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Title: Collected Short Stories, Vol. X Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1301031h.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.
CHRIS HAMMOND stood before his study fire, his head erect, for he had found the way out, and the credit of the firm was saved. He was like the man who slipped down the mountain crevasse to find himself face to face with a slow and lingering death. There had only been one way out, and that by means of a stream appeared to run into the very heart of the mountain. And the man who had fallen knew that the stream had to emerge into a valley somewhere, and, taking his courage in both hands, he had dived for it. So Chris Hammond had dived for it. The odds on tragedy were long, but he had come up at length in the smiling valley, spent and exhausted and at the last gasp.
Hammond has taken this risk financially, and at the eleventh hour relief had come. If he could get over to Sedgley before the bank opened in the morning, the men would be paid, and all the ominous rumours silenced. Once the week-end was passed, then all was smooth as far as the future was concerned. The money for the American contracts was due on Wednesday, and after that date Hammond would see the open sea.
He had the money there in his safe in gold, for it was useless to expect the bank people at Sedgely to honour a cheque. There were two thousand hands at the Sedgely works, and three hours ago it was odds against them getting their week's wages--in other words Hammond & Son were of the verge of suspending payment. Usually Hammond himself went over to Sedgely in his car with the weekly money. Sometimes it took the form of a cheque, but latterly there had been trouble with the bank and gold had been necessary. There were other creditors who insisted on being paid in cash, too, and one of them would be waiting at the works by appointment as soon as the doors were open. And this man must not be disappointed. It would he far better to run over in the car there and then, and get Martin, the manager, to place the money in the office safe.
"Isn't it rather a risk?" Mrs. Hammond asked. "These things get talked about. And I don't like the idea of you taking that lonely road with all that money upon you."
Hammond laughed at his wife's fears.
"Fancy you talking like this," he said. "What would your people say if they heard a Ravoli talking in this fashion?"
Mrs. Hammond laughed, though her clear olive skin was faintly tinged with red. She was very small and very dark, with a suggestion of the East in her black eyes. Nobody knew exactly where Sheila Hammond had come from, and people were content to believe that Hammond had found her during his mining experiences in Eastern Europe. There was an certain suggestion of the gipsy about her--she had it in her lithe and graceful walk, she had a phenomenal hearing, and her knowledge of the ways and moods of Nature was amazing. But if she had been a daughter of the wild, the ways and manners of civilisation had come to her gracefully and naturally. She sat there now, coiled up in a big armchair before the fire, her eyes gleaming as brightly as the tiny diamonds in her ears.
"Don't you see, I must go," Hammond said. said. "The credit of the firm is saved. We We shall get over Terry's defalcations now. Once confidence is restored, the rest is easy. I dare not wait till to-morrow. If anything happened to me in the meantime,the hands at Sedgley would not be paid, and you know what that means."
Mrs. Hammond raised no further protest. Hammond kept no chauffeur now, and, indeed, his car was perfectly safe in his confident hands, and just now every expense had to be considered. He was rather looking forward to his trip across the twenty miles of lonely heath and moorland which lay between his house and Sedgely. It was not a bad road; the night was clear, with a moon riding high in the sky, as he set himself going. With any luck, he would he back by midnight.
There were no police traps in these parts, so that he set the car in motion, rising higher and higher till the whole of the country opened out before him. There were certain portions of the road cut between overhanging cliffs, and it was at the foot of one of them that Hammond pulled up his ear with a jerk. Half a dozen big boulders lay right across the track. Probably, there had been a bit of a landslide, for these things did happen sometimes. They were big and heavy stones, and would take a bit of moving even for a strong man like Hammond, But there was no help for it--it was useless to waste his time cursing his unlucky fate. He got out of the car, throwing aside his coat and vest, and went to it with a will. He had scarcely stooped down to the first boulder, when a figure arose from the roadside and barred his way. Almost unconsciously, Hammond's hand went to his hip-pocket. He scented danger as a wolf scents is prey. But there was no revolver in his pocket, for that was in the car under the seat.
The man opposite grinned in sinister fashion. He was dark and swarthy, a mass of black hair was matted on his head, and Hammond could see that there were rings in his ears. Evidently the fellow belonged to some wandering gipsy tribe which passed the summer on the moorlands, living in some mysterious and devious fashion, a pest to the countryside and the inveterate foe of every gamekeeper for miles around.
"Did you put those stones there?" Hammond demanded.
"I did," the man replied promptly-- "at least, I and my mates did between us. You're Mister Hammond, aren't you?"
"At your service," Hammond said grimly.
"Well, I don't mind saying that we've been waiting for you. You may just as well take it quietly, We don't want to hurt you, if we can help it. It's the money we're after."
"Oh, indeed! And you expect to get it?"
The man showed his teeth in an evil grin.
"We've been waiting for this chance for weeks," he said. "You're going over to Sedgely, and you've got over four thousand pounds in gold in the car. It was brought over from Westerham by special messenger, and reached your house just before dinner-time to-night. Question is, are you going to take it quietly, or shall we have to use force?"
Hammond bent down and rolled one of the stones away. He was thinking furiously. What a fool he had been to come here all alone like this! He could easily have got one of his friends to accompany him. One man of pluck now with a revolver in his hand would have been worth the credit of Hammond's firm. If he yielded to threats, ruin stared him in the face. Almost better death than a disaster like that. He might he lucky enough to get these big boulders out of the way, and, once the road was clear and Fate was kind, he might make a dash for it. The engine was still running, the money was in the car, and, so far as he could see for the moment, he had only one antagonist to deal with. The man set on the roadside watching Hammond until the last of the obstacles were cleared away. He could see that Hammond's hands were cut, he could see the perspiration rolling down his face.
"What are you going to gain by that?" he scoffed. "Come on, Mister Hammond, the game's up!"
"I'm glad you think so," Hammond said between his teeth. "Do you suppose I've got the money in my pocket?"
"No, but it's in the car, mister. You stay here while I go and find it. In little leather bag, isn't it?"
The road was clear now, at any rate. Hammond made s dash for the car and laid his hand on the brake. He felt a grip upon his shoulder. In a blind rage he rose to his feet and struck out right an left. The gipsy clinched, and together the pair rolled ever into the road, struggling and snarling like dogs. The gipsy was antagonist fit enough for any athlete to tackle, but Hammond was fighting with the courage of despair, fighting for his home and his honour an his reputation. He shook off the other's grip and flung him violently on the roadside. He turned to the car again, filled with a wild exultation and the joy of victory. If he could once get the car moving, he was safe.
Then another figure seemed to emerge from the shadows, something gleamed in the moonlight, and Hammond rolled over in the road, absolutely lost to his surroundings.
He opened his eyes again presently, wondering where he was and what had happened. His head was racked with pain, earth and sky and moon reeled before his eyes in one wild panorama. What was he doing there, and what was that warm fluid trickling down the back of his neck? And who were all these people, and where did they come from? Somebody was shouting something shrilly, but really nothing mattered just at that moment. All Hammond wanted to do was to go to sleep and forgot all about it, But gradually, in spite of the racking pain things became more clear. Hammond found himself kneeling in the middle of the road by the side of the car. He saw, almost subconsciously that the locker under the seat was still intact. Up to now, at any rate, these ruffians had not succeeded in their errand.
Somebody was standing behind Hammond, issuing orders in a shrill, childish voice. Opposite her, a few yards up the road, were three men and a woman. Hammond recognised his late antagonist by the rings in his ears, which was his only method of identification, for the three men were wonderfully alike, and, indeed, the woman might been a fourth man but for her clothing. They danced and gesticulated wildly. They seemed to be beside themselves with impotent fury. They were hurling torrents of execrations in some lurid foreign tongue at someone who appeared to be behind Hammond's shoulder. He was getting a proper grasp of the situation now. He looked eagerly behind him. And there, as a terrier might stand guard over here young, was a tall slip of a girl with a mass of black hair streaming wildly over her shoulders. She was dressed in a red blouse and skirt, which served to render her picturesque beauty still more striking. Her slim legs were bare, and in her hands she was holding a gun. She was handling it, too, quite after the manner of a master. I was a poacher's gun with a short barrel, the type of weapon that Hammond had seen a score of time. A similar gun lay at her feet, loaded and capped, as Hammond did not fail to note.
"What's the meaning of all this?" he asked
"Oh, don't you worry, mister," the girl said. "I hear what they were saying last night. If they hadn't have found it out, I should have come and warned you. But, they tied my hands and feet and kept me in one of the tents. I managed to get away just in time. Then I came here with the guns, and--well, that's all about it. And if they dare lay hands on you again, I'll shoot! Yes, I will, if they cut the life out of me!"
"You're a plucky girl," Hammond said admiringly. "But why should you take all this trouble for me?"
"Ask Sheila," the girl said simply.
Hammond begun to wonder if he was dreaming again. But that fine, lively pain at the back of his brain was took keen for that. But what on earth could this ragged wayside waif know of his wife? Why should she speak of her in this familiar fashion? Still, the danger was too acute and vivid for the wasting of time on problems like these. There were three desperate men in front, ready for anything, not even short of murder, now that their batteries were unmasked, and others might come up at any moment. Hammond did not fail to grasp the situation. These people would kill him now if they got the chance. They would probably kill the girl, too. Once that was done, and the car got out of the way, the tragedy might remain a mystery for all time. More than one man knew that the firm stood on the verge of ruin, and they would assume, naturally enough, that Chris Hammond had fled abroad with all the money he could scrape together, rather than face his creditors. Probably no search would even be made for him. And here he was, on a lonely road, ten miles from anywhere, with nothing between him and certain death beyond a slip of a girl with two charges in a pair of ancient shot-guns.
"I'm sorry you took this risk," Hammond said. "It doesn't so much matter about myself--I've faced death too often to be afraid of it--but you are over-young to die."
"I did it for Sheila," the girl said.
It was very strange to hear this out in the open country, face to face with a terrible peril--to hear the girl speak as if she and Sheila were lifelong friends. The jabbering and gesticulating down the road had ceased for a moment, and it was evident that the ruffians were planning some new method of attack. It was fortunate, perhaps, that they could only advance towards the car, for the high cliffs on both sides prevented any onslaught from the rear. Suddenly the foe commenced shouting and gesticulating; then they came with a swift dash. Hammond struggled to his feet and reached down for the other gun. He saw the girl's weapon go like a flash to her shoulder, there was a loud report, and one of the men dropped by the way, his right arm hanging helplessly by his side. It was all bravely and magnificently done, but Hammond did not fail to realise the fact that only one shot remained now between himself and a certainty of absolute defeat.
"That was bravely and magnificently done," he said. "But we shall have to be careful. I ought to have a revolver somewhere in the car. Once I can show them that, we shall be free. I suppose you can keep them off a few minutes longer."
The girl showed her teeth in a flashing smile.
"They won't want any more for a bit," she said. "Better get your revolver."
Hammond came back from the car white and savage. The revolver was not there. It might have been snatched from its place when he was lying unconscious in the road, or it might have been stolen earlier in the day. As these people had laid their plans so carefully, the latter was more probable. Anyway, the fact remained that the weapon was gone, and the situation stood unchanged. Hammond caught his teeth between his lips. He was savagely set upon getting away now. Dimly he began to see an avenue of escape opening out before him.
"Jump in the car," he whispered. "Jump in, and I'll set her going. We'll make a dash and go clean through them."
He did not wait to see whether his companion obeyed him or not. That she was behind him he took for granted. Then the car gathered way, until Hammond was nearly over the men who barred his progress. The ear swayed perilously to one side of the road, and a second later the danger was past. But Hammond's triumph was short-lived. He glanced over his shoulder, to find that the girl was not there. He heard a report and saw the flash of a gun; then in the moonlight he could make out the figure of the girl dashing at full speed across the moor. He could also see two figures in hot pursuit.
"I can't leave her like that," he told himself. "Dash it all, I should be little less than a murderer if I did! Here goes, whatever the consequence is!"
He steered the car across the moorland, praying that nothing might happen to check him now. The car bumped and thrashed over the heather. The girl was getting nearer and nearer now. There was just time to pull up as she passed, and lift her, panting and breathless, into the seat by Hammond's side. She lay almost unconscious, with her eyes closed, whilst Hammond carefully picked his way back to the high-road again. The danger was past and done now, the figures of the gipsies had receded into the background, and the twinkling lights of Sedgely lay ahead.
"We shall be back home in a couple of hours," Hammond said. "But I think it would be prudent to take the lower road on our return. Don't you worry about those people. They're never likely to trouble you again. And your welfare will be my concern in the future. You're the bravest girl I ever met."
It was past one o'clock in the morning before the car pulled up in front of Hammond's house. The light was still burning in the lower rooms, and Sheila Hammond, with a white, anxious face, came to the door.
"I've been most terribly alarmed about you, Chris," she said. "I could not get it out of my head that something had happened to you. But who is this?"
"Well, something very nearly did happen to me," Hammond said. "If it hadn't been for this child here, I very much doubt if I should have got home again; and, even if I had, it would have been our home for very little longer."
"Why, it's Karma," Sheila Hammond cried, "little Karma, who was in hospital here so long with a broken leg!"
"She was very good to me," Karma explained. "I got hurt in the winter, and my people didn't know what to do with me, so they sent me to the hospital here. And Sheila used to come and see me every day. She was so good to me."
"It was when you were in Austria all that time, Chris," Sheila smiled. "I forgot to tell you anything about it. When Karma got better, I wanted her to stay with me altogether."
Karma shook her head almost sorrowfully.
"I couldn't do it," she said--"at least, not for long, I loved Sheila because she's one of us. Directly she came to see me in the hospital, I knew she was one of us. We wander about all over the world, and we speak all sorts of languages, but when we meet, even when we cannot understand one another, we know the Zingari. And Sheila told me that there was a time, years ago, when she wandered about the woods bare-footed as I am now. And she told me how you met her and made her love you, and how, because she loved you, too, she went to school and tried to forget all about the woods and the fields. Oh, I understand!"
"This is all very amazing," Hammond said. "Sheila, do you ever feel inclined to go back to it again?"
Sheila looked up with tears in her eyes.
"Oh, often and often!" she said. "I wake up in the night, and the longing comes upon me. Did I ever tell you that I can see in the night like a cat? Well, I can. And I don't mind telling you that it was very bad at first. Sometimes it was dreadful--before the boy came. And now it's quite different."
"Well, this has been a day to remember," Hammond said. "Now take that child in the dining-room and give her something to eat while I put the car away, and than I'll come hack and tell you all about it. You are going to have your way as far as Karma is concerned, for it will he no fault of mine if she ever leaves us again. You little know what she has done for us to-night."
Sheila sat listening to the story presently. It was all very strange and very wonderful. Karma sat there, not in the least elated, not in the least like one who has done something out of the common, and not in the least impressed by the comfort and luxury of her surroundings.
"Mean you want me to stay with you?" she asked. "Always?"
"As long as you like," Sheila smiled. "I want you to remain and he our adopted daughter. You shall have pretty dresses to wear and good food to eat, and you shall no to school and become a fine lady like I did."
Karma shook her head doubtfully. There was something appealing in the neat, sweet-scented bedroom in which she presently found herself, but, all the same, there was an eager alertness in her eyes and a suggestion of being on the defensive, as one sees in the actions of a dog in a strange house for the first time.
"I should love to he with you, for some things," she whispered, "because you are very good to me, And I'll try hard, Sheila. And if I happen to break away--"
Sheila bent over and kissed the quivering lips.
"My dear child, I quite understand," she said. "I have been through it scores of times myself. Now, good night, and don't forget that I am your friend, now and always."
It was the fifth day before the child was missing. She had left, apparently, early in the morning, with the break of day. She had taken nothing with her besides the scarlet blouse and skirt in which she had arrived. Even the boots and stockings were laid neatly on her bed, and with them a little ill-spelt note, asking forgiveness and telling them, in simple language, that the fields and the birds were calling, and that there was something that made her obey. It was a genuine grief enough to Sheila, but it had been nothing more than she had expected.
"I knew it was no use," she told Hammond. "It is rarely that one of us breaks away from the wild like I did, and I'm not really cured, even now."
"It is disappointing, though," Hammond said. "I only hope the poor child hasn't fallen in the hands of those people again. If she does, they will kill her, to a certainty. I'm going out in the car to see what I can do."
But a month elapsed before they heard of Karma again, and then indirectly through paragraph in a newspaper. A child had been found seriously injured by the roadside, and had been conveyed to the hospital at Slagborough. She had refused to give any account of herself or to say to what her accident was due. Hammond passed the paper across to his wife at breakfast-time, and went off without another word to get the car. They found Karma very still and very white, lying in a hospital bed. Her head was bandaged, and all the wealth of luxuriant black hair had been cut away. Sheila glanced at the nurse, who shook her head.
It needed no knowledge of surgery to see that Karma's end was near at hand. The wound and the shock to the system, to say nothing of the exposure, had done its work. Sheila leaned over the bed and kissed the child tenderly."
Tell me how it happened," she asked. Karma smiled up in return, but there was a certain suggestion of defiance in her black eyes.
"It was an accident," she said. "I love you, and I would die for you; but if it's the last word I ever say, it was an accident. Don't you get it into your head that anybody hurt me on purpose, because I know more about it than anybody else, and I say it was an accident. And when I'm dead, and people speak to you about it, you are not to forget what I'm telling you now."
"It's all very distressing and very sad," Hammond said, as he and his wife left the hospital an hour later. "I should like to believe the child, but I can't. Some blind, irresistible impulse must have taken her back to her own people, and one of those blackguards must have attacked her. They probably left her at the roadside, thinking that she was dead. It makes one's blood boil to think about it. And what can one do?"
"Nothing," Sheila said, tearfully. "You'll never get her to say anything else. She's loyal to the blood to the core. She will die as she has lived, and the secret will die with her."
And Sheila's words proved true.
SALTBURN scooped the beaded sweat from his forehead and flicked it from his fingers as it had been something noisome.
"I'd give," he muttered—"Heavens, what would I not give for a tub of sweet, wholesome, hot water and a piece of yellow soap? Ralph, I stink—we both of us stink! The effluvia has got into the pores of my skin. I am loathsome and repulsive to myself, and my mind's getting as vile as my body!"
Ralph Scarsdale sat up like a startled rabbit in a field of corn.
"Now, that's dashed odd!" he gurgled. "I've been sitting here for the last hour, sweltering in my own juice, and thinking exactly the same thing. It's queer, Ted, my boy, very queer. I suppose this infernal country is getting on our nerves. Were we not the best of friends?"
"Pals for years," Saltburn said, as if making a confession he was ashamed of—"school and college. Made fools of ourselves together, lost our money together, and came out here together. Three years ago? Three centuries!"
"Ever feel at times as if you hated me?"
"Yes, you and myself and all creatures, black and white. It's the fever of the place, my son. It's in the air that rises from this dismal swamp. You can produce the same effect by drink, if you take enough of it. You hardly call a man a murderer who kills his best friend during an attack of delirium tremens. Yet, if I put your light out here, and a slaver-hunting gunboat happened along at the time, I should swing for it. And yet it's just the same thing. Hartley warned me of it before we came out. He said it was a disease you catch, the same as Yellow Jack. Boil it down to the formula of the medical dictionary, and it's homicidal mania."
Now, this was a strange conversation for two bosom friends to be having in the dead of night on the beach at the mouth of the Paragatta River. It was the first time for months that either of them had given to the other an insight into his mind. For months they had been growing more moody and silent. They had little tiffs—whole days when neither spoke. And Saltburn was drinking too much whisky, Scarsdale thought. And Saltburn knew that Scarsdale was overdoing it, otherwise why was it necessary to open one of the case bottles so frequently?
They had drifted here, broke to the world, glad to look after copra for old Hans Breitelmann, the fat and prosperous old Dutchman down at Dagos. And they had stayed because they had heard the story of the Redpath Pearls. The Redpath Pearls were there hidden in the swamp, all right. It was no fairy tale; Joshua, the Papuan servant, had seen them once. It was Josh who kept them going, who stimulated curiosity and, be it said, greed. For the sake of their bodies, to say nothing of their souls, they should have turned their backs upon this hideous swamp, and they knew it. But, if they could find the pearls, they were made men. The pearls were in little wicker baskets attached to a float in the middle of the swamp. These Redpath had hidden there before the Papuans murdered him, and they were there till this day. But it was impossible to fish or boat or work an oar in that oily blue-and-gold scum, which the tide hardly touched. Josh had a legend to the effect that, at certain spring-tides, the swamp was passably dry, and, given a north-east gale of sorts, the tide was held back, sometimes for a day or two, and then under the sun the mud caked hard, and one could cross the lagoon dry-shod. He had seen this more than once himself, but not since Redpath had hidden the pearls there. If the excellent gentlemen would only wait—
And they had waited, but they were looking into the bloodshot eyes of stark tragedy. The heat, the loneliness, the desolation of it, had long since frayed their nerves. They had come to the point now when they no longer talked, but merely muttered. It was weeks since eye had looked into eye, and times when a smile might have suggested insanity. There was a mark on the side of Scarsdale's neck—a red mark—and Saltburn wondered how it would look with a razor-slash across it. And Scarsdale's sister's letter was in his pocket, and her photo in a case next his heart.
Josh, the Papuan, was squatting somewhere near in the reeking darkness, watching. Nothing disturbed his serenity; he was troubled by no scruples or frayed nerves. He was just eleven stone ten of original sin—as all Papuans are—without heart or conscience or bowels of compassion. He was a loathsome thing, born of the meanness and rottenness of corruption, a human upas tree, a hawk to be shot at sight. He would have murdered his employers long ago had it been worth his while to do so. He had argued the matter out philosophically a good many times. But they had no money or articles of value, and their premature demise would have meant the cutting off of Josh's whisky. He was prepared to crucify creation for a bottle of "square-face," Still, this taking off of the white men would only have meant one colossal spree, followed by a total abstinence, perhaps, for years. It was far better to get just comfortably drunk every night, and this inevitably was the reason why Scarsdale and Saltburn suspected each other of overdoing it.
And now there had come along a temptation that shook the philosophy of the Papuan to its foundations. Eight, nine, ten cases of whisky had arrived by the last copra boat from Dagos, awaiting Breitelmann's orders. And Josh's strong point was not arithmetic. He figured out that here was enough whisky to carry on a fine, interminable, whole-souled jamboree to the confines of time. He pictured himself alone with these cases. They would have to be smuggled away and safely hidden, of course. One by one the bottles would have to be stolen, and their places taken by empty bottles filled with water. If he was caught at the game, he would be shot on sight, but the prize was worth all the risks. Therefore it resolved itself purely into a matter of time.
If the Englishmen stayed, it was all right. If they resolved to chuck the whole thing, then it would be wrong. If they went, they would send up to Paterson's station for help to clear the stores, and then the glorious opportunity would be lost for ever. And they were talking about going at that very minute. Scarsdale and Saltburn had seen the red light—they had not been in this accursed country three years for nothing. They had seen a new-comer shot and nearly killed merely for telling a funny story and laughing at it afterwards. Some spring had been touched, and the two friends were nearer together than they had been for months. And Josh's sharp ears took in every word of it.
