Slope. Wherever men congregated, especially men of the lawless type, there the name of Patrick Walsh was whispered in accents of admiration. There were countless stories told about him of his courage and fearlessness, of his utter indifference to death. Never once had anybody got the best of him, never once had he hesitated when he wanted to mark a point or avenge an insult. With it all, it was decidedly in Walsh's favour that his record was clean. If he won, as frequently he did, large sums at the gambling-table, his methods had never been questioned. That he had questioned the methods of others more than one so-called sportsman had found to his cost. Indeed, a book might have been written about Patrick Walsh, telling of his exploits and performances. There was not a man in that part of the country who did not remember the fate of Jake Monson.
He had been the terror of a whole handful of States—a man hated, and loathed, and feared—who had wound up his career with a crime beyond all words. And yet no hand had been stretched out for him. By sheer force of terrorism he would compel honest men to sit and drink with him, until the word went out from Patrick Walsh that the wolf must die. Walsh sent this message in a courteous letter, and for six months Colorado watched the duel with breathless interest. It watched Monson grow from the magnificent semblance of exuberant humanity to a trembling, broken wretch whose nerves were worn to fiddle-strings. And all this time Monson never saw the man who was upon his track. He lost an eye, an ear, the fingers of his right hand, whilst his antagonist remained absolutely invisible. And then, finally, after a heavy drinking bout up there amongst the hills, Monson turned his revolver upon himself and put a bullet through his own heart.
This, then, was the man that Long Jim and his companions had to contend with. He sat there quiet and almost listless, with his hands in his pockets. Nobody knew better than himself how tight a place he was in. These were no cowards that he had to oppose him, but reckless, desperate men, ready for anything. Still they hesitated. If they had turned their revolvers upon him simultaneously there would have been an end of Patrick Walsh, but the first man that produced a weapon was as good as dead, so that neither of them cared to make the first advance. They drew a little on one side and sat down to eat their breakfast. What was going to happen Walsh had already guessed. These ruffians would wait till he and Nell Macey had entered the long, wooded passes leading to Dolvertown, and there the trouble would begin in earnest. There was no doubt why Long Jim and the rest were here. They had followed Mrs. Macey for the diamonds. They would have owned it freely enough had they been asked, for they were three to one, and the Nemesis of the law in those parts was no more than a mockery and a shadow.
Nell looked at her companion with tears in her eyes. She had expected something more formidable than this. It seemed almost impossible that the little man with the white face and sensitive mouth should be the famous Patrick Walsh, but in some strange way she pinned her faith to him. She felt perfectly certain that despite the danger he would pull her through.
"I'll do my best," Walsh said, curtly.
"Oh, I am sure you will," Nell replied. "But how do you know what I was thinking about?"
"It wants no great foresight," Walsh murmured. "You are wondering how I am going to save your treasures and my own life at the same time. But I shall do it. Now, can you trust me—I mean, can you trust me implicitly?"
"I am certain of it," Nell said, impulsively.
"Very well, then. In that case I want you to do exactly as you are told. Now, you know what those carrion are here for; you know why they followed you. Despite their assumed indifference they are watching us as a cat watches a mouse. I want you to hand me those diamonds over openly and without any attempt at disguise I will see that you are not robbed. And then I want you to go right home again and tell your husband all that has happened."
"But," Nell protested, "it does not seem—"
Walsh turned his face in her direction. The features had grown hard and firm and merciless; the eyes were long slits of flame.
"You've got to do what I tell you," Walsh said. "Didn't I give you my word, and did any man ever know me to break it? Now hand those stones over. Give them to me so that there can be no mistake about those fellows seeing what you are doing. If this adventure comes off all right I will laugh those three ruffians off the Continent of America. Now, come."
In a dazed kind of way Nell handed over the jewels. Walsh took them out of their little envelope and examined each carefully between his finger and thumb. From under his brows he could see how anxiously the three men on the ridge were regarding him. Then he turned over on his side as if to light his pipe, but in reality he was doing something with the stones. Nell could hear a clicking kind of sound and the rustling of paper, but she did not venture to move because Walsh, curtly enough, bade her to sit exactly as she was and take no notice of what he was doing. At the end of a minute or two she heard a chuckle by her side, and when Walsh sat up again there was a grim smile of amusement on his thin lips.
"Now we are ready for the play to begin," he said. "And don't you be afraid. But, then, you are not that sort of woman. Go straight back home and tell your husband exactly what has happened. Tell him that if I am alive in a week's time he shall hear from me, and if I am dead he shall hear from me, too. No, you need not thank me. This is just one of the moments in one's life that is worth living. I wouldn't have missed a chance like this for ten thousand dollars."
There was nothing for it but for Nell to obey. She was ashamed of herself in a way, and yet, at the same time, she was carried away by the amazing force of this man's will. He rose to his feet. He offered Nell his arm with a gesture of almost exaggerated courtesy; he stalked gravely by the three men sitting there; he walked up the slope to the top of the bluffs whence they could see the long, sinuous road winding away towards One Tree Gulch, like a white parting in a head of black hair. And here Walsh held out a hand to his companion. He took Nell's fingers and held them to his lips. He swept off his big-brimmed soft hat, as one of the cavaliers in the old days might have done.
"There's your way," he said. "Now take it without hesitation. I will stay here till you are out of sight. Those three gentlemen down below can see me, and so long as I am in sight they will make no effort to follow. If I had a horse I should feel equal to the lot of them, but, then, on the other hand, the adventure would lose its piquancy. And now, good-bye."
For a long time Walsh stood there like a graven statue against the blue sky. Nell turned and waved her hand to him as she disappeared presently amongst the waving pines. Then Walsh strolled back to the camp coolly and casually, past the huts and the stores, and so away down the pass which led dizzily to Dolvertown. He had no friends there to help him; he was a stranger in those parts. Probably if he had mentioned his name people might have refused to believe him. His thin lips were pressed tightly together; his eyes flickered in a smile of slow amusement. No sooner had he turned the corner than he sprang nimbly to the summit of a rock whence he could command a view of the camp. The smile widened when he saw that Long Jim and his companions had already vanished. He stood there listening for the sound of a broken twig or the dull thud of a footstep. He took his soft hat from his head and held it above the bushes. There was the quick snap of a revolver shot and the sombrero fell at his feet. Walsh laughed softly. The game had begun in earnest now. He was ready and eager for the fray. There was nothing to be greatly alarmed at as yet. He knew those ruffians were afraid of him; he knew perfectly well that they would hesitate a long time before they came to close quarters. Of their intentions he had no manner of doubt. Those men meant to rob him and they meant to murder him, too.
So the game went on mile after mile, till the centre of the big belt of pines was reached. The bluff rose sharply here. Beyond it was a ragged slope of undergrowth with a stream of water hurrying along to its foot. Here Walsh halted. He knew that the men were on three sides of him now; he could hear their footsteps rustling in the dead leaves. And he was taking no risks. He knew the class of men he had to deal with. He knew that he was fighting with antagonists whose knowledge of woodcraft was almost equal to his own. Then just for a moment he exposed himself—only for an instant, but it was sufficient to draw the fire of revolvers from three directions. Then Walsh threw up his hands, and from his lips came that horrible bubbling scream which tells eloquently enough of a man who has been shot in some vital part. He lay prone on his face, his left arm outstretched, his right doubled up under him. There was a small ragged hole over his left breast from which the blood appeared to be oozing. He lay there so stark and stiff and horrible that the three men creeping over the dead leaves from different directions whistled and called simultaneously that the trouble was over, and that there was an end of Patrick Walsh, save for his glorious and romantic memory. For those three men were deadly shots. They wanted no flattery so far as their revolver practice was concerned.
Long Jim grinned as he rose to his feet, the others sniggered. For, apparently, Walsh had come to the end of his tether; apparently he had allowed himself to be driven into a corner whence there was no escape. He could not have doubled on his tracks, and no man really in his senses would have dared the leap over the edge of the bluff into those swirling waters below.
"Right through the heart," Long Jim said, hoarsely. "Jehoshaphat, ain't he bleeding! Now, then, boys—"
They came brutally, callously forward. Then, as if by magic, the prostrate figure moved an inch, and three revolver shots rang out in lightning succession. Long Jim staggered back with a bullet in his shoulder, screaming and blaspheming with pain; his two companions went foaming and writhing and holding a pair of trembling hands to the fleshy part of their thighs. It had all taken place in the twinkling of an eye, and before the three ruffians could recover themselves sufficiently to realize what had happened Walsh was rolling swiftly over and over towards the edge of the bluff. With a yell of defiance and an outbreak of derisive laughter, he bent himself backwards like a bow and flashed headlong into the yellow stream which lay thirty feet below.
He came up presently, gasping and panting and chilled to the very marrow by the icy coldness of the water; but his heart was light, and his lips were parted in a smile as he bent down and sped through the undergrowth with his white face turned in the direction of Dolvertown.
"That was a close call," he muttered. "I don't know when I have enjoyed anything so much. And unless you are greatly mistaken in your calculations, Pat Walsh, the next trick is going to be yours."
* * * * *
IT was getting dusk a week later when Walsh put in an appearance at Tom Macey's hut. His welcome was all that he could wish; in fact, Tom Macey, in his clumsy way, professed to be half jealous of the way in which Nell received her visitor.
"Oh, we're all right," he said. "And the kid is much better. I dare say we shall be able to manage till the end of the summer now. Seems ungrateful, don't it, to worry about those diamonds, and the kid's all right again? Guess you had to give them up."
Walsh smiled dryly.
"Well, not quite in the way you think," he said. "I expected to worry through that little trouble, and I did. But I had to take no risks. I wasn't going to go under with those stones in my possession, so I hit upon a little scheme of my own, which I will explain to you presently. You will laugh when you hear it, and you will be all the more amused because the laugh will be on your side. And if you want to see your stones again you will have to come with me this evening. Slip a brace of revolvers in your pocket. There is no great danger, Mrs. Macey. Tom will be home by midnight, and when he comes back you will be able to sit up and talk it over, and decide what you are going to do with your money. I can't tell you any more at present. I don't want to spoil the joke."
There were a couple of horses outside, and in silence the two men rode together up the rocky mountain passes, till they came at length to a little camp under the pines below the snow-line. It was a fresh camp, but already it boasted its saloon, where a score or more of men sat gambling and drinking. Beyond the thick haze of acrid tobacco-smoke Long Jim and his companions sat over a game of monte. They appeared to be none the better for their adventure. Their faces were pallid and lank under their mask of dirt. Long Jim's shoulder appeared to have been strapped up with some rude attempt at bandaging; the other two sat on a chair with a leg resting on another one. The forbidding assemblage looked up as Patrick Walsh entered. He had a revolver in his hand. The big, square frame of Tom Macey loomed behind him, his finger crooked on the trigger of another weapon.
"Now don't any of you move," Walsh commanded, crisply. "My business is with those three skunks in the corner yonder. Hands up, there! Now, Mr. Long Jim, get a move on you. Ah, that's better. Now let's see you smile."
An ominous growl went up from the motley assembly. The hand of more than one man strayed to his hip pocket, but somehow they hesitated as their glances fell upon that white, still face of the man in the doorway.
"I have warned you," he rasped out. "Perhaps you don't know me. My name is Patrick Walsh."
"By Heaven, it is, too!" a voice growled behind the tobacco-smoke. "Boys, this is no affair of ours."
The effect of the words was electrical. A dead, respectful silence fell upon the gamblers as Long Jim and his companions moved forward with their hands above their heads. They dragged themselves miserably into the outer air, no man following, for Walsh had been emphatic on that point, and he was, above all things, a man of his word. He stood there looking grimly on while Macey bound the prisoners together with raw hides, and presently they were fastened to the saddles of the two adventurers, and so the melancholy procession moved slowly down the mountain side. There was no word said, no sound but the regular tread of hoofs until the party arrived at length at something superior in the way of a ranch in one of the valleys lying there below One Tree Gulch. An alert man in spectacles came out and bade them welcome. He seemed to be expecting Walsh, for he bade the whole party to come inside. Here, laid out on the table, were surgical instruments, sharp-looking knives, and other terrors to the uninitiated.
"Friends of mine," Walsh said, curtly. "I am very anxious about their welfare. You see, they all met with a bit of an accident a few days ago. The estimable Long Jim has got a bullet in his shoulder, and Mr. Ned Carson and Dick Blake are suffering from the same inconvenience in the thick part of the thigh. It is a pity you haven't got anything in the way of an anaesthetic, but, Lord, what's a few moments' pain to brave chaps like these?"
"What's the pastime?" Long Jim asked, anxiously.
By way of reply he was jerked unceremoniously on his back and speedily stripped to the skin. He howled and writhed there impotently whilst the man in the spectacles probed scientifically in the wound. A moment later at the end of a pair of forceps he held up a round object triumphantly.
"Got him," he explained, "touch of dressing and you'll be all right in a week, my lad. Now, you others, come along."
Three miserable men sat round the fire presently whilst Walsh held in his hand the three pellets which the doctor had so successfully extracted. He wiped them with a piece of lint and handed them over to Macey.
"There you are," he said, quietly. "There are your diamonds back again. Now, perhaps, you see my little scheme. It was impossible for your wife to get to Dolvertown, and, as there were three of those ruffians to one, I wasn't going to take any risks. I couldn't hide the stones because if I had gone under you would have lost them, and so I extracted the bullets from three of my revolver cartridges and put the diamonds in their place. And for the last week or nine days these three beauties have been walking about with a diamond apiece under their skin and they none the wiser. I told the doctor here all about it. I tracked those chaps to their shanty up in the mountains, and the rest you know."
A stream of oaths broke from Long Jim's lips. His companions to the best of their artistic ability backed him up. Walsh turned upon them with a queer, dry smile.
"That will do," he said. "Now you can go. And the first man I meet within a hundred miles of this place I'll shoot on sight. But there's no reason to worry about you; you'll never stay here after this. Even the boys would laugh at you. Good night, doctor. Now let's get back and tell the story to your wife."
THE east wind had been blowing all day, and snow was falling in a fine powder. It was past twelve o'clock, and the streets in the West End were more than usually deserted. Here and there the snow had drifted in wreaths and eddies so that, though the pavement was swept, bare here in places, an little further on the white drifts of the snow were knee-deep, gleaming and sparkling in the lamplight. A wind cold and piercing seemed to strike Jameson like a blow us he turned into Rupert Street. He pulled his collar up closer about his throat, rejoicing in the fact that he had not far to go now to where a warm fire in his library awaited him. On the whole, the rising young physician had had rather a busy day. He was beginning to feel his feet now, and was ceasing to regret that he had given up a competency in the country for the more ambitious uncertainties of the West End practice.
To a certain extent the struggle was over now. He had managed to pay for the fitting out of his expensive house; the dread of the recurring quarter-days no longer disturbed his rest. Another year like this and he would be fairly round the corner.
He stopped on his own door-step and fumbled for his latchkey. The house stood at an angle of two roads and felt the full force of the searching wind. The snow in the doorstep was so deep that Jameson had literally to force his way to the door. The cold had brought the tears streaming to his eyes. He wiped them away now as a sudden fancy occurred to him. Surely there was something on the doorstep which was not altogether snow. The black object stood out clear and distinct here and there, and Jameson could see something that glittered like a diamond. Half idly he stooped to investigate, then he drew back with a startled cry.
There was nothing the matter with his nerves, but, at the same time, it was alarming to lay his bare hand upon a cold, frozen arm of a woman in evening dress. She might have been dead, for all Jameson knew to the contrary, for the arm was as cold as ice. He could see now the outline of a pale face in a fringe of jet black hair.
He threw the door open hastily and raised the unconscious form from the snowdrift. The warmth of the hall tingled in his veins gratefully. The lights were still left on, though the house was quiet enough as Jameson carried his burden into the library and laid the girl in an armchair by the side of the blazing fire. He could see now that she was dressed in some thin, black material which left her arms and gleaming neck bare. The dress was shabby enough, though it bore the impress of costliness and fashion; but altogether it seemed out of place in connection with the magnificent jewels which the stranger was wearing round her neck and in her hair. It was no time to fritter away over these details.
Just for a moment or two it seemed to Jameson that the unfortunate woman was past all assistance of his. He chafed the cold hands vigorously. He managed to coax a few drops of brandy between the blue lips. He could feel the feeble fluttering of the heart now. The long, fringed lashes were lifted, and a pair of eyes of the deepest blue unveiled themselves splendidly. They seemed to light up the whole face and render it doubly beautiful.
"You are feeling better now?" Jameson asked.
"I think so." the stranger said in a faint. whisper. "But where am I? And what am I doing here?"
The last word was hardly audible. The long, purple, fringed lashes dropped again, and the stranger seemed to sleep. Jameson stood there looking at her absolutely lost in bewildered astonishment. He could see now that he was not too late, and that youth and a vigorous constitution would do the rest. The blood was beginning to pulsate again over the temples; the stranger's breathing was no longer short and irregular. And yet Jameson stood there looking at her just as if he had never seen a woman before in her peculiar situation. He stole gently from the room and called quietly at the foot of the stairs. A moment later and a lady came down. Jameson had few secrets from his sister Violet, who acted as his companion and housekeeper. She looked at him questioningly now out of her pleasant, grey eyes.
