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Title: The Man Who Loved Lions Author: Ethel Lina White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1700191h.html Language: English Date first posted: Mar 2017 Most recent update: Mar 2017 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 Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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ANN SHERBORNE gazed at the ringed date in her pocket-diary. It was the fourteenth of November, 1941.
"After all these years," she thought, "it has come at last. I can't believe it. It's to-night..."
Seven years ago, on a wild November evening, high up in a turret-room which seemed to sway in the wind, this reunion had been arranged. Richard—their host—handed to each guest a card of typed instructions, reflecting his peculiar humour which specialised in insult.
"Reunion of THE SULLIED SOULS at Ganges, November the fourteenth, 1941. According to custom, the tower-door will be left open—trustfully and without prejudice to character—from eight to twelve. Bring this card for purpose of identification. In seven years we shall all be changed and inevitably for the worst. Do not fail to keep this appointment, dead or alive, but preferably if dead. You will be livelier company."
At the time of their last meeting, Ann only anticipated a temporary separation from her companions. Within forty-eight hours, however, she was on her way to Burma, with her parents. Her father was a brilliant engineer—as well as an intermittent drunkard—so that his wife had to work overtime to keep him anywhere near dry-level.
The quiet little woman was responsible—indirectly—for some fine constructional work. When she died, she kept the contract in the family by passing on her job to Ann.
During the weeks and months spent in exile, Ann never forgot the reunion. At the beginning of each fresh year, she drew a circle round the date in her pocket-diary. She used to stare at the enchanted numeral in a passion of longing. Richard's card of admission grew grimed and limp from being read in many a different scene and climate—high up in boulder-blocked mountains and besides sliding brown tropical rivers; above the snow-line and in the glare of the desert.
As the years passed, her first doubts began to sharpen into fear. War broke out and her father decided not to return to England. When he signed a contract with a water corporation in Florida, she gave up hope of keeping her appointment in the flesh.
"There's only one way," she told herself. "Get a monkey's paw, mail it to Richard and pass out. He'll attend to the rest."
Near the end of October, 1941, her father died suddenly. At the time it seemed too late for her to return as all the odds were against her...But on the evening of the fourteenth, she was in a hotel in the heart of London, waiting for the minutes to pass before she set out for the place of reunion.
She sat at a small table in the crowded lounge, wedged in her place by a pack of occupied seats, while a continuous procession of people streamed past in search of a vacancy. Beside her was an elderly man who had come down from Lancashire on business. A keen judge of values, he had noticed her at breakfast and was struck by the force of character evident in her steadfast eyes and resolute lips.
He was engaged in reading through his list of future engagements and he snapped the band around his book at the same moment as Ann closed her diary. Their eyes met and they smiled at the duplicated action. He had noticed previously that to her, a stranger was just another human-being and not a possible plague-contact, so he risked speaking to her.
"We both seem to be checking-up on our dates. Are you in business?"
She hesitated because the reunion was her secret; but since the shadow of the tremendous event was beginning to sag over her, she looked at his shrewd kindly face and was tempted to talk.
"My date isn't business. I'm meeting people I've not seen for ages."
"Friends?" he asked.
"No...It's queer, but really I know nothing about their private lives. I can't think how we ever got together. We were students at a college in London and we attended the same biology lectures."
"Did you form a club?"
His interest was so kindly that it redeemed his questions from curiosity and Ann was encouraged to expand.
"It was more like a cult. Richard wanted devil-worship but no one would back him up. So we used to meet secretly and discuss world affairs. Richard was always planning purges and he kept a list of victims. He called us 'THE SEVEN SULLIED SOULS.'"
"And were you sullied?" asked the Manchester man, smiling at the pompous title.
"I can only speak for myself," Ann told him. "I was sixteen and very pure. But I kept quiet about my age and all that. As a matter of fact, I can't believe that anything could happen to either James or Victoria. James was one of those vague people you forget and Victoria was wrapped up in her work. But John and Isabella were so glamorous that I don't think they could stop affairs...And I could believe anything of Richard."
Even in the heat of the lounge, she shivered at the recollection of his face—intermittently revealed in the leaping firelight—as they sat in the darkened tower-room. Deep lines gashed it from his extravagantly-arched nostrils to his mouth. She remembered too the corpse-like pallor of his skin, the shining black hair and the sinister upward slant of his brows.
"We were all of us rather afraid of Richard," she confessed. "He was older than the rest of us and not a regular student. He was just rubbing up biology and he used to sneer at the lecturer. He thought it funny to say hurtful things."
"Why didn't you kick him out?"
"Because, in a way, he helped to make the thrill. He seemed a sort of distorted genius. Besides, to be honest, we wanted to meet at his house. He lived with a wealthy uncle and there were always refreshments and drinks."
The marble pillars and gilded walls of the hotel lounge faded out as Ann thought of the last session in the tower-room. She remembered the roaring wind and the trails of ivy which tapped on the window-panes.
"We'll hold a reunion here, seven years from to-night," declared Richard. "By then, my old uncle should be hanged and I shall be lord of the manor. Possibly one of you may be successful, and damned, but I promise the rest of you jobs. Something in the Hercules tradition."
"I bar elephant-stables," said one of them. "Otherwise, count me in. Already I feel a man with a future."
Of course it was Stephen who spoke—Stephen who was merely amused by Richard and whose laughter could extract the sting from the most envenomed remark.
As Ann lapsed into silence, the Manchester man's interest deepened into a vague sense of responsibility. The hotel was large, central, and gave excellent value. It was termed "cheap and popular," so it attracted a mixed collection of guests, among whom were some cheap and popular gentlemen. The Manchester man had noticed that while some of these had tried to get acquainted with Ann, she seemed unaware of them, as though she were preoccupied with an exclusive interest.
"Have you kept in touch with any of 'THE SULLIED SOULS'?" he asked.
"No," she replied. "I've been abroad and lost touch. My father died at the end of October."
"How very sad," he said, shocked by so recent a loss.
"Not for him." Her voice was level. "It was one of those illnesses you're thankful to be out of...At the time, it seemed impossible to keep my date. Every one told me so. But I went on trying and haunting agencies and bribing people. And then, almost at the last moment, I got a cancellation in an air-liner. A palmist had told the man there would be a terrible accident."
"So you're not superstitious?"
"But I am. I was expecting the crash, all the way, but I just hoped I might be lucky."
"Used to flying, I suppose?"
"No, it was my first trip. It was awful. Whenever we dropped, I left my stomach behind me, up in the air...But it was worth it for it was quick. I made London with time in hand."
Again the Manchester man wondered what object had exacted such furious drive and fixity of purpose. Then he calculated the girl's age as twenty-three while he counted the number of the "Sullied Souls."
"You've mentioned five names," he said casually. "You make six. Wasn't there a seventh member of your club?"
The radiance of her face told the Manchester man why she had flown to England.
"Stephen was wonderful," she declared. "He had everything. And he gave out all he had."
Then she looked at her watch, pressed out her cigarette and began to collect her belongings.
"Nearly time to dress," she said in a different voice. "I've been boring you but you asked for it. I thought talking about it would help me to realise it, but I can't. I can't believe that in a short time we shall all be together again, after seven years."
"Don't go," urged the Manchester man. "Wait for the postscript."
His kindly face had grown grave as he fumbled for words.
"Suppose—Are you sure the others will remember the date?"
"Of course." Her voice was confident. "They couldn't forget."
"Well, my dear, I'm John Blunt. And I'm a grandfather. Will you take some advice from an old-stager? Just ring up this Richard and make sure that it is a date. Remember, you're not used to the black-out."
Ann's face was thoughtful as she considered the advice.
"I can't ring up," she said. "It's unlikely that Richard would answer the phone and I can't leave a message. No one must know of our meetings. Secrecy was one of our vows."
"Hum. What's the address?"
"Ganges, Yellow-forge, Surrey. The house is right out in the country, at the end of the Tube. A local bus passes the gates."
While the Manchester man was jotting down the details, he asked another question.
"What time do you expect to be back?"
"Not much later than one-thirty. We used to catch the last train."
"Well, I warn you, if you don't show up, I shall make inquiries about you. I don't like to see a young girl running risks."
"The risk of a big disappointment, to begin with. You've not seen these folks for years. They're bound to be changed and you may be disillusioned."
"I know...But it's my chance. I've got to get in touch with someone again. This is the only way."
Pushing back her chair, Ann rose from the table.
"Good-bye," she said. "Thank you for everything."
The Manchester man watched her progress through the lounge. She seemed to steer a way amid the crowd by instinct, for she looked ahead as though she were seeing one face only, smiling at her at the end of a long road.
He grunted and then slumped back in his chair as he began to revise his engagement list. Presently he was joined by his wife—a massive woman with a pleasant face. She had accompanied him to London for the trip and also to keep an eye upon him.
According to custom, he told her dutifully about his promise to Ann. His story got the usual reception, while she hid her pride in his unselfish character.
"Just like you, Will. Even more daft than usual. I've no patience with headstrong girls who run into scrapes and expect other people to get them out. You've a heavy day to-morrow and you need the sleep you can get. You might consider you owe your loyalty to me and the girls. Besides what you propose is utterly useless."
"Why?" he asked.
"Because if she runs into danger, by the time you could take any sort of action, it would be too late to save her."
Ann's heart beat fast as she rose in the lift up to the fifth floor. It was difficult to believe that somewhere in the blackness of the countryside was the dark pile of Ganges—the focal point for six sentimental pilgrims. Her search through a postal directory had established its existence and also the fact that its owner was still Sir Benjamin Watson.
"No stable jobs for us," she chuckled. "I'm glad Richard has not cashed-in."
When she reached her room, it was still too early to start, so she lay on her bed and smoked while she recalled the journey out to Ganges. The Sullied Souls always met at Piccadilly Circus Underground Station, where—after a race down the escalators—they crowded into the first train. Every one talked and nobody listened as they shouted across the carriage, swaying from straphangers and treading on the toes of other passengers.
Afterwards came the interlude of the bus ride through dark lonely country lanes—so dimly visible in the rush of light from their window, that they seemed to be on a ship, ploughing through cold still waters in search of adventure.
High up in her hotel room, Ann watched the smoke curling from her cigarette as she thought of her companions. All had one thing in common—the name of an English king or queen. Isabella was doubly royal, since her first name was "Mary."
"Stephen, Richard, Victoria, Ann, Isabella, James and John," recited Ann.
James was pale, rather fleshy and smooth-haired. He wore thick glasses and in spite of his youth, his clothes suggested a prosperous professional man. Victoria had an oval expressionless face, black almond eyes and a straight fringe. Her hands were strong with square-tipped fingers which repelled Ann because of Victoria's passion for dissection.
These were the two students who always got the highest marks in examinations, but Ann credited them only with brains which could register degrees like a gas-cooker. Their useful glow was incomparable with the brilliant fire of other Souls. She regarded Isabella as a genius, even while she chose perversely to concentrate on the development of her personality.
She reminded Ann of a picture she had seen of a fatal light which lured benighted travellers into a bog. Behind the flame was lightly sketched a face of unearthly beauty and allure. Isabella had similar delicate features—the same fastidious lips and elfin gleam in her eyes. She was provocative, impersonal and elusive—attracting masculine homage only to reject it.
John was her opposite number—an arrogant golden youth, fair, fascinating and unstable. He assumed the devilry of a Mayfair playboy and dissipated his talents in versatility; but Ann was too dazzled by his personality to be critical. In her deep humility, she worshipped both John and Isabella with the gaping admiration of a tourist in a hall of immortal statues. She expected no notice from them and she received none, but their indifference could not hurt her because she was deeply in love with Stephen.
At the age of sixteen, she concentrated upon him the force of a strong and steadfast nature. Sitting silent at the meetings, she used to watch his face and treasure his words. She retained vivid memories of the way his hair grew and the clean-cut corners of his mouth. Unhappily, she felt so sure that he must be in her life forever, that she never dreamed of any parting.
The news of the family departure to Burma left her stunned with shock. At the time, she was too bewildered with the rush and too modest and doubtful of his interest in her, even to write him a note of farewell. Her only consolation was the prospect of her return to England and the hope of meeting him again.
As years passed and she remained in exile, she tried to obtain his address, only to meet with repeated disappointments. Letter after letter returned to her with a faithful instinct which rivalled her own loyalty. But whenever she felt loneliest, she looked at the ringed figures in her calendar...Every thought and every action led up to a date.
And that date was to-night.
She jumped off her bed, drew a fur coat over her suit and pulled a discouraging little hat—sold to her as the latest fashion—over one eye. A few minutes later she was on her way to the reunion, sinking downward in the lift and pushing through the crowded vestibule. She carried a gas-mask and a pocket-torch, but in spite of their reminds of war conditions, she had not realised the completeness of the black-out.
When she had passed through the revolving-doors, the light gradually dimmed until she swung round to face a wall of darkness. While her eyes were still dazzled from the illumination of the lounge, it seemed an absolute eclipse. Presently, however, she distinguished faint gleams from passing traffic and circles mottling the pavement, thrown downward by electric torches. She could see no pedestrians while she heard voices and footsteps, as though the city were inhabited by an invisible race; but as she lingered in the entrance, she collided with a solid body.
Someone wished to enter the hotel. Stepping aside, she stared before her, when she became aware gradually of blurred shapes passing by. They were so dim and formless that they suggested survivors from a prehistoric race, groping in their eternal midnight. But as her eyes adapted themselves to the black-out the scene became more normal.
As she watched it she had a sense of being cheated. When she had looked forward to this moment, she had visualised a pre-war London—the brilliant street lights, the changing colours of advertisement signs and the glowing façades of theatres and cinemas. It was a keen disappointment and made her apprehensive of the future.
"I expect they are all waiting for me in the Underground," she thought hopefully.
The station was only a few yards from the hotel and she crossed the narrow street in a reckless rush. As she was stumbling down the steps of the nearest entrance she saw the light of the booking-hall around the corner, as though in fulfilment of her dreams. Instantly the years were forgotten and it seemed only yesterday that she hurried down the subway in her eagerness to meet her companions.
Breaking into a run, she burst into the hall, expecting to hear her name called by a familiar voice. When no one claimed her, she paused to look around her. After years spent in solitude, she got an impression of confusion and haste. Every one appeared to be in a hurry to get home. On that evening, there were only a few loiterers and there seemed to be no friendly reunions.
Standing in their usual place she looked at the clock.
"It's the time we always met," she reflected. "I'd better stay put."
As the minutes passed, she grew too impatient to stand and watch the constant stream of passengers, so she went in search of the others. After she had completed the round of the booking-hall without meeting any one who resembled a Sullied Soul, she felt chilled with fresh disappointment.
"Perhaps we've passed without recognising each other," she thought. "I wonder if I've changed much."
She tried to stare impersonally into a strip of mirror at the back of a shop window. It reflected a tall slender girl, wearing a closely-fitting nigger-brown suit under an open fur coat. Her dark hair waved to her shoulders and her eyes glowed with excitement in a pale anxious face.
"Actually I look younger," she decided. "It's the short skirt and the kid hair style. I've lost weight too. But really there's nothing to it. I ought to recognise them."
She told herself that in the course of seven years, no one would grow bald or acquire a stomach of the first magnitude. A girl might change the colour of her hair or a man might grow a beard, but the salient features would remain. She was trying to pierce problematic disguises when she noticed that the hands of the clock pointed to a quarter to seven.
It was the accustomed signal to wait no longer for stragglers but to dash down to the train. Since she had committed herself to a time-table which covered the hours of eight to twelve, it was important to keep to schedule.
Her face dulled as she stood on the descending escalator, since there was no rival Atlanta to race down the steps. Boarding a train in dignity, she managed to procure a seat. In spite of these improved conditions, the carriage appeared a dull place minus Genius and Beauty, to proclaim their opinions, without deference to the corns or ear-drums of the Public.
As she looked around her, the various uniforms reminded her that she intended to get into one of the Services as soon as possible. Crediting her companions with her own patriotism, she considered an ominous explanation for their absence.
"Of course, they've all joined up and can't get leave. Actually I'd forgotten the war. And the war's too big for me to fight. What's the good of going on?"
Even as she weakened, she recalled her dominant purpose.
"I must go on or I'll never see Stephen again. It's my only chance. Ganges is all that matters. If Richard isn't there to open the door. I must get inside the tower-room somehow. I must stay there from eight to twelve, on the chance that Stephen might come to the reunion. If he doesn't come, someone else must remember the date. That person may tell me where to find Stephen."
Then the light returned to her eyes at a further reflection.
"What a mug. I expected them to meet at Piccadilly Circus, when they are all scattered. They will be coming from different stations. One of them might even be coming on this train."
She thought of them set at various points in a circle and gradually drawing together, like the spokes of a wheel, until they met at Ganges. As she smiled, a man—hatless and wearing a belted camel-coat—stared at her as though he interpreted her smile as an overture, but lacked energy to follow it up. He was tall and heavily-built, with a gross handsome face and dull eyes devoid of a spark of spirit.
Ann could not understand her instinctive recoil, until she got a clue from his hair, gleaming under a light. It was very fair and had a strong natural wave. She knew that she disliked him because it was too easy to imagine him as a slender blond youth with a clear-cut arrogant face and sparkling blue eyes—a golden youth who might resemble John.
She fought the suggestion.
"No. I won't believe it. It's not John. He couldn't have changed so much in seven years...Besides, he doesn't know me. That proves he is a stranger."
She was grateful when the train ran into the open and the reduced lighting of the carriage made it impossible for her to see him clearly; but she was vaguely disturbed by the fact that—while the train grew emptier at every station—he did not leave his seat. When the terminus was reached, as she climbed the stairs, she could distinguish the blur of his light coat in front of her.
After she passed through the screens of the booking-hall, she came out in what appeared to be total blackness. With the exception of some stars, the night was clouded and unusually dark. As she waited, she saw moving lights, rather like the coals of a dying fire, and realised they were the dimmed lamps of motor traffic.
She felt both bewildered and nervous as she remembered that she had to cross the road to reach the bus stop. She was further worried by the recollection that the buses to Yellow-forge ran infrequently and that the Souls used to sprint to make their connection. Although she knew that the timetable was probably altered, she dared not linger outside the tube station.
When she tried to reach the other side, she found that she had lost her traffic-sense completely. After deciding that some feeble oncoming lights were still safely distant, she was about to dash in front of them, when she was arrested by the finding of brakes and a burst of profanity from the driver. At the same time, someone gripped her arm and dragged her back to the pavement. She thought instinctively of the man with the debased face, so it was a relief to hear a woman's voice.
"Don't you know better than to cross against the lights?" it asked.
"No," replied Ann frankly, "I don't."
When she explained the circumstances, her rescuer grew friendly.
"I'm from the Dominions myself," she said. "Australia."
"How lovely," said Ann enviously. "It's daylight there."
"And real sunshine. I'm in the A.T.S. I'll see you across Jordan. Look, there's the amber. The lights are going to change. Now."
Armed by the friendly Australian, Ann crossed the road safely and was steered to a darkened vehicle which was on the point of starting.
"Yellow-forge bus," said the uniformed girl, pushing Ann up the steps. "Good-bye. Happy landing."
As the bus moved on, Ann congratulated herself on her progress. The most difficult part of her journey was over as she would alight just outside the gates of Ganges. When the conductress came to collect her fare, she remembered the name of the stage—King William the Fourth—a small public-house.
After she received her ticket she was able to relax. Her watch told her that she had time in hand, even if she had some difficulty in locating the tower-door in the black-out. She could see nothing of the countryside, but there was the old sense of adventure—of being on a mystery cruise over some fabulous sea—as the darkness flowed past.
"Every yard, every second is taking me nearer to Stephen," she thought.
Conscious that she was growing sleepy from the strain of peering through the gummed muslin which protected the window, she looked down the dimly-lit vehicle.
To her dismay, the seat in front of her was occupied by the big fat man who was a caricature of a mature John. She stared at the roll of fat on his neck and his thick wavy hair while she tried to subdue her panic.
"It's not John. He's not going to Ganges. It's just coincidence he's on the Yellow-forge bus."
Unfortunately the shock of seeing him had awakened all the latent fears which the kindly Manchester man had sown in her mind. She began to wonder whether Ganges existed only within the pages of the telephone directory. After every blitz, houses remained listed, although they were reduced to rubble. Presently she could endure the suspense no longer and appealed to the conductress.
"I want to get out at Ganges. Will you please tell me when we come to it."
"Ganges?" repeated the girl doubtfully. "Do you mean the Zoo?"
A submerged memory returned to Ann. Although she had never seen Ganges by daylight, Richard had boasted about his uncle's collection of wild animals. It was a modest one, comprising varieties of deer, a small cat house, a monkey colony and a penguin pool, yet it was a source of heavy expenditure.
"Big Ben's spending a fortune on the blighters," grumbled Richard. "He's trying to reproduce their natural surroundings, to kid them they're not in captivity. It suits me as I've got my hoof well in. There's a tribe of relatives—pedigree and mongrels—but I'm the only blighter that's up in zoology. The idea is I'm Big Ben's heir, on condition I keep on the Zoo."
As she remembered the explanation, Ann accepted the existence of the Zoo as comforting proof of the survival of Ganges.
"So the Zoo's still there?" she remarked as a feeler.
She realised that she had introduced a controversial subject when a big shapeless woman who resembled Mrs. Noah, spoke sharply.
"Yes, still here, but it wouldn't be if it wasn't a rich man's hobby. It's a proper scandal and it didn't ought to be winked at."
"Hush, Ma," said a girl's voice. "It's no business of ours."
"Maybe not, but I speak for others. What about young Perce?"
An invisible man, sitting further down the bus, defended the Zoo.
"Sir Benjamin's all right. Hasn't he promised to give a Spitfire? He can spend his money as he likes. Young Perce had no business to climb railings. He was trespassing."
"The poor lad said he lost his way in the dark—and he had to deliver."
"He should have delivered his groceries by daylight. He was a darn fool to go wandering about the grounds in the black-out."
"You're telling me," agreed the matron. "You wouldn't catch me in there, not if the king asked me to meet him. You might stumble against anything in the dark."
The conductress interrupted the discussion by ringing her bell.
"Ganges," she announced. "Take care, miss."
As she got up Ann glanced apprehensively at the back of the big fair man, but to her great relief, he did not rise from his seat. Evidently Ganges meant nothing to him. He was still motionless when she looked after the bus, rolling again on its way.
"Thank goodness," she muttered. "That's the end of him."
Snapping on her torch, she saw before her the familiar entrance to Ganges, where stone pillars were crowned with roughly-carved elephants. On one post a notice was displayed—"WARNING. PRIVATE ZOO. KEEP TO PATH."
She felt a thrill when she pushed open one heavy wrought-iron gate, Stephen was only just around the bend. But even as she exulted, she started at a low noise. It was distant—yet it seemed to stir the air—a heavy sawing sound with a shattering quality—like a snarl imprisoned in a roll of thunder. For a moment she thought it was a train coughing in a tunnel, but as it was repeated she recognised it.
It was the roar of a lion.
In that moment, her courage died and she turned to run. The gossip in the bus acquired a double-edge as she realised that the Zoo was no longer the Garden of Eden of seven years before. It contained savage beasts which were controlled by human agency...And it was admitted that the personal element is fallible.
A few steps across the road would bring her flush with the little public house which was a fare stage. Common sense urged her to catch the next bus back to the tube terminus. It would stop by the station entrance and from there, it was almost a straight run back into her bedroom at the hotel.
As she hesitated, she remembered one of the rare occasions in the past when Stephen had seemed aware of her existence.
"Promise me you'll never meet Richard alone, or go to Ganges without the gang," he said earnestly.
"But you're pally with him," she reminded him.
"Different for me. I cultivate him because he's such a clever devil. He's a sadist and he talks a lot of smut, but when I've chucked out the husks, I can usually get a grain of something useful from him."
He added abruptly, "Don't be impressed by the parrot-talk you hear at Ganges. There's nothing to it. The monkeys at the Zoo can put on a better show."
At that moment she felt the force of his warning. But the memory had reminded her too vividly of Stephen. After waiting seven years for this evening, it would be contemptible cowardice to turn back. All she had to do was to obey instructions—"KEEP TO PATH"—and she would be safe.
When she flashed her torch before her, she was relieved to see that the way was marked with whitened stones. She was surprised to find it unchanged—going uphill and into hollows—because the gossip in the bus had led her to expect altered conditions. When she left England, Sir Benjamin Watson was not only wealthy but he had expectations from a millionaire uncle who was being kept alive, in spite of the total loss of his faculties from senile decay.
The fact that Sir Benjamin had given a Spitfire to the nation seemed to prove that he had come into his inheritance and was now a very rich man. In the circumstances, it seemed strange to find no improvements in the property. Ganges was built on rough rising ground and its natural features were preserved without any attempt at landscape-gardening. There was a ravine, a wood, a lake and a hillock, while the house was reached by a path which climbed a humpy pasture.
Soon Ann began to regret the absence of a properly-made drive. Whoever was responsible for blazing out the trail had apparently assumed that strangers were as familiar with the scene as himself. In places the number of stones was skimped and the white paint had worn off so many that it became difficult to keep to the path. She felt ruts underfoot and blundered into a bush which blocked her way, only to find on the other side a field of coarse grass, unbroken by any track.
As she stopped to plot her course she thought of the unlucky errand-boy who had lost his way also. Her presence was unauthorised—even as his—and she must accept any consequence of trespassing on forbidden territory.
"Go on?" she asked herself. "Or go back and try to find where I went wrong? But Perce climbed palings, so the big idea would be to avoid short-cuts...I'll go on."
She had hardly made the decision when she found her way blocked by a strong stockade.
"Palings," she said. "Definitely this is where I go back."
While she stood there she heard voices on the other side of the enclosure. They were too far away for successful listening-in, but she got the impression of an argument. One voice sounded so blurred and stupid as to be unhuman; it seemed to protest against some course while the other voice urged encouragement.
Suddenly she managed to distinguish words. "All right...Come on, old man...Sleep it off...Soon be all right."
"Well," she reflected, "if one of them is Caliban, the other appears to be civilised. If I could make him hear he might direct me to the tower door."
Before she could cup her mouth something blotted out the stars in the patch of sky before her—something long and sinuous that writhed in the air like a serpent.
She recognised it as an elephant's trunk and turned to run. Had it been daylight, she would have felt no fear, but the darkness turned any encounter into a risk of being crushed. Mrs. Noah, in the bus, had declared that you might stumble upon anything. She realised that the country people were strongly opposed to the Zoo and that probably they had good reason for their indignation.
Although the monster was on the other side of the palings, those blurred voices had destroyed her confidence. If a keeper were drunk, he might leave a gate open, so that the animals could wander over the pasture. Flashing her torch before her she stumbled wildly down a slope, until the light shone on a line of uneven white stones.
In her fright she had forgotten the reunion and the tower-room. With a shock of surprise she found herself in a small paved courtyard which seemed familiar. There was a sundial in the centre and a damp flagged path led up to a small lancet-shaped wooden door.
It was the entrance to the tower-room. When she turned the handle she discovered that it was unlocked, as though in expectation of guests. She entered a dark lobby and stood at the foot of the winding stone stair, listening for the sound of voices from above. In the old days one always heard the excited hum, like grasshoppers on a hot day. But now the only sound was a distant elephant's trumpet—high and thin as though it were calling a retreat.
A rush of questions hurtled in her mind. Was any one waiting up in the tower? Who would it be? Stephen—or Richard, against whom she had been warned? When she remembered the myriad times she had looked forward to that moment, it seemed ironic that she actually feared to mount the steps. At last she found the courage and crept upwards, straining her ears for any sound that might warn her of danger.
As she reached the last spiral she saw a beam of electric light shining from the tower-room. This was contrary to precedent, for their meetings were lit only by the flames from a coal fire. As she saw the place distinctly for the first time, its glamour was destroyed with its loss of mystery. It was smaller than she had imagined, with blacked-out windows set high in the walls. There were the same shabby divan and chairs which were never occupied, since they preferred to sprawl upon cushions piled before the fire. The table at the back which used to be crowded with bottles and heaped plates now held only a decanter. The grate was empty and its coals replaced with electric-current.
Someone was sitting slumped in one of the deep chairs. He rose as she entered and held out an unsteady hand. It was a big fair man—her fellow-passenger in the train and bus.
"Hallo," he said. "Who are you? I am John."
THE SHOCK of the encounter was so heavy that it left Ann stunned and incredulous. She felt she was in a nightmare where the dreamer has only to dread something to make it happen. If she had not traced a debased likeness to John in her fellow-passenger, this impostor would not have crashed his way to the reunion.
Her confusion was increased by the fact that she could not account for his presence. The last time she had seen him, he was half-asleep in the bus, rolling on towards Yellow-forge. She was positive that no one had followed her through the gates of Ganges. Yet the litter of cigarette ash upon the table was proof that he had been smoking in the tower-room for some time before her own arrival.
He typified the unwelcome change which the Manchester man had warned her to expect. Since she had begun her journey everything had been different. She had met with new features, each of which held a certain degree of horror; the black-out, the roar of a lion, a drunken mumble of protest—all these led up to this crowning disappointment.
It was in vain that she tried to thrill at the knowledge that she was actually inside the tower-room—the scene of her happiest memories. Only by closing her eyes could she see it again in the leaping firelight which lit up youthful faces and accentuated the mystery of the shadowed background...Now it was stripped of glamour as the crude light glared down on it, exposing its bare discomfort and revealing the inflamed face of the fair stranger.
Instead of answering his question she unzipped her bag and drew out a dog-eared grubby card which she laid on the table.
"There's some mistake," she said coldly. "You are a stranger to me. I've come here for a reunion. Here's proof of my identity."
Instead of showing signs of confusion, a slow smile spread over the impostor's face. After fumbling in his wallet, he slapped down a similar card over hers, like a child playing "Snap."
"This is wizard," he said. "Someone's remembered the jolly old reunion. But who the hell are you?"
She gazed steadily into his dull eyes.
"You couldn't remember me," she told him, "because you are not a member of our secret society. You don't know our names and you never knew them. So it can mean nothing to you if I tell you I am 'Ann.'"
"Ann?" he repeated stupidly. "Ann was the silent kid who never giggled or flirted. No, you're not Ann. You're trying to put a fast one over me because I'm tight. But I've seen you somewhere before...Give me time. Something's going to click here."
He touched his head and then snapped his fingers.
"I know. You're the girl in the train. You tried to get off with me. Sorry I couldn't follow it up, my dear. Another engagement. This...But you've no business here. I know you are not Ann."
"And I know you've stolen John's card. What have you done to him?"
The man ignored the charge as he stared at her with puzzled eyes.
"Actually I believe it is Ann," he said after a pause. "I'm beginning to recognise bits and pieces. It's Ann grown into a beautiful lady like the advertisement...What soap is it? I forget...But it's our Ann. Come to my heart."
Before she could protest, he crushed her in his arms and began to dance but after a few staggering revolutions, he released her and dropped into a chair.
"Sorry," he apologised, "can't keep an even keel. Room's too small...Ann, I've always wanted to meet you again, to ask you something. It's been biting me all these years...Remember our last night when I kissed you in the bus. Instead of biffing me, like you used to, you let me. It was like kissing cold fish...Now that was out of character—and I've often wondered why."
Ann dared not trust her voice to speak. In that memory John had given her positive proof of his identity.
She remembered how she had hoped that Stephen would sit beside her in the bus, on their homeward way, but John was first to slip into the vacant seat. Her disappointment was so keen that she was dead to sensation and had been scarcely conscious of the kiss.
As she remained silent, John picked up his card and began to re-read it.
"Insulting tripe," he said. "Typical of Richard. Remember his stable jobs? Joke is, they've got elephants now. Actually they have everything. The old man's potty on his zoo. Gives the animals a home from home, on the model of a happy Christian family; mister, missus and Tertium Quid."
"I wonder Richard isn't here," remarked Ann dully. "Perhaps he's forgotten."
"He had forgotten all right and so had Isabella. I was the faithful hound who remembered. Touching, but I loved those old days. But when I reminded Richard of the reunion he was quite keen. Hopes to gloat over our failures. Remember this register?"
He fumbled under his evening paper which was thrown upon the table and produced a double sheet of stiff paper. It was yellow with age and bore seven signatures.
"It's the roll call he made us sign our last evening," explained John. "His idea is we all sign on again. Evidence of attendance at his reunion, in black and white...Now watch me sign on the dotted line. Darling, which of them is the dotted line? Just guide my hand to the starting-post."
While he was scrawling with an unsteady hand, Ann looked over his shoulder at the list of names. At the sight of one signature, she forgot her first disappointment and was glad of John's presence. She realised that he might be able to give her news about Stephen; but because she dreaded his ridicule, she made an oblique approach.
"Have you kept in touch with any of the Sullied Souls, John?"
"All of them," he replied.
"Oh. Have they changed much?"
"Only in spots. Richard and Isabella are the same—only more so."
"I'm glad Isabella is still beautiful. Did she have a career?"
"Someone else's. She married and scoops in the dough. Victoria is a doctor. Got a practice up north. She had an Old Age Pension, looking after Big Ben's old uncle—but he died on her...Poor devil. Fancy having to die, looking at that."
Ann's heart beat faster. She was getting nearer to Stephen's name. Only one other Sullied Soul blocked the way.
"James?" she inquired.
"He's a prosperous bloke. Lectures and coaches in biology, plus sidelines."
"Who's he? Never heard of the chap."
The check was so unexpected that Ann felt as though she had run into a brick wall.
"You must remember Stephen," she insisted. "He was leader."
"No," corrected John. "Richard was leader."
"But Stephen was leader of the opposition. He never let Richard get away with anything."
"Oh, that blighter." John blew out his cheeks. "I'd clean forgotten him. He was a dirty spoilsport. He never let any of us make a pass at you."
Ann was sidetracked by her own astonishment. Her inferiority complex had caused her to worship her companions in silence, but she had no idea of the attraction of her youthful gravity, founded on experience. While the others shouted their views on those subjects which are dealt with adequately in realistic novels, she, alone, had first-hand knowledge of poverty, alcoholism and the symptoms of certain unadvertised illnesses.
"I can't believe you," she said. "No one would want to make a pass at me. I was so stupidly young."
"That was the attraction," chuckled John. "You were young. We only had the other girls to get you."
Although she felt sure that he was lying, it thrilled Ann to hear that Stephen had acted as her guardian angel.
"Haven't you heard anything about Stephen?" she persisted.
"No," replied John. "He just dropped out. While we are waiting, what about a spot?"
It did not need a specialised knowledge to tell her that John had already drunk more than he could carry. She caught his arm before his fingers closed around the decanter.
"We must wait for Richard," she said. "If we don't we are giving him a swell chance to insult us...Tell me about yourself. What's your work?"
To her relief he swallowed the bait of her assumed interest.
"I'm a journalist," he replied.
"That's brainy. Are you married?"
"Yes, if you can call it that. I've certain matrimonial privileges. I feed a lady with expensive tastes and I pay her dress bills. Another chap gets all the rest. That's modern marriage...Ann, I could kill that other chap."
"Why don't you?"
"Because I can never keep track of him. He's always a different chap...Ann, I'm going to ask you something and I want a straight answer...Why didn't you recognise me?"
"If it comes to that, why didn't you recognise me?"
"Because you've grown into a glamour girl. But I can't see how I've changed. I look the same in the glass. Filled out a bit, of course, but my hair's still thick and I don't give at the knees. Last time you saw me what was I like?"
"Like a young Greek god."
Directly she spoke, Ann regretted her words because of the misery in John's eyes.
"Don't know any gods," he said with a forced laugh. "They're not in my street. But I get the idea. No pubs in Elysium. That what you mean?...Actually, I can't write unless I'm boozed and I have an expensive wife. Disgusted?"
"Of course not." Ann felt a rush of sympathy. "I'm only sorry. Can't you shake out of it?"
"Actually, I could. Nobody would believe this, but really I am a domestic chap. I want a home and kids. And I could have them, even now. There's the right sort of girl in my life—a girl who would pick up my bits and make them into a man. None of your cock-eyed gods."
It was characteristic of Ann to go to the point.
