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Title: Collected Short Stories, Vol. IX Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1301021h.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.
RAYMOND NODES turned away from the contemplation of the snowy landscape, and the 'Telegraph' fluttered from his hand. He did not doubt the evidence of his senses; he did not clasp his hand wildly to his brow and ask himself if he were the victim of some strange hallucination. He was too cold-blooded and unimaginative for that. There must be some practical explanation to account for the man sitting opposite to him in the first class carriage. He had not materialised a fellow passenger.
To begin with, though it was Christmas time and the train was consequently full, the compartment had been reserved for him. As a man of means and local influence, he could command that sort of thing. He was going on to the Gate House to dine; he had been detained till the last moment by important business, and his idea had been to dress in the train. He had telephoned to his man to meet him at Whiteley-road with his kit bag and evening clothes. The man was to see that a carriage was attached to the train at Whiteley-road, and the Stationmaster had given the desired assurance. They usually had a spare coach or two there. It was no trouble, and Nodes had more than once done the same thing. He had everything he needed in his bag, even to his safety razor, but that would not be needed, as he had shaved closely that morning.
All the same he wanted to be a little particular, especially as he was going to meet Mary Glynn at the Gate House. He had never been there before—the invitation had come through Mary Glynn's host, Reginald Norfolk. There was no definite engagement between Mary Glynn and Raymond Nodes, but her friends expected her to marry him. Most of them thought she would be a fool if she didn't.
Nodes was not hurrying. The train was pretty sure to be late, as the snow lay so deep along the line. He had the best part of an hour before him yet, and he knew that he should find everything ready, down to the stud in his buttonhole. He did not want to lose the freshness of his toilette; he would leave it till the last moment. There was a lavatory with hot and cold water leading from the carriage. These are the sort of little luxuries that money can buy.
Then Nodes turned to find himself no longer alone. For seated opposite to him was a man about his own size and build, grim, determined, and dirty, and evidently in considerable trouble. He had a wild and hunted look; he suggested many sinister things, accentuated in his case by the queer garments that he was wearing. They consisted mainly of a horrible yellow jacket and knickerbockers, heavy woollen stockings and clumsy boots. Beyond question, the man was an escaped convict.
Nodes did not need anybody to tell him this. By some means or other an escaped convict had found his way into the carriage. The train had been stopped by the deep snowdrifts more than once. It was quite the old-fashioned Christmas weather. This must be the escaped Bransby convict. No doubt he had found his way into the carriage by way of the lavatory during one of the stoppages. He was going to ask Nodes to help him. He smiled at the thought. There was nothing feeling or sentimental about Nodes. He respected the conventions of society too sincerely for that.
"What on earth are you doing here?" he asked. "How did you get here?"
"We will come to that presently," the convict said. "Is it possible you don't recognise me?"
Nodes shook his head. He was not exactly frightened, but the back of his throat was dry. He did not like the grimness of the other's manner. He had expected an appeal to his better nature. Apparently, that formed no part of the intruder's programme.
The convict strode across the carriage in the direction of the lavatory. He was not away long enough to give Nodes a chance to press the alarm bell.
He came back with a wet towel in his hand. He rubbed it vigorously over his face, and turned to Nodes again. A cry came from the latter.
"Good Lord, it's Summers!" he stammered. "Rick Summers! What does this mean?"
"We will come to that presently," the man addressed as Summers said again. "Give me a cigarette. I was lucky enough to get both meat and drink today, and now I fancy a smoke. A merry Christmas to you, dear sir."
Nodes passed over his cigarette case with a shaking hand. Of all the men on the face of the universe at that moment, Richard Summers was the very last he wanted to meet. There were reasons why his heart turned to water; and his tongue clave to the roof of his mouth as he looked at the other.
"I am not here by accident," Summers went on. There was a hard, dry grimness in his voice that caused Nodes to wriggle about uneasily on his seat. "I came to meet you. I dragged myself hungry and tired across a whole county to see you. My intention was to call upon you last night. I was actually in the house when Henderson called on business, and you had him in the library. I heard your conversation there. I heard your plans for to-day. I changed my mind. An excellent idea occurred to me, if I could only put it in practice. If possible, I wanted to get on the train with you to-night. As I had heard all your plans discussed, the matter was not quite so difficult. If I could find my way in safety to Whiteley-road Station the thing might he managed. The dark and gloomy time of year was distinctly in my favour. I managed to get to the station and hide myself in the goods shed. How I got here you can easily guess."
"What do you expect to gain by this? Sooner or later you will be—"
"Sooner or later the truth will come out. A man in prison without friends or influence has a poor chance with a man like yourself. But things happen—unexpected accidents take place. A week ago it seemed to me that I had lost everything that made life worth living. I did not care for the future. I was quite resigned to serve my ten years' sentence out. But we hear things even in prison, we get scraps of news, we even see papers sometimes. That is what happened in my case. I saw in a paper that Tom Glynn was dead, that he had died in Paris after a long illness, following on an 'accident.' The 'accident' happened six months ago."
Nodes shivered. Words were precious with him just for the moment.
"I got ten years for the manslaughter of Wilfred Catling," Summers proceeded. "It was a bad case, and the judge was accused of erring on the side of clemency. I killed the best friend I ever had. I killed him because I was desperately hard up for money, and because I knew that he had made a will in my favour. And I killed him so that he should not discover that I had forged a cheque upon his banking account for £500. The jury were induced to believe that there was a violent quarrel, and that blows were exchanged. There was just a possibility that I did not really mean to kill the man whom I loved as a brother, and that saved my neck. But you know all about that, because you gave evidence at the trial. I was duly convicted, and there is an end of it—or rather, there was an end of it. And when my time is up, and I come out of gaol, I shall be free to enjoy the fortune of the man whom I am supposed to have murdered! But it will be too late then—long before that time you will become the husband of Mary Glynn. I could have hanged for all you cared. And I am going to hang you, my friend, hang you with a rope of snow."
"Miss Glynn and myself are not even engaged," Nodes stammered.
"That I am quite prepared to believe," Summers went on. "In the light of recent illumination, I am prepared to believe that she does not know what has happened to me. After the 'accident' to her brother, she went over to Paris with him to see a specialist. She probably made a devoted nurse—whilst she had Tom to look after she could think of nothing else. Very few people knew of the relationship in which we stood to each other. I knew none of her friends. I waited for her to come forward till it was forced upon me that she had turned against me. I had no idea that she had hurried Tom off to Paris. I only gathered that from the newspaper paragraph I was telling you about just now. A lot of things came clear to me as I sat in my cell the last few days. I wrote a letter or two, but no reply came. I decided to try to escape. Luck came my way—and, in short, I am here."
"What do you expect that I can do for you?" Nodes asked timidly.
"Not more than you can help," Summers laughed. "If I had found you alone last night, I might have done something to justify my sentence. I rather fancy that I should have killed you, my friend! But as I listened to your conversation with Henderson, and learnt the facts you told him, another idea occurred to me. I learnt, for instance, how it was that Mary Glynn never came near me. I became quite sure of the way in which poor Wilfred Catling came by his death. Then, as I gathered how you intended to spend this evening—this typical Christmas Eve—and how you were going to get to the Gate House, the whole thing came upon me like an inspiration. Get your kit bag down—it is time you began to dress."
Nodes proceeded to obey. There was something grimly determined about his companion, some suggestion that there was unfortunately worse to follow than this. With a shaking hand he turned kit bag and dressing-case out on the seat. Summers nodded approval behind his cigarette.
"Very good," he said. "Here we have everything that may become a man of fashion. You have prudently brought your dressing-case, and possibly you may stay the night. I am delighted to see that you use safety razors. My hair is fortunately about the right length, but I sadly need a shave. Do it!"
Nodes started. Summers' request was stern and threatening.
"Well, get on," he snapped. "Here is the shaving stick, and the brush and the razor. Get hot water and another towel. You are going to shave me. You can't cut my throat with that razor. But you can shave me, and the jolting of the carriage makes no difference. Get on with your work."
Nodes complied. It was just as well, perhaps, to humour this desperado. On the whole, he made an exceedingly good job of it. With Nodes close under his eye, Summers made something like a bath. Then he proceeded to turn over Nodes's evening kit.
"Everything here," he said. "An entire change from head to foot. Silk socks and underwear, pearl stud, half a dozen dress ties in case of accidents. We are about the same size—in the days when we were friends we borrowed one another's collars."
"What on earth are you going to do?" Nodes stammered.
"Why, put your dress clothes on, of course. When the operation is completed I flatter myself that I shall look very nice. I shall still have ten minutes to spare when I have finished. I won't put the coat on yet, because I have a little work to do first. Really, it was very good of you to make up your mind to change in the train. My little plan would have been a complete failure otherwise."
"But you cannot possibly gain anything by this," Nodes protested.
"Think not? But you are not altogether behind the scenes, Mr. Nodes. I am not going to ask you to pass me off as a friend of yours, so that I can leave the train in safety. I am not going to ask you to lend me your dress clothes and make an apology for turning up at Gate House in a morning suit. In that case I should simply have borrowed the clothes you are wearing at this moment. As a matter of fact, I am not asking any favour at all. I am simply making use of you. Take your things off!"
Nodes protested. But he was past all resistance now. What little courage he had possessed had left him. Very slowly and reluctantly he divested himself of his garments. It was none too warm, and he shivered. He waited with sickening anxiety for the next scene in the drama. Summers indicated the hideous covering he had so recently discarded. He pointed to this sternly.
"Put them on!" he said. "If you decline I shall force you to do so. You were always afraid of pain, but you are going to experience it now if you don't do as you are told."
There came something like tears in Nodes's eyes as he compiled. He demurred bitterly to the command that he should remove all his underclothing.
"Can't be permitted," Summers said curtly. "It would spoil all my carefully-laid plans. It is absolutely necessary that you should be dressed exactly as I was. Ah! that is better. You will see in a moment why I have not yet donned your dress-coat. I have some work to do first. Now, you are probably aware of the fact that this train slows up for a few hundred yards this side of Formgrave Station. It is at a point where the line crosses the marshes. At this critical moment you are going to leave the train. I am going to throw you into one of the deep drifts of snow by the side of the line. A typical Christmas, is it not? There is no danger; you will not be a bit hurt, though the odds are that you will be exceedingly damp. All you have to do afterwards is to crawl out on to the line again and make your way to Formgrave. You will tell your story there, and when you do so, the betting is that nobody will believe you. They will refuse to credit so preposterous a tale. You look a pretty disreputable object now, but nothing to what you will appear when you have emerged from that snowy ditch. You will have no proof of what you say, and you will probably be detained till the police have been sent for. I should say that a good twenty-four hours will elapse before the authorities are satisfied that a mistake has been made. Meanwhile, I shall have succeeded in my scheme, and—"
"For Heaven's sake, Summers," Nodes gasped, "be careful. This mad business will be the death of me. And I utterly fail to see why you should hurt me in this revolting fashion."
Summers' face grew dark. For the first time, there was hatred as well as contempt in his eyes.
"Ask yourself a question or two," he said. "Cast your mind back to the events of six months ago. But for you I should never have been in my present unhappy position. At my trial you could have told the story of that forged cheque, had you liked. But you wanted me convicted, you wanted me out of the way. And as things turned out I did not mind. I was deserted by everybody I cared for, and the rest mattered nothing. Come this way—the train is slackening speed."
Nodes crept unwillingly across the floor. His legs were shaking under him. Peering out into the darkness, he could see dimly a flat country, with great drifts of snow gleaming here and there. The footboard of the carriage overhung what seemed like water. Without another word Summers caught his companion by the collar and swung him clear of the train. He dropped like a plummet up to his waist in the feathery white mass. Cold and tearful, but quite unharmed, he crept on to the line again, forlornly watching the tail lights of the train growing fainter in the distance. Summers closed the door of the carriage, and took another cigarette from Nodes' case.
* * * * *
Reginald Norfolk's guests had assembled for dinner in the drawing-room. The circle of diners was complete save one—they were waiting for Raymond Nodes. The host looked at his watch.
"I expect the train's a little late," he said.
"I've sent the car to meet it. In any case, your friend can't be very long now. I hope you are not feeling anxious about him, Mary."
Mary Glynn shook her head. She only half comprehended what Norfolk was saying. Her mind was very far away at the moment. There were one or two women there asking themselves why it was that men voted Mary Glynn to be such a pretty girl. She looked horribly white and aged; the black dress she was wearing merely served to throw up the unhealthy pallor of her cheeks. True, she had had a good deal of trouble lately—she had lost her brother, but that did not account for everything. She was trying to say something appropriate now, when the door was flung open, and the butler announced Mr. Raymond Nodes.
He came forward, coolly and easily, and shook hands with his host and hostess. He said just the right thing. Then he lounged across the room towards Mary Glynn. She had not even glanced up at him, she was contemplating the floor in the same abstracted way.
"I know you will be glad to see me," Summers said in a thrilling whisper.
Something like a cry escaped Mary's lips. A clatter of conversation was going on all round. As Mary looked up the deadly pallor of her face grew ghastly. Then the blood flashed to her cheeks again, there was something in her eyes between joy and fear.
"Be brave," Summers whispered. "Nobody has noticed anything. I was fearful lest you should betray yourself. But luck has been on my side all through, and it is not going to fail me now. This is not a nice thing that I have done, Mary, but practically there is no other way. Everybody says that Reggie Norfolk is a real good fellow, and I am sure that he will forgive me when the time for explanation comes."
"But I thought," Mary gasped. "I thought that you were—you were—"
"In prison. So I was. And, what is more, I had no desire to get away until I discovered that Tom was dead. Then I knew that the time had come when I could speak. The strange part of it is that I should not have been here at all had it not been for Nodes. I found out that he did not know Norfolk; I found out that you were here. Nodes was going to dress in the train, and he engaged a compartment to himself. I'll tell you presently how I managed to get on to all this. Anyway, I boarded the train, and compelled Nodes to change clothes with me. Somewhere about this time he is telling his story to a set of people who will not believe a single word that he says. They will naturally take him for the escaped convict, and detain him for the police to make inquiries. Long before his identity is established, and the authorities are after me, I shall have proved my innocence."
"I know that you are innocent," Mary murmured. "Will you believe me when I tell you that not till the day before yesterday did I know that your friend, Wilfred Catling, was dead? That you had been convicted on a charge of killing him came as a terrible shock to me. But—"
"Presently," Summers whispered. "We shall have our chance after dinner. Meanwhile your hostess is making signals to the ladies. I take it for granted that I am going to be your escort. Of course, I am not exactly so fascinating as Nodes, but still—"
Mary squeezed her companion's arm. Nobody could say that she was pale and cold now. She was trembling between fear and joy. She was longing for the meal to come to an end, so that she could hear the much-needed explanation. It was maddening to sit there with the lights and the chatter, the gleam of the silver, and the din of voices about her. She played with the food on her plate, she toyed with her glass. It was with a deep drawn sigh of relief presently that she saw her hostess rise.
"There is a little conservatory at the end of the hall," she whispered. "When you have finished your cigarettes, you will find me waiting for you there. And for heaven's sake, don't be long, Rick."
Summers slipped away at the first favourable opportunity. In spite of everything, he had enjoyed his coffee and cigarette, the refined surroundings, and the talk of his fellow-men. He made for the dim little conservatory, where Mary was waiting for him. He flung himself down by her side, and attempted to draw her to him. She placed a trembling hand on his shoulder.
"Not yet," she said, "not yet, Rick. You must hear what I have to say first. I must tell you of a dreadful thing that only came to light the night before my brother died. There was really no hope for him from the first, but I did my best. For six months I saw nobody over there in Paris: I had no time to look at any English papers. All I knew before I went to Paris was that my brother and Wilfred Catling had been in an accident together. But I did not know that Mr. Catling was dead. I did not know that you had been charged with taking his life. But Tom knew. He read the papers that he never gave me to look at. And the night before he died, he told me why he had been so depressed. It was he who had forged the cheque that was the cause of all the trouble."
"I knew that all along," Summers said quietly. "And what's more, Catling knew before he died. If Tom had not been your brother, I should have spoken long ago. But it seemed to me that it did not matter. Yet, when everybody appeared to have deserted me, I could see how foolish I had been. Still, it was too late to speak then, and I was too desperately miserable to care what happened to me. It was only when I found out that Tom was dead that I decided to clear my character, and make some sort of an attempt to restore myself in your eyes again. I thought, of course, that you knew all about it. It was only when I escaped and attempted to see Nodes that I learnt pretty well everything by listening to a conversation between Nodes and his friend Henderson. I believe that I should have killed him had we met a few moments before. As it was, I thought of a much better plan than that. I worked out this scheme to see you this evening, and it has proved absolutely successful. We need say nothing—"
"Yes," said Mary firmly, "we need. The whole truth must be spoken. And the part that Mr. Nodes has taken in this vile conspiracy must be public property. And after that, if you still care to—to—"
"My dearest girl, how can you doubt it? If the circumstances were reversed, then—"
"Well, a girl is different from a man. You see, I always loved you Rick, and I was so hurt when I got no letter from you in Paris. Probably you wrote to me. Probably Tom suppressed the letters."
Summers preferred to ignore the point. He turned to Mary, and kissed the tears from her eyes.
"What difference does it make?" he asked. "Tom's folly cannot touch you. There will be a few days' gossip and scandal and then everything will be forgotten. And you and I together, my dearest—"
Summers stopped suddenly. His host of a night stood in the doorway of the conservatory, with a queer expression on his face. Two police officers were in the library, together with a strange gentleman. They had had an amazing story to tell. Would Mr.—er—Nodes be so good as to—?
Mary grasped her lover's arm. The happy colour faded from her face. He touched her tenderly.
"It has come," he said "I shall be very happy to give you the explanation you need, Mr. Norfolk, and the sooner the better. I shall tender you an apology later, and that, I hope, you will accept. And now I am anxious to see the gentleman in the library. Mary, I shall not be long."
* * * * *
The bells were chiming from the village church across the snow. Under the porch of the house a troop of children were singing a carol Mary listened to it all dreamily.
"Oh, yes, Rick would not be long. And to-morrow was Christmas Day!"
FLEETWOOD stumbled across the gangway of the Sheffield and staggered into the arms of a purser. Just for a moment he was on the point of collapse. By the time he had caught his breath again, and a little colour was beginning to creep into his cheek, the boat was slowly beginning to make its way out of the dock. It was yet very dark and still, for the dawn was a full hour off, and the decks were deserted so far as every passenger was concerned. The purser grinned good-naturedly as he steadied Fleetwood on his shaking legs.
"That's a pretty near shave, sir," he said. "Did you manage to get your baggage on board?"
"I have no baggage," Fleetwood explained. "I have practically nothing besides my kitbag, and someone on the quay kindly threw that after me. I hadn't even time to get a ticket. An hour ago I had not the least intention of leaving England to-day."
The purser ceased to smile. Fleetwood had spoken candidly enough, he had a frank, open way of looking the world in the face, but these little things do not always spell honesty, and the purser had seen enough of men and things not to take everything absolutely for granted.
"I think you had better see the captain, sir," he said.
"That's precisely what I want," Fleetwood replied.
Half an hour later he found himself closeted in the cabin of the Sheffield with the captain. And Captain Butcher made no secret of the fact that he did not like it at all.
"You must see for yourself that it is very unusual," he said. "Of course, there's no help for it now. But if you had come to me half an hour before, I might—"
"But, my dear sir," Fleetwood expostulated, "is it an unusual thing for a business man to find himself compelled to catch a boat a moment's notice? As I explained to your purser, I didn't know an hour ago whether I should be leaving England to-day. It's a matter of life and death. You've got me here for a fortnight—I can't run away—and you can keep as close an eye upon me as you like; and, as far as my passage is concerned, I can pay that ten times over. How does that strike you?"
Fleetwood took a sheaf of notes from his pocket-book and laid them on the table. Butcher's face relaxed a little.
"Oh, well, we must make the best of it," he said. "I'm glad you recognised my position in the matter. And now you'll be wanting a cabin. By the way, you haven't told me if you intend to go the whole way with us."
Fleetwood's face grew a little grim and hard.
"That I cannot say," he said. "Possibly my business may be finished by the time we get to Madeira. I suppose in your time, captain, you have seen many a drama played out with this ship for a background? And, unless I'm greatly mistaken, you're going to watch one now. But that is entirely between you and me. And now may I ask to be shown to my cabin?"
A day or two passed pleasantly enough, and gradually the Sheffield's passengers began to shake down together. She was not a great boat, and the saloon boasted no more than forty all told. For the most part, they were Colonials, and not at all difficult from a social point of view. There was a frankness and directness about Fleetwood that won for him a certain degree of popularity. He had travelled widely—indeed, his profession of mining engineer had enabled him to come in touch with many countries in the world—he was a good talker and bridge player, so that he was speedily on the best of terms with everybody. Captain Butcher had long since forgotten his suspicions, so that Fleetwood's position was quite a pleasant one.
There was only one passenger who appeared to hold aloof from the rest. He was a dark, rather taciturn man, who had given the name of Cree. For the rest, he was supposed to be a merchant with interests somewhere in Rhodesia. There was something attractive and yet repellant about the man, and on more than one occasion Fleetwood made an attempt to draw him out. But, according to his own account, Cree's time was too occupied to enable him to join in the festivities of the ship. He spent most of the day in his cabin, and the only time he showed himself was after dinner in the smoking-room, when the other male passengers were more or less occupied with their bridge.
On the fifth night of the voyage the bridge play was over earlier than usual. Fleetwood rose from the table with two companions, and made his way over to the remote corner of the smoking-room where Cree was pulling at his pipe in moody silence. He would have escaped if he could, only just at the moment that the bridge was finished he had ordered another whisky and soda, and one of the late players had insisted upon Cree joining them, so that there was no help for it. It was not the first drink by a good many that Cree had had since dinner, and the fact had not escaped Fleetwood's attention.
Just for a moment or two the talk was general, then it veered gradually round to the occult as understood by travellers who had studied the subject in the East. Fleetwood spoke freely and well, for he knew Tibet, and the ways of the Mahatma were familiar to him. His hearers followed him with interest, and one of them, a tea-planter named Stephenson, had a strange story, too, to tell. It was an interesting conversation, and not the less so because Cree sat there nursing his long peg glass with a shaky hand and openly sneering at Stephenson's yarn.
"Do you honestly believe all that nonsense?" he asked.
"Oh, you call it nonsense, do you?" Fleetwood said quietly. "I could tell you a story which you'd have to believe. I suppose your opinion is formed by what you read in the newspapers. They are not all to be laughed at, you know, and I'd like to have a sporting bet with you, Mr. Cree. I'll bet you a five-pound note that I can give you a demonstration of occultism that will keep you here till I've finished. All I stipulate is that you should listen for a quarter of an hour, and, if at the end of that time you like to leave us, then the fiver is yours. Now, come, is it a bet or not?"