"You look as if you seen a ghost," she said.
"I think I have, Vio1et," Jameson responded. "I have had quite an adventure. I found an unfortunate woman at the point of death on the doorstep, and very naturally I brought her into the house. Whether or not she was coming to see me is an open question, The fact remains that she is here—"
"Do you know who she is?" Miss Jameson asked eagerly.
"Well, yes, I do," Jameson replied. "That is the extraordinary part of it. You remember my telling you all about my adventures in Russia during the year I was there as assistant-surgeon to the British Embassy. You will recollect the romantic story of Princess Ida Stefanoff."
Violet Jameson nodded her head brightly.
"Well, I don't want to make a long story of it, but Princess Ida is here at the present moment under our roof, slowly recovering in the library. I don't suppose she knows me except by repute, hut. I recognised her instantly."
"It seems almost incredible!" Violet Jameson cried. "But I was under the impression that the Princess was dead. Didn't she disappear in a mysterious manner about a year ago? I think I remember reading something about it in the papers. Didn't her husband suspect that there was foul play, and wasn't he supposed to be searching Europe over for his wife?"
"Oh, that's all right," Jameson said somewhat impatiently. "And there was some scandal about a certain Count Glenstein who was some sort of relation of the Princess. I believe there was some diplomatic tangle at the bottom of it. Anyway, Prince Boris Stefanoff was banished from the Russian Court, and I don't think he has been heard of since. But, then, one never hopes to get to the bottom of these tangles, especially when the Russian police have the matter in hand. But I ought to be ashamed of myself for wasting time here like this. I want you to come and give me a helping hand with the Princess, and, above all things, I want you to be discreet and cautious. Please ask no questions, and don't let it he assumed for an instant that you know who the Princess really is."
Miss Jameson murmured something to the effect that her brother could rely on her, and together they returned to the library. The unfortunate stranger was sitting up in the chair now. A little colour had returned to her cheeks, her great blue eyes were shining like stars. She did not appear to recognise anything incongruous in the situation. She did not seem cognisant of the fact that her shabby evening dress was out of place with the bewildering jewels which she wore. She was just a little hazy and confused, too, just a little uncertain of her surroundings.
"I am so very sorry to trouble you," she said in excellent English. She spoke with the suspicion of an effort, as if she were battling against her weakness still. "You see, the fact is, I have not been very well lately. I have had a good deal of trouble, too. A little time ago I had to leave my lodgings hurriedly. I had just had a letter which compelled me to do so. Unfortunately I had no money, and so I had to walk. The wind blew my cloak away, and I was so dazed with the cold that I could not find it. I suppose I fainted on your doorstep. Really, I am very much ashamed of myself. I wonder if you would mind doing me a favour?"
"Certainly," the doctor replied; "anything you like, Please do not excite yourself. You are far from strong yet. And now tell me what I can do for you."
"I was looking for a Dr. Jameson," the stranger said. "I understand he lives somewhere near here. I am told that he is a man one can trust. He did a great service for a friend of mine once—"
"I am the man you are looking for," Jameson replied. "You can command my services. Tell me what you want."
The girl half rose to her feet with a joyous exclamation. Then she fell back again, and the blue eyes were hidden for a moment.
"Oh, this is great good luck!" she murmured; "far better luck than I deserve. I cannot tell you how thankful I am that Providence has guided me here to-night. If you can help me now, I think I can see my way to the end of my troubles. And here am I wasting time when every moment is precious. You are a brave man enough, Mr. Jameson—I know that. You proved the fact more than once when you were in St. Petersburg. And now I want you to trust me implicitly. I want you to take my word for everything without asking any name. Will you do this for me?"
The great melting blue eyes were turned imploringly towards Jameson's face. They moved him as he had never been moved before, and, in any case, he would have found it hard to deny the request.
"I will do anything you please," he said, "and I will do it as soon as you like. Now, what is it that is so troubling you? And is the matter so very urgent?"
"It is a matter of life and death," the stranger went on. "I want you to go round to Humber Street, off Leicester Square, and say that that are a doctor who has been sent to see Mr. Boris. I am afraid it is not a nice place nor a very desirable neighbourhood, but you will he quite safe. Will you do this? I am..."
The pleading voice trailed away in a whisper, the slim figure in the chair grew limp once more.
VIOLET JAMESON glanced anxiously at her brother.
"Oh, it is all right," he said cheerfully. "She will come round in a minute or two. She appears to be suffering in her mind as well as body, and when she finds I have gone off on her errand, she will pick up fast enough. You don't mind being left here alone with her, do you? I know you are as good as half-a-dozen doctors in a crisis like this. However, if on like—"
"No,no," Miss Jameson said hastily. "I am not in the least afraid. And I can manage perfectly well. You had better go at once. Goodness knows what harm it will do if you delay!"
Jameson laid a resolute hand upon his fur coat and buttoned it up tightly round his throat. He was chivalrous enough and kind-hearted enough, he was quite desperately anxious to serve the pathetic little beauty lying there in the armchair; but, all the same, the adventure was not exactly to his taste. This kind of thing had been all very well during his Russian experiences, when he was in a position of greater freedom and less responsibility. But it hardly befitted a rising young physician in Rupert Street who aspired to an aristocratic family practice. Still, there was something in the Princess which could not be resisted. She was a noted beauty with more or less of a European reputation. She had figured brilliantly in politics; moreover, she had married one of the handsomest and richest men in Russia. It was a pure love match, too, which made the mystery all the more alluring.
Then, with unexpected swiftness, the crash had come, without a word of warning the bolt had fallen from the blue. The Princess had mysteriously disappeared. It was whispered that she dare not show her face in Russia again. She had gone over to the Nihilist faction, it was said; she had abused her position shamefully. Anyway, she had vanished, leaving no trace behind, and for the best part of a year Prince Boris Stefanoff had been searching for her. It was rumoured that he also had fallen under the ban of the Emperor's displeasure, but as to that, no one outside the Court circle knew anything. It was all very well for the Society journalists to hint and nod their heads wisely, but they were just as ignorant as other people. And now the thing was nearly forgotten.
Jameson was turning these matters over in his mind as he strode in the direction of Humber Street. He had a fairly wide and extensive knowledge of London, and he knew pretty well where he was going. Unless he was greatly mistaken, the address which the Princess had given him was that of a foreign night-club, which more than once had come under the observation of the police. The establishment had the shadiest of reputations, and probably more than one crime of international magnitude had been hatched there. Besides the injury to his reputation if the matter became public, Jameson ran a considerable personal risk, as he very well knew. But with the glamour of that pleading voice and those blue eyes upon him he did not hesitate. Besides, the romance of the whole thing appealed to him. And he, too, was young.
He came to the house at 1ength—an old-fashioned, sombre-looking place, which appeared to be in total darkness, except for a feeble gleam of gas over the fanlight. But, then, as Jameson knew very well, this apparently respectable dullness was very little indication of what was taking place inside. He rapped qietly on the door, which presently opened an inch or two, and a vile, repulsive face looked out. It was a red and tattered face, belonging unmistakably to a broken-down pugilist, just the type of bully and plucky ruffian who usually acts as Cerberus to shady haunts of this character. In a surly tone of voice he asked Jameson's business.
"I have come to see Mr. Boris," Jameson said curtly. "Don't keep me standing here on the pavement all night."
The curtness and straightness of the reply seemed to have its effect, for the door was opened sufficiently wide to admit Jameson, then was closed to and bolted again. Beyond a pair of baize doors was a large, brilliantly lighted hall, and again beyond that a glittering-looking bar, where a score or two of foreigners were drinking and talking, and to the left of this another room, with shaded green lights over the tables, where a grim, silent company were indulging in the fascinations of roulette. Jameson saw the cicerone glancing at him eagerly askance as he took in these details. A devout prayer rose from his lips that the police would refrain from raiding the premises so long as he was there. Without a single word said on either side, the decayed pugilist conducted him upstairs and pointed with a dirty, knotted hand to a closed door.
"In there," he said. "And when you come out, knock with your heel three times on the floor. I'll put you out then."
Jameson tapped at the door, and a somewhat imperious voice bade him enter. He found himself in a long, low apartment, none too clean, and which was entirely devoid of furniture, save for a table and a couple of armchairs on either side of the fireplace. The windows were closely shattered and barred, the whole place was insufficiently lighted by one plain electric lamp which hung on its flex naked and unadorned from the ceiling. In one of the armchairs sat a man in evening dress—a tall, distinguished-looking man, whose bearing and the cut of whose hair were decidedly military. He had a trim moustache turned up at the corners. The hair on his temples was turning grey. He had discarded his dress-coat, which he had pitched carelessly on the door. He had in his hand a rapier which gleamed in the light of the lamp.
The other man in the opposite armchair was hardly less distinguished-looking, but his features were more sullen, and his eyes less clear and steadfast. He, too, had discarded his coat. He, too, had a duelling· sword in his hand. From the expression of the men's faces as they glanced at one another, it was evident that a bitter enmity existed between them. Just for a moment Jameson stood contemplating these dramatic ingredients of a high tragedy, then he ventured to introduce himself by name.
"I am glad to hear it," the man with the slight moustache said. "As a matter of fact, I sent for you, Dr. Jameson. You don't know who I am, but I know you perfectly well, which is much more to the point. Let us say that I am A and my friend yonder is B. Let it be assumed for a. moment that I have been looking for B for the pest twelve months, and that at length I have found him. He has done me the worst injury one man can do another, and now I am going to kill him. At least, that is my programme. Possibly he may kill me. But I am going to give him a chance for his life, which is more than he deserves. If, unfortunately, I shall get the worst of this encounter, I want you to bear witness that the fight was a fair one. In the probable event of it being a drawn battle, or one of us being severely wounded, I hope you will allow us to place ourselves in your hands, so that you may—"
"But the thing is absurd, your Highness—I mean sir," Jameson stammered. "Such things are not allowed in London."
The late speaker smiled grimly. As s matter of fact, the situation was somewhat extravagant. It was like some chapter from from one of Lever's* novels. The man with the slight moustache rose and crossed to the door. He turned the key in the lock and put it in his pocket. Then he smiled genially on Jameson.
[* Charles Lever (1806-1872): Anglo-Irish novelist, physician, and diplomat. The Victorian Web.]
"I quite understand your feelings," he said. "If I were a rising physician like yourself, I should take the same view exactly. But if anything serious happens, I will see that you are indemnified. Count, I am at your service."
The other man rose from his chair and raised his weapon. He looked more pale and less confident than his antagonist. There was something shifty and uneasy in his glance. But, then, before Jameson could interfere or protest, the two men fell upon one another with incredible fury, the clashing din of their swords filled the room.
In spite of himself, in spite of his prudence, Jameson stood there thrilled and fascinated. He was fond of fencing himself. He knew something of the art, but he had never witnessed swordsmanship like this before. It seemed to him as if those two lithe, glittering blades had been turned to water. Round and round they played in waving, liquid circles, blade crashed on blade, a little train of sparks shimmered in the uncertain light. It was a combat to the death between two masters. They played round one another, light of foot and quick of muscle. Jameson could see their faces moistening as if both had been sprinkled with water. And yet the play of the blades went on, the fierce thrust and parry, as if this had been part of some dazzling entertainment designed entirely for Jameson's benefit. He began to wonder, too, whether he would wake up in his bed and find that the whole thing been a vivid dream.
So closely was he following this outlet for hate and passion that for the moment or two he quite failed to hear the sudden din and commotion which arose from the rooms below. There was borne in on his ears now cries and yells and curses, and the sound of a shot, and then the quick splintering of smashing wood. Dimly Jameson began to comprehend that there was a raid on the premises just at the dramatic moment when he least desired it. He forgot his own danger now. He was conscious of a feeling of disappointment that he would not he permitted to see this duel through to its logical conclusion. Already someone was tapping imperiously on the door.
Then suddenly the light went out and the room was left in darkness. It seemed to make not the slightest effect to the combatants, for Jameson could still hear the clash of blades. He saw the little trail of sparks failing swiftly. Then a blade clattered, and there was a heavy thud upon the floor.
JAMESON was thrilling to his finger-tips now. He suddenly seemed to realise the peculiar horror of the situation. His practised ear told him what the heavy breathing of one of the combatants meant, He knew that a yard or two away in the velvet darkness the tragedy was being consummated. And still the hammering at the door went on gaining in force until the wood began to creak and the framework fell into the room with a crash. Almost at the same instant the electric bulb thickened to a tangle of flame, into a brilliant white light, and the room was flooded once more with illumination.
The man who has been alluded to as B lay at length on the floor, propping himself up on one arm and glaring with malignant fury at his antagonist, who stood swaying over him and his hand to his left aide, where a thin red thread had commenced to trickle over the white expanse of his shirt. Evidently the man on the floor was badly hurt, and, so far as Jameson could see, the victor had not escaped scot-free. Before he could interfere, a score of policemen were in the room, headed by a natty-looking inspector in plain clothes.
"You are our prisoners" the inspector said curtly. "Well, what is the meaning of this? Surely I know your face, sir. I am certain that we have met before."
The man with his hand of his side smiled.
"Your memory has not played you false," he said. "You are Inspector Ralli, and we have met before. The last time, I think, was in St. Petersburg."
The inspector's face dropped a little. Evidently was embarrassed and inclined to be apologetic.
"You are quite right," he said. "I came here to-night with my men to raid this house. The people here have been giving a good deal of trouble lately, and we have had them under observation for a long time. By the way, sir, are you not Dr. Jameson?"
"Oh, Heaven, yes!" Jameson said disconsolately. "I assure you that I am quite an innocent party in this matter, though I don't suppose you will believe me."
"I think he will," the tall duellist said, with a smile. "I fancy I shall be able to put matters right with Inspector Ralli. You see, he is a fellow-countrymen of mine, and he happens to know perfectly well who I am."
"I know your Imperial Highness," Balli replied. "almost—"
"Who speaks of Imperial Highness?" the tall man said coldly. "I think for the moment, at any rate, we had better leave that out of the question. I can assure you, Inspector. that we did not come here to gamble; in fact, my friend who is lying on the carpet here is for the present hiding in the house. To a certain extent he is mixed up with the mysterious disappearance of certain State papers and the subsequent mystery which ended in the retirement of Princes Stefanoff from society; in fact, as the agent, let us say, of the Prince, I have been fighting our friend here for the possession of certain papers. I don't think he will decline to tell me now where they are; indeed, I am sure he won't."
"They are in my coat pocket on the chair yonder," the man on the floor said sulkily. "What this gentleman has told you is quite right, Inspector. I am lodging in the house, though I am bound to confess that I was very foolish to come here, especially as I knew the character of the place. But, incidentally I may mention that I shall be glad of Dr. Jameson's services. I think I am rather more hurt than he supposes."
Meanwhile, the tall man had drawn Inspector Ralli on one side and was whispering to him in a corner of the room. Presently at a slight sign the police disappeared, the noise downstairs subsided, and the house grew still once more. It was an hour or so later before the injured man was in a condition to be moved, and before Jameson had skillfully bound up the slight but flesh wound in the right side of the other combatant. Inspector Ralli was still lingering on the pavement when they reached the street.
"Of course, I had to take your names and addresses," he said. "Believe me, gentlemen, it will be your own faults if you hear any more of this matter. No doubt his Imperial—I mean this gentleman here will call at the Russian Embassy to-morrow and explain matters. I will ask you to do this, sir, for my sake. A discreet silence on the subject, I am sure, will be appreciated. Perhaps I have said too much, but his Imperial— Well, good-night, gentlemen."
The inspector disappeared, whilst Jameson and his companion climbed into a cab.
"I don't think there is any reason to explain matters," the Russian said, "I am quite certain, Dr. Jameson, that you know everything that is essential."
"I think I do," Jameson said discreetly.
"Oh, well, in that case we will say no more about it. I am glad to know that a certain lady who shall be nameless—you know whom I mean—succeeded in finding you. I only knew where she was late this evening, when it was impossible to go round to her lodgings. I sent her a hurried telegram asking her to call upon you and enlist your services for our recent little encounter. You see, I have been on a wrong tack altogether. As the agent, let us say, of Prince Boris Stefanoff, I never guessed that that poisonous scoundrel whom I called B just now had behaved so badly in the matter of the Princess. Being a relation of hers, she never suspected anything. The Princess trusted him entirely, so that he had no difficult in getting hold of those paper. He managed to explain to the Princess that it was her husband who was the traitor, and when the poor lady really discovered what had taken place, she was half beside herself with grief, she hardly knew what to do. She made the mistake of running away from her husband instead of confessing everything to him. She left his house and changed her name and started for England with the wild idea of recovering possession of those documents. It never seemed to occur to her what a wild tangle she was leaving behind. Why, if it had not been for certain circumstances, I should have been—I mean, the Prince would have been sent to Siberia. He got on the track of his wife a day or two ago, then he discovered how nobly and foolishly she had been acting. But you are a wise man in our day and generation, Dr. Jameson, and I know you will want to ask no further questions. Perhaps you will be good enough to tell me where the Princess is, so that I may—I mean, so that I can take her back to her husband."