He came towards the crazy hut and kicked the fire together with a heel as hard as ebony. The fire was a mascot, and kept some of the mosquitoes off. In an attitude of fine humility Josh waited for orders.
"Ain't any," Scarsdale said curtly. "Be off, ye scoundrel!"
"Big spring-tide, morning," Josh grinned amusedly. "Un biggest spring-tide since three more years. Wind am gone north-east."
Surely enough, the hot north-east wind was reeking with rottenness and corruption, and blasting like a furnace at the door of the hut. The man who takes the future in his hands, and is prepared to back it against the forces of a continent, is ever a gambler, and Scarsdale's nostrils twitched. A red spark gleamed in Saltburn's eyes. If what Josh told them was true—
Half an hour ago they had practically made up their minds to leave the place. The resolution was wiped off their mental tablets as by a sponge. Simultaneously the same thought leapt to each mind. They had been here three years, hungering, thirsting for these pearls. They had been pushed to the verge of insanity for the sake of them. And if success came now, it meant everything. It meant fortune, and comfort, and clothes, and hot baths, golf, shooting, hunting, fishing, and, for one of them—Saltburn—the kisses of Mary Scarsdale on his lips. And, curiously enough, he could not at the moment think of her as Scarsdale's sister. There was no cohesion in the world just then; everything was resolving itself into original atoms.
Who was that chap sitting on the other side of the fire? For the life of him, Saltburn could not put a name to the other. It was merely a man—a superfluous, unnecessary man, who was probably after the pearls also. In other words, an enemy to be watched. If the pearls were to be found, Saltburn was going to have them. Why should he trouble about the other fellow? Oh, the poison was rank and strident in the air to-night!
And Scarsdale was following Josh with a hard, vulpine curiosity.
"Very big ebb," the rascal went on cheerfully, "an' much sun to-morrow. Lagoon be dry by nightfall. Perhaps dry for three—four days, if wind can hold on. An' pearls—dem hidden in lagoon."
Josh passed on to his own quarters, his teeth showing in an evil grin. He knew exactly what the two men were suffering from—he had seen the disease often before. He had seen battle and murder and sudden death spring from it. Generally it took the more prosaic form of drink, followed by the purple patches of delirium tremens; but Scarsdale and Saltburn had successfully avoided that, though they suspected one another—to Josh's material advantage. He had been racking his brains for a way of keeping the two on the soil a little longer, and, just as mental resource had failed him, the wind had changed. He had always prophesied that, sooner or later, the wind and tide would conspire, and the sea would give up its dead, so to speak. But he had never really counted on it. He would not have dared to touch the pearls himself, for they were haunted. With his dying breath Redpath had laid a spell on them. The hand of the Papuan that touched the shining discs would wither at the wrist and rot, because Redpath had said so, and he was a man of his word. Josh did not care a red cent for the pearls, but he was very keen and very desperately in earnest so far as concerned the cases of whisky. Therefore the change in the wind had come just in the nick of time. He would have three or four days more, at any rate, for he had seen at a glance that the men did not mean to go before they had had a shot at the pearls. In the ordinary course of things, they would have discussed Josh's news. A few months ago they would have caught at it eagerly.
As a matter of fact, they turned into their respective bunks with never a word passing between them. The hut simmered in the heat. There was a deadly silence save for the sharp ping of the mosquitoes. It might have been taken for granted that the two men were fast asleep. As a matter of fact, each lay in his bunk looking into the darkness with hard, restless eyes.
"I shall never sleep again," Scarsdale was telling himself. "And yet there was a time when— How many centuries ago was that? No such thing as sleep in this accursed continent. If I could get away from it! Only let me finger the pearls! They are as much my property as anybody else's, and I do not see why I should share them with anybody. Heavens, if I could only sleep!"
He dropped into a kind of soddened doze presently, yet half conscious of himself all the time. He tossed and muttered uneasily.
"I'll get 'em," Saltburn was telling the darkness. "See if I don't! Why should I share them with anybody? I spoke to Josh first. Funny thing! I'd a queer notion in my head that I'd got a partner in the business. But the other man who was here to-night is no partner of mine. Bound to be civil to the chap. But when he comes talking of shares And Scarsdale's drinking too much whisky! Why should I worry about that? And who is Scarsdale? And where have I heard the name before? Sleep, you fool, sleep!"
He grabbed at himself with a certain despairing rage. But he, too, dropped off presently into the same strange, half-alert semi-unconsciousness till the dawn came and the sickly, languid day rose from the sea of oil and ooze. Scarsdale had disappeared, but Saltburn thought nothing of that; he had actually forgotten the very existence of his friend. There was a little more sign of dampness in the wind to-day; then came the blessed consciousness of something to be done. If the wind held good, he would have the pearls or perish in the attempt. And the wind did hold good. The orange-yellow mist faded away, and the sun beat fiercely over the mud of the lagoon, while the reek of a thousand acrid poisons filled the air. The sluggard tide was creeping in from the sea again, but it did not reach the lagoon, for the fierce level beat of the north-east wind kept it back. Saltburn grinned as he saw the hard, dry mud caking on the surface. He asked himself no questions as to Scarsdale. It never seemed to occur to him to wonder where the lake had gone to. When the fiery orange sun began to dip, he would go out to search. And when these pearls were his, ah, then—
The great copper sun was beginning to slide over the shoulder of the mango groves before Saltburn set out on his journey. He had the air and manner of a man who walks in his sleep. His red-rimmed eyes were hard and vacant; his lips twitched oddly, as if they had been made of elastic. It was all one to Saltburn, as he had not tasted food since he had dragged himself from his bunk. He had touched the ground in accordance with the laws of gravity, but to him it was as if he were plunging along knee-deep in cotton-wool.
He came to the edge of the lagoon presently—came to the edge of the liquid ooze of amber and gold and crimson, where the tide had ebbed; but the brilliant dyes were there no longer, and the flow of the lagoon was baked to grey concrete. He crept across it like an old man. Now and then a foot would go through the crust and bring him up all standing. He knew his way by heart. Away to the left was the remains of a wreck, cast up there ages ago by some great storm or intense volcanic disturbance, and there Redpath, flying headlong from his foes, had cast the pearls before he had been sucked down by the mud and suffocated by the slime and ooze and filthy corruption of it. How Redpath had contrived to get so far was a mystery.
He had found some sort of a footing, some sort of a trail on the lagoon by accident. Another fifty yards, and he might have reached safety and the river. For the river was there, as more than one rascally slaver knew. They found salvation there sometimes, when His Majesty's gunboat Snapper was more than usually active. Saltburn was on the spot at last. Down here, under the sand somewhere, the wicker baskets containing the pearls lay. And Saltburn was groping for them like a man in a dream. He broke his way through the crust on the mud and plunged in his arms. He was black to the shoulders, as if he had been working in ink. He fought on with a sudden strength and fury; new life seemed to be tingling in his veins. Presently his right hand touched something, and he drew it to the light. It was one of the small wicker baskets, dripping and slimy. Inside was a handful of round, discoloured seeds— the pearls beyond a doubt.
Saltburn burst out into a drunken, staggering, hysterical yell. Fortune and happiness, comfort, prosperity, all lay in the hollow of his trembling hands. He grasped blindly and hurriedly, and again and again with the same pure luck. One, two, three, four of the little baskets! Hadn't somebody told him that there had only been four of the baskets altogether?
Now, who the deuce had he got the information from? Why, Josh, of course! And where was Josh? Confound him!
Josh was not far off. He was standing on the edge of the lagoon, showing his great white teeth in an expansive smile. He was waiting for Scarsdale to put in an appearance. Josh was a bit of an artist in his way, with a fine eye to an effective curtain. And the air was heavy with impending tragedy. There would be murder done here, or Josh was greatly mistaken. And when these two bosom friends had choked the life out of each other. Josh would collect the whisky and report the matter, and that would be bhe end of it.
Scarsdale was coming now, approaching Saltburn from below the wreck. He stood for a moment contemplating Saltburn in a dull, uncomprehending way. He, too, was like a man who walks in his sleep; he had the same hard, red-rimmed eyes, the same elastic twitching of the lips. Who was this mud-lark, and what was he doing with another man's pearls? It was that blackguard Saltburn, of course. Curse Saltburn! The fellow had followed him everywhere—had been the bane of his existence. He had always hated Saltburn from the bottom of his heart—could never get rid of him. And here was the scoundrel robbing him of his fortune before his very eyes!
With a roar of rage, he dashed forward.
"Get out of it!" he croaked. "Go back to your kennel, you hound! What do you mean by coming here and robbing me of my hard-earned money? You were a sneak and a thief even in your school-days!"
Saltburn showed his teeth in an evil grin. "Come near me, and I'll kill you!" he said hoarsely. "Come near me, and I'll take you by the throat and choke the life out of you! Call me a thief, eh? What do you call yourself, then? You'd take the coppers from a blind man's tin! Keep away, or I shall do you a mischief!"
Scarsdale came on, gibbering and muttering. They were at grips, to the great delight of Josh, standing like a black sentinel on the edge of the lagoon. Ah, this he had engineered carefully and cleverly! Why should he take the trouble to kill those two white men when they were so ready to destroy each other? They had never done him any harm, either; on the contrary, he had enjoyed a great many splitting headaches at their expense.
He saw the white men grip and reel and stumble; he could hear their cries and curses, as the bark of civilisation peeled off and the raw primeval man underneath stood out in his hideousness. Josh was no longer watching two men, but two wolves fighting for each other's throats. He saw how the mud was being churned up in the struggle, he saw flakes of the crust break away like ice on a lake in the springtime. It was all very well for one man to walk circumspectly on the thin rind of dry mud, it was possible to make holes in it and be safe, but here was a different matter. The ice had given way, so to speak, and these men were in a sea of mud, with the certainty of a horrible suffocation before them. They were sinking deeper and deeper in the pernicious slime without being in the least aware of it. All this Josh saw, and a great deal more from his seat in the stalls.
But there was one thing he did not see, for it was concealed under the edge of the bank that formed the margin of the sluggish river. He did not see a boat belonging to H.M.S. Snapper, full of blue-jackets and armed marines, creeping cautiously along in search of the slave dhow that lay concealed, as the commander of the Snapper very well knew, in a creek hard by. The look-out in the stern had a keen eye and ear for sign and sound, and at the hideous din going on just over his head he stopped. It was no difficult matter to climb up the sun-dried bank and investigate. And Lieutenant Seaton understood. He had heard of this form of malarial madness before. He swept his eye round the lagoon and took in the nigger in the stalls like a flash. And Josh realised the delicacy of the situation all too late. A couple of bullets whizzed by his ear, and he stopped. A sergeant of marines beckoned to him and he went.
"Rise up, William Riley, and come along with me," the sergeant quoted. "Now, sir, what are we going to do about this?"
"Get back to the ship," Seaton directed, "and hand these two poor devils over to the doctor. Take the nigger with us as well. One of these madmen thinks that those baskets are full of pearls. Better humour them and take the baskets along. The black rascals of the creek will keep for an hour."
Scarsdale and Saltburn lay in the bottom of the boat, half suffocated, wholly exhausted, and quite oblivious to their surroundings. They were both in the heart of some hideous nightmare. Whether they came out of it or not was very largely a matter of indifference. The commander of the Snapper looked at his deck, then looked at the doctor, who seemed to have grasped the situation.
"Mad as hatters," the doctor muttered. "These chaps have got malarial mania, which precedes chronic insomnia and madness. Good food and sea air is the cure. Well get these chaps bathed, and I'll put a few grains of morphia into each, and they'll sleep the clock round. When they come to themselves, they ought to be as right as rain."
"Um! Morton says that it was no delusion as to the pearls. He says they are real pearls and worth a huge fortune. I'll bet that nigger can tell a story. Seaton, send the Papuan to my cabin."
Josh made the best of it. He told the story of the Redpath pearls and how they had been found. He had a good deal to say also on the score of the slave dhows and their artful ways, all of which pleased the commander of the Snapper very much. But he quite forgot to say anything about the whisky, and that must remain a secret.
"I've got those chaps cleaned and in bed," the doctor explained, as the armed boat dropped away again, with Josh in the bows to act as guide. "When I soaked them out of the mud, I found an old chum of mine called Scarsdale. Oh, yes, I pumped some considerable morphia into them, and they dropped off peacefully as kids. Shouldn't be at all surprised if they slept for the next four-and-twenty hours. Anyway, we found 'em in the nick of time."
It was, as a matter of fact, the morning of the second day before Scarsdale stirred and opened his eyes. A brace of slave dhows had been destroyed and their crews shot, and the Snapper was in blue water again. The fine crisp breeze blowing in through the port-hole swept Scarsdale 's cheek, and a pure hunger gripped him.
"Where the deuce am I?" he muttered, "And what a head I've got on me! If this is a dream, Heaven send I may go on with it!"
"Then we're dreaming together," Saltburn said from the next bunk. "We're on a gunboat, my son. Here, let's try to think it out. Where were we? And what the dickens were you and I quarrelling about?"
"The pearls!" Scarsdale cried. "We were both after the pearls. The wind had gone round to the nor'-east. Don't you remember? We must have been fighting like cats until these good chaps picked us up. I'd bet a dollar they were creeping along after slavers and spotted us. And we were trying to murder one another, old boy! By Jove, it is coming back to me a bit at a time!"
They lay there thinking it out in silence, a strained, shamed silence, for each was holding himself as actually to blame. They were still deep in retrospect when the doctor looked into the cabin.
"Well, you chaps?" he said breezily. "Hallo, friend Scarsdale! Haven't forgotten Monroe, eh? Because that's me. And this is the Snapper, and I'm her doctor. Small place the world, after all, isn't it? Oh, yes, we took you off the mud all right. We got it all out of a picturesque rascal who said his name was Josh. Friend Josh gave us the slip during a little scrap we had up the river yesterday, so he's done with. Now, don't you fellows say anything and get blaming yourselves. I have heard of your particular trouble many a time before. And, however, luck came to you just at the right time. We saved your lives and your pearls, too. One of our men, a judge of stones, says they are worth a couple of hundred thousand quid easy. A few good meals and a day in bed and the air will put you as right as right can be. We fetched your kits away, and your clothes are here. Now get up and come to breakfast."
"What's the next move?" Scarsdale asked unsteadily.
"Back home," Saltburn said, with lips that trembled. "England, home, and beauty. And jolly well stay there, as far as I'm concerned. Old boy, as far as that goes, I don't care if the last two years be never mentioned again."
"It's a bet," Scarsdale said fervently.
MACHIN puts the blame on to the the editor of the Arena, and the latter complains that he was grossly deceived. Now, the Arena is an exceedingly important journal, and, as everybody knows, carries great weight with people of intelligence. It is a sixpenny weekly, and devotes a good deal of its space to the better fiction. So therefore it cannot be assumed for a moment that Cruchley, the editor, allowed himself to be made a party to a deliberate fraud on the British public.
The fiction particularly favoured by the Arena belongs largely to the cameo type—exquisitely polished sketches and clear-cut emotions and the like. There must be at least half a dozen novelists of the front rank who have to thank Cruchley for their present position. Therefore Cruchley, when he received that eloquent trifle entitled 'The Liver Wing,' written over the signature of Laura Jane Parlby, lost no time in asking the author of the story to call upon him. It was just the kind of stuff he wanted, and he was naturally desirous of making the best bargain he could before his fellow editors came in. The sketch in question, had it been Scotch, would have belonged to the Kailyard school, but being frankly English, and Arcadian at that, was still waiting for the appropriate epithet. Once that was done, Laura Jane Parlby was a made woman, and the circulation of the Arena would indubitably be enhanced. Now, some people would have sneered at the carefully careless simplicity of 'The Liver Wing'; some people would have failed to see its delicate humour. It was a mere account of an unselfish old maid who never in her life had partaken of the delicacy in question. In her youth she had never desired to rob her parents of the dainty; when she became independent and set up house for herself, it was her invariable practice to prevent the precious trifle to other people.
All this sounds very frivolous, of course, but, as any editor worthy of his salt knows, it is merely a matter of treatment. And every editor worth his salt, too, is naturally on the lookout for a boom. Cruchley was exceedingly particular whom he did boom, but it seemed to him now that here was a legitimate object and scope for opportunity. Therefore it was that he wrote to Laura Jane Parlby, and asked her to call upon him. Could she make it convenient to look in after twelve o'clock some Thursday? There came a wire in response to the effect that the very first Thursday that ever was should see the meeting between writer and editor.
It was a considerable disappointment, therefore, for Cruchley when there presented himself a big man with a big beard and moustache and tanned face, to say nothing of a shabby Norfolk suit, who announced himself without any sense of fitting humility as the author of 'The Liver Wing.'
"The deuce you are!" Cruchley gasped in dismay.
"Nothing wrong about it, is there?" Machin demanded.
"Well—er, not precisely. But, naturally I expected to see a lady. You know, I made rather a prominent feature of 'The Liver Wing', in last week's Arena. I wrote a leaderette on the subject. I told my readers that we had discovered a new humorist—the rare type of humorist with the art of blending tears and laughter. I went so far as to insinuate that here was another Jane Austen with a flavour of George Eliot."
The big man smiled.
"I think I understand you," he said. "You see, at one time I took a hand in the game—I mean that in my family there were several journalists, and I have learnt something of the inner workings of a newspaper. Now precisely what did you expect Laura Jane Parlby to be like?"
"Well, you see, one goes, to a certain extent by the name. Laura Jane Parlby sounds so delightfully Victorian. One pictures her in a white, creeper-covered house, furnished with Georgian simplicity; one sees her going about the village with her charity basket on her arm, carrying sunshine into the Tudor cottages; one marks her as a friend of everybody and the depository of all kinds of sentimental little secrets. She should be tall and thin, with blue eyes and grey hair, and, of course, her lover should have perished at sea or something of that sort. She should be an excellent cook, and people should throw their champagne on one side when she makes them a present of her rare old rhubarb wine. Oh, dash it all, my dear chap, you know exactly what I mean. I expected to see her come in here wearing one of those black silk dresses that stand by themselves, to say nothing of a big white bonnet or balcony hat. And when you came in here just now, looking—if you will pardon a simile—more like a gamekeeper than anything else, I was disappointed."
Machin made no reply. He did not appear to be in the least annoyed in being taken for a gamekeeper—indeed, it was doubtful if he heard what Cruchley was saying, for he seemed deeply mersed in thought. He came to himself with a start.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "You see, I am a bit of a sportsman, and I should be a gamekeeper if I could afford to preserve. But I don't see that the fact of my being a man makes any difference. I can go on writing under the name of Laura Jane Parlby and the public will be none the wiser."
"That's not good enough for the Arena," Cruchley said promptly. "We have far too sweet and clean a reputation for anything of that sort. The truth must be told, though it will be a great disappointment and we shan't do anything like so well out of your work. Mind you, it's rattling good stuff, and I congratulate you warmly."
Machin contemplated his boots gloomily.
"Without knowing it, you are putting me in a very tight place," he said; "and if your paper is so particular, then I must violate a confidence and tell you the whole facts. Now, Mr. Cruchley, do I look like the sort of man who could write a story like 'The Liver Wing'? Do I look like a man with a soul?"
"Not a bit," Cruchley said promptly. "Why?"
"Well, you see, I have an Aunt Jane. Whether she is Laura Jane Parlby or not does not matter. We will assume for the sake of argument, if you like, that after a great many years she suddenly discovers that she can write. Perhaps that is not quite the right way to put it. Somebody discovers in an old desk of hers a little sheaf of stories, and reads them. Say it's me, if you like. And I urge her to publish them. She looks at me as if I had suggested that she should commit some crime. She's a gentle, kindly soul, who never likes to say no to anybody. At length she permits me to send one of those sketches to a paper which shall be nameless, and she nearly dies of heart disease when she finds the story has been accepted. And you can imagine the consternation of the poor old soul when she got your telegram. Something had to be done, or assuredly I should have lost my Aunt Jane. She was delighted, of course, to feel that her work was worthy of publication but the suggestion of publicity filled her with horror. She began to anticipate hordes of journalists bearing down upon her ivy-covered cottage to interview her. It was I who suggested the plot. I write a bit, anyhow; she was to do the stories, and I was to pretend that I was Laura Jane Parlby so far as putting the public off the scent were concerned. Mind you, I didn't mean to tell you this. I shouldn't have done so only you've been so straightforward and so loyal to your paper. I hope all this is satisfactory."
"Oh, eminently!" Cruchley cried. "You see, it makes all the difference in the world. You can pretend what you like—it doesn't make the slightest difference to us. You can practise a mild deception on the British public, but it leaves our editorial acumen untarnished. We knew that 'The Liver Wing' was the work of a woman, and so long as we are assured of the fact that there is a genuine Laura Jane Parlby, we can go on with the boom. I'd like to run down a little later on and see the talented authoress. When she gets more accustomed to the fame which is surely coming she won't be quite so retiring."
"Oh, you mustn't do that," Machin protested. "You haven't the remotest notion what a sensitive woman she is. And how can I go back home and tell her that I have betrayed her secret in this shameful way? My dear fellow, you must regard this conversation as absolutely confidential. I have made it all plain sailing for you, and I will see that you get plenty of stories. I suppose there are about a score of them altogether, and I hope a little later on to induce my aunt to write a book."
Cruchley's eyes gleamed. For the proprietors of the Arena were also publishers. In his mind's eye he could see an exceedingly good thing in this. And, besides that, he personally was going to add to his reputation by introducing a new novelist to the world of letters.
"Very well," he said. "I am exceedingly obliged to you for coming here to-day and taking me into your confidence in this candid manner. And mind, it is quite understood that I am to have the refusal of all Laura Jane Parlby's work. We can afford to pay her far more handsomely than the majority of magazines, and I need not remind you what a start in the Arena means. Before many months are over, Laura Jane Parlby will be famous."
Strange as it may seem, this information did not appear to afford any particular satisfaction to Machin. Possibly he was fond of his aunt, possibly he feared what the effect would be of verbal intrusion into her Arcadian paradise. He went away somewhat thoughtfully, and for the next few days Cruchley heard nothing of him. Then the batch of short stories arrived with an intimation that a book was in contemplation; and, in the fullness of his heart, Cruchley dispatched a cheque which a little later caused some unpleasantness between his commercial-minded employers and himself. He defended himself on the grounds of expediency; he was quite sure that the money would come back a hundredfold. That the house had secured a new literary star of magnitude he did not for a moment doubt. And certainly his prophecy was speedily fulfilled. From the very first the discriminating public drank eagerly at the pierian spring as filtered to them through the brain of Laura Jane Parlby. Three months, and everybody was talking about Laura Jane Parlby—there had been no such phenomenal boom since the days when the Scots came down from the north and captured a shrewd and discriminating public.