An ugly sneer crossed Cree's face.
"I'll take you four times the amount," he said. "Now, what's it to be—hypnotism or blindfold thought-reading, or that crystal-gazing humbug? I've seen them all myself in different parts of the world, and, if I had my way, I'd clap all those rogues in gaol. Here, waiter, bring me another drink, and see that you put in some whisky this time that I can taste."
"Which do you consider the cheapest form of humbug?" Fleetwood asked. "I want to give you every chance."
"Oh, crystal-gazing," Cree muttered contemptuously.
"Then crystal-gazing it shall be. Didn't you say that you had got a crystal somewhere, Stephenson?"
"I believe I have," Stephenson replied. "I've got the whole bag o' tricks in my cabin."
Stephenson returned to the smoking-room a few minutes later with the globe of glass in his hand. Fleetwood turned it round thoughtfully, holding the sphere so that the rays of the electric light fell on it. Then he placed it on the table and gazed long and earnestly at it, until he seemed utterly lost to all surroundings. Cree would have uttered some jibe had not Stephenson checked him with a warning glance. A moment or two later, and Fleetwood began to speak. His voice sounded distant and hollow, his eyes appeared to have lost their expression altogether.
"What do you see?" Stephenson asked.
"It's all blurred and indistinct at present," Fleetwood said. "Wait, and it will grow clearer presently. Ah, I begin to make it out! Here is a room—a room barely furnished, with no carpet on the floor; there is only a table and a chair or two, and a roll-top desk between the two windows. The room is a large one, the panels of the walls are of oak, and the ceiling is the work of Inigo Jones or one of his pupils. It can be nothing but a London house in a suburb which at one time was fashionable. Now it is surrounded by slums and workmen's tenements, because I can hear the shrill voices of women and the crying of children. Though the room is so barely furnished, the two candelabra on the writing-desk are old silver, and the clock on the mantelpiece is genuine Sevres. It is just like the scene in 'Les Cloches de Corneville' where Gaspard is discovered counting over his money."
"This is devilish interesting!" one of the audience murmured. "All humbug, though, I suppose, Stephenson—eh?"
"I've seen too many strange things in the East to disbelieve, Maple," Stephenson whispered. "At any rate, our cynical friend yonder is not altogether indifferent. Look at him."
Maple glanced in Cree's direction. His white, set face was twitching, and his teeth were bare in an unsteady grin. As a waiter hovered near, he indicated his empty glass. All this time Fleetwood was going on in a steady monotone.
"The miser must be somewhere, though I cannot see him yet. His desk is open, and in the light of the candles I can see some bags of money and piles of bank-notes. Ah, he's beginning to come at last! He is a little, dried-up man, with a black velvet skull-cap on his scant and silvery hair. He closes the door behind him and looks about him fearfully as if afraid of being seen. Despite his years and the yellow parchment of his face, his black eyes have all the fire and vivacity of youth. See, he is seated by his desk, turning over his money and counting it again and again. The door opens, and a young girl comes in. She is dressed as if she had just come out of the street; she is clad in shabby garments, and her pretty face is pinched and wan. She looks as if she knew what it was to go without proper food. Directly she comes in, the old man pulls down the lid of his desk and turns towards her with an angry frown upon his face. The girl is pleading for something, for she holds out her hands to the old man, she falls on her knees at his feet. Then very reluctantly and slowly he takes from his pocket a small silver coin, and hands it to the girl with an expression of resignation on his face. But what have we got here? The corner of the ragged blind is on one side, and the pale outline of a face can be seen beyond the grimy pane. It is a white, set face with dark, restless, greedy eyes, and a mouth slightly twisted on the left side."
"So's mine, for that matter," Cree laughed.
No one else spoke—they were all deeply interested in following Fleetwood's strange story. He did not appear to hear the interruption, for he went on steadily.
"The girl vanishes, and a young man takes her place. He is a fine youngster enough, with a bronzed face and blue eyes. But the bronzed face is convulsed in rage now, and the blue eyes are blazing. Just for the moment it looks as if the old man went in peril of his life; then the young man throws himself down in the chair and begins to take his boots off. He leaves his boots by the side of the fireplace, and produces a pair of carpet slippers from a cupboard in the wall. It is plain that the young man lives in the house, for he leaves the room presently, and a door bangs sullenly in a bedroom overhead. The Sevres clock over the mantelpiece strikes the hour of twelve. It is impossible to tell the time by the face of the clock, because one of the hands is missing."
"Waiter," Cree cried hoarsely, "more drink!"
"The white face disappears from the window. The door of the room opens, and the white face and the uneasy, glittering eyes come in. The old man turns from his desk, and for the first time his eyes are full of fear. He crosses over to lay his hand upon the tattered bell-pull, but the other man bars the way. The old man struggles. For his age, he is marvellously strong and active, but at last he staggers and falls, and a cry for help breaks from his lips. There is an open knife on the mantelpiece—the sort of knife that sailors generally use. The knife has probably been left there by the young man who is upstairs in his bedroom. Oh, it is horrible to watch what follows! The old man lies there in a pool of blood on the bare floor. He is dead. He has been murdered by the man with the white face and the restless eyes."
"Upon my word, it sounds quite real!" Maple whispered. "I say, Mr. Cree, you've lost your bet. It's quite half an hour since the seance began—what?"
But Cree made no reply. He sat there absolutely engrossed in what was going on. At every pause that Fleetwood made, he wriggled with an impatience that was almost painful to witness.
"The knife lies on the floor by the dead man's side. Evidently the murderer is no stranger to the house, because he knows exactly what to do. He takes off his own shoes and picks up the pair of boots belonging to the lad who is asleep upstairs. He dips the soles of the boots in the pool of blood and slips them on his own feet. Then, snatching one of the candles from the stand, he makes a series of red footsteps on the bare boards leading into the hall. He is concocting evidence against the innocent boy upstairs. He crosses to the desk and places everything he can find there in a bag. There are a good many thousands' worth of property—twenty-three thousand seven hundred and fifty, to be correct; a memorandum in the old man's handwriting shows that. All grows indistinct for a moment."
"You've lost your bet, Cree," Maple chuckled.
"It is all coming distinct again. And here is another man—a man who gazes with horror at the object on the floor. This man pulls violently at the bell, the young man from above comes down, the room is full of people, and the police are here. They ask questions, they clear the room, they find that knife and those tell-tale footprints. But they do not find a pocket-book and a cake of tobacco manufactured by a firm in Cape Town, which the man who discovered the body picked up, for the simple reason that he has hidden these things in his pocket. Then the young man with the blue eyes goes off in charge of the police, and once more the crystal grows blurred and misty."
No word was uttered as Fleetwood rose and stretched himself. Apparently Cree had forgotten all about his bet, for he sat there white and rigid, his eyes strained and full of a certain awe. But Fleetwood had not finished yet. He bent once more over the crystal, and began to speak again.
"I see many pictures now. I see keen-eyed men bending over the pocket-book and cake of tobacco. In some way I know that they are detectives from Scotland Yard. The man who discovered the dead body must have sent the evidence on to them. I see them comparing those boots with the footprints; I see them examining the grease stains from the candle across the floor. They are asking themselves why a young man who knows the house so well should need a candle. They have found out all about the owner of the pocket-book; they have discovered that he only landed in England four hours before the murder, and they are after him before he can leave the country again. But they are too late—he has already vanished. Still, he is not destined to escape. For the man who discovered the body is after him; and the pursuer has the advantage of having seen a photograph of the murderer, and this advantage is all on one side. It comes to me in some way that the murderer is a ne'er-do-well nephew of the poor old man, who has come home on purpose to rob him.
"And then I see long, black buildings and a forest of shipping, and I see a vessel leaving the docks, and a man gain her decks just in the nick of time. And I see myself at this moment with this crystal in my hand."
A strange, strangled cry came from Cree's lips as he rose unsteadily to his feet. The empty glass fell from his hand and crashed upon the floor. He seemed to be struggling hard for some form of collected speech.
"It's all arrant humbug!" he said hoarsely. "Did anyone ever hear such a farrago of nonsense? How you men supposed to be possessed of common-sense can sit down and listen to it, I don't know. For me, I'm going to bed."
"Oh, that's all very well!" Maple protested. "If it's all nonsense like that, why did you stay so long? You've lost your bet, though you seem to have forgotten it."
"I was thinking of something else," Cree muttered. "I had actually forgotten all about the bet. Still—"
He plunged his hand in his pocket, but Fleetwood shook his head. His face was grim and hard now.
"And if I refuse to take the money?" he asked. "It is morally and legally wrong to bet on a certainty, and it was a certainty from the first that Mr. Cree would stay and hear every word that I had to utter. We will defer the question of the bet till to-morrow morning. Meanwhile I have to wish Mr. Cree good night, and may his dreams be as pleasant as he deserves."
Without another word Cree turned on his heel and left the smoking-room. He was followed a few moments later by Fleetwood, who declined to carry the matter any further just then. He was tired and exhausted with his mental effort, and, if the audience had anything further to say, he would rather it was deferred till the next morning.
Maple and Stephenson followed him quietly and thoughtfully out of the smoking-room.
"There's something devilish queer about this," the former exclaimed. "Made me feel quite creepy. And did you happen to see Cree's face? Never have I seen such abject funk in my life before. The chap was absolutely livid. Now, what do you make of it, Stephenson? If it was humbug—"
But Stephenson declined to be drawn.
"Oh, it's no humbug," he said, "and, incidentally, it's no business of ours. Keep your eyes open and ask no questions, and you'll see things before long. Good night, old chap."
But Fleetwood had not retired to bed. He sat there smoking till far into the night; his electrics were burning, and he seemed to be waiting for something. It came presently towards morning; there was a timid tap on the door, and a white, ghastly face looked in. The ghastliness of feature and the glaring, tired eyes were in almost amusing contrast to the gaudy suit of pyjamas that Cree was wearing.
"May I come in?" he stammered.
"I've been waiting for you for hours," Fleetwood said quietly. "Sit down and tell your story in your own way."
But Cree paced up and down the cabin.
"I can't sit down," he whined. "Fleetwood, you are the devil! I've heard of these things before, and I've never believed them; and yet I cannot doubt the evidence of my senses. What brought those pictures in the crystal? Why, out of millions of people, was I selected as the victim?"
"Oh, it is a picture from your own life, then?" Fleetwood asked.
"Oh, you know it you devil," Cree screamed, "and yet, as far as I know, you were on this boat before the murder was committed."
"The murder of Stephen Syme, you mean?"
"Why should I deny it? Do you know, till to-night I never discovered that I had left that pocket-book and that packet of tobacco behind me. I could have screamed aloud when you got to that part of the story. If you have tricked me—"
"Keep to the point," Fleetwood said sternly, "and remember that I never asked you to make a confession."
"But the police are after me," Cree whined; "you told me all about it when you were reading the crystal. And you had got it as clear as if you had been there and seen it all yourself. I came back from South Africa on purpose to see the old man and get money out of him. I didn't care much how I obtained it, and nobody knew that I was coming. It was no difficult matter to get into the house. When I saw the old man sitting at his desk, with all that money about him—well, I am a desperate man, and the temptation was too much for me. He was a miserable old miser. I have known his own daughter appeal to him—"
"I know," Fleetwood said quietly. "I am engaged to Mary Syme, and I came back on purpose to marry her. But I am saying a little bit too much. You go on with your story."
"There is no more story to tell," Cree resumed. "The temptation was too much for me. Within ten minutes I was out of the house and on my way to the docks. I had all that money with me, and the comfortable assurance that I should be on the 'Sheffield' before anybody knew that I was in London. Oh, I'm not defending myself! It was a blackguardly thing on my part to try and throw the blame on young Matthew Syme. Anyway, I shall know how to meet my punishment when the time comes. You'll find all that money in my cabin, and, as for the rest, it must take care of itself. I can't sleep, Fleetwood—I dare not be alone!"
Cree clasped his hands to his eyes and rushed from the cabin. A moment later there was a cry and a noise overhead, and a hoarse voice yelling that a man was overboard.
* * * * *
"Of course, he was utterly puzzled," Fleetwood told the captain. "He died a firm believer in the dark mysteries of the crystal. You see, I had chapter and verse of the things that happened, a day or two after the 'Sheffield' left port, and Cree knew that every item was correct. I was going to see old Syme, and I practically met Cree on the doorstep of the miser's house as he was hurrying off after the murder. I knew him from his photograph, but he did not know me. I heard him ask a boy to get him a cab; I followed and heard the address given. Then I found the evidence of the crime, and ten minutes after I was on Cree's track, only just in time. Sentiment is all very well, but I was anxious to save the money for the family. That is why I played that theatrical game and frightened a confession out of him. If he had landed in South Africa, he would certainly have got rid of the money, probably feeling that there was a chance of being arrested. It sounds cheap, but it was very effectual."
"Not so clever as he thought," Butcher smiled.
"No, or he would have guessed," Fleetwood replied. "And now I shall be obliged if you will tell me what I owe you for all those expensive marconigrams?"
THE little man with the white face and gleaming eyes struggled no longer. He was spent and breathless; a little, thin, red thread trickled from a wound in his forehead. He had dropped to his knees in the snow. Above him the pine trees tossed and twisted in the blizzard, the thin white powder stung his cheek. He looked a pathetic object enough, and all the more slender and helpless by contrast with the three Westerners who stood about him. There was no suggestion of pity or compunction in the eyes of those picturesque ruffians. The little man was looking for no mercy—indeed, that was an asset he had not counted upon for a moment. He was not going to ask for quarter, either. His life hung upon a thread, and he knew it.
"Wal, ain't you goin' to speak?" the leader of the trio asked. "We ain't out shootin' rabbits. We ain't goin' to spell it for you, either. What we want to know, and what we're goin' to know, is the name of the man who rounded up poor Bill Carney. You was present, and you seen it done."
"I guess that's so," the little man snapped, "but you can't make me speak if I don't want to."
The leader of the gang smiled grimly.
"I calculate we can," he said. "Now, just you listen to me, stranger. I dunno as you know much about these parts, but there's considerable snow comin'—a matter o' six feet before mornin'. Now, I'll kinder draw your attention to that pine branch what's hangin' over your head. The programme, sonny, is to tie your hands behind you an' put a rawhide round your neck, so's to keep you dancin' on the tips of your toes. The other end of the rawhide will be round the pine branch. When the snow comes up to your neck, you sing out for the waiter. He won't be far off. An' the beauty of the game is that you can call our hand whenever you like."
The little man said nothing. He pressed his lips more tightly together, and his eyes gleamed like slumbering fires.
Over his head the pines were tossing and moaning like creatures in pain. The upper branches were hidden in the flying wrack of snow; already in the hollow there the white battalions of the storm were beginning to assemble. The little man made no movement of any kind as his hands were secured behind him and the rawhide adjusted. The end of the rope was cast dexterously over the branch and drawn tightly—so tightly, indeed, that the victim could merely feel the frozen ground with his toes.
"Now, for the last time," the chief ruffian asked, "are you goin' to spell it or not? A white man was Bill Carney—there ain't a whiter man on the Amurican continent, 'ceptin', p'raps, Captain Rufus himself—an' we ain't goin' to set down shellin' popcorn while high-minded citizens is bein' shot like dogs."
The little man turned with a bitter sneer.
"Never a greater skunk drew the breath of life than Carney," he said; "and if there is a more poisonous reptile up here, it's the man you call Captain Rufus. I saw Carney shot—I know whose hand it was that rid the world of a loathsome scoundrel. He was killed in fair fight by a better man than himself, and you can tell Rufus that his time is coming, too."
"Hear him talk!" another of the gang laughed. "Anybody might think as he was David Hames. Ever see him, sonny?"
"More than once," the little man said quietly. "He doesn't come this way, I understand. It will be a bad day for you and your kidney if he does take it in his head to come into the Lone Wolf district. Any of you know him?"
Apparently none of them did, though they seemed to listen in respectful silence to that dreaded name. The snow was getting deeper now; the little man's face was more drawn and livid, yet there was no sign of surrender in his eyes. With an oath, the leader of the gang turned away, bidding his companions to follow him. There was a hut on the far side of the hollow, where it would be possible to while away the time over a game of poker, till, in the picturesque language of Pete Stanley, the little man decided to throw up the sponge and 'spell it.' That the stranger would eventually essay the task in question, Mr. Stanley did not for a moment doubt. He was an expert in these matters.
An hour passed slowly. The snow was getting deeper, and the little man's face was whiter than the powder on his hair, yet his jaw was fixed and rigid, and the unconquerable fires were still burning in his eyes. The howling wind dropped for a moment, and it seemed to the man standing half-frozen there as if someone above was calling him. He turned his head, and, to his astonishment, made out the figure of a woman crawling painfully along the branch of the pine from which the rope was suspended. He could see the dull gleam of a knife in her hand. The rigid tension snapped, a black wisp lay for a moment breathless and half insensible on the snow, then the little man rose and climbed painfully up the slope to the spot where the woman was standing.
"I live close by," she whispered. "I had occasion to go down to the hut, and I heard what those men were talking about. I am Doctor Winter's wife."
"I know him," the little man said. "Can you give me shelter? I shall be a different man to-morrow. And you need not be afraid, especially if you have any arms in the house."
"There is no lack of those," Mrs. Winter said. "But pray come along quickly, before those dreadful men find out that you have escaped. Lean on my arm, please."
Very gradually life and strength came back to the little man. He exchanged his wet clothes for dry ones, the grateful warmth of the stove thawed out his frozen limbs; a good meal had put fresh steel and fire in him. He sat up suddenly, rigid and alert.
"Those men are outside," he whispered; "they have discovered my escape. They'll want to search the house. You look like a brave woman, Mrs. Winter."
"I had to learn that after I came out from England," the woman said quietly. "I'm not going to give you up, if that is what you mean. I will do exactly what you suggest."
The little man reached for a rifle and handled it with loving care. He pushed aside a corner of the blind and looked out. Surely enough, the three ruffians were standing there, apparently having an altercation of some kind. There was a small ventilator by the side of the window, which might be useful, a little later on, as a porthole. The altercation was apparently finished now, for Stanley strode up to the door and began to thunder on it furiously.
"Come out, come out!" he cried. "We don't want to hurt a woman, but you've got a man hiding there. It won't pay you or the doctor to defy us. Now, open the door."
"I open the door to no man in my husband's absence," Kate Winter cried defiantly, "and I warn you that I'm armed."
Stanley muttered an oath in his beard and stalked back to his companions. The plan of attack soon became apparent, for two of the ruffians opened fire on the hut, whilst Stanley proceeded to drag a huge log of timber forward, obviously with the intention of battering in the door. He would be fairly safe so long as the other two directed their fire on the windows of the house. With a bitter smile on his white face, the little man lifted his rifle on the edge of the ventilator and covered Stanley. There was a crack, a tiny puff of smoke, and Stanley pitched forward heavily in the snow, lying there still and motionless. Once more the rifle spoke; a second man spun round on his heels and then sank gently on his knees, as if he were dropping innocently off to sleep. The third man dived for cover, and was seen no more.
Kate Winter dropped into a chair and covered her face with her hands. The little man could see that she was shivering like a leaf.
"I had to do it," he said. "It was their lives against yours and mine. You don't know those men—I do. There are four of them who have been keeping a reign of terror in Lone Wolf Gulch for years. There were five of them a little time ago, but the man called Carney died suddenly last week. And because I would not tell those ruffians who shot him, they were going to leave me to perish in the snow. They got me at a disadvantage for the first time in my life, but they would have dragged nothing out of me. Besides, it would never have done to have told them the name of the man who killed Bill Carney."
"Did you really know it?" the woman asked.
A queer, dry smile twisted the little man's lips.
"Well, considering that I shot him myself, yes," he said. "Fortunately for me, those dogs didn't know that. Some old friends of mine fetched me from five hundred miles the other side of the mountains, to help wipe out Captain Rufus and his gang. There does not seem to be much law and order in these parts, and they say that the sheriff's in league with those ruffians. Well, at any rate, I've accounted for three of them now, and the captain himself will hear from me before long. Not that I want this thing talked about. I should like you to have the credit of this little entertainment."
"Oh, I couldn't!" Kate Winter cried.
"Just a moment," the little man urged. "Let it be understood that Stanley and some of the gang attacked the house, and that you shot two of them single-handed. Depraved as those scoundrels are, they would never dare to take vengeance on a woman. You will have public opinion on your side, and this exploit should go far to bringing about a better state of things. There are hundreds of brave men and good citizens in these parts, and yet they hesitate to act for fear of incurring the displeasure of Rufus and his murderous gang. They'll have to do something now."
"My husband is a busy man," Mrs. Winter murmured, "and it does not do for a doctor to make enemies. We want a real live man here—somebody who can get the best of Rufus, somebody who dare meet him face to face. Ah, if we could only have a man like David Hames to come to our assistance!"
The little man smiled again.
"To beard Rufus in his den, eh? To shoot him down in the midst of his satellites when he is drinking in his favourite bar? Well, that might be done. A man like Rufus always has more enemies than friends. The carneying crowd of sycophants who would applaud some cowardly deed of violence would be still more willing to cheer the man who rid the world of a creature like Rufus; and that is what I have come over five hundred miles to do."
The man spoke quite simply and naturally. Small as he was, and slight of frame, there was a suggestion of strength and force behind him that robbed his words of any shade of egotism.
"I'd like to stay here a day or two, if I might," he said, "then I will go on to Gulch City."
As things turned out, however, it was the best part of a week before the little man with the white face and the burning eyes quitted the friendly shelter of the doctor's house. The story of the attack, and the death of Stanley and his companion, had travelled far over the snow-clad hills and valleys. Mrs. Winter's exploit had come as something of a sensation in that lonely province. People had flocked from far and near to attend the funeral of Stanley and his companion; the wild-cat papers in the district had lost no time in making a heroine of Kate Winter. She bore her honours as meekly as she could—she was longing for the time when the truth could be told. Wild and lawless men had come down from the hills—though they were clean-handed men, for the most part—and they had told with bated breath of the vengeance which Captain Rufus was going to take later on. Still, the sluggish blood of the countryside was stirred now, and there were rumours of reprisals. If Rufus was disturbed by these, he showed no sign of it. Up in Gulch City he reigned supreme, surrounded by a horde of flatterers, insolent and intolerant in the face of an executive that was practically powerless. But there were one or two observant sympathisers who brought insinuations that Rufus had been a little more moody of late, and that, to all practical purposes, he stood alone. From the day of Stanley's death the third man had not been seen.