"Can you get a divorce from your wife?" she asked.
"Definitely," John assured her. "Any number of them. Actually I'm too weak to make the break. I've got her under my skin. That kind of hold."
"Still, I wish you could. I'd like to think of you with a happy ending, John, because of those old days."
She realised that her sympathy was a mistake when John began to gulp. To stop him from becoming maudlin, she asked him a question.
"How did you get here before me? I left you in the bus."
"I baled out about half a mile further on. There's a new entrance now—a short-cut to the house, all uphill and up steps."
As he explained, John drummed with his fingers on the table and glanced pointedly at the decanter.
"What do we do now?" he asked.
"I stay here until twelve," Ann told him. "I want to meet the others."
"If I hunt round I might produce Richard and Isabella. You can wash out the rest. Too far for Victoria to come out of sentiment, for she's got none. And there's no money in it for James."
"There's still Stephen."
"That bloke again? He's dead. Must be. There's a war on. He's either one of the Few or one of the Great Majority. Same thing in the end."
"No, he's not dead. I know he's alive. He must be."
John stopped drumming the table and looked at her with troubled eyes.
"It's getting plain to me why you've come," he said. "Ann, do believe me. It's a hundred to one chance you will meet him here. Take my tip and go—at once—while the going's good."
"You may well ask. Do you remember Richard's hooded look?"
Ann nodded as she remembered how occasionally Richard seemed to withdraw himself completely behind the shutter of leaden drooped lids. At such moments she felt acutely apprehensive and prayed that she might never see his eyes lest they revealed too much. She still felt chilled as John went on speaking.
"I bumped into Richard outside, on my way up. He was running like hell—and he had his hooded look...That means it's not safe to hang around. It means that things are going to happen. And when things happen he doesn't want people there to see them happen. If they did catch on, well, it might be too bad for them...Got the idea?"
"Yes. You're trying to make me windy. But it's childish. If Richard were a criminal lunatic, he'd be certified. Besides why should he pick on me to attack, especially here with people round? He has no interest in me, one way or the other."
After a struggle, John managed to rise from his chair. He lurched to the door—listened—and then closed it.
"You've forgotten one thing," he said. "Richard is in control of this outfit and he's got a queer sense of humour. He's got us to come here on the Q.T. Don't you think a Zoo rather a loaded toy for him to play about with?"
Although Ann remembered her fright when she blundered up against the elephant-house, she summoned her commonsense.
"The animals are all safe in cages," she said. "Are they specially savage?"
"Good grief, no. Tame as kittens. Richard and the old man take them about on leads, like dogs. They're bred in captivity and used to private baths and bedside telephones. But my point is this. They can be frightened. Suppose any one threw a lighted cracker when Big Ben was passing with one of his kittens, what price his control then?...Ann, go back before you meet Richard again. He's out of your life. For the love of Mike don't let him in again."
Ann smiled at him as she shook her head.
"John, you're rather sweet," she told him. "But get a load of this. I've come to the reunion. That stands."
He looked at her firm lips and his own trembled as though he regretted the contrast. Seeking consolation his hand moved towards the decanter but he drew it back again.
"If it's like that with you," he said, "I'll find the others."
She guessed his objective was to find a drink elsewhere, but she watched him go with a tolerant smile. While she felt she was unqualified to judge him without knowledge of the facts, she was filled with anger when she thought of the woman who had exploited his weakness.
"If ever I meet his wife," she thought, "I'm bound to tell her she's a stinker."
It was a relief to be alone and without John's presence as a reminder of destructive change. As she looked around the tower-room, she decided that some of its past charm could be restored.
"Actually it's the same except for the fire," she reflected. "I never saw it properly before, so I imagined it. That's all there is to it. I'll fix it."
Zealous as an A.R.P. warden, she mounted a chair and drew down a shade of dark-blue crinkled paper which had been rolled back. It shrouded the bulb and reduced the illumination to a funereal gloom, only relieved by the radiance of the electric fire. Once again there was shadowed mystery as the walls shrank into invisibility, like pimpernels closing before the threat of rain.
Brooding alone in the warmth, Ann recaptured some of the spell of the past. It seemed to her rather like a miracle to be actually back inside the tower-room. All that had happened that evening was but the prelude to the real adventure. A few false notes had been struck and the limiting had been too strong—but such slight hitches would be forgotten when the curtain rose.
Her tranquillity was suddenly shattered by a low rasping sound. It was not a roar, but rather like a purr which thickened intermittently to a snarl, as though in hint of underlying menace. She could not locate it, but it seemed to be everywhere at the same time—above, below and all around her—throbbing on the air like a fevered pulse or a distant gong.
"It's near," she thought. "Close to the house. Or even inside."
In the silence that followed, her imagination broke loose from her control and ran wild. She had a horrible suspicion that Richard was indulging his cankered sense of humour and unleashing a tigress to act as lady-receptionist at the reunion.
"He always hated Stephen," she thought. "Suppose he's planning for him to walk into a trap."
Without care for her own safety, she opened the door and stood on the small landing, gazing down into the well of the circular stair. It was too dark for her to see the lobby at the bottom but she heard someone coming up the steps. Her heart beat faster as she listened, because the footsteps were those of a man. They were too steady to be John's, while Richard was unlikely to use the outside entrance when a door on the landing led to the main staircase of the house.
The inference was a choice between James and Stephen—a fifty-fifty chance.
Hope flared up—to be killed by bitterest disappointment. As she threw the light of her torch downwards, it gleamed on black shiny hair on a flat head which reminded her vaguely of a snake...Once started, the reunion was continuing to function. Within a few seconds she would be linked up again with its sinister promotor—Richard.
While she waited she grew conscious of miserable seeping fear. It was inexplicable in the light of past experience, when her father had declared—in hackneyed phrase—that she had not a nerve in her body. Although she was not so immune as he boasted, during some narrow escapes, she had contrived the impression of thumbing her nose at danger.
As she stood on the landing, she realised that she was missing the stimulus of motion. When she was chased by a grizzly—and when her canoe was drawn into rapids, thundering towards the lip of an abyss—she had been sustained by the heat of excitement. She had to run—to fight; but it was a cold-blooded business to wait and listen while the footsteps wound around the spiral.
With an instinct to protect herself, she flashed the light in Richard's face when he was a few steps below her. It was evident that he mistook her for someone else, for he whispered with savage exultation:
"It's all right. By now—he must be dead."
With an instinctive dread of turning her back upon him, Ann receded before his advance into the tower-room.
"Why this dimness?" he asked harshly. "It seems someone has a sense of dramatic values...Stop flashing that light in my eyes. I know you are not Isabella. Who are you?"
"Guess," said Ann, snapping off her torch.
As she looked at him under the shaded bulb, her first impression was that he had kept a tally of the years in his face. It was so seamed that, in the dim light, he was not unlike a painted brave. She noticed too that he was possessed by some violent excitement. His pallid skin glistened and there was a curious greenish glare at the back of his eyes. He carried with him a strong sweet perfume as of a funeral wreath.
"You must be Ann," he said, changing his corncrake note to his most charming accent. "And a very lovely Ann. Growing-up has suited you better than some of us. Do you remember how you used to call John a golden boy?"
"Yes," she agreed. "He and Isabella made a perfect pair. A golden girl and a golden boy. I used to hate you when you would quote that bit about them turning to dust like chimneysweepers."
"Actually I was prophetic. But I haven't welcomed you to our reunion, Ann."
As he held both her hands within his moist palms, the artifice of his stiff grin made his face resemble a vulpine mask.
"I hoped you would come," he said, "to renew old contacts and happy memories. It will be instructive for you to realise what time can do to us. You really must meet John."
"I have," she said curtly.
"Then I am sorry I was not there to re-introduce you. I think that covers everything."
In the old days Ann had been too overawed by her brilliant company to challenge any statement of Richard's. Therefore it was tonic to her self-respect to realise that, in her case, the years had brought courage with clearer vision.
"He seems to have been unlucky in his wife," she remarked.
Richard cackled softly as he picked up the register from the table.
"I see John's characteristic signature is here," he said. "Will you sign, please. I don't want to think I have dreamed you when I wake up afterwards."
When she returned the paper, Ann was ashamed of her scrawl which was as shaky as John's. Conscious of Richard's smile, she tried to explain her nervousness.
"Any one would think I was a hard drinker. Actually I'm so terribly excited about the reunion."
He glanced at her keenly before he spoke in his grand manner.
"I am flattered that my wish to reassemble you all has met with so much response. You must admit I fed and wined my disciples in lavish style. It is natural for me to retain my interest in them now they have passed from my control. Of course, there will not be a full muster. With Isabella, we are four. The betting is no one else will come. But even if one other person turns up, there is bound to be one absentee and probably two."
"That sounds like you," said Ann boldly, forcing her laugh. "You want to crab the reunion in advance. But I am counting to meet every one—or our meeting will be spoilt."
"The faithful heart in real life. Very touching...Where have you been all this time and what have you done?"
"Abroad. The unusual things."
"You've developed some definite character, Ann. I am looking forward to your meeting with Isabella. She's used to playing lead. She—"
He broke off when he discovered that she was not listening to him.
"You appear to have extra keen ears," he remarked. "Can you hear any one on the stairs?"
"Yes." The glow faded from Ann's eyes, "But it's a woman."
"Then it's probably Isabella. I must warn her about my uncle. He is very seriously ill."
Richard delayed his return for a little time. Straining her ears with natural curiosity, Ann caught the sound of a woman's voice cut off in a question. As she listened to the buzz of whispers, she wondered whether Isabella were married to Richard. Her presence at Ganges, while Sir Benjamin was so ill, seemed to point to the fact that she was a resident. Ann remembered too that, in the past, she used to annoy Richard by an assumption of ownership.
There seemed no doubt of the identity of their present interests. When the pair entered the tower-room, the same unholy fire burned in Isabella's eyes, as though to welcome a deferred death.
"Are they waiting for Sir Benjamin to die to get his money?" she wondered. A second thought—darkly dramatic—was instantly crushed. "Are they planning to murder him to-night?"
"Meet little Ann," said Richard with a theatrical wave.
Isabella came forward with outstretched hands. She brought with her light, excitement and glamour. The waves of her blonde hair and her silver lamé gown gleamed under the veiled pendant. At first glance she appeared to have grown more beautiful but as Ann looked closely she felt a sense of loss.
The faerie gleam had vanished from Isabella's eyes. Now they were pure wanton while the lines of her beautiful lips were hard. Gone, too, was her mystery and the fugitive quality of her smile. While she might still blind and bewilder belated travellers, they would no longer confuse her with the Flame which lured them into the bog.
"Ann," she cried, "how you've changed. You used to be adorably dignified and reserved—unlike any one else. But now you're typed. You've developed herd-instinct...Darling, it's divine to see you again but I could slay you for spoiling yourself."
As she listened to the ungenerous greeting, Ann felt the surge of her old inferiority complex; but as she continued to look at Isabella she realised that life was repaying its debt. For the first time she faced Isabella on equal terms.
"If I followed my crowd," she said, "I should be wearing a bearskin or a string of beads. But I never went native, although I have lived in some very rough places."
"The country, I suppose? Wales?"
"Alaska, Brazil, Africa, America. And the rest."
"How foul. Didn't you loathe it?"
"Loved it. I got ingrained dirt in my knees. It made me feel so manly."
Richard's neighing laugh was tribute to Ann's nonchalance.
"Ann makes us appear quite small town," he remarked to Isabella. "By the way, she had met our John Cumberland, Esquire. And now she wants to meet his wife. Could it be arranged?"
"Meet her is the last thing I wish to do," flashed Ann. "I couldn't be too far away from her. I've seen what she has done to John."
Isabella's cheeks suddenly flamed under her rouge and her eyes were hostile as she glared at the girl.
"I reserve my sympathy for his wife," she said.
"This is where I come in," put in Richard. "Sorry, Ann dear. I forgot to tell you that Isabella is Mrs. John Cumberland."
The news tested Ann's acquired poise severely and made her feel very young and inexperienced. Her lips trembled as she realised fully the shoddy shrines before which she had worshipped. It was difficult to realise that two hours before she was telling the Manchester man about the glory that was Ganges.
"I'm sorry," she murmured.
Isabella acknowledged her apology with a shrug as she spoke to Richard.
Ann noticed that she could not demonstrate her unconcern without the aid of smoke. After blowing a ring, she asked Ann a languid question.
"What about you? Married?"
"No," replied Ann.
"Living with a man?"
"No personal experience. Good grief, how dull."
Although the shock of meeting Isabella had hurt her more than the change in John, Ann suddenly faced up to reality. She admitted that the brilliant company of the Seven Sullied Souls existed only in her imagination. They were ordinary clever students whom she had sprinkled with star-dust, glorifying charm to beauty and talent to genius.
"Stephen knew," she thought. "He told me not to be taken in by them because they belonged to the monkey-house. They've not changed. They've always been a rotten lot. I've been a sucker. But I've lost nothing, for I never had it."
It was a tribute to Stephen's judgment that he had seen always through their pose of glib phrases—garnished with cheap malicious wit and lacking ideas or human kindness.
"I'm safe now," she told herself jubilantly. "I can't be hurt again. Stephen is the one that matters. I came to meet him."
Richard seemed to read her thoughts.
"I'm not expecting either Dr. Pybus or Professor Short," he said. "Victoria and James to you. They are so professional they would shy at writing 'Zoo-man' in their engagement-book...That is how they visualise me—with a fork and straw—perpetually bedding-down beasts...But I feel sure Stephen will show up."
Although she knew her rising colour would betray her secret to Richard, Ann asked him an eager question.
"How do you know? Have you seen him recently?"
"Very recently," replied Richard. "He looked very fit and all that. R.A.F, uniform, of course. They call him 'Lucky Pardon.' He'll come though."
"Did you mention the reunion?"
"No, but he did. He talked about you. Asked questions and so on. Of course, I couldn't answer them then. But he is hoping to meet you here to-night."
Ann was too dazed with happiness to notice that Isabella was looking at Richard through narrowed lids while her lips formed a soundless word—"Liar." Then to her surprise Richard held out his hand.
"I am so glad to have met you again, Ann," he said in his most charming voice. "When the war is over we must have a real reunion, with a banquet and champagne. But—as things are—I have to ask you to go. We are expecting my uncle's death at any minute. I should be with him now. Good-bye."
THE blow was so unexpected that Ann was staggered. She had been prepared for difficulties and even for danger, but not for a bland announcement—"Not at home."
The door was slammed in her face.
"But, Richard," she pleaded, "may I stay up here? I've waited for this reunion for so many years. I've been cut off from every one—and it means everything to me. I—I can't explain. Please, please. I won't make a sound. No one will know I'm here."
"Trust the servants to know," said Isabella. "And trust them to have a perfectly good dirty explanation. At a time like this one can't be too careful. Richard's the heir—and his relatives are in the house."
"Isabella understands," commented Richard. "All sorts of rumours might fly around. I can't risk people saying I was entertaining a pretty lady in the tower-room, while my poor old uncle was passing out alone."
"But Isabella's here," persisted Ann.
"Isabella is such an old friend that she counts as family."
Ann made a last effort.
"The others will be coming to the reunion," she argued. "If I stay up here, I can explain what has happened and send them away."
"Stephen is the only one who is likely to come," said Richard. "Give me your address and I'll ask him to get in touch with you."
The request sounded reasonable but Ann was suspicious. Although all she wanted was to make contact with Stephen, she knew she could not trust any promise made by Richard. In spite of her simplicity, she got the impression that he and Isabella were playing the same game—and one without rules and referee. Something evil was being planned and the reunion was an unwelcome complication.
She realised too that she had ruined her chance of remaining in the tower-room by letting Richard see her desperate eagerness. He and Stephen had always been antagonistic, so he would welcome a chance to score over a rival. Yet although he lauded deceit as a mental accomplishment and despised honesty as a brainless blundering instinct, he had betrayed himself to Ann by his two different voices. When he disguised his natural grating note with honied accents, he practically advertised the fact that he was telling a lie.
Although her instinct was always to charge out into the open and take on more than her fighting weight, she knew that she must use guile, if she were to meet Stephen again. Even while she hated the necessity she plotted rapidly.
"Pretend to go. Then slip back and wait in the downstair lobby. It's dark there."
To her surprise she discovered that she was a natural liar as she looked at Richard with convincingly steady eyes.
"I haven't an address," she told him. "I don't know how long I shall be at my hotel. Will you ask Stephen for his address. I'll ring you up to-morrow and get it. Goodnight."
"Yes, do please ring me up. Allow me."
Isabella stood aloof while Richard helped Ann to put on her coat but her glance was scornful as she appraised the quality of the fur. Then to Ann's astonishment Richard drew from his pocket a creased white scarf. As he opened his light coat she noticed, for the first time, that he was wearing shabby evening-clothes.
It was so unusual that he should dress for dinner, in the circumstances, that her suspicions flared up again. But she forgot them as she discovered the source of the perfume which she had connected with a death-chamber. In the buttonhole of Richard's coat was a crushed white hyacinth.
He noticed her stare.
"Picked it up from the greenhouse floor," he explained. "I'm going to see you off the premises. A zoo is not the safest place if you should lose your way in the black-out."
"No," she protested. "I can follow the white stones. Your uncle might want you."
"I'll risk him. He's taking his time about dying. But I might get into trouble with the coroner if I risked you."
Suddenly Ann thought of Stephen—probably pressed for time and steering a correct course to Ganges by the stars. She remembered one occasion when they caught their last train back to London, only through his flair in finding a short-cut to the station.
Fear for his safety made her confess that she had trespassed.
"I wandered round before I reached the tower-room and I found myself by the elephant-house. I heard voices. I don't want to make mischief but one of them sounded drunk. I hope it wasn't a keeper."
She missed the glance which flashed between Richard and Isabella.
"Thanks," said Richard. "I must look into it. I've taken on a heavy responsibility...Come on, Ann. Back in a few minutes, Isabella."
Guided by Richard's fingers around her elbow—and eager to get rid of her escort—Ann ran down the spiral stair. Directly the tower door was closed behind them she stopped with a cry of dismay.
"It's like the catacombs," she said. "Stop while I get out my torch."
Richard laughed as he took her arm and dragged her on.
"You won't need a torch with me," he told her. "I can see in the dark. Besides I know my way about blindfolded...Just trust yourself to me."
She wished he had not used the words which were spoken in his softest voice. They made her realise that she was deeply distrustful of her guide. She was completely at his mercy as she blundered along blindly, obeying the pressure of his arm.
"I like the dark," he said. "It gives me a sense of power. I feel like the Invisible Man, because I can see others and they cannot see me. But it's a pity you are in partial eclipse, Ann. Of course, you know you've grown beautiful."
His last words were spoken so tenderly that his voice might have been that of a romantic lover. Ann reflected what a shock it would be—after being wooed by Richard in the blackness—when his dark scored face was revealed in a beam of light.
As he went on talking, she made a disturbing discovery. Although they had crossed the flagged courtyard, they were not walking over the beaten earth of the main path. Instead, her feet first crunched gravel and then stumbled over rough grass.
"Where are you taking me?" she asked. "I know this is not the right way."
"It's a short-cut," he replied. "You haven't been here before."
His fingers tightened on her arm and he whispered in her ear.
"Of course you noticed that Isabella was jealous as hell. You have made a great comeback. In future I'm going to see a lot of you. What do you say to that?"
Feeling that some response was expected, Ann spoke without thought.
"I'm thinking about something else, Richard. You were expecting us to meet here to-night. The door was open and the tower-room was lit. You made a register. So what made you change your mind about the reunion?"
"Because, to quote Browning more or less, 'the net hath caught the fish.' I wanted the reunion to pull in one person only. You. Don't you know I've always been crazy about you? Now listen..."
Although his face was touching hers, Ann did not shrink from him. All her attention was gripped by the threat of a new peril.
The path which had been sloping downhill gradually, had become a steep incline. As the gradient grew sharper, she had somewhat the sensation of slipping down a chute. She was forced to quicken her pace to keep her footing, while every fresh step into the darkness seemed to be leading down to the mouth of a shaft. Soon she must run—run faster and ever faster—until her feet shot out into vacancy and she crashed down into blackness. A hideous suspicion Sashing across her mind made her scream:
"Stop, stop. You are taking me down to the bear-pit."
"Don't be a little fool," cackled Richard. "I may pay a bear but I do my own hugging." His arm tightened around her as though to illustrate his words. "Now you must trust yourself entirely to me. We are coming to a steep flight of steps. Feel with your feet...That's right. I won't let you fall."
As she was bumped down the treads of an invisible stone stair, Ann began to feel ashamed of herself. Her father's praise—"Not a nerve in her body"—reproached her with cowardice. She felt that even the grizzly was qualified to sneer at her, for allowing herself to be lugged about like a parcel.
"I've made a complete fool of myself," she confessed when they reached level ground. "I felt so helpless, not being able to see."
"I understand," Richard assured her suavely. "Besides, you took a bit of a jolt about Stephen. Too bad missing him...Now we are coming out on the road."
Ann heard the clang of an iron gate closing behind them.
"What luck," remarked Richard. "There's a bus coming in the right direction. Can you see its lights?"
"No, but I can hear it coming."
"Then it's 'Good-bye,'" His voice changed. "We won't kiss, my sweet. You've been putting on an excellent act but you didn't fool me. You made your mistake when you let me make love to you while you are all out for Stephen. Not like you, Ann, and most revealing. It told me all I wanted to know...Here's your Black Maria."
He snapped on his torch for the first time, throwing its light down as he hailed the driver. As he helped Ann into the dim interior of the bus, he spoke in a low voice.
"Don't try to come back. You will find the tower door locked."
AS ANN slumped down in her seat and watched the darkness flicker past the window, she was filled with the bitterness of defeat. In spite of obstacles, she had succeeded in getting inside the tower-room; but now she was outside again—back at her beginnings. To make matters worse, the situation had deteriorated, since there was no longer an open door.
Yet when she remembered his warped nature, Richard's hostile attitude was not inexplicable. While he extracted unnatural pleasure from her disappointment, there was no reason for her to imagine a dark mystery. The inference was that the reunion had clashed with a more important date.
"I'm meant to meet Stephen," she told herself, "or I wouldn't have got that eleventh-hour reservation in the plane. It's up to me to try again."
She appealed to the conductor—no charming girl in grey and blue uniform—but a soured elderly man.
"I want to get off at Ganges. How much?"
"I took you on at Ganges," he objected.
"But I want the main entrance. Please put me down there."
The man punched a ticket, counted some coppers into her palm and then climbed to the upper-deck. Relieved of the responsibility of immediate action, Ann closed her lids. She got no relief—for sections of faces whirled before her eyes like the fragments of a bombed picture gallery; Richard, seamed and malignant—Isabella, in her debased beauty—John, a pathetic wreck. She saw them from every angle—profile, full-face and three-quarter—passing and repassing...
When the conductor came down the stairs, he looked at her suspiciously over his spectacles.
"Didn't you want Ganges?" he asked. "We've passed it. I stopped the bus for you."
Ann remembered the tinkle of a bell, followed by a brief halt, but she had not connected the signal with herself. Instantly she was plunged into panic.
"Stop the bus," she called.
As she jumped from her seat a passenger disagreed with the conductor.
"We haven't come to Ganges yet. Not the main gates. New to the route, aren't you, mate?"
"Not so new as to want you to teach me my business. That was Ganges we passed."
While the men argued Ann did not know which of them to believe. No one else in the bus appeared to have local knowledge, or sufficient interest to give a casting vote. All she knew was that while she awaited conviction the bus was rolling steadily back towards the tube terminus.
"Put me out, please," she said to the conductor.
Feeling that he had scored his point, the man rang the bell instantly and helped her down with a caution, "Mind how you cross, miss."
There was no traffic and she reached the other side of the road in safety; but instead of the stone wall which encircled the grounds of Ganges, she saw a high bank, topped with fenced bushes and trees. They seemed proof that she had overshot her mark, so she turned and began to retrace her steps, in order to reach the main entrance gates.
After a while she grew worried about the feeble gleam cast by her torch and doubtful about its battery. If it failed completely she knew that she had no chance of finding her way back to the tower-room. To conserve it, she snapped off the light and guided herself by touch, walking briskly and hoping to feel the gritty surface of stone, instead of sodden vegetation.
It seemed to her that the bank stretched out endlessly. Brambles caught her fur sleeve, while her fingers grew cold and grimed from contact with docks, fallen leaves and snail-slimed ivy-trails. Presently the darkness made her grow nervous. It seemed strange that—after braving the dangers of savage places—she had come back to the safety of the English countryside to learn the meaning of fear. Yet even while she tried to concentrate on thoughts of Stephen she felt afraid.
She found herself thinking of Hare and Burke, who used to spring on their victims from behind and press pitch-plasters over their mouths. It was a numbing sensation to reflect that—even then—someone might be following her. Richard might enjoy the thrill of stalking human quarry. At any moment, she might feel the grip of hands around her throat...
She forgot her imaginary terrors at the sound of a clock striking in the distance. The three chimes told her that it was a quarter to nine. At the reminder that precious time was running to waste, the tower-room seemed very far away. It was possible that while she was following the course of the bank, Stephen had arrived at Ganges. He could come and go without meeting her. And they would never meet, for Richard and Isabella would assure him that she too had gone and left no address.
Suddenly she realised that she was walking in the wrong direction. She had believed the conductor when he told her that they had passed Ganges, whereas the man who contradicted him had been right. Now that it was too late, she remembered that the main gates of the zoo were opposite William the Fourth. The inn was a recognised halt, so the bus would have stopped there as a matter of course, instead of merely slowing down at the tinkle of a bell.
The inference was that she had got out at some intermediate point and was now skirting another part of the grounds—thus working back to the new short-cut, where she had parted from Richard. It maddened her to reflect that—instead of making progress—she was farther from her goal, since she had to cover the same ground twice. Although she was probably nearer to the steps, she dared not risk trying to reach the house by an unfamiliar route.
Setting her lips she turned and guided herself back by the touch of her right hand sweeping the bank. As she ran she began to wonder what Stephen would do when he found that the door of the tower-room was locked, contrary to the promise of entry. She was positive that he would not come so far without making an effort to get inside. Probably he would ring at the front door in defiance of the secrecy rule.
It was impossible for her to do the same, since Richard would warn the servants to turn her away. In any case, the question of admission involved a delicate problem if it were true that someone in the house was seriously ill. She remembered Richard's excitement when he mistook her for Isabella and how he had given her a bulletin "Must be dead by now." The inference was that he was speaking the truth and that his uncle was on his death-bed...
Suddenly her fingertips scraped on stone. At last she had reached the wall which enclosed the humpy meadow. She followed its course until her hand touched an iron grille. After travelling in a wasteful circle, she was back at the main entrance of Ganges.
When she snapped on her torch she saw the stone elephants on the pillars and read the warning not to trespass. She was only too anxious to obey as she concentrated on tracking the whitened stones. While she alternately climbed uphill and dipped down into dells, she realised the maiming quality of the black-out on her faculties. In happier times the blazing windows of Ganges would have guided her as effectively as a lighthouse. Stumbling through the darkness she began to think of her letters to Stephen. After her failure to obtain his address, she continued to write to him, so as not to break the link. Those love-letters—which would have made Juliet turn in her vault—were a form of diary, recording daily events, the weather and even meals. Yet each contained one assurance to justify it. "I love you." "I love you more every day." "I shall love you to the end of my life."
She posted them in various ways. She shredded the paper and let the wind whirl away the scraps. She watched them shrivel to ash in the heart of a bonfire. She sent them spinning down the current of a river...But always she had a confused conviction that although Stephen could not receive them—somehow—they must carry her love to him.
She felt ashamed of her folly, even while she tried to justify it.
"Actually childish. But there must be something in absent treatment. I'm sure he knows. So he will come to-night."
She was straining her eyes to pick up the nebulous path when she heard footsteps in the distance. Her first panic instinct—to snap off her fight and run away into the darkness—was followed by the reminder that she had had one experience of being lost in the grounds of a zoo and did not wish to repeat it. While she stood listening she saw a glow-worm gleam bobbing about, apparently up in the sky. As the person grew nearer, he was evidently coming downhill, for as the ray dropped lower, it grew stronger. Then a sudden glare thrown upon her face made her blink.
"What are you doing here?" asked a voice, whose resonant gong-like quality made Ann understand how sound can shatter matter.
"I'm trying to find my way up to the house," she replied.
"Coming to see me?"
"I don't know who you are."
"My name's Watson. This is my place. I own the zoo."
Ann had always pictured Big Ben as a giant, whereas he appeared to be under average height. She realised then that it was his voice which had gained him the title of the famous Westminster clock. She also reflected that it was not surprising he was so long over dying, since he took time off for evening strolls.
Necessity made her an opportunist. She knew that if she could make a good impression on Sir Benjamin, he could grant her entry into Ganges.
"I've heard the zoo is wonderful," she said. "I've never seen it although I've been here before. I used to know your nephew Richard at college. My name is Ann Sherborne."
"Sherborne. Any relation to the engineer?"
"That so? I used to know him when we were much younger. We called him 'Manuscript,' because of his initials—M.S.S. I forget what they stood for."
"Mark Scudamore Sherborne," replied Ann, who knew perfectly well that he was testing her claim. "He—"
She broke off as the roar of a lion suddenly shattered the silence.
"Startled you?" asked Sir Benjamin.
"It shouldn't," she replied. "I got used to hearing them in Africa. And there were no bars there between us."
"Ever shot a lion?"
Ann knew instinctively that it was another test-question and she was afraid that she would fail to qualify for admission to Ganges. It seemed probable that Six Benjamin had been a big-game hunter in his time, since humanitarianism was so often allied with sport.
"Only with a camera," she confessed. "The modern way. Does it sound terribly feeble to you?"
To her surprise, Sir Benjamin held out his hand.
"Welcome to Ganges," he said. "I'm pleasantly surprised to find that Richard has such a charming friend. Sherborne's girl, too. I've people to dinner. Neighbours. Sorry the meal is over. But I propose to steal you from Richard for the rest of the evening. What about it?"
Ann could hardly believe in her good fortune. Instead of having to sneak inside Ganges, she was going in the dignity of an invited guest, with its owner to escort her. As he threw the light of his torch on the path before her, he talked about his zoo.
"Wild animals have always been a passion with me. I ran away from Eton to join a travelling circus. I was officially lost for four years. Explains why I've got no education. But I was always sick at heart because these beautiful, graceful wild creatures get such a raw deal. Free or caged, they're up against the cruelty of Nature or man. So I had a dream of collecting a limited number under as nearly perfect conditions as I could contrive."
"You are lucky to make a dream come true," said Ann. "Is it a fact that you take lions about on leads, like dogs?"
"Bless my soul, yes." Sir Benjamin began to chuckle. "I gave one of my guests a scare this evening. My favourite leopardess—Delia—has a cold, so I have her with me in the library for most of the day. Keep her from getting bored, you know. My beautiful lady resented being taken back to her own house and she told me what she thought of me when we were crossing the hall. I heard one of the fool women in the drawing-room let out a scream. I must pull her leg about it."
Ann smiled as she noticed his distinction between a lady and a woman...This then, was the explanation of the snarl which had shaken the air inside the tower-room.
"Here we are," said Sir Benjamin. "Welcome to Ganges."
As she mounted the steps Ann got an impression of a stately terraced mansion with a pillared portico. Directly she was inside the door she looked at her host. He was spare and 'sled with a scar on one cheek, as though one of his "beautiful ladies" had slapped him in the face. His mouth was bitter although his brown eyes were mournful and even tender. Like his nephew, his face was a map of lines, but in his case it was no enemy-territory. She noticed also that he too wore disreputable dinner clothes.
Then she reminded herself that she was there only to wait for Stephen in the tower-room. For that reason it was necessary to make herself familiar with the house. Looking around her she noticed that the hall was unusually large and paved with black and white marble squares. There were enormous pots of pink azaleas as ornament but the temperature was that of an ice-house rather than a conservatory.
What interested her most was the fine staircase which swept around up to a broad gallery. She was wondering how to locate the door which connected the house with the tower, when Sir Benjamin raised his astounding voice.
"Richard," he boomed. "Come down here. I've a surprise for you."
Richard appeared on the landing and leaned over the rail to look down into the hall. When he saw Ann he recoiled a pace as though in momentary doubt. With acute anxiety she watched him walk slowly down the stairs. If he declared that she was an adventuress Sir Benjamin would naturally believe his nephew's story.
She went to meet him boldly, her hand outstretched.
"Richard," she cried. "Are you surprised to see me—again?"
His face showed no sign of recognition
"You are making a mistake," he said. "I've never seen you before."
"Then perhaps John and Isabella can refresh your memory."
"Yes, you know the names of my friends. But—do I know you?"
Ann felt her face burn as Sir Benjamin looked at her keenly. Her heart hammered while she awaited his judgment.
"If this is your idea of humour, Richard," he said, "we are not amused. If Miss Sherborne did not know you, she would not be here...Now I want you to go to the lion-house and get the latest bulletin on Delia."
Richard obeyed as meekly as a lower school boy in the presence of his Head.
When he had gone Ann inspected her grimy hands with an ostentatious sigh.
"I seem to have collected the black-out," she said. "May I go upstairs to wash? Don't trouble to call a maid. I'll find the way."
She was moving briskly towards the staircase when she was recalled by Sir Benjamin's voice.
"You need not go up. Here's a cloakroom."
To her disappointment he opened a door and switched on the light in a large modern lavatory, walled with primrose tiles. When she was inside, she grimaced at her reflection in the mirror.
"Every luxury. I might be one of his civilised lions."
It was some consolation to splash in hot water and to comb out the loose wave of her dark hair. Her complexion was tanned as brown as a California surf bather and needed no powder. Shy hung up her fur coat, applied scarlet lipstick and went out into the hall.
Her hope of another chance to steal upstairs was frustrated by the sight of Sir Benjamin waiting outside the door.
"Fresh as paint," he said approvingly. "As you have noticed, I'm unconventional. Say what I like—do what I like—know what I like. And I like you—because you are civilised as well as charming. Come and meet my guests."
He slipped his arm through hers as they crossed the glacial hall.
"Mrs. John Cumberland is here," he explained. "She's a lovely. And her husband should be around somewhere. Then there are my neighbours—Professor and Mrs. Blake and Sir Oswald and Lady Peacock. Peacock manufactures cosmetics, but his factories are turned over to war production...Now what do you think of my drawing-room?"
Ann gazed around her in amazement. The vast apartment did not look like the room of a man whose pets were lions. It was cold and brittle, without solid furniture or padded comfort. The walls were white, decorated with panels of dark-blue watered silk. The carpet too was white and the gilded suite upholstered in blue brocade. There was also a gilded cabinet and numerous mirrors in gilt frames.
"Like it?" asked Sir Benjamin eagerly. "I chose the scheme myself. Know how? I gave the firm a tea-cup and said, 'Match that.'...Come and meet the folks."
Still bewildered by the events of the evening and buffeted by repeated shocks—Ann vaguely expected to meet a collection of mild lunatics. It braced her nerves to discover that the guests—with one exception—conformed to pleasant conventional pattern. One couple appeared to be of such stressed that she identified them as Professor and Mrs. Blake, man was tall, thin and elderly, with hollow cheeks, a domed forehead and austere lips. His voice was frigid—his manner formal. His lady had severely dressed silver hair and chilly blue eyes shielded by pince-nez. She wore an obviously expensive black evening-gown, partially covered by a fur cape.
In contrast with them the younger couple seemed to possess ultra warmth and colour. The husband was big, burly and genial, with a red clean-shaven face, polished black hair and horn-rimmed glasses. His wife was pretty, vivid and artificial. Her hair had been red and was red still; but in spite of dye and reckless rouge, her dark eyes sparkled with such friendly interest that Ann felt a mutual attraction.
It was rather a jolt to her preconceived ideas when the introduction established the academic couple as Sir Oswald and Lady Peacock—the cosmetic manufacturer and his wife. Then Sir Benjamin turned to the professor's lively wife and pinched her chin.
"Kitty," he said, "I want you to look after my best girl."