"Certainly," Jameson said gravely. "She is in my house. How she got there and what adventures she went through first, she will tell you herself. It will be far better, I think, if you see her alone. She has been very much upset, and I am sure would prefer not to see either my sister or myself again—at least, not just for the present. We can keep the cab at my door till you are ready, and then, if later on she or you desire to see me again, I shall he very pleased to come and call upon you."
"Upon my word, that is very good of you!" he cried. "If you are not a distinguished doctor, I am sure that you would be an even more distinguished courtier. Evidently you were made for diplomacy. And now, doctor, I hope you will not be offended at what I am going to say. I- that is, his Imperial Highness has a good deal of influence with the wealthy Russians in London, and it will be no fault of his if he does not do his best to put a thing or two in your way. No thanks, I beg of you. All I ask is for you to be discreet and silent. Oh, is this the house? Perhaps you will be good enough to get out of the cab first."
* * * * *
As a matter of fact, Dr. Jameson was discreet and silent. And even Violet Jameson's intimate friends never heard the faintest suggestion of the strange adventure of the snowy night, and the fair stranger who had so nearly lost her life on the doctor's doorstep. But this did not prevent them talking the matter over between themselves, or from following with interest the subsequent career of Prince and Princess Stefanoff and their new and brilliant prospects at the Russian Court. Apparently the romantic couple had not forgotten their promise, for within a short time Jameson found himself with all the patients he could do with, drawn from the various rich Russian families who had settled in London. He was making a great reputation for himself now.
It was a year or two later, at a reception. at the Russian Embassy, that Jameson and his sister met their two distinguished friends again. They had remained discreet and silent in the background until Princess Stefanoff, leaning on her husband's arm, came forward to greet them.
"Do you remember us?" she asked.
"That is for your Imperial Highness to say," Jameson replied. "We are prepared to remember or forget, just as either of you choose. But I think that your features are familiar, though I don't imagine that my sister has ever seen the Prince before."
The Princess stooped and kissed Violet Jameson heartily on either cheek. Her smile was dazzling.
"You are a model couple," she said gaily, "and we are under a still deeper debt of gratitude than ever. And now there is one more favour I would ask of you. You must both come over to Russia and see us when the doctor take his holiday."
"I think we should enjoy it," Jameson said; "in fact, I am quite sure we should."
RAYBOULD bit savagely into his cigarette. It was hard work to choke down the words of passionate contempt that rose to his lips.
"Oh, I know," he said, "perhaps it would be better for us to be quite candid. I came to you a year ago with a patent for a new electric heating apparatus. I proposed to supersede coal altogether at a fifth of the price. You have stolen my idea, and now offer me a beggarly sum by way of compensation."
"Ten thousand pounds," the junior partner in the House of Merides said, softly. "A pretty price for a little more than a year's work!"
Raybould could not repress a smile. There was nothing subtle about the business at all. This precious pair were millionaires; both of them on the verge of the grave, and without kith or kin, were just as keen about this piece of robbery as if it had been of vital importance to them, and Raybould was perfectly helpless—he did not need these rascally Greeks to tell him that.
Raybould took another cigarette and sat calmly smoking and taking in the beauty of the place in which the interview was proceeding.
Perhaps their taste had been inherited from a long line of ancestors going back to the old days of Praxiteles and the like, for there was no denying the exquisite artistic feeling of those choice scoundrels. The house at Staines was a variable dream of beauty; not the least attractive portion was the Winter Garden, which was situated in the centre of Staines' Court. It was like some great glass house, with a huge dome in the centre. The whole had been filled with graceful and luxurious ferns gathered from all parts of the world. The scheme of decoration was something novel, for, as far as Raybould could see, the tender green foliage climbed riotously up the pillars and shafts which were raised to the roof, and just for a moment, Raybould could not see from whence the ferns derived their nourishment. To all appearances the delicate tracery climbed upwards of its own volition. The light from outside came filtered through as if the great dome had been covered with a diaphanous curtain. Peter Merides seemed to divine what Raybould was thinking about, for he began to speak of the Winter Garden in tones of almost tender enthusiasm. He must have a heart somewhere under his crust of worldly guile, or his little black eyes would not have become so distinctly and favourably human.
"How do those ferns live?" Raybould asked.
"It is very simple," Merides chuckled. "Our idea was to have a kind of bower of glass literally smothered with graceful ferns. If you examine those iron columns, you will find they are quite moist. They are hollow and slightly porous, so that by forcing water through them it is possible to keep the roots of the ferns wet. If you will look into the dome, you will notice that the lower surface is concave, thus forming a natural tank of water between it and the summit. As for the filtered light that is quite easy, seeing that the whole of the outside of the conservatory had been coated with paint."
"Which wants renewing, by the way," the younger Merides said. "The recent rains have washed some of the paint from the dome. But we are wasting time, Mr. Raybould."
"Are we?" Raybould said between his teeth. "I will come over here tomorrow just before luncheon and let you have my final decision."
* * * * *
With dogged determination and helpless rage in his heart, Raybould made his way the next morning in the direction of Staines Court. Those worldly old sinners had been quite right; he had to think of his debts and his wife, and after a sleepless night he had made up his mind to accept the ten thousand pounds in exchange for an idea that meant a colossal fortune.
Other inventors had suffered at the hands of unscrupulous capitalists, but Raybould found small consolation in this reflection. The bitter smile on his face deepened as he followed the manservant into a small office where Manfred Merides was seated. The latter looked up, and smiled shrewdly in the face of his visitor.
"I felt sure you would think better of our offer," he said. "I will go and fetch my brother. He is in the conservatory."
Raybould nodded as Manfred Merides left the room. The house was very silent: no sound could be heard but the twittering of the birds outside. A moment later and there arose a loud startled cry that ended in a piercing scream. It was worse than the call of a woman in distress, it was the hoarse cackling shriek of a strong man beside himself with terror. At the same moment the brilliant sunshine was wiped off the face of the landscape by one of the passing clouds. Raybould dashed off hurriedly in the direction of the unearthly sound. He could hear once again the hideous tumult which seemed to him to come from the direction of the Winter Garden. There he could see Merides bending over an iron chair, lined with cushions, in which reposed a huddled heap of humanity represented by Peter Merides. The whole place was filled with a sickening smell of burning flesh, a little cloud of blue vapour was curling up to the great dome.
"In heaven's name, what is the matter?" Raybould asked. "What dreadful thing has happened here?"
Manfred Merides staggered back, and would have fallen if Raybould had not caught him. His face was ghastly white, with eyes starting from his head in terror.
"Don't ask me," he whispered. "I do not know. I cannot tell, but I found him like this, my brother. You are a man of science—tell me what it all means."
Stifling a feeling of physical repulsion, Raybould bent over the body lying limp and lifeless in the iron arm-chair. It required no profound surgical knowledge to see that Peter Merides was dead. But he had not died in any way known to medical science. At the first blush it looked as if he had been struck by a flash of lightning, for the great dome-like head had been utterly denuded of all fleshy tissue, and the skull lay exposed. There was no face to speak of, all that had been burnt away, as was the clothing nearly as far down as the waist. If Peter Merides had been plunged headlong into some firey furnace he could not have been more horribly burnt and scarred than he was.
Raybould crossed the room and rang the bell. He gave an intimation to the servant who answered, saying that Mr. Peter Merides was ill and required a doctor without delay. The doctor came presently, but he was utterly unable to throw any light upon the manner in which the Greek financier had met his death. There was nothing for it, he said, but to remove the body to the house, pending the inquest which would have to be held. The doctor was still busy making his arrangements, so that Raybould had an opportunity of inspecting the scene of the extraordinary catastrophe. So far he could see, everything was exactly as it had been on the day before. The iron armchairs were scattered about the tiled floor, a pair of small tables stood there with cigars and cigarettes upon them. There was nothing here to indicate one of the most sickening phenomena that had ever taken place in the history of modern fatalities. Very carefully Raybould examined the seat in which the dead man had been reclining. So far as he could see, the cushions were intact, there was not the slightest sign of singeing or burning about them, and yet, the unfortunate man had been burnt to death beyond a shadow of a doubt. He had presented the appearance of a body so badly scalded as actually to remove the flesh from the bones. Raybould put aside at once the idea of personal violence. To begin with, there was no trace of anything whatever on the damp tiles. They were perfectly clean, and there was no hint of a footmark to be seen. Again, it was impossible to enter the Winter Garden except from the house. Raybould glanced up into the dome, but he could see nothing there besides the graceful feathery ferns climbing so luxuriously upwards. The whole thing was inexplicable, mysterious, horrible—a terrible visitation of God which would probably never be explained.
"I cannot grasp it at all," the doctor said, as he walked back towards Staines with Raybould. "Of course, the inquest to-morrow will only be a formal opening of the inquiry to give us time to thoroughly investigate this ghastly business. We shall want cleverer heads than mine before the affair is explained."
As Doctor Martin had forecasted, the tragic death of Peter Merides occupied public attention to the conclusion of almost everything else. The inquest on the body was a formal one, and almost immediately adjourned for further inquiries to be made. The Scotland Yard authorities frankly owned that they could find no trace of anything criminal in the matter. It appeared the Merides' domestic staff had been in the brothers' employ for some considerable time, and no possible suspicion could attach to them. The footman, who had admitted Raybould to the house gave evidence to the effect that he had answered his master's bell not more than five minutes before the discovery of the tragedy, and he was emphatically sure that there was nothing whatever the matter with his master at that time. He was also quite sure that no one besides himself had entered the Winter Garden. This simple and direct evidence only tended to deepen the mystery. There was nothing for it, the coroner said, but to adjourn the inquiry for a week, and invite the assistance of the College of Surgeons and other highly scientific bodies to aid in the solution of this terrible calamity.
"Nothing will be done, and nothing will ever be discovered," Martin said to Raybould as the two entered the Winter Garden together. "It seems strange to think that so lovely a place as this should be connected with so loathsome a tragedy."
Raybould said nothing. He stood looking upwards watching the play of the light filtering through the roof where the spot of paint had been washed off, and noting how the spot disappeared with the passing of the fleecy clouds. Just for a moment the white spot was almost blinding on the floor, then it vanished as quickly as it had come. In a mechanical way, Raybould proceeded to pick a handful of the choicer ferns. His wife was very fond of ferns, he explained to Dr. Martin, and some of the fronds would be quite new to her. As he said this he stood in the centre of the garden holding up the handful of graceful foliage, so that the sun might shine upon it.
"Are they not lovely," he said "Don't you—"
Raybould broke off, suddenly dazed and confused, for quick as a flash the great, green, feathery mass vanished, and but a few dried, blackened, stalks remained in Raybould's fingers.
"What is it?" he cried. "What devil's work is this? Come out of this, Martin—I don't feel safe here."
* * * * *
Raybould stood with his hands pressed upon the table and glaring at Manfred Merides opposite him. It was strange that both men should look as if they had been through come terribly trying crisis. For some time neither spoke. They seemed to avoid one another's eyes as if perchance they were sharing some guilty secret between them. It was Merides who spoke at length.
"Why did you not come before?" he asked. "It is five days since I wrote you a letter imploring you to come and see me, and yet you took no notice whatever. Why not?"
There was a curious hesitation about Raybould. He might have been on the verge of a confession by the way in which he averted his eyes from his companion. He could see that Merides was haggard and grey; the Greek did not fail to note how pinched and worn Raybould's features were.
'"We will come to that presently," Raybould said at length. "I stayed away because I was afraid. A fortnight has elapsed since the tragedy of the Winter Garden, and we are no nearer to the solution of the mystery than we were at the beginning. You have had the advantage of consulting some of the greatest scientists of the day—men whose opinion carried weight—"
"Scientists," Merides sneered. "Dolts, idiots, fools, they worry me with their jargon, they make calculations, and yet they tell me nothing that is material. I tell you the thing maddens me. I wake in the night, dripping from head to foot. I am giving way to a habit which I have never fallen into before. There is only one consolation, and it is there."
Merides pointed with a shaking hand to the sideboard on which stood a half-empty brandy bottle.
"Perhaps it is Fate," he said. "Perhaps it is a judgment upon us for the way we served you."
"A conscience," Raybould laughed, bitterly. "Another Daniel come to judgment. It is good to know that you realise how shabbily you treated me. But that is not why you asked me to come and see you. You have some proposal to make to me."
"Well, yes," Merides admitted. "The more I think of it, the more sure am I that it is a judgment. I am afraid to move. I am afraid to go into the Winter Garden where my brother perished so horribly. I look in there sometimes. I pause on the doorstep, and yet I dare not go inside. Mind you, I am no coward—ask any man in the City and he will tell you the same thing. Only yesterday I stood there and saw that accursed white spot dancing on the floor—the same white spot that you told me of in the evening of the day on which my brother died."
Raybould looked up with some show of interest. There was just a dash of colour on his pale, pinched face.
"So you noticed that," he said. "Strange that you should have seen it so recently. When the thing comes to be explained, that dreaded spot will be found to be at the bottom of everything."
"I believe you," Merides said. "I believe you have found it out. If you will name your price—"
"The price has already been named for me," Raybould interrupted. "Give me back the child of my brain, and I will ask no more. But you are to put it in writing, or I do not trust you. I would not trust you though you mean every word you say for the moment. Take your pen and paper and reassign to me my patent."
With trembling hands, Merides dashed off some sort of a document, which apparently satisfied Raybould, for he nodded curtly as he put it in his pocket. Merides turned to him with an eagerness that was almost childish.
"Now, come along," he said. "Come and show me at once how the thing was done. Mind you, I am not going to be satisfied with mere explanations—I want a practical demonstration. I shall know no peace till I have seen it."
By way of reply Raybould opened the window and looked out. A long, trailing cloud was passing lazily over the sun. With his watch in his hand, the scientist seemed to be making some calculation.
"You are safe for at least five minutes," he said, "probably more, but I see you are mystified. Still, there is no danger so long as yonder cloud obscures the sun. Now come along."
Merides seemed to accept the assurance, for he followed Raybould without further expostulation. There was nothing in the dim beauty of the Winter Garden to indicate the scene of an appalling tragedy. The graceful ferns twined upwards round the pillars, the subdued light filtered through on to the feathery fronds and trailing sprays. Raybould's quick eye noted a patch of brown stain near the centre of the tiled floor.
"What is this?" he asked. "It certainly was not here on the last occasion that I visited the place."
Merides shuddered from head to foot. He swayed like a man who suffers from some physical sickness.
"I had forgotten that," he whispered.
"It was my brother's dog. He used to sit here at Peter's feet. We could not keep him out after his master died. It was the fourth day after the tragedy that one of the servants heard the dog suddenly cry out and whine as if in pain. A few minutes later and the footman came in to find that there was no dog at all—nothing but a calcined bone or two and a tuft of singed hair. As the master had died so the poor dog had perished. It is horrors like these that take all the life and soul out of a man. I would give half my fortune to know how these things can be avoided in the future."
Raybould made no reply, he was evidently impressed by Merides' latest story, for his hand was shaking, and he looked up furtively from time to time as if foreseeing some danger in the dome overhead. Then again he consulted his watch and proceeded to measure out a circle in the centre of the floor with the aid of a foot rule. Around this circle he drew a thick, black mark with a carpenter's pencil. Merides watched with the most intense interest.
"What is that for?" he asked.
"That is the danger zone," Raybould explained. "Inside there is death, hideous, and instantaneous, outside you are as safe as if you were in your bedroom. But perhaps I had better make the circle a little larger in case of accidents. There, I think that is all right. Now I we have only to wait for the Sunshine. When the sun comes everything will be cleared before you."
Gradually and slowly the long trailing clouds began to slide over the face of the sun until the brilliant light burst out suddenly and the great glass dome changed from a dull pink to a vivid yellow. With the last vestige of disappearing cloud there appeared at the feet of the two watchers a great dancing white spot some ten inches in diameter which flickered and trembled on the tiled floor. It seemed as if the scientist had chained the spot there, for it did not move outside the black circle. Merides fairly clung to Raybould in his excitement and terror.
"I have seen that spot often," he whispered. "I mean often during the last two or three days, but never before my brother's death. Is it dangerous in itself or—"
"It is death," Raybould said, "yet so long as you stand even a hair's breadth outside that circle there is no danger whatever. In these circumstances, the white spot is like a cobra behind a glass case. See here."
Raybould took up an old newspaper from a table hard by and folded it into a square. Very cautiously he advanced the sheet in the direction of the glaring white, there was a little sobing puff, a pale circle of flame and the paper was no more. Just three flakes of white ash rose towards the dome, a second later and the white spot had vanished from the charmed circle.