It was one cold and bitter night, a fortnight later, that the little man with the white face crept quietly into Jake Tomlin's saloon and took his seat by the stove. He was so situated that he had his back to an angle of the wall, and it was impossible for anybody to approach from behind. The big room was packed with gamblers and drinkers; in the centre of the floor an engrossing game of poker was in progress. The big man with the coarse, red hair and long, fiery beard, the little man recognised at a glance. He needed no one to tell him that this was the quarry he was in search of. In all the region of wild farce, it seemed impossible to conceive anything more ridiculous than a duel to the death between these two men.
It was only for a few moments that the stranger passed unnoticed. His mild air and manner was bound to attract attention. But the chaff, rude as it was, had a good-natured flavour about it, and the little man sat there smilingly indifferent. A burst of raucous laughter a little louder than the rest attracted the attention of Rufus. He had been drinking heavily; he was in a winning vein, as the pile of greasy dollar notes by his side testified. He raised his great red head and glanced in the little man's direction.
"Where does the child come from?" he asked.
The sycophants laughed loudly—the saloon rocked with their mirth. The little man's lips grew a little harder, but the smile was still on his face.
"I came here with a message," he drawled.
"Well, expectorate it," Rufus said.
"That's very polite of you," the little man went on. "As a matter of fact, my message is for you, sir. I had it directly from the lips of David Hames himself."
Rufus's red face took on a purple tinge. At the mention of that dreaded name, the saloon was stricken into absolute silence. The men loafing there could see the veins standing out on Rufus's forehead, they could see his beard bristling and crackling like the hair on a cat's back when it is stroked in the dark.
"Does Hames want to see me?" he demanded hoarsely.
"He is here for that very purpose," the little man said. "He will be along presently. I ask your pardon for interfering in your game in this rude way. Will you please continue until Mr. Hames arrives?"
"Perhaps he would like to come and take a hand," Rufus sneered. "I'll play him for his life. It's a big place, is this American continent of ours, but there's no room on it for David Hames and myself. You'll see some fun presently, boys. You're going to have the time of your lives. I've been just praying for a chance like this. It's real polite on Dave's part to come here, and save me the trouble of going to his funeral."
Rufus looked round for the customary flattering laughter. But no sound came, nothing but an uneasy breathing and shuffling amongst the greasy mass of humanity there. The dreaded name of David Hames had made a deep impression, and not the most drunken of the loafers there but who could have told, had he only dared, which of the twain he held in highest reverence. That Hames should have dared to come there, to have sent a polite message in this fashion, was a staggering proof of his marvellous courage.
For, according to all the rules of the game, Hames's hands were clean, whilst those of Rufus were not. The red man was a fugitive from justice, more than one man's blood was on his head, and it would have been accounted no discreditable thing had Hames covered his man from the door-way and shot him before the latter could get his hand to his hip pocket.
Rufus burst into a storm of uneasy curses. He was irritated to find that he could not meet the glance of the little, white-faced man opposite. He was furious, too, to feel that his gallery were deserting him.
"Any of you ever seen Hames?" he growled.
Nobody responded. Evidently no member of that fragrant company had ever set eyes on the redoubtable Hames. Rufus reached out his hand for the cards and began a fresh deal.
"Let's try and forget it for a minute or two," he growled. "And if Mr. Hames comes along, tell him to wait till I've finished."
The game proceeded in absolute silence. For the next quarter of an hour Rufus was winning steadily. Then a voice cut the silence—a voice sharp and commanding, so that Rufus raised his head and glared in the direction from whence the sound came.
"Anybody speaking to me?" he challenged.
"I am," the little man snapped. "Put up your left hand, quick!"
The whole bar rocked with excitement, for every man there thrilled as if that clear, ringing voice had been a blow. The little man had changed almost beyond recognition. His face appeared as if carved out of marble, his mouth and chin were as rigid as fine steel, his dark eyes were full of fire, his whole being bristled with nervous vitality.
"Did—did you speak to me?" Rufus stammered.
"Put up your hand," was the reply.
Rufus was gazing into the hollow rim of a Colt, which he knew by instinct was trained upon his heart. Slowly and reluctantly his left hand went up, with the hairy back of it turned in the direction of the breathless spectators.
"Drop it on the table," the little man commanded.
"There's nothing to drop, curse you!" Rufus screamed.
A tiny spurt of flame flicked from the mouth of the Colt, and, as if by magic, a thread of blood trickled down the back of Rufus's hand. As his arm collapsed, something fluttered from his nerveless fingers and lay upon the floor.
"Pick it up," the little man snapped.
One of the crowd stooped eagerly and raised the greasy square of pasteboard.
"It's the ace of hearts," he cried, "and there's a bullet-hole right through the middle of it! Gee whiz, but that was a bit of dandy shooting! Did your father teach you to draw a bead like that, little man?"
"Guess he's a pupil of David Hames!" another cried. "Say, sonny, when's David going to happen along?"
"I am David Hames, curse you all!" the little man snarled. "Now, Rufus, stand up, you dog!"
But Rufus made no motion towards getting up. He sat there red and sullen, with something suggestive of tears in his eyes. He nursed his injured hand. He was quivering from head to foot with pain and anguish, and a certain feeling he could not place, but which, had he but known it, was shame.
"Get up, you cur!" Hames cried. "None of your shuffling excuses for me. You have your right arm still. Now, then, you cheat, you palmer of cards, the day has come for our reckoning. How much longer do you suppose you would be allowed to delude these poor fools here? How long has he been cheating you all like this?"
A dissipated wreck from the bar spoke up.
"Rufus always wins," he said. "I never did think he was of much account myself."
Hames laughed contemptuously.
"Are you going to take that lying down, Rufus?" he asked. "Have you not got pluck enough to resent an insult from a drunken wreck like that? Why, there's not a child in the camp who wouldn't slap his face for him! Now, then, get out your shooting-iron, and we will fight across the table. I've been looking forward with pleasure for many a long day to this meeting. I might have shot you as I came in to-night, but that is not my way. There are white men and clean men in Gulch City—indeed, I can see plenty of them round me now—and when I realise that fact, I marvel that you have not been lying in your grave for many a year. But I'm wasting your time and mine. Your gun, Rufus!"
Captain Rufus dropped his head upon his hands and burst into a flood of tears. A laugh cut the silence, then the whole saloon swayed with ribald, mocking mirth. Hames held up his hand for silence. He pointed to the figure huddled over the table.
"I'm going to leave him to you presently," he said; "you will know how to deal with that cowardly skunk there. And there is not one of you who would not have rejoiced to see his back long ago. I'm going to tell you something. I was asked to come to these parts to take a hand in wiping out Rufus and his gang. I gladly came, because it was a pleasure to me to do so. The first man I came in contact with was Carney. He happened to recognise me, and—well, you know what became of him. Then there was Stanley and two other rowdy blackguards whose names I don't know. They happened to catch me unawares, and for an hour or two my life wasn't worth a dime. You see, they had found out that I saw Carney die, and they wanted to know who killed him. I couldn't very well tell them that, could I, boys? It was a close call, and if it had not been for the bravery of a woman, Rufus would still be here swaggering and bullying and cheating you out of your money as usual. I want to tell you, boys, that it was Mrs. Winter who saved me. And she is anxious for me to tell you that it was I who shot Stanley and his companion, and not she. If you were not an indolent, careless lot, you would have rid yourself of this cowardly, murderous bully long ago. At any rate, you ought to know what to do with him. You are acquainted with the quaint and interesting ceremony which usually takes place in a community like this when a distinguished citizen is invited to travel. So far as I am concerned, I make you a present of Rufus."
"Ain't you going to kill him?" a voice drawled.
"Kill him!" Hames sneered. "Do you think I'd soil my hands with carrion like that? Whatever the faults of the other members of the gang might have been, they were men. That poor creature snivelling on the table there is nothing but a craven coward. Oh, there are plenty of his sort about in the mining camps—the West is infested with them."
Hames turned upon his heel and, with a curt nod of his head, made for the door. He had finished with these people, and he wanted no more of them. After all, the expedition had been disappointing. He had hoped for an adventure more full-flavoured than this.
"Say, mister," a voice drawled, "ain't you goin' to wait for the ceremony? We won't keep you long."
"I think I will," Hames said sweetly. "I love the smell of tar, and burnt feathers are most invigorating. Eh, Rufus?"
There was a sound of revelry by night, and"—and Marlshire's chivalry had gathered at Hilsdon Place for much the same purpose as Belgium's chivalry had come together on a more historic occasion. In other words. Sir Geoffrey Hilsdon was giving a dance, and a good many of the officers of the Blue, or attacking, force were present. The country round had been chosen as a mimic battleground, and a great engagement might be expected at any moment. Therefore Madge Hilsdon had seized the opportunity of emulating her Grace of Richmond on the eve of Waterloo.
The dance was in full swing now, and the guests were visibly enjoying themselves. The fine old rooms were looking their best, the famous conservatories had been ransacked, and the floral decorations were in their way a triumph. It wanted an hour to supper-time, a waltz had just finished, and Madge Hilsdon was enjoying the luxury of a whole five minutes to herself. It was a warm evening in September, clear and fine overhead, and most of the windows had been left open for the sake of the grateful breeze. Madge slid across the refectory, where the dancing was in progress, and strolled into the cloister beyond. Here was a grand old quadrangle with a fountain in the centre—a veritable haven of rest in the languid summer days.
It was blissfully quiet there, and Madge was in the mood to go a little further. As she turned to the right, a figure emerged suddenly out of the shadows and grasped her by the arm. She had a fleeting glance of a dilapidated nomad clad in greasy cords, a dim outline of a mahogany-coloured face surrounded by a mass of ragged black beard and whisker. Before Madge could cry out, a hand was clapped to her lips, and she was lifted from her feet as though she had been no more than a feather.
"Don't make a noise!" the assailant whispered. "If you are quiet, you will be perfectly safe in my hands."
The hand was taken from Madge's lips, and she was set gently on her feet again. She was too indignant to be frightened, too absolutely enraged to be conscious of any other emotion.
"How—how dare you?" she panted.
"Well, it was a bit thick, wasn't it?" the miscreant remarked. "If you had only seen yourself standing in the cloister, looking like a ravishing angel in pink chiffon—"
"Jim," Madge cried—"I mean Mr. Sutton, this is a distinct outrage! You have dared to presume upon our—our—"
"Engagement," Lieutenant Jim Sutton said coolly. "You might just as well say it. Oh, Madge, if you only knew—"
"I'll not hear another word," Miss Hilsdon said icily. "I am returning to the house at once. And if my brother Tom imagines that your sister Connie is any less determined than I am, he will find himself bitterly mistaken."
"I can explain," Sutton said eagerly.
"There can be no explanation, Lieutenant Sutton. Gentlemen don't break appointments with ladies, and take chorus girls on the river instead. And, besides, gentlemen would not be hanging about a house at this time of night in a—a beastly disguise like yours. We were under the impression that you were both with your regiment. I suppose this is some mad escapade on Tom's part."
"He was always worse than me," Sutton said magnanimously. "Look here, Madge, I can put that river business right in a minute, if you will only listen. You see, poor old Billy Lushington got engaged to one of them, and he was in a pretty considerable funk about it, so Tom and myself thought—"
Madge stamped her little satin-shod foot impatiently.
"I decline to discuss it," she said. "What are you doing here like a tramp? You might be some vulgar poacher."
"Oh, I am!" Sutton said cheerfully. "As they say in the melodramas, my lips are sealed. Now, you might do me a little favour, Madge. It may be the last that I ever ask at your hands. With all my faults, I am not lost to all sense of feeling."
Madge's blue eyes softened ever so slightly.
"You don't deserve it," she murmured, "but if—"
"That's right," Sutton said encouragingly. "Now, does Captain Algy Traske happen to be shaking the light fantastic toe with you to-night? If so, I would have speech with him."
Madge repressed an impulse to laugh. Not that she felt in the least mirthful. This man was incorrigible. It seemed impossible to believe that she had ever loved him, that she had suffered his caresses. And that day in Dovedale, under the shade of the trees, with the stream at their feet—
"I must get back to the house," she said coldly. "I will speak to Captain Traske, and tell him you are here, though why you should have assumed this loathsome disguise—"
"Pearl of the Andes, you will do nothing of the kind," Sutton said hurriedly. "By the love you once bore me, I implore you to be discreet. The fate of a nation may hang upon your silence. Tell Traske nothing. So long as you get him outside, I shall be satisfied. The mere fact that he is my hated rival does not mean that his life is in danger. Not so much as a hair of his precious eye-glass shall be injured. Is it a bet?"
"I detest the man," Madge whispered.
Sutton held out his hands to her. She turned and fled. She stood just inside the ballroom, panting and quivering from head to foot. There was a beautiful tinge of wild rose in her cheeks, her eyes gleamed like the reflection of stars in a forest pool. She posed there, such a vision of dainty beauty, that for two whole minutes Captain Algernon Traske was actually thinking about something besides himself. He came across the room, prim and immaculate, not one line or hair a fraction of an inch out of place. He always reminded Madge of a starched doll. Some inanity in the way of a compliment was on his lips.
"This is our dance, I think," he said. "I ought not to be here at all, don't you know. I've got pressing business on for the general commanding at Farnborough, but, when I received your invitation, I really couldn't refuse. Must be off in an hour, all the same. A sort of Adam turned out of Paradise—what?"
"Then come and get it over," Madge said unkindly.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Jim Sutton had made his way through the shrubbery in the direction of the big wood, where a gipsy caravan was standing. Here was no pampered home of peripatetic luxury, but the genuine thing as seen where the children of Bohemia mostly do congregate. The caravan was exactly as it had been taken over from its previous owners, save that it had been cleansed and sweetened, and the bedding freshly obtained from Tottenham Court Road. Inside the caravan a second swarthy ruffian was lounging, with a clay pipe between a set of beautifully even white teeth.
"What ho, my noble redskin!" he said, as Sutton entered. "How progresses the campaign? You have been so confoundedly long that I began to think that you had fallen into the hands of the treacherous foe. The point is, have you done any good?"
"I don't think," Sutton laughed. "I've seen Madge, my boy. Regularly abducted her, Tom. She was pretty haughty, and all that, but on the whole charming. Would not hear a word about Billy Lushington, all the same."
"Oh, confound Billy Lushington!" Captain Tom Hilsdon said impatiently. "We'll put that matter right when we've got time. Did you say anything about Traske?"
Sutton's eyes glowed, but that might have been due to the reflection of the match as he lighted his pipe.
"She hates him, my boy," he said rapturously.
"Now, what have I done," Hilsdon asked piously, "to be tied up in an important mission with an idiot like this?"
"Oh, all right, old chap—don't be ratty! You'd feel just the same as I do if you had a rival hanging about my sister Connie. You can take it easy, knowing that you can go in and win when Connie simmers down, as she's sure to before long. So far as Traske is concerned, I regard him as a danger."
"What—a sister of mine marry that?" Hilsdon cried. "But go on. Did you do any good at all?"
"I did. You've only got to wait, and the immaculate Traske is our very own. Heaven only knows what Madge took me for!"
"Does she know I'm in it, too?"
"Of course she guessed it. Was there ever a gorgeous spree going that we weren't both in? I believe Madge is under the firm impression that this is a poaching affray. Now, come along and let's hide somewhere near the house till the time for action arrives."
Hilsdon carefully closed the door of the caravan, and a moment or two later the adventurers were hidden in the shrubbery, from whence they could command a view of the cloisters. Presently there emerged the slim, dandy form of Captain Traske, accompanied by a radiance in pink chiffon. Traske was bending over his companion, who seemed to turn away from him with shy bashfulness.
"What are your teeth chattering for?" Hilsdon asked.
"They ain't chattering," Sutton said curtly. "I'm gritting 'em. By Jove, Madge has gone back and left that last rose of summer all blooming alone! He evidently thinks she's going to return. Now, then, it's a case of 'Up, Guards, and at 'em!'"
A pair of arms were wound kindly but firmly round Traske's shoulders, and a gag was thrust in his mouth. Without a word being uttered, he was carried to the caravan and there deposited on the floor. He protested loudly, but his threats apparently had no effect upon the miscreants who had dared to inflict this indignity upon him. That he had not the slightest notion of their identity did not in the least detract from the humour of the situation.
"He's beginning to sit up and take notice," Hilsdon grinned. "Traske, my son, you are the victim of a woman's perfidy. You are not the first brave soldier who, for the sake of a pair of blue eyes, has—well, made an ass of himself, so to speak. Product of an effete civilisation, do you realise that you have fallen into the hands of the foe?"
"Oh, speak in a language the child can understand!" Sutton said. "Algy, dear old son, we want that from you which is dearer than your life, even dearer than your eye-glass. Will you kindly cough up those dispatches which you are taking to the general at Farnborough."
"A joke, isn't it—what?" Traske asked feebly.
"On the part of your general—yes," Sutton grinned. "To pick you out the bearer of dispatches was a stroke of absolute genius. That prince of detectives, Lupin himself, would never have dreamt that you could have been chosen as the bearer of important messages. But you talk, dear boy, and our spies in your camp conveyed the news to us. Did you but know it, we are here officially with the full connivance of our illustrious chief. Like Autolycus, we are snappers-up of unconsidered trifles. In this guise we are going through your lines, gathering honey on the way. For the next day or two, at any rate, you are our prisoner. No clean collars, my boy, no purple and fine linen, not even a bath unless you like to take it in a brook. Will you kindly oblige with those dispatches?"
"I—I haven't got them on me," Traske stammered.
"Always obstinate, even as a child," Sutton said sadly, "and greedy, too. I am very much afraid that we shall have to resort to one of the fine old Eton methods of extracting information."
"I swear I haven't got them," Traske protested. "I only came to the dance for an hour. I arrived at Hilsdon Place in my uniform, and Sir Geoffrey was good enough to let me change there. The dispatches are written in cipher, and are concealed in the lining of a cigarette case. If you will let me go—"
"Not once," Hilsdon said firmly. "Tell me which bedroom you are occupying, and that will be good enough for me. No, you need not go into details. Seeing that I was born in the house, I shall be able to find the room easily enough."
Very reluctantly Traske gave the desired information. He protested loudly against the indignation of fetters on his feet and being tied up so carefully that it was barely possible to smoke a cigarette in comfort. The two adventurers left him there, and made their way back to the cloisters.
"We shall be sure to see Madge presently," Hilsdon said. "She can't help being curious as to what is going on. And it's any money that she tells Connie."
Hilsdon's prophecy was fulfilled to the letter, for a few minutes later two slim, graceful figures flitted like butterflies along the cloisters.
"Well, you girls," Hilsdon accosted them cheerfully, "and what mischief might you be up to?"
"We're not punting on the Thames," Connie Sutton said severely, "and we're not poachers, either."
"Now, that's very unkind," Hilsdon said plaintively. "This is all the thanks we get when we tear ourselves away from the society of these cruel girls in the hour of our country's need. We are not poachers—we are officers in disguise. If we are arrested, we shall be shot as spies. To make the matter plain, we are after some dispatches which Traske is conveying to the officer in command at Farnborough. We are supposed to be gipsies, and if you've got five minutes to spare, we will show you the jolliest little caravan—"
"Keep to the point," Sutton said sternly.
"The fact is, we've got Traske a prisoner, and he has confessed to possessing the dispatches, which are in his cigarette case in his bedroom. If one of you girls will only nip along and get it."
"I'd love to see that caravan," Connie said rapturously.
"Darling, you shall," Hilsdon said with equal fervour. "If Madge will cut in and get that cigarette case, you shall come down there now. We can easily put Traske to bed for an hour or two in the bracken. But we must have those papers first. Now, Madge, do be a sportsman for once."
Madge laughed, a spirit of mischief dancing in her eyes. She turned and disappeared like a shadow down the cloisters, only to return five minutes later with something dainty in the way of a cigarette case in her hand.
"There!" she said breathlessly. "But I thought you two people were alone in this business?"
"So we are," Sutton explained. "Why?"
"Oh, only because there are two other men in the house dressed very much as you are. They had the audacity to make their way into the corridor upstairs. I caught a glimpse of one of them turning into one of the rooms. It seems to me, Tom, that your intelligence department has taken the precaution of having two strings to its bow. I suppose anything is justifiable in war-time, but I thought it rather cool on the part of those men to enter the house and go upstairs. I suppose they are aware of the fact that every servant in the house is fully occupied with what is going on on the ground floor."
Hilsdon looked at Sutton and whistled softly.
"You may bet they were," he said drily. "Now, you girls, get back in the house, or you will be missed."
"What about the caravan?" Madge protested.
"Come back here in half an hour," Hilsdon went on. "Now, go back, or you will spoil everything. Ah, that's better! This is going to be a great night, old man. You tumble, don't you?"
"I tumble," Sutton said briefly. "But what's the next move? It will never do for us to disclose our identity, especially considering the fact that the house is fairly bulging with Johnnies attached to the battalions of the foe. And if, on the other hand, we do nothing—"
"Oh, come along!" Hilsdon said impatiently. "I know exactly how those chaps got in, and, therefore, it stands to reason that I know how they will come out. They must have been pretty sure of their ground for both of them to enter the house. We will go round to the side entrance. Ah, this is just as I thought!"
Hilsdon stooped and called Sutton's attention to a strand of wire running between two pegs on the grass. The entanglements were carefully skirted, and the spies came presently to a side entrance over which was a balcony facing a large casement window. By the side of the porch a short ladder was standing.
"Up you go," Hilsdon whispered. "We'll wait for our friends here. I don't suppose they will be very much longer. You stand on one side of the window, and I'll stand on the other; and when the first artist comes out on your side, drop him without the slightest hesitation. They won't have much plate on them, because most of that will be in use downstairs. But I've no doubt these chaps have laid their hands upon a tidy amount of jewellery, seeing what a crowd of women there are staying in the house."
They were quite ready, not to say eager, for the fray, but the waiting was weary work, and they were both getting a little jumpy when a long shadow crossed the window. There was a pause for a moment, and then a burly figure emerged as silent and noiseless as a shadow. His pockets appeared to be bulging, a small sack was slung over his shoulder. He gave a grunt of relief as he turned his face to the open. A second later a smashing blow on the jaw laid him out puffing and blowing on the balcony. The second man, hearing the fall, doubled on his tracks and raced along the corridor. But physical culture is not an art in high favour with the predatory class, and a neat trip brought him headlong to the ground. He found himself dragged along backwards until the balcony was reached, and the window closed carefully behind him.
"How are you getting on, Jim?" Hilsdon panted.
"Oh, I'm sitting on his head," Sutton responded cheerfully. "Most obstinate beggar he is. I had to jolt him considerably before he consented to part with his revolver. It's any odds your bird's got one, too. You'd better argue the matter with him."
Hilsdon promptly turned his man over and rubbed his face on the cold, unsympathetic lead casing of the balcony.