"Another?" asked Mrs. Blake.
He beamed like a schoolboy as he joined the men.
"It's worth being cheap to make Big Ben grin," remarked Mrs. Blake. "Those sad eyes of his...Will you have coffee or a drink?"
Feeling that—later—she might need the aid of stimulant, Ann chose gin and lime. While she was drinking it, her acting-hostess spoke passionately.
"I envy you above all women."
For a whirling second Ann thought that Mrs. Blake must have news for her from Stephen.
"Why?" she asked breathlessly.
"Because you are wearing a suit."
For the first time Ann noticed that Mrs. Blake had hung a matching coat over her green dinner-frock.
"One has to look like a bundle of clothes in these icy rooms," complained the professor's wife. "Most of the coal goes in central-heating for the animals. I often wish Big Ben would throw his parties in the lions' cage. Have you seen the zoo?"
"It's marvellous. Big Ben has spent a fortune on it and then some. The lions' den is made out of the ravine. Of course, there are sun-houses and out-door cages in front, but at the back there are entrances to caves and passages cut in the earth and leading down to the ravine. There's a railing around it, but you can see the lions prowling about at the bottom."
She stopped to laugh.
"The joke is, the beasts are so sophisticated that they want to see the public instead of reverting to the quiet of their natural state."
As she listened to the chatter it seemed to Ann that the eerie element was draining out of the situation.
"Are you nervous of coming here?" she asked.
"Heavens, no. I'm used to the animals. Big Ben consults me on delicate nursery matters, as I have a young family. I've sat up at night nursing cubs. That's a real sacrifice for a woman of my age to make. When I'm blear-eyed, I have to breakfast opposite a husband who's full of beans and the dangerous age."
"Why don't you have breakfast in bed?"
"Because that man of mine couldn't even chop off the top of his egg."
Ann smiled at Kitty as she wondered wistfully whether she would ever meet Stephen early, in conjunction with boiled eggs...When she gazed around her she could hardly believe that the scene was real. She had had occasional dips back into civilisation—between contracts—but this was her first experience of social life. Sir Oswald and Lady Peacock reassured her as they made the usual remarks about the usual things in impersonal well-bred voices. She was further entertained by Lady Peacock's determination to get the chair nearest the fire, in a ladylike and legitimate manner. She strolled about—chatting while she sipped her coffee—while she regulated her progress so that she drained her cup in time to place it on the marble mantelpiece. After that her next move, naturally, was to sink into the coveted chair.
Ann watched the comedy while she listened to Mrs. Blake's confidences.
"My real name is 'Susannah,' but my husband calls me 'Kitty.' People seem to expect something silly from me. They think I've been on the stage. That's my meretricious hair. You can't get a natural red dye...As a matter of fact, I trained to be a teacher and I was the professor's star pupil. He always makes me vet his stuff before he lectures. If I can spot a bloomer he stands me a Guinness."
Ann's attention had begun to wander. She was trying to think of some way to get back into the tower-room, when Mrs. Blake lowered her voice.
"Did you ever see anything so debased as Big Ben's dinner-jacket? Richard's is the same. Those men look as if they slept in the stables. It's because they're always popping off to the animal-houses. I'm sorry for my poor dear Richard."
"You can't like him?" gasped Ann.
"Well, he might consider that a liberty. But he has a charming voice and my husband considers him clever. He's good to the animals. He's always lamenting there are no Christians on the market for him to feed to the lions. I believe he means it. He can't help having a face like my crocodile-skin shoes...Here comes my rival."
Ann's mouth hardened and her eyes grew older than her years as Isabella came into the drawing-room. She looked beautiful as a golden butterfly, spreading her wings in the sunshine while her companions remained in the chrysallis stage. The effect was contrived by the fact that she wore no concealing wrap over her low-cut silver lamé gown.
"That woman can't be human," whispered Kitty wrathfully. "She could stand in an ice-pail and drink a quart of champagne, without getting a red nose. Now just watch her pull in the men."
Isabella crossed to Sir Benjamin, flung one bare arm around his neck and kissed him.
"Hallo, darling," she said.
Within a few seconds Sir Oswald and the professor had joined the pair.
"She's got the Circe touch," muttered Kitty. "I hate to see my husband talking to her. I always think of swine...And I promised to honour the man."
"What about her husband?" asked Ann, as she thought of the homely girl who was listed as John's salvation.
"Absolutely lost. He's got her in his hair."
Ann noticed the fatuous look on Sir Benjamin's face as Isabella laid her cool scented cheek against his. Looking over his shoulder at the women—with insolent lack of interest—she saw Ann. From her start it was evident that Richard had not been able to prepare her for the shock of meeting the extra guest—although her recovery was swift.
"Is it actually Ann?" she drawled.
Sir Benjamin threw his arm around her as he led her to Ann.
"Miss Sherborne, meet my best girl," he said.
"The only occasion I can think of, when the comparative outclasses the superlative, is when a best girl meets a better woman," said Kitty sweetly.
Her remark spurred Ann to accept the challenge. She knew that she was in a dangerous position, since Isabella possessed the personal influence over Sir Benjamin which Richard lacked.
"She'll think up something and I'll be thrown out on my ear," she told herself. "I've got to move fast."
While Isabella was still glaring at Kitty Blake the professor tried to distract her with a question.
"Where's your big husband?"
"Big?" repeated Sir Benjamin scornfully. "That's a ridiculous claim for any human. But if you want to know how small John is, just pop him in my elephant-house."
Ann alone saw the change which swept over Isabella's face. A flicker of real emotion chased away the wanton gleam in her eyes. For a moment—before her expression was veiled again with nonchalance—she looked starkly afraid.
Although Ann was conscious of an unwelcome impression, she had no time for speculation. She knew that she must take a chance; and while she dared not entrust so talkative a lady with the secret of the tower-room, she turned impulsively to Kitty.
"May I be terribly unconventional?" she asked.
"Do," urged Mrs. Blake. "I hate people who talk like timetables."
"I want to go upstairs."
"There's a cloakroom—"
"I know. But I want a bedroom. I'm not going to steal bags. I want to—to meet someone."
"In a bedroom? Sounds promising. Of course, I'll help—and I'm asking no questions. Here I go."
Ann was filled with gratitude, even while she was amazed at Mrs. Blake's indiscretion. Although the professor's wife knew nothing of her private life or character, she slipped her bag between the loose cushions of her chair before she raised her voice in a general appeal.
"I've left my bag in the bedroom. Who wants to fetch it?"
As Ann jumped up, resolved to be first away and outdistance the field, Kitty reassured her in a whisper.
"Don't worry. None of the men are going to hear me so long as they have the use of their ears."
That she knew her company was evident when Sir Oswald dutifully joined his wife by the fire, while the other men broke into loud laughter as a tribute to Isabella's wit. Taking advantage of their distracted attention Ann stole across the room and slipped into the hall. Fearing every moment that Isabella would guess her purpose and follow her, she rushed up the stairs and reached the corridor.
She felt cheap as the meanest hotel-thief as she cautiously opened door after door, only to see empty bedrooms or bathrooms. When she heard a sound of footsteps coming down a branching passage her nerves began to flutter in a demoralising manner. She feared that Richard had returned from the lion-house, so it was a relief to see a housemaid whose extreme youth reflected the war-time shortage of domestic labour.
She challenged Ann with her suspicious stare and Ann looked at her defensively. Each waited for the other to speak before Ann blurted out an explanation of her presence.
"Which is the room where the ladies took off their coats? One of them wants her bag."
Without a word the girl opened a door and jerked her thumb in the direction of a bed on which a fur coat had been thrown.
"Thanks," muttered Ann. "Oh, by the way, is any one ill in the house?"
"Not as I know of," replied the girl. "But I've got the headache chronic. Smoking makes it better but I've no fags."
"What about mine," said Ann, acknowledging the touch. "Take several while you are about it." As she opened her case, she asked a casual question, "Which is the way to the tower-room?"
"You mean Richard's room?" corrected the girl, grinning for the first time. "Down there."
She pointed to an insignificant door which Ann had passed by in the belief that it was a housemaids' cupboard. As she pocketed her cigarettes she remarked in a meaning voice, "I've just shown a gentleman up there."
"A gentleman?" echoed Ann.
"A gentleman," said the girl. "From the front door. He had fallen down and got all mucky, but he spoke like a gentleman and he gave me half a crown."
Ann's hopes soared as she hurried down a narrow passage and opened the door at its end. It led out to the top landing of the tower. Below her was the shaft of the circular stair. Light still streamed from the tower-room and she heard some one moving about inside.
"Stephen," she cried.
It was not Stephen who rose from the chair, but a youngish man of dishevelled appearance. He was stout, very pale, and in a distressed state; he blew through his lips and his eyes appeared dazed behind his thick glasses. But in spite of dusty clothes and the wisp of hay which clung to his trousers, he managed to suggest a pompous and even a professional man.
"Is it James?" she asked.
"I hope it is," replied the man in a blurred voice which ill-matched his precise phrasing. "I am beginning to doubt my identity. However—that is a digression. I have just been looking at the register and your signature has given me a clue regarding yourself. You must be Ann."
He shook her hand formally with cold limp fingers.
"I am glad to meet you again," he said. "I should not have recognised you. So you too remembered the date of our reunion?"
He removed his glasses and began to polish their lenses with a soiled handkerchief. She noticed that his hands were shaking but he preserved his surface calm.
"It has often amused me to recall our sessions," he remarked. "We talked amazing nonsense. Sheer adolescent folly. You were the only silent member. Was it ignorance or wisdom?"
"Admiration," Ann told him. "I thought you were all wonderful. Sometimes I knew when any one slipped up. Victoria got the symptoms of cirrhosis of the liver wrong. I nursed someone who had it, so I knew."
"Yet you did not correct her. Admirable restraint. What have you done during these past seven years?"
For the first time Ann appreciated the nebulous James as he listened with apparent interest to the story of her travels. He asked intelligent questions and was sympathetic when he heard of her father's death. Suddenly, however, she could restrain her curiosity no longer.
"Have you had an accident?" she asked.
"Hardly an accident," he replied. "I've had an amazing and very unpleasant experience. I'm still in such a state of mental confusion that I hardly know how to regard it. Either I've been the victim of a criminal practical joke, or there's been a deliberate attempt on my life."
"Why should any one want to kill you?" asked Ann. "Have you enemies?"
"None to my knowledge. I'm quiet and set in my habits. And I am most abstemious. I must beg you to believe that."
"I'm sure you are...What happened?"
"I was on my way to the reunion and picking up the trail of the whitened stones. My sight is not good, so I was relieved to meet Richard. He told me I had blundered off the path and as we were near a laboratory he invited me to come inside. I was interested in some of his slides. Then he offered me a drink and I accepted it. To my horror, my head began to swim and I felt myself going under. It is true I am not used to liquor, but its effect was so instantaneous that I am beginning to wonder whether I were drugged. At the time, however, I was so ashamed that I was glad to accept Richard's offer to sleep off the effects in an adjacent conservatory, where I could be warm. The rest is very blurred, but I know we reached the greenhouse because I remember the scent of forced flowers."
Ann caught her lip between her teeth as she thought of the hyacinth which Richard had worn in his coat. A horrible suspicion flickered across her mind while she listened to James's pedantic voice.
"I awoke to find myself lying upon straw in a stable—with an elephant's forefoot close to my head."
He paused, awaiting her comment. As she remained silent he went on speaking.
"From childhood I have been taught to regard the elephant as a sagacious beast. Like Providence he realises the helpless condition of children and drunks and he respects it. When they are present he treads around them so delicately that not a hair of their head is harmed...But—should a certain condition be present he would lose his self-control and plunge about in sheer terror."
James stopped and mopped his brow.
"That complication was introduced," he said. "Just before I lost consciousness I heard the elephant trumpet and begin to stamp, at the same moment as I felt a peculiar light movement under my spine...gave myself up for lost and commended my soul to God. When I awoke I was unhurt and the elephant was standing over me, like a statue, on guard. Then, when I picked up something which was lying underneath me, I realised that my life had been saved by my weight."
James stooped to pick up his disreputable hat. He tried to brush it feebly while he looked at its condition with bewildered eyes.
"Since then," he said, "I incline to the belief that the fiasco was a plot of devilish cunning. The combination of special circumstances was too grossly fortuitous not to be planned."
"But who would want to kill you?" persisted Ann.
"No one. Of course, the obvious suspect would be Richard. He met me in the grounds, gave me the fateful drink and led me to the greenhouse. But he could have no motive for killing me. We have not met for years. Our interests have never clashed. In the past our personal relations were tepid....suppose you haven't a clothes brush?"
As he looked around him helplessly Ann came to his aid—putting his tie and collar straight and rubbing some of the mud from his suit with her handkerchief. She welcomed the occupation as a chance to hide her face when she asked a question.
"Do you think Richard may be a criminal lunatic?"
"No," replied James. "He is—and always has been coldly sane. Of course, he is not normal...Thank you, Ann. I feel rather less like a scarecrow. Now I must sign."
He unclipped his fountain-pen and wrote upon the register in a small crabbed script—"James."
"You are very brave to carry on after what happened," said Ann.
"Habit," he explained. "Although I'm still young I am set in my ways. I always keep an engagement. If I had returned to the tube terminus I should not sleep to-night. I must finish whatever I begin. So here I am. I've signed. I've met you. And now I can go."
"Won't you wait to see Richard? He may be able to explain."
"His explanation would not satisfy me. He would say, 'My dear fellow, I left you sleeping in the greenhouse. I know nothing of the facts, but I conjecture that you wandered into the elephant-house. You were perfectly safe in there. The elephant is a sagacious beast and he respects drunken professors.'"
James went to the door and then held out his hand.
"Good-bye, Ann," he said. "Now that we have met we must meet again."
"I'd like to," she told him. "Oh, James, did you go first to the tower-door?"
"I did," he replied, "but it was locked. It was contrary to the conditions of the reunion. In fact, so much has been different. Ann, won't you return with me? I can escort you to the gates and I will ring up for a taxi from the William the Fourth."
Ann felt so shaken by his experience and so apprehensive of the future that she was tempted to accept his offer. The fact that Richard had locked the tower-door warned her that he was capable of raising other obstacles. Moreover, James had proved not only kind and sympathetic, but brave.
"I'd like to come with you," she said. "But I've started something too. I want to meet the others."
"Only two to come," commented James, glancing at the register. "I doubt if Dr. Pybus will make such a long journey."
"But there's Stephen."
"No. He is dead."
Dead. Suddenly it seemed to Ann that the light went out, leaving her in a frozen darkness. She had the sensation of dropping into space, as though she were falling into a bottomless abyss, ringed with dead stars. Then her heart gave a violent leap and she regained her breath in a sob. She was back in the tower-room but even her brain felt numbed. It functioned only to remind her that any statement made by James used to be accepted by the others, because he never imparted information unless he was sure of his facts. Remembering this, it seemed hopeless to query the truth of his news.
"When did he die?" she asked dully.
"The sixteenth of last month," replied James. "He was killed in a car accident when he was on leave from the R.A.F. I read it in The Times and noticed the uncommon name—'Stephen Pardou.'"
"But Stephen's name was 'Pardon.'"
"Is that so?" James displayed interest. "You are telling me something I never knew before. Of course, we always used our Christian names because of their Royal flavour. I realise now that when he signed his name an 'n' could resemble a 'u.' It is not uncommon to slur the final letter...So I think we can conclude that the unfortunate man was not our special Stephen...Once again—Good-bye."
Ann smiled faintly as she remarked that James was still too engrossed in his own condition to realise her distress. At the door he paused to draw from his pocket a small parcel, wrapped in some pages torn from his note-book.
"Kindly give that to Richard," he said. "Tell him I thought it might interest him."
When he had gone Ann undid the coverings, to reveal a small mouse which had been crushed to death.
FEELING limp as a jointed doll whose elastic has perished, Ann sank into a chair after James had gone. Her shaky legs and torpid brain reminded her somewhat of the after-effects of malaria. The false report of Stephen's death had reduced her to a condition of shock when she felt she was incapable of making an effort.
"I can't stay up here much longer," she reminded herself. "They'll wonder where I am."
Although she was too set in her purpose to pay homage to convention, she realised that she was in a delicate position. She had crashed her way into Ganges on false pretences. She knew instinctively that this was a house where two gongs sounded for meals—where dinner-jackets were the rule—and where distinctive family features and names were reproduced in every generation. No smoking-room story would be permitted in the chill blue and white drawing-room. Even if the professor and his lively wife possessed a more elastic code, when they were in Ganges they would conform to the standard set by Sir Oswald and Lady Peacock.
She heard the door on the landing open but she did not stir. After repeated disappointment she was too discouraged to expect Stephen; but—when Richard entered—she shrank from him because this was their first meeting since he had repudiated her. Driven to the defence of attack, she asked the first question.
"Have you forgotten me—again?"
He looked at her with a disagreeable smile.
"No. Up here my memory functions. It was meeting you in the marble halls of my ancestors which upset its mechanism. As a matter of fact I expected to find you here. But what a lot of trouble you take for so little result."
"Is it so little? I am here. That's something, isn't it? And I've met your uncle. That's something too. I'm glad he made such a quick recovery. You—"
She broke off to stare at Richard. His attention was concentrated on the register which lay on the table. So rigid were his facial muscles that his features again appeared locked in a stiff vulpine mask. He pointed to the last entry with a shaking forefinger.
"James's signature," Ann told him. "You must have missed him on the stairs. He's not gone long."
"James? Here? Are you sure?"
"Of course I am. We had a talk."
After a pause Richard asked another question.
"How was he?"
"In rather bad shape. He seemed to think he'd been Shanghaied and dumped in the elephant-house."
"Extraordinary delusion." Richard mopped his yellowed waxen forehead which glistened under the light. "This is what actually happened. I met him staggering about the grounds—drunk as a lord. I gave him a drink to pull him round, but he passed right out...So I lugged him to a hothouse to sleep it off. The snag is—I clean forgot all about him after that."
"But how did he get inside the elephant-house?" asked Ann.
"How can I tell? Blundered there in a dazed state, or imagined the whole thing. But he was quite safe. Jupiter's quiet as a lamb."
The explanation appeared more rational to Ann than James's motiveless suspicions. It was only because she wanted to lay her own hideous fancies entirely that she persisted.
"Elephants are terrified of mice, aren't they? There was one in the elephant-house. Luckily it ran under James and he rolled on it and killed it. He left it behind for you."
Richard's face grew dark with anger as he unrolled the limp paper parcel. Taking the dead mouse by its tail he hurled it into a corner of the room.
"What the hell does he mean by dumping his filthy salvage on me?" he asked.
When Ann remained silent he spoke to her persuasively:
"You and I must come to some understanding, Ann. I don't want any clash of interests to-night. In confidence, some financial trouble has broken and I'm rather on the spot. I ought to have called the reunion off. But I was curious to know if any of you remembered the date—and also to meet you. And now I should like to hear your plans."
"I'm going to stay up here until the last moment," said Ann.
"In this room? I thought you were my uncle's guest. Do you owe him no courtesy?"
"I've thought of that—and I've decided to tell him all about the reunion."
Richard broke into a high neighing laugh.
"Do that—and you'll find yourself politely put outside the front door. The old boy's a Puritan and a bit simple. He will ask why a bunch of strangers used to meet in his house, without his permission. He's a stickler for permission. Then I shall explain what we all had in common."
"Our Royal names?"
"No. The name of our society—'Seven Sullied Souls.' The word 'Sullied' and all that it implies. Isabella and John will back me up. He'll think that we met to indulge in orgies."
Ann frowned as she recalled her own reckless words to Kitty Blake. She had told the professor's wife that she wished to meet someone in a bedroom. She had been a fool to disregard convention after she had been warned. When she remembered the torchlight thrown upon her face as Sir Benjamin asked her the test-question about her father's name, it was plain that he was taking no chance of admitting some attractive but meretricious stranger.
She dragged herself wearily up from her chair.
"You win," she said to Richard. "I'm going back to the drawing-room."
"I'll come with you," he offered. "You are so elusive—and I never take my eye off the ball at golf."
Ann felt as though they were playing in the finale of a pantomime as they walked slowly, side by side, down the broad staircase. The expanse of marble flooring and the massed pink azaleas made the hall resemble a stage-setting. But the music and applause was missing—to hearten her after another check—as she entered the drawing-room with a sinking sense of failure.
In her absence the guests were re-grouped. Posed on the rug before the fire, Isabella gazed into the flames, ignoring the professor's efforts to interest her. The remaining four were seated around a bridge table. Sir Benjamin partnered Lady Peacock while Sir Oswald played with Kitty Blake who was transformed by large horn-rimmed glasses. From her conversation, Ann had credited the professor's wife with a mosquito mind; but now her face was set in the agonised rigour of an Indian brave under torture, while she scooped up her tricks with the snap of a shark.
"Mrs. Blake looks grim," she remarked to Richard.
"She makes rings round the rest of them," he explained.
Absorbed in their game, the card players took no notice of Ann's re-entry; but Isabella sprang up from the rug and darted towards Richard in a swift and glittering streak, like a shooting-star. Taking his hand she pulled him across to the coolest part of the room—the huge window recess. Deserted—Ann was watching the two heads pressed together, when the professor spoke to her.
"They look very secret," he remarked, glancing towards the bay. "Certainly no one is likely to disturb their Arctic idyll. Suppose we go back to the fire?"
In other circumstances Ann would have enjoyed the professor's conversation. Although he had an excellent brain he confined himself to gossip which sounded indiscreet but betrayed no actual confidence. Presently he mentioned their host.
"Big Ben is a grand character. Of course, his zoo may be the result of arrested development. He's had no education. His passion for felines is rather uncomfortable. Reminds me of that French classic short story—Passion in the Desert. Big Ben cried over its end...In fact, the whole situation distresses us because of the danger to him. If the zoo should be closed, I doubt if he would survive. Either the shock will kill him or he'll commit suicide."
"Is there any danger of its being closed?" asked Ann.
"A very grave one. There is strong local prejudice against it, especially since the blitz, although no bombs have been dropped here. Lately there have been public meetings to protest against the renewal of his licence. The trouble is, there have been accidents at the zoo. To start with a lion escaped and killed a sheep before Sir Benjamin led it away on a lead."
Suddenly Ann recalled the conversation in the bus.
"What happened to a boy called Perce?" she asked.
"Percy Marshall? He climbed an enclosure and got a very mild electric-shock from a live wire which is there to protect the animals from interference. He developed mild St. Vitus' Dance which yielded to treatment directly after Big Ben had stumped up handsomely. But he is conscientious and still shakes in public, to show that he is earning his money."
Ann looked across to the bridge table. As dummy, Sir Benjamin was apparently engrossed in watching the play of the hand; but whenever he stared into vacancy, his eyes looked haunted by the threat of loss. While she could not decide whether he was a menace to the community or a victim of prejudice, she was sure of two facts; she liked him and she felt deep compassion for him.
"Do you think it is a racket to get money from Sir Benjamin?" she asked. "People know he is rich and will pay up to avoid trouble. It may be a form of blackmail."
"No," said the professor. "The last accident was really nasty. An employee got his hand mauled by a lion and it had to be amputated. I doubt if any one would sacrifice his hand for less than a fortune...Just look over to the window."
An expression of amused curiosity on his big red face, the professor nodded towards Isabella and Richard.
"Suggests Faust," he remarked. "Mephistopheles trying to corrupt Marguerite. Unfortunately the lady is too beautiful to be described as sea-green."
Ann stared at the pair who were too engrossed to notice her interest. Richard's face was Satanic as he whispered into Isabella's ear. That his suggestion was monstrous was evident from the horror in her eyes. She appeared to protest vehemently while he continued to press his demand.
"I wonder what's the nature of the proposal," murmured the professor. "It must be something fairly strong to arouse the lady's opposition. It cannot be an assault on her innocence—for she boasts that she has none. And I should not credit her with many scruples."
As they watched the duel, Ann noticed that Isabella's lips were growing slack and her eyes were blurring, in token of surrender.
"She's weakening," remarked the professor. "That fellow has a sort of snakelike fascination. My wife's a clever woman, but she looks a complete fool when he coos into her ear. I always want to take a running kick at him."
Ann remembered Kitty's remark about Isabella's effect on her husband as the professor went on talking.
"Richard is handicapped by his appearance. He looks too complete a villain to be successful in the part. He'd be the obvious suspect. It would be a more interesting proposition if Sir Oswald were the sinister master-mind. Hasn't he a fine head?"
Ann looked at Sir Oswald's silver hair and clear-cut features—blocked against a dark-blue panel—rather after the fashion of a transposed silhouette. Hitherto, she had seen his profile against the white walls, which had nibbled away its outline.
Yet even as she murmured agreement she wondered whether the professor's geniality would be a more effective disguise for a dark purpose.
"Richard and Isabella seem close friends," she remarked. "What does John think about it?"
"You are meant to believe he notices nothing," replied the professor. "Of course, he must know that his wife is exclusively interested in Richard. She makes no secret of it. Her kind of woman is a law to herself. But every one regards Richard as invulnerable to women. That turns the drama to a dialogue play without action."
"If she feels like that about Richard, she shouldn't have married John," declared Ann. "There's a telephone ringing. I do wish someone would answer it."
A minute later another very youthful maid—whose curls and musical-comedy apron marked her as different rank from the housemaid—shouted a message from the open door.
"Mr. Gold wants you on the phone, sir."
Apparently the name had significance for others besides Sir Benjamin. He threw down his cards and hurried from the room while Richard and Isabella watched him with robot faces. The bridge-players took the opportunity to relax from an uneven game. Lady Peacock had been losing steadily, through her partner's blunders, but without loss of composure. She refused to make any comment when Kitty Blake burst into impulsive sympathy.
"Big Ben's play was criminal. I felt a sweep to take advantage of it. But I'm like old Sarah Battle—I must play the game. I expect he is worried stiff about his licence. These cowardly attacks on him make me boil."
"I can't agree with you," remarked Sir Oswald. "I've been frank and open with him. I've told him I consider the Zoo is unpatriotic self-indulgence. The cost of upkeep must be stupendous. No wonder his nephew looks worried if he has to maintain all this extravagant expenditure after his uncle's death."
"He's not dead yet," Kitty reminded him. "And it's his own money. If he plunged on the stock exchange, or ran a pretty lady, no one would bat an eyelid. All this ill-feeling is because he loves animals rather unwisely and too well."
Lady Peacock's smile was superior as she patted Kitty's arm.
"You're talking like a sentimental schoolgirl," she said. "Think of all that new land Sir Benjamin has just bought. It may be too barren and rough for cultivation, but my husband would erect factories on it, to increase the national effort."
"He just beat me to it," confided Sir Oswald. "Frankly, I admit that I didn't realise the value of the land, in time. I've had it out with him. I've told him that if he will re-sell—at a reasonable profit to himself—I will withdraw all my opposition to the Zoo."
To demonstrate his frankness—which Ann was beginning to recognise as his long suit—he did not lower his voice as his host returned. Sir Benjamin was flushed and excited from good news.
"Just fixed up the extensions," he told them, almost shouting in his triumph. "Gold's just given me a final estimate which is in line with my figure. I sign on the dotted line tomorrow—and then it will be full speed ahead."
"Is that wise, Watson?" asked Sir Oswald. "You are not too secure. Another accident would put you in the soup. Frankly, you've had your last warning from the council."
The defiance in Sir Benjamin's eyes was a challenge to Fate.
"There will be no more accidents," he said. "In future, no outsider will be admitted to the Zoo."
Ann—who was watching Isabella and Richard—received the impression of a sudden violent repercussion to the verdict. It happened so swiftly that she wondered whether had imagined it; yet it seemed to her that Richard used force to push Isabella forward—as though he were freeing some evil agency, disguised with fatal beauty—which was projected against its own volition. Isabella's movements were so mechanical and her eyes so devoid of spirit, that she might have been the dried sheath of a lovely woman as she sat on the arm of Sir Benjamin's chair.
"You mean the public, don't you, darling?" she asked.
"No, Isabella," replied Sir Benjamin, "the rule applies to my friends. I can't risk these beautiful creatures being sacrificed by some clumsy fool."
Taking his face between her hands, she forced him to look at her. "I love them too," she whispered. "And they love me. You know."
"Yes, you're a witch." Glancing around, Sir Benjamin singled out Ann to receive his tribute to Isabella's courage. "Isabella goes into the lions' cage and strokes them. Of course, they are tame as kittens, but if she showed the least sign of fear, they would resent it and then they would resent her. When they're nervous they could be dangerous."
As Ann listened, she began to agree with Kitty that Isabella must possess a freak circulation. Just as her blood seemed unable to register temperature, so her nerves were immune to the formic-acid of fear.
"I must wish them 'Good-bye,'" persisted Isabella. "Let us all go together. For the last time. Promise."
Ann did not understand her own terror at the prospect of a visit to the lion-house. The animals were reputed to be tame and were safely caged, while Sir Benjamin would be in control. Yet she could not shed her latent dread of treachery as she realised the lethal possibilities of the Zoo. John had first stirred her imagination and later, James had infected her with his suspicions of a monstrous plot.
She saw the fatal signs of weakness on Sir Benjamin's face. Then—to her relief—he pushed Isabella away roughly and almost shouted his refusal. "No."
Isabella accepted the rebuff with nonchalance.
"I really believe he means it," she said with a shrug. "Well, I've done my best."
"Oh, no, my dear, you can do better than that," remarked Richard.
Rebellion flickered in Isabella's eyes, but before she could speak, the juvenile parlourmaid appeared at the door.
"The doctor's here, sir," she said. "In the hall."
But Dr. Hogarth was already striding into the drawing-room. He seemed to have discovered the secret of perpetual motion, for Ann never saw him entirely still. Even when he was sitting down, his face worked and he snapped his fingers.
Slightly underhung, his jutting jaw combined with dark eager eyes to create an impression of youthful vigour. He wore the uniform of the R.A.M.C.
"I wanted to see you, Watson," he said, gripping Sir Benjamin's hand and shaking back a red cowlick of persistent tendency. "You must forgive me thrusting in among your guests, but it's intentional. The larger audience I have for my story, the wider it will spread. And I want it to go into circulation...So it's up to you, ladies."
His words compelled the attention of every one in the room. Even Ann forgot her own problem as the doctor went on speaking in slurred rapid accents.
"I'm wondering whether you are the victim of a plot, Watson. I'm back on leave and have just heard of the accident in the lion-house. To me, it stinks."
"Why?" asked Sir Benjamin.
"Because no one seems to have heard about a previous accident to the same hand. These are the facts. Your employee—Browning—came to my surgery just as I was leaving to join up. He insisted on showing me his hand. I barely examined it but as it was in a shocking state of gangrene I warned him it would have to come off and told him he must see my partner—Ellis—at once. Apparently he had been shovelling manure after cutting his finger and had picked up a malignant germ."
"Bless my soul," remarked Sir Benjamin. "I knew nothing of this. Did you, Richard?"
"No," replied Richard. "I shouldn't have believed it, if I had. Browning's an inspired liar."
"His hand didn't lie," snapped the doctor. "This is the sequel. He seems a stoical bloke, for he went home to his dinner instead of waiting for my partner. Not long afterwards he was teasing a lion when it caught his hand. He told a fellow-worker it was nothing and he bound it up with a filthy handkerchief. When eventually he went to the surgery, Ellis condemned the hand. He explained 'A lion done it,' so Ellis naturally accepted the gangrene as the result of a neglected bite. It was so evident that he never inquired the date of the accident, especially as he had to arrange for a rush operation."
The doctor shook back his cowlick and sawed the air with his forefinger. Looking around her, it struck Ann that while Sir Benjamin showed excited interest, the others seemed to be on guard. Sir Oswald's eyes narrowed defensively when the doctor appealed to him.
"How does this business strike you, Peacock? Remember, it's not the time to be cautious. You are not making a statement to the Press. I want you to speak openly, as a friend of Watson's."
"The inference is obvious," said Sir Oswald acidly. "Speaking without prejudice, I should say the man thought he could soak Watson for heavier damages than he would get in compensation for an accident."
"Surely it would need superhuman nerve to engineer the second accident," protested the professor.
"Not in Browning's case," said Sir Benjamin. "He's a sort of lumpish half-wit. Very useful with the more dangerous animals as he does not know the meaning of fear. But he has not the intelligence to think out such a scheme."
"My point exactly," nodded the doctor. "It bears the mark of a different order of brain. A brain that was swift to see the possibilities of the first accident and make capital out of it. It was quick work. Browning was a lion casualty less than two hours after I told him he must lose his hand. Does that suggest anything to you, Peacock?"
"It looks as though he was got at by someone on the spot," replied Sir Oswald.
The doctor's eyes gleamed.
"If you think the same, Watson," he said, "Browning is still in hospital, but well enough to be interviewed. Make him talk. You could give him the works, but if pressure fails, he is bound to respond to bribery. Don't forget there may be other attempts. It's up to you to find out who is behind it all...Good-night. Give my love to the children, Mrs. Blake."
The doctor included every one in a general nod of farewell. He was striding towards the door when Sir Oswald recalled him sharply.
"Stop, Hogarth, please. The cap you have presented is of specially unbecoming design, but I would like to be first to try it on. First, I'll come out into the open and say that I am frankly opposed to the Zoo. I consider you a good friend but a bad patriot, Watson."
"Hang it." Sir Benjamin's voice was aggrieved. "I bought a whole blinking Spitfire."
"That gesture was suspiciously like a bribe in the grand manner. But in spite of my private prejudices, I need hardly say I dissociate myself from an alliance with one of your employees. Apart from its mean and disgusting nature, I have to consider my reputation. That is as much to me as your Zoo is to you."
The angry flush on Sir Oswald's face and the blue fire in his eyes made him appear so forcefully handsome that Ann could understand his wife's gaze of admiration. Then Richard spoke with gentle insinuation.
"A statement from you will be unnecessary, Professor. It stands to reason that you could not afford to risk the future of your charming wife and enchanting family."
His words made Kitty feel both uncomfortable and guilty as she remembered her imprudent collaboration with Ann. Dr. Hogarth had bred an atmosphere of general suspicion. She reminded herself that this charming girl—in spite of her surface candour—might be an adventuress and the accomplice of some unknown person.
"How did she get here?" she asked herself. "Big Ben didn't expect her. He just went out and brought her in. Like that. Found her under the gooseberry bush. Men are such fools."
"Well, Hogarth," said Sir Benjamin, "I can't thank you enough. I'll follow up your suggestion and turn the heat on Browning. If I can produce a signed statement from him there'll be a swing of the pendulum back to me. The British public is always out to see justice and fair play. Bless it."
Sir Benjamin was in a highly emotional state as he took Dr. Hogarth's arm and walked with him out into the hall. When the door was closed, Lady Peacock exploded in ladylike bursts, like a geyser inadequately soaped.
"Well. Of all the—The marvel is that man has a single patient."
"They flock to him because he knows his onions," explained the professor, who used slang as an antidote to the meticulous English of his lectures.
"I adore him," said Kitty. "He thought—he spoke. No second thoughts."
Ann felt suddenly cold as she crossed over to the fire. There seemed to be an actual foundation for her fear of a hideous conspiracy. Two attempts had been made to turn harmless animals into executioners. A tame lion was baited to attack its keeper—and a good-natured elephant maddened to terror by a most opportune mouse.
"Thank heaven I'm not involved," she thought. "This is too dangerous a place."
Then—as was natural to youth—she began to think about her private affairs. Inaction was making her grow desperate because of her enforced absence from the tower-room and the difficulty of keeping a watch. While she tried to comfort herself by the argument that any latecomer would wait upstairs on the chance of meeting the other reunionists, she became aware of a distracting possibility. If Stephen read her signature in Richard's register, he would conclude that she had come and gone. So he would not wait for her.
"I must rub it out at once," she thought.
Fortunately it was written in pencil so that she only required india-rubber and another chance to escape. As she gazed around her, Kitty Blake seemed to be the only person she could trust.