"What is it?" Merides almost screamed. "What does it mean? And why has it vanished in that mysterious manner?"
By the way of reply. Raybould pointed upwards to the dome which had changed colour once more, and was now a pallid pink hue.
"I thought you would have guessed," he said. "The sun has vanished for a moment, therefore it is impossible to pursue our experiment until this cloud has passed away. Meanwhile, I shall be glad if you will procure me a block of wood—I mean a good-sized log, such as one uses in old-fashioned fireplaces. Do you think you could get one for me?"
"Certainly," Merides replied. His teeth were chattering, he was breathing hard with excitement. "There are one or two large logs in the hall fireplace. I will get one."
The log was procured at length and carefully laid by Raybould in the centre of the circle. He watched it closely until the sun flashed out again and the white disc once more danced and quivered within the prosaic ring of blacklead on the floor. Then he gripped Merides arm and pointed to the log of wood. As the white, dazzling light struck it, the Winter Garden was full of the smell of charcoal, the great log seemed to split and fly asunder, almost in the twinkling of an eye it was no more than a heap of powder.
"There you have it," Raybould said. He was quite himself by this time, calm and self-possessed. "There you have the whole thing in a nutshell. As you saw for yourself, that heap of black powder was a minute ago a sound honest English oak log, fourteen inches in diameter by eighteen inches long. It comes under the direct influence of the white spot, and in less than it takes to tell, it is reduced to nothingness. That is how your brother died, by sheer misfortune his seat was placed where the white spot could fall upon him—he was touched by the devilish thing, and his soul was shrivelled out of his body. Precisely the same thing happened in the case of the dog. After seeing how that log was wiped out of existence, you can understand not only the magnitude of the tragedy, but how it came about. You see how simple it all is."
"But I do not see how simple it all is!" Merides protested. "The effect of the thing is before me. As to the cause I know nothing. I told you a fortnight ago that this Winter Garden has been built for nearly three years. During the whole time there was no suggestion of tragedy, that white spot was never once seen. We have had days of sunshine—many, many of them without bringing a curse like this. You say it is necessary that there should be sunshine to bring about—"
"Yes—and powerful sunshine at that," Raybould interrupted. "You have just reminded me of how you described the building of this garden. Let me recall to your recollection my query to your brother as to how you get the soft, subdued light which is so essential to delicate fern-life. You will remember his telling me that the whole place was painted outside. Do you mind that?"
"Yes," Merides said. "But I fail to see what that has to do with it. A coat or two of paint could make no difference."
"It makes all the difference in the world," Raybould went on. "If there had been more paint there would have been no tragedy, and I should have been the poorer by an invention that means a fortune to me. Cast your mind back again to that fateful interview. When your brother told me the means by which you obtained the subdued light, you reminded him that part of the dome wanted re-painting. He demurred to your suggestion on the ground of expense. I presume he was a man who never wasted a penny where a halfpenny would do."
"He was very economical," Merides muttered.
"Precisely. He would rather have risked a score or two of ferns than spend a pound or two necessary to repair the damage to the dome, probably caused by frost and rain. If you will wait a moment I will show you exactly what I mean. Now is the time."
Once more the sun crept behind the trailing clouds so that it was possible to look upwards to the dome from whence the paint had been worn by time and stress of weather. The disc was perfectly round and exactly in the centre of the dome. It was possible, by looking upward, to see the trailing cloud across the sun.
"Now fix your eye well upon that," Raybould said, "for there is the cause of all the mischief. Three pennyworth of paint dabbed on that disc would make everything as safe as it was before. So long as the sun does not shine there is no peril. But gradually the elements have rubbed that disc smooth and clear, so that it forms the eye of a gigantic lens. Don't you see now that this black circle here is the focus of one of the strongest burning glasses in the world. In other words, the catastrophe—"
"I see, I see," Merides cried. "Everything is clear at last. In the dome is the concave tank of water which is forced up there to find its way down by gravitation to the left hand side of the Garden, and thus feed the pillars clinging to the right."
"That is it," Raybould said. "You have up there a huge lens some six feet in diameter and three feet thick. That is a lens about five times the size of any one used in modern telescopes. When you come to think of it a lens of half an inch diameter is big enough to light a man's pipe. What, then, would be the effect of a huge cylinder like the one in the dome? By some means or another the paint had worn away from the summit, and there you have your focus to concentrate the burning rays on the floor. Mind you, this could only happen during certain times in the summer when the sun is high and powerful. A month sooner or later and the angle of the sun would be different, and therefore, would only cast itself sideways on the big lens, and, consequently, would be harmless. It is a good thing, perhaps, that I hit upon this solution, for a few days later it would have been impossible to have put my theory to the test, and gradually the catastrophe would have been forgotten. Even now, so long as you keep the dome properly painted, no danger can arise. Still, in my case, I should have that deadly water tank removed altogether. And now sir, it seems to me that I have earned my reward. If you think—"
Raybould stepped back suddenly, for the sun had flashed out again, and he was standing unthinkingly within the blacklead circle. He shuddered as he looked upwards and remembered how near he had been to death himself on the day when he had gathered those few ferns. He turned to Merides, but the latter had disappeared. The Greek came back a moment later carrying a rifle in his hands. His lips were compressed and his eyes determined. Pointing the gun upwards, he pressed the trigger. There was a loud report following a blinding flash, and then the clattering smash of falling glass followed by a deluge of water.
"It was the best way," Merides said, "the only way to get rid of that white spot."
HAD Gresson been an imaginative man he would, perhaps, have pondered over the mutability of human affairs and tne decree of Fate which kept him hiding in a conservatory at the very moment when he had expected to play billiards in his favorite public-house. It is on record somewhere that the accidental swallowing of a grape seed changed the destiny of the world, and thus, in a smaller way, the forgetfulness of an attractive housemaid changed the life current of Mr. Gresson, and ended his existence in an unexpected and most startling manner. Whether the gods of Chance are novelists in embryo or not, it is certain they are remarkably good plotters, hence the sudden demise of George Gresson in a manner which would have done credit to the most brilliant writer of melodrama, living or dead.
The story is too good to be lost. It was the housemaid's fault, of course. She ought to have told Gresson that her master, Vivian Laycock, had suddenly changed his plans and had decided to dispose of his works of art without delay. If a master in the predatory art cannot rely upon his information, his best-laid schemes are apt to go astray. For a long time past, Gresson had made up his mind to possess himself of Vivian Laycock's matchless collection of snuff-boxes, and as a precautionary measure he had made the acquaintance of one of Mr. Laycock's housemaids, in whose heart he had inspired a tender passion mainly by boasting about his little place at Hendon and how happy those two were going to be later on. Therefore he was considerably upset and annoyed to find, quite at the eleventh hour, that Mr. Laycock had arranged for the following morning for his treasure to be fetched away and deposited in the interim for safe custody with the famous firm of auctioneers who were to dispose of the articles.
To think with Gresson was to act. This important conversation had taken place down the lane by the side of the rose-garden, and within ten minutes of that time the housemaid had retired to dream of the little house at Hendon and George Gresson was more or less safe in the conservatory. A mimosa bush tickled his nose and he was more or less distressed by the overpowering scent of the tuberoses. Still, on the whole, these were merely minor vexations, and he began to see his way to a successful expedition.
It was, perhaps, unfortunate for Gresson that Mr. Laycock had been in the rose-garden attending to a convalescent flower of distinguished parentage and had overheard the whole conversation. He jumped to a natural and logical conclusion, and smiled grimly to himself as he picked a green fly off one of the salmon-pink leaves.
As a matter of fact, he was sorely in need of some mental relaxation. People envied Vivian Laycock his beautiful house, his magnificent gardens and his priceless collection of art treasures. But the master of it all would have cheerfully changed places with any of these envious ones. For Laycock went in constant fear of his life. There was always the chance that he would be found some morning with a knife through his back, and become another victim in the long list of mysteries which the police had never solved. It matters nothing for the purpose of the story what Laycock was afraid of. We will assume, if you like, that the man had a past. For years he had been pursued by a relentless enemy whom he had never seen. The pursuit had begun a decade or more before on another continent. Laycock had managed to get away; but he knew that, sooner or later, his pursuer would run him down. And the strange part of the whole affair was that he had never seen the man who would, some time or another, wreak this vengeance upon him. There were moments when he almost forgot the whole matter. There were other times when they came back to him with vivid force. And now the mysterious punishment was upon him,—the man who meant to take his life was in London; he had written to Laycock; he would call upon his victim that evening before midnight.
It sounded absurdly like a chapter from some wild romance; but there the letter was, and the writer meant every word he had penned. Laycock might have placed the matter in the hands of the police, but he knew that, had he done so, the enemy would never appear—he would be warned in time, and then the vengeance would fall in some other, unexpected, direction. Besides, the police would probably only have laughed at the story. In any case they could have done no more than bind the offender over to keep the peace, which would have been tantamount to giving him a free hand to carry out his intentions in his own good time and pleasure. He was coming there that night, either to take Laycock's life, or lose his own. Therefore the odds were all in favor of the stranger: if Laycock had the best of the encounter, he would find it exceedingly difficult, not to say impossible, to convince the authorities that he had acted only in self-defence. And, besides, in that case, the whole disgraceful story would have to be told.
From this it will be seen that Laycock was between the devil and the deep sea when he stood in the rose-garden listening to the piquant little conversation on the other side of the fence. Vaguely he began to see that here was a gift from the god of Chance, and that possibly there was a way out of it for him after all. He was more or less amused. He was more or less looking forward to a dramatic encounter with George Gresson later on. He marked the intruder down in the conservatory. Then he retired to the library and, under the influence of a cigar and a whisky-and-soda, began to elaborate his plans.
It was just before eleven when he retired, somewhat noisily, to bed. Five minutes later he crept down to the library again and took his seat in an arm-chair by the side of the fireplace, where he could control the electric switch. Ten minutes later Gresson came quietly into the room, walking like a cat in the dark and making his way quite coolly in the direction of a glass case of snuff-boxes which stood on the other side of the fireplace. A moment later the switch clicked, the room was flooded with light and the trigger of the revolver in Laycock's hand clicked also. It was a persuasive kind of sound and brought the burglar up all standing.
"Mr. Gresson, I think," Laycock said. "To be more exact, Mr. George Gresson. Glad to see you. Sit down."
George Gresson sat down accordingly. It was not for him to force the conversation; it was his part to listen politely.
"I have heard of you," Laycock went on.
"Only lately, of course—in fact, I happened to overhear your conversation with my housemaid. You are the class of man that poisons life for art collectors like myself; we have always to take you into consideration. Of course you know what is going to happen."
Gresson nodded his head and looked longingly in the direction of the w:hisky-and-soda. His lips were parched, his throat was peculiarly dry.
"Help yourself," Laycock went on. "Now, you know perfectly well that if I hand you over to the police, you will get at least five years. I don't mind telling you that in ordinary circumstances I shouldn't hesitate for a moment. But you are in luck to-night, Mr. Gresson. Oh, you may smile, but, in your own brilliant metaphor, you never know your luck. I mean it is in your hands to walk away from here in an hour's time, a free man with a hundred pounds in your pocket. I am sure you will think that is far better than having the trouble of disposing of my snuff-boxes, with the chance of being picked up by the police at any moment. I should say by the look of you that you are an educated man."
"That is so," Gresson said quietly.
"And a man of the world, too. Now, suppose I ask you to pass yourself off as me for an hour. I am expecting to call at any moment an individual who is personally an entire stranger to me. He knows nothing about my life or my friends; he has never seen me. He is by way of being a blackmailer of sorts. Now, suppose you stay here and personate me, keeping the man as long as you can, while I run over to his lodgings in my motor and obtain possession of certain incriminating papers of mine which he has. I think I can trust you to remain here, because all my works of art are already secure in the safe in my bedroom. If you don't believe me, you have only to look at that glass case behind; and I take it that even you would be more than an hour getting into my safe. Now, if you will do this little service for me, I shall take great pleasure in handing you a hundred pounds when I come back."
Gresson's eyes began to glisten. Here was an adventure after his own heart. From a professional point of view he was disappointed; even from a business outlook the program was more or less of a failure. But, on the other hand, he had saved himself from what he would have termed a "five years' stretch," and the fee was out of all proportion to the services rendered. He helped himself engagingly to a whisky-and-soda and proclaimed that he was game.
"Better do the thing thoroughly while you are about it," he suggested. "I have no doubt I shall be able to draw the feather over the eyes of your friend. You see, I was in a pretty good position at one time, and you can see for yourself that there is nothing in my appearance which is the least objectionable. If you could rig me out in a dress-suit of yours, I think I could act my part all the better. It will be agreeable to sit here and feel that I am master of this place, if only for an hour."
"Very well," Laycock agreed. "Come with me as far as my bedroom... There, upon my word, you look like a gentleman now. All you have to do is to throw dust in the eyes of the man who is coming and treat him as you like. Only keep him here for an hour, and the money is yours."
"Don't you worry about that," Gresson said quietly.
Left to himself, Gresson glanced complacently around and helped himself liberally to another drink. He was enjoying himself by this time. The dress-clothes were by no means a bad fit, the single diamond in his glossy shirt-front sparkled alluringly. It was easy to imagine himself the master of all this wealth and luxury, for Gresson had a lively imagination, and he looked forward to playing his part with satisfaction both to himself and his employer.
It was about half an hour before Gresson was aroused by the ripple of an electric bell somewhere in the distance. He came rightly enough to the conclusion that here was the mysterious stranger, waiting on the doorstep for admission. He crossed the hall leisurely and threw back the big door. A tall, dark man with a beard and mustache, his eyes hidden behind a pair of eye-glasses, lifted a Trilby hat politely. His face was thin and drawn and there was a certain nervousness in his manner which was not lost upon Gresson. Moreover, the new-comer evidently was a foreigner, although his English was correct enough; Gresson mentally put him down as an American.
"You got my letter, sir?" he suggested.
"Go on," Gresson said in non-committal fashion. "I may say that you were expected. Won't you come in?"
The stranger's eyes gleamed behind his glasses.
"You are a very bold man," he murmured.
"Think so?" Gresson asked complacently.
"Well, perhaps I am. In a way I have been expecting you. Come in."
The stranger appeared about to speak, then suddenly changed his mind. With an air of almost indifference he followed Gresson into the library. He took the proffered seat, but curtly declined anything in the way of refreshment. At the mere suggestion, his lips tightened until they were a thin, straight thread under his closely clipped mustache. Despite the man's frailness and his apparent lack of physical qualities, Gresson recognized that he had all the makings of a first-class antagonist; the burglar was a judge in such matters, and, consequently, he was not so complacent as a little time before; he would have felt more cheerful and reliant had the stranger partaken of the suggested whisky-and-soda. This was the kind of fanatic who usually murders his victim first and blows out his own brains afterward. Still, Gresson himself was not without a weapon, for before answering the bell he had taken up Laycock's discarded revolver and slipped it into the pocket of the dress-jacket he was wearing.
"Sorry you won't help yourself," he said. "And now, if you don't mind, we'll get to business."
"I came here for no other purpose," the stranger said, calmly enough. "We have never met before, but you know me."
Gresson nodded his head gravely. Obviously it was his cue to wait for the other man to give him a lead.
"Twelve years ago you did me and mine an irreparable wrong," the stranger went on.
"You did that wrong in cold blood; you calculated the chances to a nicety. But for a little act on your part you would be a poor man to-day; you would not be leading a life of luxury like this. But your scheme, to a certain extent, like most other schemes, was not crowned with complete success. So far as the material side is concerned, you were successful enough. But there were three people you wanted to get rid of, three people you schemed to get out of the way; but two of them lived—lived long enough to find you out. The second man died soon after, but not before he had told the third—myself— what had happened. It was a story that moved me from the first; the more I dwelt upon it, the more did the desire to be even with you grow upon me. We led a lonely life out yonder, as you know, and I have had little else to think about. The remembrance of your treachery was with me day and night until it became a monomania. I swore to myself that if ever I had luck enough, or made money enough, to take a year's holiday in England, I would come and track you down. I have all the evidence of your crime by me, most of it in your own handwriting."
The speaker paused for a moment and coughed; it was a deep, distressing cough, that told of lung trouble behind it. Gresson had his hand on the revolver in his pocket. He checked a tendency to whistle; he was feeling somewhat annoyed with Laycock. What right, he wondered, had the master of this house to put on airs and treat like a dog men who were, at least, as honest as himself? Gresson might be a burglar, but he had never knowingly wronged any one except in the way of business, and his victims could well afford to sustain their losses. Still, Gresson had promised to go through with this interview, and he meant to see the play out to the finish. Just for the moment he had almost forgotten that he was acting the part of substitute to Laycock.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked.