"Hand it over," he said between his teeth. "If you don't, I'll spoil those pretty features for you."
The burglar wriggled an unsteady hand behind him and contrived to extract an ugly-looking Colt from his hip-pocket.
"So far, so good," Hilsdon said. "You go down the ladder first, Jim, and these chaps will follow you. I'll bring up the rear, and we'll take them as far as the caravan. We can search them quietly there. Now, drop that cursing, my man. If you only knew it, you are two of the luckiest rascals in England."
"I'm afraid they are," Sutton muttered mournfully. "We are bound to let the brutes go when we've done with them. We can't appear in the matter without disclosing our identity. Now, then, squad, by the left, march!"
The caravan was somewhat crowded a little later. Traske viewed the new-comers through his eyeglass with a kind of mild, resigned astonishment. His own abject misery and utter melancholy won a smile even from the burglars.
"D'yer mean to say, guv'nor," one of them asked, "as wot' e's another of us? D'yer know 'im, George?"
George shook his head gloomily. He was engaged in the horribly uncongenial task of emptying his pockets. With a heartfelt sigh, George's companion in misfortune was doing the same. It was a fine, glittering heap of stuff that presently littered the caravan floor. Sir Geoffrey's male guests had not been selfishly forgotten, for the heap contained watches and pins and sovereign purses, to say nothing of a little heap of cigarette cases. As one of these, a platinum and gold affair set in diamonds, was produced, a queer sort of a cry broke from Traske's lips. It was only for a moment, then he became wooden again, but, all the same, his passing agitation had not escaped Sutton's notice. He laughed drily.
"So that's the lot," Hilsdon said. "And now you two artists can go as soon as you like."
A fine perspiration bespangled George's brow.
"You're joking, guv'nor," he said hoarsely.
"Oh, no, I'm not," Hilsdon went on. "Make the most of your luck when you get the opportunity. There's the door, unless you prefer the more congenial exit of the window."
The space recently occupied by George and his companion resolved itself into thin air. Sutton bent over the glittering heap of gems, and picked up the resplendent cigarette case.
"Those chaps have done us a fine service," he said.
"In what way?" Hilsdon asked.
"Why, don't you see, Mad—I mean your messenger—brought you the wrong cigarette case. Dear old Algy here is just the sort of Johnny to carry two. And didn't you notice how he cried out when George produced that Solomon-in-all-his-glory box? George and Co. are evidently much better finders of valuables than we are. Now, come, Algy, aren't I right? If you don't agree, we can easily cut the cigarette box open."
"Don't do that!" Traske groaned. "I hate to see beautiful things spoilt. I'd much rather show you how to open the case."
"Good boy!" Hilsdon said approvingly. "What an ingenious arrangement! And now, Algy, we are going to look after your health a bit. It is absolutely necessary that you should have a little fresh air before going to sleep, so we are going to deposit you outside for half an hour on a comfortable bed of bracken. At the end of three days we shan't want you any more, and then we can return you to headquarters as an empty."
Traske made no protest—he recognised the futility of it. A little while later, and there were two other figures in the caravan. They were slender, beautiful ethereal figures in frothy lace and diaphanous draperies—they had pink in their cheeks and a tender gleam in their blue eyes.
"And that's the story," Hilsdon concluded lamely.
"Oh, it was wonderful, wonderful!" Connie exclaimed. "You are the two cleverest boys in the world!"
"I'm glad you didn't leave me out," Sutton said.
"Just as if anybody could!" Madge cried indignantly. "Oh, I should like to have seen Captain Traske's face when you brought him here! I suppose you couldn't fetch him?"
"Oh, that would be downright cruel," Sutton said. "But then girls are cruel—no sense of justice at all. You've only got to go out of your way to help another man, and they are sure to think that you are doing their sex an injustice. Now, take—"
Madge impulsively threw her arms about his neck.
"Will you ever forgive me?" she murmured.
"Connie," Hilsdon whispered, "don't you think we're in the way here? Shall I see you back to the house?"
"I think you had better, dear," Connie said demurely.
RODNELL strode across the room and looked out into the garden. Those strong hands of his were clenched, and his teeth were closely set together. He was a man of strength in more ways than one—the kind of man who knows how to suffer in silence. As his gaze wandered over the garden, the brooding shadow in his eyes deepened. Seven hard, honest years lay there; he had found the place a wilderness, he had turned it into the semblance of a smiling paradise. A bad nervous breakdown had caused him to sever his connection with the Press and start in a small way as a gardener with a capital of a hundred pounds and what experience he had picked up from casual observation.
Well, at any rate, he had managed to live. It had been a hard struggle, but the open air life had made another man of him, and he had decided to go on with the fight. There had been times when it was necessary to borrow money, but the garden had grown and grown, the shining rows of glasshouses had expanded, the returns were better every year. Yet, despite this fact, Dick Rodnell owed James Cartright four hundred pounds and the knowledge troubled him.
Cartright's reputation was a sinister one, and many were the tales told of him in Little Mersham. He called himself a lawyer, but practically no business passed through his hands, and the fortune he had scraped together had come to him in the form of usury pure and simple.
He had been pressing Rodnell of late. He had found out by some means that the latter expected to do great things with a new carnation that he had discovered. Before long the Rodnell carnations would be the talk of the horticultural world. Already one of the greatest nurserymen in England had offered Rodnell a thousand pounds for a half interest in one of the new plants, and the settlement of this deal was only a matter of time. But the big florist was in South America, and nothing could be done till his return.
Rodnell bitterly regretted that he had ever mentioned this to Cartright. He had done so more with the intention of gaining time than anything else. Unless some unforeseen event occurred he would be a comparatively wealthy man in a year's time. Cartright had shared this optimistic opinion, and on the strength of it had advanced a further sum of fifty pounds. Just as a matter of form, the precious pots of carnations were added to the security.
And now Cartright had shown his hand. He had had losses, and needed his money at once. One legal process after another followed in startling rapidity. He had done it all himself in his furtive and secretive way, and probably was the only man who knew that Rodnell had had a bankruptcy notice served on him.
Rodnell was not blind; he knew exactly what this meant. Cartright was after those carnations, and unless some miracle happened they would be his in a week's time. It was no use appealing to any of the other great florists, seeing that the carnations had finished blooming, and the great man in that line was the only member of his firm who knew anything about them. Rodnell cursed himself for his folly none the less heartily because he had been conscious of it from the first.
Why should be be robbed of all he had in this way? Cartright was just as much a thief as if he had picked his pocket. And nobody knew anything of j the story beyond the two men concerned. All the papers and documents were in Cartright's safe in the library of his house. Rodnell knew the house and its garden quite well. Cartright's niece Jessie, who lived with him, was a great gardener, and Rodnell had spent many happy hours helping her. She was a flower herself, and Rodnell often wondered how it was that she could flourish in that uncongenial soil.
As he stood there staring moodily at his own garden he could picture Jessie Cartright working in hers. He had promised to go down this evening and give her some assistance with the chrysanthemums, but he shrank from it now. He did not feel like facing James Cartright just then. Up to that moment he had had no quarrel with the money-lending attorney, whose manner was just the same as it always had been. Business was business, he said, and there was no reason to make a personal matter of it.
Rodnell could see everything quite clearly. He knew the interior of Cartright's house perfectly. He could have found his way about tEe garden blindfolded!. He could picture Cartright sitting up late as usual working at his accounts long after everybody else had gone to bed. He knew that this was Cartright's custom. Hardly anybody in Little Mersham was up after ten o'clock. Cartright would be working away there, with his papers littered all over the big table, the safe door open. Suppose he were to surprise Cartright, to gag and bind him, and take his securities and make off with them! He would pay his just debts after the matter of the sale of the carnations was effected—he had no wish to be a thief. It would be only his word against Cartright's, and people would prefer to believe him. All he needed was time to save himself from the clutches of this miserly rascal.
For half an hour Rodnell stood there brooding over this idea. He was a desperate man in a desperate mood. And these carnations were as the apple of hiw eye. His whole life's work was in them—they would give him an established reputation amongst gardeners. He had other discoveries that he would work out as soon as he had the money and the peace of mind necessary for their development.
He put on his hat presently, and went down the village street in the direction of Cartright's house. It was a warm evening in early September, and the gardens were still gay with flowers. Out at the back of the old-fashioned house Jessie Cartright was working. Her eyes brightened, and a color rose to her cheeks as she saw Rodnell coming.
"I began to imagine that you were not coming," he said. "I was conceited enough to go on with these cuttings in your absence, Mr. Rodnell. Now, have I mixed enough sand with this mould?"
Rodnell sifted the soil through his fingers thoughtfully. He held it up to the light between his fingers. Across the palm was a rough white seam, a little hard and ragged at the edges. "Yes, I should think that your proportions are quite correct," he said "What are you looking at?"
"Well, I was looking at your hand," Jessie confessed. "How did you manage to do it?"
"Oh, that is an old story," Rodnell said, lightly. "I did that five years ago. I was hacking away at a rose briar with a pruning knife, and the blade slipped and gashed my left hand. It was rather a nasty business at the time, but it is all right now, as you can see. I should add just a shade more of that peat if I were you. And push the cuttings down more firmly—so."
Jessie Cartright watched him admiringly. She made a pretty picture as she stood there, her face shaded by her big garden hat. Perhaps Rodnell's eyes told her this, for the color crept into her cheeks. She did not fail to notice that Rodnell was a little more quiet than usual. In her quick, observant way she saw most things. She had a more than vague idea as to the way in which Cartright made his money—she had not been living with him two years for nothing.
"You are very quiet to-night," she said at length.
Rodnell aroused himself from his reverie with a start. "Am I?" he said. "Well, we all have our little worries at times."
"I hope you have not been disappointed over those carnations of yours?"
"Well, not exactly that," Rodnell admitted. "They are all right. If I can only manage to hold on for a month or two longer, Waterton's people—Mr. Waterton himself But you don't understand these things. I mean it's a question of money."
Had Rodnell glanced at his companion just then be would have seen that she understood a good deal more than he gave her credit for. They had often discussed the great things likely to result from the sale of the new carnations, but as to their being pledged to Cartright nothing had been said.
"It must hare been hard work at the start," Jessie said.
"It was," Rodnell said, grimly. "I had only about a hundred pounds, and I was further handicapped by poor health and utter lack of experience. I had to pay pretty dearly for my experience; and yet I fancy I enjoyed the struggle. It was something to fight for, you see. I don't mind confessing to you that I should have had to abandon it altogether if it had not been for those carnations. And to lose them just when fortune is in my grasp is hard. I daresay
"Dick—Mr. Rodnell," Jessie whispered. "If it so bad as that? Won't you tell me?"
Her eyes were full of sympathy; the little red mouth quivered. In the impulse of the moment she laid her hand on Rodnell's arm. He took the fingers in his and kissed them; then in some vague way he found himself kissing the quivering red lips as well.
"I ought not to have done that," he said; "but I was so lonely, I had nobody to confide in. And when you looked on me as if—as if—well, as it you cared
"Of course I care," Jessie whispered. "Haven't you known that for a long time, Dick?"
"But I am a pauper," Dick groaned. "What right has a pauper to love a girl like you?"
"Well, tell me all about it," Jessie asked, impressively. "What have you been doing with the carnations—my carnations now? Please to tell me the story at once."
In a tame and halting way Rodnell complied. The carnations were in pawn to a man who had made up Ms mind to possess them. Dick mentioned no names. He had a certain delicacy in disclosing the fact that t"he Shylock in question was Jessie's own flesh and blood; and, strangely enough, she did not seem to be in the least curious on the point. Her face was hot with indignation, but all the same she seemed anxious to avoid Rodnell's glance.
"A man like that deserves any treatment!" she exclaimed. "You are justified in doing anything to thwart his plans. And you can pay him before long. If I were a man I should not hesitate for a moment. We must discuss this again, Dick; we must talk it over, and find some way to overcome the enemy. I must go now and look after my uncle's supper. Good-night."
She lifted up her face to he kissed in the most natural manner, and vanished. As a rule she asked Dick inside but she seemed averse to doing so this evening. He walked across the lawn to a gate that led into a lane, now quite dark and deserted. The oLd woman who "did" for him did not sleep in the house. She usually put out his supper and cleared it away in the morning. She had the key of the back door, and came and went as she pleased. Nobody would be able to prove that Rodnell was not in his cottage all the evening.
The more he thought the matter over the easier it looked. It was as if the Fates had gone out of their way to make the path easy for him. He was convinced now that he was justified in taking the step that he was going take, and Jessie had shared this opinion. If he only took his courage in both hands now he could be free. In a few months' time he would have ample means. He would take that dear little girl to share his cottage with him—the dream of his life" would be realised. He would do it; he would hesitate no longer.
He lay there in a dry ditch on the far side of a hedge till the clock struck eleven. By this time the whole of the village was fast asleep. There was not a light to be seen anywhere, save the one that gleamed dully from the window of Cartright's study. It was an easy matter to find his way across the lawn to the house.
There was a ragged edge to the blind, and Rodnell could see into the study. An oil lamp was on the table, and behind it sat Cartright busy at his books. Rodnell could see that the safe door was open.
Rodnell was breathing a little more quickly now, but there was no hesitation in his mind. He was going to get those papers. He knew that it would be no difficult matter to gain access to the house. Fortunately for him he was wearing tennis shoes, so that his footsteps made no sound. Ho crept round to the back, and tried the scullery window. With his thin-bladed grafting-knife he pushed back the latch. A moment later and he was creeping along the passage leading to the hall.
So far, so good. The house was absolutely silent. In his rubber soles Dick made his way to the study. The door was wide open, and as he looked in he could see the safe hospitably open. Half in front of it was a big screen fashioned out of the colored plates of bygone Christmas numbers. It might be just possible to reach the shelter of the screen without being observed. Once this was done the contents of the safe would be clear to any average pair of eyes. It was a risk, and a big risk, for once he was discovered Dick was lost. Still, Cartright's back was to him, and the miser was deeply engrossed in his papers. On all fours Dick commenced to enter the room.
He hardly dared to breathe now; the sweat was pouring down his hot face. He wriggled along like a dog until he stood in the shelter of the screen, gazing into the safe eagerly. There were rows and rows of papers, neatly docketed and arranged on shelves. Rodnell was amazed to read the names on some of them. Evidently Cartright had most of his neighbours under his thumb. His heart beat a little faster as he recognised his own name on one of the packets.
So far everything had been in his favor. He had only to snatch the packet, drop it into his pocket, and retreat by the way he had come. At any moment Cartright might rise from his chair and come over to the safe for something' or other. And if that happened—well, Dick did not care to think of it.
He grabbed the packet and thrust it into his pocket. As he did so a grunt came from the table. Cartright dragged himself heavily from his chair and rose to his feet. Rodnell watched him breathlessly through one of the folds of the screen. There was nothing for it now but to resort to heroic measures. If Cartright came as far as the safe Dick would stun him by a blow on the side of the head before his precious host could discover the identity of his visitor. This was the way that some men went headlong on to murder, Dick thought. He was living his life over again in those few seconds. Cartright came along muttering and coughing. He came nearer and nearer to the screen.
With clenched teeth and heart beating like a drum, Dick waited. Then there was a cry and an oath and a snarl, and the lamp went out with a crash, leaving the room in total darkness. Dick's fists unclenched, and he rubbed his eyes in amazement. Was it possible that he had had anything to do with this? Had there been one brief moment of madness when he had attacked Cartright openly—a terrible struggle, in which the lamp had been extinguished? It did not seem to him that he had moved; he could feel the sharp edge of the screen when his forehead had bumped against it.
And the din was still going on. Dick could hear yells and screams and the rustle of struggling bodies, than a loud cry for help, and a body crashing down the flight of stone steps that led from the passage to the door leading to the back garden. Somebody groaned again, and all was still.
A dog barked somewhere in the house, the bells began to ring, and Dick could hear footsteps outside Then somebody seemed to stand by him and fumble for his hand. A small hand grasped his and pulled him in the direction of the door. He was too dazed and stunned to ask any questions; he could only obey meohanically. Before he could realise what had happened he was outside the front door, which was quietly closed behind him raced down the little drive, and fled mechanically along the road, it seemed to him that he had gained his house without a soul being any the wiser.
He lighted his lamp and stood gazing at it, regardless of his supper.
"Now, what does it all mean?" he thought. "Am I a coward that I turned my back upon trouble in that way. And what would Jessie say it if she knew? Did I kill Cartright, or shall I wake presently and find that it has all been a hideous dream ?"
He locked the papers carefully away in his own little safe and wont to bed. He would hear all about the trouble in the morning. After breakfast ho found the village to be full of it. Somebody had broken into the house of Mr. Cartright the night before and had attacked him at hit work. A lot of books and papers seemed to be missing, but whether or not any valuables had been taken it was impossible to say, as Mr. Cartright was still unconscious. He was not dead, or anywhere near it, and probably he would be himself again in a week. He had had a nasty blow on the head with a jemmy, which had been found at the bottom of the stairs. The miscreant had got clean off, but h e had been 'badly torn by the Bedlington terrier that Cartright always turned loose after the house was closed. Dick blessed the fact that ho and the Bedlington were good friends.
It seemed a plausible story, but it puzzled him. He was still half under the impression that he was the author of the mischief. He would have to go up to the house, of course, and inquire after Cartright. It was late in the afternoon when he summoned up the necessary courage to call and ask for Jessie. She came down to the long, oak-panelled drawing-room a little pale and. tired-looking, but otherwise quite herself. Just for a moment he hesitated to kiss her.
"What is all this I hear?" he asked. "Have you found anything out,"
"I don't think we ever shall" said Jessie. "The man must have been concealed in the study. One of the side-tables has a long cloth over reaching to the ground. The French window in "the study was open till long after it was dark; in fact, I closed it myself. The man was there waiting his chance. Possibly some movement on his part betrayed him, and there was a struggle. We shall know all about it when my uncle gets better."
"It must have frightened you terribly," Dick muttered.
"To a certain extent, yes. I had not gone to bed. I was writing in my room at the back of the house. I went downstairs first and made my way to the library. I—I was suspicious about something. I may confess at once that I was not thinking of my uncle for the moment."
"Oh! Now, there is somebody else in your mind, then?"
"Yes, Dick. I was thinking of a story I heard earlier in the evening. It was a story of a man who had pledged all that he held dear to another man who was trying to rob him of it. And it occurred to me that my uncle was a man like that. And it also occurred to me that I had suggested a way in which that one man could get back that which he had been robbed of. The burglar had gone when I got to the foot of the stairs—gone by the back door, with the dog after him. I—I was thinking of the other man. And I found him, Dick—l found him and showed him how to escape. I took him by the hand, and when I felt his hand—there was a scar upon it I knew —I knew Jessie paused as if unable to proceed. Dick caught his breath as he looked at her. He could see that her eyes were full of tears, that her face was flushed and smiling. He caught her in his arms and kissed her passionately. It seemed to him that there was no further need for explanation. "I expect that man felt an awful coward," he said. "He was a coward to leave you here all alone."
Not at all, Dick. He did exactly what I wanted him to do. I was quite safe. And that man was justified in what he did. When you fight a rascal you fight him with his own weapons. And if the man I mean was in love with a girl like—me, for instance—he is all the more justified because he is taking steps to get me out of a hateful place like this. Do you believe in the truth of what are called dramatic coincidences, Dick I do, and we had one of them last night. And, Dick—whisper—did you get the papers?"
Dick smiled down into the flushed, happy face. "I did, darling," he said. "I got them before the row began. I was hiding behind the screen. If you had only seen me sneak into the study and hide myself—"
"I did," Jessie said, dreamily. "I was looking over the stairs. We are a wicked couple, Dick, and I—well, I love you all the better for it. So there!"
DESPITE the bitter blight of it, a little knot of curious passengers stepped out into the corridor to see what was the matter. The biting cold struck them like a blow, a flurry of snow lashed and stung. Overhead the clouds were hurrying onwards, the white battalions came streaming down the gale, the pine trees rocked and swayed before the force of it. The autocratic guard, master of the train as absolutely as a captain on board his own ship, waved the eager questions on one side.
"There's nothing the matter at all," he said, "and if you want something in the way of a snow-up, I guess I can't give it you. Fact is, the driver saw a man lying on the track, and he sorter pulled up. We've taken him on board now, and a doctor is setting his leg. And that's all!"
The passengers were glad enough to get back to the warmth and comfort of the train, and Pete Morran himself was beginning to conclude that there was something in life, after all. He lay there on a heap of cushions, his teeth set and clenched, and a grey pallor under his tan, as the doctor worked away at his injured limb.
"Calculate I'm all right now," he said presently, "but it was just a chance. My horse died under me, and I slipped in crossing one of these trestle bridges, and bust that darned old limb. Much as I could do to get on the track, with the off-chance of holding up your express. But it came off all right, and it looks as if luck was turning the glad eye on me. Happen that Mrs. Bruce Evershed is on the train, and I guess the glad eye is fairly winking at me."
"Oh, I'll go and see," the doctor said good-naturedly. "Yes, you can have a pipe, if you like, but no whisky."
Pete accepted the situation with philosophy. He seemed particularly anxious to see Mrs. Bruce Evershed without delay.
"I guess she's on the train," he said. "I had a letter from my little girl to say that she and the missis were travelling West to-day on the North-Eastern Express, and my intention was to board the car at Overton. Then I got this bust, and I had to take all the chances that were lying around."
Mrs. Bruce Evershed, small and dainty and alluring, and a perfect picture of graceful beauty, looked up from her snug nest of furs as the doctor addressed her. She seemed to be the last word in luxury and extravagance. It would have been hard to picture her in any other attitude besides that of the ballroom and the theatre. Yet with it all there was just a suggestion of power in her eyes and the firm lines of her mouth. Her beauty was slightly marred by her petulant expression, which had in it some hint of pathos and unhappiness. She suggested a woman who was trying to get away from herself, a woman bored and satiated with the sweets of life, and hungry for a more healthy atmosphere.
"What is the matter?" she asked.
"Well, I hardly like to trouble you," the doctor apologised, "but there's a man in one of the brake vans who is asking for you. He was lying on the track when we pulled up and took him on board. He has sustained a nasty fracture of the right leg. I think his name is Pete Morran."
The bored, discontented look was wiped from Mrs. Evershed's face as if a sponge had been passed over it. Her brown eyes grew alert and eager. She threw aside her costly furs and prepared to follow.
"This is very startling," she said. "The man you speak of is my maid's father. What is he doing here? But perhaps I had better go and see."
Pete greeted the dainty figure, with the brown eyes and sunny hair, with a broad smile of the friendliest description. Mrs. Evershed held out a hand to him that looked like one of the snowflakes on the window as it lay in his brown fist.