Never had a fame been more cleverly or easily exploited. And the talented authoress herself appeared unconsciously to be playing exactly the role that Cruchley would have chosen for her. She seemed to be absolutely unaware of the fact that she was famous. It was understood that she read no papers, and no one could say anything about her ways or habits—indeed, Machin saw to that. He had a fine eye for a wandering journalist in search of copy, as more than one of his tribe can tell to his cost. And meanwhile, Miss Laura Jane Parlby went quietly about her daily life, tending her house and her old-world garden and visiting her pensioners. Not the most audacious or daring brother of the pencil had ever had speech with her; not one of them had got beyond the front gate. At the first sign of danger Machin loomed big and strong on the horizon, and Miss Parlby fled into the house. The whole thing was beginning to get on Machin's nerves.
"I'm getting rather fed up with this," he confessed, as he discussed the matter with his particular chum, Martin, the village doctor. "I can hardly get away for half an hour now. The dear old lady hasn't the remotest idea what people are saying about her. She thinks she has written two or three stories which are just good enough for print, and that's all there is to it. That she's a great personage, she's not the remotest idea. If she knew the truth she'd have a fit. Upon my word, I shall have to take a holiday. My idea is to change our names and go abroad somewhere. I could get a companion for the old lady and settle her down in some old-fashioned French town, then I might pop back and get a bit of shooting. I'm quite soft for want of exercise."
"But she's bound to find out sooner or later," Martin urged. "The papers are full of her. Most of the details are all lies, but that doesn't make any difference. The village has been talked about and photographed and all the rest of it, and I'm told that one of the livery stable keepers at Frampton is organising weekly chara-banc excursions to run over here with a view to excursionists seeing Laura Jane Parlby's cottage. My dear chap, you'll have them all over the garden after a bit picking flowers and carving their names on the trees. Why don't you break the thing gently to Miss Parlby? If you don't do it somebody else will. You can't expect everybody to keep a bridle on their tongue every time they meet your aunt."
Machin did not appear to relish the prospect. He had his own reasons for pursuing a policy of silence.
"I shall have to do something," he said. "Of course, it's all very well in one way. So far as the money is concerned, it's simply rolling in. I suppose in England and America they must have sold at least two hundred thousand copies of the last book. I don't know what to do with it."
"You don't know what to do with it? How do you mean?"
"Well, that's what it comes to," Machin said with a slight flush on his face. "You see, the dear old lady doesn't care anything about the money. She persists in thinking that she makes about a pound a week, and so long as she has an extra sovereign a week to spend on her pensioners, she's perfectly satisfied. And all the rest comes to me. You needn't look at me like that, because I'm absolutely entitled to it. And yet I can't spend a penny of it. I'm like a poor chap who finds himself shipwrecked on an island of gold."
It was exceeding hard luck, and Martin was correspondingly sympathetic. It was all very well to talk about getting Laura Jane Parlby away, but she could be obstinate enough in some respects, and she absolutely declined to leave her beloved village. Martin's suggestion that he should call upon her and discover some alarming symptoms which called for a change of air ended in absolute disaster. The old lady looked up from her knitting with an air of mild surprise.
"I don't think there's anything the matter with me," she said mildly. "It is my dear nephew, Charles, who wants a change. Indeed, I'm getting quite anxious about him. I cannot understand why he always looks so troubled and worried."
"Oh, possibly some family weakness," the doctor said. "I shouldn't wonder if you shared it yourself. Two or three months' travel on the Continent would make all the difference."
Miss Parlby clicked her knitting needles together. She looked wonderfully soft and amiable, she made quite a picture.
"I shall never leave here," she said. "Nothing would induce me to. Ever since my dear father died I have not been a mile beyond the village. I went to London once, but I was quite glad to come back the next day. I could not bear the thought of dying anywhere except amongst my own people."
"It's no good," Martin confided to Machin afterwards. "I can't get the old lady to stir. Your only chance is to go somewhere at a distance and break a leg or an arm or something of that sort. Then the old lady will hurry to your side quite in the traditional Victorian manner."
But there was no occasion for Machin to go to a distance in order to fracture a limb, because Fate took a hand in the game and did that for him. The God in the Car took the shape of a young horse in conjunction with some posts and rails, and when Machin scrambled to his feet, he needed no master of surgery to tell him that he had broken his arm. It was a pretty bad fracture, to say nothing of an injured rib, and it looked as if Machin would have to lie up for a month at least. Miss Parlby was more than sympathetic. She knew the value of quiet to an invalid, and she took the liberty of even suppressing Machin's letters. She saw with perturbation that some of these letters were arriving regularly from the office of the Arena, but thought they might be of the last importance—Machin was not to see them. At the end of the second week there came a visitor with a very pressing demand that Miss Parlby would grant him the favour of an audience. She was only human, after all, and she thrilled when she saw from the visitor's card that he was the editor of the Arena. She had all the ordinary person's veneration for the editorial fraternity, and with some considerable agitation donned her best cap in honour of the occasion.
"I am exceedingly sorry for this intrusion," Cruchley said, "but I was so anxious that I had to come down and see you. I have heard nothing for the last three weeks. And I have not a single short story by me. I trust you've not been ill?"
"I am never ill," Miss Parlby said. "I suppose you are disturbed because you have heard nothing from my nephew, who transacts all my business for me. I regret to say that he is lying in bed with a broken arm."
Cruchley breathed a little more easily. He knew something of the moods and vagaries of the artistic mind, and he had been somewhat fearful that wounded vanity was at the bottom of that disturbing silence. You never could tell, and again there was the possibility that a rival editor had gone one better in the way of price. Even the artistic mind is not always above sordid considerations like these. So it was all right, though Cruchley was uneasily conscious that he had broken a promise in intruding upon Miss Parlby. Doubtless she had been so taken up with her nephew that she had forgotten everything else.
"I am very sorry to hear what you say," he murmured. "I shall be able to explain to our readers now that a domestic misfortune has dragged you from your desk."
"Oh, dear, no," Miss Parlby explained. "I hope I know my duty to my nephew. There is no question of dragging, I assure you. I have cheerfully put everything else on one side since he has been laid up. One could not think of letters when there is illness in the house."
"I wasn't thinking about letters," Cruchley stammered, "but more of those beautiful stories."
Miss Parlby looked slightly puzzled. No doubt this was an exceedingly clever and brilliant young man, but he seemed to be labouring under some sort of delusion.
"Are they really worth talking about?" she said. "Do you know they were never meant to be seen at all? They were more in the way of little innocent notes, just as if one played at writing to oneself. I used to do that as a child. You see, I was never lucky enough to have a playmate."
Here was the real human note, and Cruchley responded to it promptly.
"Charming, charming," he exclaimed. "A quaint and simple conceit indeed."
"Conceit!" Miss Parlby echoed. "I don't understand. I have never been called conceited before."
Cruchley stammered something in reply. What on earth was the matter with the woman? Was she trying to take a rise out of him? It was ridiculous to believe that one whose style was almost purely Addisonian should fail to understand the meaning of the application of his phrase.
"But it is so interesting," he said. "It will be quite a new note for our readers. They will be delighted to hear that you began your literary career by writing letters to yourself. That, no doubt, is where you learnt the rare art of prose introspection. If I may say so, that is one of the outstanding features of your wonderful workmanship. I suppose your short stories grew and grew until they attained that marvellous finish and style."
A little red spot burnt on Miss Parlby's cheeks.
"I quite fail to understand you," she said coldly. "It is not very good taste, sir, on your part to make fun of an old woman like myself. I never aspired to be an author, and I was exceedingly sorry when my nephew found those poor little efforts of mine. He persuaded me to let him have them, and when he told me they were going to be published in one of the magazines, nobody was more astonished than myself. Not that I have ever seen them. I should have been perhaps ashamed and uncomfortable if I had realised that the world had been taken into my confidence through the medium of a newspaper."
"Extraordinary," Cruchley murmured, "quite extraordinary. One of the vagaries of genius, in fact. And yet I assure you that I never printed a score or so of short stories with more pleasure in my life. And I am considered a judge."
"There is some dreadful mistake here," Miss Parlby said. "All I had to go on was a handful of notes, just silly little thoughts that occur to solitary people. You see, I read a good deal of poetry, and I have ideas for poems, though I don't in the least know how to write them."
"I am sure you could if you tried."
"I am sure I couldn't. At any rate, I handed those notes over to my nephew, and he said they had been published. They would not have made much of a story altogether."
"And what about the books?" Cruchley asked.
A cold fear was clutching him, a bead of perspiration stood on the editorial brow. Miss Parlby's gentle puzzled amazement fairly frightened him.
"I have not the remotest idea what you are talking about," she said. "My dear sir, do you actually think I am capable of writing a book? I am afraid that somebody has been grossly deceiving you. And you spoke just now as if I am a regular contributor to your paper. It looks to me as if someone has actually had the impertinence to make use of my name. Now I see why my friends have been amusing themselves at my expense. All sorts of funny little hints and suggestions. I thought at first that you were making fun of me. What vulgar minded people call chaff, I believe. You had better see my nephew."
"I am emphatically of the same opinions," Cruchley said grimly. "I will come down when he is better and interview him. If I have unconsciously said anything to offend you, I beg to apologise most humbly. Possibly the mistake has been mine."
Cruchley went back to London thoughtfully, and by the time he reached his office he began to see daylight. It was a fortnight later before he went down to the Sweet Auburn village again and confronted Machin.
"Now, you blackguard," he said, "tell me all about it. A nice mess you've got me into."
"Well, practically it's your own fault," Machin said. "I sent you a pretty little short story over the signature of Laura Jane Parlby. As a matter of fact, she was my inspiration and I thought it would be a neat idea to assume her name. Then you wrote and asked to see me or her, and I came. When I told you I was the author of the yarn, I could see that you were most bitterly disappointed. You told me pretty plainly that if you could father the stories on to some dainty mid-Victorian old maid, there was a big boom in front for the stuff. Now, I had written about twenty of those yarns, and I began to smell large money in them. I admit the inspiration came from my aunt, but the work was my own; and whether you like it or not, you are bound to admit that they were rattling good stories, and the public has endorsed your verdict. Well, I wasn't going to disappoint you, and I wasn't going to disappoint myself either. You asked for Laura Jane Parlby, and I was in a position to deliver the goods. So to speak, I had her in the ice chest. It seemed a pity to spoil a beautiful romance like that for the sake of a virgin aunt. I knew that she would never hear about it, and even if she did, she would forgive a little innocent deception like that. So I allowed you to think that I was merely a go-between to shield her lavender-scented genius from a vulgar and curious world. You seemed so dead keen upon the whole thing that I hadn't the heart to undeceive you. And, in any case, you had no business to have come down here."
Cruchley was too angry to see his advantage.
"Well, I like that!" he cried. "I like the idea of you posing as the injured party. Here you have made me an absolute confederate to one of the grossest frauds ever worked upon the public. Good heavens, man, when I think of the reams of gush that have been written about Miss Parlby I don't know whether to laugh or to cry."
"I don't see anything to cry about," Machin said. "I think I'm a fairly modest man, but I cannot close my eyes to the fact that in me you have presented another great literary genius to a grateful public. Dash it all, man, I did write those stories, and I did write those books. And, what's more, there will be plenty still where they came from. Of course, if you like to repudiate me and tell the whole truth, I shall be pleased to take my work elsewhere. But the public would only laugh at you and go on reading the immortal works of Laura Jane Parlby all the same. My dear chap, what are you going to do?"
Cruchley wasn't quite sure. Assuredly he would be laughed at if the story became public, and most assuredly his house would lose the benefit of Machin's work. And that it was really good work there was no denying—it seemed almost impossible to believe that this big man in the rough tweed suit was capable of such dainty fiction.
"Oh, I'd better let it go," he growled. "I must tell my proprietors, of course. And, as you say, no one has been hurt and the public has been elevated."
And Machin was quite content to let it go at that.
THE dim little courthouse was packed to suffocation. A dense mass of perspiring humanity sat there watching Archer Steadman being tried for his life. There were hundreds of people who knew him personally, they had chatted with him, shaken hands with him, asked him to their homes. They had applauded him in the cricket field, they had cheered his triumphant progress at football, Castleford had been proud of him. The sleepy old cathedral city had never produced a finer athlete. And Arthur Steadman was being tried for murder.
People remembered now that he had always been a 'bit of a waster.' His life was clean enough, but he really was a loafer. Old Gordon Steadman always said so, though he was good to his nephew in his own queer, eccentric way, and gave him some kind of allowance. Perhaps Archer had counted on dead men's shoes; certainly he had counted on having the old man's money some of these days, and there was a good deal of it, too. So Gordon Steadman had grumbled and paid till three months before when there had been a dispute over a betting account of the younger man's. And Gordon Steadman had had a perfect horror of betting. Archer had given him a promise as regarded that vice and he had broken his word.
Everybody had heard the story, of course. These things cannot be a secret in a small, cathedral city. There had been a final split, and Archer had been ordered out of his uncle's house. In future he could look to himself for his bread and cheese. He would have to earn his own living. And Archer had set out to do so fearlessly enough. At the end of a fortnight he was absolutely penniless, in debt to everybody; he was getting shabby and moody and discontented.
A week later and the startling discovery had been made that Gordon Steadman had been foully murdered in his own house in broad daylight at four o'clock in the afternoon. The victim's house was a rather lonely one on the outskirts of the town; it boasted a wonderful walled-in garden where the old man followed his favourite pursuit, the study of the ways and habits of wild birds. At the back of the house was a kind of garden-room with French windows opening on to a lawn and here Mr. Steadman passed most of the summer. At three o'clock on the day of the tragedy his housekeeper had taken him in a packet of films for photographic purposes, and at that time he had been writing at his desk. His keys lay on the table, and he had appeared to be busy. An hour later, when the housekeeper took in the usual cup of tea, she was horrified to find her master dead, his head shattered by a blow from some blunt instrument.
Whether there was anything missing nobody ever knew. Nothing appeared to have been stolen, for there were valuables in the desk. Mr. Steadman's cheque-book appeared to have vanished, but there was no significance in this, for it was just possible that at the time of his death Mr. Steadman was out of cheques altogether. The papers did not even mention the matter.
From the very first suspicion began to fasten itself on Archer Steadman. So far as it was possible to ascertain the old man had not had a single enemy in the world. There was no proof that robbery was the motive for the crime. Who, therefore could benefit by the tragedy but the dead man's nephew—and heir? Closely questioned, Archer denied that he had seen his uncle since the split. Yet he had money soon after the murder, and paid off several little loans. A day or two before and it could be proved that he had literally not one penny. Certain footmarks near the garden-room tallied exactly with the boots that he was wearing—indeed he had no other pair on the day of the crime. A witness had come forward and testified to the fact that he had seen Archer Steadman in the lane by the old man's house just after four on the day of the murder. And worse than all this, the wife of a butcher named Garvis had testified to the fact that she had cashed a cheque for fifty pounds for the prisoner that same afternoon shortly after five o'clock and that the cheque, drawn and endorsed in favour of 'self,' had been signed by Mr. Gordon Steadman. Mrs. Garvis kept her husband's books and managed his monetary affairs, and she spoke with authority. She had cashed the cheque and given the prisoner some twenty pounds in gold and the balance in three small cheques payable to various people named by the prisoner, who had no banking account of his own, and adopted this method of paying sundry creditors who resided at a distance. The cheques had been taken from a new cheque-book which the butcher, Garvis, had apparently obtained that very day from the local branch of the Capital and Allied Bank.
Verily the counsel for the Crown was piling up a terribly black case against the prisoner. By the time he had finished with his last witness it was felt by everybody listening there that the verdict was only a matter of time. And what chance had young Edgar Vavasour, the rising young Junior who defended the prisoner, against so powerful an opponent as Mr. George Geoffrey, K.C.? Vavasour was a local man which in itself was interesting; he was by way of being a friend of Archer Steadman's; they had been at school together. Ah, yes, it was a tremendously strong case to answer, but Vavasour's face showed hope and courage as he took one witness after another in hand. It was the old housekeeper to the murdered man that seemed to attract his attention first.
"I'd like to ask you few questions," he said. "Now, you told the Court a little time ago that on the day of the murder you took into the garden-room about three o'clock a packet of films. I understand that Mr. Gordon Steadman was an expert photographer?
"He was, sir. Birds and animals and such like."
"Precisely. All this is common knowledge. Most people here are aware of the fact that Mr. Steadman's photographs were quite popular with certain periodicals. He had a special camera built for the purpose. Was that camera standing in the window on the day of the murder?"
"Yes, sir. It frequently stood there. My master placed it there, and from the camera there was a silken cord attached at the other end to a kind of trap arrangement in which food for birds was placed. My master frequently explained this to me."
"Quite so. And the weight of the bird depressed the cord and released the shutter of the camera, thus registering a snap photograph. Am I to understand that?"
"Yes, sir, if you please. Just that. It was all so simple that a child could understand it."
What was young Vavasour driving at, every body wondered. Why was he imparting this extraordinary air of mystery into the case? And why did he look so gravely self-satisfied? Everybody there was prepared for some tremendous dramatic surprise.
"We will let that pass for the moment," Vavasour went on. "You have proved to us what the camera can do, and we will come back to this part presently. At four o'clock on the day of the murder you returned to the garden room and found your master dead. I am not going to ask any questions as to that. You have told us, and the police have proved to us, that there was no evidence of a struggle, practically nothing had been disturbed. Now was everything exactly in its proper place? Just think? Are you sure that nothing had been overturned?"
The witness hesitated for a moment, her mind apparently moving slowly. A tense, rigid silence gripped the court. It was impossible to believe that Vavasour was asking these questions out of sheer curiosity. Even the prisoner had lost his white, apathetic indifference, and his eyes grew dark. The pencils of the reporters were flying across the pages of their notebooks. The crime was what they called a 'popular' one, and they scented a new sensation for the morrow.
"Think carefully before you speak," Vavasour's voice came warningly.
"I'm trying to, sir," the old woman faltered. "The only thing I can think of is the camera. It had been knocked off the stand and lay on the floor. But anything might have done that, you see, standing as it did on a three-legged arrangement——"
"Stop, stop," Vavasour interrupted. "I don't want any explanation or arguments. The camera was upset. Did you let it lie there or did you pick it up?"
"I let it lie there for the time, sir. I was too frightened to do anything. After the police came and I told them all I knew I did tidy up a bit. Matter of habit, sir. I picked up the camera and put it back in its stand. And it's in the garden room now."
"I know it is," Vavasour said quietly. "It was too trifling a matter to attract the attention of the police. But trifles, my lord and gentlemen of the jury, if I may address you for an instant, hang men and set them free. I may state that I have seen the camera, and being something of an expert it gave me an idea. Whether or not there is anything in that idea will be seen to-morrow. I found that certain films in the camera had been exposed, and I took the liberty of having them removed under the eyes of the police. They have gone to London to be developed, and will be in my hands to-morrow. Whether or not they will help me in my case remains to be proved. I think they will. That will do."
The aged witness shuffled away, glad to hide herself in an obscure corner of the court. For a moment at any rate the sensation was at an end. Whether or not it would crop up to-morrow was the question. Everybody was on the tip-toe of expectation now. In a milder form the curiosity was renewed a little later on, when Vavasour developed a bitter cross-examination of the butcher's wife, Mary Garvis.
"I am sorry to make myself objectionable," he said, "but in the interests of my client I must put certain points to you. Your husband happens to be on the jury?"
"He does, sir?" the woman said. "He's not a witness in the case."
"That will do, please. I need no comments. Have you had any money troubles lately? I put it to you that your husband is being sorely pressed by his creditors."
Counsel for the Crown protested. The Judge murmured disapproval. Vavasour stood there erect and rigid.
"I regret the necessity, my Lord," he said. "But in the interests of justice I must ask these questions. I pledge my word that they are necessary. Now, madam, answer me."
"We have been unfortunate lately, if that's what you mean," she said, sullenly.
"Precisely. Writs and county court proceedings and lawyers' letters."
The woman nodded. It seemed strange that she should have been there making these admissions with her husband scowling in the jury box. But what had all this to do with the case against the prisoner? Once more the court swayed with curious excitement.
"I have done for the moment," Vavasour said. "It is now 6 o'clock, my Lord. May I suggest respectfully that the case stand adjourned at this point till to-morrow?"
The prisoner seemed to come out of a waking dream. For some time he had been hardly conscious of what was going on around him. The suggestion of calmness and callous indifference was more due to his dazed condition than anything else. He had been trying to reconcile the actual with the incredible. It was all coming back to him now; his mind began to work again. He was going over the events of the past half-hour in his thawed brain. What was Vavasour driving at? Why had he made so much of that camera business? And what in the name of fortune had the butcher Garvis to do with the case. To inquire into the man's finances seemed to be an impertinence. And yet, with it all, there was a suggestion of calmness and strength about Vavasour that had impressed a good many people besides the prisoner. The judge turned towards him.
"Very well," he said. "I take it that counsel is well advised in this course. In the interests of the prisoner the court is adjourned until 10 o'clock to-morrow morning."
The packed spectators fought their way into the street; the prisoner was hustled down below and back to his cell again. He was not left long to his reflections. Within an hour he was summoned by a warder to meet his solicitor and counsel in consultation. Vavasour held out a friendly hand. His face was a little stern and hard, yet there was a suggestion of a smile in his eyes.
"Did you follow me carefully this afternoon?" he asked.
"It came to me afterwards," Steadman said. "One's mind gets numbed, you know. It was all so much Greek to me, Vavasour. If there was anything in it——"
"My dear fellow, there is a great deal in it. As an absolutely innocent man——"
"It is very good of you to say that," Steadman murmured gratefully.
"But you are. And I am going to prove it to-morrow. At least I think so. At any rate I am going to seriously compromise somebody else. The sensation-mongers are going to have a rare treat. Quite like a scene in a melodrama. But you had better tell the truth—you have been an arrant fool to conceal it for so long. Why did you deny the fact that you saw your uncle the day of his death, and not long before the murder? You must have known that the story of the cheque you changed would reach the ears of the police."
"I was a fool," Steadman confessed. "I lost my head. I saw that the police suspected me, and I lied. Just for the moment I had clean forgotten all about the cheque. A sheer case of funk. Had I been quite candid I should probably be a free man at this moment. I did see my uncle. Mind you, I didn't go to the house on purpose. He had a litter of pups that I was interested in. I sneaked through the fence, and he happened to see me. He called me into the garden room, and we talked. He was very hard and bitter, but just a little sorry for me all the same. For the last time he was prepared to help me on condition that I left Castleford and went abroad. If I did that he would give me fifty pounds, and perhaps more later on if I could justify it. He had just drawn a cheque for fifty pounds, as was his custom on the fifteenth of every month, and on the spur of the moment he handed it over to me. I wasn't in the house more than ten minutes altogether. I accepted the offer, especially as I had one or two pressing debts of honour. It seemed to me that about fifteen pounds would suffice to get over to Canada. And—and that's all."