"I want you to do nothing," the stranger replied. "It is too late to talk now. The time has come for action. Even if I thought your repentance was deep and sincere, I should still pursue the same course. But to allow things to go on as they are now—never. You appear to be rich and prosperous. I am a poor man, with barely enough money to pay my passage back home again. Besides, I am naturally not of a robust nature; I have lived too fast, and I have not many months before me. But, at any rate, when my time does come, it will be a satisfaction to me to know that you are out of the way. Now you know what I mean."
"It sounds like a threat," Gresson suggested.
"A threat! Aye, it is something more than that. After all the warnings you have had during these years, you must have learned your lesson very badly if you think that one of my family would stop at threats. But I am going to give you the chance. I could have come here without warning. I could have taken your life with none any the wiser. But I prefer to do the thing openly. Physically you are quite a match for me."
"I should think I was," Gresson said thoughtfully. "Why, Lord love the man, I could smother you!"
The stranger's eyes gleamed again.
"That is how I expected you to speak," he said. "You are as cool and hard and callous as you ever were, just as flippant and artificial. If there had remained a gleam of pity in my heart, it would be extinguished now. But we are wasting time."
Gresson glanced uneasily at the clock. Things were progressing a little faster than he had expected, and he had promised to detain the stranger for at least an hour. It was only fair to Laycock that he should do so. Yet here was this bloodthirsty intruder forcing matters along at a breakneck pace, and altogether refusing to play the game in a neat and artistic manner. It would be an easy matter, Gresson thought, to take the revolver from his pocket and drive the stranger off the premises with a threat of an ounce or so of lead in his brain if he did not comply forthwith.
"What's your hurry!" he said. "Do you suppose there is only one side to the business? Are you not going to listen to anything that I have got to say? Come, be fair."
A strange laugh broke from the intruder's hps. His face was pale and ghastly now. But there was no fear or hesitation in his eyes. He looked round the room with a sudden contempt for all its luxury and artistic splendor.
"What can you have to say?" he asked. "What possible point can you adduce in your own favor. Why, of all the poisonous scoundrels who ever lived, of all the cold-blooded rascals ever heard of, you are the worst! And yet you sit quietly there asking me to argue the point. I have argued it with myself, and I have found you guilty. And now—"
"What a beggar it is to talk!" Gresson said thoughtlessly. He was forgetting his part for the moment. "You remind me of a dreary play I once saw across the water. I think it was called 'The Stranger.' He was the most garrulous beggar I ever saw on the stage, and, upon my word, you remind me of him. If it is a matter of money, you have only to say the word"
"Money!" the stranger cried passionately.
"Do you think money will do everything? Is it omnipotent?"
"In a general way, yes," Gresson said sapiently. "At least, I find it so. Now, my dear man"
But the stranger was not listening. He had risen to his feet excitedly. He was trembling and shaking from head to foot, like a cat about to spring on a bird. Before Gresson could realize what had happened, the man had cleared the intervening space and was upon him. He pinned Laycock's understudy down in the springy depths of his arm-chair. He had him by the throat with a grip that could have been inspired only by hatred or malice or both commingled. A long knife gleamed in his hand. Gresson could see the red rims of his eyes as he bent forward with a knife drawn back as if to strike a final and deadly blow.
"Here, steady on!" Gresson expostulated. "If you are not careful, you will be doing—"
But it was too late. The knife came down in a swerving glittering circle right over the glossy shirt which covered Gresson's heart. At the same time Gresson drew his revolver and fired point-blank into the face of his mad antagonist.
* * * * *
Vivian Laycock came back slowly and thoughtfully from Blackheath. He was driving his car himself. He had many things to dispose of in his mind before he reached his residence. His mission had not been altogether unsuccessful, for in his breast-pocket was the bundle of papers of which he had been in search.
He put the car away, congratulating himself upon the fact that it had been a dry night and that there was not much to be done to the big automobile in the way of removing such dust and stains as would have given evidence that the car had been on the road. The garage was some distance from the house and Laycock's chauffeur was in London on a brief holiday. At the end of half an hour not even the astutest detective would have noticed that the motor had been out of its stable. Laycock removed his leather suit and hung it carefully in its usual place.
He was quite calm and collected now; it seemed his plans were moving smoothly. Then he went back to the house and let himself quietly in with his latch-key. He did not proceed directly to the library. On the contrary, after he had fastened the front door, he turned to the dining-room. Here he helped himself liberally to brandy.
"I need it," he muttered. "I am afraid my nerves are not quite what I thought they were. I wonder what I shall see when I get to the library? It is very quiet in there."
The brandy had steadied him, for Laycock was an abstemious man, so that the generous spirit lost no time in getting to work. Yet, as he stood there he could hear the beating of his own heart; he could feel the sharp, quick flutter of his pulses. And it was still, too, deadly, awfully still, so that the scratching of a mouse behind one of the panels sounded like a strident voice of accusation shouting from the house-top.
It seemed to Laycock that he could stand it no longer, though at the same time he was afraid to move. Tiny beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead. With an effort he raised one foot, and put it down on the parquet floor a yard nearer the library door. He had control of himself now. He pushed the door open and strode into the room.
Small wonder that the place was deadly still. For Gresson lay back in his arm-chair, his limbs relaxed, his head grotesquely and awfully sideways. Over his heart a great slash in the glossy shirt-front, from which a thin, beady stream of dark red was flowing. It needed no critical glance to see that the burglar was dead.
Stretched at his feet across the hearth-rug the stranger lay, with his head in the fireplace. Close by him was a revolver, one chamber only of which was discharged. There was a small blue scar on his forehead through which the bullet had entered.
For full five minutes Laycock stood contemplating the scene, then he glanced fearfully around him. Something like this he had expected. The only fact that he noticed now was the appalling success of his scheme. That the burglar would perish in his place he had expected; but that the murderer, who had crossed a whole continent to do this thing, should have perished also was to jump from the realm of possibility into romance. The man had come all these miles to do this deed! In ordinary circumstances he would have gone away, feeling that at length vengeance was satisfied and desirous only of putting an ocean between himself and possible pursuit. If only the burglar had died, then Laycock would have felt himself secure for the future. But that both of them should be wiped out of existence was a piece of good fortune on which he had not counted for a moment.
He could see now that he had gone a little too far, that he had been just a little too calculating and elaborate. What he needed was an explanation so simple that he could have given it without change or variation, even if he had been roused in the night to do so. Now there was work before him. He regretted from the bottom of his heart that he had gone so far as to fall in with Gresson's suggestion that the latter should wear one of his own dress-suits. Fortunately, the shirt Gresson was wearing was a new one and unmarked. The shot which had slain the stranger had been fired by Laycock's own revolver; but that, again, was a detail capable of ready explanation.
It was not an easy matter to remove Gresson's dress-clothes and substitute his own, but it was accomplished at length without any one in that silent, slumbering household being any the wiser. Laycock left the coat and waistcoat unfastened so that the blow from the knife should look quite natural. Once the repulsive work was done, he stepped back to contemplate the picture with the eye of an artist who has at last posed his models to his perfect satisfaction. Then he started from the room, shouting at the top of his voice and thundering upon the bronze gong which stood in the hall. He had discarded his own clothes and was in his pajamas and a dressing-gown. The whole place re-echoed to the din. The clang of it sounded horrible in Laycock's own ears. He was profoundly thankful when the butler and a footman presently appeared, followed in the background by a knot of timid women-servants.
"I thought I should never rouse you," Laycock said. "One of you go round to the stables and wake up the coachman. I came down-stairs just now, roused by the sound of a shot and found that two burglars were in the library. Possibly they had come together, possibly they were strangers to each other and had both arranged to raid the house the same night. At any rate, they seem to have come in conflict. As far as I can see, they are both dead."
It was all coolly and naturally done. The whole house was a blaze of light now. A little while later and one of the grooms hurried off for the police. An inspector arrived presently and listened gravely to all Laycock had to say.
"Bit of a startler for you, sir," the inspector said respectfully. "But perhaps I had better go into the library and examine things for myself. If you don't care to come along with me, sir"
"Why not?" Laycock asked. "I have already seen the horrors for myself. I am not afraid."
The inspector proceeded to take notes coolly enough. He naturally desired to know how these intruders had got into the house. But the open door of the conservatory explained that. Then the inspector bent down over the body of the man lying in the arm-chair, and a gleam of recognition came into his eyes.
"I know him, at any rate, sir," he said. "Why, it is George Gresson! Of all the artful burglars in London, he is about the sharpest of the lot. We have been trying to catch him for years without success. But, you see, he was a man of education, and all the time he has been at the game we have never been able to lay him by the heels more than once."
"Do you know the other man?" Laycock asked.
The inspector shook his head. He had not the least idea who the other man was. Assuredly he had never seen him before; neither had he any theory to advance.
"We shall never clear it up, sir," the inspector said. "You mark my words if we do. There are certain crimes which always remain mysteries, and you will see that this will be one of them."
Laycock was of the same opinion.
The collector of curios never explained why he changed his mind about the sale of his snuff-boxes, and why they still adorn his beautiful house at Lee. But, then, Laycock is a man of few words, and the reticent habit grows on him as he gets older.
KITTY DAVENTRY turned away with a flush of annoyance on her pretty face. There were more reasons than one for her anger, perhaps the chief of them being the knowledge that the man who was looking so steadfastly at her was merely a gamekeeper. It was true that he was a very gentlemanly gamekeeper. His manners were excellent, and his English left nothing to be desired. In addition to all this, the man was well set-up and distinguished looking, though, according to the strict letter of the law, he might not have have been called handsome."
It so happened that this was not the first time that Kitty Daventry had met Philip Lancaster. On two previous occasions he had warned her that she was trespassing in the woods, and that her ill-timed rambles were having a demoralising effect on the young pheasants. Kitty had replied haughtily enough that hitherto she had moved in her own sweet way through all the woods and pastures for ten miles around, and no one had ventured to say her nay. Lancaster had listened politely enough. He had even ventured to insinuate that Miss Daventry was getting a little too old for such childish escapades as these, and that, so far as he could gather, she had not benefited much by three years at a sohool in Germany. Perhaps the girl was not altogether to blame, seeing that her home life was so monotonous a one? She lived quite alone with an old uncle who was a scholar and a recluse, and so long as Kitty did not worry him with any of her troubles, Mr Daventry was quite content to leave the girl alone. As to the rest, he knew and cared nothing about his neighbours and their gossip; indeed, Kitty was wont to declare that her uncle would have been unable to tell the names of his own servants."
But here was quite an exceptional occasion. For the last four or five days it had rained incessantly, so that Kitty was only too glad of a chance to get out of the house, to mount her bicycle and skim away from home over the muddy roads. She had been warned once or twice on the way not to go too far afield, for the River Scour was coming down in flood, and the Scour at that time of year had an awkward habit of cutting off pedestrians from their base and leaving them stranded in out-of-the-way holes and corners. It was a treacherous, quick-rising river, and Kitty knew very well, but she was desperate now with the weariness and monotony of life, and she had come a great deal further away from home than she had intended."
And now the rain was coming down again in real royal earnest. A great ragged bank of clouds streamed up from the west. The landscape was fairly blotted out by the driving deluge, and Kitty, stood, disconsolately under a tree, a little uncertain as to what to do next, and quite hazy as to how she was to get home. It was, of course, in accordance with the eternal fitness of things that Philip Lancaster should put in an appearance at that moment. He paused and doffed his cap, much as if Kitty and himself had been on a perfect equality. He looked almost as pleased, too."
"What are you doing here?" he demanded."
"Waiting for the rain to go over," Kitty said haughtily. "I had a side-slip and nearly wrenched the front tyre from my machine.""
"But surely you must know how late it is," Lancaster replied. "It is long past five. Still, that is hardly the point. What I should like to know is how you propose to get back.""
Kitty froze the speaker with a glance."
"Does that really concern you?" she asked frigidly."
"Well, of course it does," Lancaster went on in the same cool, contemptuous manner. "So far as I know there is only one way back to Langdon Hall, and that is by way of the road over the great Scour Bridge. It may be news to you, of course, but I have just heard that the road is three feet under water.""
Kitty gave a little gasp of dismay. She had forgotten her dignity for the moment, nor did she doubt that Lancaster was speaking anything but the truth. She knew how quickly the river rose when it came down in flood, and now it had been raining for the last five days. Besides, she had had more than one warning before she had left home. Of course, it was very dreadful to find herself in a position where it became necessary to ask favours of Philip Lancaster. But so far as she could see there was no help for it. The rain was coming down in a steady, straight desolation, and already the faint spring light was beginning to fade. A little longer and a change of clothing would become absolutely necessary."
"What are you going to do?" Lancaster asked mercilessly."
"I—I don't know," Kitty faltered. "I am getting horribly wet and cold, and there is practically nobody in the neighbourhood whom I know. If you could suggest any way—"
The last remark was made almost meekly. The was the faint suggestion of a smile about the corners of Lancaster's mouth. If Kitty saw it she was diiscretely silent on the point. Besides, she was very wet and very cold, and, like most women at that hour, she was longing for a cup of tea. She made little or no protest when Lancaster took the matter in his own hands."
"There is only one thing for it," he said. "You will have to come along with me to my cottage. Now, what is the good of shaking your head in that silly way? Do you propose to spend the night under this tree? Oh, I know I am all alone yonder. I know it is very shocking and all that kind of thing. But for once in a way you will have to make the best of it. I do entirely for myself, but I am not quite so slipshod that I can't give you a good cup of tea and some bread and butter, to say nothing of a little honey of my own growing. A little later on I will go with you as far as the Hall, where, I am sure, the housekeeper, who is a great friend of mine, will put you up for the night. I don't think I can say any more than that. And now come along, let's have no more nonsense about it." "
Lancaster caught up Kitty's bicycle, and to her own intense astonishment she found herself following obediently behind, like an amiable lamb led to the slaughter. She found herself presently, too, making herself entirely agreeable to this handsome young gamekeeper, and if the truth must be known, thoroughly enjoyed her adventure. She was warm and comfortable by this time, for a bright wood fire crackled on the old pleasant hearth. She insisted upon making the tea and bread and butter, and before the meal was finished it seemed to her that she had known Philip Lancaster all her life. Who was he? Who could he be? she asked herself. Surely, he must be something out of the common, for no gamekeeper of Kitty's acquaintance ever talked like that. She was quite certain that not another one had such a collection of books or a finer edition of the early Latin poets in the original. Lancaster flushed and turned the conversation as Kitty pointed to these. "
"One half the world doesn't know how the other half lives," he laughed. "Besides, if you are destined to be poor and unfortunate, how much better it is to live in the country where you can have good food and pure air at a nominal cost. Now if you were in my position what would you rather do? Would you prefer to be a struggling clerk at a pound a week, or would you be a gamekeeper at the same money with a cottage thrown in to the bargain and two suits of clothes a year? But I am letting my tongue run too fast. I am forgetting that you are Miss Daventry, and I am merely a keeper. See the clouds are breaking now. Don't you think we had better run across to the Hall while we have the chance?""
Kitty responded somewhat frigidly that perhaps the speaker was right. All the same, she was still puzzled and bewildered. She wondered why the old housekeeper at the Hall received Lancaster with such deference and respect, and why, in the name of goodness, should she address him as Mr Philip. Kitty was not without her fair share of curiosity, and before she slept that night she had made up her mind to solve the mystery. Neither was Mrs Hartley in the least reticent in gratifying the seeker after knowledge. "
"Lord bless you, miss, I thought everybody knew. I don't suppose there is another young man in the world that is fit to compare with Master Philip." "
"Yes, but who ie he?" Kitty persisted."
"Who is he?" Mrs Hartley echoed. "There, I forgot you have been away to school for so long. Don't you know that the late Sir James Lancaster was one of the greatest spendthrifts who ever lived? When he died he left the estates in a terrible mess, and when the heir came into possession, which was nearly ten years ago, when you were quite a little girl, he made a vow to pay off every penny before ever he slept under this roof. He let the house for a term of years, and he let the shooting to another party; in fact, every farthing he oould save towards paying off those mortgages he scraped together. Why, he even went so far as to become his own gamekeeper. The people who took the shooting were Londoners, who asked no questions, and cared nothing so long as they had plenty of sport. Little did they know that the handsome young keeper who took care of their game so well was Sir Philip Lancaster, the owner of the Hall. Ah, well, it is all right now, and Sir Philip is going to reap the reward of all his care and economy. The place has come back into his hands now, and it is all going to be done up in the autumn. I don't suppose there are a score of people outside the parish who know what I am telling you now. When you come here later on you will find the Hall quite a different place.""