The professor's wife had taken advantage of a temporary vacancy to occupy Lady Peacock's fireside chair. Her green slippers were stretched to the blaze as she smoked a cigarette with enjoyment. When she glanced at the girl across the wide expanse of white rug—which rather resembled a soiled snowdrift—her beautiful eyes looked sepia-brown and still as pools of peat-water, shaming the artificial red of her hair.
Ann crossed over to her and spoke persuasively.
"I can't believe you are really 'Susannah.'"
"Ask the Elders to put you wise," said Kitty impishly. "How did the bedroom drama shape?"
"It wasn't a bedroom. I want to tell you about it."
In a rapid undertone, she confided the story of the society and its reunion. It was not until she had finished that she realised the stiffness of Kitty's flexible face.
"You had better tell this to Sir Benjamin," she advised. "You are a guest in his house."
"I can't," wailed Ann. "Richard thoughtfully made that clear to me."
Kitty's eyes clouded with deeper doubt when the girl explained the slur on her character, implied by the term—"Sullied Soul."
"Why are you unloading on me?" she asked.
"Because I want to get back to the tower-room—and you helped to cover me before."
"But I thought then you were up to some practical joke. An apple-pie bed or a booby-trap for Richard. I've played the fool myself in my youth....must confess Dr. Hogarth has made me feel very uncomfortable. I wonder whether one can trust any one. There are big financial interests at stake over the sale of this new property. And men will do anything for money."
"But what have I to do with it?"
"Nothing—except that you are such a lady of mystery with all your comings and goings. I can have nothing to do with mysteries. I've loved meeting you, but you are a stranger. Sir Benjamin is my friend. Naturally he comes first."
Ann realised that she had made a grave mistake in her second appeal to Mrs. Blake, yet she could neither blame nor dislike her. She felt sure that Kitty would never grudge service to others, while she owed her loyalty to her family and her friends. This very quality would turn her into a kind of enemy agent, on the watch for any suspicious action.
"It's worse than ever," she thought. "I've got her against me now. Well—I must depend on myself."
"Do you know Sir Benjamin well?" asked Kitty suddenly.
"I never saw him before to-night," replied Ann defiantly. "I give you that fact on a plate. In return could you lend me a pencil-eraser? Or is it too compromising?"
"I deserved that...Of course. Keep my seat."
Kitty crossed to her husband and made him turn out his pockets, in spite of his protests. When he reluctantly fished up a pencil in an india-rubber fitted holder, she grabbed it and bore it back to Ann.
"Cherish it," she said. "It's his ewe-lamb. Until it's returned, he'll be like the C.I.D. on your track...Oh, thank you for the chair, Miss Sherborne."
"Thank you for the rubber, Mrs. Blake."
They grinned feebly at each other, like friends greeting across a gulf. Then Ann turned away from the fire and wandered into the Arctic Zone of the window-recess, where she knew she would be undisturbed. She wanted to think out some method of reaching the tower-room without putting Mrs. Blake on her trail. She realised that the professor's wife could make a suggestion which would ruin all her hope of meeting Stephen. If she happened to think of it, she could advise Richard to lock the door which connected their place of reunion with the house.
"There may not be a key," she thought. "Oh, pray there isn't."
Her petitions were interrupted by Isabella raising her voice.
"People. I've lost a husband. Has any one seen my John? And how, when and where?"
"Your husband was in the smoking-room last time I was dummy," said Sir Oswald.
"Apparently asleep," snapped Sir Oswald, resenting the brazen question.
"Then it's time he woke up. The poor sweet has been sitting up all night over his miserable work. Naturally he has to sleep in the day-time. But I'm told it's brilliant stuff. I'm so proud of him."
"Shall I wake him up with a kiss?" asked Richard.
"No. That is a wife's privilege."
When Richard followed Isabella to the hall, Ann wondered uneasily what fresh development would be planned between them. She could not forget the horror in Isabella's eyes when Richard poured his venom into her ears. As she was in love, however, her suspicions was of secondary interest compared with her own drama. Suddenly she realised that a general visit to the Zoo would give her the chance of going up to the tower-room, if she could contrive to be left behind.
"They can't force me to go," she reasoned. "They may think me yellow—and welcome."
A burst of noisy laughter heralded Sir Benjamin's return with the Cumberlands. The three were linked together and John was in the middle.
"Isn't John Cumberland handsome?" murmured Kitty. "Pity he drinks. He's not sober unless he's really drunk."
The remark made Ann understand that John could still appeal to a certain type of woman as a fine man. His broad shoulders were thrown back, his blue eyes had grown brighter and the thick wave of his hair glittered under the light. Afraid that he might blurt out too much in his surprise at seeing her again, she went to meet him.
"Hallo, John," she said casually.
"Who are you?" he asked, staring at her without recognition. "I know I've seen you before but I can't place you."
"I'm the girl in the train," she replied boldly. "I smiled at you but you didn't remember me. I'm Ann—"
"Oh, yes, Ann. What are you doing here? I must talk to you. Very urgent."
John broke loose from his supporters—swerved to the right—when he stopped to chart a fresh course and reached her finally, after passing her on his trial-trip.
"Blood-pressure," he explained with dignity. "Makes me giddy. Ann..."
She saw a submerged memory struggle to the surface as he stared at her with distressed eyes.
"Don't stay," he whispered. "Bad show. Damn bad show."
She could only smile to reassure him, for Isabella flitted forward and took his arm.
"No poaching," she said. "He's my husband and my most precious possession. If you wanted him, you should have married him."
"Actually she was only a little girl then," John reminded her. "I don't rob chicken-coops."
It was an ambitious sentence but he reeled it off glibly. As though to reward him Isabella pressed a finger to her lips and touched his cheek. He responded with a glance of slavish devotion that told Ann that any hope of domestic happiness was but another pipe dream.
She listened eagerly to Isabella's next words.
"John, my sweet, try and influence Big Ben. I've failed. I want to say 'Good-bye' to the lions."
"Good-bye?" shouted John. "Do you mean they are going to close the Zoo. No. I won't stand for that. Lions are noble. They are real pals. They don't get you drunk and steal your wife. You're safer in a lion's den than you are at a cocktail-party...But I'm not fit company for the lions. Lions are noble—"
"Steady," interrupted Sir Benjamin, as John was beginning to go through his oration again. "Bless the boy, it's not as bad as that. We're only closing to the public."
"But you'll let poor old John say 'Good-bye' to the lions?" pleaded Isabella. "John and me. All of us."
Suddenly Sir Benjamin weakened. It was evident that John's outburst had affected him deeply for he patted his arm.
"All right, John," he said. "But on certain conditions. You must all place yourselves under my orders and obey them implicitly. Get your coats and torches and assemble in the hall."
Ann thought rapidly as every one moved towards the door. She wondered whether she had better slip away in the confusion, or tell her host boldly that she wished to be left behind. Before she could decide, Kitty came out of the cloakroom. She wore a shabby fur coat and carried another over her arm.
"This yours?" she asked Ann.
To save argument, Ann slipped it on, while she listened to Sir Benjamin's instructions.
"We must form a procession through the grounds. We shall be going past some enclosures, so none of you must lag or stray. It is easy to get lost in the black-out. I shall lead the way and Richard will bring up the rear. All go in pairs. Now—ladies to the centre and pick your partners."
As they hesitated, Lady Peacock gave them a lead by taking her husband's arm. Obeying the signal of Kitty's eye, the professor dutifully linked himself with his wife. Richard approached Isabella, only to be repulsed.
"No, thanks, Richard. Not while I've a perfectly good husband of my own."
The dazzled look in John's eyes showed that he was floundering deeper in the bog—following a flame in the gleam of faerie eyes.
"You are odd man out, Richard," said Sir Benjamin. "I claim the privilege of escorting Miss Sherborne."
It was Ann's chance and she jumped at it.
"No, thank you. I don't want to go."
"Not go?" repeated Sir Benjamin. "Why?"
"I hate to see caged animals."
When she played her trump card Ann lost the game.
"That settles it," exclaimed Sir Benjamin triumphantly. "Now you positively must come. You've got to see how I have solved the problem. It will make you happy to see my lions."
Further protest was useless. Her arm was gripped and she was marched through the open door and out into the darkness.
AS HER HOST guided her down the terrace steps, Ann had the impression of being caught up in the grip of some inexorable mechanism. The iron pressure of his fingers suggested a robot-hand which feeds machinery, rather than flesh and blood. To increase her uneasiness, he was wearing an old tweed greatcoat, which had caught—and held—a pungent odour. Sir Benjamin felt like metal and smelt like a lion; and this composite force was propelling her on through the darkness to some unknown peril.
Although her thoughts were confused, she had an elemental premonition of disaster, connected with the Zoo. Her ideas on the subject of captive animals were definite. She believed that the lions she had heard roaring in the wilderness were happier in fulfilling their nature under Jungle law and that, in spite of steam-heated luxury and super-rations, their imprisoned brothers must resent the agency which provided manicure and dental attention for red claw and fang.
She told herself that on one side of the bars was a savage and revengeful instinct—awaiting its chance—and on the other, a conspiracy infinitely more cruel and treacherous. If the two combined, they must precipitate some terrible tragedy.
As Sir Benjamin pulled her on through the darkness, her knees shook with sudden weakness. It was a reminder that she had missed her dinner and that, when she asked hopefully for poached eggs in the grill, she had been told that they were off the menu. As a consequence of unfamiliar food-rationing, her light meal had been in the feather-weight class and insufficient to fortify her against the fatigue and disappointment of the evening.
But exhaustion and frayed nerves were little compared with the threat of frustrated purpose. Until then she had not known the full strength of her desire, nurtured through years of silence and solitude. It possessed her so entirely that it was agony to think of any life apart from Stephen.
"What's the good of kicking?" she asked herself numbly. "I'll have to go through with it. Years and years. Others do. If they can bear it, I can."
Hopeful of gleaning some crumb of comfort, she appealed to Sir Benjamin.
"How long will it take to visit the lions?"
Unfortunately he took it for granted that she was hoping for a prolonged entertainment. His voice was apologetic when be explained:
"I'm afraid I can't guarantee any time or even anything. The lions run their own show. But I promise you I'll do my best not to rush you."
Although he was making her kiss the scourge, she managed to mumble her thanks.
"They'll probably be prowling about in the underground passages," went on Sir Benjamin. "But they have an uncanny way of smelling out the public. They like visitors...'Ware barbed wire. We are going through a gate."
The words chilled Ann because they seemed to indicate a definite stage in the journey.
"Are the animals roaming about free?" she asked nervously.
"Mainly," Sir Benjamin told her. "But there have to be certain enclosures."
Ann strained her eyes, trying to see her surroundings. She had vaguely noticed that instead of following the main path away from the house, they had turned to the right. The night was dark and windless and only a few stars were visible. She picked out some of the largest shining from shrouded constellations—Aldebaran, Capella, the Twins and the Square of Pegasus—while she listened to the excited chatter from the procession straggling behind them. She recognised Kitty's laugh and John's high-pitched voice; but they seemed to be manufacturing thrills.
"Did I hear Lady Peacock scream?" asked Sir Benjamin. "I know her devoted husband is squeaking like a bat to keep her company."
"But can you hear a bat squeak?" queried Ann, trying to force an interest.
"No—and that's why you can't hear him. But he's squealing all right. He's a funk. I'd like to see them in a raid, except for the Zoo, of course."
"I suppose you take precautions."
"Yes, worse luck. Bound to, under regulations. Richard, two of the keepers and I form the execution squad. Although I've never hunted, I'm a crack shot, and Richard doesn't miss too often...Is that you, Professor? Anything wrong?"
A burly form had charged forward through the darkness. Waving his torch with a majestic gesture he halted the procession like a policeman, while he drew Sir Benjamin aside. After an argument, conducted in whispers, Sir Benjamin went ahead, leaving Ann with the professor.
"Lead on, Skipper," he shouted, before he spoke to Ann in a low voice. "Hope you don't mind. I've just rammed it home to Big Ben that he is responsible for the safety of the party, so he must be entirely free. Sorry. I know you are very much a modern but it had to be that way."
Although it was a relief to feel the pressure of a well-padded arm, Ann became suspicious.
"Did your wife send you?" she asked.
"She did," replied the professor. "She was giving me a break. She knows how susceptible I am. When my boys are older, I shall warn them against women like Isabella; but when I see her, I fall for her every time."
"And did your wife tell you I am an adventuress? Is that my special lure?"
"To be tactless, she merely thought you looked scared."
Ann was too truthful to protest although cowardice was anathema in her code. Her keen ear kept catching distant intermittent noises—strange hideous sounds which would have been merely a natural feature of a zoo during daylight hours. She heard snarls and growls, challenging their approach. She was chilled by a maniac laugh as though some invisible watcher knew that they were being led into an ambush. Once she was startled by a horrible parody of a human voice.
"You're shivering," said the professor. "Are you cold?"
"No," she admitted. "It's funk. But I shouldn't. I'm used to this sort of thing."
In spite of her discomfort, she acquired some spurious courage by giving the professor a brief summary of her past seven years.
"Amazing record," he remarked. "But why are you so jittery now, Miss Livingstone?"
"Because my next journey may be to the moon. I'm scared of Richard. It's like all of us going through a gunpowder shed with safety torches while he has a naked light. But it's everything—the darkness, all these queer noises, and Sir Benjamin. He scares me."
"Why?" asked the professor. "He may seem an oddity to you but actually he is one of those simple souls who are bewildered by the world they find themselves in. He can't understand all the cracks in our civilisation to which we appear blind. But I can tell you this. He has not a mean thought and he would not do a mean action. All his friends love him. At the risk of sounding melodramatic I'll tell—"
His words were lost in a violent crash as though a barrier were being demolished by a battering-ram. The blows were repeated in a succession of thunderous cracks which sounded so near to her that Ann flinched, in momentary expectation of attack.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Sounds like Gentle Georgie," replied the professor. "A rhinoceros with an evil temper. But I was going to tell you about Big Ben."
Ann was not listening for, with every nerve aquiver, she was waiting for the next assault. The rhinoceros seemed to be keeping pace with them on his side of the barrier...Suddenly she was chilled by a horrible possibility. Richard knew all the animals' habits and could arrange for an open gate or a weak spot in the stockade. She pictured that great armoured shape with its deadly horn, charging them in the darkness, like a tank in battle, while she heard Sir Benjamin's voice speaking with the pride of the showman.
"That's Gee-Gee. Tame as a kitten. He knows my step."
"The Zoo is certainly a weird place at night," commented the professor. "Have you heard what I was telling you?"
"Not a word," admitted Ann.
"I thought not. Well, you shall do the talking for a change. As a stranger, how does the situation here strike you?"
"I'm not a stranger." Ann dared to speak recklessly. "And I know that Richard used to talk about inheriting his uncle's money seven years ago."
"That's enough to go on with. In strict confidence, some of Big Ben's special friends have no illusions about the character of his nephew. So we've banded ourselves into a sort of C.I.D. We are very zealous and far from subtle. The idea is to let Richard understand that we are very much on his track. I'll give you an example."
The professor began to chuckle before he explained.
"When Big Ben had tummy-pains, Hogarth sent up specimens for immediate analysis. And he let Richard know what he had done."
"Did they find poison?" asked Ann.
"No. It was straight gastritis."
"But you can't spend your lives hanging around the Zoo. That is the danger spot. Richard could fix up an accident."
"And afterwards? He would have to get away with it and that's not easy. He is the obvious suspect. Besides I think a zoo-murder here would be a particularly difficult proposition. The animals are tame and Big Ben has apparent control over them, while his strength is abnormal."
"I can believe that," said Ann grimly, thinking of the iron grip on her arm.
"In one way his power is a drawback," went on the professor. "He and Richard are both exhibitionists and they show off one against the other. Big Ben scores over the great snakes. He winds them round him and vows he can flex his muscles so that they cannot crush him. Richard is very jealous but his uncle has warned him off the boas and pythons. Altogether childish."
"Insane, I think. Imagine any one wanting to go around draped with snakes."
"It's the spirit of emulation. Big Ben has a full house to-night, and I am afraid he will want to show off before his audience. He is very excited over Hogarth's news. If he can prove conspiracy over these accidents it would put him in the clear."
There was no longer need to whisper since the noisier element in the procession had begun to sing "There'll always be an England."
Torches were flashed on either side of the track, revealing the metallic glitter of wire-mesh and dim shapes galloping away through the shadows.
"Stop singing," roared Sir Benjamin. "And keep your lights down. You'll stampede the animals."
The words reminded Ann of the elephant-house. But for the accident of his roll, the unconscious James would have been trampled into eternal oblivion. This furtive chuckling darkness held more than danger. While some were playing the fool, Death had passed by and touched his victim.
In a flash from the future Ann knew that one of them was doomed to die that night.
Then Lady Peacock gave a piercing shriek.
"There's a face in the sky," she screamed.
Disobeying the order someone had flashed a torch upwards, when the thin finger of light, feeling its way through the air, had caught and held a white blurred face—strange and unearthly—which appeared to be hanging in space.
As the apparition vanished the professor explained it to Ann.
"Only a giraffe. You must have seen herds of them in Africa. What's the matter?"
"Nothing," she replied, "except I wish we were going back, instead of being nearly there."
"Now, listen. Like pain, fear can be a valuable emotion, provided we use it to localise a danger. But you're flopping about—afraid of this, afraid of that. Try and find out exactly what you dread."
"I can't. I don't know."
"Suppose I help you? You are thinking of the expression in Isabella's eyes when Richard whispered some suggestion to her. Her look of horror may mean dirty business. Correct?"
"Yes. You're wizard. What a comfort to know. I just went into a flap."
"Fine. Now I shall rope you in with us to watch Richard and Isabella. Kitty is already on the job—hence this change of partners. She had hooked herself to Richard and he'll have the dickens of a job getting out of her clutches. In confidence, my wife is a very clever woman, although she does her best not to be recognised as one. She'd rather be a syren. Feminine vanity."
Again the procession was halted at Sir Benjamin's command.
"I want complete silence now. We are getting near the cages. Every one must go in single file and keep the line, so as not to get near the bars. There is a chance one of the lions might be on the look-out."
"Look out for what?" demanded Lady Peacock.
"Well, he might hook someone through the bars," Richard answered for his uncle. "Just to attract attention, you know. The lions are definitely matey."
"Sir Benjamin," called Lady Peacock shrilly. "Before I take another step I want to know exactly where you are leading us."
"To the inner cages," replied her host. "We use them at feeding time."
Again the procession moved on slowly through the darkness, while Sir Benjamin, with the instinct of a showman, exploited his sense of the dramatic. Creeping on his toes he directed them in whispers as he led them flush with a barrier.
"Keep single-file through the screens. I'm going ahead to turn on the light."
There was one effect he could not have stage-managed. As Ann was squeezing through the flaps of the doorway a lion roared. In the confined space the noise was so tremendous that she felt almost blasted, as though through the shock of an explosion.
"Hannibal's on guard," shouted Sir Benjamin jubilantly. "Stout fellow. He's challenging us. Friends, faithful Hannibal."
Again the lion roared—created the shattering effect of a fall of coal in a mine.
"He says 'Pass, friends,'" interpreted Sir Benjamin.
After the darkness Ann's eyes were dazzled by the light, even though it was dimmed. The party was crowded in a corridor between large cages which were empty with one exception. But while the almost deserted house—with its promise of a speedy return—raised Ann's spirits, it appeared to be a general disappointment.
"Where are Romulus and Remus?" asked the professor. "They are the star turns."
"My cubs," explained Kitty proudly.
While it struck Ann that the lions might have been named by a schoolboy, Richard underlined the fact with a sneer.
"You'd never guess it, but Hannibal's cage is called 'The Alps.' By the way, he's a killer."
"I won't have that said." Sir Benjamin's voice was stern. "It was an accident. He was a trifle too rough."
"It was only his wife," explained Richard. "And 'Each man kills the thing he loves.' How have you managed to survive, Isabella?"
As Ann looked at the wife-killer, she was reminded of his resemblance to a mid-Victorian relative in the family album. He was an enormous beast with a bushy black mane and a self-righteous expression. When Sir Benjamin extended his hand through the bars of his cage, he seized it between his teeth and then contemptuously rejected it, as though it were imported meat and not up to his standard.
"He's kissing me," explained Sir Banjamin.
Immediately Richard seized the lion's jaws and forced them apart.
"Like to see his teeth?" he asked nonchalantly.
Ann noticed that John watched him with an expression of shrinking fascination, while he laughed loudly when the lion shook himself free. Stalking to a corner of his cage, as far as possible from Richard's polluting touch, he lay down with his corpulent back pointedly turned towards his visitors.
"Thank goodness," whispered Lady Peacock to Ann. "That lion's got the most sense of the lot. Let's hope we can go back now. Frankly, I'm terrified of lions. Aren't you?"
"I don't think so," replied Ann. "They remind me too much of cats. But perhaps you are frightened of cats too. Some people are."
"Please don't mention Lord Roberts to me. I am very fond of cats. We have three. My husband frequently gives up his meat ration to feed them. He says you can't explain to them that there's a wax on."
For the first time Ann felt herself in sympathy with the Peacocks. Until then she had regarded them chiefly as types of vested interests. With a belated appreciation of Lady Peacock's admirable self-control at bridge, she listened with respect to her whisper.
"I'm afraid there may be an accident. There are too many of us here and Mr. Cumberland is drunk. Suppose we make a move? My husband will back us up."
Linked together in strange comradeship, Lady Peacock and Ann walked towards the door. As they reached it they were recalled by Kitty's cry of triumph.
"Come back. They're here."
Reluctantly Ann returned to a cage where two magnificent lions, with tawny manes, were leaping about in a state of pleased excitement. They reminded her of stage favourites responding to the welcome of their public and playing up to it.
"Miss Sherborne," shouted Sir Benjamin, "meet Romulus and Remus. Shake hands, Remus."
Ann noticed that Remus had anticipated the request. An enormous paw with curving claws was already thrust through the bars and clawing the air. Making a feeble attempt to carry on the comedy, she smiled and bowed to the lion.
"Actually it's not etiquette to shake hands when introduced," she told him.
"Idiotic trick to teach them," murmured Lady Peacock. "This corridor is too narrow for that sort of thing. You'd only be safe in the middle, if there were beasts on the other side too, and they all tried to hook you."
Ann began to think that Lady Peacock's common sense was superior to Kitty's alleged brain. The professor's wife was talking baby language to the other lion who was trying out the effect of a little intimidation.
"Don't make that ugly face at me, you great bully," she told him. "You're only the measly cub I used to take on my knee and dose with oil. You've heard some frank talk from me, my lad." She broke off to enthuse about the lions to Ann. "Aren't they divine? A perfect pair. In spite of their size, they're only babes."
As though she considered the preliminary turns on the bill were over, Isabella sauntered towards the cage.
"Hold my coat," she said to her husband. "It's stifling here."
A spectacular silver figure, she fearlessly stretched a bare arm through the bars. Aim watched her with unwilling admiration as her slim fingers stroked the lion under his chin. Revealing his open throat he threw back his great head before he lowered it again as an invitation for her to tickle his ears. It was merely cat technique on a grand scale but Ann became conscious of growing discomfort. The house was hot and reeked of the pungent odour which clung to Sir Benjamin's coat; but in spite of the torrid temperature she felt a chill of premonition.
She glanced at John who was holding Isabella's discarded coat—bunched up in a bundle. He had managed to free one hand and was snapping his fingers timidly, to invite the other lion to notice him. Somehow she was reminded of a small boy who longed to take part in the game of his superiors but lacked the courage. There was envy as well as admiration in his eyes when Isabella crooned to the lions.
"Good-bye, sweethearts. Don't forget Isabella."
"Go inside and have a kissing party," shouted Sir Benjamin.
Instead of responding Isabella glanced swiftly at Richard.
"No," she said. "Not to-night."
"But they expect you. You always go in. You can't let them down."
Isabella laid her cheek against Sir Benjamin's face.
"Can't you guess why I'm not going inside?" she asked. "They will know that I'm upset. I dare not risk an accident for their sakes—and yours."
"Really, I'm touched," muttered Sir Benjamin, his face working with emotion.
"It is touching," sneered Richard. "You take indirect risks while she takes direct risks. Same results. The curtain rings down."
As she listened Ann became sure that Isabella had lied. Her nerve had broken and she dared not venture inside the cage because she feared the man who dominated her will.
"You mustn't get a wrong impression," Sir Benjamin explained to Ann. "Romulus and Remus would never turn on a friend. I'll show you how safe it is."
"Oh, dear," groaned Lady Peacock, "when will this pantomime end?"
Sir Benjamin went through a door at the end of the corridor and reappeared at the back of the lions' cage.
At the sound of his tolling voice, both lions bounded at him and their combined weight threw him to the ground. As he fell they leaped upon him and the three rolled over and over, while the beasts growled and Sir Benjamin shouted. The performance appeared so savagely realistic that Ann thought Sir Benjamin was being mauled, until she noticed that the other spectators were trying to disguise their boredom at a too-familiar display. It ended in a pleasant demonstration of affection when Sir Benjamin rose to his feet; one lion placed his huge paws upon his shoulder and licked his face, while the other rubbed against his leg.
"Great show," shouted John. "Shall we chuck coppers?"
"For mercy's sake, don't," cried Lady Peacock. "You might irritate them."
"I seem to recollect a poem about King Francis and the lions," remarked Sir Oswald. "I used to recite it when I was a lad."
"At parties," said his wife. "I was a small girl and I used to admire you so when you shouted the last line."
Sir Oswald responded to her flattery by expanding his chest and clearing his throat.
"'He threw the glove—but not with love—right in the lady's face,'" he declaimed.
"Quite a juicy test of marital affection," remarked Richard. "Mrs. Blake, do you think the professor would jump into a lion's den if you dropped your glove?"
"He jolly well would, with gloves the price they are," Kitty told him. "You wouldn't believe how mean that man is. But I wouldn't want him to be such a darned fool."
"Yet it was the flower of chivalry," said Lady Peacock. "In these days when women swear and smoke, I should like to think that my husband thought me worth the risk of his life."
"My dear, don't forget the lines about the test being decreed by vanity and not love," her husband reminded her hastily.
"Would John jump for Isabella?" persisted Richard.
"Of course he would." Isabella answered for her husband. "When he's roused John has the courage of the devil."
"I believe you. I'd put my shirt on John when it came to action."
Ann heard the sound of voices while her ears failed to register the words. Her attention was gripped by a movement in the opposite cage against which John was leaning. Something glowed in the shadow—something like twin green flames.
"Tiger, tiger, burning bright—"
As the lines shot through her brain, she saw the lowered mask of a large tiger—a dazzle of orange, black and snowy-white—crawling across the cage.
It was advancing imperceptibly, after the fashion of a cat stalking a bird. John's back was turned towards it as he stood, sucking in unaccustomed flattery, but apparently it was visible both to Richard and Isabella. Expecting that they would pull John away from the bars, Ann waited in acute suspense.
To her bewilderment no one moved or uttered a word of warning. Every second the tiger was creeping nearer to John and she dared not delay too long. Rushing towards the cage she gripped John's arm and dragged him to the centre of the corridor, just as the tiger sprang at the bars.
Instead of thanks she received general criticism.
"That was a very dangerous thing to do," said Richard. "You might have alarmed Togo. He's quite tame."
"Tame as a kitten," declared Sir Benjamin. "Now you've rattled the poor chap."
"Personally, I don't consider that kittens are tame," remarked the professor. "They've often drawn my blood. They are quite gentle until you take your hand away and then they give you all they have."
"And John might have moved, too," said Ann defensively.
As though to prove his nonchalance John snapped his fingers at the tiger.
"Going to scratch my back, were you, old chap?" he asked. "Definitely matey—but the custom went out with the eighteenth century. I bath every Saturday night. Another old English custom."
"He's not so drunk as he was," thought Ann.
It seemed to her that his foolish blurred expression was fading as he frowned in an effort to disentangle the threads of a problem.
"Miss Sherborne," boomed Sir Benjamin, "I am going to put my head in the tiger's mouth for your special benefit. I promised you a good show."
With a pang of dismay Ann realised that—subconsciously—she had been dreading this moment. Sir Benjamin was going to put himself at the mercy—not of the tiger—but of those who were waiting for his death. She knew that it was useless for her to protest, while her brain was too numb to formulate any plan. It was an occasion for lightning resource but she could think of only the stale trick of pretending to faint.
"Hopeless," she reflected. "Lady Peacock would jump at the chance to haul me outside—but the show would go on."
Sir Benjamin was like an excited boy at the circus—the more so because the circus was himself. As long as he had any audience, he would not cancel his last performance. Producing a large silk square he explained its purpose to Ann.
"I keep it here for covering my hair. When I was a boy, I heard a story about a woman tamer who used to put her head inside a lion's mouth. One night a single hair got loose and tickled his throat. He just gulped...The poor fellow pined away from grief...Now who's going to tie me up? Ah, thanks, Isabella."
"Too late on the draw," Ann told herself as Isabella began to wind the scarf expertly around Sir Benjamin's head. It might have been due to the overhead light but her face appeared a ghastly green. She was like an implacable automaton, wound up to perform inevitable movements.
"Why did the others let her get in first?" she wondered. "They should have known this would happen."
She looked at the C.I.D., which, according to the professor, was always on guard. To her dismay they appeared too preoccupied to notice that a loosely-wound scarf would give the conspiracy its chance. The professor was showing his new lighter to Sir Oswald while his wife jeered at his failures to produce a flame.
Isabella finished her work by kissing the top of Sir Benjamin's head. Sir Benjamin turned towards the door and Ann watching him go with a leaden sense of destiny. A landslide was tearing away the side of a mountain and hurling it down upon him—and she could do nothing. But even as her heart pounded, Kitty darted forward.
"That fold looks loose," she said, pulling at Sir Benjamin's turban with destructive fingers. "Sorry, Mrs. Cumberland, for an unfounded reflection. Well, since I've done the damage, it's up to me to put it right."
She rewound the silk with such vigour that Sir Benjamin groaned.
"You've certainly made a job of it," he complained. "It feels as if my scalp was shrinking, like those shrivelled heads they sell to tourists. Thanks, Kitty. See you all on the other side."
Mrs. Blake looked at Ann and winked in token of mutual understanding. The girl noticed that she had attached herself brazenly to Richard while her husband talked to Isabella. In spite of their vigilance, however, she felt far from reassured when Sir Benjamin entered the tiger's cage through the door in its back.
Unlike the lions the tiger gave him no welcome. He took no notice of his owner but appeared too conscious of his spectators. Apparently he resented them, for he lashed his tail as he paced his cage restlessly.
"Good Togo," said Sir Benjamin. "Shut your eyes and open your mouth and see what Lord Woolton sends you."
He prised open the animal's jaws and then paused—as though to heighten the thrill.
"These preliminaries," he explained, "should be done to slow music, working up to a climax. Louder—louder. Now the roll of drums. Suddenly they stop. Dead silence. And then I put my head—"
It was over in a second. He opened the tiger's jaws wider, inserted a portion of his head between the teeth, withdrew it and then bowed to his audience. Patting the tiger's head he left the cage.
Ann released her breath in a sob which was heard by Lady Peacock.
"I agree with you," she said. "I found it a great strain. But the poor man enjoyed it. I suppose we will be allowed to go back to our bridge now that the performance is over. Even the lions have gone."
"I think we might go," said Ann gratefully. "Some of the others are starting."
She noticed that John was struggling unsuccessfully to guide Isabella's arms into the sleeves of her coat. Richard finished the job for him and then the three walked softly towards the door. There was a suggestion of secrecy in their haste which filled her with distrust. Outside stretched the Zoo with its lethal possibilities and in this dangerous darkness a semi-drunk John would be at the mercy of unscrupulous persons. Although her suspicions were confused she spoke impulsively.
"Where are you going?"
"To the ravine," Richard told her. "We might get a peep of the lions being pure and simple in their natural state. They look rather impressive roaming about below. You might imagine they were kings of the forest and not merely performing fleas."
Ann looked around at the C.I.D., but the Blakes were definitely off-duty as they chatted to the Peacocks. While it was proof that they believed the danger to Sir Benjamin to be over, she was not so confident. But if he remembered some fresh trick to perform with the animals he was bound to be discouraged by the withdrawal of part of his audience.
"Is it far to go?" she asked.
"Only a few yards," said Richard. "Coming?"
"Then come on ahead with me. The Cumberlands will follow my light. Did you hear—Cumberlands?"
Ann hoped he did not notice her instinctive recoil when he took her arm and drew her out into the darkness.
"For the second time to-night we are united," he remarked.
"And after you thought you had got rid of me. Too bad."
"I under-rated your intelligence, my dear. Now I know you better which is to my advantage...We have only to pass the outdoor cages and the solaria. Solariums to you...Here we are."
Ann gazed around her with wonder. As far as she could see in the light from their torches, the rim of the ravine was encircled with a low wall, topped with a railing, for the protection of spectators. Its rocky sides were left in their natural state and were a tangle of briars, bushes and rough grass slopes. Hanging over the bottom was a pool of strange diffused light. Although it was so faint it enabled her to see a dark shape stealing amid the boulders.
"Are you allowed to show that light?" she asked.
"It cannot be seen from the air," explained Richard acidly. "It is something of the sort of thing suggested for street-illumination but rejected on account of the cost. I need hardly say expense is no obstacle where our lions are concerned. We give them our drawing-room heat—and all that we have is theirs, including our visitors."
"Don't they prefer darkness?"
"I don't know as I am not a lion. Perhaps curiosity has brought them out. Hopeful beasts. One day someone may lean over too far...Cumberlands, get down."
The warning was needed for John was standing on the top of the wall and leaning over the railings.
"Look," he shouted. "One, two. By gum, there are three of them. Don't they look fine lurking among the rocks?"
Suddenly Ann became aware of a disturbing possibility as she flashed her torch over the sides of the ravine.
"Are we safe?" she asked. "It's only a gentle slope. What's to stop them climbing up to us?"
She was reassured when Richard told her that the sides were built up into a sheer wall at the bottom and further guarded by an overhang of rock.
"It is rather on the principle of a bottle-neck," he said. "No lion could possibly jump clear of it...Well, Isabella, have you seen enough of your beloved felines?"
"Yes," she said, "I'm coming. I only want to find my lipstick...Oh, I've dropped my bag over the wall." She flashed her torch below and added, "I can see it. It's not rolled far. Get it, Richard."
"To-morrow," he promised. "It's a daylight job."
"But I value it. My John gave it to me. It will be ruined if it lies out in the damp all night. If you won't get it, I must find someone who will. Someone not yellow."
"I will," offered John.
"No, sweetheart, not you," said Isabella. "You're another personal treasure. I value you too much to risk you."
"She means you're too tight," translated Richard. "I suppose I'm the unwilling victim. Curse the bag. Let me see exactly where it is. Every one—lights."
As the concentrated beam from their torches was thrown down the sides of the ravine, it picked up a flash of silver and displayed the bag lying on a bank of grass overgrown with briars. Ann knew that she could recover it easily, but she doubted whether a drunken man could keep his footing. To her dismay, however, John was fired by his wife's rare tenderness, for when Richard began to climb the wall, he dragged him back to the ground.
"Stay out of this," he shouted. "No business of yours. She's my wife, in case you forget it—again."
"Don't be a fool," urged Isabella. "I won't let you go. It's manslaughter."
As she flung her arms around John, Richard swung himself over the railings and began to climb down the slope. Breaking loose, John pushed his wife back and before either girl could stop him had scrambled clumsily over the barrier. He put on a reckless spurt to try and overtake Richard, and reached the bag just as Richard stretched out his hand. In the scuffle which followed, when both men tried to clutch it, it was pushed free of the briars and—dropping over a ledge—disappeared from sight.
"John, come back," called Isabella. "Richard, make him come back."
"He'd better not try anything," shouted John.
"Don't start anything here, you fool," said Richard. "We shall both of us end up among the lions."
Although she felt it was hopeless Ann appealed to Isabella.
"Make them both come back," she urged.
"I can't control them," said Isabella tonelessly. "Besides, the slope is easy."
"Not for John."