"Um. You are willing to let me say this in court?" Vavasour asked.
"Certainly, if you think it will do any good. I should like to know——"
"Yes, I dare say you would. But not just yet. Besides, it's a mistake to promise too much."
Apparently there was no more to be said for the moment, and the conference ended.
If possible the court was still more crowded next morning when the case commenced. The prosecution had finished its case, and for the most part Steadman was regarded as a doomed man. How could Vavasour clear away the impression that had been formed in the minds of the jury?
Yet he smiled with a certain suggestion of triumph as he rose to open the defence. It was a most unusual case, he said, and he craved the indulgence of the court to treat it in an unusual way. He proposed to call a very few witnesses, indeed those he should call for the most part had already given their testimony, on behalf of the Crown.
"I shall call the prisoner," he said. "He will tell the truth. He has behaved foolishly. He lost his head and prevaricated. He did see his uncle and did get that cheque from him. He will tell you why he acted so foolishly. But I shall prove that the murderer came along after; I shall prove this by the evidence of the camera. I am going to produce a portion of the murderer's photograph."
A cry of astonishment rang out from one end of the court to the other.
'"The murderer came by way of the garden," Vavasour went on. "He was facing the garden room as he tripped over the cord by which the photographic shutter was operated. It occurred to me that the camera held evidence, and I had the negatives developed. I am somewhat surprised that the idea did not occur to the police. For the negatives are evidence of the first importance. The murderer came by way of the garden so that he should not be seen. He knocked over the camera on his way, but the shutter worked, and I have the photograph. I propose to put the photographer who developed these negatives in the box. The police know the whole story. The criminal murdered Mr. Steadman to get possession of a cheque he had drawn. The murderer was desperately in need of money, and perhaps tried to borrow it from Mr. Steadman. I have the photograph in my hand. It represents a man with thick hair and beard and the unfortunate possessor of a pronounced hare-lip."
Again the shout of amazement went up. Every eye was turned on the jury-box, where Garvis, the butcher, sat with his colleagues. The description fitted him exactly.
"The murderer is there," Vavasour cried. "In the jury-box. Here is his photograph. In his flight he took Mr. Steadman's cheque-book. Not knowing what to do with it he put it in his safe. And then very soon after his wife found it. When the prisoner came to change his cheque and get others for it, Mrs. Garvis took up the wrong book and filled the cheques in out of that. Doubtless the cheque-book has been destroyed by now, but the fact remains, and the bank officials can prove beyond a doubt that Garvis has been using cheques issued by them to Mr. Steadman. I tried to prove motive yesterday when I elicited the fact that Garvis was in desperate financial straits. If my methods are somewhat unusual, my lord, you will bear with me, for this is an unusual case. So long as the man I accuse is in the jury-box the trial cannot go on. If the innocence of my client——"
Once more the ringing cry went up. The man with the hare-lip climbed over the ledge of the jury-box and stood white, partly defiant on the floor of the court. He yelled something that could not be heard, he clapped his hands to his mouth. A police officer darted forward, but too late. With a groan Garvis staggered forward and collapsed on the floor. Someone called for a doctor, there was a tense rigid silence, and the whisper went round the court that the thing was finished.
"He is dead, my lord," Vavasour said solemnly. "He has poisoned himself. The murderer himself has come forward and proved my case."
IF Lord Rupert Tintagel had not put into the harbour of Minchin, the true story of Montague Disney would probably never have been written. Disney says himself that he could not have held out much longer, and that he was fed up with it, which, being translated into the English of his clan, means a dark hint to the effect that he would have blown his brains out. And when you come to hear what happened to him, you will be inclined to extend to him a certain measure of sympathy. As a matter of fact, the port that Tintagel put into was not really called Minchin, neither was his patronymic Tintagel. For the matter of that, the Right Hon. Sir Eben Aza, with half the alphabet after his name, is a nom de plume also. One has to tread lightly in these troublous political times, especially in view of the fact that the Right Hon. Sir Eben Aza was, and is, a pillar of a great political party, and an Empire builder of the first rank.
Now, Tintagel put into Minchin for the sole purpose of procuring a certain herb, without which the 'morning glory' cocktail is a delusion and a vain thing. The herb in question can only be obtained in its virgin sweetness from the mountains behind Minchin, and this important truth had been impressed upon Tintagel by his friend, Bill Venables, who had come out yachting in those seas on the distinct understanding that he wasn't expected to rough it.
"Not that I can't," he said. "But hang me if I see any reason for being put on rations when there's no occasion for it. If you're out for a scrap, then you can count me in it. But this is a pleasure cruise, and I'm not hankering for anything picturesque in the way of Oriental surgery."
So the 'White Woman' put into Minchin, and the lamentable hiatus was duly filled. As most people know, Minchin is a town containing nearly a million souls, and boasts the most cosmopolitan population in the world. It is a delightful, beautiful, utterly wicked and alluring city, as Venables knew; and as Tintagel had never been here before, it was only natural that he should suggest a round of sight-seeing. For the next day or two there was no break in the flow of Tintagel's education, and by the end of the week his clean mind began to hanker for the pure atmosphere of the sea—a little Minchin goes a long way.
"Don't you think that we'd better chuck it?" he suggested.
"There's one more place you've got to see," Venables said. "Now, we're simply bound to look in for an hour or two at Sin-Li's. In a way, it's as good as Monte Carlo."
Tintagel was fain to admit that he had forgotten Sin-Li. Every traveller in the East knew the place by repute, and many thousands of them had visited the shrine. That most of them bitterly regretted the visit afterwards does not in the least matter. It was useless to complain that the odds in favour of the bank were sinfully long. It was also childish to say that Sin-Li was making the income of a Queen of Sheba, and to contend that the authorities ought to interfere. The fact remained that Sin-Li was making that princely income, and the authorities did not interfere. No doubt Sin-Li could have explained their exquisite politeness so far as he was concerned.
The Casino, so called, was situated in the Chinese quarter. It was a long, low building, cunningly surrounded with an air of mystery, and impossible of admission without the token and the password and all the rest of it. There were secret passages and hidden doors and villainous-looking janitors, all calculated to thrill the traveller and fill him with the wine of adventure. It never occurred to him, in his bland innocence, that Sin-Li's tokens might be obtained from any loafer along the beach. The little game was to impress every traveller with the pleasing delusion that he himself was exceptionally favoured, and cause him to be swindled out of his money joyously and without complaint.
Therefore it was on a Saturday evening that Tintagel and Venables found themselves in the big room, where a form of roulette was being played. Down both sides of the table twenty or more people were seated. They represented every nationality under the sun. Taking out some half-dozen of them, it might have been fairly assumed that there was not an honest sixpence in the room. But Sin-Li was too wily a bird to judge by appearance, and many a battered-looking wayfarer there had left the nucleus of an income in the Chinaman's pocket.
"Pretty thick lot," Tintagel whispered.
"Oh, they've got the rocks, all right," Venables muttered in reply. "Look at that chap yonder in the blue overalls. He hasn't been washed for a week, but his pockets are full of dust, all the same. And that little Jew opposite—you wouldn't think he's one of the biggest bill-discounters in Europe. But look here—we shall have to have a dash, you know. Sin-Li's got no use for mere spectators. Put your money down."
Tintagel carelessly covered a number with a few sovereigns. It was a matter of indifference to him whether he won or lost. He did not doubt for a moment that the roulette wheel had been the subject of some ingenious mechanical manipulation. He was more concerned with the hebdomadal crowd about him. At the top of the table, raised above the floor, sat the cashier, who seemed to combine that duty with that of a croupier. His long, thin hands extended through the bars of a veritable cage, wherein he sat like a dangerous animal that it was necessary to keep from contact with the gamblers. He paid the winners and collected the losses of the losers by means of an expanding rake capable of reaching to the far end of the table. On the little desk in front of him lay a pile of notes and gold. With his dead-white face and bald head, with his absolutely expressionless eyes, he reminded Tintagel unpleasantly of a trained ape rather than a human being. The man appeared to be devoid of emotion of any kind; his mask-like face was as blank as that of a statue.
"Is the chap dangerous?" Tintagel asked.
"No, but the gamblers are sometimes," Venables said drily. "This place has been raided by desperadoes more than once, but Sin-Li doesn't mind that much, because it is an advertisement for the house. Sometimes the police come here, but it's only a dress rehearsal, after all. At the first sign of trouble, the lights go out and the cashier lowers himself into a sort of vault down below. He's in a kind of lift, as you see for yourself, if a revolver appears, he presses a button, and he's not there any more."
Tintagel was barely listening. The white-faced man in the cage fairly fascinated him. He paid no heed to the fact that his third venture at the table had won him a small stake, and then on his little pile of sovereigns the man in the cage had deposited a clean, crisp Bank of England note. The face of the note was folded inward, but it was impossible to doubt what it really was. Venables brought his elbow sharply into Tintagel's ribs.
"Don't you want that fiver?" he asked. "That little Kanaka boy in the canary-coloured waistcoat will nick it to a certainty if you don't pick it up. Don't scatter it, my boy. If you get a reputation of that sort, you may find a knife in your ribs before morning. Pick it up, you ass!"
Tintagel pulled himself back to the affairs of the moment. He reached out for his gold and paper with the intention of cramming them carelessly into his pocket. His glance fell upon the clean white bank-note, then his teeth came together with a snap. Just for an instant there was a startled look in his eyes as he folded the note and deposited it with more than usual care in his cigarette case. Venables smiled at the action.
"Keeping it as a souvenir?" he asked.
"You can put it that way, if you like," Tintagel replied.
He turned away, as if still deeply interested in what was going on around him. But the only really fascinating thing there was the man in the iron cage. He seemed to see everything without looking; he appeared to do everything like one in a dream. Every now and again he swept the table with his almond-shaped eyes—eyes that had no vision in them, or so it seemed. The atmosphere was getting oppressive—a longing for fresh air came over Tintagel. He turned eagerly to Venables.
"Let's get out of this," he said. "It's pretty vulgar and commonplace, after all. I've had far more fun than this at San Francisco. What do you say to a supper at Pinsuti's, on the balcony?"
"And some of those little green oysters done in cream," Venables suggested. "You can count me in."
They sat presently on the flower-decked balcony in front of Pinsuti's, lingering over their coffee and cigarettes. It was a glorious, scented night, with a great moon like a silver shield hanging in the blue, and a powder of diamond-pointed stars gemming the heavens. At their feet lay the city, picked out with a thousand points of orange-coloured flame. It was a night to sit silent and at peace with all mankind. But Tintagel was restless and moody, so that the easy-going Bill noticed it at last.
"Not feeling up to the mark, old chap?" he asked.
"Oh, I'm all right," Tintagel replied. "I was thinking. Did you ever hear the story of poor old Montague Disney, and his strange disappearance from London three years ago?"
"Oh, nothing but club gossip. I was away shooting in the Rockies at the time. I never knew much of Disney, but he always struck me as being a particularly good sort. A fine sportsman, too. Not the sort of chap you'd expect to commit forgery, and all that kind of thing. Didn't he rob the West Asian Bank of a lot of money? Had a post of trust there, hadn't he?"
"Well, that's what they said," Tintagel went on. "One fine morning Disney suddenly vanished, and from that day to this no soul has ever seen or heard of him. His father, old Sir Thomas Disney, was terribly cut up about it. He always swore there was a misunderstanding somewhere. But the money was gone, and Disney was gone, too, and there was no other conclusion to come to. The Right Hon. Eben of that ilk was chairman of the bank, and he did his best to hush the thing up. I understand the old man behaved very well, especially seeing that he was not at all on good terms with Disney. You see, Disney and Beatrice Aza—"
"Oh, I remember now," Venables interrupted. "Lady Frances Aza told me something about it. Weren't Disney and the girl secretly engaged, or something of the sort? I know that Lady Frances liked him, but old Eben had a German Prince up his sleeve for the girl."
Tintagel rose from his seat and began to walk up and down the balcony.
"There's something infernally wrong about the whole business," he said, "and, so far as I'm concerned, I should like to hear Disney's side of the story."
"You'll never do that," Venables muttered.
"Now, there, my dear chap, is where you're wrong. I'm going to hear Disney's story if I stay here a month to get it."
"Do you mean to say he's here?" Venables demanded.
Tintagel came back to the little table with the shaded lights, and laid his cigarette case on the cloth. He took from it the folded bank-note and handed it to his companion.
"Your winnings." Venables smiled. "Is there any particular virtue about that fiver?"
"Turn it on its back," Tintagel said curtly, "and tell me what you think of what you find there."
Venables fairly started as he looked at the paper.
"It reads like a message," he said. "'If you have any spark of the old friendship left, for Heaven's sake get me out of this. Prisoner. Caution. Dangerous.' Now, what on earth does it all mean, Rupert? Do you mean to say that Disney—"
"Wrote that message on the back of the note," Tintagel said firmly. "My old pal, and the one-time lover of Beatrice Aza, is the poor devil in the cage at Sin-Li's. There can be no question about it. And now what are we going to do?"
"It seems incredible. Why, the man in the cage looked a Mongol to the life! It can't be Disney."
"I'm equally convinced that it is, Bill. He's been cleverly made up for the part, and he's a prisoner, too, if that message means anything. I wonder how long the poor wretch has been there? Just think of his agony of mind, waiting day by day and month by month for the sight of a friendly face and the chance of communicating with the owner of it! We've got to get Disney out of this, my boy. There's an ugly story behind it all, and I'm going to get to the bottom of it, or perish in the attempt. I need not ask if I can count upon you, Bill."
Venables smiled. It was the kind of invitation that specially appealed to him.
"Oh, rather!" he said. "But how are we going to work it, old son? We can easily kick up a diversion in the gambling saloon, but that chap's in a cage for all the world like a captive tiger."
"We shall have to try and communicate with Disney in some way. I don't see why we shouldn't send him a message in the same way as I got mine. If we go back there, he will be certain to know that we have returned for the purpose of giving him a hand. How long does the gambling go on?"
"My dear chap, practically it never stops. I believe at three o'clock in the morning, for a couple of hours, things are slack. Now, the best thing we can do is to sit down and write a brief list of questions on another bank-note, so that we can get Disney to answer them. He'll tumble at once to what's going on, and he'll take precious good care that you back one winning number, at any rate. When shall we start?"
"Why not now?" Tintagel asked.
An hour later and the two were back in the saloon again. The plot called for caution, and Tintagel lost three mains running before he ventured to put the bank-note on the number he was backing. A weary half-hour passed, then the rake shot down the table, and Tintagel eagerly grabbed at the piece of paper. There were but a few words scribbled on it, but they sufficed—
"Make a disturbance—the message ran—both stand close to cage. When lights go out jump on top."
Venables nodded approvingly as Tintagel whispered the words in his ear. To stroll to the top of the table was an easy matter and devoid of suspicion, but to get up an altercation was a different thing altogether. An inspiration came to Venables. He turned and caught the eye of the man in the cage for an instant. His lips framed a word or two, the left eye of the man in the cage drooped slightly, and then deliberately the rake placed a pile of gold on a wrong number. Instantly the hairy claw of a pirate in a red cap reached for it, only to meet the fingers of a gaudy Malay, who was, in truth, the rightful owner. Like a flash, the whole room rose in confusion. A sea of angry faces was turned in the direction of strife. A knife flashed out, there was the quick crack of a pistol-shot, and instantly the place was in darkness.
Not a moment did Tintagel and Venables hesitate; they reached for the cage, and climbed like cats to the top. The cage gave a convulsive jerk, and, as they sank into the unknown, they could hear the tornado of cries and yells. Revolvers were being used freely now.
"I guess those chaps will be busy for a bit," Tintagel said, as the cage stopped with a jerk. "This looks like our opportunity. For Heaven's sake, light a match!"
The little spot of flame flared out in the gloom and fell on the face of the man in the cage. He was striving with all his strength to force back the grating.
"Give me a hand!" he whispered hoarsely. "Pull at the third bar. This infernal thing opens from the outside."
Tintagel needed no further bidding. He laid his hand on the bar and wrenched the door of the cage open. The man inside fairly tumbled into his arms. Overhead the hideous din was still going on.
"Now, then, wake up, old man!" Venables cried. "This glorious chance can't last much longer. I suppose that rascal Sin-Li and all his gang are upstairs by this time. The question is, do you know the way out? It's no use asking for trouble. Do try and pull yourself together, Disney."
Disney checked a sob in his throat.
"I'll try," he whispered. "I'm just a bit dazed by this good fortune of mine. I can't tell you how good it is of you to come and help a poor devil—"
"Oh, forget it!" Tintagel snapped. "Do you know the way out, or not? And shall we manage to get into the street without appearing unduly offensive?"
"I know the way," Disney explained. "We shall have to fight, though. Sin-Li's not the man to keep all his eggs in one basket. If we had a revolver amongst us—"
By way of reply, Tintagel pressed a neat little Webley into his hand. Disney reached for a switch, and instantly the narrow passages were flooded with light.
"This way," he said. "Come quickly."
They emerged presently into a wide corridor, where two coolies lay on a mat smoking. Before they could rise, Venables had dashed forward. He caught each by the nape of the neck, and brought their heads together with a smash. A snore from one, a kind of whine from the other, and the figures lay there as if asleep. At the top of a flight of stairs a Chinaman strutted. As he looked down and opened his mouth to give the alarm, Tintagel fired. The man threw up his arms and rolled down the steps. It was no time to stop and inquire what had happened to the Chinaman, for here was the door leading to the street, and safety was beyond. The lock gave at the third revolver shot, the door fell back, and the sweet, cool night breeze came refreshingly to a trio of heated foreheads.
"My word, it's like Heaven!" Disney said. "But what are you fellows going to do with me? I couldn't show up at any decent hotel in this plight; and even if I did, Sin-Li would have me in his clutches before night. The police? They are all in his pay. If I could find a hiding-place—"
"I've got the yacht here," Tintagel exclaimed. "I came on shore with Venables in the dinghy, and she's now tied up at the wharf. As they will all have turned in by this time, it won't be a difficult matter to smuggle you on board. Then you can have a bath, and we'll fit you up in some Christian clothes. By this time to-morrow we shall be far enough away from Minchin."
An hour or so later, Disney emerged from his cabin, clothed and in his right mind. It was not till he had supped and drank some champagne that he began to talk.
"Well, it's a long tale," he said, "and perhaps you'd better let me tell it in my own way. I'm not used to sympathy and kindness, and, when I think what you chaps have done for me, I am inclined to feel a bit hysterical. Now, don't you run away with the impression that I was hiding in that devil's parlour where you found me, because I wasn't—I was a prisoner there. Neither did I run away from England when that money disappeared, because I didn't. I was sent here on a secret mission by Sir Eben Aza, and no one was to know what had become of me. Now, tell me, how is that moon-faced son of a Pathan getting on?"
"Still high in the councils of the nation," Tintagel said drily—"still one of the pillars of his party. But you must not sit there uttering libels against so distinguished a philanthropist as the Honourable Eben."
"A greater rascal never drew the breath of life!" Disney said vehemently. "Oh, I know he's as rich as Croesus, I know he's the respected chairman of a dozen prosperous companies, and I also know where he started the nucleus of his fortune, and from whence he derives a princely income to-day. Sin-Li is only a paid servant—a mere blind. The owner of the place we've just left is Sir Eben Aza, and I can put my hand on three men who remember him when he first started.
"Now, I found this out three years ago. I was always fond of fiction, and I used to go pottering about down Shadwell way, getting local colour from the sailor scum from all over the world. And that's the way I tumbled upon the story of Eben Aza's early history. When he tried to prevent me from marrying his daughter, I was fool enough to tell him what I knew. I admit it wasn't playing the game exactly, and if I did wrong, Heaven knows I have suffered for it. The old blackguard behaved all right at the time—at any rate, he thoroughly deceived me. Fancy that man being the husband of Lady Frances and the father of such a girl as Beatrice! Well, he laid a pretty trap for me, and I walked into it with my eyes open. When I realised the truth, I was stranded here absolutely penniless, my good name was utterly gone, and no one would have believed my story. What was the good of going back to a certain term of penal servitude? At any rate, I would spare the old people that indignity. I suppose I lost my nerve—anyway, I sank till I was literally starving. One of Sin-Li's blackguards gave me a meal one night and a drink, and when I came to my senses, I was in that den, where I have remained all these years. And Sin-Li had the audacity to tell me that he kept me there because I was the only cashier he could ever trust with money. Just think of the irony of it! There I was, day by day, hoping against hope, and praying for some friendly face under the lights of the tables! It was that hope alone that saved my reason. Then at length you two good fellows came along, and I took my chances. If I could once get away from that den, my idea was to make my way back to England and tell my father everything. I've got a weapon in my hand now, and every word I say I can prove to be true. Heaven knows I have suffered enough, but it isn't vengeance I want. For the sake of the girl I love, and who loved me, I am prepared to keep her father's shameful secret. But he must wash his hands of that gambling den, and he must give my good name back to me. And that's about all. I needn't insult two real good fellows like yourselves by suggesting that this is a sacred matter between us, because it would be merely wasting my breath to do so. All I ask you to do is to lend me a bit to go on with, and land me at some port from whence I can get a quick passage home. And I won't try and thank you, for, when I think of your kindness to me, it makes my eyes feel queer and—oh, dash it, you chaps know what I mean!"
* * * * *
IT was six months later, and the 'White Woman' was sunning herself off Corfu, and Venables and Tintagel were sprawling on the deck to the accompaniment of post-prandial cigarettes and coffee plus some recent newspapers. A queer little chuckle broke from Tintagel's lips, and Venables looked up inquiringly.
"Anything special in the paper?" he asked.
"Well, what do you think of this?" Tintagel responded. "Give me your ears. 'An engagement has been announced, and a marriage will shortly take place between Miss Beatrice Aza, only child of Lady Frances and the Right Hon. Sir Eben Aza, of 725, Grosvenor Square, and Marion Castle, Bucks, and Mr. Montague Disney, son of Sir Thomas Disney, of Tower House, Devon.' What do you think of that, my friend?"
"Then that's all right," Venables said lazily.
COLONEL EREBURT swore by the graves of his ancestors that he would take the case to the Court of Appeal. The family solicitor, however, thought not. He confessed quite frankly that the gipsies had made out an exceedingly strong case for "scot and lot," so far as the common rights were concerned, and, indeed, he was strongly of opinion that his client would do well to leave matters as they were. He quoted the Statute of Mortmain and other obscure yet learned authorities, and Ereburt raged as he listened.
"But, my dear fellow," he protested, "this means that those poaching rascals have the right to range up and down by some of the finest salmon pools in the river. There won't be a fish left. I suppose you will tell me next that the verdict carries the right to fish. Anything might happen now."