Kitty's face turned to a delicate pink as she listened. She was thinking of a good many rude speeches she had made to Sir Philip Lancaster from time to time in the faint hope that he had forgotten them. For a long time after she had been carefully tucked away in one of the principal guest-chambers she lay tossing about sleeplessly, wondering how she was going to make her peace with Sir Philip, and how he must have laughed at her every time they met. "
"Can you ever forgive me?" she whispered as she and her host stood together in the sunshine after breakfast. "I am so glad you came over to see how I was getting on. Of course, I had no idea of the truth till Mrs Hartley told me last night, and I-I don't think I have ever been so ashamed of myself in my life before." "
"There is no occasion," Lancaster smiled. "Truth to say, I have enjoyed our two or three interviews, and I hope a little later on, when things are settled down here, that you will induce your uncle to come over here and call. I do not want to forget that you were the first of my county neighbours with whom I have made acquaintance. Now let us shake hands upon and forget all about our past differences." "
There were something like tears in Kitty's eyes as she held out her hand. How could she have taken this man for anything but a gentleman, she wondered? Then the absurd side of the situation came uppermost and she laughed heartily."
"It was funny, wasn't it?" she whispered. And to think that I might have known nothing about it if I had not met you yesterday.""
"Oh, I think you would," Lancaster said meaningly. I should have found some way to let you know. And now, we are going to be good friends, are we not? I see your answer in your eyes."
AFTER all said and done, the expectation was not quite as bad as the reality. But, then, it seldom is, as George Shannon told himself with a cynical smile. For a business man, he was gifted with a fine imagination. Frequently in his after-dinner leisure he had sat there weaving it out in his mind as a novelist knits the thread of a story.
Shannon was glad to be alone. He marveled at his own self-control, he almost admired the way in which he was concealing his trouble. For the last hour or two he had been gardening, busy among his flowers, as if he knew he could look forward with pleasure to the realization of the floral harvest. Yet, even while he was bending there among the petunias, or training the roses over the pergola, he knew perfectly well that someone else would reap the full beauty of the cream and damask blossoms.
It was hard lines, Shannon told himself. A sentimental man might have shed tears over it. It was all the more hard because he had seen this little paradise of his expanded in blossom, he himself had turned an arid desert into a galaxy of glory. He could recollect the time when the smooth lawns had been no more than ragged bare patches, when the house itself had been gaunt and stark in its white hideousness. That had been ten years ago. And now there was not a trimmer, neater, or more perfect garden within twenty miles of the city. It all would have to go. He would have to begin life over again. He would be lucky in the future if he had even so much as a cabbage patch.
He had not told anybody yet: even his wife did not know. For the best part of an hour they had been standing on the edge of the lawn, planning out a new and elaborate border, and Shannon had thrown himself into the matter with a zest and enthusiasm which fairly astonished himself. He was glad that his wife did not know yet; gradually a little scheme was forming in his mind whereby this precious Naboth's vineyard might be retained and the enemy clamoring at his gates worsted.
The scheme would entail the last price that man pays for anything, but, then, it would be for the best, and distinctly to the advantage of Mrs. Shannon and the children. She had been a good wife to him for twenty odd years. He was deeply and profoundly grateful, with the calm, tranquil affection of the man who knows that he has found the one woman in the world for him. No doubt it would be a terrible shock. But, then, Kate Shannon would never know the truth, and in time to come she would tell her children what manner of man their father had been, and how they could do no better than follow in his footsteps. She would have money, too. There would be no further anxiety as to the two boys at Harvard, and Kate could go to Germany to finish her education. There was grim satisfaction, too, in the idea of getting upon terms with Frederick Bramlay, and thus for the first time in that unscrupulous financier's history someone would get the best of him. Shannon actually smiled to himself as he pictured the scene up to the final moment when—
Actually he stood there making up his mind to that stupendous sacrifice with a smile on his lips. He noticed a stiff bent of grass rising from the velvet lawn. He put back a trail drooping from a rebellious climbing rose and fastened it tenderly in its place. Next year his wife would be doing the same thing. The savour of life would have come back to her, and she would have her children to look after. There were two sets of thoughts occupying Shannon's mind—the one set grim and ghastly, the other tender and romantic. Between these two he was arriving at a firm and definite conclusion. The argument was crystallized hard and firm before Shannon was interrupted by the arrival of a friend in the person of Raymond Clausen. These two had been schoolfellows, they had spent the best part of their lives in the city together; indeed, if there was one man whom Shannon could trust, it was Clausen.
"I didn't expect to see you here," the latter said.
"Probably not," Shannon smiled. "I ought to be biting my nails in the library, I suppose. It is a very odd thing, Raymond, but now the point has come, I don't seem to mind at all."
"Have you told the wife?" Clausen asked.
"Well, no, I haven't. I hadn't the heart to do so. When I got home to-night, I found Kate full of her project for making a new rose-garden. You will hardly believe it possible, but I have been throwing myself into the scheme just the same as if I had paid off my mortgage and the place belonged to me."
"I quite understand the feeling," Clausen said sympathetically. "It is infernally hard upon your wife and children. I suppose you haven't said anything to Bramlay about it."
Shannon shrugged his shoulders almost indifferently.
"What is the use?" he asked. "The man has no heart and no bowels of compassion. Did you ever know him do a good or kindly action in his life? There is a man who has thrown over friend after friend directly they have ceased to be of use to him. He gives nothing away. He is capable of any rascality, so long as he contrives to keep out of reach of the law. I declare I can scarcely contain myself when I think of the way in which he has treated me. It was I who lent him the money to give him his first start in life. I lent him five hundred dollars of my hard savings when I never expected to see it again. I pinched myself to give him his opportunity. And now how does he treat me? When he bought that fine house of his behind that belt of elms yonder, four years ago, he conceived the idea of turning this place of mine into a lodge. It never seemed to occur to him that I had an affection for this home of mine which cannot be measured by mere money. I refused to sell the place, of course; in fact, as you know, it is not altogether mine to sell. And what did that scoundrel do? He induced me to leave the old firm which I was with for years to become his manager. As true as we are standing here, Clausen, that man faithfully promised me a share of the business at the end of three years. And now mark the sequel. He dismisses me from his employ under the plea that I am slovenly and incompetent. He leaves me at fifty-five years of age to face the world again. And why does he do this? Simply because he knows that I shall be unable to keep up the payments on my mortgage, and that the house must come into the market. It is the old story of Naboth's vineyard over again. Fancy this from a man who is looked up to and respected. And yet every word I am telling you is absolutely true."
"Oh, I believe it," Clausen said. "What a pity it is that you can't think of some way of getting even with the scoundrel!"
A peculiar smile came over Shannon's face.
"I have thought of a way," he said quietly. "It is one of those queer ideas that come to all us of sometimes. I believe if I had not been a business man, I should have made a respectable poet. Let us walk up and down the lawn and talk it over. I wouldn't tell this to any other man but you... Now, suppose I am disposed to save all this, and insure the future of my wife and family by an act of personal sacrifice. Suppose that I know a thing or two about Bramlay which would damage him seriously if it became public. Oh, I don't mean blackmail in that sense of the word. Besides, I haven't the nerve to fight Bramlay openly, and possibly nobody would believe me. We'll argue, for instance, that there is going to be trouble over those copper mines in which Bramlay is interested. Mind you, it is by no means a pretty business, and the public have yet a good deal to learn about it. But Bramlay will come out of it all right, as he always does. And now let us carry the scheme a little further. Suppose I were to lose my nerve and take my own life, leaving letters behind me hinting that I was afraid of disclosures in connection with the Copper Syndicate, and leaving the public to believe that Bramlay was at the bottom of the whole thing. Oh, I could manage it easily enough. There would be a searching inquiry even beyond the reach of Bramlay's bribery and hush money, and after that, with all his wealth, he would become a marked man. The class of people he aspires to know would turn their backs upon him. What do you think of that?"
"It sounds like a modern novel," Clausen said, a bit cynically. "But it would be a mere act of timidity and revenge. I fail to see how your wife and family could benefit by a course like this. Your program is not complete."
"I am coming to that," Shannon said quietly. "We will suppose I write a letter not only to Bramlay, but also to Charlton, his private secretary. I go further still and write a letter to the same effect to you. This places the matter beyond Bramlay's power so far as burking investigation goes. No doubt Bramlay could purchase Charlton's silence, but he couldn't buy yours. After the thing is done and I am out of the way, you go straight to Bramlay and offer to sell him the letter I have written you for two hundred thousand dollars. Oh, you needn't smile, he would buy it fast enough. I tell you, he dare not face investigations. And yet, once I have put the knife to my heart or the pistol to my head, no power on earth could prevent an investigation if you read the letter I wrote you at the inquest. Do you see now?"
"Oh, it is convincing enough," Clausen replied. "And I would do it for you, too. There is nothing I should enjoy more than facing Bramlay with such a weapon in my hands. But you are talking absolute nonsense, my dear fellow, as you know as well as I do."
THE hour was getting late now, but Shannon was still in his garden. Clausen had been gone for a considerable time, and it was something past ten before Shannon crossed over to a nearby office and despatched a long telegram to his friend. He seemed easier in his mind now. There was a smile upon his face. He whistled a fragment from an operatic tune. As the clock was striking eleven he strode out of his own gate down the now deserted road till he came to an imposing pair of lodges which guarded the drive leading up to the magnificent old house where Bramlay, the great financier, had his home. Shannon did not hurry himself. He strolled casually along the drive until he stood in front of the house. His mind was not sufficiently distracted to blind him to the beauty of the flower-beds and the exquisite savor of the roses and the smoothness of the springy lawns. The house was more or less in darkness, save for the study, where the electric lights burned brilliantly. The long French windows were open, and as Shannon crossed the lawns he saw the figure of the financier half buried in an armchair and surrounded by a mass of papers in which he appeared to be absorbed. He was in evening dress, a slim, spare figure with a plain square face and a prominent jaw. There was only one thing which Bramlay lived for, and that was the making of money. It was doubtful whether he appreciated all the luxury and beauty of his surroundings, except as living evidence that he was a rich man who could afford to indulge his fancies.
Shannon strode into the room with the air of a man who is quite at home. Bramlay's hard features knitted in a frown.
"This is somewhat unexpected," he said coldly.
"No doubt," Shannon responded. "May I be permitted to sit down for a moment? I want to talk matters over with you. It will probably be the last opportunity I have."
"Will you take anything?" Bramlay asked.
"Presently, yes. But not until I have finished. Then you can ring your bell and ask one of the servants to bring me some soda-water. But we would better have our explanation first."
"What explanation?" Bramlay demanded.
"Oh, I am not likely to detain you long. I have no desire to stand between you and your money-making. If you will look at me, you will see that I am quite calm and collected; I am not carried away by trouble or anxiety; therefore, I tell you quite coolly that you are, without exception, the coldest and most deliberate scoundrel I ever came across in my life. When I came here this evening, I debated seriously in my mind as to whether I should kill you or hot. Sit still, man—there is nothing to be afraid of. I have too much respect for my family to take the work off the devil's shoulders in that way. But I think I can get even with you in another form—not through your heart, but through your beloved money."
"The man is mad!" Bramlay muttered.
"No," Shannon went on, "the man was never more sane in his life. You see, I have found you out. As a matter of fact, I found you out years ago, only I was too blind to see it. It would have appeared incredible to me that you could quietly sit down and plan the ruin of a man who helped you to attain your present position, simply because he refused to sell you a house and home of which he was fond. You built up your wealth by audacious and daring speculations. If you had failed, you would have accounted it no dishonor, you would have had no sympathy for those whom you ruined—and indirectly you have ruined a good many. Now, I am not concerned with the others, but I certainly am with my own flesh and blood. Because I refused to part with my little home, you worked out a scheme to obtain possession of it. By deliberate lies you induced me to leave my old firm—you said that if I would come to you, I should have a share in the business in three years, and that you would make it right for the boys after I was gone. You did this in cold blood, so that you could get rid of me at this particular moment, merely because you want my little place to turn into a lodge. Ah, you can't understand how I built that miniature paradise of mine, inch by inch and step by step, and how it became part and parcel of my life. It was enough for you that you should get the mortgage into your own hands and force me into such a corner that I should be bound to sell to you. Without the least compunction or a wink less sleep of nights, you would turn me out at fifty-odd years of age to begin the world again. My boys would have to come down from the university, and the girl shift as best she can. Mind, I am not reproaching you, because you are the kind of man who is beyond the reach of words. But you are not going to have my place. Oh, you can smile. Tell me, if you like, that the mortgage deeds are at this very moment in your safe. Tell me that it is only the matter of a few weeks. Don't you think so?"
"I am sure of it," Bramlay said with a sour smile.
"For once in a way you are wrong. I have nearly done with it now. I am practically at the end of my tether. But after I am gone, my dear wife will still live happy in the possession of her home. The boys will finish their course at Harvard, and the girl will go to Germany. And, what is more to the point, every penny of this money will come out of your pocket. Oh, you may scheme and trick and lie and cheat, but I have an imagination which goes further than anything you can conceive. There are scores of men in the world who would make much more efficient scoundrels than you if they would only stoop to the muck-rake and the refuse-heap where you make your money. Is my meaning plain?"
Bramlay shuffled about uneasily in his chair. He had never seen his late manager in this mood before. There was a calm assurance about him which rendered the financier uneasy.
"What are you driving at?" he asked suilenly.
"Ah, you begin to be uneasy!" Shannon cried. "You will be uneasier still before morning. Now, you must know that I am perfectly aware of all that has happened in the matter of those copper mines. I know you see your way to come out with clean hands, so far as public knowledge is concerned, because you can buy silence and choke the throats of your foes with your cheque book. But you couldn't choke public inquiry, which will be bound to follow when the coroner comes to hold an inquest on my body."
"Absolutely mad!" Bramlay muttered.
"No; I am as sane as you are. I have worked the thing out coolly and deliberately, just as you plot out your own dirty schemes, and I can see my way to the finish. Not for my own sake, but for the sake of my wife and my family I am doing this. And even then I should hesitate only I know perfectly well that when the thing is done and ended, you will see that no dishonor attaches to my name. Oh, you won't do this out of friendship. You will do it for the sake of your own miserable hide. But let me get on, because I am wasting time. Now he has got my telegram, my friend Clausen will be here at any moment. We will assume, if you like, that I have lost my nerve over those copper mines. I am afraid of what might come out at the inquiry. That is why I have decided to take my own life. But before so doing I wrote a long explanatory letter to your private secretary Charlton, and another to my friend Clausen, who naturally enough will produce this letter at the inquest. Come, your imagination can grasp perfectly well what is likely to follow. The thing will be in the hands of the police. The public will demand a thorough investigation, and ten thousand cheque books could not save your reputation then. I have only to raise my hand and pull a trigger and release half an ounce of lead, and that tiny bit of metal will bring all your schemes and all your happiness tumbling about your ears. Ah! I touch you now."
For Bramlay had risen suddenly to his feet. There was a peculiar pallor on his hard square face.
"For Heaven's sake, don't talk like that!" he said hoarsely. "But, then, of course you are only joking."
"Joking! I never was more serious in my life."
"Well, we will talk it over to-morrow," Bramlay said with a forced laugh. "You will think better of it then. I dare say we can arrange this matter. Let it stand over for a week."
"And give you time to make your plans accordingly? Oh, no. Do you suppose that I should ever trust you again! Besides, the mischief is done, the letters are already written. There is only one thing that would induce me to draw back now, and that is two hundred thousand dollars in cash counted out upon yonder table. I would not even take your cheque."
"You are not likely to get it," Bramlay said tartly.
"An answer worthy of the man," Shannon cried. "I might have known that you could not part with your money. But what I cannot effect this side of the grave I can reach for from the Other. And now ring your bell for my soda-water."
Bramlay was nothing loath to comply with the request. His voice was hard and strained as he gave the order. The footman came presently with a syphon and glasses on a tray. As Shannon stood up, something glittered in his hand.
"Your master is a thief and a scoundrel!" he cried. "Bear witness to-morrow that I said so. And now..."
The glittering object was raised to his head. There was a flash and a dull report, and Shannon lay on his face on the carpet, shot through the brain. With a hoarse cry Bramlay rose to his feet and rushed out into the hall. He stood there shaking from head to foot in a perfect ague of terror.
It was all over and done with. The little house at the corner of the road, behind drawn curtains, sheltered lamentation and woe and the tight stretching of human misery. There was uneasiness and anxiety, too, under the roof of the millionaire as he sat alone in his library an hour later. He had forced himself to stay in the library, though there was still that crimson stain upon the carpet. It seemed to him that he could still see the shadowy outline of Shannon's figure there. The whole scene rose before him. The prostrate body, the round-eyed, white-faced footman, and the outline of Clausen standing in the window with a telegram in his hand. Then there had been a confused blend of figures—policemen in uniform, a grim-faced inspector, and finally the disappeamce of Clausen in the direction of Shannon's house, with an intimation that he would be back presently to discuss certain important business with the financier. Was the man ever coming back? Bramlay wondered. And what did he really know? Had Shannon actually dispatched those letters, or did they exist only in his imagination? Finally Bramlay decided that the letters had been written. The whole thing had been too cool and deliberate to leave much doubt on that score. Inch by inch and link by link the plot had been elaborated until the last detail was complete. The letters had been sent to Clausen and Charlton. They would know all about it by this time. So far as Charlton was concerned, Bramlay knew exactly how to act. But, on the other hand, Clausen was a man of great intellect. He was Shannon's best friend, and he hated Bramlay from the bottom of his honest and independent heart. There would be no squaring him, as Bramlay very well knew. Here was a source of deep and abiding anxiety. But there was another thing that troubled the millionaire as well. Rack his brains as he would, he could not see to the end of Shannon's scheme; it was impossible to fathom his meaning when he declared that Bramlay should pay the price of his wife's future happiness and the prosperity of his family. What had the man meant?