As she watched the two men sliding down the banks of the ravine, Ann began to fear treachery. She was not convinced that the bag's second fall was accidental, since it had shot forward in a silver streak, as though someone had thrown it. In the wavering beam of her torch she saw it far below on the lip of the rocky ledge which formed part of the overhang. Richard was crabbing towards it cautiously while John was descending with the fury of an avalanche, bringing with him fragments of the ravine. Amid the constant rattle of dislodged stones, they could hear the slide of his boots over rock whenever he slipped.
He was first to reach the bag—when he appeared to lose his footing. His legs shout out and he hung over the ledge, suspended by his hands. Flinging himself down Richard gripped his wrists.
"Hang on," he shouted. "I've got you."
Instead of obeying the advice, John kicked against the side of the rock and swung violently outwards. The jerk was too severe for Richard's wrists. His fingers flexed and John dropped down into the ravine.
Ann saw the flash of a tawny form as the first lion leaped...
Unable to watch the tragedy she seized Isabella's arm.
"Get Sir Benjamin," she screamed.
Isabella's limbs were rigid from shock and her feet dragged over the ground as Ann pulled her through the darkness, steering by the cages.
"It's hopeless," she repeated calmly, as though she were discussing an impersonal problem. "It's always best to let the lions finish them. They feel nothing. But they suffer if you try to help them. And it's never any good."
Although she was almost a dead weight Ann reached the lion-house just as she heard the beating of Richard's feet behind her. Instead of dropping down to the ravine, in an attempt to control the lions, he obviously believed any rescue to be impossible.
When Ann squeezed through the screens, Sir Benjamin was fondling a leopardess. He looked up sharply when the girl ran down the corridor.
"John has fallen into the lions' den," she gasped.
For a moment she thought Sir Benjamin was going to have a stroke. His face turned almost black from a rush of colour which ebbed swiftly—leaving it ashen and streaked with faint purple threads.
"Richard," he shouted as his nephew entered with Isabella, "get Farquharson. Bring rifles and follow me down."
"Can we help?" asked the professor.
"No. Go back to the house."
As Sir Benjamin and Richard dashed through the inner door leading to the subterranean passages Sir Oswald took command.
"Come with me, Mrs. Cumberland," he said, taking Isabella's arm. "A stiff drink will do you good. Look on the bright side. The worst is not certain...Who knows the way back?"
"I do," said Kitty. "I've often been here at night, to nurse the cubs. Come with us, Miss Sherborne. I'll lead."
As Ann went with the Blakes out into the darkness she heard the roaring of the lions...
The sound revived a memory she had done her utmost to forget. When she was in Africa she had seen a bearer killed by a lion. Although she had been appalled, the accident had been vaguely redeemed by its savage setting. The humans were trespassers in the wilds and she had witnessed a terrible episode of jungle law in operation.
But the catastrophe in the ravine filled her with the sick horror of a witness to an execution scene in a civilised country. It seemed obscene—outside the decencies of ordinary life and an outrage on the domestic etiquette of the eight o'clock breakfast-hour.
Suddenly she realised that the heavy rumbling thunder had ceased.
"He's dead," she told herself. "Thank God, it is over."
She was conscious of being in a hideous nightmare as she stumbled through the darkness with the aid of the professor's arm, but the knowledge that John could suffer no more was an unconscious relief. Presently Kitty spoke to her in a matter-of-fact voice.
"That's better. Relax. You've been as rigid as a poker...Now you're more normal I want to ask questions. To begin with, was any one to blame?"
Ann began to experience some of the traditional comfort of holding an inquest.
"It's difficult to say," she explained. "It was all dark and confused. Isabella dropped her bag but it was easy for any one with an average head to reach it. Isabella asked Richard, but John insisted."
"Then you think it was his own fault?"
"I suppose so. Richard tried to save him. But they kept saying all the things which would egg him on."
"I know...Well, this means Big Ben will lose his beloved Zoo. The news of this accident will go round with the morning milk and there's a meeting to-morrow to decide about the renewal of the licence....could weep. But I suppose it's worse for poor John...Here we are. Mind the steps."
When Ann re-entered the drawing-room she looked around her with a feeling of incredulity. Here—where white walls, blue upholstery and gilt chairs combined to create an effect of chill elegance and tranquillity—it was impossible to realise the recent tragedy. Standing on the snowdrift rug before the fire, she tried to get warm while she watched Isabella.
Lady Peacock placed her in a chair and Sir Oswald persuaded her to drink from the glass he held. In their opinion the tragic widow was behaving very well—which was another way of saying that she was quiet. To encourage her to maintain her glassy-eyed rigour, they yearned over her with pats of approval.
"Splendid, my dear," applauded Sir Oswald. "You are behaving like an Englishwoman."
"A war-time Englishwoman," said Lady Peacock to improve the compliment. "Come. One more drop."
Isabella swallowed mechanically and then suddenly pushed away the glass so that the brandy was spilt. Sight had returned to her eyes—understanding to her mind. With a look of horror—as though a grave had split open in the drawing-room, she stared at the open door.
Sir Benjamin stood on the threshold, one arm thrown around John. They were so dusty and dilapidated that they suggested a pair of music-hall artistes about to perform a comic tramp bicycle act. Both were flushed and beaming with jubilation although one side of John's face was streaked with blood.
Limping as he walked he advanced to the middle of the room—bowed—and then shook hands with himself after the fashion of a popular pugilist.
"Little Daniel returned from the lions' den," he announced. "Now, people, don't get me wrong. Any personal damage is solely the result of falling downstairs into the lions' dump."
"It was Romulus and Remus," shouted Sir Benjamin. "Never touched him. I'm proud of them."
"My cubs," cried Kitty. "I'm proud too. Husbands and wives, look the other way. I may be an abandoned woman but I've simply got to kiss little Daniel...Ah, Richard, you're just in time for drinks."
The professor's tribute to his wife's brain made Ann understand the reason for Kitty's impulsive gush. It covered up the gap of an ugly omission. While Isabella seemed incapable of speaking to her husband, he made no movement towards her. Keeping his position in the centre of the group, he gripped the professor's hand.
"This is the bloke who saved my life indirectly," he said. "See this?" He tapped Blake's skull. "He keeps some grey stuff inside the box. And when I was falling my own brain did a spot of work. I remembered his remarks about kittens and I realised that the wheeze was to treat the lions like kittens. I said to myself, 'You're safe, old man, as long as no one tries to rescue you.' But my noble friend—Richard—was risking his life to do exactly that. He had me by the wrists and was dangling me as a nice juicy titbit just over their heads. And here he is to take his bow."
He broke off to salute Richard who had strolled into the room.
"I knew," continued John, "that if you waggle anything over a kitten it springs up to get it. Therefore it seemed indicated that the lions would leap up to claw me down. So I kicked myself loose and dropped down to the bottom. Luckily I fell soft in a mud patch and there I lay without moving a finger...And the lions knew I was plastered. They behaved like perfect gentlemen. Just sampled my breath and asked me the name of my wine merchant. I want to drink to them."
"We'll all drink to them," declared Kitty, still forcing the note of excitement. "Sir Oswald, doubles for John and the rescue party. They've earned it."
After John had gulped down his drink he looked at his wife for the first time.
"I've forgotten the lady's glove," he said. "Only it happens to be a bag."
From under his coat he produced a grimy silver article.
"The book of words says I should chuck it in the lady's face," he remarked. "But I might mark it. Here—catch."
He pitched the bag with casual contempt so that it missed Isabella's lap and fell on the floor. Biting her lip in an effort at self-control she contrived to reproach her husband.
"Oh, John, why did you? It was terrible of you. I—I can't talk about it. I've been absolutely broken."
Again Kitty drew attention to herself by clapping her hands.
"We are all of us shaky and ridiculous," she declared. "Nothing like bridge to steady the nerves. Big Ben, suppose we play in the library and leave the young people together."
As though to indicate that "young people" was but another name for a newly-united couple, she beckoned to Richard and Ann.
"Come along," she invited. "You can cut in."
"No," said John. "I want Ann to stay here. You, too, Richard."
"What's the big idea?" asked Richard when the elder people had gone. "I'd take things easily for a bit if I were you, old man."
"Thanks. I don't need advice."
John's voice was curt and he impressed Ann as being much older, as though the tense moments when he lay in the lions' den had acted as a forcing temperature on his mental growth. For the first time since she met him he dominated the situation without theatrical aid.
"I want to ask all of you a question," he said. "Am I sober?"
"It would make no odds," jeered. Richard. "Drunk or sober, you can look after your own interests."
"You know I'm cold sober. And it's a horrible sensation. I'd forgotten what it was like. Things keep hitting me in the eye. Isabella, you wanted to see me down with the lions, but you didn't want to see me come up again. That sticks out."
"Don't be absurd," said Isabella. "If you take that tone you can hardly expect me to go into raptures over you now. I am honest—even if you do arrange for an audience to give you Dutch courage when you want to throw a scene."
"Oh, Ann knows all about us. I want her to hear too. Mary Isabella Cumberland, I give you notice that I am going to divorce you. You know there'll be no trouble about evidence. You've never paid me the compliment of trying to deceive me. I could stand for anything."
The silence that followed was broken by Isabella's laugh.
"Don't be silly, John. You know you can't live without me."
"That was true until to-night," John told her. "But when I saw you chuck your bag over and I knew you wanted to get me killed, so that you could marry Richard, I meant to finish it your way. And then, when I was lying down there with the lions prowling around me, suddenly I remembered that I wanted to live. Ann knows why."
"Of course, darling. I want you to live too."
As Isabella attempted to throw her arm around him John stiffened and pushed her away.
"Stop that," he said. "It's old stuff. I am going to marry another woman. I ought to thank you for to-night. You've set me free. Come, Ann."
Isabella stared incredulously as he took Ann's hand and they walked together from the room. When they reached the hall, Ann spoke breathlessly:
"John, you must go straight to that nice girl. At once. Before you weaken. Before you see her again."
"I know," he agreed. "Directly I've washed the blood from my face."
"No, don't wait for that. The gore will help to make her understand. Let her do it for you. She is safe to want to. And remember you must make her see you to-night. Once you've fixed things with her, you'll be safe. She'll never let you go."
"No, she won't," agreed John with a chuckle. "Janie's a sticker. I'll do it. Thank you, Ann. Thanks for everything. Give me a kiss for luck."
When the front door slammed behind John, Ann felt the glow of a happy ending. If she had seen him fallen from his pedestal and lying prostrate in the mud, she had also witnessed his first steps towards re-establishment. The fact that he was headed towards a normal happy life took the sting from a wretched situation.
Suddenly she realised that it was her chance to visit the tower-room.
"I've been forgetting Stephen," she thought. "When you are waiting for people, they always come when you least expect them. He'll be there. I know he's there."
Confident and expectant—she ran softly upstairs and down the narrow passage. The light glowed in an empty room—but in her absence something had happened. Under her own name in the register was scrawled a small characteristic signature.
AS SHE GAZED at the signature Ann felt a flood of exultation. It was proof that Stephen had actually been within those walls—that his hand had held the pen. Her faith was justified.
Until that moment he had not been entirely real. The trouble was that the years of separation had been so long and she had thought of him too continuously. Because she saw his face everywhere in the wilderness, it had acquired something of the quality of a mirage—sifting like desert sand through the net of memory. It was this dormant sense of unreality which had made her protest so fiercely when John was unable to remember Stephen. Since then, every one appeared to grudge him any existence, while James had even put him in the obituary column of The Times.
"It's true," she whispered. "He's here."
Her eyes shone as she looked at the forceful signature. The letters were small but boldly black, with vine-like tendrils at the beginning and end of the capitals. It was an admittedly self-conscious effort, as Stephen had been ready to acknowledge.
"Publicity stunt. People will say, 'Pardon? Isn't he the bloke with all the squiggles?' They'll fix me by them."
Richard had sneered as usual.
"Easy to forge," he remarked. "You are practically giving every crook an open cheque."
For the first time Ann understood that Richard had been bitter because he knew he lacked the ability ever to laugh at himself. Therefore, the absurd signature made Stephen his superior...
One moment Ann stood and smiled—the next she staggered, as though someone had dealt her an actual blow. Stephen had come, but he had gone again, while she had missed him for the childish reason of a visit to the Zoo.
She felt outraged by the cruelty of such an inadequate end. In a sudden blinding light she realised the futility of those seven years of intense longing and deep purpose, when she had sacrificed the present for the future. In spite of her youth she could have been a wife and mother, if she had not wasted her life—keeping her eyes fixed only on the horizon.
She clenched her hands in an effort to keep back her tears.
"It's not true," she whispered. "God couldn't be so cruel."
Her creed was her protection in the jungle, for had she not believed in Ultimate Good, her spirit would have been crushed by the constant manifestation of evil power in the wilds, where only strength or treachery prevailed. And now in her dark moment in the tower-room—this belief consoled her.
"No, not God," she declared. "But man can be cruel. Richard said this signature would be easy to forge."
She examined the name closely but without a specimen for comparison it was impossible to decide whether it were genuine. There was a strong case for forgery, since Richard had been trying persistently to get rid of her. If, therefore, he could fool her into believing that Stephen had visited the tower-room and been discouraged by its emptiness, the inference was that she would accept defeat.
"Only it works both ways," reflected. "If Stephen really came, he is sure to be rushed and he wouldn't have time to hang on and wait. He would think that no one had turned up to the reunion, or that we had all gone...If only I knew which."
While she rubbed her cheek in miserable uncertainty, a sudden possibility galvanised her into activity. If Stephen had only just gone there might be time for her to overtake him. Without pausing to think, she rushed down the dark shaft of the circular stair to the lobby. Its door was fitted with a Yale lock which snapped on being slammed, so she pushed back the catch before she closed it softly behind her.
It gave her a faint ray of hope to know that now the door was officially unlocked again. As long as a Sullied Soul could still enter the reunion was not over.
She stood for a little time looking out into the surrounding darkness and listening to every stir and rustle; but her super-keen sense could hear no sound of footsteps in the distance. With a recollection of her father's advice, never to get lured from the safety of a base, she turned back and toiled up the stairs again. With each step she felt conscious of a draining flatness—as though the present was not worth the effort of living and the future a blank.
"I'm sure something terrible is going to happen," she told herself. "I've had my warnings. John advised me to go and so did James. Even Richard had been trying to make me clear out. And I believe Mark is trying to get through to me."
As she thought of her dead father, she felt suddenly forlorn—without relatives or roots—and craving reassurance from some friendly human being. The Blakes were kind but they were too deliberately unconventional and she had no use for freaks. In that unstable moment of emotional stress, she wanted the support of someone solid and static—like Lady Peacock.
"I'll get my coat and go back," she decided.
Half-way down the staircase she turned giddy and had to clutch the rail to save a fall. The pots of pink azaleas below her began to revolve and the black and white marble floor-blocks started to melt one into another. As a rush of darkness swept past her she had a moment of sheer fright, until she remembered the source of her symptoms.
It was an empty stomach.
"Fool," she scolded herself. "I'll crash the kitchen. I can't disturb the bridge."
Although she steered a slightly unsteady course across the hall, she was reassured by the triumph of her common sense. Within the next minute, however, it suffered a further lapse. There were two doors in the back wall and she opened the first—only to recoil in vague distrust.
Before her stretched the darkness of a long passage whose atmosphere registered a change of temperature. The air was damply warm and tainted with some faint unpleasant odour which she could not identify.
Shutting the door quickly she turned the next handle and burst into the kitchen. The room was so spacious that it did not appear crowded although the entire staff of six females was in residence. It was both comfortable and pleasant with a hand-made wool rug before the large modern cooking-range and a shabby green tablecloth. A grandfather's clock ticked in a corner and a large tabby cat was coiled up in a basket as an additional domestic note.
Ann's first glance at the staff told her that it reflected a labour situation due to the war. Among three girls who appeared to be of school age, she picked out the housemaid and the decorative parlourmaid. A third child wore a white overall and was apparently on the kitchen strength.
A gulf of two generations stretched between them and the other three helpers. The women all looked over sixty and wore wedding-rings and glasses. Two were lean, with lined faces and gnarled hands, but the third was a stout dignified grandmother with a certain resemblance to the portraits of Queen Victoria.
"Real honest-to-goodness human-beings," exulted Ann, with a friendship born of her loneliness. But when she smiled a welcome, they all rose to their feet in a general movement and stood respectfully staring at her.
"Oh, please sit down," she cried. "I'm not used to palaver. I've been living where all whites are equal."
As though they sensed that she was not telling the actual truth, they remained standing until she flopped down on the nearest chair. Then the grandmotherly cook asked her a question.
"Do you require anything, miss?"
"I've come to cadge food," she confessed. "I missed dinner and I'm starving."
"Rebecca." The cook spoke to the child in the overall. "Cut some sandwiches for the lady. Use the ham."
As she waited Ann looked around her. Every one was knitting for the Forces with true village-school dexterity. Their needles flashed swiftly in and out of khaki or navy-blue wool, while they kept their eyes fixed upon their visitor. As no one spoke, she began to plug her travels.
"The last time I was really hungry was when I was bushed."
When no one displayed any interest she began to praise the kitchen pet.
"What a fine cat."
"Leopard cub," corrected the cook bitterly. "There are no civilised animals here. Orphan. Leastways, it's got a no-good mother. Soon that Delia will live in the house altogether. She'll be coming into my kitchen and ordering her own food."
Ann felt the allusion was rather too pointed so she spoke quickly:
"Is Delia the beautiful leopardess?"
"Yes. The master is sloppy over her because she's got it all outside."
Again Ann registered the personal touch. Instead of the flow of mutual sympathy for which she was longing, there seemed to be a wall built up between her and her fellow human-beings. Presently the constant flash and click of the knitting-needles made her feel dizzy again.
"The room's so warm," she thought. "I feel all queer and unreal—just as if I wasn't here....wish that girl would hurry with my 'eats' and let me get away."
As her eyes began to play fresh tricks upon her, blotting out portions of the red-brick linoleum with a swirl of black patches, she suddenly remembered why the faint odour in the passage was familiar.
It reminded her of a tropical swamp.
At that moment the girl in the overall brought her a plate of sandwiches and she began to eat them ravenously. After several bites her abnormal sensations gradually faded, so that by the time she had finished the pile her hands were steady again and her brain clear.
"Did any one call when we were in the grounds?" she asked the cook. "A young man who wanted to go up to the tower-room?"
"No, miss," replied the stout grandmother. "The front door hasn't rung since the doctor."
"Perhaps he didn't ring. He might have walked inside."
"He couldn't. The door was locked after you all went out."
Ann looked around the circle of faces.
"You are sure no one let him in?" she persisted.
"No, miss," said the cook, interpreting the silence. "No one."
"Well, thanks for the sandwiches." Ann opened her case and then remembered the scarcity of tobacco. "Does any one smoke?" she asked.
"No, miss," said the cook. "If women didn't smoke, there's be more fags for our soldiers and sailors."
Feeling reproved Ann went out of the kitchen. Apart from her loot her visit had been a success. She had established the fact that Stephen had not entered through the front entrance, while James had told her that the tower-door was locked. Therefore, the signature on the register was proved to be a forgery.
Although she was not fanciful, suddenly she saw a picture of herself carrying a lighted candle out into a windy night. At any moment the flame might be beaten out by a gust; but as long as the flicker endured, she could still hope on.
She told herself that everything hung, on the time element. Fortunately Kitty had demanded bridge and some good rubbers could hold the party together until midnight. Crossing the hall to listen outside the library door, she was further encouraged by the silence. As she was turning away she was startled by Isabella's voice:
Ann had forgotten Isabella since the scene in the drawing-room; but when she considered the peculiar horror of John's charge she expected the guilty wife to be broken by disgrace. Yet—instead of stealing away into the darkness—Isabella had used the time to repair both her appearance and her nerves. As she leaned against the door—an arm stretched above her head—she looked beautiful and completely composed.
"Haven't you gone?" asked Ann bluntly.
"How?" Isabella's voice was cool. "John's probably pinched the car. Besides, the longer he has to wait for me, the more steamed-up he'll be. Do him good. Really, Ann, I must apologise to you. It's too bad of him to get tight and throw a scene."
Ann opened her lips angrily, only to close them again. She was well served by her self-control; although she wanted to blaze away at Isabella, she realised that a high-explosive scene between two women might be good dramatic fireworks, but would not be helpful.
"It must be nice to feel so sure of yourself," she remarked.
"No competition. John's only girl-friend is a newspaper tough with a Scotch conscience. I'm not afraid of an affair with her."
Isabella missed the sudden gleam in Ann's eye as she decided that Janie would be certain to swing the events of the night to her advantage, since it included John's future happiness.
"Why did you call me?" she asked.
"I was going to warn you to say nothing to Big Ben about John's performance in the drawing-room. They are seasonal and don't mean a thing...But I see now I've been playing you too low. You won't tell him."
"Why should I? It's not my affair. I'm merely wondering where you left your car."
"In the garage—just inside the main-entrance gates. You wouldn't notice it in the black-out."
"Then how will you get back to London if John's taken it?"
"One of the locals—Peacock or Blake—will give me a lift to the tube terminus. You too—although I wouldn't advise you to stay."
Isabella did not reply at once. As she looked at the girl a change swept over her face. Her shallow eyes seemed to reflect some furtive horror from which she shrank.
"I'm older than you, Ann," she said in a low voice. "Three years. In another three years I shall be thirty, so I've reached an age when every year counts. But you're still a babe in experience. Do take my advice and don't interfere."
"What do you mean?"
"Don't get up against Richard. Don't try to raise him. You will see his hand only too soon...Coming in to bridge?"
Isabella pushed open the library door while Ann ran up the staircase. As she mounted she was reminded of some lines of classic nonsense.
"As I was going up the stair,
I met a man who wasn't there..."
She too was haunted by "a man who wasn't there." In addition she was badly shaken by Isabella's warning. When she burst into the tower-room and saw Richard bending over the register, she had an impulse to run away.
"Seen this?" he asked. "I am afraid your visit to the Zoo has cost you more than a tanner. You seem to have missed Friend Stephen."
She made a pretence of examining the signature while her heart beat faster.
"Is it genuine?" she asked. "I remember you told him it would be easy to forge."
"My dear Ann, you have the memory of a mud-dredger," he remarked with characteristic offensive comparison. "Sit down and chat about old times. Have a spot of whisky. Genuine Old Black Market."
Ann refused the drink while she took a cigarette. As she smoked it slowly she reminded herself that every minute she remained in the room was gain. She had to hold Richard's attention and make him forget that she was an unwelcome guest.
As though he could read her thoughts, he spoke:
"What a one-man girl you are. So you mean to wait up here until the party breaks up. For your information, the time will depend on Kitty Blake. If the Peacocks left the Blakes would stay on, but when our Kitty makes a move, every one goes. She's definitely meretricious but she does possess a certain vitality and animal magnetism."
Ann tried to smile as she looked at his dark seamed face.
"And now," she said, "I suppose you are going to cheer me up by telling me she is an early bird."
"On the contrary, my dear. Any excuse to stay away from her own family. Besides it is policy for her to suck up to the old boy, with all this sitting up at night to nurse the cubs. Nothing I could not do better—only I am not a mother. She doesn't do it for love or counters. She's down in his Will for a fat legacy."
"You mean, that leaves less for the heir?"
"I shouldn't notice it." Richard laughed scornfully. "A windfall to her is chicken-feed to me. I shall inherit a seven-figure fortune soon."
"Sooner than that. You saw my uncle's face when he heard about John and the lions. I thought he was going to throw a fit. How do you think he'll stand up to losing the entire Zoo?"
"Perhaps he won't." Ann spoke absently. As she stared into the steady glow of the fire she frowned in sudden doubt. "Richard," she said abruptly, "it's plain I am unwelcome. If you didn't want the reunion why did you open the tower-door?"
"I told you that before. I did it on the chance of meeting you. The girls were both jealous of you because the chaps were crazy about you."
"I was a lump of sixteen," said Ann sceptically.
"Girls of sixteen are women in some parts of the globe. You were developed too. It used to give me a kick to reflect 'That kid knows the finer points of dee-tees.' But no one could guess it from your face. You used to sit and stare at Stephen with saucer eyes—just like dear Kitty must have looked when she was snaring her professor. I was attracted by your reserve and your experience. Living with your old man must have been Zola with the trimmings."
Ann's colour rose with anger.
"How dare you talk of Mark as if he was a common soak?" she demanded. "He had the loveliest nature and he was always a fine engineer."
"Pipe down. If you like them that way, why not? But since we are talking about the past, I'll tell you something which may amuse you. After our farewell meeting, Stephen came back when the rest of you had cleared out and told me not to make a pass at you. The idea was he wanted to marry you when you were older. Naturally it put me on my mettle, but you faded out, so the matter never came up again."
As Ann listened the story explained her bitterest memory. After John sat beside her in the local bus, she still cherished a hope that Stephen might arrange to meet her again when they said "Good-bye" at Piccadilly Underground Station. However, instead of travelling back to London with the party, directly they reached the tube terminus he sprang out and boarded the Yellow-forge bus. She remembered John's remark:
"Maybe missed his wallet and thinks Richard pinched it."
"Stephen cared for me," she exulted. "It wasn't only I. It was both of us."
Even as she thrilled with belated happiness Richard clarified the situation.
"You and Stephen seem fated to miss each other in 'Evangeline' tradition. It's happened again to-night. In case you think I forged that signature I'll show you an old chit he sent me about a specimen-slide. I always keep copies of people's handwriting, on principle...Here it is. For Madame's comparison, please."
He opened a drawer at one end of the table and, after flicking through a bundle of papers, he picked out a creased letter stamped with the college address. It was signed "Stephen Pardon" and the Christian name was identical with the handwriting upon the register.
Ann looked at it closely before she spoke.
"How did he get up here? The maids say the front door bell never rang."
"Then he probably knocked at the back and bribed one of those village kids we are forced to employ to show him up the servants' stair....suppose now you have no object for staying on?"
"Good. Give me a ring some time."
"Never." Ann walked to the door where she halted. "Richard," she said in a low steady voice, "I know you despise the truth, but I believe you are telling it now. You want me to know how much I've missed. You want to be hurtful...Well, all I have to say is 'Thank you.' I used to doubt myself sometimes—wonder if I wasn't just a silly hysterical girl. But now I know I'm justified in everything because he feels the same for me."
"What are you going to do about it?" asked Richard.
"Find him—if I have to rake through every Record office."
"My poor fool, I doubt if he is in one of the Services. His line was research. He's probably tucked away among the anonymous brains who are inventing the secret weapon to win the war."
"Good. I'll find him."
"I'm sure you will—if you are alive. Nowadays life is so uncertain."
She recognised the implied threat as she turned down the narrow passage which connected with the grand staircase. As she reached the landing she heard the patter of footsteps and a girl bolted into the guest-room where Lady Peacock had parked her coat. It was the young housemaid whom she had bribed with cigarettes.
"Just popping in to see if her ladyship has left something under the plate," explained the girl, grinning guiltily at Ann. "Yes—good old girl."
She fished up a coin from the toilet-table, kissed it and twisted it in the top of her stocking.
"My luck's something chronic," she confided. "I heard the other bloke scratching at the back door when I was in the scullery. He was in a chronic hurry. I showed him the back stairs and he was up in Richard's room and out again before I got up myself. He was swearing something chronic."
"What did he say?" asked Ann breathlessly.
"Asked where the folks was. I said out and he said hell, he couldn't wait but he'd try to come back. He was in and out in two shakes of a lamb's tail."
"What uniform did he wear?"
"He was in civvies and all mucky. And his knees were torn, like as he'd been climbing walls." At the sound of a shrill call the girl stopped and cupped her lips. "Coming," she yelled. "Oh, miss, I couldn't let out about smoking before that old bitch—Oh, thank you, miss."
The story left Ann shaken and almost dizzy. Someone had actually see Stephen—spoken to him—heard his voice. She wanted to hang on to this witness who was a link between them, but the girl snatched a cigarette and fled.
Left alone she went over the points of the story. It seemed probable that Stephen had dashed away from some factory or laboratory, intending to stay just long enough to arrange a future meeting. The danger was that he would not realise the importance of a first-hand contact.
"If he can't get away again to-night, he'll ring up Richard and ask for my address," she reasoned. "Richard will tell him I didn't give it—and we shall be lost to each other again."
It was a jolt to learn that Stephen was not in any regiment, when she might have exploited her famous nuisance-value. In the circumstances, all she could do was to hang on until midnight.
It took courage to face Richard when he joined her in the gallery.
"Going?" he asked smoothly, accompanying her down the stairs. "Allow me to escort Madame to the cloakroom."
"Bear up." She forced a laugh. "I'm staying on. Stephen might come back. Sorry, but I've got used to being thick-skinned. When they saw me coming all the shipping office clerks used to say, 'Here's Trouble back again.'"
As Richard made no comment Ann looked at him uneasily. His eyes were concealed by his heavy lids—which reminded her vaguely of lead-hued pottery. He was wearing what John had described as his "hooded" look. It still had power to alarm her and she started when he spoke in his softest voice.
"Since you are here—as my uncle's guest—I must entertain you. Would you like to see the new Saurian Lounge? Lizards to you."
It was the last place she wanted to visit in his company but she dared not refuse.
"Do you mean crocodiles?" she asked. "Frankly they're no novelty to me."
"Of course not. I suppose you used to feed the pretty pets?"
"I did. At least, I used to chuck scraps in the river. I swanked they wouldn't touch me if I fell in, but I was jolly careful not to test my pals."
"Ann, you are amazing. Can anything ruffle you?...Now why don't you chuck Stephen and take me on?"
To her surprise and dismay she recognised the note of sincerity in his voice. He appeared actually human and no longer outside nature. As she was often the only woman in a camp, she had received proposals of marriage from uncongenial men and had always stamped out their hopes ruthlessly; but instinct told her that it was as dangerous to repulse Richard as to try and crush the head of a poisonous snake with dance-sandals. Determined to be honest, however, she tried to soften her words with a laugh.
"Thanks. If I wanted to be insulted every hour of every day, I would say, 'Yes, thank you, master.'"
"Think it over."
"No. I am sorry."
"Certainly you will be sorry. I offered you a partnership. Since you are not with me, you are now merely one of the crowd. I warn you, I use every one. I may use you."
"Not against my will."
"But against your knowledge. When I use you, you will not be in a position to know it or protest...Suppose we go?"
"I'll get my coat," she said recklessly, only eager to end the episode.
"It won't be needed," Richard told her. "This way."
Crossing the hall he opened the door she had mistaken for that of the kitchen. Snapping on the light he enabled her to see the length of a long narrow passage, with dampish rubber flooring and dark-green painted metal walls.
As she followed Richard, the air grew more suggestive of steam-heating, reminding her of a prospecting trip in the Tropics. The scheme had been abandoned on account of the difficulties, but not before every one went down with fever. It might have been the circumstances which made Ann hate the fierce passion of growth which the sun drew out of corrupting undergrowth—the beauty hiding the slime—the creeping horror of life, both animal and vegetable.
Earlier in the evening she had felt uneasy at the distant thunder of a lion's roar and grateful for the distance which divided the house from the Zoo. Now at the inauspicious moment, after a clash with Richard, she learned that the reptile-house was only the length of a passage away.
"It smells rather like a greenhouse," she remarked.
"Naturally," explained Richard. "We have a marvellous conservatory—a sort of Kew affair, only better—attached to the house. The crocs used to be there, but in spite of protective grating, lovers never lingered there. Their pool was too cramped, so Big Ben built them a new tank. A consignment of tropical monkeys and birds are due here—and they don't mix with crocs."
"I should like to see the conservatory," said Ann eagerly.
"I'll take you there after you've called on David. Needless to say, there was also a 'Jonathan,' but David slaughtered his pal. Don't mention it to my uncle and change the subject if it crops up. Now that David can offer her a home such as her father accustomed her to, he is going to have a lady-friend in exchange for Jonathan. Touched by my simple Nature story?"
"I expect you are pulling my leg," said Ann, trying to treat the subject lightly. Although Richard had told her an apparently straight yarn, she had an uneasy sense of some evil underlying purpose. Every nerve quivered as he remarked casually, "We have the big snakes on the other side of the conservatory."
"Then the conservatory's definitely off," she said. "I loathe snakes."
"And I adore them." Richard stopped and leaned against the passage wall. "The old man will let no one handle them but himself. Stinking jealousy plus putrid vanity."
"Well, it beats me why any one should want to handle them."
"Ah, you can't understand the exquisite thrill of their contact. They seem to be plucking at every nerve and spreading a glorious sensation through you in wave upon wave. And then—suddenly—the pressure tightens. You feel a throb of exultation at the call on your resistance. You exert all your strength—you struggle with them—you conquer them. It's power. Power."
His voice rose in a crack and the muscles of his face worked in his violent excitement. As he drew the back of his hand across his beaded forehead, Ann felt suddenly sorry for him. She wished she could draw near enough to him to let him share her own soundness and sanity; and because Stephen always laughed, she tried to do the same.
"I can't understand your craving for power," she said. "Personally, I'd swop all the power in the world for a firm touch with a mango."
He took no notice of her words as he looked at her with a crafty smile.
"Confidentially," he said softly, "I have a second key to the snake-house. The old man thinks he can keep me out. But I control every situation and every door is open to me."
His boast increased Ann's uneasiness as they turned at right-angles into a shorter passage and afterwards into a second long passage, where Richard paused.
"I must go in alone," he said. "There's no protection for the public. They watch through the grating. Wait and I will put on the light."
"Won't it be seen?" protested Ann feebly.
"No. The glass is painted green and the sliding-roof is closed at night. Stay here."
He unbolted an iron panel and disappeared through the aperture. As she waited alone, Ann began to feel limp from the stifling humidity of equatorial heat. The floor of the passage was wet and the walls were streaming, while the odour of musk mingled with a strong heavy perfume. Suddenly she quivered with fear as she realised that Richard could play a lethal trick upon herself; if he freed a giant snake, she would have no chance of escape in the restricted space.
As she turned to run a faint light glowed on the other side of the wall, and she looked through the grating down on an enormous tank. In an attempt to reproduce natural surroundings, its edges were hidden by coarse vegetation—feathery rushes, small yellow marsh-lilies and plantain leaves which gleamed like wet green enamel plates. It was a tolerably realistic imitation of an African swamp except that the water reflected a pale gleam of artificial light instead of the furnace of the sun.
"Where's David?" she called.
The next second Richard appeared within her range of sight as he climbed some iron steps leading to a platform.
"Look out. I'm going to bait him," he shouted, flinging a lump of repulsive meat into the pool.
Instantly there was a rush as of a submerged torpedo across the tank—a swirl of yellow-brown water—a snap of enormous jaws. Ann had a fractional glimpse of the head of a huge crocodile before it sank down into the shadowed mud with its prey.
The light went out and Richard joined her in the passage.
"Impressed?" he asked. "Of course, David would have put up a better show if you had swum with him in his pool. You boast of being matey with crocs."
Ann laughed in relief as she realised that she had terrified herself with morbid fancies. There had been no personal risk and no protracted ordeal. Unlike his uncle, Richard had done the job and was leading the way back.
"Mrs. Blake vows you'd like to feed your visitors to the lions," she said.
"You flatter yourself. I might feed the crocodiles but I would not risk the lions. They're particular about what they eat."
The characteristic insult told her that Richard was his normal self and no longer to be feared for that soft insincerity which might cloak a dark design. As they turned the last right-angled corner, the air was so much cooler that she felt refreshed. When they reached the hall Richard looked around him.
"Where is the lady in distress?" he asked.
"If you mean Isabella, she's in the library," said Ann.
"Amusing little domestic comedy. Hats off to you, you packed the inebriate off very neatly. Force of practice, I suppose."
"No, Richard, it was hateful. No man deserves that sort of deal."
"The fool likes it. He asked for it and he'll have to put up with it. He's her meal-ticket and she'll never let him go."
Once again Ann's secret knowledge of Janie gave her not only comfort but a sense of triumph. Even a cat—playing with a mouse—can miscalculate the margin of safety and let its victim crawl too near to its hole. While Richard and Isabella believed that John was waiting humbly for readmission to his prison, he had already taken the first steps towards safety.