"I shouldn't be at all surprised," the lawyer said coolly. "Be reasonable, Ereburt. You know perfectly well that if any of your tenants here, or a commoner, for the matter of that, likes to defy you, you can't prevent him from angling in the Swirl. Of course, we stand on that old deed which tradition says was granted you by some settler-adventurer two hundred years ago, but where is the charter? I have looked for it in vain. It is all more or less what you call 'swank,' and that's why I don't want you to push those gipsies too far, and you will have to make the best of it."
"Where the dickens did they get that money from?" Ereburt muttered. "Fancy three caravan loads of poachers and clothes-peg makers briefing a leading K.C. and two juniors! Why, it must have cost them a hundred pounds at least!"
"Yes, it is going to cost you six times the money," the lawyer said drily. "You are taking rather a parochial view of it. These people are real gipsies, as you know. They are a mysterious race, in touch with their fellow-Zingari all over the world, and some of them are exceedingly well-educated. You are proud of your old house and your ancient family, but the Ereburts are mere mushrooms by comparison with these Stanleys and the rest. Now, you take my advice—admit your defeat and take it like a sportsman. And remember that it might have been a great deal worse."
As a matter of fact, there was nothing else to be done. Ereburt turned his back on his lawyer's office, fuming and disappointed. It was a clear March day, with a little wind ruffling the surface of the river, and there was just the possible chance that a fish might be killed, though the water was low and rather fine. There had not been much in the way of sport lately; indeed, the run of spring fish had been small. In vain had Ereburt, in connection with his trusty keeper, Peter Locke, tried one gaudy lure after another, but the fish refused to rise, and they had perforce to come empty away.
At any rate, the gipsies had cleared out for the present. Apparently they had not waited to enjoy their triumph, for two of the caravans had gone, and a third was ready for the road. This meant that they would be seen no more till late in the autumn, and the reflection cheered Ereburt as he made his way towards the river. Dusk was beginning to fall now, but it would be possible to fish for another hour, and therefore there was no time to be lost. It was one of the traditions of the house that at this very pool a dead-and-gone Ereburt had killed twelve fish in one day with a lure of his own, the secret of which was unhappily lost. Ereburt and Peter had tried times without number to reduplicate that fatal fly, but always without success. Something was missing, some hackle or fur, the little airy trifle, and yet how much it was! Ereburt was thinking about this now as he began to put his rod together.
Then he stopped and stiffened with anger and amazement. Through the bare branches of the trees he could see a figure standing there in the stream on the very edge of the sacred pool. Moreover, it was the figure of a woman. She was tall and slim and young; a great rope of raven hair hung over her shoulders. Her legs were bare to the knees, and the rod that she wielded, beyond all question, was in the hands of a past-mistress of the craft. Angry as he was, Ereburt was bound to admit that. He could see the line thrown straight and far, cutting the water as with a razor edge. He could see the fly dropped within a fraction of an inch. He could see, too, the quick turn of the wrist and the play of the point as this amazing creature bent to her work. The sight fairly fascinated Ereburt, and he stood watching it for some little time. Then from the far side of the stream there came a roar like that of an angry bull, and Peter Locke appeared, literally foaming at the mouth.
In his righteous anger, Peter seemed to forget that he was addressing a woman, and just for the moment Ereburt blushed for him. And then something happened with a swiftness and agility that fairly made the onlooker gasp. For the lady with the rod had drawn herself up; her dark eyes flashed indignantly as she made a cast, not along the pool, but straight across the stream into Peter's red, angry face. The barbed hook caught him fairly in the cartilage of the nose, and almost before Ereburt realised what had happened, Peter, protesting and raving, was dragged across the stream as helpless as one of his own salmon. It had been a magnificent throw, viciously intentional, perhaps, but all the more deadly effective for that.
The line relaxed for the fraction of a second, then it was cleverly looped over the branch of a tree, and behold Peter Locke standing on tiptoe, with a fly in his nose and the taut line holding him absolutely helpless. There was no smile on the girl's dark face, no suggestion of amusement in her eyes as she approached her victim.
"You dare to speak to me like that," she said. "Here you stay till you apologise. Do you think that the running waters and all they contain belong to that arrogant master of yours?"
It was time for Ereburt to take a hand.
"You will pardon me," he said. "And, really, you must know that you are poaching. I am afraid my servant was a little bit hasty in the language he used, but he has his orders."
"Orders!" the girl echoed. "What are they? I do not know the word. You are Mr. Ereburt, I believe? Will you take this knife and release your servant? You think this was an accident, perhaps, but I could do it again and again."
Ereburt muttered incoherently to the effect that he was quite sure of it. There was something about the slim, dark beauty that appealed to him. For the moment he was busily engaged in looking after the discomfited Peter. With a little more than the touch of her firm hands, she released the hook and contemptuously announced that there was very little the matter. From her fly-book she produced a sovereign, which she tossed to her fallen foe.
"You had better go," she said. "There is no reason for you to stay any longer. Yet stop just a moment. In the gorse yonder, at the foot of those alders, you will find a fish. It is a clean-run thirty-pounder which I caught an hour ago. Take it up to the house and give it to Mr. Ereburt with my compliments."
Peter shuffled off, all broken up and wondering what had happened to a world which hitherto he had regarded as well-ordered. Ereburt turned to his companion with a grim smile.
"I am sure I am vastly obliged to you," he said. "I ought to be very much annoyed, and all that sort of thing, but I'm not. I am so lost in admiration of your skill as an angler that I can think of nothing else. Do you know that I have been fishing this pool for a fortnight and never had a rise? There are plenty of fish here, too. Now, what wonderful lure have you been using?"
With just the suggestion of a smile on her lips, the girl handed her big gaudy fly to Ereburt. It was a fairly familiar pattern of the "Butcher" family, but with a subtle difference. The hackles were longer and of a peculiar shade of red tipped with orange.
"This is quite new to me," Ereburt said. "It ought not to be a very difficult task—"
"To make a copy of it, you think? If you will come with me as far as my caravan, I shall be happy to give you the requisite materials. You see, I have the sporting blood in my veins. I am a Stanley, as they call us here, and ever since the Flood we have wandered about the world, living on the land and all that it breeds. And there are many things known to us which the rest of the world has forgotten. You think we wander from place to place aimlessly, but no. The migrating instinct is still in us, and wherever we go, our food awaits us. And you have traditions, too. There is one concerning a certain salmon lure, the art of making which you have lost. It was given to your people by an ancestor of mine over two hundred years ago, and many a time have you sought for it since. But you need not seek any longer, for you have it in your hand now."
Ereburt stammered something incoherent. He was feeling just a little dazed, just a little as if he had slipped back out of the twentieth century on to the fringe of the Dark Ages. It was not a lithe, breathing, palpitating gipsy beauty that he was talking to, but a witch in the guise of a lovely girl. And every word that she said was absolutely true. A couple of centuries ago a wandering Ereburt had come back from some foreign part, bringing a dusky bride with him and a frown on his face whenever the curious displayed a natural inclination to hear something of the pedigree of the new mistress of the house. There had been one or two swarthy visitors, but not for long, for the dark-eyed beauty seemed to fade like a bird in a cage, and died within three years of her marriage. And all that remained of her in the annals of the house to mark her memory was the salmon fly, which had been subsequently lost and was now almost miraculously restored. All these things were rapidly passing through Ereburt's mind as he dwelt on the dark beauty of his companion.
"I feel almost afraid of you," he said. "I wonder if you would mind being a little more explicit? Of course, it is most awfully good of you to give me that fly, and to offer to show me the correct way to make it up. There is nothing that I wanted more. I suppose you know that you are heaping coals of fire upon my head, so to speak? That business—"
"We bear no malice," the girl said. "We are only sorry that you should force us to defend our rights. Ah, we could have gone a great deal further had we liked. We could have asked you to prove that the fishing here is your property."
"You think that would be impossible, perhaps?"
"I am absolutely certain of it," the girl said calmly. "It is over two hundred years ago before the fish came here at all, and a Stanley came and settled down by this very spot and started to make baskets from the osiers along the river's bank. And none interfered with him, because it was not worth while. And so, little by little, the land on both banks belonged to the Stanley I speak of. He did not stay for very many years, because the wandering blood was in his veins, and the call came for him presently. But he had remained quite long enough to give the free right of fishing in this river of yours to anyone he chose. The salmon had come by this time, and a certain ancestor of yours saw that it was good. He gave to Rupert Stanley, the father of one Carmencita Ereburt, one hundred guineas for all his rights and easements, and there was a deed drawn up."
"Upon which I base my claim," Ereburt said eagerly.
"Ah, but can you find it? Without it your claim is worthless. I ask you if you could look me in the face and tell me that you could put your hand upon the deed at this moment? And you are a gentleman who would not tell me a lie. And now, if you will come with me as far as my caravan, I will carry out my promise."
With the same dazed feeling, Ereburt strode along by his companion. They came presently to a dainty little house on wheels, a motor caravan, the door of which was open. Ereburt caught a glimpse of gold-and-white fittings, a picture or two, and rows upon rows of books, diamond editions of the classics bound in green leather. It was only for a moment, then the gipsy was by his side again with a mass of silk and feathers in her hand.
"I think you will be able to manage with these," she said.
"I should do much better with a lesson," Ereburt said audaciously, "Now, I wonder if you will be offended at a suggestion that I have to make? Would you care to come up to the house this evening and dine with my sister and myself?"
Ereburt put the question with more diffidence than appeared on the surface. There was just a suspicion of healthy red on his cheeks, and in his heart the fear of a curt refusal. But he had judged this beautiful girl correctly, for she accepted the situation without the slightest demur. There was something about her that hinted at a mind above the usual conventions.
"I shall be most pleased," she said. "To tell you the truth, I am curious to see the inside of that beautiful house of yours. No, there is no reason to send any conveyance for me. I want nothing but a pair of goloshes and a wrap. At half-past seven, I suppose?"
She turned away without waiting for a reply, and disappeared within the caravan.
Ereburt wondered if she was alone there, and, as a matter of fact, she was. But there was no fear in the heart of a woman who called herself Carmena and answered to no other name.
There was just the chance, perhaps, that Miss Diana Ereburt might resent this unconventional invitation; but, after all, she was no more than a daughter of Eve, and before Ereburt had finished his strange story, Diana was just as anxious to welcome this amazing guest as he was himself.
She came presently, quiet, unassuming, and absolutely self-possessed, into the great hall where Ereburt and his guests generally sat during the half-hour preceding dinner. There was no stiffness or formality here, and no suggestion of coldness in the great wood fire and the shaded lamps casting pools of light on china and silver and the damascened armour of dead-and-gone Ereburts. On the brown-panelled wall were portraits of bygone heads and chatelaines of the family, and Diana Ereburt fairly gasped as her guest came forward, looking, in a black silk dress and lace ruffles, strangely like one of those pictures—as if it had stepped down from its frame. With her hands half outstretched, she paused.
"Oh, look!" she cried. "Can't you see the likeness, Lionel? Carmencita, wife of Nicholas Ereburt—he who married the gipsy. The likeness is something marvellous."
Carmena stood there with a faint suggestion of a smile upon her lips and no air of embarrassment about her. It was as if she had come prepared for this effect, as if she had looked forward to a dramatic situation. She might have been standing there at a fancy dress ball, waiting for the judge's approval of her costume. Ereburt glanced from the slim figure, all glowing white behind the diaphanous suggestion of her clinging garments, to the portrait of a woman hanging on the wall opposite the fireplace. It certainly was a marvellous likeness, he thought, the living facing the dead, the living that might have sat for the painted features smiling down upon her. Carmena took it all for granted.
"It is not so very strange," she said. "The women of my family have always been much the same. You see, we are like the Jews; it is only once in a generation or so that we marry out of our own people. And, when we do, the result is always a tragedy."
"Won't you sit down?" Diana contrived to say. "I am exceedingly glad to meet you. You won't mind the conventional remark? And so you are actually a descendant of the Hungarian lady whom Nicholas Ereburt married two centuries ago? But why do you say she was unhappy? It is true that she died very young, but according to the family archives Nicholas Ereburt was a devoted husband, and Dame Carmencita was very fond of him."
Carmena lay back in her chair and swept a calm, approving glance over all the warm luxury and refinement around her.
"So she would had she been an ordinary woman," she said. "Even I envy you a home like this. But it is not in our blood to settle down and be happy anywhere. When the sap rises and Nature turns over in her sleep, there comes the irresistible call which we all have to follow. Some follow on foot, and others in a motor caravan, as I do. But we cannot resist it any more than a migrating bird can turn its back on the west wind. And that was the trouble with your ancestor, Carmencita. She had her duty to her husband, and the obeying of it killed her. Oh, you think you know something about the story. To a limited extent, perhaps, you do. But it is woven into our traditions, and one of our songsters made it the theme of a noble poem. Do you know that I have never been in this house before, but I believe I could find my way to the bedroom in which Carmencita died? You think that she was the daughter of a common poacher who made baskets for a living. Well, it does not in the least matter. It was she who brought, as part of her dowry, the right to kill salmon in the river. And that right will be challenged before long."
"Is that in the nature of a threat?" Ereburt asked.
"Oh, no," Carmena went on. "I wonder how many of the people's privileges have been filched by you country gentry from time to time, and how many of them could be restored to the people if they would only consult the despised Zingari? Why, your people here have allowed you to steal that beautiful common from them bit by bit, and it would have gone for ever had we not fought and beaten you."
"There is a good deal in what you say." Ereburt admitted. "But I am afraid the predatory instinct is as strong within us as it ever was. But the fishing rights are another and a different matter altogether."
"Yes, because you have documentary evidence, and the thing you call the law is supreme. But the point is, can you put your hand upon that document when you need it?"
Diana Ereburt smiled as she saw the frown upon her brother's face. She knew well enough how slender was the tenure on which the claim to the salmon rights were based. And the Ereburt estate was famous for its stretch of river and the lordly fish that died there year by year. It only needed something like the truth to be known, and every poacher within twenty miles could snap his fingers at Peter Locke and defy him.
"But the document is actually in existence," Ereburt said eagerly. "I don't mind admitting to you that I cannot find it—indeed, it is nowhere to be found. I never saw it, nor my father before me. But, all the same, it is bound to be somewhere in the house."
A gong droned somewhere in the distance, an ancient white-haired butler drew back the heavy curtains from the dining-room door, and, with a solemnity worthy of the occasion, proclaimed the fact that dinner was served. Ereburt rose and offered his arm to his guest; her long slim fingers rested gently as a snowflake on his coat-sleeve. He watched her presently with a curiosity which was slightly impertinent. And yet she did nothing wrong, nothing outside the narrow track of convention, except, perhaps, that she was just a little puzzled by the array of glasses and the gleaming silver and cutlery before her. Still, she was perfectly at home; she accepted the ministering attentions of the white-haired butler and his assistants as if to the manner born. She enjoyed her dinner, with the healthy appetite of a clean, beautiful animal, but she partook only of the simplest and plainest dishes, and it was water only with which the old retainer filled her glass. She turned her back with a smile presently at the suggestion of a cigarette. She preferred to eat a little fruit instead. And she talked well of many things. She had travelled far and wide; she spoke of books and their authors as one speaks of intimate friends. But she never spoke of men or cities, of the great commercial hives where money is made, but always of the open road and the fields and the forests and the birds and beasts thereof. Ereburt flattered himself that he was something of a naturalist, but he had learnt more in the last hour than he had done for years. He touched lightly upon what science had done of late in regard to the habits of the trout and the lordly salmon, only to find that these secrets had been common knowledge to the Zingari for generations. Quite reluctantly he rose at length and held open the door for his guest. For once in a way, he discarded his after-dinner cigar for a cigarette, and then followed with the eagerness of a schoolboy to the drawing-room.
"Just listen to this, Lionel," Diana cried. "Miss Carmena is perfectly certain that she knows where the missing deed is to be found. She says that it is in the house."
"I am exceedingly glad to hear it," Ereburt said. "Is second sight amongst your many extraordinary gifts. Miss Carmena?"
"It is not that at all," Carmena said. "Did not I tell you how my people always cling together? You must have imagined that, because the woman called Dame Carmencita married outside her station, she ceased to take all interest in the clan. You may be surprised to know that she wrote regularly to her relations. Ah, those letters would make an interesting volume! I have read them again and again, and I know them by heart. Some day, perhaps, our head medicine-man—but that is not what we call him—may give his permission for them to be published. And it is because you have been kind and courteous to me that I tell you these things. Yesterday I should have laughed at the idea of doing anything of the kind. Now, I know that the paper we are speaking of was highly valued by Nicholas Ereburt, because his wife says so in her letters. He allowed her to keep it amongst other things, and after her death it could not be found. The truth is, that it never has been found. Now, let me see if I can help you in this grave matter. Please correct me if I make any mistakes. You have a wing which you call the Bishop's. At one time it formed part of a monastery. It was in this wing that Carmencita had her own suite of rooms. Am I correct in saying that leading out of the chief bedroom is a priests' hiding-hole? Ah, I see by your faces that I am not far wrong. The hiding-hole is lined with panels, and on one of the panels is the coat-of-arms of the bishop who founded the monastery. If you will touch a spring in the centre of that coat-of-arms, the panel will fly back, and you will find a small cupboard, where Carmencita had a fancy for hiding a few of her most intimate treasures. Am I right?"
"Absolutely," Ereburt cried. "This is exceedingly interesting. Miss Carmena, positively you are an angel unawares!"
"I never felt so excited," Diana cried.
"On the contrary, I am not excited in the least," Ereburt said, "because I know we are going to find the missing deed."
And it was exactly as he had anticipated. Here was the priests' hiding-place and the deep carving on the wall. The spring was just a little rusty, but it gave presently, disclosing a shallow cupboard containing a few articles of simple jewellery, together with a mass of faded letters and a crabbed old parchment inscribed with quaint characters, which proved to be nothing else but the missing deed. With a smile in her, dark, inscrutable eyes, Carmena placed it in Ereburt's hands.
"Permit me," she said, "and allow me to congratulate you. At the same time, I feel that I am in conspiracy to deprive the common people of their rights. I suppose I do this because I am more or less connected with the family of Ereburt. But that is the way that civilisation corrupts the children of the field and the heatherside. So long as I am here, I am aristocrat like yourself; but directly I find the sky and the stars above me, I am the rebellious radical that I was born to be. Yet I am glad that I came, because this is an evening to remember. And now, as it is getting late, permit me to thank you for your kindness and let me say good-bye."
"You are not going altogether?" Ereburt protested. "You will come and see us again?"
Carmena shook her head almost sorrowfully as she slipped into her over-shoes and drew the cloak about her head.
"Some day, perhaps," she said—" a year, a decade, perhaps a century, and, again, perhaps never. I am the creature of circumstance, an animal wandering in the wild just as instinct moves me. It does not follow, because I am beyond the reach of poverty, that I can defy the instincts of my class and be happy. I might have stayed a little longer, but the wind has gone round to the west, and I have already told you what that means to us. No, you are not to come with me one yard of the way. Do you think I fear the darkness? I love it. I have slept out under the stars many a time, and shall again. Ah, you will never civilise me!"
She smiled as she held out her hand to each of them in turn, then the door closed behind her, and she was alone in the darkness. Some day, perhaps—but who can say?
HUGH LLANBERIS sat at the door of his hut, looking out over a stretch of sand and desert that was as hard and hopeless as his own horizon. For five years he had toiled and sweated there, making bricks without straw and coaxing a lean dividend from the elusive alluvial gold. He was the only Englishman—indeed, to all practical purposes, the only white man there. He had melted in the sun and shivered in the rain; he had known every illness that that poisonous peninsula specialised in, and the miracle was that he still lived. There was always a chance, however, of a nip from some poisonous snake, or a knife in his ribs at the hand of one of his "Greasers;" but there—he was as hard as whipcord and as fine as a star.
Five years! It seemed like five centuries since he had turned his back upon the old grey house at Cwmgwilt, had seen the last of the sheep and the grouse on the hillside, and the brown trout lying on the gravel amidst the weeds. It was all very well to be a Llanberis of Cwmgwilt, with twenty generations of ancestors behind him, very well to take pride in the doings of the race when it had been a power in the Welsh Marches, but there was no getting away from the fact that, when Hugh turned his back upon it all, there was very little left beyond the old house and some few thousand barren acres of sheep pasture and some miles of excellent trout-fishing. Had Hugh's uncle, Ronald Llanberis, been desirous to sell the place, he would have been lucky to see ten thousand pounds for it, and the mortgagees would have claimed the greater part of it then.
And that was not all. Some ten years ago, before Ronald Llanberis's father died, the then head of the house had executed a deed of trust whereby he charged the property with five thousand pounds and half the upset value in favour of his second son, Hugh's aforesaid father. Now, no one had known of this save the elder son, Griffith, and when his father died, Griffith had concealed the fact, and none was any the wiser, with the solitary exception of old Elspeth Morris, an ancient Scotch nurse and retainer of the family, who knew everything. She was a stern old Puritan enough, and her duty had been clear. But because she had loved and worshipped Gwendolen Llanberis, who was Hugh's cousin and the daughter of his uncle, she had forgotten her duty and her honour, and had meant to go down to her grave with the secret of this hidden in her heart. She had juggled with her soul and her conscience by assuring herself that Gwendolen and Hugh would marry some day, in which case no harm would be done. But, unhappily, Hugh turned out to be made of different stuff to the modern decadents of his house, who lived a life of semi-starvation, warming themselves at the ashes of the dead-and-gone glories of the house. True, he had come to some understanding with his cousin, but he had bound her to nothing and held her to no promise, though they had vowed to exchange letters regularly. Then the letters ceased, for the lovers could not know that the man who had been capable of robbing his own brother was not likely to stop at suppressing letters of which he did not approve. He had other views for Gwen—which came to nothing, by the way—but that is no part of the story.
Then, at the end of four years, the failing heart in old Elspeth's breast broke the bars of silence, and she wrote to Hugh telling him the truth. She knew nothing, of course, of the suppressed letters; she thought that Hugh had forgotten Gwen, and in the girl's proud silence she read an indifference which had grown mutual. But she did write freely and tell Hugh of the night that old Griffith had died and handed the deed of trust to his elder son. And she spoke freely of what happened before the old man was laid in his coffin—how the man who had betrayed his trust crept into the dead man's room in the blackness of the night and concealed the deed in the grave-clothes of the corpse. And there it lay now inside the leaden coffin in the family vault of the Llanberises, which was under the floor of the old chapel connected with the house.