Bramlay paced up and down the room. The clock on the mantelpiece was nearing the hour of one, and as yet Clausen had not kept his promise. He came a few minutes later through the still open window. His face was grave and set. The look of dislike in his gray eyes broadened and expanded.
"This is very good of you," Bramlay stammered. "I—"
"It is not good of me at all," Clausen said sternly. "I am here for no benefit of yours. I suppose you know why my poor friend shot himself. Now, don't lie and palter and prevaricate with me, because I have the whole thing in this letter which I hold in my hand. It was written to me this afternoon, so that I should get it by the last post this evening. In the meantime Shannon had asked me to go to see him, and while we walked up and down the garden after dinner he disclosed his scheme for getting even with you. He was so cool and calm about it I thought he was joking—I know now that he spoke in that way so that I should have a clear and comprehensive idea of what was passing in his mind. He knew that a small matter of business would compel me to get back to meet the last post, and there I found his letter. A little later on I received a telegram saying that the thing would be done to-night."
"But why?" Bramlay stammered.
"Why!" Clausen cried impatiently. "You cold-blooded rascal, just as if you don't know! Didn't you, with your lies and deceit, lure poor Shannon away from his employment where he was doing so well, and take him into your business? Didn't you work this thing all out in your mind so that you could rob him of the house he loved so well? Of course you did. And there you stand opposite me pretending you know nothing as to the causes which led up to this distressing business. Upon my word, if I consulted my own inclination, I would take you by the collar and thrash the life out of you. You pass for a man of resolution and courage—if you could see that ghastly face of yours in a glass now, you might have reason to doubt even that virtue. But you are puzzled and frightened. You want to know what is going to happen in the future. Well, you can come to the inquest to-morrow morning and see for yourself. You will know then."
"But those letters?" Bramlay stammered.
"I will be quite frank with you, Clausen. Shannon told me he had given the whole thing away in a letter to you, and another one to Charlton. Of course, so far as Charlton is concerned—"
"Oh, you needn't say it," Clausen sneered.
"I know perfectly well that you can stop Charlton's mouth. But you can't close my lips. You see, I have as much money as I happen to want, and if only I had known that this was going to happen, I would have lent poor Shannon all he needed to get out of your power. But, unfortunately, I didn't know that my friend was mad. He was so calm and collected that he would have deceived all the doctors in England. What he was discussing with me in grim earnest, I took to be no more than a cynical play of fancy. But Shannon had worked it all out to the last letter. I suppose he told you how he was going to punish you?"
"There was a threat of making me pay," Bramlay murmured.
"Precisely. And I am going to see it carried out. Some people might call it blackmail, but I don't think so. If I were to take you by the collar and thrash you now, you would forget all about it in a week. You would ask me to dine with you if you thought you could make two cents by doing so. Oh, I know you. Still, the sooner this matter is finished and done with, the better I shall be pleased. Shannon told you that he would make you pay, and that, moreover, he should go to his grave without any shadow of disgrace upon his memory. What you don't know, and what is puzzling and frightening you now, is how the thing is to be accomplished. How can Shannon reach you from the other side of the grave? How can he compel you to make his wife's old age comfortable and assured, so that she can live in her present house and educate her children?"
"I don't know," Bramlay said feebly.
"Very well, I'll tell you. Now, I know perfectly well that you have already made arrangements in your mind as to the way in which you are going to suppress the letter which Shannon wrote to your secretary. But it is no use doing that unless you would suppress my letter also. Mind you, I don't see how anything is to be gained by public investigation of that kind, so my conscience is easy on that score. There will be something for the creditors now, but if they go to law over it, nothing will be left. And now let us get to business. I am in possession of a certain letter which you badly need. As a matter of fact, the letter was sent to me so that I might sell it to you for a price, and if you refuse to buy, I am to produce it at the inquest. As I said before, nothing could be gained by this course. It is a suppressio viri at the worst. Besides, if we maintain a judicious silence on this point, the world will believe that poor Shannon went out of his mind in consequence of overwork or something of that kind, and thus he will get sympathy instead of contempt. Now, is it worth your while to buy that letter, to have the inquest settled in an hour, or are you prepared to face the thing out to the finish and court an investigation? I'll give you five minutes to decide. So far as I am concerned, it is a matter of indifference to me which determination you come to."
Bramlay paced up and down the room, a prey to his own disturbed thoughts. He was in a cleft stick, now, and he knew it. Shannon's had been no idle boast. He had stretched out a hand from beyond the grave, a hand so powerful that Bramlay could see no means of getting away from the grip of it.
"What do you want for the letter?" he demanded.
"Two hundred thousand dollars," Clausen said dryly.
"The very figure Shannon named!" Bramlay cried.
"Precisely. Now I think you understand exactly. You are going to give me your cheque for two hundred thousand dollars, and in return I will make you a present of the letter. I don't know what a good many people would say as to the morality of this transaction, but so far as I am concerned I don't feel that I am doing anything particularly wrong. And now, let there be no more beating about the bush. You may frown and shake your head, but from the very first moment you made up your mind to pay, and upon my word, I wonder at my own moderation. If I had demanded ten times the sum, you must have paid it. I have only one real regret over the matter, and that is my inability to let poor Shannon know how perfectly successful his plot has been. There are few men who have gone as far as he has for the sake of those dependent upon him."
But Bramlay was not listening. He took his cheque book from a drawer and placed on one of the pink slips a signature a great deal less steady than it usually was. He passed this across the table to Clausen and held out an eager hand for the letter. This he carefully burned with a match, and crushed the fragments into an ash-tray.
Clausen nodded in reply. Then he went out into the darkness and closed the French window carefully behind him.
THE woman sat there, flirting her fan to and fro listlessly, her dark eyes bent upon the stage as if she were absolutely lost in the brilliant new comedy which was being presented for the first time by the great actor-manager of the Comus Theatre. She lay back in her stall, haughty and listless and indifferent, as if compelled to admiration in spite of herself. She looked every inch the grande dame going through a round of pleasure and accepting it all entirely as a matter of course. She was beautifully, naturally dressed; diamonds shimmered in her dark hair; there was around her that nameless atmosphere which seems to always go with wealth and breeding. She might not have had a single care in the world; she might have been one of those spoilt darlings of society for whom, presumedly, Providence has intended the universe, to the exclusion of all others. Despite her coldness and her beauty and her air of absolute aloofness, there was now and then a flicker of the delicate nostril and a tightening of the haughty mouth which told of pain, either physical or mental. She laid her fan down upon the vacant stall on her left and clasped her long-gloved hands together.
There were several people in the theatre who had regarded more or less curiously this dark, stately beauty sitting there all alone. It was possible to speculate as to the meaning of the empty stall by her side. There was admiration as well as envy and sundry glances cast in her direction, and yet at that moment Stella Clinash would have been perfectly willing to have changed places with the humblest little domestic servant perched up far above in the roaring red atmosphere of the gallery.
She was glad now that her husband had not come. She was fiercely glad that Clive Clinash had stayed away. He had meant to come with her, of course, for the Clinashes were alone in London. They were only over from Buenos Ayres for a short stay. They had intended to get back to South America in the course of a day or two. Almost at the last moment there had come a telegram from Clinash to the Dominion Hotel, where they were staying, saying that he had been detained on important business and would probably join his wife in the theatre a little later on.
She had been rather glad to get this message. Sooth to say, she was a little tired of sight-seeing; she would have preferred an evening at home in her own sitting-room. But, then, there was the chance that Clinash would go straight to the theatre, and he would be greatly disappointed to find his a wife absent. Therefore she had gone alone, with that strange feeling upon her that something was going to happen. It seemed to her that she had never hated London so much as she did at that moment; it seemed to her that it would have been far wiser to remain at Buenos Ayres, but Clinash would not hear of it. Besides, they had only been married a few months, and Stella Clinash had always been a solitary woman, and when she had come to find a home and husband she clung to both with a tenacity and passion which, at times, fairly frightened her. Like most people who pass for being cold and self-contained, she had depths of feeling and emotion of which Clinash, with all his love and admiration for her, knew nothing.
And he had taken her on trust, too. He had found her eighteen months before, getting a precarious living in London as an addresser of envelopes. He had fallen in love with her on the spot, and had, in his impetuous way, asked her to marry him. Just for the moment she had hesitated. There were reasons why she should have refused. And yet, when she came to think of the drab monotony of the life that lay before her, she hesitated no longer. She wanted someone to lavish her affection upon, and here she found him. For Clinash was rich and prosperous, he was young and fairly goodlooking, and—well, there was only one end to a struggle like that.
And now all the misery and unhappiness had gradually faded like an ugly landscape blurred in a cloud of mist. The ice had gradually melted from round Stella's heart until she could stand there in the sunshine of her own happiness and wonder what she had done that God should be so good to her as all this.
That was up to a few moments ago. And then she had seen him standing there by the entrance to the stalls, glancing casually round the theatre as if he were in some way connected with the management. He stood there neatly dressed in a dark frock suit, a glossy hat was perched upon his head, and his round, hard face and keen grey eyes seemed to be taking in the whole audience. Stella Clinash recognised him at once. She would have recognised him anywhere and in any circumstances. There were no delusions in her mind on the score of his failing to remember her. She felt his eyes running the measure of the rule over her, she saw him turn and say something to a theatre attendant, then presently he vanished and another man suspiciously like him took his place. There was no facial resemblance between the two, but they were both cast in entirely the same mould, both of them trim and clean and reserved, both of them speaklng of the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard to anybody who had ever had any contact with that dread institution. And although the second man never for one moment looked in Stella Clinash's direction she knew perfectly well that he was waiting for her, and that she would have to speak to him before the performance was over.
Well, the thing was finished now. She had had more than a year on the other side of the golden gates, and now the barriers of desolation yawned before her. And the strange thing was that she was not frightened, she did not seem to be in the least alarmed, or angry, or unhappy. She had been the sport of Fate too long to accept a blow like this with anything but resignation.
Clive would have to know. Indeed, she blamed herself now for not telling him before. But she had been afraid to do so; she had been afraid to risk the happiness which had suddenly opened before her in such dazzling splendour. She had temporized, and the time was lost, and now it was too late. Still, she must let her husband know, she must prepare him for the inevitable. It would never do for her to bring disgrace upon his honoured name. He must abandon her to her fate, he must never see her again; no one must know that guilty secret but themselves. And perhaps, when she had served her sentence out, he might be disposed to remember that for over a year she had been a good and faithful wife to him. He might be willing to make some provision to save her from want in the future. Fortunately, they knew nobody in London; it would not be an easy matter to trace her back to the Dominion Hotel, and Clive would be clever enough to hide all her tracks. Of course, he would be sorry, for she knew how genuinely fond he was of her; but at the same time his good name must not suffer, and in that respect she would help him to the best of her ability. Why, oh, why had she returned to England at all? Clinash's own call had been imperative—a business crisis that demanded his presence in England. Most men have these moments of commercial peril. And she had risked it all to be with him—not to lose a moment of her glorious happiness, as a love-sick girl might have done. Oh, the incredible folly of it!
She ·had thought it out now. She waited till the curtain fell on the third act, then she beckoned a programme-seller in her direction. From her purse she took out a half-sovereign and placed it in the girl's hand.
"Don't ask any questions," she murmured. "Procure me at once a sheet of paper, an envelope, and a pencil. I am going to write a note which I want delivered at the Dominion Hotel at once. If you can manage this for me the half·sovereign is yours. All I ask you to do is to be silent and say nothing of this."
The girl nodded. Perhaps the request did not strike her as being particularly strange. She came back presently with writing materials, and Stella Clinash wrote her letter. It was characteristic of her that her handwriting was firm and neat, that the letter was perfectly coherent and collected.
"There," she whispered; "will you take that now?"
"At once, madam," the girl replied. "You can rely upon me. Besides, I am going that way."
The comedy was drawing to a close now. Stella Clinash looked at the watch on her wrist, and saw that it was half-past eleven. No doubt Clive had received her letter an hour before. He would have made up his mind by this time exactly what to do.
Already some of the audience had begun to leave the theatre. She rose calmly and drew a wrap round her shoulders and over her head. Then she walked quite steadily and collectedly through the vestibule up to the folding doors, where the man with the hard, keen face appeared to be awaiting someone. Stella drew a little quick breath, and her lips quivered as she touched the man on the shoulder.
"I think you are waiting for me," she said, quietly. "I don't happen to know your name, but you recognise me."
The man turned and smiled good-naturedly.
"Detective-Sergeant Swift," he said, tentatively. "You are Stella Treherne. Rapson asked me to wait here. He recognised you, though, as a matter of fact, he was looking for somebody else. Hard luck, isn't it?"
The man spoke in a friendly enough tone. There was nothing of the traditional man-hunter about him. He was merely a machine cut and drilled and polished to a diamond hardness. Possibly in private life he was as generous and good-natured as other people. But he had his duty to perform, and he meant to do it.
"I don't want any sympathy," Stella said, coldly. "I am quite prepared to take the consequences. And yet, if a thousand pounds would be the slightest good to you, I am prepared—"
Swift turned aside apparently unheeding.
"Don't say that," he whispered. "Because you see, it would make no difference. And if I mentioned it to the magistrate tomorrow morning— But perhaps I didn't exactly catch what you said. Would you like a cab?"
"That is kind of you," Stella said, in the same strangely even voice, "I suppose I ought not to blame you so much as the iniquitous system of which you are at once the slave and tool. Of course, I must have a cab. I could hardly walk through the streets to the police station dressed like this."
"Of course not," Swift agreed. "But wouldn't you like to go anywhere first? Would it not be as well to get as far as your hotel or your rooms, where you can procure a change of clothing? Of course, it is no business of mine to pry into your present position, but, judging from what one can see, matters appear to have gone very well with you of late. I presume you are married?"
The blood Hamed into Stella's face.
"Is that necessary?" she asked.
"Well, of course not," Swift said, with some sign of confusion. "But we flatter ourselves we can always tell the difference between the woman who—well, you know what I mean."
"I am obliged for your good opinion," Stella said, calmly. "Married or not, at the present moment I am a woman who has to face a trouble entirely alone. And I have done no wrong; or, at least, if I have, I have paid for it dearly enough, God knows. Why do you hunt us like this? Why don't you give us a chance to lead a clean and honest life? Why should we be dragged month by month to report ourselves at the nearest police-station? You know it always results in the same exposure. Our employers get to hear of it, and the same weary struggle begins over again. I am sure that two-thirds of the criminals on ticket-of-leave find their way back to jail again simply because of this cruel system of yours. It would be far kinder to keep us under lock and key till the sentence is worked out. As a sensible man, you must know I am speaking the truth."
Swift shrugged his shoulders. It was not for him to question the iconoclast* methods of his department. He was a mere pawn in the game of diabolical chess which the police are unceasingly playing with the criminal classes. And, besides, he had expected some sort of passionate outburst like this. They mostly behaved in the same fashion. The people were beginning to pour out of the theatre now. Stella standing there, tall and slim in her white dress, was attracting attention. A cab came up, and Swift stood aside for Stella to enter.
[ *"iconoclast" (sic) - perhaps a typographical error for "iron-clad." ]
They drove along silently through the well-lighted streets. They passed the portico of the Dominion Hotel, where the porter was standing with his hands behind him. As the great front of the building stood out red and bold Stella caught her lip between her teeth and blinked the tears from her eyes. But she was not going to give way, she was not going to pity herself. She had played her game and she had lost it, and she was prepared to pay the price. Still, she turned cold and faint and dizzy as the cab pulled up presently outside a police—station. There was something horribly familiar about the place, something so repulsive about the whitewashed walls and the bare, clanging passages. A couple of policemen sitting there in the charge-room, stolidly eating their suppers, looked up with a certain languid curiosity as Swift and his prisoner entered. But they were too used to these fiery, dramatic entrances and exits to do more than take in the details of the woman's dress and the cold, proud frostiness of her face. An inspector sitting behind the table glanced interrogatively at Swift.
"Stella Treherne," he said. "Charged with failing to report herself. Released on licence about twenty months ago and only been heard of once since."
The inspector bent over the table and scribbled something on a sheet of paper. From his point of view it was all a matter of business. Had Stella appeared there either in rags or in silken attire he would have displayed the same lack of interest or emotion.
"Want to send for your friends?" he asked. "You can't appear like that to-morrow morning, you know. What is your address?"