"I am glad to see you, Pete," she said. Her voice trembled suspiciously as she spoke. "You are like a link with the past. But tell me, is there anything wrong?"
"Guess we will come to that presently," Pete said. "If you are under the impression that I'm out looking for you—well, you've guessed it first time, because I am."
"Did—did he send for me?"
"Well, I can't go so far as to say that. But he wants you, and cruel bad, too. You see, I heard from my little girl that you were on your way to England on this train, and I concluded to chip in at Overton. Then I threw up against this little trouble, and had to call a fresh deal. You see, at Overton I expected not only to meet you, but to get help."
"Help? Pete, you frighten me! Don't tell me that there is anything wrong with Bruce. If he died—"
"Oh, I guess it isn't so bad as that," Pete said cheerfully. "But he's in danger. You see, him and me we were mining up the Sierras—same old spot where you and him had that honeymoon of yours two years ago."
Mrs. Evershed sighed gently. She had good reason to remember her solitary six months in a mining camp. It all rose vividly to her eyes now. Put her on the right track, and she could have found her way to the camp blindfold.
"Oh, do go on!" she said impatiently.
"Well, there was him and me alone together, and we'd struck it real rich. We buried the stuff in the floor of the tent until we was fairly rocked asleep on a gold mine. And some of those galoots down Red Creek way found it out, and there were we all alone, on the chance of being murdered in our beds. But, after all, there were two of us, and we were armed, and there never was any real grit in that lot. They didn't come out in the open and fight; they just waited for their chance, like a set of cowardly vultures. Then your old man he gets down with an attack of malaria, and I tell you I was hard put to it, what with the cooking and the watching, and one thing and another. And old Bruce he says to me: 'Pete, lad, you've got to go out and get some reinforcements. You're pretty tough, but you can't stand the strain much longer.' And I figured it all out—I figured it as I could get up the reserves in about thirty hours. And we laid a little trap for 'em. We made it look as if we'd cleared out altogether. I fed Bruce up and kinder buried him under half a ton of hay in the corner of the tent, and let the snow drift in so that the place looked fair deserted. There wasn't any smoke, and there didn't appear to be any food, and I guess I played it up on those chaps properly. Then again perhaps I didn't. They might have smelt the trick, and they might at this moment be giving your old man—But I don't like to think of that."
"Oh, this is dreadful!" Mrs. Evershed cried. "You ought to have been back there by this time. What am I to do? The idea of my husband lying there at the mercy of those ruffians drives me mad, and you are useless for the present. Tell me what I can do. I would go myself now—I'd ride every inch of the way alone—if I thought that I could save him."
"I believe you would," Pete said admiringly. "Now, it's no use worrying anybody here. I guess there's nobody on the train who's made of the right stuff for our purpose. There's no help for it, Mrs. Bruce. But here am I like a darned great log, more in the way than anything else. Now, you get off the train at Overton and tell this little yarn to the station hands. It's only twenty miles up the valley from here, and a good horse will get you through before dark."
Mrs. Evershed set her little teeth together.
"I'll go," she said. "I'll find Elsie, and change my clothing at once. Everything necessary is in my baggage. But you must stay on the train and wait for us at the other end. When I start for England, I shall take my husband with me."
"Bully for you!" Pete cried. "That's the best I've heard for many a day, not but what I shall miss him, for a better pard no man could ever wish for. But you've come first, and you always did. And he just aches for you as much as ever. And if you haven't greatly changed yourself—"
"I shall never change, Pete," Mrs. Evershed said simply.
"Then you go to him, and this darned old broken leg of mine will be a blessing in disguise. I'm a plain man and not much of a scholar, but when you live all alone like I do, you learn to think. And he treated you in the right way. And I bet a dollar that you'd be the first to admit it."
Mrs. Evershed held out her hand without a reply. There was something like a frown upon her forehead, and in her eyes a blend of laughter and tears. All the listlessness and languor had left her now; indeed, it might have been a different woman who stepped out on to the howling platform dressed for a perilous journey through the snow. She had been through all this kind of thing before, and her heart was full of courage despite the cold and the stinging lash of the gale in her face. Just for a moment she was conscious of a sense of desolation as the express disappeared in the white, whirling mists.
There was cold comfort here, too. There had been trouble somewhere down the line, and one solitary express man remained in the station. He looked at Grace Evershed with a certain rugged pity in his eyes.
"Mean to say you're going alone?" he asked.
"If I have to," Grace said between her teeth.
"Well, I calculate it will have to be just that way. So far as I know, I'm the only thing that walks on two legs within ten miles of this location. I'd come if I could, but that means the wreck of a train or two. I can find you a horse and a saddle and a bridle. You can have a couple of guns, too, but I guess they won't be much use to you."
"Well, I guess they would," Mrs. Evershed snapped. "I calculate that I'm pretty useful with a revolver."
She set out presently, armed for the fray. She was beginning to realise the peril and danger that lay before her. And yet only an hour or two ago she had lain snug and warm in her furs, with no drear prospect like this before her. As she rode along, with the white flurry raging around her, her mind was busy with the past. She remembered the time when she had first met Bruce; she recalled to mind his peculiar views on the subject of women and their duty to the world. Until she and Bruce had first come together, she had lived a frivolous, selfish life—the only child of a doting father, who had left her more money than was good for any single girl to possess.
She had never meant to marry Evershed, though she admired his courage and his manliness and that strong, resolute face of his. She was never going to call any man master. And then, somehow, it came about that she did marry him, and from that moment the trouble began. Not that he ever upbraided her—there were no 'scenes' in the vulgar sense of the word—but his brow grew darker, and he became more silent as the days went on, until the project for a long trip to the Sierras came up. Grace was jaded and tired with the brilliant social whirl, and she clutched eagerly at the notion. She would have started out with a retinue of servants and all the pampered luxury of her clan, but Evershed had put his foot on that. She found herself roughing it as a daughter of the soil would have done. She found herself rising at dawn, washing and cooking and doing all the menial work of the household. She found herself clad entirely in homespuns, cut off, as it seemed, ten thousand miles from civilisation, with a taskmaster of a husband who worked her like a slave. She had not as yet learnt to face the solitude of the woods. She had all the town-bred girl's horror of the wild solitude and Nature unconfined. She would have turned her back upon it had she dared. But Evershed had refused to accompany her; he refused to turn his face towards civilisation, and if she wanted to go back to the other butterflies, she must find her way there unaided.
It was a somewhat grim and cruel plot which Evershed had evolved as a means of working out his wife's salvation. He made no disguise of what he had done; there was no pretence about it whatever. And, if Grace did not like it, she could go. There were days and weeks together when husband and wife hardly spoke, and when Pete Morran was like a godsend to both of them. And despite her wild rebellion against Fate, Grace Evershed was gradually falling under the fascination of snow and pine and glorious air, and all that goes to the making of a perfect country. She had lost all her lassitude and boredom. There was elasticity in her limbs, and joy in the knowledge of her strength. And there came a time when she could hunt and shoot and fish with the best of them—a time when she could have saddled her own pony and ridden off home by way of Overton without a qualm. But if Evershed had his pride, so also had she found her own. She had promised to come for a year, and she would see it out to the bitter end. Her husband should never brand her as a coward. And gradually, too, she began to see that Evershed was right. There came a time when she could no longer disguise from herself that she owed a debt of gratitude to Bruce for teaching her how to live. And there came a time, too, when she was glad, not perhaps that she had married him, but glad that he belonged to her, and that no other woman in the world could possess him.
But, all the same, at the end of the year she rode away without a word of farewell or even the intimation that she was going. Her year was over and the lesson was finished. Probably she would never look upon Bruce Evershed again. She tried to persuade herself that it did not in the least matter. But that attitude had been abandoned long ago. She stood face to face with herself and argued the matter out calmly. She loved Evershed, and she knew now that she had given him her heart from the first. She had good health and good looks and unlimited means, but she would have cheerfully bartered these to feel Evershed's arms about her and his lips on hers. If she could only find a way, if she could only provide herself with some bright and shining weapon wherewith to break down the barriers of pride, the day was won. And Pete had been quite right—she loved Bruce, and Bruce loved her, and the rest of the world mattered nothing.
And lo and behold, here was the weapon in her hand! Every step of the way was taking her nearer and nearer to her happiness. But would she be in time? That was the question which was racking her. Even under the mantle of snow she could recognise the outline of familiar landmarks. She drew a long, deep breath as the little camp came in sight.
Pete had told her to expect nothing but solitude and desolation. But here were fresh footprints in the snow; a thin wreath of smoke whirled and drifted in the tempest—there was a fire in the tent, beyond a doubt. In the pines behind the tent Grace could see three horses tethered. Assuredly the vultures were getting closer. Had they been bold enough to attack their prey? she wondered. A ribald laugh came to her ears down the gale. She dismounted and tethered her own horse, then crept round to the back of the tent and unhobbled the other three. The half-broken ponies broke into a gallop and disappeared behind the white, whirling curtain of snow.
There were three men in the tent, no doubt, for Grace could hear them talking eagerly. She gave a little gasp of thankfulness as she recognised the voice of her husband. It seemed a little weak and tired, but there was no note of surrender in it.
"I tell you no," Evershed was saying. "You can kill me if you like, but you'll benefit nothing by that. You'd never get from me where the stuff might be hidden. Besides, you don't know for a fact that it is hidden. Do you suppose that Pete went away and left me here without taking something along with him?"
"Oh, that's all very well," one of the other men exclaimed, "but you don't kid us with a story like that. Now, see here, Mister Evershed. We've got you properly whacked. Pete may come back to-morrow, and, on the other hand, he mayn't come back at all. If this storm makes good, it'll be days before the trail's open again. And you've got no food, and you ain't likely to get any unless it comes from us. We don't want to let you starve, but, seeing as you've got the rocks, you must pay for the tucker."
"And pay handsomely, too," the second man growled.
"You're a fine, soft-hearted lot," a third voice broke in. "What's the good of throwing away chances like this? Our game is to get the stuff and clear out before the storm begins in earnest. If he won't speak, perish me if I wouldn't make him. Take him up and roast him. Tie him up before the fire till his clothes scorch on his back. He'll open his mouth wide enough then, I'll promise you. Anybody'd think you were a lot of women!"
The other men growled ominously. It was plain enough that their comrade's suggestion was finding a certain amount of favour in their eyes.
"D'you hear that, Mister Evershed?" the leader asked. "D'you tumble to what Jim was saying? Because I'm game if Red Head here likes to join up. Here, Jim, go out and get some more firewood. There's a pile of dry stuff outside."
"You'll get nothing out of me, you cowardly blackguards!" Evershed cried. "Torture me if you like, but you shall never make me speak. And if you think—"
Evershed broke off abruptly, for the two men were upon him, and he wanted all his strength for the struggle. Weak and spent as he was, he made a fair fight of it, but he was bound at length and dragged to the centre of the tent. It seemed to Grace listening outside that she had come just in the nick of time. There was no fear in her heart, no wild prayer for assistance escaped her lips; she was not even conscious of the cold which was piercing her through and through. But she would have to proceed warily, or her aid and the revolver in her hand might prove useless. There was a second revolver in her pocket, and she had twelve shots in all. If her hand had not lost its cunning, she would know how to use them. It was long odds, too, that these ruffians were not armed. They had come down in this cowardly fashion, feeling sure that Evershed was too weak and ill to put up any sort of a fight. By this time their weapons were, no doubt, far down the valley in the holsters of the stampeded horses.
Grace Evershed crept a few yards away, and crouched down behind a mass of undergrowth covered in snow. From here she could watch the movements of the three desperadoes actually inside the tent. She saw the man who had been addressed as Jim come out, presumably with the object of collecting firewood. He stood there for a moment clear-cut as a cameo against a bank of snow. Grace raised the revolver and fired. She saw the man throw up his hands, she heard the yell of execration that rose from his lips as he collapsed in the snow. She had not killed him—she had not the slightest intention of doing so. She had aimed carefully just below the thigh, and she knew that she had broken the ruffian's leg as surely as if a doctor had told her so.
"I'm shot! I'm shot!" the ruffian screamed. "Get a move on you, boys, or we're done for! Where are the guns?"
"With the ponies," a hoarse voice came from inside the tent. "What's up there? You, Jim, what's wrong?"
But Jim answered never a word. He lay there groaning in the snow, absolutely incapable of further mischief. As the other two men rushed to the door of the tent, Grace fired twice in rapid succession. But she was not firing to kill now; she had thought the whole thing out calmly and collectedly. It might be days before relief came to their aid from Overton; the snow might lie deep and the trail be wiped out. If she wounded any more of these rascals, she would have to tend them, and have them on her hands, and, for aught she knew, the tent was none too well provisioned.
There was no occasion for further strategy. The trio were only too anxious to get away out of the zone of the deadly fire. With oaths loud and deep, it dawned upon them that the ponies were gone.
"It's an ambush!" the leader groaned. "It's all over with us, boys. Better put up your hands."
They stood there with hands uplifted, looking dejectedly miserable in the falling snow. But no answering voice bade them surrender, no further shots broke the silence. The stillness and the uncertainty of it all was perhaps more terrible than a volley of shots would have been.
Gradually their hands dropped, and presently, from her hiding-place, Grace could see two of the ruffians moving slowly away, carrying their wounded comrade with them. She had no fear that they would return; they would never risk the unseen danger again. Her heart was beating fast as she hurried to the tent and let down the flap behind her. Evershed lay bound upon the floor, his back towards her. She drew her hunting knife from its sheath and cut the raw-hide thongs. Evershed scrambled painfully to his feet.
"That was a close call," he gasped. "Those shots came just in time. I'm infinitely obliged to you. Why, it's a woman!"
"And one you have met before, Bruce."
"Grace!" he cried. "Now, I wonder what guardian angel sent you here just in the nick of time? Do you mean to say you came—"
His voice trailed away to a whisper. He was ill and weak, but the smile on his face and the look in his eyes was enough for Grace. He was glad, frankly and undisguisedly glad, to see her. On the impulse of the moment he stretched out his hands, and she snatched at them before he had time to withdraw them.
"Speak to me like that," she said. "Look at me as you are looking now, and I shall have courage to proceed. I don't want my pride to get the best of me now. Because Pete was right, Bruce. He said that you loved me and I loved you, and that we ought never to have parted. Because it's all beautifully true. I tried to make myself believe that it wasn't, but I was deceiving myself all the time. It has all turned out like some delightful romance. Pete broke his leg, and he managed to stop the train that I was on. Then he told me everything. He told me the danger you were in here, and, because there was no one to help me, I came alone. And in my heart of hearts I was glad that I was alone. And I feel proud of what I have done. It is the best way I can find of showing you how sorry I am. And I'm not going to ask you to forgive me, because you love me still, and it is not necessary."
"Oh, I shall wake up presently!" Evershed cried. "It's like some beautiful dream that comes to one during an illness. And do you really mean to say that you've come back here to stay?"
She reached her arms about his neck and laid her cheek lovingly against his.
"I've been longing for the chance ever since we parted," she confessed. "I'm quite cured, Bruce. I want nothing better than to be a good wife. That will be happiness enough for me. And now let me make you comfortable. Let me cook your food and make your coffee as I used to. Are there plenty of provisions? Splendid! So that we shall be quite right till help comes. And, do you know, I feel as if I was just beginning life to-day?"
THE pines bent and tossed—a broken square before the cruel onrush of the white battalions— the black boughs nodded and danced like plumes on a hearse, and down below, sagging behind the spent huskies, was—the coffin. At least, that was what Joe Pardon called it in his mind. To the crude, unimaginative eye it was a sledge. Still, a sledge can easily be a coffin when your provisions are all gone and your dogs are foundered, and you're off the map in bitter Ascaraland, with three feet of snow on the Divide and more to follow. It might be all very well to argue that you were only six leagues north of Fort Wolverine, which is by way of touching the skirts of civilisation, but the snow was as a white Atlantic lashed to fury, and—well, the coffin simile held good, and Joe and his partner, Happy Jack Hunston, knew it.
But for this bad luck, it would have been all right. They had not been blind to the risk, either, but they had to take it, as they had annexed the dogs and the sledge and the whole fit-out without the formality of asking the owner's permission. Wildcat Peter had wanted them badly up on the Lone Tree Bluffs, and Peter was notoriously impatient. Moreover, there was money in it, and they had none.
Thus! And now the snow was on them, and the game was up. It was horribly, bitterly cold—forty below zero despite the dampness of the snow—and bleak night was beginning to scowl over the edge of the pines. The big dog with the missing fang and one ear dropped and panted. He showed his yellow teeth in a snarl, and a throat hard and sanguine and black as death as Joe raised his whip. And Joe laughed bitterly.
The snow stung him like the thong in his mittened hand, the howl of the gale and the scream of the tossing pines roared in his ears like the thunder of some white, tortured Niagara. The other dogs had dropped as their leader had done; their fangs gleamed behind tongues that quivered and pulsated like strips uf red elastic.
"Well, they've done their bit," Joe muttered. "No use, old par'ner."
"No more use'n side-pockets to a toad," Hunston supplemented.
The end had come, and both of them knew it. In that stark programme there was the sporting chance of Death figuring as an extra turn. They might linger on for a day or two, but, if the grey, grim promise of the gale held good, it was merely a prolongation of the agony. There was only one world just then—a white one swept bare of food and fire, and they two were alone on the solar system.
"Sop me up with a bit of blotting-paper," Hunston said. "Wipe me out with a handful of waste. Noble redskin, we've torn it."
"Rock me to sleep, mother. Massa's in the cold, cold grave this time. Here, unhitch them dogs—we're a happy family now,"
All this without the semblance of a smile or the semblance of a fear. It was all in the game. Hunston cast off the dogs, and he and Pardon backed the sledge under a bank at the foot of a belt of pines. There were tools of sorts on the sledge—a pick or two and a couple of spades. It was good to be doing something in the way of action. The snow was piled high to windward; down there, in the deep trench, the keen edge of the wind was dulled, the white sharpshooters seemed to sting and burn and harry. A dead, dry pine gave all the wood the adventurers needed. A great fire blazed clear and dry. The dogs gathered round, the warmth from their steaming bodies was grateful— and unsavoury. They lay muzzle to the ground, their eyes alert and gleaming in amber flames as Happy Jack busied himself getting the evening meal. A haze hung over the cache, and mist sweated from dog and human.
It was hot and glowing waist-high there in the snowy pit, and freezing cold from the hips downwards. The gale screamed high overhead, handfuls of snow, like drift from a wind-lashed breaker, hissed and sizzled in the fire.
"They know all about it," Pardon growled. "Look at old Bully Bob! Mean to say he can't smell as we're in a tight place? And we don't want them forming a syndicate to corner the grub. We've got to bury them eatables—make a tunnel in the snow and bury 'em. Ain't goin' to be eaten by our own dogs, Jack."
"All the same, in the long run," Hunston said indifferently.
He tossed a fish each to the dogs. There was no fighting and snarling for them—each huskie took his own sedately. They knew. Pardon cursed them with a certain irritable affection as he filled the kettle with snow. He baked dampers, and made coffee, and fried the cast-iron bacon. There was just sufficient food left for thirty hours. Tobacco in plenty, but there was no jubilation in the knowledge. They were not unduly depressed, either. The fire glowed and crackled in amber and crocus-blue flames, the light rose and fell upon the stern faces of the two men. They were brown, hairy faces, with steadfast eyes and obstinate jaws. There was no money between them, and food for perhaps five more meals. Hunston sat with his face in his hands, sucking fiercely at his pipe.
"Jack, I've been thinking," Pardon said suddenly.
"Always gives me a headache," Hunston responded. "Never could do anything except with my hands. An' what's the good?"
"Oh, I dunno! I feels like that occasionally. I did a goodish bit of thinking when I quit the Old Country eight years ago, and turned the farm over to Mary. She was happy enough, but I couldn't settle down to it. Something in my blood, I suppose. Used to do a bit of poachin' to save taking to drink. Couldn't even stop when the kid was born. Wish I had now."
"Same here," Hunston said quite biographically, "only mine was market gardening. Fightin' bankruptcy all the time, with my heart in my mouth. Used to make me sweat and tremble—me as don't know what physical fear is. That's why I came out here to make a fortune for me and Lizzie."
Pardon spat savagely into the red heart of the fire.
"And you've done it," he cried—"you and me done it together! Over two hundred thousand dollars apiece. We was cheated out of the Simple Anne Mine by them cursed lawyers of Jim Clint's—though we didn't know as they were working for Clint at the time—and we was properly sold over those claims at Grey Reef. And all them hard-earned dollars found their way back into Clint's pocket, confound him!"
"What's it all matter now?" Hunston asked philosophically. "You'll never see Mary nor the kid, and Lizzie will have to find somebody else. Our number's up, Joe! That old vixen, Dame Nature, has caught us short, and we've got to pay. 'Bout two days more, and we'll toss for it who does the shootin' of the other when the grub's petered out. Only two shots are necessary, old pard, and I hope to Heaven as the man behind the gun won't be me!"
His big, strong voice shook as he spoke, though the twinkle in his flint-blue eye was still there. Pardon nodded solemnly. It was maddening to think that they were only fifteen miles from life and safety. Why, from the bluff behind the camp, they could see the lights of Fort Wolverine!
"And there he sits and fills his pockets!" Pardon cried with a sudden fury. "If he'd played the game by us, we shouldn't be here. We should be snug by the fireside in the Old Country, and you'd have your lass and I should have mine. Ever been inside Jim Clint's house? No? Well, I have. It's like what you read of in them penny novelettes— wallowin' in luxury. With a private telephone wire—seventy miles of it—to Weston City, and an operator at the far end to connect him with the long-distance lines as far as New York, he knows what the world's doing every morning before breakfast. That's how he's got the whole of the State in the hollow of his hand. That's how he diddled us and scores of honest men besides. A private line underground. Cost him a couple of hundred thousand dollars. To think of him sitting in that big house "
"Then don't think of him sitting in that big house." Hunston smiled. "Who told you all about the 'phone?"
"Found it out for myself. I'm up to all that. I learnt all about field telephones the year I was in Orange River Colony along of the Imperial Horse. I laid miles of it, and sent hundreds of messages. It isn't a bad game, take it one way and another. But that's all done with. Here, come and give us a hand with the grub before I'm too sleepy to handle it. We've got to make a tunnel in the snow, or the dogs will have the lot."
The ground was soft enough; the picks bit in it, and the shovels cleared the loose earth away. Hunston's pick struck something hard a glancing blow, and jarred him to the shoulder. He stooped down curiously.
"Didn't know as there was ironstone in these parts," he said. "Anyway, it's metal, all right. Looks like something buried here, Joe. Come and have a squint at what I have found."