This story Hugh had read ages ago outside the door of his hut, and he had smiled bitterly to himself as he tore the letter in pieces. What did it matter? What did anything matter now? Five years ago he might have raised money on that deed to sufficiently start him in some sound business. But by this time, no doubt, the old estate had gone from bad to worse, till in all probability there was not enough left to cover the mortgages. And Gwen had forgotten him. No, he would stay where he was and fight it out to the bitter end. He heard, a month or two afterwards, that old Elspeth was dead, and the secret of Ronald Llanberis's perfidy was his own entirely. And so, through the thin years and the lean, haggard months, he worked on till this very evening, when he sat outside his hut, as was his usual custom, smoking his pipe and turning over a month-old batch of English newspapers for the fiftieth time. It seemed to him that he had read them even to the last thing in the way of an advertisement. He reached for one now and turned it over listlessly. Then a familiar name caught his eye, and he bent to read. And this was what jumped to his gaze:—
SETTLEMENT OF CWMGWILT CASE
The Chief Arbitrator yesterday announced his decision with regard to the litigation which has existed for the past three years between the executors of the late Mr. Ronald Llanberis, of Cwmgwilt, and the Corporation and Citizens of Slagborough. It is now five years since the Slagborough Corporation obtained the necessary Parliamentary powers to purchase the whole of the Cwmgwilt watershed for the purpose of forming a series of reservoirs. Mr. Llanberis contested the case and lost it. All this time the work has been going on, and now the great water scheme has been practically completed at an outlay of some six millions.
It is rather strange that the completion of the work, and its formal opening in November by Royalty, should come just at the time when the arbitration claim has been settled. Their award is to the effect that the Slagborough Corporation pay Mr. Llanberis's executors the sum of a hundred and thirty thousand pounds and all costs."
Hugh laughed aloud as he dropped the paper. It seemed absurd, extravagant, and altogether outside the bounds of reason. At the most sanguine valuation the property at Cwmgwilt was not worth a tithe of the money. But there was the paragraph, gravely set out in a responsible London paper, and there was no more to be said.
No more to be said—yes, but a good deal more to be done; for if this amazing thing were true, then Hugh was the owner of sixty thousand pounds at least, and perhaps more. If that charge now lying on the breast of a dead man in a lonely vault meant anything, it meant that old Griffith Llanberis intended his two sons to share and share alike. There would be a scandal, of course, for it would be impossible to open that lead coffin without a faculty, and this would have to be applied for in open Court. It would be just the sort of case to appeal to the public imagination. It would be easily gripped by the talons of the popular press, and everybody would know that the last proud owner of Cwmgwilt was nothing less than a scoundrel and a thief. Hugh found himself wondering what Gwen would say when she knew everything. Still, he was not going to hesitate on that account. He told himself bitterly that all the finer feelings had been ground out of him between the millstones of adversity. Why should he stay here, walking arm-in-arm with malaria and manslaughter, when the bed of down and the dew of the dawn waited for him at home?
He sat there dreaming and picturing the old house as he had seen it last. He could see himself loitering on the bridge crossing the Gwilt, and lazily watching the trout as he waited for Gwen. And he could see the happy light in her eyes as she came towards him, could see a flush on her face and the smile on her lips. She had been a beautiful girl in those days, and Hugh idly wondered what she was like now. It struck him presently, with a kind of shock, that to-day she could not be more than twenty-three. Why had he regarded her as so much older? It was probably because his own five years of penal servitude had been too long, for there are years that pass and die with the bloom still on them, and years that hang till they are grey and haggard.
A week later, and Hugh came down to the coast. He thrust his way homeward in a filthy little tub of a steamer, reeking and smelling of the bottomless pit, but he took no heed of this. At any rate, he had the green sea under his foot, and his face was turned homewards. It was good to find himself once again in London, to taste the delights of a real bath in a real hotel, and find himself once more in the garb of civilisation. There was no need to worry about money for the moment, for the five years had been saving ones, and Hugh's bank manager was quite politely pleased to see him. It mattered nothing, either, that the month was October, that the skies were heavy and grey, and that the country had been swept for days by torrents of rain.
At the end of his first week Hugh hied himself away to Paddington, and thence by long and tortuous stages to the little fishing inn where the tourists came and stayed, at the top of the hill. But the tiny hostel, with its diamond-paned windows and black oak settles, was no more. It had given place to a modern, up-to-date hotel, boasting every convenience and making its own electric light. Where the silent valleys had been, and where the sheep had grazed on the hillside, were enormous masses of masonry, and down there in the hollow, where Hugh had caught his first trout, was a gargantuan dam of solid concrete and stone and steel, a mile long, and measuring two hundred feet at least at the apex.
The old grey house itself stood in the midst of a wild desolation, stripped of its foliage and given over entirely to offices, where the engineers with their staff of a thousand men were working. Over yonder, where the grouse used to lie, the hillside was dotted with hundreds of bungalows, street upon street of tiny houses, where the army of workmen lived. The streets were noisy with the clamour of children, and somewhere in the distance a brass band was playing, and playing remarkably well. Hugh rubbed his eyes as he tried to take all this in. It was as if the Geni of the Lamp had been here, had come as the presiding genius of labour and wrought this miracle in a single night.
One or two of the engineers had overflowed into the hotel, and after dinner—a six-course meal served by waiters in evening-dress— Hugh had forgathered with one of them.
"Oh, you are one of the family, are you?" the young man asked. "Been abroad, eh? Yes, I've had some myself. You'll pardon me, but I hope that you are going to benefit out of that tidy little lump of money our people had to shell out. Anyway, I'm glad it's settled, because we want to open in November."
"You found a lot of local prejudice?" Hugh asked.
"Good Heavens, yes! Anybody would think we were guilty of sacrilege! That uncle of yours fought us tooth and nail. And yet you won't mind my saying that the money would have been a perfect godsend to him. He would have been lucky with a fifth of it. Still, it's ratepayers' money, and nobody worries about that. Now we shall be able to get on. We have tried almost in vain to get the chapel removed and all the bodies of your ancestors taken away and buried elsewhere."
"I hadn't thought of that," Hugh exclaimed. "I suppose you are going to pull down the house as well?"
"Oh, dear, no! We shall submerge the whole thing. There's not a house in the valley that won't be a hundred feet under water by Christmas. We are making a chain of four big lakes, which will be fed by the Gwilt and its tributaries. I wonder if anybody realises how many billions of gallons of water run to waste every winter down this valley. Why, it drains about a third of the watershed of Plynlimmon! Slagborough will have a grand water-supply, and no one will be a penny the worse. We shall fill up the valley to the level of the forests and stock the lakes with trout. This will be a fine place for tourists some of these days. I dare say this sounds all very strange, and looks queer to you, who were born here, but we have done nothing to spoil the romantic beauty of the place. I pointed this out yesterday to Miss Llanberis, and she agreed with me."
"You are speaking of my cousin?" Hugh said in a dazed sort of way. "You will think it a strange question, but would you mind telling me where she's living? You see, I have been off the map so long that I am quite a stranger to my own people."
"I know the feeling," the other man said sympathetically. "I once spent a year myself practically alone in a Peruvian forest. There's a farmhouse over yonder, on the high ground, kept by a man named Price. I believe Miss Llanberis has had rooms there for two years."
It was still raining heavily when Hugh rose in the morning. Big clouds rolled down the hillsides, the great drops fell hissing on the dead heather. Down below, the river ran yellow and turbid, and high up amongst the big dams a swarm of gangs of men were at work like bees around a hive. Over it all there seemed to hang a tense atmosphere, which had behind it a suggestion of anxiety and presentiment of coming danger. As Llanberis toiled up the hillside, he began to find out for himself what this meant. The engineers were anxious about the temporary dams which they had erected to divert the current of the Gwilt until such time as it was possible to fill up the mighty lake, and the hands of Royalty should set the crystal waters flowing along the huge aqueducts to Slagborough.
And now those mighty stanks were brimming with the yellow flood, and if one of them gave way, then there would be a lurid story of death and disaster along the lower reaches of the Eland Valley. Human foresight had not made allowance for these record floods, and the temporary dams were beginning to rock and tremble ominously.
"I don't like it," one of the engineers whispered to Hugh. "If much more water comes down, we shall have to anticipate events and turn the Gwilt back into its proper channel. A few hundred pounds of dynamite would do that; in fact, the explosion of the dynamite by electricity is precisely what Royalty will have to do. Then the water flows into the valley, and yonder big dam forms the lake. It is quite simple, and, if you ask me, I should like to see it done now. We are taking pretty big risks, Mr. Llanberis."
But Hugh had only followed this vaguely. He looked away from the silent valley up the hillside, where the rain was beating heavily, and there he could see a solitary figure, hooded and clad in mackintosh.
There was something in the carriage of the woman standing there, a turn of her head and the swaying of her slender form, that was strangely familiar to Hugh. Well, he would have to meet her some time, he told himself. He came behind her presently and called on her by name. She started and turned, her pale face aflame, a great gladness in the wide, grey eyes. Impulsively she held out her hands to him, her lips unsteady yet smiling a welcome as she uttered his name. And just for a moment Hugh hesitated. He had not expected anything like this—he was startled and embarrassed. It was only for a fraction of time, but it was enough to freeze the smile on the girl's lips and wipe the gleam of welcome from her eyes. It almost seemed to Hugh as if he had imagined this welcome on the part of Gwendolen, but now she stood before him calmly, as cold and inhospitable as the wild, grey rain beating on the hillside.
"So you have come back," she said. "You are just in time to see the end of the old place. I suppose you know that the house yonder will be two hundred feet under water in a few weeks?"
"So I understand," Hugh replied. "And you—is it your intention to remain in the neighbourhood?"
"Only till I have seen the last of it. I don't know why I stay. I feel like a woman in a dream watching her own funeral. I suppose I shall get used to it in time—used to strangers and the knowledge that I am the last Llanberis left besides yourself. Yet people say I am fortunate. They say that I am rich despite myself. Ah, I would go back to the old life gladly—the life of five years ago!"
She was appealing to him again, unconsciously telling him secrets with her eyes which her lips would have scorned to utter. What did it mean? Hugh wondered. He had suffered at the hands of Gwendolen's father, he had suffered those lean years largely because she had turned her back upon him. And yet she was taking the situation for granted—she seemed to ignore the way in which she had treated him.
"Yes, I understand you are rich," Hugh said somewhat bitterly. "It will be a welcome change. It did not so much matter when we were children, but the pride of a race that did not mind the claims of poor creditors is a miserable thing at the best."
He had it on the tip of his tongue to say more. He restrained an impulse to tell Gwendolen the truth. It would be better, perhaps, that the case should be stated through his solicitors. Even as he stood there he could see, beyond the drifting curtains of rain, the old house and the little chapel beyond, where his claim to half Gwendolen's fortune lay concealed in a scabbard of lead. He would let things drift for the moment, even as those responsible had let drift the pressing question of the removal of the graves of Cwmgwilt. There was no time to say any more, either, for two of the engineers came and stood alongside them. Their faces were grave and anxious, and they spoke to one another almost in whispers.
"I must go now," Gwendolen said. "Perhaps you will come and see me before you leave the neighbourhood."
Hugh murmured something in response, and Gwendolen turned away and slowly climbed the hillside. It was only when Hugh was alone once more that Gvven's smile and the glad, warm welcome of her eyes came back to him. He wondered and he wondered. It was possible that the man who had stooped to rob him of his inheritance might have fallen low enough to tamper with correspondence. Yes, Gwendolen had been unfeignedly glad to see him. He might have known what that look in those proud grey eyes meant, for he had seen it there once before on a never-to-be-forgotten occasion. He would see her again and tell her plainly what for the last five years had been in his mind. He brooded over it; he came back to his hotel through the roaring night and wet to the skin, and yet hardly conscious of his condition. He was tired and worn, and anxious for a good night's rest. Not one of the engineers appeared at dinner-time, so that there was no excuse for staying up.
Hugh woke from uneasy dreams conscious of the fact that someone was hammering on his door. He could see by his watch that he had not been in bed more than an hour; he could hear the roar and fret of the rainstorm outside. He invited the disturber in.
"I thought you would like to get up and see it, sir," the waiter said. "They've decided to blow up the temporary dam, sir. If they don't bring the Gwilt down the old valley, she'll burst the stanks, and there will be a hundred lives lost before daylight. They're going to use twelve hundred pounds of dynamite."
Hugh stumbled out of bed without delay. There was something in the situation that gripped him. There was danger here—a livid peril in which a handful of men were fighting against the forces of Nature. Just for a moment it did not occur to Hugh exactly what this might mean to him. A few moments later, and he was speeeding up the hillside, fighting his way against the storm of wind and rain. There was no need for him to pick and choose his footsteps, for the valley below, where the grey house stood, and the slopes of the hills were vivid with great stabbing lanes of flame. The hills seemed to be girt about with the huge flarelights that turned night into a kind of infernal day. Down below you could see a crowd of men staggering away from the grey house, bearing burdens of all kinds, for the human rats were leaving the sinking ship, so to speak, and the engineers were carrying their precious plans and instruments with them. It seemed like chaos, but it was a chaos out of which system and order were being rapidly evolved. On the far side of the hill, beside the mounds and giant struts of timber that formed the temporary dam, a score of men were at work. The light was so powerful that Hugh could actually see the glint of flame on a copper wire that led to a battery far above his own head. It was impossible to hear anything for the roar and strife of the storm, but these men seemed to be working with perfect understanding, and comprehended exactly what those swaying lanterns were saying.
All this Hugh watched with the deepest interest and a fascination that made his breath come fast. It seemed impossible to believe that this scene, like some wild nightmare inspired by one of Doré's pictures of Dante's Inferno, should be taking place in that peaceful, slumberous valley, where a year or two ago the catching of four-pound trout was an event of importance. He stood there, beaten by the rain and buffeted by the storm, until the valley was as empty as a desert—stood there till he saw a rocket rise high in the sky and fall in streams of gold and pallid blue. Then there came a muffled roar, an upheaval of a portion of the hillside, and a concussion that sent the solitary watcher reeling backwards. As the smoke cleared away, there came another roar, longer and more deep-throated, as millions of gallons of turgid water rushed down the hillside in a headlong torrent. It seemed almost a matter of minutes before the yellow flood creamed about the foot of the old grey house, then rose upward steadily till only the tops of the chimneys could be seen. And then there flashed upon Hugh the full significance of this weird and midnight fight between man and the forces of Nature.
"Well, my bad luck has dogged me from the start," Hugh muttered. "There goes my last trail of evidence, and the secret must lie for ever in the graves of Cwmgwilt at the bottom of the lake. A fitting burial-place for the race, perhaps, whose curse has ever been pride and procrastination. Gwendolen can enjoy her fortune now undisturbed, and I will go back and serve out the rest of my sentence."
He spoke calmly and without the slightest trace of bitterness, and, strange to say, felt no anger in his hour of defeat. Indeed, he was glad. He knew in his heart of hearts that he had never meant to fight this defenceless girl or advance a single finger to set free the flood-gates of scandal and disgrace. It was all over now, anyway. The wild, grey dawn would see a brimming lake, flush to the summit of the great dam, and down there, under the fretting waters, the secret of the house and his own patrimony would lie for ever. He turned his face towards the downward path, and there, at the end of one of the fierce, white lanes of light, stood Gwendolen.
He could see that the tears had been streaming down her face, but her eyes were dry now, and filled with a sadness that touched him in spite of himself.
"It is very unfortniiate," he said. "It is ever the same old story, Gwendolen. But I would not grieve over that. It is a fitting end to the race. It matters little whether our ancestors are in the air or under the water, for they will sleep as peacefully in their lead coffins and rise as surely when the time comes."
"Oh, it isn't that," Gwendolen murmured. "It is the feeling of being so horribly alone. I feel like a delicate flower that has been taken from some congenial soil and planted in a desert. You can only grow heather in its proper place. And now there is no one left but myself. Was there ever anybody so helpless as I?"
"With a fortune like yours—"
"But it is not mine," Gwendolen cried. "Half of it is yours. I know that was the intention of our grandfather, because I was told so. And suppose I had it all? Suppose you refused to take your proper share? Oh, I know I can't compel you to—I know you'll say that there is not one scrap of evidence in existence."
"That would be no more than the truth," Hugh smiled.
"I cannot deny it. There was a time when you and I were friends and, perhaps, something more than friends."
"There is no perhaps about it. I went away to seek my fortune. I wrote to you of my hopes and fears, to tell you how I was getting on; but no reply came—not one word from the girl—"
"Hugh!" Gwendolen cried. "Hugh, how could you possibly believe that I could so soon forget? And all the time I was waiting and longing and pining for your letters. Then, when they did not come, I thought that you had gone out into the world and met someone you liked better. When I saw you this morning, I began to hope, but you were so cold and distant. Perhaps, in the course of time—"
She stopped and said no more. But her eyes were speaking to him again, and Hugh read in them the words that she could not utter. He, too, took a step towards her and laid his hands upon her shoulders.
"It is no question of the future," he said. "Gwen, I have never changed. I have grown harder and more callous, perhaps, but no one has taken your place. I came back —well, never mind what I came back for. That and the memory of it has been washed away to-night, and by daylight will be buried 'full fathoms deep,' as old Shakespeare says. We will divide the money, but not in the way you suggest. We will build the old house once more, high up on the hillside, and the Llanberis shall be a power in the land again. It shall be your home and mine, and the money shall be spent equally between us for the good of ourselves and those who, I hope, will come after us. And if people call me a fortune-hunter—"
"They would not dare," Gwendolen cried indignantly, "and it would be a vile falsehood if they did."
Hugh smiled as he kissed her tenderly on the lips.
"Yes," he said, "my conscience is quite free from that reproach."
"THE ideal Christmas we have waited for so long is going to be ours at last, Hilda," Loftus said. "We have waited for it long enough, goodness knows."
But Hilda Loftus merely sighed.
The dainty mechanism purred, like a thing of life, much as if the click of the switch had stirred up a hive of bees. Quivering steel and whirling brass fitted in together, dazzlingly swift like the flight of a cloud of fireflies. There was no noise beyond the steady hum and the prick, prick, of the shining needles. The whole machine was little longer than a cigar box, and not very much heavier, yet there was fame and fortune in it, as Hugh Loftus very well knew. He was speaking quietly into a tiny brass receiver above the clouded fireflies, and as the words fell from his lips, behold they were faithfully recorded by the gyrating needles. The miracle had been accomplished, and behold, the first mechanical stenographer stood confessed; Hilda should be happy this Christmas or the whole scheme of creation was wrong.
The vocagraph would go down to posterity with the phonograph and wireless. They had both been held impossible in their conception, but they were both born all the same. The suggestion of breathing a word into steel and brass and stamping those words faithfully on paper had been the dream of a madman, and yet the dream had been accomplished, aye, and in a cheap commercial form, too. The vocagraph could be 'placed on the market'—that was what Marshall Clint said—at fifteen pounds, and at that figure give the investor an almost fabulous fortune.
The thing was absolutely complete, it worked smoothly and without a hitch. Loftus had tested it in a hundred ways. He had actually discovered a new force, a brand new secret in dynamics. For three years he had devoted his whole time to it. He had disposed of everything he possessed, stripped himself of house and home, of pleasure and luxury, almost of the necessities of life. He had grown grey at the temples and hollow under the eyes. He was almost boyishly grateful when some chance acquaintance offered him a cigarette. How long was it since he had last played a game of gold? He loved the field and the flood, the gun and the rod and the oar. Some day, please heaven, he would have his own place in the country, and grow roses again. There were times when he ached for the fields and the sunshine and the smell of the good red earth.
And he was not far on the wrong side of 40, and this was his third invention. He did not care to think of the other two and the way he had been robbed of them. Alcott drove a Rolls Royce now, and Pearson had just purchased a villa at Nice. Loftus had nothing. And, unless fortune was on his side, he would get nothing out of this.
Circumstances had forced him to go to Clint. A man he had met in the city had put him on to Clint. Nobody would listen to a man who declared that he had invented a machine capable of recording the human voice on paper. He must be either a knave or a fool. He was dreadfully shabby, too. Down at the heel, failure in every threadbare seam and ragged edge. Besides, his machine, together with its tools and spare parts, had been taken under an execution, and despair had him by the throat. Unless he could raise some money he would have to start over again—on something fresh. He entered Clint's' office, bankrupt in hope and credit, and manhood almost, too.
He came out of Copthall Avenue with a cheque for a thousand pounds in his pocket. He did not know that Clint had made money out of his other ventures. He did not know that Clint was fond of a gamble in patents, he did not know that Clint was accustomed to make or lose a thousand pounds without turning a hair. He did not know exactly what he had signed except that it was something to the effect that unless the thousand pounds be paid in six months everything reverted to the lender. Clint's tame lawyer had drawn up the paper... What did it matter? If the money was repaid, then Clint and the inventor shared the proceeds between them equally.
Six months! Pooh! Long before then the world would be talking about the vocagraph. And now somehow the six months was nearly up, and by the end of the week—Longstaff had warned Loftus what would happen if the money was not repaid. Clint would grab the lot; that queer twisted, humorous mouth of his would smile, but there would be no money, no extension of time. Longstaff was a good chap, and he had promised to find the money by Saturday provided that Loftus would agree to leave things in his hands and go nowhere else. Two days more and then—Freedom.
Hilda Loftus wished that she could share this rosy view. She was only 24, and very much in love with this simple-hearted, handsome dreamer of hers, but the strain of the last three years had been hard, and besides, she was a struggling author, and the gift of insight was hers. She disliked Longstaff; she did not trust him. And, she had made a discovery the day before that filled her with uneasiness. There was a cloud on her pretty face, a shadow on the grey eyes as she stood watching the machine at work.
"It's wonderful, dearest," she said. "All our troubles should be over by now."
Loftus laughed as he tossed back his black hair with the grey in it.
"Why do you say should, like that?" he asked. "Our fortune is made. We'll take that place at Hindhead and the cottage on the coast near Sandwich. And I'll play golf every day this summer. We'll have a car and go touring round. You wait till Saturday. By that time Longstaff will have found me the money, and I shall be free from old Clint."
"He's not old—not more than 50, anyway."
"Isn't he? Well, he might be a hundred by the look of him. And what a life. He works so hard that he can't eat anything—beyond his dinner he does not know what it is to get a meal. And he suffers from insomnia. Longstaff says he is worth two millions. And if he had twice as much he would be just as keen for more. A form of disease I call it."
Hilda nodded thoughtfully. She had seen Clint, who had once called to look at the mechanism. A big, powerful man, with broody, faraway eyes, and a queer, twisted mouth with just a suggestion of cruel humour about it. With his bent shoulders and head thrust forward he looked like some bloated spider holding on to the threads of his web. He had said nothing, had expressed no opinion of any kind. A hard man, Hilda thought, surely there was no tender spot in Clint. Hilda heard something as regarded that some weeks later.
It was another accident that made her acquainted with Marshall Clint's mother. Hilda did a little odd journalism when fortune came her way, and Mrs. Clint came into the sphere of operations. But this Hilda had kept to herself—it was plainly her duty not to paint Clint in anything but dark colours. And the fateful Saturday in December was getting too close.
"Why are you so sure Mr. Longstaff will come to the rescue?" she asked.
"My dear girl, he benefits to a great extent. Besides, he hates Clint. He'd do anything, even lose money, to spite that chap. The money will come along to-morrow, you'll see. We'll buy the motor."