"Are they playing bridge in the library?" asked Richard.
"They were when I left them," said Ann.
"That looks definitely hopeful for you. When Kitty is well set, only one thing could draw her from the card-table. A telephone message to say one of her children was ill."
As he spoke he winked at Ann. Accepting his challenge she deliberately returned his wink.
"Yes, it could be contrived," she said. "Of course, I should know what to do about it."
"You would advise her to verify the call? Very simple and effective. Unfortunately for you that would be impossible. To guard against being worried with messages from the college, the professor has arranged only for out-going telephone calls."
"Still I know my story and I shall stick to it," persisted Ann.
Richard smiled as he took her arm and drew her nearer to the library door.
"Good luck to you," he said. "You'll need it. Listen to that. It sounds as though the bridge is finished without any aid from me."
IN COMPARISON with the drawing-room the library appeared small although its proportions were good. It was one of those courtesy-titled rooms which retained its name, to correspond with the bell-indicator in the kitchen hall. As a concession to literary pretension there were tall narrow shelves of books, most of them legacies from another generation—English classics and Victorian novels, while the new volumes were mainly thrillers and books of travel.
Only one green-shaded lamp was turned on, but Ann got an impression of comfort from padded scarlet-leather upholstery and ultra-thick carpet. Her next glance confirmed Richard's words that the bridge party had broken up. Chairs were pushed back and cards thrown down on the table as the players stood engaged in general conversation.
The cause of the interruption was a visitor—a woman posed directly under the light and thus forming the centre of the group. She was apparently in the early thirties, under average height, strongly-built and compact, with dark expressionless eyes which showed no upper-lid and a pale full oval face. A coat of Russian sables was thrown back to reveal a tight black suit and a black turban cap hid every wisp of hair. Ann noticed the war-time luxury of silk stockings on her thick legs and also the large single-pearl ear-rings.
"Recognise her?" whispered Richard.
"She's vaguely familiar," replied Ann. "Someone I don't like. Who is she?"
"Dr. Pybus. The great Dr. Pybus. Victoria to you."
Ann gasped with astonishment as she recalled the shabby student—her gluttony for text-book knowledge, her glue-pot memory and her amazing capacity for work. Although her transformation could be a logical sequel to those years of slavery, her rise appeared to be unusually rapid. As she glanced at the square-tipped fingers which held a cigarette, she felt a backwash of her old antipathy.
"She looks terribly prosperous," she whispered. "How was it done?"
"She took the short-cut," grinned Richard.
"You mean, a man staked her?"
"Yes, but I don't mean what you do. You have a corrupt mind, Ann, and it refreshes me. And now, as heir to the Ganges fortune, I must do what is expected of me."
Richard swaggered into the circle of light—his hand outstretched.
"This is indeed unexpected," he said.
"I am surprised to find myself here," said Victoria in a low, forceful voice. "I've just been explaining the circumstances to Sir Benjamin. I was up in London for a conference and as I was driving back to St. Albans I recognised the gates of Ganges. It seemed a chance to renew our acquaintance, especially when one remembers past mutual interests."
"I am under a debt of gratitude to Dr. Pybus," explained Sir Benjamin. "My poor old uncle was her patient."
"That poor old uncle was a plum in the profession," cut in Richard. "Every doctor's Old Age Pension. But our Dr. Pybus was unlucky. She lost him."
"I consider myself lucky—or skilful—to have kept him alive for nearly three years," corrected Victoria acidly. "Your great-uncle was ninety-eight and less alive than any vegetable organism which shrinks if you touch it. He was unable even to register contact."
"Then there was no reason why he should not have lived on indefinitely if he was merely a collection of cells."
"Certainly it would have paid me better."
"Frankly," remarked Sir Oswald, "it sounds rather like a case for mercy-killing."
Ann noticed that Lady Peacock's eyes approved the quality of the skins in Victoria's coat as she asked a question.
"Won't you be very late getting to St. Albans, Dr. Pybus?"
Victoria blew out a mouthful of smoke as she shook her head.
"In my profession you get used to driving at all hours of the night. Especially since the wax when so many doctors are called up. I'm rushed from morning to night and from night to morning."
"Why don't you have a partner?" asked Sir Oswald. He added archly, "I understand that many doctors find it works well to marry fellow-doctors."
"It has its points," conceded Victoria. "But I'll never pool the results of my years of work until I can find a brain that is equal to my own. Of course, I don't claim to be unique. I only say that the average medical standard is mediocre."
Although she was prejudiced against Victoria, Ann acknowledged that her tone was too impersonal for vanity. She appeared merely to state a fact. As she stood and smoked she seemed to dominate the scene through sheer strength and success. There was not a sagging line visible in her face—not a wrinkle in her suit. The thin black arch of her brows and the pale coral-red of her small mouth might have been painted with the flawless skill of a Japanese artist on an enamel surface.
From the obscurity of the shadowed background Ann studied the scene. It was obvious that Sir Oswald was interested in Victoria while Lady Peacock was definitely attracted to her. Probably their attitude was the reason why Kitty Blake resented the newcomers who had wiped her off the map. She was no longer a social force, decreeing the length of a party—or a vital bond, holding people together. She had not spoken since Ann entered the library but stood watching Dr. Pybus with a blend of unwilling respect and hostile criticism.
Isabella, too, was silent as she crouched on the rug before the fire—in a beautiful pose, rigidly held; yet Ann was sure that she was listening to Victoria's every word. Sir Benjamin moved about—restless as one of his lions. Apparently Professor Blake was the only person to take advantage of the break. He lay back in a deep chair—a cigar between his thick lips and a glass beside him—absorbed in the enjoyment of the moment and his freedom from social obligations.
Suddenly Richard swooped down on Ann and drew her into the circle of light.
"Victoria, do you remember little Ann?" he asked.
For the first time Victoria was shaken out of her self-possession as she stared aggressively at the girl's vivid face. Although her own meticulous neatness reproached Ann's flowing hair and creased suit, her expression betrayed her jealousy.
"Of course, I remember Sherborne," she said grudgingly. "How are you, Ann? I thought you had faded from the scene."
"I've staged a comeback," Ann told her. "May I congratulate you on your success, Victoria? You are wonderful."
"Were you girls at school together?" asked Lady Peacock.
Victoria was displeased at the suggestion of equality.
"We attended the same lectures at college," she explained coldly before she turned to Sir Benjamin.
"I left my car in your garage," she told him. "If I had known there was still no proper drive I doubt whether I should have broken my journey. Certainly you don't encourage visitors."
"I confess I don't," admitted Sir Benjamin. "But I will escort you back to the garage. I always take visitors to the main gates so that I can be sure that they are locked after them. That is one thing I allow no one to do but myself. Richard is only responsible for the small door by the steps."
"One of the 'boy's' little jobs," explained Richard, twisting his lip. Catching Ann's eye, he added, "Now you know."
Once the entrance gates were locked there would be no readmittance. The Zoo became a fortress where no one could enter or leave; and since she could not expect Stephen to return until nearly midnight—in view of his double journey—the inference was that he would find himself locked out.
"He may take a short-cut and climb a wall," she reasoned. "He was mad on short-cuts and trespassing. It seems hopeless trying to meet him outside. I shall have to go with the others and they will insist on driving me to the tube terminus. They're all so darned decent."
Once before she had been swept off to visit the Zoo against her wishes, so she had learned to respect the general willpower where herd instinct was involved. It stood to reason that every one must do the same thing because it was the only correct course.
As she turned away, making a pretence of examining the books, Sir Benjamin joined her.
"Have you found the 'Alice' books?" he asked eagerly. "I've the 'Jungle' books too."
"I suppose you study books on zoology?" she asked.
"No. Why should I? I talk to the animals. They understand me, for they are my brothers. Of course we have books of reference. Richard keeps himself up-to-date—and I keep Richard."
At the moment Ann felt she understood the source of the warped and ingrowing passion for possession which gripped Richard—but even as she pitied him she remembered that his reward would be rich. Then—as Kitty began to show signs of fatal restlessness—she crossed to her side in the hope distracting her attention.
"What do you think of our Dr. Pybus?" she asked.
"Amazing, isn't she?" commented Kitty, pushing back a fiery curl. "I'm betting her hair is cropped like a man's and plastered flat with brilliantine. She could get away with it. She has only 'C-minus' looks, yet she makes me feel like a wet string-bag that's begun to unravel. By the way, after my frank remarks, I hope she's not a specially dear friend of yours?"
"Anything but that," replied Ann.
Instantly Kitty pulled the girl down to the arm of her chair.
"Sit down, darling, and talk. We seem to have something in common. Tell me, why do you dislike her? Have you anything on her?"
"No, merely instinct—and I've learned to distrust that. I remember a terrible little man—a society scientist who visited our camp—lecturing me on the lessons we could learn from the wild animals and primitive tribes. He kept pawing me and saying, 'Always follow your instinct.' But if I had, I'd have blacked his eye."
"Apparently he'd been trying to follow his own instinct," remarked Kitty absently.
She had listened to the anecdote with assumed interest, for her attention was gripped by Victoria whom the Peacocks were feeding with questions.
"Are you staying with friends at St. Albans, Dr. Pybus?" asked Lady Peacock.
"No," replied Victoria, "I am putting up at an hotel."
"Have you a reservation?" asked Sir Oswald.
"No. I can always get accommodation—any place, any time. There's always the local equivalent for the Royal Suite which is usually unoccupied."
"How nice to be rich," said Kitty in a high-strained voice.
"I'm not rich," explained Victoria. "Too many drains. But things are going to be altered very soon."
To Ann's imagination the words sounded like a challenge. She was wondering whether they were addressed to any one when she became conscious of Kitty's vicious whisper.
"Well, I'm one thing that blessed woman is not. I am a mother. I'm going home to my kids."
Crossing to the card-table she picked up a scoring block.
"Suppose we add up and settle as best we can," she suggested. "It's growing late for family people."
"My dear," said Sir Oswald, rising from his chair and looking at his wife.
Richard's malicious glance at Ann was a reminder of his claim that Kitty had power to break up a party; but even as he grinned, there came an unexpected protest as Lady Peacock sat down in her former place at the card-table.
"Suppose we finish our rubber?" she suggested to her host. "All these young people seem to have come from the same school. I remember my own school reunions. I'm sure they must want to talk over old times in private."
Ann gratefully registered another reprieve even while she was astonished that it was Lady Peacock who connected certain chance encounters with a common goal of Ganges. Then—like the others—she waited for Victoria's decision. Before the doctor spoke, she glanced at her watch and compared it with the library clock, as a reminder that her time was valuable.
"Have you still a room in the tower?" she asked.
"Yes," replied Richard, "my den. We all live in dens here, except the lions. Shall we go up there?"
As they crossed the hall Victoria gave a shiver.
"It's Arctic here," she complained. "Fetch my coat, please."
When Richard had gone back to the library she stood and gazed fixedly at Isabella's bare arms and back.
"Why are you staring?" asked Isabella petulantly. "Do you see me stretched out on the dissecting slab?"
"I was thinking," remarked Victoria viciously, "that I would like to put you into high woollen combinations."
"Help. I'd rather face death on your operating table."
"That would depend on the nature of the operation. The chances are calculated by statistics. I am always out to beat those chances. When I operate I expect my patient to pull through for the sake of my prestige. Ah, here's my coat, thank goodness."
As Victoria walked to meet Richard, Isabella gripped Ann's arm and began to hurry up the stairs.
"Ann," she said rapidly, "I know you've hating me—because of John. But you must believe this. Nothing has ever happened before like—like to-night. When you're in love with a man, as I am in love with Richard, you don't belong to yourself. I own I let poor old John drift...But now I'm terrified. I'm terrified to my very bones."
"What of?" asked Ann. "Can't you come into the open? It's all this guessing and suspecting that's getting me down."
"No, I dare not betray Richard. Besides I know nothing for certain. To-night, Richard told me to do something. It only seemed a little thing but I hate myself for doing it. Ann, I'm in hell. I must be loyal to Richard—but I want to save you. You've done nothing to deserve this."
Isabella's lovely face was so close to Ann's cheek that her hair brushed her temples. As she listened to the husky appealing voice, she fell under the old spell when Isabella was the brilliant golden girl who had combined beauty with genius. She tried to force her former hostility but found her accusations blunted as she reminded herself that she had no proof that Isabella had lured her husband to risk his life among the lions. The actual facts were that she had tried to hold him back and that she had personal proof of their tameness, since she was used to enter their cage.
As they crossed the gallery Isabella again spoke urgently.
"You must go, Ann. Every minute you stay you're in danger."
Go? With the tower-room only the length of the passage away? Ann shook her head with a smile, even as she noticed that Isabella's beautiful eyes had lost their faerie gleam and were haunted with the human misery of any woman whose man is threatened.
"I'm staying on," said Ann. "You know why. Stephen. I've got to meet him again. But if you can give me his address or tell me how to get in touch with him, I'll go at once. And grateful to go!"
Isabella shook her head helplessly.
"I don't know where he is," she admitted. "Neither does Richard. We lost touch with him years ago. Only one person could tell you. Victoria. She was always crazy about him and she'd get on his trail like a bloodhound. Nothing and no one escapes her."
Ann felt that—in her turn—her own eyes must betray her desperate anxiety. As they neared the door at the end of the passage, Isabella made a last attempt to influence the girl.
"I know that something terrible will happen to-night," she whispered. "I can't expect you to listen to me after what has happened, but remember this. Whatever I've done, I am human. Victoria is inhuman."
They reached the landing above the dark well of the spiral stair. Before them was the empty room—the fire brilliant in the semi-darkness. And because she told herself that there would be a time when she would see Stephen in the vacant chair—and because she associated him only with sanity and cheer—Ann began to laugh.
"What's the matter?" asked Isabella.
"Victoria. She was frightfully funny over your combinations."
When Victoria entered the room Ann noticed that her face clouded with disappointment.
"No one here," she complained. "Not much of a compliment to your precious reunion, Richard."
"On the contrary, we're a full muster," he told her triumphantly. "Will you read the register?"
Victoria almost snatched the paper from him, only to throw it down on the table after a swift glance.
"Stephen told me he couldn't possibly make it earlier than eleven-thirty," she said. "When did he come?"
"No one knows when," replied Richard. "Or even how. We assume survival on the evidence of his signature. But under the conditions to my reunion I invited the dead as well as the quick."
"Personally, I think he has been quick," murmured Isabella. "Too quick for Victoria."
Victoria took no notice of the remark.
"Most annoying," she said. "Why can't people realise the value of punctuality? I have every minute filled. When I rang him to remind him of this reunion date, I arranged the time."
Although she was conscious of Richard's mockery, Ann broke in eagerly:
"Victoria, will you please give me Stephen's telephone number?"
"I don't know it," said Victoria quickly. "My secretary gets all my numbers."
"Then it's in the directory?"
"No, he's not on the phone. My secretary rings his place of business. I cannot tell you what it is—or where—as it would amount to careless talk. It's very hush-hush, while I've lost touch with you. For all I know you may be engaged to a German."
Suddenly Richard began to assume the character of host—pulling forward the divan and chairs and producing glasses.
"Sit down," he invited, "and have a spot while we hold our inquest over the past. The whisky is unfit for human consumption. I can recommend it to you."
"Still the same peculiar humour, Richard," remarked Victoria calmly, holding out her glass to be filled first. Then she picked up the register and began to read the names aloud.
"'John.' Pretty boy, but too mobile. No concentration. What's his record?"
"He is Nature's nobleman," remarked Richard. "Always drunk as a lord."
"He's a brilliant journalist," said Ann quickly.
"Also my husband," drawled Isabella.
"Congratulations. I noticed your ring and wondered if it meant anything...'James.' I've kept in touch with him. He's done moderately well. Are there no candidates for your stable, Richard? Oh, I forgot Ann. What is your success-story, Ann?"
"It's obvious," said Isabella, speaking for Ann. "Our infant has grown beautiful. That is every woman's real success, Victoria—and you know it."
"Oh dear," yawned Victoria. "Are we to degenerate to a discussion of features? I prefer organs...And now only our host is left. Any progress to report, Richard?"
Richard spoke harshly from the background:
"Seven years. My uncle is seven years nearer to his ancestors. And I am now his sole heir."
"Not so good," remarked Victoria. "The death duties will mop up most of the estate."
"You forget the residue. What a residue. And the war cuts both ways. It presents me with a chance to make an excellent sale of property."
No one was impressed by the familiar boast. Victoria did not hide her sceptical smile as she drew out her fountain-pen and bent over the register.
"Here's my signature," she said. "And now I suppose the reunion is over."
"No," protested Ann. "Not till twelve. Richard gave us till twelve. It's on the card."
"The credulous Ann thinks Stephen will pay us a second visit," explained Richard.
Ann felt Victoria's eyes playing on her face like black limelight.
"What makes you think that?" she asked. "If you are in touch with Stephen, why did you ask for his address? Have you heard from him?"
"No," said Ann. "Just a hunch."
"The infant was always a dark horse," chuckled Richard. "The fact is she's been going native and can read the future."
Victoria continued to watch Ann with an impersonal yet concentrated expression, as though she were counting the beats of a pulse, or estimating the remaining minutes of life. As Ann remembered the tenacity of purpose with which Victoria countered opposition, she moved uneasily under the scrutiny.
"She'll get the better of me," she thought. "If she can't, then she'll wipe me out. But she'll get Stephen—somehow."
Her experience had made her familiar with only one side of the picture. She knew why men left home—but hard-luck stories confided to her over campfires had taught her to regard man as the eternal gull.
Sitting on a cushion in a corner where she could see only the reflected glow of the fire upon the walls, she sipped her whisky with a dreamy sense of warmth and well-being. It affected her pleasantly and potently, like the spirit she was ordered to drink in malarial districts, when the tropical landscape appeared a coloured transparency—seen through a shimmering mist of heat—and nothing appeared to have substance or reality.
"Look at that little boozer mopping it up," said Richard.
Victoria stressed her lack of interest by turning to Isabella.
"You're very silent."
"Perhaps that is another way of saying you are talkative," said Isabella.
"You mean I'm monopolising the conversation. Sorry. I am so used to lecturing an audience. At present, in addition to my usual routine, I am instructing Civil Defence workers in first aid. Voluntary, of course."
Victoria put her pen back in her expensive bag and, drawing out her mirror, examined the pallor of her enamel-like face. Apparently satisfied that there was no need of extra powder, she walked to the door.
"Before I go, Richard," she said, "I would like to talk to you privately. I'm experimenting with venom-serum, so I am interested in snakes. Can you show me your collection?"
As Ann listened a shudder ran through her, as though a myriad-legged insect had crawled over her bare arm.
She wondered fearfully whether Victoria's departure would break up the party as she walked down the staircase by the side of Isabella. Both girls were thoughtful, but although there was no friendly feeling to link them, each felt the pull of a common dislike for Victoria.
"She's got cold blood," said Isabella suddenly.
"Yes," agreed Ann. "Like a snake."
Again she shuddered at the thought of that narrow steamy passage which connected the hall with the reptile-house. She glanced at its door nervously as they crossed the expanse of marble flooring and entered the drawing-room.
"Richard said the natives had taught me to read the future," she said. "I only wish I knew what would happen in the next hour."
"Don't," cried Isabella sharply. "Ann, you're shivering. Are you cold?"
"Not outside cold. I'm chilled inside. Shall we sit by the fire?"
As they stood together on the thick white rug—now trodden into lumps—Ann noticed that Isabella kept glancing towards the window-recess where Richard and Victoria were talking in undertones. She placed a cigarette between her lips but her hand was so unsteady that the flame of her lighter swayed and went out.
"Let me," said Ann, supporting her fingers.
Isabella seemed unconscious of her help.
"What are they saying?" she asked. "Ann, can't you catch any words?"
Instead of replying, Ann asked a question. She realised that Isabella was strung up to a pitch when her replies would be automatic and might release the truth.
"Isabella," she said softly, "Richard mistook me for you when I first met him. I've just remembered what he said. Is anything planned for to-night?"
"Yes. No. I don't know. Richard never tells the whole."
"But you've been afraid all the evening. You must know something."
"Oh, don't be a fool. Can't you see how it is? Big Ben is throwing away a fortune a day. That money is Richard's. There's a meeting to-morrow about the Zoo. Sir Oswald frankly wants to buy in that rough land. There's a time-limit to his offer. Is that enough for a start? It's all boiling up—and there's only to-night between us and to-morrow."
There was a tortured gleam in Isabella's wanton eyes as she looked again towards the window before she threw her unsmoked cigarette on the fire.
"And now Victoria is here," she said. "That's the limit."
"But she's only come to the reunion."
"Of course, my darling daughter, she's come all this way from the north just for a girlish chat...Ann, I know you've been trying to suck my brains. This cursed whisky makes me talk. I never could take it...But I will tell you this of my own free will. I won't work in with Richard if it means working in with her. I draw the line at murder."
"Whose murder?" asked Ann.
"Hush. Not before the children. They're coming back."
Raised voices and bursts of laughter proclaimed that the returning bridge players were in high spirits. Kitty was the herald—her eyes shining as she patted her bag.
"My plunder," she said to Ann. "Whatever you do, never marry a clever man. Academically, I mean. They can't commercialise their brains—and this business of life takes money. Sometimes I feel I would do anything for money."
"All the same, I thought you sank rather too low when you robbed the baby's money-box," said her husband facetiously.
His attempt at a joke was a failure for his wife spoke frigidly.
"Not funny, because I did—and I've never been the same height since. I want to crawl on my belly like a snake...What's the time? The dear doctor seems to be saying 'Good-bye.' Personally, I can endure the parting."
Ann also glanced at the clock with a sense of finality; soon the party would be melting away like snow. But instead of speeding his guest Sir Benjamin made an unexpected suggestion.
"You'll be very late getting to St. Albans, Doctor," he said. "Can I persuade you to spend the night here?"
Victoria hesitated in characteristic manner. She opened her bag, took out her engagement book and flicked over its pages.
"It means some adjusting and telephoning," she said. "But I think it might be done." She added as an afterthought, "Thanks, I was just going with Richard to inspect the snakes. Now I shan't be rushed."
"We'll all go and see them," said Sir Benjamin.
Again Arm shuddered with repulsion. Another reprieve had been granted but she felt that its price might be heavy. She could not understand, her shrinking, since—in the absence of any dangerous encounters with snakes—she did not fear them. In her experience, they were furtive and unassuming creatures who shrank from publicity. If you followed the natives' instructions to stand still and close your eyes, when you opened the lids, the snake had always disappeared.
It was the feeling of general menace and the absence of any definite pointer to attack which sharpened her senses. She had escaped the blitz of 1940, when people used to listen for a faint drumming of heels, like muffled tap-dancing in the room above—knowing that it would swell to the thunder of the guns. In a similar manner, however, she strained her ears to catch any muted growl or faint roar from the distant Zoo.
Kitty who was still jubilant over her winnings, patted her host's shoulder.
"You're the man to show them off," she said.
"I'll show you the big fellers," he said, beaming at her suggestion. "I'm the only one who can handle them."
"Shall I go ahead and dope them?" asked Richard ironically.
Ann remembered the strong emotion in which he revealed his passion for snakes; she glanced at him apprehensively, but with the exception of dilated nostrils his expression was normal.
"Richard hasn't the right grip," went on Sir Benjamin. "His touch annoys them. Besides he hasn't the strength to master them. My own muscular development is unique."
"I'd like to test your claim," said Victoria. "Take off your coat."
As Sir Benjamin stripped off his dinner-jacket, Ann crossed over to Lady Peacock who had commandeered the fireside seat.
"I've only had one small drink," she said. "I didn't think I should see snakes."
"Indeed, no," sympathised Lady Peacock. "What an uncivilised evening. I shall be glad to get home to a domestic hearth with three cats on the rug."
"Hasn't this been the usual kind of evening?" asked Ann curiously.
Lady Peacock frowned thoughtfully as she shook her head.
"No," she replied. "To-night, I feel there is something I don't understand. And I distrust everything I don't understand."
"But that must be such a lot of things," said Ann tactlessly.
"Quite a number," conceded Lady Peacock handsomely. "I don't claim to understand anything unless I have experienced it. But I'm used to reunions. I hope you young people have enjoyed yours. So often there is disappointment."
"I think you are very clever to have spotted it. It's meant to be a secret."
"They always are. That's why I knew it was a reunion, because no one else knew. Besides, how could Dr. Pybus see the gates of Ganges in the black-out, unless she was looking out for them? And now I'm afraid Mrs. Blake wants to dig us out of our cosy nest."
Kitty advanced clapping her hands to attract attention. In making an effort to recapture her supremacy she was rather overdoing her efforts.
"Big Ben is ready to do his stuff," she said. "Come, for pity's sake, or we shall be here all night. When I do get home, I expect to find my baby has grown a moustache."
"What was Dr. Pybus doing to Sir Benjamin?" asked Lady Peacock.
"Tossing off an impromptu lecture on anatomy, illustrated by cuts at Big Ben. She's damnably clever. My ears didn't want to listen, but my brain insisted...Come on."
When Ann pleaded to be spared the exhibition, she caught hold of her hands and dragged her to her feet.
"Big Ben will be disappointed if you don't show up," she insisted. "He loves an audience. There's no danger. We watch him through glass."
For the sake of moral support Ann remained by Lady Peacock's side as they crossed the hall and joined the procession already filing down the narrow passage. Instead of following its length, Kitty—who had run on ahead to lead them—stopped about a third of its way down and opened a door which looked like a panel in the painted metallic wall. They entered an enormous glass-house, filled with tropical plants and trees, and then walked across a broad rubber-paved pathway to a door on its opposite side.
The lighting was too dim to allow Ann to see much of the building—which seemed to stretch out endlessly on either side, into a tangled green distance—but she caught the gleam of watery surfaces and wished she could explore the place. It was built on a colossal scale for private ownership and made her understand Richard's anxiety over his uncle's expenditure.
The rest of the party had already passed through the end door and was streaming out into a passage which was broader than that on the opposite side. Directly facing them was another glass-house. Its panes ware misted but an expanse had been wiped recently to allow the party to peer into a creeper-bound twilight, striped with the trunks of tropical trees. It seemed another ambitious attempt to reproduce natural surroundings and was sufficiently realistic to make her appreciate Sir Benjamin's daring.
Suddenly he emerged from the background as a dim white posturing figure. He had taken off his coat and trousers—probably as a concession to the prejudices of the snakes—and wore only a shirt and short pants. Although he was overdressed compared with any circus performer, Lady Peacock snorted with disgust.
"Really. Oswald, are you going to allow it? He should not do it before girls."
"I hope you will remember I am a doctor," said Victoria.
"If it comes to that," said Ann, "I grew used to natives in the buff."
The authority in the professor's voice enforced silence and Ann listened to his warning with respect.
"I need not ask you to be perfectly silent, since you all possess intelligence and self-control. You know you must neither laugh nor talk. Above all, don't cry out if you feel nervous."
"Can the snakes hear?" asked Lady Peacock in a whisper. "There is glass between us."
"They might be startled by a shrill or loud sound. We dare not expose Sir Benjamin to any risk. Safety first."
"Look," said Isabella in a low throbbing voice.
Sir Benjamin had finished his stretching exercises and walked up to a shadowed corner. He stood on his toes and stretched out his hands as though he was straining to pluck fruit. The next second he came back under the light, with a huge tree-python draped loosely around his neck—much as a woman wears her fur in hot weather.
"I'm not going to watch," Ann told herself firmly as she stared at Sir Benjamin with a fascinated gaze. She did not remove her eyes from him when he proceeded to stretch and stroke the reptile—encouraging it to coil around his trunk, his head, his limbs—in a piece of living drapery. His movements were so flexible and rhythmic and his touch so sure that she was fascinated by the spectacle.
Suddenly Kitty gave a horrified gasp...From the far end of the snake-house, Richard was forcing his way through a curtain of matted creepers. In the dim light his seamed face looked like scorched rind and his eyes were blazing with triumph as he grappled with the coils of a large boa.
A woman screamed—a high shrill shriek which was cut off as sharply as a pistol crack.
Ann shut her eyes tightly so that she might be spared any scene or horror but her imagination constructed a tragedy from Kitty's gasps of terrified excitement. One of the men was breathing heavily and Lady Peacock clicked continually after the fashion of old ladies at a Cinema during a war-atrocity newsreel. Then suddenly she heard Kitty's voice strangled by a sob.
"Oh, thank God, that's over. Let's all get back before they come out. I want to be spared an affectionate family row."
Ann opened her eyes and stared at the darkened snake-house.
"What happened?" she asked.
"It was a marvellous thrill," Kitty told her. "Now it's over, I wouldn't have missed it. Big Ben just unzipped his snake and hung it on a peg, so to speak, and then he wrestled with Richard's snake. It was quite out of control. They had a terrific fight. You could see it tightening its coils and Richard sweating and biting his lips—but Big Ben mastered it and got it all unwound."
"The old devil loved every second of it," chuckled the professor. "What a humiliation for poor Richard."
"That reminds me," said Sir Oswald. "Who screamed?"
As the silence remained unbroken the professor spoke:
"I propose no inquests. There are five ladies here to share the reproach—if any. Personally, I consider it was very charming and feminine. Let's get out of this. Kitty, lead on."
After they had crossed the large glass-house and were getting near to the hall, Ann spoke to him in a whisper.
"I believe you know who screamed."
"I do," he told her. "Actually I had to put in some rough work with the lady. But she got the idea directly I started to throttle her and she dried up immediately. If I tell you who she was, will you keep it a secret?"
"I swear. After that, I suppose it was your wife?"
"Wrong. It was the cool professional Dr. Pybus."
"Victoria? But she wouldn't lose her head...Did she do it on purpose?"
"That's a question I'm asking myself," said the professor. "But the answer doesn't make sense."
THE EXPLANATION did not satisfy Ann, because she saw no reason why the professor should confide in her. She knew that he had not drunk enough to be in an expansive mood, while she was a stranger to him. The inference was that—in order to shield someone else—he was trying to put her off the scent and that he had selected purposely the most unlikely person.
"It's got to be an outsider," she reflected. "And he'll tell Victoria, in strict confidence, that it was me."
When they reached the hall she murmured an excuse and ran upstairs—covering three shallow treads at each spring. Although it was too early to expect Stephen, she wanted to be alone for a short time, to relax and try to clear her brain, lighting a cigarette, she curled up before the fire, while she concentrated on the possible source of the scream.
"It's most likely to have been nerves pure and simple," she told herself. "But in that case, why did the professor try to cover up? Of course, it might be someone who cares for Richard and only realised his immediate danger. That could only be Isabella. Or it might be someone who hates him and who screamed purposely to startle the snake. Well, I don't know these people well enough to guess who that might be...Or—"
Her face grew graver as she considered the accident from a fresh angle. It was possible that Richard was merely incidental to the plot and that, in reality, it was directed against Sir Benjamin. In spite of his strength the odds were against him, for if the conflict had been a public exhibition, nearly every one in the audience would have put his money on the snake.
Ann frowned as she stubbed out her cigarette and rose to her feet. She felt reluctant to go back to the drawing-room but she knew that she must not be absent too long, since she would have to return intermittently to the tower-room. On her way downstairs she suddenly wearied of the cumulative strain of a situation where she was doomed to the fate of a Wandering Jew—upstairs and downstairs and in the tower-room—while the future held no definite promise.
"He won't come back," she told herself hopelessly.
Even as she weakened she had a clear vision of the hotel—its lights and its super-luxury—judged by her unsophisticated standard. At that moment she might be lying in a comfortable bed, a telephone beside her and a private bath near her. In the morning she could arrange to join one of the Services, and, with the youth of the nation in uniform, she was assured of companionship and probably romance.
"Suppose I hadn't come to the reunion," she thought. "To-night's a fork."
She remembered a prospecting trip when they had blazed a trail, only to be confused ultimately by an intersection of tracks. At that moment she might be following the wrong path. Then she reflected that if someone was marked out as victim of a plot—as a stranger she would be in no danger as long as she did not interfere deliberately.
Directly she entered the drawing-room she was aware of the lack of party-spirit. The Peacocks stood over the fire—the Blakes were seated at a gilt table in a corner. Midway between the two was Victoria, reading what appeared to be a pamphlet. As she seemed engrossed, and the Blakes were talking together in low tones, Ann approached the Peacocks. She noticed that Sir Oswald's fine face was flushed while he spoke to his wife with emphasis.
"Nothing. Say nothing. I never explain or justify myself when I am attacked."
"But business integrity is not the same as personal reputation," argued his wife. "Sharp practice is allowed and even expected in business. You yourself—"
She broke off as the girl approached and explained the cause of her agitation.
"I know every one thinks I screamed, because of what happened before you came. Sir Benjamin had a leopardess in the house—a not uncommon practice according to the Blakes—but I'm not intimate here. It stands to reason that if you hear a savage growl outside the drawing-room door, you wonder who is standing outside. Before I could control myself I screamed...And again, when we were going through the grounds, I was startled by that face right up in the sky. Giraffes look so peculiar."
"And now," summed up Sir Oswald, "my wife is sensitive of being accused of endangering life."
"But every one must know it wasn't you, Lady Peacock," said Ann. "If it was, you'd be first to own up."
Lady Peacock sucked in the corners of her mouth with gratified pride.
"It's true," she said, "that I went to a school with a very high reputation. I don't say a pupil never told a lie; but I do say no one was ever convicted of telling one."
Then she lowered her voice.
"Personally, I suspect Mrs. Blake. She is so excitable. Besides, her standard is different from mine. While I could never take any advantage at cards, she has another code."
As she glanced across at the professor's wife, Ann had an unpleasant experience of the poison generated by a slanderous statement. She remembered Richard's remark that Mrs. Blake would inherit a legacy at Sir Benjamin's death and she connected it with Kitty's own statement that she would do anything for money. Apparently the Blakes had a moderate income to meet expensive tastes and the needs of a family. In such circumstances, it was possible to understand the strength of a lightning temptation.
As she looked at her, owing to a trick of the overhanging electric candles, Kitty's reflection in the mirror was not attractive. Her face appeared drawn and crafty, so that it was easy to believe anything to her discredit. Then the professor caught Ann's eye and beckoned to her to join them and her doubts faded away.
"Look at the doctor," whispered Kitty. "She thinks she's Malta—impregnable and splendidly isolated. I bet she's reading Susie's Sunshine Stories."
"Where are the others?" asked Ann.
"Isabella is probably consoling her Richard," said the professor. "Poor old Peacock looks sour. He's quite a humane bloke but all the same, he wouldn't object to getting hold of some of Big Ben's property by an Act of God."
Ann recognised a well-known practice known as passing the buck. Suddenly she sickened of a situation where the atmosphere was so charged with suspicion that it was expedient to walk warily and trust no one. She had an uneasy sense of an ambush where danger was disguised by familiar trappings and where the next step might release the springs of a trap. Her feeling was so destructive to morale that when Sir Benjamin came into the drawing-room, she went impulsively to meet him.
As he smiled bashfully at her, he reminded her of an overgrown schoolboy who had sung a solo at his school concert. She knew that he was longing for her to mention his performance, since modesty would not allow him to allude to it.
"Congratulations," she said. "I've never seen anything like the way you manipulated those coils. They rippled almost like music or flowing water."
"That's sympathy," he explained, his face lighting up with pleasure. "Kaa was working in with me. We understand each other and he enjoys my handling him...What did you think of the fight?"
"I didn't watch it."
"Oh." Sir Benjamin's voice was disappointed. Then his bitter lips relaxed in a smile which touched his face with momentary beauty. "I'm glad," he said. "It hurts me to conquer a friend. You remember Browning's poem of the man who let a horse-thief get away with his favourite mare, rather than have her beaten in speed?" His eyes were moist as he quoted, "'You never have loved my Pearl.'"
In contraction of his words, he flushed with gratified vanity when Kitty caught his eye and gave him a Nazi salute.
"Heil," she called. "I never knew you were quite so strong, Big Ben. As a wife-beater you'd be a sensation."