Pardon complied indifferently enough. He was working mechanically, his eyes half closed. With the aid of a match, he could see in the bottom of the pit a shining spark of metal where the glancing pick had taken the rind off it. He bared his hand and touched the gleaming wound tenderly. His fingers slid around it. Then the sleep was wiped from his eyes as if a sponge had been passed over them. He was trembling from head to foot, under the brown varnish of tan the skin grey—ashy grey. For a moment the colour faded from his lips.
"I don't like—I don't like," he gasped, "to—to Besides, I ain't sure. Dump in the grub and fill up the mouth of the cave again. I ain't feeling none too well, pard. So we'll have a look at this yer thing in the mornin'. Not as any metal's much use to us. Jack. If it was a barrel of flour now, one might drop a grateful tear over it."
Hunston yawned sleepily. Pardon's agitation had entirely escaped him. He was dead tired—the roar of the gale was like drowsy music in his ears. He dropped down by the side of the fire and knocked out his pipe.
"Good night, old pardy," he droned. "When a man's asleep, he's as good as any other man, even if his blessed life isn't worth—"
A snore cut the philosophy short. But there was no sleep in Pardon's eyes. He was numb with fatigue, soaked through and through with the conflict of the day, but his brain was working at fever heat. From an inside pocket he took a section map and laid it by the side of the fire. For a long time he studied the chart with eager, burning eyes. From the same pocket he fished out a stump of pencil, and made laborious calculations on the margin of the map. He proved them again and again until he was satisfied that he had made no mistake. His pipe had long since gone out, but he sucked at it mechanically. He did not hear the roaring of the wind or the hiss of the snow on the fire, the whimper of the dogs in their dreams, or the scream of the tossing pine branches. He cared nothing for these things, because it seemed to him, in his simple wisdom, that he had found a way out.
He came to himself presently, after an uneasy sleep of an hour or two—came back to grey, dim daylight, with a sky of lead overhead and the black pines volleying in the gale. For the moment the snow had ceased, as if Nature had spent herself in one furious white orgy, but the menace was in the sky still, and there was more to come.
"Breakfast all ready," Jack said cheerfully. "Didn't want to disturb you. Just take that bacon off the fire, pard."
But never a word spoke Pardon. All through the meal he sat with a certain brooding sullenness, his eyes fixed on the fire. Before the provisions were hidden away again, he spent ten minutes and half a box of matches in an examination of the shining metal disc that Hunston had accidentally discovered. His lips muttered something, his eyes grew bright.
"Just you put the provender away," he said, in the same moody fashion. "I'm going to make a bit of an experiment. No, I ain't gone dotty, and I ain't goin' to say anything till I know. Give me a pick."
Hunston handed over the pick wonderingly. He had seen Pardon in this mood once or twice before, and generally on the eve of some great discovery. Therefore Pardon should have his own way and no questions asked. He would say what he had to say all in his own good time.
Pardon climbed over the ridge with the pick in his hand. The fierce rush of the gale brought him up all standing. He stood there repeating a formula which he had got by heart. Along the hollow gut the wind had swept the ground clear, piling it up in great white walls on either side. From Pardon's point of view, a vast amount of trouble was going to be saved. But he was not taking any risks on that account. He passed backwards and forwards over the narrow valley, tapping the ground with his pick at every stride. With grim tenacity and doggedness of purpose, the strange pastime went on for a good hour or more. Then the pick rang on something hard and brittle, and Pardon's lips parted with a smile.
"Got it," he muttered—"got it for a million, sure!"
He stooped down and proceeded to clear earth and refuse away. There stood disclosed presently a square iron grating fitted into a trap of the same metal. It looked strangely modern and civilised and out of place in the desolate white desert. With the point of his pick Pardon raised the grating and peered inside. The grim expression of his face expanded into an all-absorbing grin.
"No mistake about it," he said. "I knew I was right. It's a darned lucky thing as the wind skimmed the snow off here so nicely, and it's a darned lucky thing as I struck what I wanted within half a mile. Half a mile! As if a half mile here isn't equal to half a dozen leagues down below on the plains! Question is, can I do it?"
Hunston lounged over the fire, smoking placidly.
"Caught any fish with that there rod of yours?" he asked.
"Got the biggest fish this side of the Divide," Pardon explained curtly. "He's on the line, and he can't get off. But it's a long line as he's got out; I should say as there's quite five miles of it. But he's fixed there and he can't get away, and all we need is a landing-net."
"Oh, ask me an easy one," Hunston said impatiently. "Give it me with the bark on."
"I am," Pardon responded. "The landing-net's at Four Forks, and that's a good five miles away. I figured it out on the map when you was asleep last night. Worked it all out, I did, till I could hardly see the figures. If we can get the landing-net, we've got the fish sure, and he's big enough to keep us all our lives, old pard. But the question is, how can we get to Four Forks and back? That's the big trouble. It's a hundred to one against getting there, and a million to one against getting back. But the million to one shot comes off sometimes, or there's no basis for the theory of chances. (That ain't my own—I read it in a book.) At any rate, I'm going to try."
"You can count me in, of course, pardy."
"No, I ain't counting you in," Pardon said doggedly. "You've got to stay right here and wait. What's the good of two of us going? Besides, if I don't come back, you'll have food for another day or two, and Heaven knows what may happen in that time—rescue parties and all manner of games."
"Where you go, pardy, I go, and that takes it."
"Then I stay where I am, old son. I tell you it's a chance. But I ain't going to talk about it, for fear of disappointment. And I can't see no point in the two of us going to Four Forks. Is it a deal?"
Very reluctantly on Hunston's part it was. What Pardon needed from the locality in question he did not say, neither did Hunston press for information. If this desperate thing had to be done, then it had to be done quickly. Pardon might get there, and, on the other hand, he might have to turn back. He might find himself up to his neck in a snowdrift, and then—why, then neither man cared to think of it. There was no occasion to dwell upon the danger and the outrageous folly of it. But there was no way out but this. It was infinitely better than the certainty of slow starvation.
So Hunston helped to harness the dogs and pack a sufficiency of food for them and Pardon to last for a day at least. If Pardon was not back by nightfall, then it was inevitable that he would not return at all. It was characteristic of those two bosom friends that they did not even shake hands at parting. Hunston stood on the edge of the ridge and raised a cheer as the dogs pulled westward. They vanished presently behind a belt of pines, for so far the track was good. And Pardon knew the way blindfold. The white battalions were the foe. If they proved kind, then this mad thing might be done.
With set teeth and bent head, Pardon pushed on doggedly. The snow lay deep and thick in places; here and there it had to be skirted, so that each mile was more like five. Pardon was grateful now and then for the sun peeping out of the racing, reeling cloud-wrack, for it gave him his line when more than once he might have wandered away from the track. And the sun had already begun to slide down before he reached Broke Hill Point, that only represented half the journey. He was fiercely, ravenously hungry now—so hungry that the pain of it forced the tears to his eyes—but he dared not stop. A grey shadow slid along, from time to time, under the cover of the pines, and the dogs grew restive. Pardon repressed a shudder. The wolves were stalking him—they were backing their instinct against his adventure.
It was long after dark before he staggered against the huge boulders of rock and precipice that formed the front of Four Forks. The dogs dropped down panting and spent, snarling and worrying at one another's quarters. They were quite out of hand now. The leader turned his glittering fangs on Pardon as he stumbled arud lay exhausted across the sledge. With an effort, he struggled to his feet and laid about him with his whip. He was fighting, with the grim tenacity of despair, for his life, and he knew it. By a kind of instinct, as a man in a dream, he threw food to the dogs. He lay in the snow, face down at their feet, lost to the world; but not for long. Here was the door of a hut built into the solid cliff—a door that yielded to a few blows of Pardon's pick. There was nothing but stores here, and neat boxes of tools, one of which Pardon regarded with sparkling eyes. On the floor, too, there was a half-filled jar of whisky. He was a temperate man, was Pardon, but his fingers crooked convulsively round the handle of the demijohn as if they had been palsied by drink. Here was the stuff he needed, and the occasion that Providence made it for. The fiery stuff put fresh life and vigour in his veins, a certain recklessness gripped him. He fed the dogs generously on the floor of the hut; he grudged them the fish as he tossed it to the snarling brutes. His own meal was frugal enough, but the huskies must have their fill.
There was wood in the stove, and soon the fire roared loudly. There was a warmth presently that Pardon had not known for days. Outside, the gale howled and raged, but no more noisily than the red-hot stove. And Pardon's fresh courage spurred him to nervous things. He would lie down and rest for an hour or two, and then press back. There would be a moon presently; to get back along his own trail would be less difficult. He lay with his back to the blaze and slept like a log. He woke with a start and dragged himself to his feet. The sooner this thing was begun, the sooner it would be ended. He fought his way into the bitter cold; he drove the tired, sullen dogs before him. All he had to do now was to pack the whisky and precious case of mahogany, and he was ready. He began to realise how spent and weary he was. Better have stayed the night in the hut. He woke from a walking dream to find the dogs restless and uneasy. He saw the grey shadows skulking in the fringe of the woods; under the pines were a score or two of fierce, rolling amber eyes. The big flea-bitten wolf in the van of the pack put up his head and howled. Pardon was conscious of a curious tightening of the muscles of his throat. Then one of the dogs rolled over, done to the world, and the amber circle of eyes grew narrower.
"Sorry, old man," Pardon gritted between his teeth. "This is what them philosophy chaps call the survival of the fittest. Greatest good of the greatest number, my boy. Still, I'm darned sorry, old dog."
He cut the spent huskie clear of the traces. The dog whined pitifully, and Pardon shut his ears. He did not dare to look back; he tried not to hear the snarls and yells, the worry of the teeth in flesh, the last snarling agony. He badly wanted to have Jim Clint by the throat at that moment. Still, the circle of shifting amber eyes was gone for the moment.
They would be back again presently, of course, and they were. Pardon could see the leaders with the red foam on their jaws. He could not spare another dog so long as there was an ounce of pull left in him. Each dog wasted was a step nearer to the grave. Better a couple of revolver shots. They were good shots and true. Out of nowhere a great mass of fur and fangs and yapping jaws came. Pardon glanced back at the howling mass with, grim pleasure, and the rest was a dream. The camp was in sight with the dawn. There was one dog left of the team, and the sledge was lying on its side. A few yards more, and the situation was saved. Yet Pardon could not move another yard. It seemed to him that he was fast asleep, bound by thongs to the ground. If he could only burst the frozen bonds of speech and make Jack hear! The world was full of grateful warmth, something hot and stimulating was trickling down his throat. He sat up presently, sniffing hungrily at the hot coffee and bacon that Hunston had prepared for him.
"Had your breakfast, too?" he asked.
"Had it more than an hour ago," Hunston lied cheerfully.
"You're the biggest liar this side of the Pacific!" Pardon retorted courteously. "I'm having your breakfast."
"Well, what's it matter, pardy? You're back here, anyway, and, as the chap said in the story, your need is greater than mine. And you're safe back, old man, and that's worth a score of breakfasts. Guess you found what you wanted, too, or you wouldn't have annexed that whisky. Anyway, the grub's all gone, and it's up to you now to see us through."
"We'll have all the forage we need before night," Pardon said grimly. "Here, hand me over that case and follow me. It isn't far, and there's no time to be lost. There's safety and fortune in that little box."
Hunston followed wonderingly. Outside, in the snow-swept gully. Pardon paused and pulled up the square iron trap. He hauled at what looked like an indiarubber snake. With a pair of pliers from the mahogany box, he cut the rope and proceeded to attach some quaint-looking instrument also from the case.
"What the tarnation snakes is all that?" Hunston demanded. "And how did it get there? Didn't know as they'd got gas and water in these parts."
"You'll understand presently," Pardon muttered. "Hullo! Hullo! Is that 1, Fort Wolverine? Good! Oh, yes! We're Wood and Garton, of the Second Section Telephone Survey. Out looking for faults. I'm calling from Inspection Box 13, on Mr. Clint's private line. Eh? No, the line is all right. It's us chaps who are all wrong. We got caught short in the blizzard. Lost all our dogs and provisions. Held up near Four Forks. If you'll listen carefully, I'll locate our position exactly... Got all that? Good! Bring a coil of wire with you and a magneto from Saxeby's, as there's a leak just here, and if it isn't put right, old man Clint will find Wall Street a little bit deaf next time he calls up. And, say, bring blankets and some brandy for a poor chap here who is fair off his rocker. Johnny called Carston. Picked him up half dead, with his pockets full of quartz, good forty ounces to the ton stuff. What? That's it—he's found the broken lead of the old Grey Goose Mine. If we can save him, there's millions in it. Only don't tell old man Clint, or he'll do us for sure. Oh, yes, you'll find our trail. We lit out of Wolverine three days ago by Poplar Greek. And we're clean out of food. You ought to get us by nightfall easy."
Hunston stood listening wonderingly. He was slowly getting the hang of it. The gash in the snake was repaired presently and the iron cover replaced. Back by the fireside. Pardon began to explain.
"You struck it first," he said. "That metal disc you hit with your pick was Glint's private telephone wire. Right here in the forest, with snow piled up around us and death staring us in the face, you hit it. And then I knew that we were saved—if I could get to Four Forks, where the Telephone Company keep spare stores. I thought it all out as you. lay asleep. And I got to Four Forks, and I got the spare battery, and I got back. Sounds like a dream, don't it? Here are we starved and hungry and nigh to death, and yet, if I like, I can sit down and talk stocks and shares to Wall Street—can hear the clocks striking on Broadway and the wolves howling for our blood at the same time. And we're saved, old pard, and the knowledge what I gained in South Africa has been our salvation. They'll be here to-night with dogs and sledges and food for a regiment."
"I'll get it all presently," Hunston gasped. "You're a wily bird, Joe. Pretty little touch of yours 'bout the chap with his pocket full of rocks. Thought that would fetch 'em all the quicker, maybe?"
Pardon chuckled as he filled his pipe.
"It's deeper than that, as you'll see presently," he grinned. "Didn't I say as there was safety and fortune in this for us? And so there will be. Wake me when the relief comes. I'd like to sleep till then."
It was far into the night before the relief came. Pardon sat up and pricked his ears. He looked out across the snow to the long sledge, with the double team of dogs and the giant of a man who was urging them on.
He chuckled and bared his teeth in a hard, savage grin.
"Chuck some wood on the fire," he whispered. "Get a blaze. It's all panned out exactly as I had expected. He's come alone!"
"Who's come alone?"
"Why, Clint! I knew he would. Probably got another sledge a mile or two away, with instructions to await orders. It was the story of the gold find that fetched him. You see, it was Clint I was talking to on the telephone this morning. I recognised his voice, though he wouldn't, of course, remember mine. And he had no suspicions— how could he? The suggestion not to say anything to old man Clint fixed it. He wouldn't care a curse off a common for us, and that's why I hinted at a fault in the line. It's 'Carston' he's after. Now, then, get out your gun."
Clint strode into the camp, big and strong, hard as iron and merciless as ice. He found himself looking down the cool blue rim of Hunston's revolver.
"Evening, Clint," Pardon said cheerfully. "Pretty good of you to come like this."
"Pardon and Hunston," Clint stammered. "Why the—"
"Don't swear," Pardon grinned. "No use, James. I found your wire and I tapped it. Learnt that game in the Boer War. And if you've come to see 'Carston'—why, I might as well tell you as there ain't no Carston. I knew that I was talking to you this morning, and I put it up to you. We'll take all those provisions and those dogs, and we'll stay here till the frost comes, and then make our way to Milton City."
Clint foiced a laugh from his great chest.
"The joke is on me, boys," he said.
"There's more of it to come," Pardon went on gravely. "You're a great man, James, and you've got imagination as well as grit; and you've got all this part in the hollow of your hand. And you've got a pile of dollars that rightly belong to us. There are others, too, who've suffered. If we were to shoot and bury you, the State wouldn't shed a tear. We're going to have those dollars back, James—two hundred thousand of 'em. Guess you told your cashier man, before you came, that you were gunning 'Carston.' But for 'Carston,' you wouldn't have come yourself. So consider yourself our prisoner, James, unless you like to do the fair thing. Back on the track are others waiting for you. Now, you're going to write a note to your cashier, asking him to put in a cheque and send you two hundred thousand dollars in gold. I'll take that letter to those waiting for you on the last stage, and bring back the money. And if you play any game on us, we'll drill you full of lead, James."
Clint's face darkened as he produced his note-book.
"I'll do it," he said. "I guess I must. But it'll do you no good. I'll hunt you down; I'll put the State on you. The money is only borrowed. Here, will that satisfy vou?"
Pardon smiled as he read the order.
"Guess so," he said. "And pard and self ain't afraid, because you'll do nothing, James. You'd be the laughing-stock of the State, and you wouldn't like that. You'd find silence cheap at the price. Oh, yes, I am going to bind your hands and feet—I'm taking no risks. I'll just pop along to the other sledge and set the letter going. Then I'll come back, and we'll have a nice sociable meal together. So take it smiling, James, for you have been bested for once in your life, and don't you forget it."
LORRIMER caught sight of his man in a corner of the big reception room and lounged over in his direction. The other appeared to be discussing some abstruse semi-colon which might or might not add a significant flavor to the last thing in the way of Shavian comedies. Evidently, Mr. Ned Smith was a versatile person, for the last time that Lorrimer had met him was in the Persian Gulf in the midst of a technical discussion on gun-running and the best small arms weapon to place in the hands of raw troops.
Who Mr. Ned Smith was or where he came from Lorrimer had not the smallest idea. Nor was it an easy matter to place his nationality. He did not look like a Chinaman nor yet a Jap, still the Tartar blood was in his body somewhere. It was his rippling fair hair that added to Lorrimer's mental confusion. There were other people interested in Ned Smith besides Lorrimer, and amongst these was a no less distinguished person than the Mongolese Ambassador. That same person came up to Lorrimer now and entered easily into conversation with him. His Excellency Sing Li was a polished man of the world, with a perfect command of excellent English.
"You are a remarkable man, Lorrimer," he said. "And in your time appear to have met some remarkable people. Now, do you happen to know the picturesque- looking person who is at present discussing theatrical matters with Lady Sheraton?"
Lorrimer shrugged his shoulders a little impatiently. As an old diplomatist himself, he had very little sympathy with the supersubtlety of the Oriental mind.
"Considering that you saw us together in Paris two years ago, the question is rather superfluous," he said. "You want me to do something for you. What is it?"
"Well, I want you to bring me in contact with Mr. Ned Smith. I have an idea he may be useful to me just now. As you know, Mongolese affairs are not too rosy; in fact,—"
"You are on the verge of a revolution."
"Well, let it go at that," the Ambassador admitted. "And I believe that Mr. Ned Smith can give me some valuable information. Do you happen to. know who he really is?"
"Mr. Ned Smith, I suppose," Lorrimer said drily.
* * * * *
STRANGELY enough this answer did not appear displeasing to Sing Li. Half an hour later the three men were discussing matters generally, over cigarettes. On the whole, it was an entertaining conversation between three brilliantly intellectual men. Lorrimer said little—he was too intently engaged in watching the other two. It reminded him of a game of chess between two masters. Outwardly the two Orientals were friendly enough, much as if they were fencing in the dark. The Ambassador rose presently.
"I'm sorry to have to leave you," he said. "I shall be glad if you two gentlemen will do me a favor. I should like to carry this discussion a little further in another place. Will you both dine with me at the Embassy on Thursday night at eight o'clock. That will be this day week?"
"I shall be delighted," Ned Smith said. "I am sure that we could exchange valuable information. Only unfortunately I am engaged for days ahead. If you could say Thursday fortnight, it would afford me great pleasure to dine with you."
The Mongolese Ambassador said Thursday fortnight accordingly, and went his way. Ned Smith watched him with a certain suggestion of malicious mischief in his dark eyes.
"That will give another week," he said, speaking as if to himself. "I beg your pardon, Lorrimer—I forgot you were here for a minute. Whatever you do, don't forget to keep that appointment for this day fortnight. I can promise you a certain interesting evening. His Excellency is perhaps the most daring and audacious man in London at the present moment—with the possible exception of myself. And, by the way, when I was here two years ago, there were strange stories afloat in connection with the kidnapping of the revolutionary leader, San Te. They said that he was last seen alive in a cab outside the Embassy. Several questions were asked about it, I remember. Did anything ever come of it?"
Lorrimer shook his head. He remembered the circumstances distinctly enough. And he had little doubt in his mind that the rumors were true. Still, nothing had been proved, and the story had been gradually forgotten.
"I shall be there," Lorrimer said. "Good night."
For the next few days Lorrimer saw nothing of Ned Smith. He saw little or nothing of the Mongolese Ambassador either, for that shining light of diplomacy had his hands full just now. There was no doubt of the fact that the reigning dynasty was trembling to its fall. The great rebellion roared over the face of the land like a yellow flood. On every hand the revolutionaries were progressing. The good work done by that famous refugee, Hi See, was bearing abundant fruits now, and it only needed his presence to carry the new flag to victory.
Of Hi See the most extraordinary stories were told. He seemed to bear a charmed life, he had had many a hairs-breadth escape, and the mere rumor of his being seen in one province was certain proof that he was somewhere else fanning the flame of revolution. For the last twelve months he seemed to have disappeared altogether. He had been heard of in Paris and Berlin, and wherever he had been seen there came arms and money and abundant assistance for the progressive party. The mere fact that his personality was so shadowy only tended to render him more God-like and heroic in the eyes of his followers. He was known to be a man of education, too, a gifted linguist, and it only needed his presence in the Mongolese Empire now to complete the victory. Like most men of his class, he had his enemies, and there were scores of his countrymen in every capital in Europe who would have murdered him cheerfully out of pure patriotism, to say nothing of the desire to hypothecate the price of ten thousand pounds which had been placed upon his head.
Now, Hi See had recently issued a manifesto to his followers, in which he announced his intention of placing himself in command of the revolutionary movement within the next month. And this would have to be prevented at all costs, because, once it was accomplished, it would merely be a question of how long it was before the progressive party occupied the capital. And thus it was that every Chinese Embassy in Europe was straining its nervous system to lay hands on Hi See. Whether or not his premature taking off would have effectually stemmed the flowing tide was somewhat dubious. But it was held in high Mongolese diplomatic circles that the pleasing spectacle of Hi See's head on a pole might induce a reaction in favor of the reigning dynasty. In this year of grace the capital towns of Europe have reached a state of high refinement. But that proud boast would not have saved Hi See's skin once he had ventured across the threshold of the Mongolese Embassy.
Still, with all the cares of state upon his shoulders, his Excellency welcomed his guests with a charming smile and a manner which appeared to be free from trouble. He had put away his own gorgeous national dress for the nonce, and appeared in the conventional evening garb of an English gentleman. The dinner, too, was quite Occidental; in fact, but for the presence of three or four Mongolese servants, the Oriental atmosphere was entirely lacking.