"Yes, we shall see," Hilda said thoughtfully. "Isn't it possible that Longstaff and Clint are working together? May it not be the fact that Longstaff has been put on to keep you from going somewhere else, and that you may find yourself let down at that last moment when it will be too late."
"Oh, you women. Those chaps hate one another. They don't speak."
"Don't they? Well, as you know, Mr. Clint lives in Seymour-street, No. 55. The night before last I was passing there, and the door stood open. In the hall was Mr. Clint. He was just seeing a man out. I heard him say he had no time to spare. He was going to dine and the next hour or two was sacred to him. And the man who was in the hall was John Longstaff. They shook hands at parting in quite a friendly manner."
"Hilda! Why did you not tell me this before?"
"Oh, I should have told you. Only—only you are so trustful, and I hoped for the best. Besides, Longstaff promised faithfully that you should have the money next day. Again, I had a little scheme of my own—something that I hope to make a short story of later on. Oh, it is quite clear to me those men are working together. You are to be fooled until it is too late for you to go anywhere else. If you could pay Mr. Clint the 1000 pounds, you would have a few days in which to turn round. And I have spoken about the invention to the proprietor of the Forum. He is in Paris till next Wednesday, but he told me that he would gladly find money for you if the vocagraph did work properly; he said any one would."
"Wednesday will be too late," Loftus said gloomily.
"Oh, I quite see that, Hugh. We must do something between now and Saturday—only to-morrow remains. And there is my little scheme to be tried first."
"No, to-night. Stay here and go on with that little experiment of yours. I am going out, and I am going, if necessary, to spend a whole sovereign, about the last I have in the world. It is now seven o'clock. At eight I shall be dining in solitary state in a certain exclusive restaurant in the West End. Oh, you need not worry about me, I shall be perfectly safe. An old newspaper hand like myself is safe anywhere. No, I shall not answer any questions, Hugh."
Loftus shrugged his shoulders. His faith in his wife was childlike. He merely raised his eyebrows as she came into the room presently, dressed for going out. She wore a simple dress of some clinging black material, her neck and arms gleamed like old ivory against the dusky lace. There was a rose in her golden hair. Her eyes were shining with suppressed excrement.
"Do I look well?" she asked. "Are you pleased with me, Hugh?"
Loftus caught her in his arms and kissed her. She had been everything to him for the last three years. He pictured her in the cottage, with the roses climbing over it, he saw her framed in Crimson Ramblers. He would not spoil everything by asking her to explain.
"You are lovely," he said. "So long as I have you the rest matters nothing. You will come back with your pocket full of gold. I feel that the invention is safe."
Hilda laughed as she freed herself from his close embrace.
"You are spoiling my chevelure," she said. "We shall see what we shall see. Now call me a taxi. The ship must not be spoilt for a haporth of tar."
Hilda smiled to herself as the well trained waiter removed her wrap. She wondered if he had any inkling of the true state of things, of the solitary gold coin in her pocket, the fact that she had subsisted on tea and bread and butter for days. The well-ordered glare, the yellow flicker of the electrics dazzled her, the smell of flowers oppressed her senses. Blue and gold and crimson whirled before her eyes. And out of the shimmering haze presently a pleasant refined picture began to focus itself. Here were fair women and brave men, a frothy sea of silk and chiffon, and with it no suggestion of care or anxiety or suffering anywhere.
"I am looking for Mr. Clint," she said.
The waiter was, if possible, a shade more humble in his manner. Mr. Clint had not yet arrived, but was expected at any moment. That was his table by the angle of the wall. Mr. Clint had given no orders for a second cover, indeed the insinuation was that the millionaire invariably dined alone a la carte. If madame would come this way—
Hilda took her seat and dismissed the waiter. Her courage was coming back to her now. She was getting accustomed to the glittering picture; the facets of the diamonds no longer blinded and bewildered her. She was conscious presently that Clint was standing close by regarding her with frank annoyance. There was a moody look in his eyes, his hard mouth was straight and stern. He glanced towards the distant waiter.
"Do please sit down, Mr. Clint," Hilda said steadily. "I am quite aware of the fact that I am occupying the table reserved for you. I had a fancy to dine here to-night."
"Indeed," said Clint coldly. "And why not?"
"Why not indeed? Do please sit down. I shall be able to make my confession sound more sensible to you if you will do so. I came to dine with you."
"Really! Ladies as a rule are not—you understand? As your host—"
"Oh, dear, I did not mean that at all," Hilda smiled. "I am paying for my own dinner, if you don't mind. I hardly know how to explain. As I came along it seemed quite easy and now it strikes me as foolish and extravagant. Especially as I understand that this, is your sacred hour when nobody but a woman—"
"You are quite right," Clint said grimly. "Nobody but a woman would."
"But a woman is always allowed to be illogical, Mr. Clint. And I don't think you will find her quite illogical when she comes to explain."
Clint looked at his vis-a-vis for the first time. It struck him with the force of a new truth that she was exceedingly pretty. The clear depths of those grey eyes reminded him of—pah—foolishness. He had not given a thought to—what was her name?—for years. And the pleading look in those eyes, the pathetic half-frightened droop of her mouth. She was horribly afraid of him, too. She had come here begging, of course. Women always were rapacious creatures. Improvident, too. Probably spending her last sovereign—
"I am," Hilda declared. "You are quite correct."
"You are what?" questioned Clint.
"Here in company with the last few shillings I have in the world. And I don't regret it. If the worst comes to the worst, there is a short story here."
"My dear madame, you are my guest," Clint retorted. "You must be. This is my table; I pay a subsidy for it. Besides, what would the waiter think if you asked for your bill? A little soup? A mouthful of fish and a bird of some kind? Champagne. No? You are quite wise to choose claret. Now talk to me. Let me hear you chatter like all the other women are doing. Ask me a lot of questions. It will he a treat, a new sensation to me."
Hilda laughed gaily enough. But it was not until the coffee was on the table and Clint had asked permission to smoke that she spoke in earnest. The grey eyes had grown serious, the little mouth was set firm.
"Mr. Clint," she said. "How much money would satisfy the average man?"
"All he could get and just a little more," Clint smiled. "It is that little more that keeps the wheels of commerce working. We all want that little more. I do. The ambition of to-day is merely the policy of to-morrow."
"You mean to say you are never satisfied?"
"Well, yes. You may take it for granted that I never am satisfied. I expect you rather despise me for that remark?"
"I do. It is deplorable. I mean this loving to pile up money. Now, I'll ask you another question. Have you ever been in love, Mr. Clint?"
Clint's eyes flashed angrily. His brow knotted in a heavy frown.
"Are you not going too far?" he demanded.
"Of course I am. I came here for that purpose. And you have answered my question, although you did not mean to do so. And I am in love—deeply in love—with my own husband. Nobody but myself knows the depths of his gentle, generous, confiding nature. Why do I tell of the struggles and privation of the past three years? I watch him growing older and greyer. I can see his dream of peace and comfort in some pleasant country house fading away day by day. A little time back that dream looked like becoming a reality. Unless a miracle happens he is a ruined beggar before many hours have gone."
"As a matter of business," Clint began. "As a legal transaction—"
"Please let me finish. We owe you money. If that money is not repaid by Christmas Eve starvation stands before us. My husband's great invention passes into your hands. May I ask what you propose to do with it?"
"Sell it, I presume," Clint said sourly.
"Why, to make money, to be sure. Make a good fortune if you like. If you think that by coming whining to me—"
"I beg your pardon, sir; I am not whining. I am seeking your information. You have twice as much as need be, ten times as much as you can ever spend. You have practically nobody to care for you but your mother. I have met your mother—a dear, kind-hearted honourable old lady, who is intensely proud of you and your career. In her eyes you are the most honourable and upright man in the world. She regards you as being as charitable and generous as herself, and she is beloved by all who know her. What would she say if she knew that you were nothing more than a cold, callous money-grubber—the Man with the Muckrake that Bunyan speaks of in 'The Pilgrim's Progress'? What would she say if she knew that you had deliberately conspired to rob my poor boy of the fruits of his brain? Oh, you like to stand well in the eyes of your mother."
"You would tell her this?" Clint demanded hoarsely. "You would blackmail—"
"Mr. Clint," Hilda cried, "with all your money and power you are a pitiable creature. If it were to save my husband from ruin to-morrow, if it were to give us the fortune you are taking off our hands, I would not tell the good woman who bore you the truth. What is it you want? What do you gain by robbing us? The money makes you no happier. You are not a happy man in any case; your face speaks of sullen discontent, and yet you would stoop to deceit, you would make a tool of John Longstaff, who has tricked and fooled my husband into the belief that ample capital is coming in time to save us. Mr. Longstaff professes to hate you, and declares that he will help us if only to spite you. You two are supposed to be at daggers drawn. Yet he visits you secretly, for I have seen him coming from the house. I have seen you part in the most friendly fashion. Saturday will come, and with it Mr. Longstaff, professing to be in the depths of despair over his failure to get the money. My husband's invention is yours. And when you next go and see your mother, and she looks so fondly and lovingly into your eyes, you will remember that you are but a false idol, and that you have been guilty of a foul and dishonourable action, and that you have deliberately robbed an honest man who trusted you through your paid tool. Oh, why do you do it, why do you want this money? Tell me what qualities go with the making of a millionaire of your class and creed. Is it a disease like drinking drugs that has you?"
"Nobody has ever dared to talk to me like this before," Clint said. "If I deny it—"
"Deny what you please. But I know what I know. I have quite finished. Will you ask the waiter to call a cab for me."
Hilda rose to her feet, but Clint detained her.
"Just a moment," he said. "Are there many women in the world like you?"
"Thousands. And prepared to act like me when their homes and happiness are threatened."
"I did not know it," Clint said quietly. "I did not know it, Mrs. Loftus. There was a woman once, and she—well, she didn't behave like you. And that is the history of my life in ten words. Do you know that you have displayed marvellous courage to-night."
"The courage of despair. And to no purpose, as I knew before I started."
Clint's face flushed, but his eyes no longer gleamed angrily. He looked almost human.
"There you are wrong," he said. "Let me show you that for once in a way—you know what I mean. Now here is a cheque for a thousand pounds that came to me just as I was coming out. I slipped it into my pocket. I am going to endorse this and hand it over to you, and on Saturday you can come to the office and repay your husband's loan. If he knew of this—"
"Allow me to remark that he has not the slightest idea—"
"I beg your pardon," Clint said. "I ought not to have said that, but it is not an easy matter to get out of the habits of a lifetime all at once. But I am going to try and justify the belief that one woman has in me—I am speaking of my mother. I need not say anything about her to you, because you know. Now, supposing that you and your husband join our Christmas dinner tomorrow. You need not hesitate, because I know my mother will be pleased. You see, she still regards me more or less as a successful boy, and it is a source of trouble to her that I have no friends to look after me when she is gone. I want you to help me to show her that she is mistaken. I want you to try and realise that one woman has not spoilt my life entirely. Now say you will come with your husband at 6 o'clock to-morrow night. Tell him that you have made a mistake in old Clint, and remind him that once upon a time, years ago, 'The Christmas Carol' was a favourite story of mine. Tell him that Ebenezer Scrooge is a reformed character, and that between us we will make your husband's invention famous to all the world. I am not going to take any refusal, please understand that."
"We will come, with pleasure," Hilda said. "And now I'd like to get home and tell my husband what a wonderful thing has happened."
It was just striking 12 as Hilda got into the house. One look at her face was sufficient for Loftus.
"What have you done?" he asked.
"I have found Ebenezer Scrooge," Hilda said unsteadily, "and we are going to dine with him to-morrow."
THE man with the squint appeared to be under no delusions. He spoke with an air of finality that would have been a fine party asset in parliaments and places where they wrangle. The thing was there and to be had for the asking. Poor old Bill had said so, and Bill had seen it. It had always been one of the aforesaid, and late, Bill Magness's proclamations that he never told lies. He had been neither particularly sober nor conspicuously honest, but he couldn't lie. Probably an utter lack pf imagination had had something to do with it.
"As big as a small egg" the man with the squint went on. "You've got the word of Dan'l Adams on it, and that's me. An' Bill, he's seen it. Along of the flyin' detachment, 'e was, an' young Fox-Brabazon a-leadin' of 'em. Exceeded his orders, 'e did, but 'e'd 'eard of the big stone, and naturally, bein' a bit of a sport, wanted to get 'is 'ooks on to the same. 'E'd orders from the bloomin' Commissioner to punish these yer niggers back of the Zambesi— where we are now—an' burn down a few villages, an' not go beyond Nanzar Kiver. We'd got no trouble with the Nanzar tribe, and their autonomy was to be respected— mainly because our column wasn't 'eld to be strong enough. Now, Fox-Brabazon, 'e likes 'is work. Got a weakness for disguisin' hisself and paddlin' about amongst the natives and pickin' up their lingo. And that's how 'e got to 'ear all about the big temple acrost the river and the great god N'Tsu, with the one big diamond eye of 'im a-blazin' in 'is forrid. And 'e an' poor old Bill, they seen it. Swam the river on a bright night an' seen it—usin' glasses, lyin' on their bellies in the scrub and watchin' the crowd doin' Mumbo-Jumbo. For 'is nibs N'Tsu is out in the open, set in a sart of tank arrangement, an' watchin' over the fortunes of Nanzar population. An' if the detachment hadn't been ordered back sharp, Fox-Brabazon would 'ave been all the richer for a diamond as big as an 'en's egg. Fairly groaned, 'e did, Bill said. And now Bill's dead and Fox-Brabazon is down on the coast, and nobody but you and me knows the story, Peter, ole sport. And we're reported to head companies now as wounded, dead, and missin', sniped by the dusky foe and finished off by the vultures. And only five miles between us and the big glass marble in N'Tsu's forrid. An' only ten miles back again to the detachment. An' all we've got to do is to fake up some story of bein' cut off and fightin' the foe like the fine gritty Tommies that we are. An', when we do go back, old N'Tsu's eye goes with us."
"Got to get it first," the pessimistic Peter said without enthusiasm.
Private Daniel Adams eyed Peter Macmanan scornfully. The latter warrior was feeling slightly homesick. He had been persuaded to this adventure against his better judgment. He was missing his tobacco and his comrades and the muddling caravanserai of the forest camp. He was naturally gregarious, and the vast, moist, sweating solitude of the forest oppressed him. Moreover, he was a deserter in the face of the foe. They had provisions and rifles, a revolver each, and a full complement of cartridges, to say nothing of the prospect of glorious loot before them. By this time they had doubtless been written off the strength and mourned, briefly but luridly, by their comrades. There would be no inquiries—little casualties of this sort happened every day.
The whole thing looked absurdly easy. They had only to go there and back again, so to speak, and the deed was done. The Nanzar priests might start some absurd argument, and, if so, it would not be a very difficult matter to desert for the second time. And yonder, beyond the Napaur Hills, were Belgian settlements after rubber, and there was a welcome there for anyone with an insane desire for work. A couple of resolute men with a modern rifle each might successfully raid the great god N'Tsu and deprive him of his glittering eye; and, if they could get it, their fortunes would be made—they could luxuriate in it on the fat of the land in future.
Not that violence formed any part of their programme—the primrose path of diplomacy was better and far more safe. If they could steal the stone without unnecessary advertisement, all the better. Daniel Adams had armed himself with a pair of pliers for the purpose. They had talked the whole thing over, and their plans were made. They had been discussing the campaign all the afternoon, as they lay in the forest almost within earshot of the village in the midst of which the god stood. Probably the great soapstone monstrosity had stood there for a thousand years. Where his fine blazing eye had come from, nobody knew nor cared. Undoubtedly the tribe of Nanzar had been far more highly civilised in the dead ages, for here and there in the heart of the jungle were evidences of stone buildings, mosaic and concrete, and here and there adorned with the acanthus and the lotus, though these things conveyed nothing to the adventurers lurking hard by. They did not speculate as to whether or not the Queen of Sheba might have had a hand in this business. They lay there sweating and gasping in the wet, dripping heat, cursing the need of tobacco, stripped to their shirts and ammunition belts, dirty, grimy, almost unrecognisable. Their uniforms had been hidden in a place of safety, where the white ants could not get at them, their bodies were blistered by mosquito and fly-bites. The expedition was not precisely in the nature of a picnic. Their bandoliers were hung about them, the rifles lay within easy reach.
Darkness shut down presently like the lid of a box. The jungle rustled with unseen life. From somewhere close by came the purr of some gliding beast, uneasy and restless in the presence of humanity. It was a nasty, creepy business altogether, and Peter Macmanan was wishing himself well out of it. Something cold and slimy wriggled across his feet. The darkness, like that of Egypt, could be felt. Glory be to goodness, there would be a moon presently!
It came, after a long, sweating, humid hour or two, like a great golden arc, rising over the shoulder of the distant Napaur Hills. A yellow light filtered through the jungle, throwing long black shafts of shadow, picking out the swiftly moving bats in search of their evening meal. The whole jungle seemed to be full of eyes—round, yellow, gleaming balls turned menacingly on the two men crouching there, silent and not a little dismayed.
Macmanan scooped the sweat from his forehead with a shaky hand.
"'Ere, let's get out of this," he said huskily; "it fairly gives me the 'orrors! If I'd known it was goin' to be like this, I wouldn't ha' come. Wot's the matter with the open?"
"You don't think o' nothin' but yourself," Adams grumbled. "Did you expect a perishin' Pullman car and a brass band at the other end to meet you, or the idol's eye by registered post? All the same, I'm game to get out of this."
They pushed their way sullenly through the scrub on to the open plain. They were wearing practically nothing now besides their boots and shirts and cartridge belts. They were dirty and disreputable beyond words. The most cunning natives would never have taken them for Tommies, and this Adams regarded as a valuable asset.
On the far side of the opening the huts of the village were clustered together. A larger structure of brick and mud and cane stood out from the rest, marking the spot where some chief rested. The place was still and silent as the grave. No living soul could be seen. There was not so much as a dog prowling about, no wandering animals scratching the earth for a lean meal. The huts divided in the centre, and between them the great grotesque idol raised its ugly head. As the deserters moved along, they could catch the flickering gleam in the forehead of the idol. The golden glow of the moon, hanging in a sky of indigo blue, glittered and flashed on the facets of the stone. Macmanan flicked a dry tongue over his still drier lips.
"Perish me, if you ain't right, Daniel!" he said hoarsely. "In me 'eart of 'earts, I never expected to see it. Worth about a quarter of a million at least. I've 'eard chaps what's served in India tell the tale before, but I never believed 'em. We'll get it easy as kiss me 'and!"
They moved along cautiously till the village was reached. They were trembling with excitement from head to foot now, not afraid, but with a queer, crumbling sensation in the pit of the stomach. Then suddenly from behind a low stockade of cactus plants a dark figure rose and confronted them, a ragged figure with a clean-cut Arab type of face, in strange contrast to the woolly mat of his hair. He started back half fearfully, half defiantly, with a conch at his lips. Then a second man appeared to materialise out of nowhere, and the fun began.
There was no fear in the hearts of the two deserters now. The nerve-destroying suspense was over, and the moment for action had arrived. And they had been in tight places before. Without a moment's hesitation, Adams dashed forward and flung his revolver full into the face of the man with the shell. The thud of steel on bone fairly rang as the fellow staggered back, dropping the shell and pressing his hands to his face in the agony of the moment. Adams could hear the patter of blood on the dry leaves. He snatched up the revolver, eager, ready, full of zest to kill, and beat his reeling antagonist with cruel force about the head. He seemed to give at the knees, as if he had been an empty sack; he dropped and lay without a sign of life.
Macmanan was faring none too well. He was lying on the flat of his back, with a pair of hands tearing at his throat and a bony knee pressing cruelly on his chest. The stars were dancing in a cloud of blue and gold and crimson before his eyes, his breath was coming in fitful gasps, a steam-hammer was pounding in his brain. Then something cracked, and he staggered to his knees. There was just the suggestion of acrid smoke in the stagnant air.
"I 'ad to pot 'im," Adams gasped; "he'd 've strangled you in another tick. 'Ope nobody 'eard. We've managed to do in on both the guards, anyway."
Apparently the little spitting crack of the revolver had aroused no alarm. The adventurers crouched panting there, waiting for any further sign of life, but none came.
"It's all our own!" Adams said exultingly. "'Ere, let's drag the bodies away and shove 'em in the water yonder. Both of 'em as dead as mutton, but get 'em out of the way, all the same."
The gruesome task was finished. The camp lay there white and clear in the light of the moon. These men were armed; they feared nothing. They moved on swiftly in the direction of the great god. All about it appeared to be a kind of empty moat, some six feet deep, with sheer smooth sides, and some forty feet across.
"Now, wot's the meanin' of all this 'ere fortification?" Macmanan asked. "Mind you don't fall in and break your bloomin' neck. Bit of a precipice, ain't it?"
But Daniel was not seeing the humour of it. In his own vernacular, "he didn't perishin' well like it." He did not altogether lack the rudiments of an imagination, or he had not been here at this moment. And, besides, he was in the land of Mumbo-Jumbo. He was thinking now of vivid stories told round many a camp fire, things occult and mysterious and terrible. He mistrusted the smooth sides of the empty moat, and the hard floor piled here and there with heaps of rocks and stones. If the simple natives regarded this as a protection for their god, then they were unsophisticated indeed. But were they quite as simple as they appeared to be? Might there not be some livid danger there?
Well, they had to risk it. There was no point in being turned back at the last moment by a mere empty moat. In the moonlight the floor looked solid enough. The village was silent as the tomb, and the big diamond was blazing in the eye of the idol. Adams let himself down the side of the wall, gasping as he went. With his lip between his teeth, he was silently cursing his own cowardice. He took a step or two forward, like Agag, followed by Macmanan. They were half-way across the smooth floor in the direction of the idol before anything happened. Here and there were little hillocks of rock and stone, like islands in a smooth sea.
And suddenly these islets became things of life. Under the astonished eyes of the two adventurers they moved and trembled as solid objects move behind the haze of a flame. From every nook and cranny round, bloated objects bubbled out and squatted hideously, straddling on long, hairy legs with dropsical bodies suspended over them, their yellow beaks emitting a noise not unlike that of a grasshopper, with a deeper metallic note. The wicked yellow eyes of them gleamed viciously. Other hillocks were tremulous with movement now, hairy red objects straddled over the floor in all directions. They would dart swiftly forward for a few yards, and then pull up as if dead. The still, stagnant night air fairly hummed with their hoarse, splitting note.
"What on earth have we struck?" Macmanan gasped. "Spiders, ain't they?"
Adams had no reply for the moment. He was beginning to understand what the hard, shining sides of the moat were used for, and he had heard of these spiders, great big fellows of the tarantula type, but twice the size of the American variety and far more fierce. A trader with a hideous scar on the side of his face and half the calf of his left leg gone had once told Adams a gruesome story of a night's torture in connection with one of the tarantulas, and the man had told it in a hoarse whisper and with a sweating brow.