Ann thought rapidly, for she knew that Sir Benjamin was straining to listen to Kitty's praise. She distrusted their meeting—since it was but a biological step from a wife to a mother—and at any moment Mrs. Blake might remember her family and insist on going home. Suddenly she thought of a refuge where she might hide away from officious offers of escort.
"Sir Benjamin," she asked, "might I go through that marvellous conservatory of yours?"
"Certainly," he agreed, "I'll tell Richard to show you round."
"Please don't. I'd rather explore on my own."
"No. Someone must go with you. It's my rule."
"Why? There's no danger, is there?"
"Of course not." Sir Benjamin spoke harshly. "There is no danger anywhere in my Zoo. I protect the public against all risks. Accidents can happen only if they deliberately disobey my precautions and then they have only themselves to blame...I'll tell Richard."
Sir Benjamin went out of the room and Ann heard his gong-like voice booming out his nephew's name. The Peacock's had joined the Blakes, while Victoria—with a belated sense of her position as a guest—was putting the pamphlet back into her bag. As Sir Benjamin returned to the drawing-room Ann stole out into the hall.
As she hesitated she was startled by a hail of rapid footsteps upon the stairs. Isabella was rushing downwards with a reckless speed suggestive of panic flight. Her eyes were wild—her lips parted—while every look and movement expressed urgency and haste. Gripping Ann's arm, she spoke in a rapid whisper.
"Ann, you can save yourself. Say 'Yes' to Richard. It's only for to-night. You can break it off to-morrow. Say 'Yes.'...Hush, he's coming."
Like a silver streak Isabella shot across the hall and disappeared into the library, while Ann watched her go with distrustful eyes. Her face wore the wary expression of a wild creature that scents a trap. Every instinct of self-preservation warned her to steer clear of entanglements, especially as it seemed to her that Isabella was trying to rush her into joining some conspiracy.
"I must keep neutral," she reminded herself as Richard appeared on the landing. When he reached the hall he bowed to her with stressed humility.
"At your service," he said. "My uncle has ordered me to show you the Tropical House. For your information, the staff is not allowed to receive tips."
Ann managed to force a laugh.
"Not a hope," she told him. "It's the other way round. I should expect a tip from the future lord of the manor. But honestly, Richard, I'd much rather wander round alone."
"Of course you would. Unluckily for you, my poor sap, you are public and one of my jobs is to see the public doesn't pinch the flowers."
"Thanks. I've seen too many orchids growing wild to feel tempted. But I suppose you have some choice blooms here. This place must have cost a fortune."
"A fortune to you. Quite a slice out of my inheritance for me. One of my odd jobs as 'boy' and zoologist, is to make out the cheques for my uncle to sign—so I know to a hundred what it cost...Remind me to tell you something funny about making out cheques...This way, Madam."
Richard opened the connecting-door and led the way down the narrow dampish passage. Ann followed him with restored confidence, since his insult told her he was normal and therefore, unlikely to make any demand or request. She forgot Isabella's warning in a thrill of admiration when they entered the great glass-house. The lighting was faint and gave her the impression that a tropical jungle had broken in and spread out over every surface, respecting only the broad central path.
That wide strip of rubber was civilisation triumphant in the midst of Nature's anarchy. There were walls of choked greenery on either side, hung with creepers and brilliant flowers, while the floor seemed to be composed of shallow tanks or tray, intersected with stone copings. She paused beside a blackish pool where dripping green leaves—the size of small umbrellas—hung over floating yellow lilies.
"It's like a water-maze," she said.
"It practically is," explained Richard. "There are flagstones for the gardeners to walk on, but it's a damp awkward place for a stroll round. You want to see it from above. This way up."
A narrow spiral stair of green-painted ironwork was almost hidden in masses of foliage. The structure swayed slightly as Ann climbed up after Richard, winding higher until she reached a small shaky platform from which she looked down upon the tree-tops. The giant fronds of a palm spread out below her in an emerald fountain, amid thickets of bamboos and a veil of fern, so fine that it looked like swirls of green smoke.
Suddenly her pleasure was flawed by a low-toned remark from Richard.
"Your lips are like fresh wet cherries."
"Lipstick," she snapped.
"I wonder. Are they as cool as they appear? Only one way to find out."
As he kissed her, Ann raised her hand instinctively. Contrary to Christian ethics, it was her custom to return an uninvited kiss with a blow. Yet as she looked into the dark gleaming eyes, she was overcome with nausea mingled with fear.
He sucked in a deep breath as her hand dropped limply to her side.
"Why didn't you smack my face?" he challenged her. "The playful way you used to biff John."
"Oh, don't be a fool," she murmured feebly.
"Thanks. I know now you really have no use for me. You won't even touch me. And I know too exactly where I stand...It's still Stephen with you, isn't it?"
At that moment Ann could almost see Isabella's beautiful lips and catch a faint echo of her plea. "Say 'yes.' You can save yourself."
"Stephen will always be first," she told Richard, "because he is the only one."
"Good." Although his laugh had an unpleasant neighing note, he spoke in a natural voice. "It's a relief to return to the impersonal standpoint where people are merely cyphers. Since you'll have nothing closer, come on, Cypher, and I'll show you the sights. How much do you weigh?"
"I don't know I was weighed for the plane but I've forgotten."
"Never mind. I expect the ironmongery will bear our combined weights. It's not often used and it's out of repair. Follow me."
Ann forgot the incident of the kiss in the excitement of walking over the shaky narrow strips of ironwork which encircled the building. There were many flights of steps, leading up and down to different levels while many of the beauty spots were spanned by frail bridges from which visitors could admire the special floral features. She had her first touch of foreboding when the steps dropped down to a sluggish brown stream, rather like a very narrow canal, whose water was almost covered with blue lilies. Their thick slimy stems—branching under the water and swaying in the slight current—made her feel suddenly suspicious.
"Are there water-snakes here?" she asked.
"Any animal life is innocuous," Richard assured her. "Use your brain. The gardeners come here to do their stuff."
"But you used to keep crocodiles here."
"Their pool has a protective grating. Difficult to fall in and impossible to get out. Besides, as you saw for yourself, David is in his new house."
In spite of their reassurance, the words did not carry conviction. Ann began to feel a pulse beating in her temple and a familiar rasping of her skin. Once again there crept around her the uneasy consciousness of encircling danger. She took a cigarette from her case, but before she could light it Richard stopped her.
"Smoking's not allowed. Have some gum. It's a filthy habit, so probably you're an addict."
Ann accepted the packet, grateful to give her jaws some definite work which would stop any tendency to chattering teeth. Chewing steadily, she listened with keen interest when Richard mentioned Victoria.
"How old is Victoria?" he asked.
"I don't know her exact age," replied Ann. "But she must be under thirty. She's gone fax in a short time."
"My dear Ann, you are overlooking an important person in the case. Why will you always forget me?"
Richard neighed as he scooped up the thick water with his fingers in a dash to catch a minute frog.
"Here's the inside story," he said. "Discreditable but amusing. A few years ago Victoria called at Ganges in very different circumstances. She was shabby, poor and dishonest. Told us that she was qualified and had put her plate up at Abbotsbury. Then to her surprise and quite by chance, she discovered that my senile great-uncle was in a nursing-home there. So she produced her certificate and asked Big Ben if she could have him as a private patient. He turned her down flat. But he had a monkey-bite which wasn't doing too well. Victoria suggested fresh treatment and when the wound healed the old boy was so bucked that he had old Uncle packed up in brown paper and delivered to clever Dr. Pybus. Very useful financial help when she was feeling her way."
Ann listened absently as she gazed at a belt of pink begonias which fringed one border of the stream. The air was hot and heavily drenched with perfume which seemed to steam up from the flowers. Although Richard seemed to be telling her a straight story, she had an uneasy feeling that soon she would feel its sting.
"Cool but hardly criminal," she said. "Was that all?"
"Far from it. But do you appreciate Victoria's extraordinary luck in a time-bomb of fortuitous circumstances? She came to Ganges at the right moment to ask for Great-Uncle and when Big Ben had a monkey-bite. But that was nothing compared with the second chapter of coincidences."
Ann bit upon her gum harder.
"I'm no longer interested," she said. "I don't like murky tales—and I don't like Victoria. But I think she ought to be here and know what's being said."
"She'll get a chance to defend herself later," sneered Richard. "In the dock, or otherwise, according to circumstances. But you're throbbing with pure girlish curiosity to hear the rest...Victoria worked hard but the old doctor who was there already had the cream of the sick-list. Abbotsbury is an old cathedral city and the inhabitants would rather die of a disease which killed their ancestors than be cured of a new one by a newcomer. Then to make bad luck worse, the old uncle she was living on went and died."
"That was a bad break for her." Ann tried to force her sympathy. "But it was a release for the poor old man. And must dish it out to Sir Benjamin that he's getting a real kick out of spending the money. No hoarding for him."
"Ann, you have a sensitive imagination. As you've hinted, when we got the sad news of Great-Uncle's death, we celebrated. When were were both tight. Big Ben said Victoria must have a compassionate gift. He ordered me to make out the cheque at once, lest he changed his mind. When I asked the amount, he started by saying 'One.' Then he kept raising the figure until I—as the heir with a reversionary interest—staggered from the room at 'Five.' I came back with the cheque, the old boy managed to sign it, Victoria paid it in and then invested it in a partnership with the leading Abbotsbury doctor. He was getting old and slack and glad of the extra capital. She's clever and a driver and the war's helped her. Now she's tops."
The silence was broken only by the sound of water—slow, heavy drops falling from a height and the spatter of spray. Then Richard began to neigh.
"Now for the joke," he said. "When the auditors went through our books, the next quarter, they asked a conventional question about a cheque for five thousand pounds drawn to Victoria Pybus. The old chap went up into the air. He'd meant Victoria to have five hundred pounds while I was thinking in thousands. I offered to try and get Victoria to repay in instalments, but he wouldn't hear of it. Said she'd helped him indirectly to get a six-figure fortune—so good luck to her."
"It certainly was," agreed Ann uncomfortably.
"And so opportune. Big Ben inherits his fortune and Dr. Pybus gets her essential capital. Any one with a dirty mind might wonder if it was a put-up job between them."
As Richard spoke, it seemed to Ann that the gloom of the building was deepening to darkness.
"It couldn't be that," she protested. "Victoria wouldn't kill off her best patient for a lump sum of five hundred. That was what your uncle told you to make out the cheque for. The five thousand was your mistake."
"My mistake." Richard cackled. "I told you I control people and events. Does it occur to you I could make Victoria's name mud in Abbotsbury?"
"You could prove nothing."
"But I could raise a hell of a stink if I started a whispering-campaign. People who remember my great-uncle would put two and two together. A doctor's reputation can't stand smut and Pybus stock would crash."
"But you couldn't do it without injuring your uncle."
Before he spoke again Richard churned up the water with his hand so vigorously that it grew thick with sediment. The semi-obscured lily stems—twisting in green ropes beneath the clouded surface, as though in mimicry of snakish life—increased Ann's discomfort vaguely. When he broke the silence his voice held a note of gloating.
"As you may have noticed, here at Ganges I am only 'the boy.' 'Do this. Do that. Go there.' Now you know the truth. You know that every one is in my power."
The boast made Ann suspect that he was playing on her credulity to impress her.
"You're pulling my leg," she said. "If you really knew any dark secrets, you wouldn't spill them to me. Mark—my father—said that a big man never tells, not even when he's drunk. He said that was the test."
"Then your drunken oracle overlooked one important fact. Some people make safe confidants. You are safe, Ann. You won't talk."
The menace in his voice made Ann realise her mistake. Richard had been serious when he claimed moral superiority and he resented her ridicule. She tried to introduce a light note as she scrambled to her feet.
"Gosh, there's a run in my knee from kneeling on these stones. But it's a romantic spot and worth a ladder. I suppose it's time to bale out."
He made no effort to induce her to stay.
"Kitty Blake will welcome you," he remarked. "She'll be frothing at the mouth to get back to her family. She's such a womanly woman."
His words reminded Ann of the peril. Every minute that she could remain in hiding brought her so much nearer to reunion with Stephen. And then she realised that she shrank from returning to the drawing-room.
"I don't want to meet Victoria just yet," she said. "I shall keep thinking of what you've said about her and wondering if it is true. If it is—Victoria is a murderess."
"Nothing to her. Merely a medical incident. The old man was just another guinea-pig."
"That's what makes it so horrible. I could almost forgive her if it was a mercy-killing, or even to help science. But a cold-blooded killing for money is utterly repulsive."
"Forget her...If you want to make the grand tour of the Tropical House, you've still some way to go. Do you prefer to stay on the floor-level? It's damp and the place looks merely like a super-conservatory. But viewed from above, it's a masterpiece of trickery."
Ann appreciated Richard's claim after she had climbed behind him up another spiral stair on the opposite side of the building. It was even shakier than the first and more densely shaded with creepers which hung down in matted curtains. When she looked through them she could imagine she was back in an African jungle. Seen from a comparative height, the brown stream looked like a sluggish river instead of a shallow trough of artificial water. She missed only the quivering sheet of mosquitoes, hanging over the surface like a mesh of copper gauze.
Every artifice of the Japanese landscape-gardener had been exploited to conceal the limitations of space. Narrow strips of crazy-pavement skirted ponds—only to be blocked by flowering shrubs or clumps of bamboo. Misted by the dim glow of the diffused lighting, the place resembled a tropical swamp, where the foliage of giant palms stood out in magnified black silhouettes against the bluish haze. Trees dripped their branches over a maze of pools and lilies glimmered palely amid a green gloom.
Ann forgot her own problem in delighted wonder.
"I can believe I'm back in the Tropics," she exclaimed. "Only there are no bugs or filthy rotten smells."
"Apparently Madame is satisfied with our poor efforts to entertain her," remarked Richard.
He seemed unduly exhilarated by her praise which he accepted as a personal tribute. She could almost imagine that he crackled with the violent excitement which was a feature of his character. When he chanced to touch her, she had a feeling that he was shaken by the pressure of overdriven emotions.
"Wait until you've seen the central fountain," he said. "Big Ben's supreme contribution to the nation's Art. It's in the same class as the Albert Memorial."
A little farther on he stopped before a clearing in the foliage where the creepers had been trained back as though to frame a window. Below them rose the fountain—a massive erection of black and white marble. At spaced intervals around the basin were four elephants whose trunks were upraised as though in salute.
"Wait till I turn on the water," said Richard.
When she was left alone she could hear his footsteps clattering over metal and feel the strong vibrations of the structure. His desertion made her feel nervous and suspicious as each shake quivered through her like a punctured nerve. It trembled to a stop after the sound of his feet had died away.
"I can't trust him," she thought. "Is he going to play some trick upon me? What?"
At that moment there was a curious rushing sound, as of a tropical rainstorm, and four shafts of water shot out from the elephants' trunks. Finer jets were also released—crossing and interlacing—until the air was a smother of spray. Bubbles floated on the water in the basin—drops flashed and fell from every leaf. The light flickered on the elephants' streaming backs—simulating the ripple of muscles and lending them an illusion of movement.
While she was watching the display, fresh vibrations through the staging told her that Richard was coming back. A few seconds later she heard him panting beside her.
"Just a few drops," he said grandly. "But they are all yours. Ready to move on?"
As she followed him she noticed that there were no steps leading to different levels on that side of the building, and that the perforated iron walk ran in a straight line parallel with an invisible wall. The trees were not only taller and denser but were almost obscured by a tangle of creepers. These masses of foliage suggested a kind of Peter Pan hiding-place to Ann.
"I wonder if I could manage to stay in here until it's time to go to the tower-room," she thought. "I ought to be back there about a quarter-to-twelve and stay there until twelve."
Suddenly she noticed that Richard had snapped on his pocket torch and was flashing it over an orange tree, revealing the golden-green balls of unripe fruit.
"What are you looking for?" she asked curiously.
"Nothing," he replied. "It's all right."
The reassurance made her feel uneasy because it was unnecessary. Her heart began to beat faster as she pushed aside the branches which now overgrew the staging, although she could admit no foundation for fear. Then again Richard flashed on his torch—keeping the beam focused on the branch of a muffled tree.
"See that creeper?" he remarked. "The one like a dangling rope. For a moment it had me guessing."
"It doesn't matter." Richard snapped off his torch and began to talk about the Tropical House. "I think Big Ben pinched the idea from Kew but, of course, he had to go one better than the nation. This side is rather too overgrown at present. Can't get labour. I'd like to take you back on the ground-level as you'd be able to see the fish ponds. But you would have to cross the old crocodile pool and the bridge is not too safe...Ah!"
As he flashed on his light Ann spoke sharply.
"You're making me jumpy. I hate not knowing. What are you looking for?"
"I'm merely checking up. Matter of routine."
"Well, then, since your girlish curiosity must be satisfied, Big Ben's memory is beginning to leak. Thanks to him, I had an amusing experience up here last week. I was pushing back these creepers when, suddenly, a creeper shot up into the air and made a pass at me. It was a tree-python."
"How could it get up here?" asked Ann tremulously.
"Nothing easier. The Snake House is only across the narrow passage, as you saw for yourself. Just a matter of forgetting to shut doors. A snake could nip in here and lose himself before you could turn round. Of course, Big Ben keeps the doors locked...He swore it would never happen again and I don't believe it will...Look out!"
Ann screamed as something damp and heavy—like a length of rubber tubing—swung towards her and dropped with a dull thud upon her shoulder. She screamed again as she felt it stir. Every inch of skin began to crawl before she was reassured by Richard's neighing laugh.
"Sorry. I was holding back a vine and I let it go too soon. Did I startle you?"
"Not in the least. I merely thought it was a snake. How much farther have we to go?"
Ann chewed her gum steadily in an effort to calm her nerves. So strong was the power of suggestion that her idea of hiding in the Tropical House was slain by distrust of the dangling creepers. Although she exposed herself to Richard's ridicule, she resolved not to return by the upper staging, but to risk a highly-problematic ducking. It was a relief when they came dear of the leafy tunnel and stood on a narrow platform which hung over a large oval pool.
Unlike the new Saurian House, there was no attempt to disguise its function. It was encircled by a broad grille with curved projecting teeth, so that it would be difficult for any one to fall in and impossible for any creature to crawl out, even as Richard had claimed. A few steep iron steps led down to a narrow metal bridge which spanned the tank. Although it had no hand-rail it was only about five feet above the water, so there was no danger of vertigo.
"The public fed the crocs from here," explained Richard. "But, of course, Big Ben performed from the bridge. No danger except to the crocs. His bite is worse than his bark."
Ann looked across the pool to where a few steps led temptingly to the floor. Farther away, a cloud of spray rising above the greenery, located the central fountain.
"That's my way back," she told Richard. "No more snake-preserves for me."
"I was only fooling you," he said. "Of course there are no snakes. They are guarded too preciously. Seriously, I wouldn't advise you to cross the pool. The iron is rusting and one step has gone west."
He pointed to a gap in the narrow stair before he asked her a question.
"Can you swim?"
"Of course," she replied.
"Then you won't drown. And you won't catch cold as the water is warm. But I warn you, you won't smell fragrant afterwards. All sorts of things go into that pool—and they don't come out."
"Then I won't add to the collection. Good-bye, Richard. You take the high road and I'll take the low road and I'll be at the entrance door before you."
Ann laughed as she crabbed down the steps and walked lightly across the bridge. The Structure appeared to be perfectly firm under her feet, for she heard no ominous creak and felt no warning sway. When she reached the middle she paused to look down into the muddy depths. The water was unpleasantly foul and stagnant, while underneath the grating a shadow seemed to be moving...
Suddenly a tremor ran through her frame. She felt an infinitesimal vibration—faint and remote as the first stir which heralds an earthquake...Her response was elemental—instinctive obedience to the signals of panic. Before she realised her action she had covered the remaining half of the bridge in a couple of bounds.
Just as she reached the steps she heard the clang of metal and turned her head in time to see the section of the bridge—where she had been standings—dropping down into the water, like a distant shot of a railway accident on a film.
Her chief feeling was that of guilt, since the damage was due to her persistency. Waving to Richard—who was now cut off from her by the maladorous pool—she began to follow the winding track of stepping-stones. It was a fascinating journey, leading her past pools hung with maidenhair-fern, where multi-coloured fish glittered in dark clear water and bushes bloomed with flowers which looked like butterflies or birds.
When she reached the central fountain the elephants were still trumpeting at full pressure; even though she rushed past them, laughing and ducking her head, she did not escape a shower-bath. A few yards farther on she reached the brown stream where Richard had poisoned her mind with his story about Victoria. She traced the water to its source of a camouflaged drainpipe and soon afterwards reached the strip of rubber flooring—which represented civilisation.
When she heard Richard coming down the iron spiral stair she called to him with stressed cheerfulness.
"I said I'd be in Scotland before you...I'm terribly sorry about that little accident."
"It doesn't matter," he muttered.
She was struck by the change in him. His eyes were half-hidden by heavy lids—his mouth sagged—his whole frame seemed drained of energy and empty as a blown eggshell. When she contrasted his lethargy with his former excitement, she wondered whether he were a victim to drugs.
"I'm going back," he said tonelessly. He added, as though he had no further interest in her, "And you?"
"Back, too, I suppose."
She noticed that be turned the key in the lock of the iron panel-door before he led the way down the narrow passage, where she shivered after the temperature of the Tropical House. When they entered the hall, it appeared ultra-civilised after the floral wilderness, even though its effects were based mainly upon illusion.
Apparently Sir Benjamin heard their footsteps crossing the marble flags, for he shouted to them to come into the drawing-room. As Ann entered he came to meet her.
"How did you like it?" he asked eagerly.
"The most marvellous place," she replied. "I felt like Mrs. Tarzan up in the tree-tops."
Sir Oswald, who was playing solitaire, looked up from his cards.
"Did you have much trouble moving the crocodiles to their new house?" he asked.
"Yes," admitted Sir Benjamin, "David threw a scene. As he's apt to be quarrelsome when he is upset, we are allowing him a few days on his own and to get the feel of the new pool before we shift Jonathan."
"Jonathan?" queried Sir Oswald.
"The other crocodile," explained Sir Benjamin. "He is still in the old pool."
Ann remembered the curving teeth of a safety-trap—the thick dark water—and a moving shadow, as she dropped down into the nearest chair.
AFTER the first shock had spent itself Ann's brain grew suddenly clear. She realised that she had been mistaken when she suspected that an attempt would be made upon Sir Benjamin's life that night. While it was certain that Richard intended to murder his uncle, he proposed to do it by indirect means.
In order to destroy Sir Benjamin he had first to destroy the Zoo. Sir Benjamin lived solely for his collection of wild animals and he would not survive long after the motive power of his life was cut off.
As she thought over the events of the evening, Ann could appreciate how completely the years of frustration had corrupted Richard's mind. James had declared that he was sane, but normal—and she too could detect no wavering flame of homicidal mania in his plans. Thinking along the same lines as the professor, he shied from the difficulty of getting away with a murder—since he would be the obvious suspect. He recognised the fact that a manufactured alibi, by virtue of its nature, was capable of being unmade again; moreover, a mishap to his uncle at the Zoo would need the co-operation of the animals—and Ann had proof of three attempts which had failed in one evening.
What made her heart knock unevenly and her skin grow clammy, was the knowledge that a run of bad luck could be broken...If he persisted he was bound to be successful in the end...
She did not under-rate the patience and malignant cunning of his preliminary scheming. He had begun by making the Zoo unpopular in the neighbourhood and infecting the residents with a fear of personal danger. Undoubtedly he had liberated the lion—which had merely forestalled the butcher by killing a sheep—while it was his brain which had seized on the imminent amputation of the employee's hand to fake another alleged lion incident.
It seemed to her that scales were peeling from her eyes as she began to understand the puzzle of the reunion. Richard had no personal interest in the students who were all younger than himself and he was unlikely to concern himself with them because he had freakishly fixed a meeting seven years before. As regarded herself—while he could appreciate certain of her qualities—she knew that he asked her to marry him chiefly to score over Stephen whom he had always hated.
With her new clarity of vision, she told herself that Richard did not cancel the reunion—by locking the tower-door and denying admission to the "Souls"—because his guests provided him with a bag of unsuspecting victims. One of them was scheduled to die and it did not matter to him who it was. The original plan was to intercept one of them with a drugged drink and let the elephant act as executioner. Chance had chosen James—but, to even things, he was also saved by an accident.
For some time, however, Richard believed that James had been killed, so since the reunion had served its purpose, it could be rubbed out. According he had taken trouble to clear her off the premises and to stop the others from entering. This policy was reversed by his initial failure which forced him to make other attempts—hastily planned and carried through with impersonal ruthlessness.
He was flogged on by the time-element, since the morrow's meeting would decide that question of renewing the Zoo's licence. There were other factors—Sir Oswald's offer to buy the land, and lastly, Dr. Hogarth's advice to find out whether the man, Browning, had been bribed. If a conspiracy were proved, only a fatal accident would convince the committee that the Zoo was a public danger.
As she reviewed the events of the evening Ann had to acknowledge that Richard had made good his boast of being able to control a situation by using people as counters. She had been practically forced to cross the sabotaged bridge by his skill in playing on her fear of snakes. A shiver ran through her at the memory of his terrible excitement in the Tropical House when he thought that a crocodile would play the last trick for him and win the game. His collapse afterwards was some indication of the fury which had driven him on to murder.
"I mustn't think of that pool," Ann reasoned. "I've had narrow squeaks before and I didn't keep on getting goose-flesh...But he is bound to try again. Who will it be? Is it any one here?"
As she looked around her the scene appeared to her as one of glitter and splendour. She had not been back in England long enough to adjust herself to civilisation, and her taste was still crude and plastic. The blue-and-white drawing-room—which was copied from a gilt-rimmed teacup—was brilliantly lit and its temperature had lost some of its chill. There was a faint blue haze of tobacco smoke hanging in the air and the aroma of good cigars.
It was a new experience to Ann to find herself intimidated by a social atmosphere. She realised that she would be up against a wall of prejudice if she tried to make these people believe in their danger. Even the fact that they wore evening-dress in war-time was proof of an inflexible standard.
For the first time since her return to the drawing-room, she dared to look at Victoria. There was no doubt that her mind was poisoned by Richard's story, for the doctor's face repelled her. There was no sign of weakness or tenderness in her inscrutable black eyes and her small tight mouth.
"Did she kill the old man?" she wondered.
The professor met her eye and gave her a half-wink although he was unconscious of his action. He had been enjoying his host's whisky and was in a comfortably expansive mood when he wished merely to establish an understanding between himself and a pretty girl. Acting on impulse Ann crossed the room and seated herself beside him.
"I was hoping you'd read my thoughts," he said. "You look very serious. Is anything wrong?"
"Yes," replied Ann, "I've just escaped a murky end."
The professor waved his cigar as he smiled at her.
"Another?" he asked indulgently.
The fact that he was humouring her warned Ann of a hopeless position but she persisted in trying to convince him.
"It's no joke—not to me, anyway. I was crossing the narrow bridge over the crocodile's pool in the Tropical House, when it collapsed. If I hadn't jumped clear, the creature would have pulled me under."
The professor looked genuinely concerned as he sympathised with her.
"That was indeed a shock to your nerves. But why did you cross the bridge? Surely Richard warned you it was unsafe?"
"He did," admitted Ann. "But he never told me there was a crocodile there. Actually he led me to think the opposite."
"Then I think I can explain his motive. My wife is like you—adorable but inclined to be fanciful. She and Lady Peacock never cared to walk through the Tropical House because they declared they could not forget the crocodiles. Probably Richard did not want to spoil your pleasure, so he purposely misled you."
"Can you imagine Richard wishing to spare any one's feelings?" asked Ann bitterly.
"I can imagine him wanting to spare yours." The professor's smiled faded as he added, "You must be careful about making loose statements. From the way you phrased it any one might think that you were the victim of a fiendish plot...But what I don't understand is why Richard did not prevent you from crossing the bridge."
"I jumped down the steps before he could stop me," confessed Ann.
The professor continued to look at her with approving eyes which did not match his voice.
"You've only just returned to England after an absence of years," he said pompously. "Doubtless you've forgotten some of the obligations of our social system. You are Sir Benjamin's guest—and apparently a favoured guest. I'm sure you don't wish to repay him with 'careless talk'—to borrow a topical phrase."
"Of course not." Ann added resentfully, "But why did you tell me about your C.I.D. to watch over Sir Benjamin's safety? Were you making a fool of me?"
The professor experienced natural annoyance at being reminded of an imprudent remark, made in an emotional mood—created by the combination of starlight and a pretty girl beside him in the darkness.
"I was pulling your leg," he said. "Very inelegant—but the truth is my wife is inordinately fond of Sir Benjamin which makes her mentally unstable where he is concerned. I regard her as repressed merely in the sense that she should have had a career, to satisfy that keen brain of hers. So I make every allowance for her freaks and even encourage them as outlets."
"How well you understand women," said Ann who was still smarting from the unjust charge of hysteria. "I wonder your wife hasn't murdered you."
"Apparently she hasn't thought of it. Please don't put the idea in her head."
Ann managed to return his smile before she looked around the room, where nearly every one was gathered round a card-table. The exception was Richard who was slumped in a deep chair, with an empty glass on the table beside him. She noticed that he looked no longer like a bundle of clothes held together by the Invisible Man but rather resembled a scarecrow which was coming to life. Alarmed by the signs of returning animation, she spoke urgently to the professor.
"Richard doesn't know that I know about the crocs. Please don't put him wise."
"I won't," promised the professor. "And I am glad you agree with me that there is a rational explanation of his conduct." He stopped to chuckle. "They're playing poker over there," he explained. "For the first time in living memory my wife is taking a beating. Confidentially, I am filled with unholy joy. I've no card-sense and she always rubs in my mistakes. Now I'm going to stand by her, like a devoted husband, presumably to support her but really to gloat...Coming?"
"No, thanks. No money."
As Ann watched the progress of the game, from a distance, she soon discovered that Kitty was being outclassed mainly by Victoria. The doctor's expressionless face served her well while her acumen surpassed Kitty's skill. Her eyes glittered with triumph which was mixed with malice, since the professor's wife was proving a bad loser. Unimpressed by the fortunes of the game, Lady Peacock was complaining to Sir Benjamin about a servant's insolence.
"Nothing she actually said. It was her manner. She let me know what she was thinking."
"I don't know what the world is coming to," remarked her host as seriously as though he was talking about the war.
Ann noticed that he had discarded his schoolboy capers and was acting the part of a courteous host in his own drawing-room. Then she chanced to meet Isabella's eyes. Instantly Isabella stared at her as though challenging her to claim any understanding between them.
"They're all showing me what I'm up against," reflected Ann. "It's hopeless."
Against her will she looked again at Richard and saw that he was rubbing the loose skin of his face over his cheekbones as though he were concentrating on a train of thought. As she watched him she surprised the birth of a smile which spurted up in his eyes but died before his lips could relax.
"He's plotting," she told herself. "He's thought of another trick."
In order to appear unconscious of his treachery she crossed boldly over to him.
"Richard," she said. "I feel terrible."
"Why?" he asked sharply.
"Breaking the bridge, of course. I suppose I must come clean about it. When's the best time to approach your uncle?"
"You can leave that to me," said Richard grandly. "It's nothing new. We're used to the stinking carelessness of the public...By the way, I've just been thinking about the mystery of Stephen's signature. Like to hear what I make of it?"
"Well, it's obvious that our hero shirked the army and is working in some safe area within a reasonable radius. He couldn't get leave for to-night—but he must have taken advantage of a hold-up, or else got some mug to carry on for him—just long enough to dash over and contact you. It's plain he was in too great a hurry to wait, but he's not the sort of chap to accept total loss...My bet is he's gone back to his factory or laboratory and is working at frantic pressure, so as to clear his plate in time to show up again before zero-hour...To put it in simple language, to suit your intelligence, I think we might expect him about five to twelve. He always cut it fine. Do you agree with me?"
"I agree with everything except your sneer about military service."
"What's the odds?" Richard did not attempt to hide his yawn. "It's getting stuffy in here. As it's verboten to open windows in the black-out, what about a spot of fresh air? Shall we go for a short stroll, Ann?"
The voice was so clear that Ann almost believed that the word had been actually spoken instead of ringing inside her head. Instantly she connected her fancy with her dead father.
"Mark's warning me not to go."
As a matter of fact no supernatural caution was needed, for she still remembered the helpless terror of groping through the darkness with Richard in control. Those fears could be duplicated with the difference of reality instead of imagination. She pressed her lips firmly together in her resolution to resist him—even while his next words told her that he was indulging in his favourite sport of using people as pawns.
"The modern lover is a cold-blooded fish," he sneered. "If you ever read Tennyson, you would know how they used to put themselves through it. But I thought you would jump at a chance to meet Stephen."
"We are not likely to meet him," she said.
"Why not? I know the exact spot where he'll trespass with his usual courteous disregard of private property. In the old days, his lordship was too impatient to follow the path through the meadow. If he didn't come with the rest of you, he always climbed the wall at the point nearest to the house. He's rushed for time to-night, so he'll use his short-cut."
Aim remembered that the little housemaid had told her that the knees of Stephen's trousers were torn. Although the girl's words seemed to confirm Richard's forecast, she determined not to be stampeded.
"I haven't got to protect Stephen," she thought. "If it came to a fight, he'd lick the pants off Richard."
"Afraid to come with me?" asked Richard softly.
"Why not?" she asked. "Last time I went out with you, I found myself in a bus, going back to London."
"Oh, no, Ann, that's unworthy of your imagination. Last time, you thought I was going to throw you down into the bear-pit. What debased fancies you have. If Stephen should meet with an accident, remember you thought of it first."
"I'm not worrying about him. He's a tough guy and he can look after himself."
"Admittedly—but remember the special circumstances. When he commits a felony, he puts himself outside the law. One of our keepers is a regular thug, and itching to use his cosh again. He's got to respect the animals because they are valuable, but he'd think nothing of putting a human to sleep. I've only to hint that someone might be breaking in to-night, at such and such a spot, for him to be waiting at the bottom of the wall...And if he hit too hard—remembering the recent accidents at the Zoo—he could avoid the charge of manslaughter by dumping the body in a restricted space, occupied by a dangerous beast, and then goading the brute to vent his rage on the nearest object...What about that for a theory?"
Ann began to feel the familiar ice creeping through her veins. Richard's tactics reminded her of how the great snake in the Jungle Book hypnotised the monkeys—making them advance towards him although they knew their fate. He was hinting at his own murderous intention if she failed to deputise for Stephen.
"He wants to make me come," she thought, "because I'd be easier to knock out and lighter to carry—afterwards. But I won't go. I won't take one step towards his trap with my eyes open."
"Well?" prodded Richard.
"Wouldn't Stephen be rather heavy for you to carry to the Zoo?" she asked recklessly.
"I mentioned the keeper, didn't I? But if ever I was too zealous in defending my uncle's property and found myself with a body on my hands, I should use a wheelbarrow...Think it over."
The advice was superfluous for Ann could not control her racing brain. As she reviewed the past hours, it seemed impossible to believe that so much could have happened since she sat in the hotel, waiting for the time to pass. Looking back at it, the lounge appeared a haven of light and cheer—with its drifting crowd to emphasise the truism of "Safety in numbers"—while the reunion was before her, still unspoilt.
It was only in retrospect that she could estimate how steadily the situation had deteriorated. Her first ordeal of travelling in the black-out had been crowded out by disappointments and problems connected with the tower-room. At the time, she had been strained merely to keep a footing in Ganges; and since then, she had felt the horror of personal danger. But even this was incomparable with the threat of peril to Stephen.
She looked up sharply at Richard in time to see a smile flickering over his lips.
"He's just a fourflusher, trying to bluff me," she told herself.
"Are you going to let me meet Stephen alone?" he asked. "You are very trusting. I shall have fun with him. I shall tell him you have grown fat and can talk of nothing but your twins. The betting is he'll call the reunion off and climb back over his little wall again."
"He wouldn't believe you," she said. "He's nobody's fool. Besides you can't blame me for preferring to stay safe indoors. You must admit this isn't the ordinary country-house with lions and unicorns on top of the gates, in their proper place. You let yours range loose."