"My address is refused," Stella said, quietly. "You know my name, and that is sufficient. As to the rest, I must make the best of it. There are reasons why I cannot give you my address—imperative reasons why my present friends must not know what has happened to me. I have money in my purse. I suppose I can keep that, and perhaps one of the female warders will get me something from one of the adjacent shops in the morning. As there is no charge against me, except for failing to report myself, I must ask you to let me retain possession of my money."
The inspector scraped his jaw thoughtfully.
"Seems reasonable" he said. "Very well; we will do what you require. Is there anything you would like before morning? Perhaps you would like to send out for some food?"
Stella fairly shuddered at the suggestion. The mere notion of food filled her with loathing and disgust. There was absolutely nothing she wanted, she said. Her one desire was to be alone. In a dreamy kind of way she followed a policeman presently along an echoing flagged passage. She heard the quick turn of keys in well-oiled locks, she was once more back in those horribly suggestive environments where life has lost its savour and where the word "hope" becomes no more than a mocking, empty sound. All that banging of doors and clicking of keys seemed to be superfluous; such a waste of strength and tyrannical grip to hold one so small and crushed and miserable in durance vile. She had no inclination to shirk the inevitable. Had all the doors been thrown wide before her she would have made no attempt to escape now. For what good would such a thing have been? By this time her husband knew everything and he would act accordingly. Already she was beginning to think of him less now as her husband than as Clive Clinash. She would never see him again. It did not seem to her that she wanted to. At all hazards now, she was going through with it to the bitter end. She would be sent to one of those dreadful convict prisons, there to serve out the rest of her sentence. But, at any rate, after that she would be free; her term of imprisonment embraced no subsequent police supervision. Once it was over and done with she could go where she liked and do as she pleased.
She sat down there with ber head in her hands on that cold, hard travesty of a bed, the like of which she knew only too well. From time to time she could hear the heavy tramp of feet along the corridor; from time to time some drunken woman prisoner burst into horrible screams. Now and again from a cell close by a man was singing a snatch of comic opera in a pleasant tenor voice. Then gradually the sounds died away, and in an uneasy manner Stella slept.
She woke presently chill and cold in the grey dawn, and the whole thing came back to her with overwhelming force. She was hungry now, and yet the mere thought of food was repulsive to her. Gradually the atmosphere grew warmer. She could hear sounds of life and movement about the place. A little later the door of her cell opened and a hard-featured woman looked in. She threw a bundle on the floor, with an intimation that everything necessary was there, and withdrew. · Here was a chance to do something, however trivial, to pass away the time. Stella's rings and jewellery had been taken possession of the night before, but her dainty dress looked hideously grotesque in the pale light of the morning. She stripped it off and cast it aside as if it had been some loathsome thing. She was almost thankful to find herself in coarse, ill-fitting black garments, with a plain straw hat. At any rate, there was no chance of any acquaintance recognising her now. There would be no opportunity for the sensational joumalist to make half a column of copy out of her story.
The time had come now. She was walking across the courtyard. She stood presently in a dreamy kind of way with her hand clasping the dock; she heard her name mentioned, then the magistrate appeared to be asking her a question.
He was a kindly-looking man, and Stella took fresh heart of grace.
"Come," he said, "I am waiting for you to speak."
Stella looked up dreamily. The question seemed to be floating around the roof of the court before it reached her ears. She had been watching a bee climbing up one of the windows, fighting angrily for liberty; she was intensely interested in the efforts of the little insect. Would it manage to reach the ventilator or not? she wondered. She was more concerned with this now than with her own future. She was quite anxious about it. She gave a little sigh of relief, at length, when the bee reached the opening and sped away into the open air. Then it was that Stella came back to herself, and the knowledge that the grey-haired old gentleman opposite to her was asking her questions, and looking at her not unkindly from behind his spectacles.
"I don't know," she murmured. "I beg your pardon; I was not listening."
"What have you, then, to say?" the magistrate asked.
Stella shook her head wearily. What was the use of saying anything? She knew perfectly well that any plea for mercy on her part would pass unheeded. After all said and done, the police were doing no more than their duty. It was all part of the diabolical system, part of the constant warfare which went on between the law and the criminal. She would have to go back and finish her sentence. She had been warned on the first day of her liberty that there would be no trifling in this matter. She had lost everything now, position, reputation, husband, all at one feel swoop. There was nothing more to be said or done.
The magistrate still paused. So far as Stella was concerned, she had lost all interest in the proceedings. Somebody had jumped up in the well of the court below the dock and commenced to address the magistrate. He spoke clearly and well; evidently he was quite at home with this kind of work. In the same dreamy, half—blind fashion Stella could see that his shrewd, clean-shaven face was kindly enough. She gathered that he was saying something on her behalf. She heard this advocate of hers addressed presently as Mr. Hallam. She wondered in the same dull, groping way where she had heard the name before. Then it flashed upon her that this was a famous barrister whom she had read of over and over again. She knew that he was a man at the head of his profession; she realized that he would not have left other and more important work had not his fee been a handsome one. There could be no question as to who had procured the services of Mr. Hallam, K.C. Her husband must have sent him, and in a way Stella felt grateful.
She glanced wearily round the court to see if she could see Clive anywhere, but he had not put in an appearance. He would never forgive her, of course, he would never want to see her again; but that would not necessarily prevent him from acting a noble, manly part, and doing everything he could to lighten her sentence. She was more interested now; she began to follow eagerly and carefully what Hallam was saying.
"With all due respect, sir," the advocate said, in his smooth tones, "with all due respect, I urge this as an exceptional case. As to the facts stated by the policel have nothing to say. My unfortunate client was certainly convicted at the Old Bailey four years ago on a charge of fraud and conspiracy under her maiden name of Treherne. As a matter of fact, there would have been no sentence of penal servitude if the prisoner had not been identified by the police with a certain notorious woman criminal whose name it is not necessary to mention. That was quite a mistake, and would have been shown at the trial had my client been properly represented. I appeal to Sergeant Swift, who has charge of this case, to confirm this statement. It was only after my client disappeared that these facts came to light."
"That is so, your worship," Swift admitted.
"An unfortunate mistake was made. We did our best to find the prisoner after she vanished, but without effect. But that does not touch the present charge—the charge that the prisoner failed to report herself and rendered herself liable to arrest and to be conveyed back to prison, there to serve out the balance of her sentence."
"Oh, I am not contesting the point," Hallam cried. "I am entirely in the hands of the Court, but I have proved that a cruel mistake has been made, and that my client ought never to have been sentenced to penal servitude at all. It is not for me to question the system which compels criminals on licence to report themselves to the nearest police-station, but I do say that in certain cases it is harsh and unnecessarily brutal. Take my client's position as an instance. For a year after she came out of jail she had an exceedingly bitter struggle to live, but there was nothing against her, and when the opportunity came for turning her back upon England, when she had a chance of a happy marriage and a new life in a foreign country, the temptation was too much for her. My client is well-born, she was carefully brought up, and yet she knew what it was more than once to spend the night out of doors. Think of the temptation, think of the opportunities! How many women would have hesitated? I venture to say, not many. She never told her husband. It is only within the last few hours that he has made this terrible discovery. And he is is man in an exceedingly good position in South America; he is rich and respected. He would have been here to-day, but he is utterly overcome by this unexpected revelation, and unfortunately he cannot get here. If your worship likes, I will hand the name up to the Bench. You will quite see there is nothing to be gained by making my client's husband's name public."
"Is this a fact, Mr. Hallam?" the magistrate asked.
"I give you my word for it, sir," the barrister responded. "My statement will probably be confirmed by the circumstances in which my client was arrested last night. Now I am going to ask you, sir, to exercise your discretion in this case and allow this lady to be released on her own recognisances. When you have read the name which I propose to write down for you—"
"No," Stella Clinash cried, suddenly, "I implore you not to do anything of the kind. I would rather suffer any humiliation than allow my husband's name to be dragged into this business. I am quite prepared to face the consequences of my folly. I shall never see my husband again. He will never want to see me. I greatly regret that he should have sent this gentleman here to-day. Oh, can't you see that I wish to get this over as soon as possible? Can't you see what an unspeakable humiliation this is to me? Send me back where I came from. At least I shall be beyond the reach of starvation there. I was not so guilty as they said; I was the tool of others, though I do not want to shirk my responsibility. I deceived my husband, and that is the knowledge that hurts me most."
The passionate words rang through the court; the few reporters and the handful of the public present followed with breathless interest. Here was an unexpected human drama unfolding itself before them—a story more profoundly tragic than anything ever yet seen upon the stage. Stella ceased to speak; a silence fell upon the Court. It seemed to her that she had the sympathy of everyone present.
"This is unusual," the magistrate murmured. "I am sure this unfortunate lady will think better of what she says when she has time for consideration. I cannot blind myself to the fact that had the true facts of the case come out during the trial she would not be here at all. Also, I have not overlooked the inspector's statement that there is nothing against the prisoner since she came out of jail. After all said and done, it is merely a technical offence which has been committed, and I think the interests of justice will be served by a nominal sentence of a day's imprisonment—in other words, the prisoner is free to leave the dock now."
Stella seemed barely to comprehend. There was something like a murmur of applause from those present in the court. A warder touched her on the arm and intimated that she might go. She did not seem quite to understand what the sentence meant. She stood there dazed and confused in the body of the court, trying to collect her scattered senses. Her advocate was still addressing the Bench. He wanted to know if this persecution was to continue. He desired to know whether application would be made to the Home Secretary to remit the inconvenience of these periodical calls upon the police. The magistrate shook his head doubtfully.
"That will be in your own hands, Mr. Hallam," he said. "I presume the police would raise no objection. They have no desire, of course, to turn this into a persecution."
"I am obliged to you, sir," the barrister said. "I may assume, therefore, that so long as my client is outside the jurisdiction of the Court no steps will be taken."
The magistrate shook his head with a smile.
"Ah, now you are assuming too much," he said. "I think you have no cause to be dissatisfied. Next case, please."
Stella wandered slowly out of court. She stood in the open air, undecided as to what to do or where to go next. She seemed to understand that Hallam wished to speak to her. He was asking her to wait for one moment, and then he had certain things to say.
Stella murmured something; she hardly knew what it was. She was free to go now. She had all the world before her. There were just a few shillings in her pocket. All she wanted now was to be alone, to get away from all who knew her, to start life afresh. She turned and' walked rapidly down the street until she came into the thick of the traffic; then she drifted on the breast of the tide—a human derelict, alone and friendless.
"I shall manage," she murmured to herself. "It can be no worse than it was before."
It was a warm night, fortunately, so that it would be no great hardship to sleep out of doors, and anything was better than the foul, horrible den in which Stella Clinash had passed the last two nights. Her money was all gone now, with the exception of one solitary sixpence, to which she clung tenaciously. She was tired and worn out. Her one desire was to fall down somewhere and sleep. She walked along the Embankment, looking in vain for a quiet corner where the lynx eye of the law might possibly overlook her.
The clock at Westminster was striking ten, the Embankment was more or less deserted, save for a hansom cab or two taking more fortunate people to some place of amusement. Here was a seat at length where Stella could sit down and rest her weary limbs. She lay back there drowsy and half unconscious. She wondered vaguely what this man was doing, this man who was moving from seat to seat closely scrutinizing the miserable outcasts who were resting there. She could see that he was well dressed, that he was wearing a light coat over his evening clothes. Then something rose in her throat and her heart gave a great leap as she recognised her husband. She bent down so that he might pass. Surely he would never recognise her in the ugly black garments which she wore. But all the same he paused before her, and then, as if sure that he had come to the end of his search, he laid his hand upon her shoulder.
"Thank God!" he murmured. "Thank God I have found you! I have been searching high and low for the last three days. It is only by a mere accident that I have come across you now. Come along."
"Come," Stella asked, vaguely, "where?"
"Oh, not here; this is no place for explanations. Good heavens, do you suppose I am so black and hard as to desert you like this? When you know everything you will see I am more to blame than yourself. But come along, everything is ready. I have moved to another hotel. Nobody knows that you are the wife of Clive Clinash. Directly I got your note I sent your maid away on a pretext. A telephone message will fetch her at any moment. I have moved everything to the Blenheim Hotel. They think I am expecting my wife every hour. Come, you can change and dress, and we can have supper. Oh, my poor child, how white your face is! What awful rings you have under your eyes! Why, you are starving."
All this in a voice of infinite tenderness and feeling. Stella had risen to her feet. She could see nothing of her husband's face because her eyes were blind with tears. She wanted to run away; she wanted to leave him there and hide herself once more under the cover of the darkness. But she was too weak and spent for that—too tired and worn-out to make even the semblance of a struggle.
When she came to herself again her head was on her husband's shoulder; she could feel his strong arm about her. She was being half led, half carried. She was in a hansom presently; she could hear the click-clack of the horse's hoofs on the asphalt. Then she was passing through the brilliantly-lighted vestibule of an hotel. She was in a luxuriant bedroom with all her own things about her. Here were her jewels and her silver toilet accessories. Here was the warm bath that she needed. Then presently, in the same aesthetic dream, she found herself looking at her own slim, graceful prcsentment in a looking· glass.
The diamonds were in her hair again, a bunch of yellow roses nestled at her throat. There was a smile on her trembling lips now, the dark eyes were liquid with happiness despite the black rings below them. And yet Stella was full of contempt for her own weakness, half ashamed of a resolution she had made because she knew that it would never be carried into effect. It was good, oh, so good of Clive to treat her like this, to say nothing of the past, never to allude even by so much as a look to the disgrace which she had brought upon his good name. And here he was again with his arm about her waist gazing fondly into her face. He was seated opposite to her now at the supper-table, and Stella was eating as, it seemed to her, she had never eaten before. The events of the last three days seemed to be disappearing like the mists of some hideous nightmare, they seemed to be drifting into space.
The table was cleared presently and they were alone in that luxuriously-appointed sitting-room, where the lights were discreetly shaded and the soft gloom invited confidence and the opening out of hearts.
"Aren't you going to scold me?" Stella whispered. "Do you know what I meant to do? I meant to go away and never see you again. I meant to disappear and fight my own battles in the future, because I have treated you abominably, Clive, and I am not worthy to be called your wife; but the temptation was so great, the life I had led so awful, and—well, I really and truly loved you, and I can think of no better excuse than that. You may think that I was cold and reserved, but behind it all—"
She paused, and for a moment it seemed as if she had no more to say. What more was there to say?
"I know, sweetheart," Clinash murmured, "I know. I heard all that happened in court the other day, and I believe I read your mind then as if it had been an open book. And because you are so weak I love you so well. It is good to know that you were so ready to come back to me. Perhaps the knowledge of it flatters my vanity. But that matters little or nothing, because from the very first you never deceived me at all. When I married you in London eighteen months ago I knew the history of your troubles as well as I know it now. I was aware even then of the cruel injustice of your sentence. But I did not tell you I knew, because—well, why should I torture you? Perhaps I thought that if I let you know you would have refused to become my wife. But if I had foreseen this I would have sacrificed everything rather than imperil your future. I know that that was a mistake now. But you longed to come, and I—well, every man in love is a fool sometimes."
Stella looked into her husband's face wonderingly.
"You knew?" she murmured; "You actually knew? Oh! you are not deceiving me, Clive? You are not trying to make the way smooth and pleasant for me?"
"My dearest, I am telling you no more than the truth. The first time I ever saw you was in court on the day of your trial. I think I fell in love with you then. It might have been love born of pity, but it is none the less true and sincere for that. And I felt then, as I feel now, that you are the victim of circumstances, and that the man who was really behind that conspiracy took advantage of your lack of knowledge to get you to alter the date on those telegrams for him. Of course, you were not blameless, but you were more of a child in the matter. And in the interest I had in watching your case I forgot for a moment my own troubles."
"Your troubles," Stella murmured; "what were they?"
"Well, simply that I was practically a prisoner, too. I was out on bail; I was waiting to be tried. My case came actually next to yours. Oh, it was a bad business, and I am making no attempt to palliate it, but it was the only slip I ever made in my life, and I registered a vow there and then that when I came out of jail I would seek you out and make you my wife. It seemed to me that we had much in common, that we should have nothing to reproach one another with. And when I did come out the struggle was too hard for me to think of anything but bare existence. Like you I felt the iniquity of that reporting system, and like you I deliberately broke it. I had marvellous luck abroad, and in a few months I came back a rich man. The rest you know. And you know now why I dared not appear in court the other morning, why I had to keep out of the way for fear that I should be recognised too, and for fear that our happiness would collapse altogether. For your sake I had to take risks. But it turned out for the best. Luck was on our side for once. And, you see, I must get back to Buenos Ayres without delay. My whole prosperity turns upon it. And now I must ask you to forgive me."
"Is there any question of forgiveness between us?" Stella said. The tears were running down her cheeks now. "Do you know, I am almost glad. It seems a strange thing to say; but I am. And now, when do we sail? I shall know no happiness while I remain in this country."
Clive stooped and kissed his wife.
"To—morrow," he whispered. "I have arranged that. And all our future is bound up in that word—to-morrow."
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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