"For 'Eaven's sake, get back!" he whispered. "They're afraid of us for the moment, but it won't be long. The first one as goes for us'll be followed by the whole hell-spawn of 'em! They'll run all over you, like rats up a wall. 'Op it, Peter!"
Peter needed no second bidding. He ran like a hare, sweating horror at every pore. They scrambled somehow to a place of safety and looked down shudderingly into that pit of abomination. A score or more of the spiders had followed them. They skated here and there, as if impelled by some invisible spring; they stopped motionless, with their great hairy bodies poised above the long legs that looked like those of a dog.
"Nice little, interestin' pets, ain't they?" Macmanan gasped. "'Minds me of the time I won that two quid in the 'Amburg lottery and spent it in boozing! Awful, ain't it?"
"I know," Adams shuddered. "Fancy havin' a 'undred of 'em all over you at once! Take a piece out of you, they do, like a kid eating an apple. So this is the game those chaps play. Wonder how they get to the old image in his glory yonder at spring-cleanin' time? Rig up a rope-bridge or something of that kind. So long as they keep them spiders 'ungry, the diamond's safe."
"But we ain't got no rope-bridge," Peter murmured. "Have to chuck it, I s'pose?"
"Not me," Adams grunted. "We've got to see it through, my son. Here, let's see if we can't frighten the brutes. If not, we'll stir up the village and get them to take a hand at the game. We'll twist flowers in our hair and pretend we're gods. And we've got the guns, too. In for a penny, in for a pound, old sport. I didn't want to have any fuss over this thing, being modest in my notions; but if a jamboree is necessary, then a jamboree it's goin' to be. Got any matches?"
"Got a whole boxful, for the matter of that, mate."
"Good! Get your knife out and open a dozen of the cartridges. We'll lay a train of powder way across the old moat—scatter powder all over the place. They won't like that."
It was not pleasant work dropping down the smooth side of the moat again and laying the powder train. A cold stream played up and down the spines of the conspirators, but they were aided by the discovery that the spiders had no liking for the burning flame. A match held within a yard of one caused him to back like a ship with reversed engines; he spat and scuffled headlong for safety. A tiny point of flame touched the gunpowder, and a zigzag sheet of blue and gold darted across the floor. At the first spurt every bloated black object vanished. In the clear, silver light of the moon, the spiders could be seen fighting and struggling for cover. The acrid smell of the powder hung in the air. Adams smiled his complete satisfaction.
"We've done the trick," he grunted. "Easy on with those matches. Don't forget that we've got to get back again. Come on, mate! A dash for it, and the thing's done!"
Macmanan waited for no second bidding. He was anxious to get along before his imagination began to play tricks with him again. They sprinted across the intervening space and climbed the wall of the island upon which the great grotesque god was seated. The strange features were worn smooth and shiny by the sun and storm of the ages, but the great eye still glittered in the forehead, embedded there in some metal that Adams rightly took for gold. He produced the pair of pliers, which he had taken the precaution to thrust into his boot, and got to work without delay. His spirits rose, he could have shouted and danced in the joy or the moment as the stone came away in his hand. He had fortune in his grasp, probably the best part of a quarter of a million safely knotted away in the tail of his grey flannel shirt. He had his rifle and revolver and the belt full of cartridges, and the way to safety lay in the broad path of the moon.
"Got it!" he gasped. "Bloomin' well got it! We'll buy ourselves out quite in the proper way, old pard. And then back to the Old Country once more, shootin' an' fishin' an' huntin', like the rest of the nobs. Five thousand quid a year interest on our bloomin' capital. Come on!"
No wild outburst of enthusiasm came from Macmanan. He was seeing things hidden from the optimistic eye of his comrade. For instance, he could see a little knot of dusky figures on the far side of the moat, watching the proceedings with intelligent curiosity.
"Here's the gentry of the place come to meet us," he said. "Seem to be annoyed about something. Downright disrespectful, I call it. What's the next game?"
A wild wail of anguish rose from the black figures on the opposite bank. It was followed presently by a yell of rage and the rush of spears. They hurtled all round the statue of the god, but not one of them struck the sacred figure. Adams and his companion crouched in a little gutter at the base, not undisposed to admire the marksmanship of the foe. They were comparatively safe there. They could see how the figures on the far side were getting thicker; the rattle of spears was continuous.
"Open some more cartridges," Adams whispered. "Let's have a flare at the foot of the old fossil 'ere. Ten to one those chaps have never heard a gun or smelt gunpowder in their natural."
Macmanan touched off the contents of a dozen cartridges. The great blue flare exploded, and the din on the opposite bank ceased suddenly. A fantastic figure, garbed in some grotesque robes, danced in a wild saraband slow movement, gesticulating wildly. "The head medicine-man of the tribe, no doubt," Adams thought, as he drew a bead on him. There was a little crack, a puff of flame, and the big man crumpled up in a heap, and so he died.
When Adams looked up again, he could see that every man there had fallen forward on his face. The black heads were pressed to the ground in token of utter subjection.
"The trick's done!" he yelled. "Come on while they've still got the fear of us in their hearts. A match or two here and there, and there's no fear of the spiders. I expect those chaps think we have bewitched them. Get a move on you, Peter—the game's ours!"
They were across the danger zone at length, up the far wall, and walking with the conscious majesty of moral superiority over the bodies of the prostrate natives. Here and there a curious head was raised, only to go swiftly down again. Surely these were beings from another and higher world, those dark, grimy men with strange footwear and queer garments fluttering from their shoulders. They held in their hands magic sticks that spat fire and killed beyond the range of spears. The medicine-man had defied them, and the gods of these strangers had killed him with flame.
They lay there long after Adams and Macmanan had vanished into the scrub and donned their clothes. There was no suggestion of pursuit, and the adventurers knew it. Moreover, they knew their way, and would in two days' march be back with the detachment again. But few questions would be asked; besides, they had their story all ready cut and dried.
They dropped down at the foot of a bluff and lighted their fire, and slept the sleep of clear conscience and duty nobly done. They dreamt of the happy days to come, of beer and baccy and kindred joys so dear to the heart of their clan. And when they awoke and had breakfasted, Adams produced the diamond and gazed on it lovingly.
"A bit of real all right," he said. "I know. I wasn't with a Sheeny in Clerkenwell for a year without knowing something of stones. And you can test 'em as easy as easy. Just give me your knife. Open the little nail-file on the back and scrape it over what they call the facets of the stone. A real diamond resists the file, like this one does, and—Cuss me, if it ain't a perishin' paste one!"
They sat there for an hour or more in silent misery. Then Adams dragged himself wearily to his feet and pointed the homeward way.
"Don't ask me," he said, with concentrated bitterness. "It's a fake, anyway. We've been anticipated, my lad, by a regular genius—a chap what took proper precautions and got a dummy diamond to take the place of the real stone, and thus deluded those poor innocent savages. And he got away safely with the proper marble. Worked it out like a detective, 'e did. Forget it, mate, forget it. And now back to the bally camp. By the right, quick march!"
ALL that bitter black November the fight had been keen and merciless along the right bank of the Moselle, and now the tide had rolled on, leaving the village of St. Lie a veritable shambles. Then, as one wave rises higher than the rest, the red flood had come back for the moment, for the Uhlans were pressing hard upon a mob of franctireurs, and for the moment the strife had degenerated into downright murder. There was no quarter asked or given—every one of these irregulars taken with arms in his hands was promptly shot.
Here was work enough and to spare for the Red Cross, and hither came Major Eustace, late of her Majesty's Service, together with his colleague Captain Gray and all the paraphernalia for the formation of a flying field-hospital.
All France lay in the grip of winter. The torn roads were as iron now, the fields steel-grey under a powder of snow. The wounded as they lay in the open died of the cold—they were found there with their blood frozen on their mangled limbs. There was nothing to deaden the revolting horror of it all, no redeeming feature except the Red Cross flag flying over a little chapel by the roadside.
"My word! this is worse than the trenches before Sebastopol," Eustace muttered. "You remember?"
Gray nodded curtly. He beat his frozen hands together in a vain attempt to infuse a little warmth into them. He and Eustace had volunteered for Red Cross work, as scores of other English half-pay officers had done.
"It's murder," Gray growled. "Oh, I'm not defending the franctireur. He has brought a good deal of trouble on himself; but that's no reason why he should be treated like a brigand. A company of Bavarians, with a squad of Uhlans, caught a hundred of them down in the riverbed yesterday, and shot them down like sheep. It seems a burning shame to waste some of the best blood in France like this."
"Well, it makes work for us," Eustace said grimly. "Are the nurses all right?"
"Oh, I've looked after, them," Gray explained. "They are in the chapel yonder. Adamson is there, too. They've got about a score of wounded under their charge altogether—franctireurs to a man!"
"And Demarney?" Gray asked. "Did they down him?"
"By Jove, I hope not!" Eustace exclaimed. "Demarney's far too good a fellow to be wasted like that. What a daredevil he is, to be sure. And a better game-shot I never saw."
"Well, he hasn't considered himself much. And it's a confoundedly risky business, after all. But that was always Demarney's idea of enjoying himself. He had resigned a cavalry commission to throw in his lot with these devil-may-care freelances. The mere fact that he would be shot for a spy if he fell into the hands of the Germans was a special attraction. And, by Jove, he has been a thorn in their side, too!"
The other nodded approvingly. They had met young Demarney in more than one English country house; they had a warm regard for the handsome, reckless young Frenchman. They had come in contact with him many times during the last six weeks; he had shared a camp-fire with them on occasion and more than once when the Uhlans were actually searching for him in the neighbourhood. But it looked now as if Demarney had been caught at last, seeing that he had been the actual leader of the irregulars who had been wiped out in the horrible battle down amongst the orchards by the bend of the River Moselle. With his usual luck Demarney might have got away, for assuredly he could not be far off, to say nothing of the fact that the neighbourhood was patrolled with German cavalry, and Demarney was well known. He had no horse, there was not an ounce of provisions in the province which was not in the hands of the foe, and to sleep out in the open in that bitter weather was to invite a death swift if not merciful.
It was so bitterly, intensely cold that the birds were lying dead in the woods, and the foxes had come down from the Ardennes, ravenous and dangerous, in search of food. For miles round no buildings stood intact, with the solitary exception of the little chapel over which the Red Cross drooped. As the sky overhead turned from blue to steel-grey, and the sun dropped in the west like a copper shield, the twinkling camp-fires of the German cavalry flamed out here and there. Eustace and Gray pushed their way on in the direction of the chapel, for something in the nature of light and warmth and comfort lay there.
It was a strange sight—one of those amazing pictures that only war can inspire. The grateful warmth came from the stove which glowed in the centre of the building, and round about it a score of wounded men lay on piles of clean straw. A doctor was ministering to the wants of these; a couple of nurses flitted noiselessly from one patient to another. Up beyond the altar-rails half-a-dozen horses had been stalled, and the clatter of their hoofs sounded strangely grotesque and out of place amidst the carving and gorgeous colouring of the walls. Every scrap of woodwork had long since been torn away and used for fuel. The chapel was illuminated dimly enough with a few smoky oil lamps, the flame of which flickered unsteadily upon the carved stone pillars and the great picture over the altar. Still, it was warm there, and Eustace and his companion were thankful for that much.
The doctor Adamson came forward and stood himself wearily by the side of Gray and Eustace.
"Anything fresh?" the latter asked. "Have you heard news of Demarney, by any chance?"
Adamson jerked his thumb in the direction of the wounded lying inertly about the stove.
"He's not amongst that lot, at any rate," he said. "Von Kneller came in here just now. Said he had instructions to see if Demarney happened to be under my charge. He came swaggering in here as if the whole place belonged to him. What insolent beasts those Uhlan officers are! I should like to have kicked that chap. I had to be civil, of course."
"Must do that," Gray muttered. "Well, I'm glad they haven't got hold of Demarney yet. All I hope is he won't come here."
"It would be just like him if he did," Eustace said.
From out of the heap of rags and litter and tawdry pictures torn from the walls a white face appeared. The features were lank and drawn, the beard and the moustache were ragged, but the brown eyes were full of vivacity and a smile was on the lips.
"Well, my friends," Demarney whispered, "and how goes it, as they say in your country? I have been here since daybreak, and, ma foi, am I not hungry! I did not dare to speak, for fear of disturbing those ravishing angels of mercy yonder, for, had they known I had been here, their faces would have betrayed them. A crust of bread, my dear Eustace, and a morsel of cheese, if such a thing still remains in this poor France of mine. I can die with the best of them, but this hunger takes all the manhood out of me."
Under the rags and fragments of straw, Demarney crept nearer. It was good to know that this freelance was still in the land of the living, but at the same time his presence was a terrible embarrassment to Eustace and Gray. Within a few hundred yards of where they seated the German pickets were everywhere. It was a clear breach of faith on the understanding by which the Red Cross contingent was there at all. They were harbouring a spy on whose head a price had been placed. In his quick way Demarney read the trouble which was passing through the mind of Eustace and his colleagues.
"I have done wrong, is it?" he asked. "Forgive me, my friends. But the comedy was a thing that I could never resist. And you must admit that there has been little chance lately of anything in the way of vaudeville."
"It isn't exactly a comic opera," Gray said grimly.
"Ah, but you will not say that presently," Demarney went on. "The time has come when my presence is needed elsewhere. I have to go to join my colleagues on the other side of Rheims. To get there is no easy matter. I have no horse, and every spot is watched, so anxious are the Germans for the society of Gerald Demarney. And yet they might save themselves all this trouble. By this time to-morrow I shall be far enough away."
He spoke with an easy assurance that brought a smile to the lips of his listeners.
"You will give my compliments to Von Kneller," he said. "It is a great regret to me that I have had no opportunity of exchanging civilities with him. And now I have pressing business outside. Your bread and potted meat will make a new man of me."
He wriggled under the straw and littered refuse on the floor, there was a quick shadow across the doorway, and he was gone.
"Oh, he's mad," Adamson said. "He'll find himself in Von Kneller's power within half an hour. It seems a pity that he should be so restless. And look here, Eustace——"
But neither Eustace nor Gray was listening—the warmth of the chapel was grateful and the needful sleep imperative. They lay down on the straw in their great-coats and slept the dreamless sleep of the hardened campaigner all the world over. With something like a sigh of envy, Adamson turned to his patients. There was no sleep for him except the slumber he could snatch with one eye open. For an hour or more he moved from one sufferer to another, attended by the nurses. A breath of keen, icy air swept through the chapel as the door was opened and a woman came in. She was clad from head to foot in the shapeless black garment and white-lined hood usually affected by the Sisterhood everywhere. What was she doing here? Adamson wondered. So far as he knew, there was no convent in the neighbourhood.
The woman advanced with her pale face downcast. Adamson could see that the dark hair was plastered on either side of the white face, giving the newcomer a suggestion of maturity that was somewhat belied by the erectness of her figure. It seemed strange that she should be abroad on a night like this.
Adamson came politely forward.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" he asked.
The woman stood there with bent head, her hands crossed in her sleeves, a picture of patience and humility.
"I am in great trouble, Monsieur," she said, in passable English. "I am Sister Louise, and I belong to the Order of the Sacred Heart at Mireville. They told me that my brother was dead. He was one of the franctireurs. He was killed in that dreadful fight a day or two ago in the orchards. I came down to look for him and give him decent burial with my family in the cemetery at Mireville. I have found his body, Monsieur——"
The Sister paused, as if unable to proceed. Adamson listened with respectful sympathy.
"I found him," Sister Louise went on presently. "Some of the peasants helped me, and those kind people have lent me a cart to take the body of my dear brother to his last home. But, alas! there is no chapel left at Mireville, and no priest there to administer the last offices of the dead. My kind friends are waiting outside at this moment with the body. I thought if I might bring the remains of my dear brother and offer up one prayer for his eternal repose, it would be all I could do. Do you think it would be the same thing if I read the service myself?"
Adamson stammered his embarrassed sympathy. He kicked Eustace and Gray into wakefulness, and laid the problem before them.
"Why not, poor soul?" Eustace yawned sleepily. "She will be all the happier for doing this thing, and it will make no difference to us. What an extraordinary setting to such a pathetic scene!"
Sister Louise appeared to be listening, for she turned a wan, grateful face in Eustace's direction. She vanished into the bitter night for a moment, to return presently, followed by four peasants who staggered into the chapel carrying a rude bier on which seemed to be a body enclosed in the hastily constructed coffin. A white sheet lay over the silent form, which was deposited silently and reverently on the steps leading to the chancel.
"This is good of you, Messieurs," Sister Louise said tearfully. "It desolates me to disturb you like this, especially when you are attending to the wants of my dear fellow-countrymen. But it is only for a little time that I wish to be alone with all that remains of my brother."
The Englishmen bowed silently. Respectfully they turned their backs upon the slender figure in the black garments. A quarter of an hour passed in absolute silence, save for an occasional murmur from one of the wounded; then the door of the chapel was flung open, and Von Kneller, accompanied by a handful of Bavarian infantry, stride angrily up the aisle.
"What's the meaning of all this?" he demanded. "There are a dozen or more peasants outside, gathered together strictly against orders. If I did my duty I should have them all put with their backs to the wall and shot. They make some paltry excuse to the effect that they are attending a funeral."
"So they are," Eustace snapped. "And I'll trouble you, Herr Lieutenant, to speak a little more quietly. You are disturbing the wounded. We are under the Red Cross here, which means the protection of Europe. And, by Heaven, if you don't speak to me properly, I'll take you by the scruff of the neck and throw you into the road! You understand that?"
The Lieutenant's beard fairly bristled with anger. But he was in the wrong, and he knew it. He stammered some sort of an apology in an ungracious undertone.
"My orders are strict, Major," he said. "And the peasantry here know it. They told me some fairy story about one of the Sisters from Mireville who had come down here to find the body of her brother. According to what I hear, they raked out a coffin from somewhere with the idea of conveying the body to Mireville. They say the woman came here to hold a sort of funeral service. But I'm not going to believe that."
"It doesn't matter whether you believe it or not," Gray said curtly. "The poor creature made the request, and, having some sort of feeling left, we granted it. Haven't you got a pair of eyes in your head, man? Can't you see things for yourself?"
Once more Von Kneller looked red and uncomfortable. It was quite clear that the pathetic side was absolutely lost upon him. Orders to him were sacred things. The men behind him stood there sullen and rebellious. As the silence grew uncomfortable, Sister Louise came slowly down the chapel with hands meekly folded.
"It is a comfort to me, Monsieur, that I have been able to do this thing. Will you kindly call my faithful friends outside and tell them that I am ready to proceed?"
"Where do you come from?" Von Kneller asked harshly.
Just for an instant the Sister's eyes flashed, then she looked down demurely again. The three Englishmen there tingled to their fingertips. Gray stepped forward.
"We have already explained to you," he said between his teeth. "Confound it all, Lieutenant, does your Red Book expressly forbid you to remember you are a gentleman in time of war? Here, Adamson, go and fetch those peasants in. And, if necessary, Eustace and myself will see the cortege outside the German lines."
Von Kneller chewed his moustache impatiently. He was a creature of a system, and he had no desire to go too far. To bring himself into active contact with the Red Cross was no action to be lightly embarked upon. He stepped forward and laid a detaining hand on the Sister's shoulder.
"I've a few questions to ask you," he said sternly.
The Sister looked appealing in the direction of the Englishmen. The peasants were bringing the body down the chapel now; they were not far from the door. In a sudden fit of passion, Eustace grasped Von Kneller by the shoulders and threw him violently on one side. His spurs caught in some of the litter on the floor, and he sprawled at length on the straw. One of the Bavarians behind him drew a revolver and commenced to shoot promiscuously in all directions. It was only for a moment, then Gray was upon him and the revolver was snatched from the soldier's grasp. Apparently, no harm had been done, though a rent appeared to have been torn in the white sheet lying over the coffin. Eustace could see where the bullet had entered. Just for a moment he struggled hopelessly with the anger that possessed him, and just for a moment, had Von Kneller but known it, he lay there in peril of his life. Gray clutched Eustace's arm.
"Steady, old man, steady!" he whispered. "Don't go too far. We've got all the cards in our hands if you can only play them properly. If we report this business Von Kneller's career is finished, and he knows it. And I say, Adamson, some of your patients need attention. This sort of thing isn't good——"
But Adamson was not listening. With his eyes fairly starting from his head, he was gazing at the still figure under the white sheet. Near the feet, where the recklessly fired bullet had entered, a tiny red spot no larger than a sixpence had appeared. It seemed to be extending steadily. Adamson bent down swiftly, and apparently carelessly threw a handful of disused dressing over the red spot.
"Get outside," he whispered hoarsely to the bewildered peasants, "get outside at once."
The little procession started again steadily, and Adamson gave a great sigh of relief. Von Kneller had struggled sulkily to his feet, and stood there breathing defiantly.
"What are you going to do about it?" Eustace asked crisply.
"I have been insulted," Von Kneller declared. "My authority has been set at defiance——"
"Now let's have none of that," Eustace went on. "If you'll order your blackguards off and make us a proper apology in writing, you won't hear any more of this. We've got Europe behind us, my friend, and don't you forget it. Now you just come back here to-morrow with that apology nicely written, and we'll call the incident closed. And don't you molest that funeral party."
Von Kneller turned abruptly on his heel and strode out of the chapel without another word. Adamson's time was fully occupied for the next few minutes looking after his wounded and allaying the fears of the nurses. Then he slipped on his overcoat and turned eagerly to the other two men.
"Come on," he said; "we've got no time to lose. I thought you were going to see that funeral procession through the German lines. If you do, I think I can show you something that will astonish you. The best thing we can do is to follow at a respectful distance. Our chance will come when the coast is clear."
But apparently no attempt had been made to interfere with the procession, as it was quite alone when Adamson strode forward and addressed himself to Sister Louise.
"Is he badly hurt?" he asked eagerly.
"No, he isn't," a gay voice came from the coffin under the sheet. "Merely a scratch on the calf of the leg."
"What's all this mean?" Eustace demanded.
Sister Louise turned a smiling face in his direction. The plastered bands of hair had disappeared, and a charming set of piquant features looked out from under the ugly bonnet.
"I am Louise Demarney," the girl explained. "I am here to help my brother. Oh, I hope you don't think it was wicked of me to pretend so much. But it was Gerald's scheme, and there was no other way to save him from this terrible danger. I had to wait so long in the church because things were not altogether in readiness. We take our brother as far as Antou, where horses and powerful friends await him. You are good comrades of his—I wish you'd try and persuade him not to be so constantly running his head into danger."
Demarney sat up on the cart. There was a gay smile on his lips.
"Oh, it is as the breath of life to me," he cried. "And if you will ask Louise to confess the truth, she enjoyed the adventure as much as myself. Now confess, little one."
"Not when I saw the bullet-hole in the sheet." The girl shuddered. "Messieurs, how can I thank you—"
"By not thanking us at all," Eustace said.
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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