The conversation was general enough for the time being, but as the meal drew to a close the inevitable politics came up for review. Here were three men of the world who had surveyed mankind from China to Peru, and to whom high diplomacy in most countries of the world was an open letter. They sat there over coffee and liqueur and cigarettes, for the conversation was growing interesting, and no one seemed disposed to move.
* * * * *
"SHALL we adjourn," the Ambassador suggested; "or would you prefer to continue the discussion here?"
"This is very delightful," Ned Smith murmured. "I always prefer to sip my coffee and smoke my cigarette when I am at the table. Moreover, we have not the charming sex to consider. It is sometimes an advantage for one's host to be a bachelor."
"The bachelor has no cares," Lorrimer said.
The Ambassador laughed none too pleasantly.
"Has he not?" he asked. "There are few men in London to-night who have more than I. But it is a great consolation to feel that I am going to get rid of one of them before daybreak."
"This sounds interesting," Lorrimer smiled. "Won't your Excellency be a little more explicit?"
The Ambassador smiled a curious smile as he reached for a fresh cigarette and poured out another liqueur.
"Why not?" he said. "Now, what would you consider to be my greatest anxiety for the moment?"
"I think I can guess the riddle," Ned Smith said quietly. "You are talking about the infamous rebel, Hi See."
"That is correct," the Ambassador laughed. "If we could get rid of him, most of my country's trouble would be over."
"Our friend would be flattered if he could only hear you," Ned Smith said. "I perceive that this would make an ideal prison-house for the moment. I notice that the shutters of this room are made of steel, and so, if I mistake not, is also the front door, judging by the way in which it closed behind us to- night. One would hardly dare in an atmosphere like this to say anything unflattering about the reigning Mongolese dynasty. Hi See would be equally impotent here once he was your prisoner. Not that you can ever hope for that."
"I'm not so sure," the Ambassador said softly. "I'm naturally of a sanguine temperament, and if the opportunity came, I should not hesitate. I should—"
A soft-footed servant came in at that moment with a telegram, which he handed to Lorrimer. As the latter took the orange-colored envelope from the salver, Ned Smith put a detaining hand and pitched the telegram carelessly into the centre of the table. His face had suddenly grown grim and set; there was a look of angry displeasure on the Ambassador's features.
"May I be permitted to be rude just for one moment?" Ned Smith said. "May I ask you to ignore that telegram for a time? I have reason to believe that the message is of no importance. At any rate, I know it was sent under a misapprehension. Now as to this Hi See. Suppose he were here at the present moment. You couldn't do anything with him so long as Mr. Lorrimer knew the circumstances in which he came. Now I happen to know a good deal about Hi See. He is the last man in the world to put his head in the net. And yet he would have not the slightest hesitation in coming here if he thought that it would serve his purpose to do so. I suppose you've never met him, Lorrimer?"
"I never had the good fortune," Lorrimer said.
"Oh, you will before long," Ned Smith went on. "No, please don't touch that telegram just yet. Let me tell you a little more about Hi See first. I won't go into a biographical sketch, because the papers have done all that more or less untruly. I do happen to know that every Mongolese Embassy in Europe has had a try for him. If only he had fallen into the trap he would have been a dead man long ago. He would have been murdered in London or Berlin or Paris, and not a soul been any the wiser. As a rule, the servants of the Embassy are to be trusted to keep silent. But, after all, there is even a better plan than a crude, vulgar murder. The man might be kidnapped here under the very eyes or the authorities, and taken back home without anybody being in the least the wiser. I know what I am talking about."
"Are you speaking from a brief?" the Ambassador sneered.
"No, from personal experience," Ned Smith said quietly. "As a matter of fact, I am Hi See."
* * * * *
LORRIMER started to his feet, then as suddenly sat down again. Here was drama red-hot to his hand. The face of the Ambassador paled a little, though his face was hard and resolute.
"I suppose I had better go on," Hi See said quietly. "Our host here has known for quite a month that I was in London. I don't know how he recognised me, neither does it in the least matter. And I knew that he knew me when you made us personally acquainted the other night. And I was quite aware, too, of the risk I was running in accepting the invitation to dinner this evening. The prison house is secure enough—I am here behind steel bars, and the servants for the most part are prepared to commit anything from arson to murder at the bidding of their master."
Lorrimer looked up, white, but determined.
"You seem to forget that I am here," he said quietly. "I am a British subject in my own capital—"
"Oh, quite so, quite so," Hi See went on. "But perhaps our host would like to take a hand. It seems to me that I am vulgarly monopolising the conversation."
His Excellency shook his head sulkily.
"My turn will come—presently," he said sullenly.
"Then I am to proceed," Hi See smiled. "You were not to be here at all, Lorrimer. The ingenious idea was that you should leave before me and proof would have been given you to-morrow that I did not remain many minutes after you left. You would never have troubled if you had never seen me again. I am a wanderer who comes and goes; nobody knows anything about me, and no questions would have been asked. And now, if you please, you can open that telegram. You will find in it an urgent message asking you to return to your chambers at once. If you don't find the message as I say it is I am greatly mistaken."
Lorrimer tore open the envelope and ran his eye rapidly over the contents. He smiled grimly.
"The tricks are all yours up to now," he said.
"If you call up your flat on the telephone," Hi See went on, "you will find that no such message was sent. The simple scheme was merely to get you out of the way and leave me here alone. It was an excellent idea to invite you to dine here as well as me to-night, and was calculated to allay any suspicions as to my welcome. But that is not the whole of the plot. A day or two ago a Chinaman of low caste was brought here practically on his death bed. He died in the course of time, and a medical certificate was given by the doctor who was called in. The dead Chinaman was smuggled away somehow, but this coffin still remains in the house. It may interest you to know that I was destined to occupy that coffin. I should have been drugged directly you had gone, and to-morrow I should have been taken down to Southampton and placed on board a steam yacht there already, waiting to convey me to my native land. What would have happened afterwards I leave you to guess. And now, seeing that I have said so much, I will leave it to his Excellency to continue. My story is finished."
But his Excellency sat there, saying nothing. An awkward silence followed for a minute or two. Lorrimer would have spoken, but Hi See raised a hand as a signal for him to stop.
"Come, I am waiting," Hi See commanded in a grating voice. "It is for me to command, you understand."
"There is nothing to be said," the Ambassador muttered. "My hands are tied. The presence of Mr. Lorrimer here renders me powerless. But if you are waiting for any apology I have none to make. I can only regret my failure. You, Hi See, are a fellow-countryman of mine, and you understand. If the circumstances were reversed you would take my life with as little compunction as I would take yours. The time may come yet. Gentlemen, you are free to go."
* * * * *
THE AMBASSADOR rose from the table and bowed in the direction of the door. Lorrimer half rose to his feet, but Hi See never moved. He looked up grimly.
"Sit down," he commanded. "Don't dare to move till I tell you. It is your belief that you are the master in this house. For the moment you are mistaken. Mine is the voice of authority. Your Excellency will give me your watch-chain. I desire to borrow from it the key which opens the safe in your study."
Something, like an oath came from the Ambassador's lips. As he rose to his feet again two silent forms came apparently from nowhere and stood on either side of him. Two chill blue circles pressed on his temple, and from under his scowling lids he recognised a pair of the servants who had been waiting on the party during dinner. At a curt command from Hi See he snatched the chain angrily from his pocket and threw it angrily upon the table.
"I thought you would appreciate the argument," Hi See said. "These servants are not yours, but mine. There are four of them here who have been in our pay for years. Two of them are guarding you, and the other two are looking after the rest of the household. By this time I suppose the rest of the servants are peacefully sleeping under the influence of the same drug that would have been administered to me. You will remain here while I spend a few minutes in searching your safe. There I shall find papers and documents of the utmost importance to us. I am sorry to detain you, Mr. Lorrimer; but all is fair in love and war, and it will be necessary, if only for your sake, that I should make good my retreat. Circumstances will prevent me meeting you again in London, but if in the course of time you should ever visit Aria again, I shall be glad to make you the honored guest of the Mongolese Republic. And I should not be surprised to find his Excellency holding office under the Progressive party."
It was a quaint, queer silence that followed. The Ambassador sat there downcast and ill at ease, with the two sentries standing on either side of him. Then Hi See returned, carrying a mass of papers in his hands. He waved the servants aside, and stood there grim and smiling in the doorway.
"I am going now," he said. "The steel shutters are made fast, and I propose to lock this door from the outside. You may find it a little monotonous, but the servants will release you in the morning. And, my dear Lorrimer, I am not behaving so badly to you as you imagine. I know what your Western civilisation calls for, and it would be a great regret to me if I left anybody a chance of saying that you were my confederate in this matter. I wish you good night, gentlemen, and, oh, yes—what was I going to say? I have it—there is something in the Western Method after all!"
"NOW perhaps you had better explain," Mostyn Carr said to his companion. "I came down to Dinard for a change of air. I can ill afford it, but it had to be. Now you come to me, a perfect stranger, and feed me en prince. Why, Mr. Barrington?"
"You can feed en prince every night, if you like," Barrington said. He was a man of forty, and he would have passed anywhere as a soldier. A resolute wiry figure, with a keen eye and a strong determined face. "You like this kind of thing, eh?"
"All novelists do," Carr laughed bitterly. "It's like a plot of one of my stories. What do you want?"
"One of those very same plots," Barrington said, evenly. "You are ready to do anything for money. I am a passingly clever adventurer—racecourse, cards, city. I have a nerve of steel, an audacity of brass, I know every capital in Europe, and I speak five languages fluently. Give me a plot, and I can carry it out with fidelity and cunning. I have been absolutely candid with you. If you cannot consent to come in with me—"
"My dear fellow, I couldn't. No nerve. Still I can plot all right. There was a little thing I sketched out the other day, for instance, after France broke off diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Unless you are in a position to command at least two thousand pounds—"
"There is no trouble about the money," Barrington said. "Oh, the money is all right enough, all I want is the scheme. Give me the outline of it."
"Well, what do you say to looting the Vatican?"
Barrington leant forward with a gleam in his grey eyes.
"Go on," he said quietly. "That is something after my own heart. A la bonne heure!"
"You will go to Rome," Carr continued, "and I shall write instructions there—tell me, can you put your hands upon some young man who is ready for anything in the way of an intrigue if he is paid for it? He must have the address of a gentleman, and he must be safely out of the way afterwards. One you betray to the police for choice?"
Barrington intimated that there would be no difficulty in that respect.
"Very good. I find that these bread disturbances in Rome and Florence are merely sleeping. Could you undertake to start them again in a mild form? The loot of the Vatican is impossible you may argue, which is why that is going to happen. You have the nerve?"
"Yes," Barrington said quietly. "I have the nerve."
* * * * *
In a small, well appointed house in the Rue de petit Bois dwelt one Count de Rivi, an elegant and accomplished young gentleman who had more than once come under the eye of the police on suspicion of having been concerned in some of the numberless Legitimist plots that the French police are constantly discovering. Anyway, De Rivi was known to be a great friend or the Duke of Morleans, and in Legitimist organs he wrote his opinions freely. The Duke of Morleans was in America now, so that the vigilant eye of justice was more or less relaxed so far as the Rue de petit Bois was concerned.
It is needless to say that Carl de Rivi viewed with anxiety and alarm the breaking off of diplomatic relations between the Republic and the Vatican. Something must be done to restore the lamentable breach, and De Rivi felt that he was the man to do it. One morning—it was a fortnight later than the interview between Carr and Barrington—De Rivi was gratified by the receipt of a long cablegram in the cypher of the brotherhood in New York. It was from the Duke of Morleans, alluding to the Vatican split, and commanding De Rivi to repair immediately to Rome, and there to hold a consultation with Cardinal Ravinni, who was known to have a strong leaning in the direction of the Bourbon dynasty. Cardinal Ravinni was expecting this visit from the Count and there was some suggestion that the Pope would be likely to grant an audience. It was all very vague, essentially diplomatic, and absolutely after De Rivi's own heart.
De Rivi immediately wrote to some length to the Cardinal, appointing two days later for the important interview. This thing must be kept as dark as the grave, he told himself. All the same, he was a little disturbed to read in the next morning's 'Matin' that the Vatican was moving in the matter of the recent deplorable dispute, and that rumour had it that a certain prominent Bourbon supporter had been approached with a view to engaging his services as a mediator. De Rivi wondered how it was done. An old journalistic hand like Mostyn Carr could have told him. The Count also noticed in the same journal that the Rome bread riots had broken out again, but this time in only a mild form.
As he had arranged, De Rivi departed for Rome two days later. His rooms were modest and unassuming, and he flattered himself that nobody in the Italian capital would know of his arrival. He had dined, and was taking his modest glass of Chianti after dinner, when a stranger was announced, who declined to give his name.
"You had better ask the gentleman in," De Rivi said as coolly as possible. He had little doubt as to the identity of his visitor. "And see that I am not disturbed."
A typical Italian in a long cloak and a heavy slouch hat entered, and carefully closed the door behind him.
Then he proceeded to disrobe and show the dark, clean-shaven face of Cardinal Ravinni. There was nothing distinguished looking about the man, his features were quite of the ordinary type. Two of his upper front teeth were missing.
"I am delighted to see your eminence," the Count said. "Pray be seated. It would have been more fitting if I had paid my compliments to you at the Vatican; but really, one cannot be too cautious. Already one of our Parisian papers has an inkling of my mission."
"It were far best to proceed slowly," the Cardinal said. "As for me, you know exactly where my sympathies lie. It would be a great day for the Holy See that saw the end of your accursed republic and France in the fold again. But festina lente," he murmured. "It is not yet. The Pope is ailing, though for reasons we have not made the matter public. As for me, I make myself greatly unpopular in my advocacy for peace. I have many enemies amongst the advanced Catholic party in Corsica. I have been threatened with assassination. And Rome is greatly disturbed since some agitator has started those bread riots again. When I walk the streets as I am doing tonight it is with a positive danger to myself."
The Count was exceedingly sorry to hear it. Surely the extreme party must see the folly of keeping up this miserable quarrel with the Government of France. Had the Pope expressed any opinion on the matter, had the mission from Paris been mentioned to him?
"Well, I have hinted at it," the Cardinal confessed. "As I said before, festina lente is our motto. It is easily possible for me to gain you an interview with his Holiness. There can be no harm in his granting audience. Beforehand, I will let you know how far to go. Meanwhile, you had best remain here quietly, and not seek to see me. Be prepared at any time if I send for you to come to my lodgings at the Vatican. It is a little gate in the lane that runs by the side of the gardens. No; I need not detain you longer."
The Cardinal donned his hat and cloak and departed. The streets were fairly quiet save for a few dissolute fellows making a noise—the outcome of a recent renewed bread riot which the police claimed to have broken up. All the same, the Cardinal prudently turned down the dark lane by the side of the Vatican gardens, and sought entrance that way. It was very dark at one spot, with overhanging trees. Something lurked in the shadow. As the Cardinal passed a detaining hand was laid on his shoulder. Before he could turn a pair of powerful arms were about his neck, something sweet and subtle and stupefying was clapped to his mouth and nostrils. There was a faint struggle that a child might have made, and Cardinal Ravinni lay on his back breathing peacefully. A door opened close at hand with a sharp click, a satisfied chuckle from the darkness, and all was still save the pattering of rain as it fell on the umbrella pines.
It was nearly an hour later when Cardinal Ravinni staggered into the hall of the Guards, and looked vaguely around him. Under his slouched hat his face looked deadly pale, there was blood on his forehead, and his lips were swollen and disfigured. He stood there a moment as if he were trying to realise his surroundings. A sergeant of the Swiss Guard hurried forward, prepared to raise an alarm. Ravinni seemed to feel this by a kind of instinct. He laid a detaining hand upon the sergeant's arm. For an old man badly maimed, his grip was a powerful one.
"Say nothing," he whispered. "Make no disturbance. It is vital that there should be no fuss. I have met with an accident. Take me to my apartments at once. There is something the matter with my eyes—"
"But your eminence—" the sergeant stammered. "It is impossible to recognise. I have the honour to speak to one of the Cardinals. As to the rest—"
The speaker made a significant gesture. By the dress alone he knew that he was in the presence of one of the College of Cardinals, but the slouch hat, the swollen and bloody face rendered recognition out of the question.
"Ravinni," the dignitary whispered. "I have met with an injury that could not by any stretch of imagination be called an accident. The Mafiosi—"
The speaker appeared to grow misty and confused again. He was so dazed that it was impossible for him to find the way to his apartments. The proper thing would have been to raise an alarm, but the Cardinal had strictly forbidden that. And the longer the delay the greater the responsibility of the sergeant.
"If your eminence will take my arm," he suggested. "Your secretary passed this way just now in the direction of your apartments. Doubtless he awaits your eminence."
He did, a little, dark, earnest looking man, who exclaimed with dismay at the sight of the Cardinal. Ravinni sank in his chair and passed a handkerchief to his face. By a gesture he indicated that the light was too strong for him. The sergeant had discreetly retired. The secretary stood waiting for his chief to speak.
"It is nothing," Ravinni said in a hoarse tone. Something seemed to impede his speech. "It is no more than the fulfilment of a threat. I was lucky to escape with my life."
"Your eminence is too fearless, too outspoken," the secretary said suavely. "But surely that will keep. It is necessary to summon a doctor—"
"It is necessary to do nothing of the sort. I am getting better already. It is a late hour, and everybody has retired. I will wash my bruises presently when my face has become less tender, meanwhile, there is work to be done. My keys, Father Ravogli."
A bunch of keys was produced, one a pass key that Ravinni fumbled in his hand. He asked a few questions rapidly—evidently his brain was not affected.
"Late as it is, I have an errand for you Ravogli," he said. "I suppose you have guessed where I went to-night?"
"Seeing that your eminence was so good as to tell me. It was to see Count de Rivi. It was a dangerous mission under the circumstances."
"Why? Nobody could possibly know that the Count had come here, or what his mission was."
"There your eminence is quite mistaken. The papers nowadays learn everything. It was stated in the Paris 'Matin,' for instance, this morning that the Count was coming here to try and patch up the dispute that we deplore so much. It was known, too, that he came to see you. The extreme party here were aware of that. They wanted no settlement. If the Mafiosi leaders took in their heads to interfere—"
"My dear Ravogli, they have already done so. Such a chance of mischief was not to be neglected. The Mafiosi are at work in this matter. The most powerful secret society and the oldest in Europe, have sworn to kill me if I do not hold my hand. They have started the bread riots again to cover their movements. But for a lucky chance I should have been killed to-night."
The Cardinal appeared to be overcome with a sudden faintness. He mumbled some questions about his keys, he seemed to have forgotten the use of some of them.
"But it is idle to sit here talking," he said as if struggling with his feelings. "There is much to be done. Take me to my bedroom and give me the pass key to the library. When I have washed and lain down for a spell I shall be better. Meanwhile I have something for you to do. The errand is not without a suggestion of danger."
Ravogli pulled himself up proudly. The call of the Holy Church was sufficient. He was ready to meet any danger for her sake. His eyes gleamed in the feeble light. With a shaking hand the Cardinal produced a letter from his robes.
"You are to take this," he commanded. "You are to go as far as the foothills beyond the Coliseum. You will see a broken gateway there set amongst a clump of umbrella pines. Sit down there and wait till a man accosts you. He will ask whether you have seen anything of a brown dog, and you will reply that the dog is found. Then you will give him this letter, and receive a small parcel in exchange. Bring it back to me at once. You may succeed in your mission, or you may have to wait for hours, it all depends on the other man. In any case you must not wait till after daybreak, but you must return by the small gate in the lane behind the garden. Have I made myself quite explicit?"
"I understand what your eminence requires to the very letter," Ravogli said, "If there is anything—"
"Yes. You can give me your arm as far as the library. Every now and again I feel as if I am going to faint. There are certain things I want to do before I retire to rest. It may be that to-morrow I shall be ill and forbidden to rise by the doctor. In that case all the good work will be undone. Come along!"
The magnificent library of the Vatican was reached at length. There were other treasures here beyond books and priceless manuscripts, cases of precious coins, jewels, the thousand odds and ends small in bulk, but representing a fortune each in itself. Give a thief a free hand here and in a few minutes he would have been rich beyond expectation. The lights burned low, but still they flashed on the treasure here and there. But Cardinal Ravinni saw nothing of this. He seemed to be fighting for the mastery of himself.
"The weakness is passing," he said, "at least, for the present. Give me pen and paper. Thanks. And of your errand, and of my misfortune, you are to say nothing to a soul."
Ravogli bowed and departed. For a little time the Cardinal sat waiting there, then he seemed to grow restless and he rose to his feet. He wandered aimlessly about the magnificent apartment, a clock in the distance struck the hour of one. As if the clang of the bell were something like a warning he turned rapidly from the room in the direction of his own apartments. He had tied up his bleeding face with a soft handkerchief; he seemed very old and feeble to the guard as be passed through the hall again. The sergeant went so far as to speak.
"Your eminence is not going out again?" he asked. "The extent of your injuries it is perhaps presumption on my part, to say so, but your eminence—"
"You are a kind and thoughtful man," Ravinni said. "It is not far that I go, something of importance that I dropped outside. Then I will go to bed. Be discreet and silent, and it will go well with you."
This with the air of a benefactor. But the sergeant had seen many strange things there, and this was not the strangest of them all.
He stood aside as the Cardinal passed and pulled the heavy door softly behind him.
It was dark in the grounds so that Ravinni hesitated for a moment. Then as if bracing himself for an effort, he walked rapidly along the road with his face turned in the direction of the glowing lights of the city.
* * * * *
The tragedy of Cardinal Ravinni's death thrilled Europe for a day or two. The well-known leader of the Moderate party had been found dead just outside the Vatican gardens, his head and face mutilated beyond all recognition. It was a startling mystery altogether and nobody could make anything of it. There was no inquest or anything of that kind, so that the matter was likely to rest where it was.
But one man could have thrown a brilliant light on the dark places, and that one man was sitting coughing in a snug little restaurant on the Boulevard des Hermes.
In the doorway presently stood the trim neat military figure of Trevor Barrington. He strolled over and took his place by Mostyn Carr's side, as if they had been casual acquaintances.
"You've ordered dinner, I see," he said. "A little potage, trout in champagne, an ortolan, and a pawn curry. Old Cliquot, too. Come, we are getting on. This money—"
"I have four francs left," Carr said. "But I trusted to you to do the business side of the affair. I suppose you managed it all right."
Barrington tapped a bulging pocket complacently. He sniffed approvingly at the soup.
"That was child's play," he remarked. "Of course, one had to make sacrifices, especially where gems and cups and coins with a history were concerned. But I suppose that when we come to settle up there will be seventy thousand pounds to divide. If it had not been a single-handed business I should have cleared out the whole Vatican."
"But on the whole you have no reason to be dissatisfied. I told you that the thing was ridiculously easy. All you had to do was to follow out my instructions."
"Oh, I know. But you might have been more candid with me. You treated me a little bit as a general treats his men, you know. I did exactly as I was told, but all the same I was and am very much in the dark as to the way things were managed."
Carr poured himself out a glass of champagne. He picked daintily at his ortolan.
"All in good time," he said. "I have been lying low the last few days, having a fried fish done in oil and hard brown bread. The food in Rome was abominable."
"My dear Carr," Barrington cried. "What do you know about the food in Rome?"
"Because I was there all the time," Carr said coolly. "I had to be. I took no active part in the conspiracy, because I am such an abominable coward. I should have lost my nerve and spoilt the whole business. But I had to be on the spot all the time. By-the-bye, what became of that young man who played the part of our confederate? I particularly asked you to chose some fellow whose acquaintance with the police—"
"Oh, that's all right," Barrington said calmly. "A line to the authorities at Vienna soon settled the hash. We are not in the least likely to meet again."
Carr leaned back in his chair with the air of a man who is absolutely satisfied. He luxuriated over his cigarette and Benedictine. The flavour of both was exquisite.
"Then that removed the last element of danger," he said. "Now confess, my dear Barrington, you are exceedingly curious to know how the whole thing was done. Light your cigar, and I will tell you. For some little time I had been casting round for a plot of sufficient importance, a raid on a Royal scale. The Tower had been done, so had Windsor Castle—in fiction, I mean. Then why not the Vatican? As I told you before the split between the Pope and France gave me the first idea. The mere fact that I was a close student of European affairs rendered my task easier. From the very first I began to see my way. When I found that the Duke of Morleans had gone to America the thing was quite easy.
"Of course I had read a good deal about the views and the ambitions of Cardinal Ravinni. Also I was more or less acquainted with the same attributes regarding Count Rivi. By way of opening the ball, I instructed you to get those cablegrams sent from America to the Count De Rivi and the Cardinal respectively as if they had emanated from the Duke of Morleans. You managed that very well. As I expected, De Rivi went to Rome, and there saw the Cardinal. I saw the Cardinal call at the Count's lodgings, and then I knew we were safe. Meanwhile I had looked up some old journalistic acquaintances in Rome. You see my work is pretty well known, in fact I have had stories of mine translated for the Italian papers. I desired to see something of the ways and work of the Mafiosi, and that was easily managed. So was that bread riot business. One or two rioters were killed, and it was not very difficult to procure one of the bodies. That body your confederate hid in a ditch by the side of the Vatican garden according to my instructions. The procuring of the corpse in Rome is no difficult matter. Then came the only hazardous thing—the kidnapping of the Cardinal and the spiriting away of the great cleric during which time you assumed his clothes and made up your face as if you had been in some deadly conflict. This was where your courage and nerve came in, and where I should have failed. Thanks to books and guides, Baedeker and the like, you have a pretty fair knowledge of what to do and where to go. Made up as you were it was easy to deceive the secretary Ravogli and get him to guide you to the library. Having got Ravogli out of the way, you had only to fill your pockets and disappear. The next item on the programme was to place the Cardinal's clothes upon the body of that mutilated corpse so kindly produced by the Mafiosi and the problem was complete."
"Capital," Barrington cried, as Carr stopped and coughed. "But the real Cardinal?"
"Was released from the empty house to which we removed him yesterday," Carr explained. "I thought that out early in the scheme. By this time the real Cardinal is back again at the Vatican. It does not matter to us what explanation he makes, one thing you may be certain of—the Vatican will keep silence. If you had left only the bare walls behind you the policy of silence would still be maintained. Cardinal Ravinni will walk about Rome blandly and shake his head, saying he cannot be responsible for sensational reports. Europe has heard the last of that."
"Um," Barrington muttered. "Seems exceedingly simple when it comes to be explained. After all, anybody might have done it."
Carr's thin face flushed angrily. The vanity of the author was touched. He lighted a fresh cigarette with a hand that trembled a little.
"You should never explain problems to children and fools," he said. "If I had told you nothing, you would have regarded me as a prodigy of wisdom, and respected me all the more. Could you have planned out this campaign, man?"
Barrington did not think he could. The flush died out of Carr's thin face, his eyes smiled. He was satisfied.
"I BEG your pardon." Mrs. Wildney suggested. "You were saying something about eleven o'clock?"
"What! out loud?" Chesney gasped. "My dear lady, pray accept my profound apologies I—I have a stupid habit of thinking aloud. As a matter of fact, I have a most important appointment for eleven o'clock to-night; but that I had mentioned in sotto voce—"
Mrs. Wildney glanced at the speaker from under the purple fringe of her eyelashes. They were very old friends, and they could speak plainly. The talk round the dinner table was animated; the lights were judiciously shaded. Mabel Wildney held her hand on Chesney's arm.
"What is it, Ralph?" she whispered. "Tell me the trouble. I'd love to help you if I can."
Chesney laughed somewhat uneasily. So—people were beginning to talk. He was utterly unconscious of the hard misery in his eyes, the moody frown, the gnawing of the lips.
"So you imagine that there is something wrong, Mabel?" he forced.
"My dear boy, I am certain of it. Why didn't Betty come here tonight?"
Chesney slipped the pink velvet from a peach thoughtfully. Oh, certainly people were beginning to talk. As a matter of fact, Mabel Wildney was speaking quite plainly. Bitter as he was, a certain blind, unreasonable loyalty spurred him on.
"She meant to come," he said. "But she had a bad headache, and I had to come alone. We were going on to the Malvains afterwards, but I don't think I'll show there alone."
"Ralph, I am deeply sorry to see you two drifting apart in this way. You met Betty for the first time in my house, remember. I was delighted to see you coming together. And now!"
"We all make mistakes," Chesney said, bitterly. "I did. Possibly Betty did too."
"I don't think so. It was a great mistake on your part to negleot her so."
Chesney fairly started. He prided himself on being a just man, and here was a new point of view. Neglected Betty!—ridiculous! On the contrary, it was she who had neglected him. She had lost all interests in the sports they had previously enjoyed together; she made all kinds of excuses when he suggested a day on the links; she had chosen her own friends entirely outside his circle. If he wanted her to dine at one house, she had always made an appointment elsewhere. She had grown cold and distant, fretful, and inclined to tears. There were long silences when they were together—she whose conversation had at one time been so bright and animated. This was bad enough, but there were darker thoughts behind. Of course, he could take no notice of those anonymous letters—no gentleman could stoop to that kind of thing. But even now he was hesitating in his mind. A jingle of words ran like water in his head:
"So you refuse to be warned? Your wife will plead a headache to remain home to-night. Tell her you are going to the Malvains, but return home by eleven instead. Fool. Have you no regard for your own honor? This may be your last chance."
No gentleman could do it. Some enemy had designed this thing. It was not the first of these abominations either. There had been two previous communications before; and the worst of it was that they had tallied with certain movements of Betty's. He could not think evil; but the conclusion was forced upon him. Still it was quite plain that no gentleman—
He would go on to the Malvains as if nothing had happened. To return home now would be tacitly to put the letter to the test. Betty had had a headache right enough. Anyone could see that from her pala face and the purple shadows under her blue eyes.
"Are you not going a bit to far, Mabel?" he asked.
"Think it over," Mrs. Wildney said. "Think it over with your last cigar. Oh, what a fool a really clever man can be sometimes!"
There was a ripple of silken skirts, the drifting odors of perfumes, followed by a scratching of matches, as the womankind floated from the room. Chesney shook himself together wearily. The inevitable discussion on sport was going to begin. How illogical he was; a fortnight ago he would have enjoyed it. As an enthusiastic golfer on the plus side he would hava gone cheerfully into the fray. The last faw days he had played like a child. They were chaffing him on his putting now, though he was utterly oblivious to it.
He managed to get away at length, carefully avoiding Mabel Wildney as he did so. With the jingle of that anonymous latter chiming on his brain, it was his bounden duty to go on to the Malvains. To show his contempt for the writer, he must not go home. Betty might have grown cold and indifferent; she might have ceased to care for him; possibly it was not in her nature to care for anybody but herself. But when it came to some vulgar intrigue, a surreptitious meeting in—oh, hang it!
He didn't care for her any longer, of course. That dream was shattered, and there was an end to it. They could come to some kind of understanding, so as to avoid anything like a scandal; there was no reason why they should not remain friends in future. They could talk the matter over quietly and dispassionately. Chesney knew scores of households like that.
So this poor fool, hugging his cheap philosophy, walked along without the remotest notion whether he was going, and all unconsciously he had turned his steps in the direction of his own house. He was up in Scotland in the early days of the honeymoon—by the side of a salmon river, showing Betty how to play her fish. And, by Jove! how quickly she had learnt her lesson! How ripping she had looked in that kilted skirt and grey hat. She was one of the few women who could look fascinating in a sporting kit. And what a jolly evening they had had in the little hotel afterwards; and, incidentally, what sentimental asses men are!
There were other pictures like this, warm and glowing, in Chesney's eyes as he strode along the deserted streets. With a start he realised presently that he was outside his own house. Involuntarily he glanced up at his wife's bedroom windows, only to note that no light was there. Betty always liked a light. Even when she was ill she could not bear to be in the dark. In an uneasy way Chesney wondered what it meant. He had had no intention of coming home yet; honestly, he had not meant to do so. Still, it did not much matter; in fact, nothing mattered now. Having come so far, it would be absurd to turn back. It would be far better to think the thing out over a cigar in the smoking- room. Possibly Betty had changed, and come down stairs.
Chesney pushed his way into the hall and hung up his coat. The dining and drawing rooms were in darkness, only in the smoking-room were the lights switched on. A maid crossed the hall demurely.
"How is your mistress, Batley?" Chesney asked. "Is her head better?"
The maid looked jjust a little bewildered. "I beg your pardon, sir," she said. "Madame is not in. She went out some time ago."
Chesney turned on his heel sharply. He was concerned that the maid should not see his face for the moment. The simple announcement shook him with the force of a blow. "She is much better, then?" he asked. "Where has she gone, Batley?"
"I couldn't tell you, sir," the girl replied. "I dressed my mistress just after dinner. She said something about the theatre. No, sir, she didn't have the car. I called a taxi-cab for her. And she told me I was not to sit up."
Chesney dismissed the girl with a careless gesture. He hummed a time as he lounged into the smoking-room and closed the door behind him. His face had grown white under the healthy tan.
Good heavens! If this hideous thing were true! For the first time tho awful significance of those anonymous letters came home to him. It was impossible to disregard the warning any longer. He had played the game up to now, but his personal honor stood in front of everything. He hated and loathed this thing from the bottom of his soul, but there were limits. It was no longer possible to blind himself to the fact that Betty had deceived him. Her headache had been a mere sham. Secure in the knowledge that Chesney would not be back till the small hours, she had gone off to keep her assignation. The whole thing was disgustingly cheap, and theatrical to a degree.
The thought stung Chesney to madness. Whatever Betty's feelings might been he had never ceased to care for her. In the bitterness of tho moment he admitted it freely. Now that he had lost her, the whole world seemed to have turned to dust and ashes. Perhaps he had been a little careless and indifferent, perhaps he had been a little too anxious over that gold scratch medal.
Who was the man? Chesney's eyes gleamed as he thought of it, his muscles grew rigid. Let him only meet the man face to face, and murder would be done. He racked his brain in thought, but could think of nobody, not even an old admirer of Betty's, to pick a quarrel with. With strange lack of logic, the discovery pleased and comforted him.
He took from the safe the last of the anonymous letters. The other two he had destroyed. Ho had tossed them into the fire before the poison had begun to work. The third he had put aside with a possible view to consulting a solicitor on the matter. The words seemed to stand out from the paper like ripples of fire. This pitiful coward was telling the truth. In the safe was Betty's case of diamonds—the family diamonds worn by her on state occasions. Chesney always locked them in the safe when they ware not being worn. They had been there for a month now, he reflected. There wad agony in the thought that thay might never be worn by Betty again.
How singularly quiet the house had grown. Everybody had gone to bed probably. The clock was striking twelve as a taxi-cab came purring up to the front door, and a latch- key rattled in the lock. Chesney could hear his wife as she crossed the hall; With a tightening at his throat, he hastened to meet her. It seemed to him that she fairly started as she saw the haggard whiteness of his face.
"So you have. come; back," she stammered. She seemed, to be perplexed, annoyed about something. Chesney recollected that afterwards. For the moment he was puzzled. He had expected some shadow of guilt, but he could see none in that lovely face, with its dainty coloring and deep blue eyes clear as a pool.
"You said you were going to the Malvains," she murmured.
"I intended to," Chesney explained. "But-I changed my mind. That's, not quite true, I forgot all about the Malvains and came back mechanically. Perhaps it is as well I did."
Betty asked no further questions. She made no attempt to explain her absence from home. Chesney could see that she was quietly dressed, as if for some concert or theatre party. How bonny and winsome she looked, how like the Betty he remebered when... Still... What a fool he had been not to care for her better! If she was hard and unfeeling, her looks belied her sorely. And all the children that Chesney knew fairly worshipped her. That was supposed to be a good sign.
"I think I'll, go to bed," Betty said.
"Not quite yet," Chesney said, hoarsely. "A moment, please. It is not much of your time that I have claimed lately, Betty. Will you sit down."
Betty dropped into a shair. Chesney could see that she was trembling. The rings on her hands shimmered and danced like streams of fire. Yet she looked him in the face—those deep blue eyes were as frank as those of a child.
"If you have anything to say I am ready to listen, Ralph," she murmured.
Chesney hesitated just for a moment. It was going to be far more difficult than he had anticipated. He always hated anything that suggested the bullying of women. And he wast just realising that he loved this particular woman perhaps a little more than he had ever loved her before. His heart was crying out for her. How easy it would be to sweep the whole crowd of doubt away, to start afresh—that was, if she still held any affection for him. But with that letter in his pocket he could not believe this. Besides, she had lied to him. Was she not just back from some disgraceful meeting with the man who ihad taken his place? And yet she did not look a bit like that. What actresses women were! So beautiful, so innocent, and yet so vile!
"Where have you been this evening?" he demanded.
"Is it really any business of yours, Ralph?" Betty asked. "Have I ever questioned you as to your movements? And when you adopt that tone of voice—"
"I beg your pardon, Betty. Please make allowance for me. Try and put yourself in my place."
"I have done that a good many times. Perhaps it is because I am a woman that I have failed."
"Need we go into that?" Chesney asked. "I mean now. We were asked out to dinner. It is understood that we go on to another affair afterwards. You accepted on behalf of the pair of us. At the last moment you decline to come on the plea of a headache. It is absolutely certain that I am not likely to be back before two in the morning, so that I am out of the way. I leave you practically in bed. When I come back at midnight I find that you have been out for some hours. Where?"
"And suppose I decline to answer question, Ralph?"
Chesney shugged his shoulders; it seemed the proper thing to do.
"Oh, of course, I can't force you to speak," he said bitterly. "In our walk of life I can't knock you down and jump on you. There is only one way for us."
"And that is—"
"An understanding. Of course, there need not be any scandal. This house and the place in Surrey is large enough for the both of us, and, fortunately, there is no money question."
"I see, Ralph. A separation in the same house. Outwardly friends so far as the world is concerned."
"Precisely—after you have explained where you have been this evening."
Betty flushed to the hair. There was a cruel pain at her heart, a mist of tears in her blue eyes. Still, she faced him bravely and steadily.
"Ralph," she said, "Did it ever occur to you that I was lonely?"
"Lonely!" Ohesney 'exclaimed. "Lonely! With all you wanted, any number of friends—"
"Any number of friends! How like a man you talk in that way! How many friends have you got? How many men that you could confide in and feel that they would do anything for you? Oh, I know what is at the back of your mind. Come, Ralph. You want a man in whose hands you are prepared to place your honor and the honor of your house. Out of all your shooting and golfing companions, give me the names of two. You cannot do it."
Chesney stood there in silence, just a little disturbed and perplexed. And the odd thing was that all that Betty said was true. A little smiie flickered on her lips.
"It is the same with me," she said. "I am lonely and neglected. Your golf is dearer to you than your wife. That's a bitter thing for a proud, sensitive woman to realise. And out of all my friends there is not one I can confide in, Ralph. Think of that."
"Why didn't you tell me?" the man asked, uncomfortably.
"Why didn't you ask? You would have seen plainly enough a year ago. It was no fault of mine that I was the only gdrl with six brothers who spoilt me. There was no amusement of theirs which I didn't share. Their pleasure was not complete without me., And when you came along1 they were jealous. It was a hard wrench to leave the old home, but I made it because I loved you, Ralph. And you were glad enough to have me for your companion at one time. You preferred me as your partner in a foursome to 'that ass Allison.' And now you are playing at Walton Heath and Sunningdale with 'that ass Allison' on four days a week. Do you remember telling me once that with a little coaching I should be in the running for the lady championship? Yet you go out of your way to play with Madge Lettington, to whom I used to give two strokes."
"But, my dear Betty," Chesney protested, "this is mere jealousy."
"Is it?" Betty asked, unsteadily. "Perhaps so. It is an asset in my favour, anyway. It shows that the old affection is not dead, in spite of everything. Besides, it is hardly decent of you to reproach me with jealousy. What about yourself?"
"You mean to say that I am jealous, Betty? Nonsense! You would find it difficult to prove."
"Not at all. You were annoyed to find me out. You demanded to know where I had been. You told me quite plainly that there could be no question of any amiable arrangement between us unless I explained where I had been this evening. Is not that jealousy?"
"Nonsense! It is a proper regard for my honour—for my good name."
"We will take that for granted, Ralph. Why did you come home this evening? Did you guess that I should be out? Did you doubt my word? I am going to have an answer."
Chesney flushed uncomfortably. The temptation to lie was terrible. If he told the truth he would have to confess that he had been impelled by that wretched anonymous letter. It was all very well to try and delude himself with the suggestion that he had come back more or less mechanically; but for that letter he would be elsewhere at this moment.
"You have not been spying on my movements?" Betty asked.
"The mere suggestion is an insult," Chesney cried, hotly. "Have I ever shown any signs of—"
"No, you haven't, Ralph," Betty admitted. "I could have forgiven you more easily had you done so. But you haven't answered my question. Why did you come back to-night?"
"My dear Betty, you have no right to take this high ground," Chesney protested. "Before we go any further I must know where you have been tonight."
"That I will tell you in due course, Ralph. There is no occasion for an unseemly wrangle. If you answer my question first, I promise you to tell the truth afterwards."
Chesney stood there staring helplessly into space. This was not at all as he had intended the interview to be. Still, he had thrown down the challenge, and he would not flinch from it. He snatched the letter from his pocket and laid it on the table.
"That!" he said. "That is what brought me home. I did not want to come—heaven knows that I did not want to come. Some impulse that I could not resist brought me here. I came with a smile for my own weakness. I came—oh, hang it all! I came to prove the lie in that infernal letter. And I didn't prove the lie; I found that—but, here, read the thing for yourself."
Betty read the letter sternly and thoughtfully. There was no flush on her face, no guilty start, and no suggestion of confusion. Her hands had beome quite steady again.
"You are prepared to believe that this is a coincidence?" she asked.
"I would give five years of my life," Chesney said hoarsely, "to be certain of the fact."
A dazzling smile, tender and melting, flashed over Betty's face. It was only just for a moment, then her lips trembled, and her eyes filled with tears.
"We will come to that presently," she murmured. "Is this the first of these things you have received?"
"No, it isn't," Ralph confessed. "I have had three of them altogether. The first I tossed into the fire without a thought; the second worried me, but I managed to put it put of my mind. Tuhis accursed business is like brandy-drinking—it grows upon one. You can't keep clear of the poison altogether; You—you begin to ask yourself questions against your will. And when a man and his wife are—are not getting on very well together, you see— No doubt a good deal was my fault. And yet, when I come to look at you, Bet, a8 you ait there, I could kick myself for—for—"
"I fancy I understand," Betty smiled. "Ralph, I know who wrote those letters."
"You know who wrote the letters! If you could only prove it, Bet! I'd break every bone in his—"
"Hers!" Betty corrected. "A woman wrote those letters. How long is it since I had the diamonds out?"
"Since you had the diamonds out! My dear child, what's that to do with it?"
"Everything, as you will see presently, Ralph. Would you oblige me by unlocking the safe now. You know the key is never out of your possession. Take out my jewel-case and open the little secret drawer, at the bottom, and tell me what find there."
Chesney complied wonderingly. From the drawer he took two letters sealed and addressed to himself. He saw, to his astonishment, that they were in the same hand as the anonymous letters.
"Open them and read," Betty said. "They are addressed to you. You will find that they are more poisonous and atrocious than those you have already received."
"They must have been there a month," Ralph cried. "You placed them there yourself. Who wrote them?"
"I did," Betty said, calmly. "I wrote every line of them."
"A comedy!" Chesney gasped. "A regular stage comedy. In the name of fortune, why?"
"Because I wanted to test you," Betty whispered. She rose from her seat and stood now with her hands quietly resting on her husband's shoulders.
"I—I wanted to force your hand. I wanted to feel quite sure whether I had lost you or not. Three of the letters I kept by me to post, the others I placed in your custody so that I could prove my innocence if—if anything really dreadful happened. When you took no notice of the first letter I felt bad, but when you ignored the second I—I wanted to die, Ralph. If the third had failed I should have left you. I went out to-night on the chance that you might return, and you did. I have been down to the Convent with Sister Agnes for three hours. My dear boy, there never has been anybody but you, and there never will be. I can tell you this now because I am sure that it has been all a dreadful mistake, and because I know that I have never lost your love. I saw that in your eyes when I came in. You were stern and harsh and angry, but there was the pain and misery on your face, though you never knew it. And when you said just now that you would give five years of your life to—"
Chesney drew the trembling arm about his neck and kissed the red, quivering lips. He saw it all quite clearly now; there was not another word to be said. The tears were moist on Betty's cheeks, but these were tears of happiness, and her eyes were dim and sweet.
"It was wonderful," Chesney said. "Wonderful. By gad! it was an idea that any novelist Johnny might be proud of. And all done between ourselves, and nobody any the wiser. You have taught me to value what I came very near to losing, Bet, and I'll never forget it. Just one moment, dear."
"Where are you going to?" Betty asked.
"To telephone to Allison at the club," Chesney explained. "He's sure to be there still. I want to let him know that Littlestone is off to-morrow. We'll go down to Sandwich, you and I, dear, and have a jolly happy week there. Oh, you darling!"
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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