"Not on your life. There are barricades and enclosures to protect them from the public. But even if one managed to slip through, he'd keep out of your way."
The explanation sounded so reasonable that, in other circumstances, Ann would have exchanged gladly the confinement of the house for the liberty of the grounds. Indoors, she was kept in continual suspense lest the party should break up; but if Kitty suddenly decreed its end, they would have to wait for her to return to the house before a general exodus of guests.
"It might be just those extra minutes which might bring Stephen and me together," she thought. "Who knows?"
While she was frowning in doubt, she vaguely noticed that Isabella kept looking in her direction. Suddenly she sprang up from the poker-table and crossed over to them. Again she ignored Ann but the girl believed she understood the reason. Like herself, Isabella had tried to give a warning of danger and was smarting with natural resentment at being ridiculed.
"Winning, Isabella?" she asked, trying to appear natural.
"No one is winning but Victoria," replied Isabella. "She can't lose to-night."
"She hasn't played against me yet," remarked Richard softly.
Isabella leaned forward across Ann, as though she did not see the girl although she lowered her voice instinctively.
"I saw you with her," she said. "What were you talking about?"
"This and that," replied Richard. "Just a girlish chat."
"You're holding out on me."
"Obviously. My affairs are no business of yours."
"Perhaps I know more about them than you think. She's bucked about something and she's in a deadly mood. Sure of herself as if she held all the cards...Did she force some sort of ultimatum and did you give in to her?"
"I did not give in to her. Our conversation ended in deadlock. For your information, it will be resumed later."
Suddenly, to Ann's amazement, Isabella's hard voice softened to a tender note. Unlike the professional wheedling of a Circe enchanting swine, it betrayed the passionate love of a woman for her man.
"Call it off, darling. For my sake...If anything happened to you, I couldn't take it. Don't see her again. She'll get the better of you."
"She can try," said Richard. "No one can threaten me and get away with it."
Ann did not doubt his boast as he lowered his heavy lids which always reminded her of leaden coffin-lids. They dismayed her especially because she was growing uneasy about her decision. She told herself that Isabella was trying to shield Richard from danger while she was exposing Stephen to a treacherous attack, without going to his aid. The strongest and most resourceful man could hardly expect an unknown enemy to strike him down at the foot of a wall on the other side of a country road.
"Big Ben is whispering to you," remarked Richard as Sir Benjamin's clock-like voice tolled through the room.
"Isabella, come back and sit by me. Perhaps you'll bring me luck."
There was no question of disobeying the command and Isabella went back reluctantly to the card-table. When she had gone, Richard lit a cigarette before he spoke to Ann.
"Take your time."
She knew that she had gone one step forward to an unknown fate, when she studied him critically. She had proof of his muscular strength when he carried her down the steps and also when he wrestled with the boa—but she did not consider that he looked healthy. His chest was contracted, while the unnatural colour of his skin might have resulted from organic disease.
"Is the Zoo a reserved occupation?" she asked.
His hostile glance told her that he resented the question.
"If you want to know why I'm not in the army," he said, "it is because my uncle believed my brain too valuable to be spattered wholesale by high explosive. As lord of the manor, he arranged that the medical board should grant me exemption."
"That means you are physically unfit," translated Ann mentally. "If it came to a scrap I might hold my own. It's worth the risk."
As she considered the chances of Stephen being manhandled for trespassing, she began to counter-plot. If she could induce Richard to show her the vulnerable part of the wall, where it could be scaled, she might steal out later and wait for him to come. In the worse case, she could cry out to warn him of an attack—or if Richard were only bluffing—she would be there to welcome him. That would be journey's end for both of them and their real reunion.
"Even if we find the main gates locked," she thought, "we could climb the wall. Stephen should find short-cuts to the tube terminus...Oh, what fun."
The attempt involved a personal risk but she had safeguards—her pocket-torch, abnormally keen hearing and the fact that she was suspicious of treachery. Feeling confident that she would be a match for Richard, she tried to draw him out.
"You may like to know you were right about Stephen climbing the wall," she said. "That's exactly the way he came. One of your maids told me he knocked at the scullery door and she took him up by the back stairs."
"He's not changed his habits, curse him," remarked Richard. "Whenever he climbed the wall he used to come in through the back. It's the direct way up to the house, so naturally Lord Stephen never had the elementary manners to go round to the tower-door. Light may bend—but he has to go in a straight line."
Ann snapped at the admission that, if she started out from the back of the house and followed her nose downwards, she would reach the wall near the point where Stephen used to climb it. Remember his flair for blazing out a trail and his dislike of obstacles, she was satisfied that Richard was speaking the truth. What disconcerted her was his candour which told her that he did not consider her worth the effort of a lie. She was merely one of his counters, to be pushed about and then scrapped.
"For the last time," he said, "are you coming?"
"Actually, I am," she told him. "It's so morbidly stuffy in here. But I insist on carrying my torch. It's humiliating to be led around, when I'm white, free and over twenty-one."
Richard's short laugh was more like a bark of triumph.
"You may carry a searchlight, if you like," he said. "I'm the A.R.P. warden for this outfit and I make my own rules. Just one more little job wished on 'the boy' by the patriotic Sir Benjamin Watson."
It cost Ann an actual effort to commit herself to action as she rose from her chair. She was another step nearer to the snake.
"I must go to the cloakroom and get my coat," she said.
To her relief, although it was only a temporary shrift, he pushed her back again.
"Better not go out of the room together," he said. "Isabella will make something of it and throw a scene. She's edgy to-night. That fool John upset her."
"Naturally," commented Ann acidly. "I understand he is her meal-ticket."
"Ann, you have a mind like the counsel for the prosecution—all daisies and dewdrops. It's your chief attraction...I'll wait on the portico just outside the front door. Join me there in ten minutes."
Although Ann realised that the interval would allow him time to set a trap, she welcomed the extra minutes of grace, because there was something she had to do. She dared not venture out into the darkness without a safeguard. Her father had warned her never to leave her base without preparing for an attack. In the safety of the camp she had laughed at him—comparing him with a boy playing at Indians—but now she was going to try out his advice in the English countryside.
She intended to leave behind her a note for Sir Benjamin and use it to force Richard to bring her back unharmed. At the present, her difficulty was to get it delivered at exactly the right time.
"If he gets it too early—and I come back safely—he'll be furious," she reasoned. "I've written it, so it is a criminal libel."
She looked around the room, wondering if she could trust it to any of the guests. There was a chance of private explanation as the game was being held up while Lady Peacock tried to restrain Kitty from plunging further.
"Cut your losses like I do," she advised.
"You've hardly lost a bean," said Kitty scornfully. "You've been so cautious."
Lady Peacock defended herself with spirit.
"I can hold my own at bridge but poker is so peculiar. Too much like telling lies for my taste. Besides, I'm proud of being cautious. I'm laughed at because I always leave my coat in an upstairs room, but I've known cases of valuable furs being stolen from a ground-floor cloakroom. Any one can slip in if the door is not quite secure."
"Cloakroom," thought Ann. "Shall I leave the note there?...No. People are coming and going all the time. It would be found too soon."
Again she looked around her but decided that she could count on no one's discretion.
"If I give it to any one here," she reasoned, "and said, 'Give this to Sir Benjamin if I'm not back in half an hour,' they'd suspect a mystery and refuse to be mixed up in it. Besides, I couldn't put it past them to peep inside. I can't seal it because I've no envelope. If they read that I'm accusing Richard of plotting to murder me, they'll be all steamed-up and I'd be flung out of Ganges for good and all—before I could contact Stephen...My best bet is to bribe one of the maids to give it to him. They don't seem a curious lot in the kitchen. Not enough intelligence."
She peeled a leaf off a bridge scoring-block and fumbled in her pocket for the professor's precious pencil which she had forgotten to return. After scrawling a few lines, she folded the paper and printed Sir Benjamin's name in large letters outside. Then she strolled over to the poker-table and slipped the pencil inside the professor's hand.
He smiled at her and made a pretence of kissing it before he put it in his pocket...Ann watched him—knowing nothing of the gruesome business in which it would be next used...
As she walked to the door Sir Benjamin roared a question.
"Is Richard looking after you?"
"Yes," she replied. "We are just going for a stroll."
"Good. If you feel hungry you'll find 'eats' in the kitchen frigidaire. The maids all go early to bed and it's 'help yourself,' after that."
Ann was too dashed by the news to notice that Isabella was glaring at her with smouldering eyes. When she reached the hall she stood there, racked with miserable uncertainty. As she lingered, however, something clicked in her brain and her face cleared.
"I'll put it there," she decided...
Not long afterwards she opened the front door and looked out into what seemed to be a coal mine. As the silence remained unbroken, she whistled softly and threw the beam of her torch around. It picked out Richard's figure—motionless and magnified by the night-mist, so that it looked like an ebony statue. As he came forward, he gave a contemptuous laugh.
"I knew you'd come," he said. "What a little fool you are...But since you will concern yourself with my business, it's up to you. Come out through the back to save time."
They entered the house and Ann followed Richard across the hall and into the kitchen, where the fire was damped-down in proof that the maids had gone to bed. After leading her through several domestic offices, he opened a door and flashed his torch over a damp red-brick path.
"The Tropical House and the Reptile House are to the right," he explained. "They look like the Albert Hall by daylight. I won't offer my arm, since you flinch from my touch, so follow me. It's straight on and downhill all the way."
Before she moved Ann looked up at the sky which, although starlit, was too cloudy for steering a course. The Plough was dropping out of sight behind a wall of tall trees but she recognised Capella overhead.
"Something to go on with," she reflected.
At first they went through a kitchen-garden where she smelt rotten apples and dead leaves and saw the blue bloom of a bed of pickling cabbages in the light from her torch. The autumnal odours of chrysanthemums and bonfires were a pleasant reminder of her home garden at Highgate before went abroad. And then, suddenly, her mind slipped back to a muddy pool and a dark shadow spreading out below the surface.
The memory she had crowded out of her mind returned in all its horror. She was putting herself in the power of a man who had planned a ghastly death...
For a moment she fought the temptation to rush through the garden back to the house. Then Richard opened a rustic gate and she followed him with the shrinking fascination of a monkey lured to its fate.
It was rough going as she stumbled over tufts of coarse meadow-grass and caught her feet in ground-briars. The gradient soon became steep and, as they dropped lower, she shivered in a pocket of chill air collected in a fold of the landscape. Whenever she flashed her torch around her, she saw dwarfed and contorted trees of Old England—oak, ash and thorn—their trunks braced back and their branches wildly outspread, as though they were trying to save themselves from sliding down into the hollow.
Presently Richard broke the uncomfortable silence:
"The short-cut to Ganges is built up in steps to avoid the steepness of the slope," he explained. "Now you had better forget your girlish shrinking and take my arm. We've got to go through a covert."
"I thought you said it was a direct drop down," she objected. "Why are we bearing to the right?"
"You are observant. A regular little girl guide. For your information, we have to avoid some trenches which were dug for air shelters and are full of water. I don't recommend a dip as there is no steam-heating as in the Tropical House pool."
"Any crocodiles there?"
The words were no sooner spoken than Ann realised her blunder. She had meant to keep Richard ignorant of how much she knew. She could estimate his fury at being duped by her professed unconsciousness, from the roughness with which he seized her arm. Linked together, they forced a passage through a closely-grown grove of bushes and smallish trees. She caught her foot in a rabbit hole and was reminded of "Alice in Wonderland," but her sense of phantasy swiftly change to a nightmare. Naked twigs tried to poke black fingers in her eyes; they swished her face and flogged her shoulders. Whenever she stumbled Richard neighed with laughter.
"Do loose my arm," she cried. "It's like being in a chain-gang."
"Right," he said nonchalantly, taking away his hand. "Actually we are arrived. We are close to Stephen's Lover's Leap."
Even as he spoke, they came up flush with a wall which was at the bottom of a slippery grass bank. Ann glanced at the bushes—subconsciously marking them as future cover—while all her faculties were suddenly strained to meet an attack. Then the silence was broken by a sound of distant long-drawn howling.
"Wolves," said Richard. "They're ranging. Always hungry, even when fed. We're close to part of their property."
He turned and began to climb back up the hill while Ann followed him. As she slipped and panted with exertion she tried to get inside his mind. She reasoned that he would not be likely to kill her until they reached level ground. Otherwise he would be forced to carry a heavy body all the way up the hill and into the zoo grounds, for "the finishing touches." He had taken her down to the wall, by way of the thicket, so that she might present an appearance of having wandered, when lost—pushing through obstacles in the hope of finding her way back, until she climbed unsuspectingly into the fatal enclosure.
She noticed that Richard did not continue his fiction of avoiding rain-filled trenches but stuck to a straight line up the hill. It was a grilling climb and soon both were out of breath; but Ann knew that it was chiefly fear which was pumping her blood and beating in her temples—while Richard was gripped again by the terrible excitement of murder.
"How long is it safe for me to wait?" she wondered, as the slope grew easier. Flashing her torch around her, suddenly she felt suffocated by the racing of her heart.
About twenty yards distant, near a gate opening into a wired enclosure, stood a large wheelbarrow.
"Now," she told herself.
In that moment she realised that she had under-rated her danger. She had been counting on an elemental fight where she could use her feet and nails; but as she listened to Richard's broken breathing, she knew that his attack would be made with sudden and swift treachery—a wire noose slung over her head or pepper in her eyes. Instinctively she put her hands around her throat to protect it as she licked her dry lips.
"Richard," she said. "You say I have a dirty mind. Now that I'm safely back, I'll confess I was so suspicious of you that I left a note behind for your uncle."
"What was in it?" he asked harshly.
"Enough to hang you. I told him that if either Stephen or I were found, apparently killed by a wild animal, it would not be accident but murder."
"He'll believe you." Richard laughed scornfully. "What a hope."
"He must believe me. You've missed the important point. If I really met with an accident, I should not have left a note. No one can foretell an accident. It is something that happens by chance."
In the silence that followed she heard the howling of the wolves but it affected her no more than the barking of a housedog. She had the sense of facing a human wolf, ready to spring at her throat if self-interest decreed her death.
"Where did you leave this note?" he asked.
"Where you will never find it," she replied.
"You fool. If I cannot find it, no one else can."
"I've arranged for that. It will be found only if I do not come back."
"But—assuming you come back—when my uncle reads it, he'll throw you out of Ganges as a poison-tongue lunatic."
"He won't read it unless I am dead. If you don't want to be hanged, you will see that it does not get into his hands. Of course, I shall destroy it directly I get back to the house. It is not meant as a charge against you—only as a safety-measure."
Then followed another pause when she looked fearfully around her—noting the tangle of stars seen through the branches of a cedar. She told herself that, if she survived, she would always remember how the glittering points seemed to flicker and dip in the dark spaces between the boughs, as though they were reflected in a pool which was stirred by the wind. Then Richard spoke again.
"How do I know you are not lying?"
"There's only one way to find out."
"Tell me where you've hidden the note."
"If I do, what's to stop you from killing me and then destroying it?"
Although she was used to the profanity of navvies and had learned some of their words, Ann was chilled by the malignity of his curse.
"All right," he said, swiftly gaining control over his tongue, "you win."
As Ann followed him back to the house she felt almost sick with suspense, fearing her note had been discovered prematurely. She had noticed that the men of the party who were credited with infallible masculine instinct, had not accepted her socially. In spite of his kindness, Sir Benjamin seemed vaguely uneasy about the attractive stranger who had crashed his hospitality, for he stressed his unconventionality. The professor plainly regarded her as attractive forbidden fruit, while—most significant of all—Sir Oswald had avoided her persistently.
Directly they reached the back door, she broke away from Richard and rushed across the hall. She could hear his footsteps behind her on the stairs as she tore into the first bedroom off the gallery. He entered in time to see her snatch Lady Peacock's fur coat from the bed and pick up a folded paper which had been lying underneath it. She thrust it down the neck of her high-neck jumper and then faced him defiantly.
"If you touch me I'll scream the place down."
He glowered like a wild beast which had sprung at its prey—only to find a sheet of plateglass between them.
"Bedroom drama never appealed to me," he sneered. "But I am disappointed in your secret hiding-place. I expected something subtle."
"It's subtle because it is simple," explained Ann. "Every one uses the cloakroom. But I knew Lady Peacock had left her coat up here and that it wouldn't be touched until she was going home."
Her triumph was restrained by the hatred in his eyes.
"I've no more time to waste on you or your precious Stephen," he said. "You can get married for all I care...But I shall use the power of my wealth to break him. He'll never keep a job. I'll wait until you have children, so that you can starve in the gutter, 'en famille.'"
ANN tried to laugh but her defiance died under Richard's baleful glare. She felt the superstitious dread of a native whose sinews were withered by a hypothetical spell. At that moment there seemed to be neither hope nor future for herself and Stephen and she told herself that it would be better for him if they never met again. Although the pressure on her brain relaxed slightly after Richard sloped from the room, her heart was still so heavy that she went down the passage to the tower mechanically and with no expectation of seeing Stephen.
It was almost a relief to find the room unoccupied; but even as she walked down the central staircase, the old disappointment returned. As her common sense revived she began to laugh at the melodrama of the threat.
"Before he can even try to begin to ruin Stephen he has to come into his money," she reasoned. "Sir Benjamin is tough and may live for ever. His old uncle was rising a hundred and he might be living still if he hadn't been put in Victoria's nursing-home...But that might be one of Richard's lies. I mustn't believe it without proof."
When she reached the cloakroom and saw her reflection in the mirror she was glad that she had met no one on her way.
"I look just like James," she thought. "Poor old James. What a shocking mess he was."
Fortunately she had means of repair—hot water, soap and clothes-brushes. The light shone down on the primrose tiles and chromium fittings and her spirits began to rise. It gave her pleasure to wash the grime from the golden-tan of her skin and to comb out the tangles of her hair. After she had pressed it into a finger-wave, she tried to mend her torn suit. There were needles and cottons in a box in a drawer but she dared not stay too long away from the drawing-room. When she had cobbled up a torn sleeve, she decided to leave the ladder in her stocking, since such an accident in the course of an evening ranked with "an act of God."
Feeling conspicuous and self-conscious she entered the drawing-room, but only two persons appeared to notice her. Isabella stared at her—suspicion in the wild magnificence of her eyes—while the professor came to meet her. His smile was ironic as he asked her a question.
"Did you enjoy your stroll with Richard?"
"I was glad to get some fresh air," she replied. "And now I'd like to rest. I'm not used to your black-out."
Although she walked away from him towards an isolated seat, he picked up a frail gilt chair and followed her.
"When I saw you go out with Richard," he said, "I was naturally surprised. You must have either a very confiding nature or a short memory...Any more exciting adventures—or broken bridges?"
"No," snapped Ann, glaring at the professor as he touched her sleeve.
"You've torn your coat," he said.
"And there's a button loose. And there's a run in my stocking. Don't miss anything."
"Certainly the total is impressive. What have you two been doing?"
"Dancing in a fairy ring. You may believe that."
"As a matter of fact, I can. From your appearance, you might have been 'straight down the crooked lane and all round the square."
"You've guessed it. Actually I've been looking for a man who isn't there."
The professor bowed in the stately manner decreed by a double-chin.
"My Lady of Mystery," he murmured, "don't carry it too far. We are only simple people here."
"Then you should recognise the truth. It's this. I've begun something—and I mean to finish it."
Again the professor bent his head in homage before he rose from the protesting chair and strolled over to the card-table. His wife greeted him by making the Victory sign.
"My luck is turning," she said. "I shall do the Victory Roll going home."
"Too bad," remarked Victoria. "I cannot give you your revenge. I must have a professional talk with Sir Benjamin's nephew."
As she listened, Kitty seemed actually to swell with indignation—an allusion created by her flooding colour and stiffened muscles.
"You can't do it," she protested in a choked voice. "It's against the ethics of card-playing. They're built up on a code of honour. The most unscrupulous swindler will redeem his IOU." She added, as though to clinch her argument, "It's not done."
"All the same, it's going to be done," said Victoria. "I make my own traditions. I can't stay up too late as I have to start early to-morrow. A major operation counts more with me than helping you to balance your domestic budget. I'm sure your husband will agree."
The professor had no option but to incline his head, although he too was shocked by Victoria's violation of fair play.
"I agree with you that a successful operation—even if you lose the patient—is of paramount importance," he said. "But I would like to submit that my wife is within her rights to claim a gambler's privilege. Can't we compromise? Is it absolutely necessary for you to consult with Richard?"
"Absolutely. I have a point to clear and he is usually informative."
"Then why not play on until he shows up. By the way, where is he?"
"Yes," cried Isabella, turning to Ann, "where is he? You were with him last."
As they looked at her Ann felt that her torn coat was the target for all eyes. She told herself that she could not have felt guiltier if she had actually murdered Richard in self-defence.
"He left me when we got back to the house," she said, suppressing the episode of the bedroom.
"I can tell you where he is," remarked Sir Benjamin, glancing at the clock. "He's making a final round of the Houses. He'll soon be back. You can play on till then, Dr. Pybus."
Victoria plainly resented being forced and took her revenge by looking at her hands.
"Sorry," she said. "I must go to the cloakroom."
"Well, be quick," implored Kitty. "You're immaculate, so don't stop to make running-repairs."
Ann watched Victoria walk out of the room at a slow and measured pace. There was something in her extreme hauteur which reminded the girl of an aristocrat going to the guillotine. The next second she remembered that—if her morbid suspicion was correct—Victoria was unconscious of doom.
"Kitty's luck has turned," she thought. "Richard's luck may turn too. One of his shots in the dark may come off."
She waited for a few minutes before she stole out of the room and crossed the hall to the cloakroom. As she opened the door softly, she realised that Victoria did not expect interruption, for there were no sounds of splashing or running water. Instead of washing, Victoria was examining a small object which she held under the light. When she heard Ann she hid it swiftly inside her bag before she spoke to the girl. Her eyes and lips remained expressionless but her voice betrayed cold anger.
"Why do you follow me? Surely I have a right to personal privacy?"
Suddenly Ann felt too battered by prejudice to try to justify her interference.
"I only came to warn you," she said baldly.
"Warn me? What do you mean? Are you daring to threaten me?"
"Oh, don't be silly. I only want to put you on your guard."
"Very kind. And who am I to guard against?"
As Ann turned towards the door Victoria shouted a command.
"Come back. Has Richard been talking to you about me? Did he tell you anything about my affairs?"
"I'm answering no questions," replied Ann.
She almost ran back to the drawing-room where Kitty was quivering with impatience.
"What's the sporting doctor doing to waste time?" she asked. "Is she taking a shower? Tell her we can always change to strip-poker."
"She won't be long," promised Ann.
A little later Victoria strolled back and seated herself at the card-table without any apology for holding up the game. Her break seemed to have ruptured her luck, for she lost oftener than she won; but as Ann watched the fall of the cards, she decided that the doctor had lost the power to concentrate.
"I've got her guessing," she thought triumphantly.
Suddenly she started at the sound of the front-door bell.
"Shall I see who it is?" she asked, her thoughts flying to Stephen.
"Thank you—no," replied Sir Benjamin. "Richard will do that. You are my guest."
As no footsteps were heard in the hall he began to maltreat the corners of his cards.
"Why doesn't the boy go?" he muttered. "He should be back by now. He knows the maids are all in bed. It might be Hogarth."
"No, it's John." Isabella's voice was triumphant. "He has come for me. He knows I loathe driving in the black-out. My eyes are too big and somehow they seem to swallow the light....knew he'd come. I've been calling to him, calling, calling. Wherever he is and whatever he is doing, he always hears me."
"Might be awkward at times," remarked Kitty.
Ann missed the comedy as Isabella veiled her gleam of conquest with the sweep of her long lashes. She looked mysterious and withdrawn—an enchantress with power to draw the souls of men. It pained Ann to remember poor John—with unwashed blood-streaked face—rushing from the house in hope of future salvation.
"I must let him in," said Isabella. "He will expect to see me waiting for him at the door."
As the bell rang again Ann forestalled Isabella by a swift counter-move.
"Don't stop the game," she cried, running from the room.
On her way across the hall she felt keen disappointment at John's lapse into slavery. She told herself that he was past help and stinging words of reproach were on her lips as she opened the door. They dried up at the sight of the man who was waiting outside.
He was pale, shortish and stout—considering his comparative youth—while he wore thick glasses and carried an immaculately-rolled umbrella. She noticed that he was unusually well-dressed and presented a professional appearance.
"James," she cried. "Am I glad to see you? Come in."
James followed her into the hall where he stood blinking at the lights.
"Quite a palatial interior," he remarked.
"They are very palatial people," said Ann. "And so are you. You look terribly smart and prosperous."
"I hope to blot out your last impression of me," explained James, beaming with modest pride. "I was never so ashamed in my life when I got home and saw my reflection in the glass."
As they smiled at one another, James was gratified by her welcome and Ann felt the assurance of solid backing. With James's weight behind her, she was protected from danger, while she knew that his respectability would appeal to Sir Benjamin and his guests. He was not only an umbrella—he was also social whitewash.
"You'll never know what it means to me to have you here," she told him.
"Good." He beamed again. "I was afraid you might think I was intruding. But I felt anxious about your safety. While I was in my bath my brain cleared, and I grew convinced that there was malice behind my unpleasant experience. The chemist I went to suspected some drug."
As Ann said nothing he stared at her with the concentration of short sight.
"You look different," he said. "You're paler and you've torn your suit...Ann, have you too had some unpleasant accident?"
Instantly she realised the need for caution. She remembered that opposition used to act as a magnet to James—drawing him on to attack—and that it was impossible to deflect him from his purpose if he was convinced that action was necessary.
"Not exactly," she said. "One or two odd things happened but they could be explained away. All the same, once I'm out of this house I never want to enter it again."
"Excellent. We'll start at once. But before we go, you must introduce me to Sir Benjamin so that I can explain the situation to him. I wish to proceed in the proper way. Otherwise, this might appear an abduction...Will you kindly get your hat and coat as quickly as possible?"
"But, James," protested Ann, "you've forgotten the reunion. It's over at twelve. I must stay to the end."
"Out of the question," said James. "I'm pressed for time and I cannot waste an unnecessary minute."
His pompous voice was his shield against embarrassment. As a matter of fact, his prosperous appearance was misleading, for in spite of his industry his means were moderate. Consequently his expenditure was on terms of dangerous equality with his income, instead of the prudent lag, recommended by Dickens.
At the present time, he was not sure that he had enough ready money to pay for the taxi which was waiting for him outside the main-entrance gates of the Zoo. As he had been doubtful of picking up a cab at the tube terminus, he was forced to hire one at a large station further down the line, while it was necessary to promise the driver the return fare in order to engage him.
He stiffened in self-protection as Ann placed her hand on his arm. "Angel-lamb," she said. "Please stay."
"Impossible," he told her. "You must come back with me, Ann. You've hinted that you're uneasy about the state of affairs here. Of course, I can't insist on your return but for your own sake I beg it."
"But I can't leave yet. I want to meet Stephen."
Ann was too overwrought to realise the tactlessness of her admission until James gave a mirthless laugh.
"I'm concerned with your safety," he said, "but I cannot undertake to help you in your love affairs. I—"
"Huss," whispered Ann.
As she realised that the drawing-room door was opening she grew conscious of a new danger. The reliable and conscientious James—by virtue of his qualities—might prove a dangerous obstacle to her reunion with Stephen. She knew that every male on the premises would welcome her removal in his safe company. It was a novel situation to her, since she had been used to masculine homage, owing to woman famine in the camps.
She felt the regret of rejecting his protection when she appealed to him in an urgent whisper.
"If you won't stay, please go at once. I don't want Sir Benjamin to think I'm entertaining a strange man."
Unfortunately she used the wrong argument, for James coloured with indignation.
"That would be a reflection on both of us," he said. "I will make a point of explaining my presence to him."
"No. You must go at once."
Ann's intervention came too late for, as she tried to drag James towards the front door, Sir Oswald strolled out of the drawing-room.
"Are you Sir Benjamin Watson?" asked James, advancing to meet him.
"No, that's a guest," said Ann, tugging at his sleeve. "Come, James."
To her dismay James refused to be side-tracked.
"Apparently I must introduce myself," he said. "Professor Short. I wish to apologise to Sir Benjamin for this intrusion. I am an old friend of Miss Sherborne's and as she is unused to the black-out I called for her, in order to see her safely back to her hotel. I have a taxi waiting in the road."
His solid appearance and pedantic voice appealed to Sir Oswald. He was afraid that he might be called on to escort Ann to the tube terminus and he disliked the idea of being saddled with the responsibility of any one so attractive and mobile. Moreover, he had noticed the damage to Ann's suit and—as a man of the world—he had summed it up as the result of a romp with Richard. The idea was repugnant, since he liked the ladies whose protection he safeguarded to be worthy of the tested purity of the ingredients he used in the manufacture of his toilet preparations.
"I'll tell Sir Benjamin you are here," he said heartily.
Before he could reach the drawing-room, Sir Benjamin—attracted by the sound of voices—came into the hall.
"Does any one want to see me?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," said James. "I do. Please introduce me, Ann."
When James had repeated the explanation of his visit, Sir Benjamin beamed with approval.
"Very thoughtful of you," he said. "I'll get my nephew to go with you to the main gates. The path winds and a stranger might find it tricky. Peacock, give the professor a drink in the library while Miss Sherborne is putting on her things."
Ann felt the pull of three strong wills dragging at her like the suction of a rip-tide as Sir Benjamin gripped her arm and marched with her to the cloakroom. As she shut the door she heard the sound of his voice calling to his nephew. Then she looked around her with no hope of finding a way of escape, in the absence of windows or a second exit. She only knew that if she were escorted from Ganges in James's guardianship, she would never be permitted to enter its gates again. The process was inexorable—final and formal as expulsion from college.
"I must hide," she reasoned. "If James is in a hurry, he won't stop for them to find me. But I can't stay here. They'll send Lady Peacock or Mrs. Blake to dig me out."
From the muted sound of Sir Benjamin's shouts, she concluded that he was walking down the passage towards the Tropical House, Sir Oswald and James were presumably in the library, whose open door commanded a view of both the dining-room and the staircase. Only two doors were out of their range of vision—those of the cloakroom and kitchen.
Her only chance was to try her luck in the kitchen. She remembered that the housemaid had mentioned a back staircase by which Stephen had reached the turret. Although the tower-room would be a trap, she could go down the spiral stair to the dark lobby which had an outlet to the courtyard. There was an alternative choice—the back way out which led to the kitchen garden.
Straining her ears, she slipped out of the cloakroom and crept towards the kitchen. She could hear voices from the drawing-room and the library, as well as the faint rumble of Sir Benjamin's thunder. The air seemed full of sound and she prayed she was unseen by any invisible witness when she closed the kitchen door behind her.
The big room seemed darker and to have lost its comfort now that the glow from the range had died down. She noticed that the leopard cub was still in its basket—a bowl of milk beside it—and she felt grateful that it was not a puppy, endowed with the watch-dog instinct and eager to try out its voice. Stealing through a second kitchen—equipped with a gas-stove and frigidaire—she hurried through the scullery to the back door.
To her dismay it was not only securely fastened but the key was removed from the lock. As she stood staring at it, she remembered vaguely that Richard had stopped to unlock it before they went out into the grounds. It was evident that he was taking no chance of a maid slipping out to meet a sweetheart. The precaution seemed absurd and extreme until she connected it with the leopard cub. Undoubtedly it was valuable and Richard had to guard against its being stolen during the night.
It was futile to wait there longer, so she began to look for the back stairs. She felt too harried and confused to make a systematic search and—in her impatience—she often opened a door twice, only to reveal coals or mops. At last, around a bend of a short crooked passage which she had mistaken for a dead-end, she stumbled on a flight of wooden steps covered with narrow linoleum.
She began to mount them cautiously until she reached the fifth tread, when she stiffened and stopped to listen...Someone was coming down the stairs towards her...He was much higher up the flight, but she recognised a very slight drag in the footsteps which was characteristic of Richard.
At first she stood as though petrified while her brain began to spin like a record, reeling off the odds against escape. If she went on climbing, she was bound to meet him, unless a miracle happened and he branched off into the main staircase. It was futile to hide in a closet, because a search would be made of the domestic offices, in an attempt to solve the mystery of her "Mistletoe-Bough" disappearance. Flight too seemed hopeless; Richard was coming down the back stairs and his uncle might enter the kitchen at any moment, when she would be caught between them.
"I know now what they mean by a pincers-movement," she thought bitterly as she caught a new sound from the hall—a knocking upon wood.
"Miss Sherborne," shouted Sir Benjamin. "Are you ready? Professor Short wants to start at once."
"Perhaps she's not there," suggested James after a pause. "It's strange she does not answer."
"She may be unwell," said Sir Oswald. "I'll fetch my wife."
The hunt was out and Ann rushed back to the kitchen in a vain hope of finding a refuge. As she looked around her she noticed the kitchenmaid's white overall hanging from a peg. It was the work of a few seconds to slip it on and to tuck her mane of hair inside the neck. She was just in time to flop down on her knees beside the cub's basket before Sir Benjamin and Richard entered the kitchen simultaneously from different ends.
"Were you calling me, sir?" asked Richard with insolent servility.
"Yes," grunted Sir Benjamin. "Where the devil have you been? I want you to accompany Miss Sherborne and a friend of hers to the main gates. The chap is in a hurry—and now I've found you, I can't find her."
"A chap?" asked Richard sharply.
"A professor of sorts." Reminded of his existence, Sir Benjamin raised his voice. "Sorry, Professor, she doesn't seem to be here. I'll get my nephew to see if she's hiding anywhere for a lark."
"It's a game that would appeal to her sense of humour," grinned Richard. "I'll take over, sir. If she's anywhere at the back, you may trust me to flush her."
Ann listened in an agony of suspense lest notice should be taken of her. She was afraid that the cub might be awakened by the noise and she knew that a whimper from it would attract Sir Benjamin to its basket. As it began to stir restlessly, she tried to soothe it back to sleep. Fortunately it approved her touch, for, after a wriggle, it curled up in its former position. She realised, however, that Sir Benjamin was likely to assure himself of its well-being and her heart beat with sickening irregularity until Richard returned from his search.
"Nowhere there," he announced. "Rebecca, has a young lady come through the kitchen?"
At first Ann did not grasp the fact that he was speaking to her, and when she did so she could not pluck up her courage to reply.
"Speak up and stop making noises like a goldfish," said Richard roughly.
"Richard." Sir Benjamin spoke sternly. "I will tolerate rudeness to no one in my house." His own voice softened as he tried to encourage the back of a white overall which was all he could see of Ann. "Don't be afraid, Rebecca. Have you seen the young lady anywhere?"
Ann realised that she had been saved from giving herself away by her attack of nerves. Otherwise she would have replied briskly and politely, in the manner of a well-trained maid—instead of reproducing the tongue-tied uncouthness of Rebecca. Grateful for the darkness of the recess, she shook her head vigorously.
"No," she muttered.
The footsteps of a new arrival saved her from further inquisition.
"Forgive my following you, sir," said James. "I've come to say I cannot wait any longer. Please express my regret to Miss Sherborne and explain I have an urgent engagement."
"At this time of night?" remarked Richard. "Lucky dog."
"Richard." For the second time Sir Benjamin reproved his nephew. "This is Professor Short."
"'James' to me," corrected Richard. "He's an old Borstal pal. How are you, James? You look a prosperous bloke. Have you given up your round of refuse-bins?"
"Quite fit, thanks," was the frigid reply. "Good-night."
"Wait. My uncle has ordered me to come to the gates with you."
"No, thanks. I shall require no further help from you." James turned to Sir Benjamin when his cold voice melted. "Thank you for your hospitality. I have not tasted such excellent whisky for years. Good-night, sir."
"I'll see you down the steps," said Sir Benjamin hospitably.
Ann strained her ears, waiting for her opportunity to escape. After Richard had followed his uncle to the hall, she could make a second attempt to reach the tower-room by the back stairs. She heard the slam of the front door and then located the directions of the distinctive footsteps—Sir Benjamin's back to the drawing-room and Richard's down the passage leading to the Tropical House.
She gave the cub a final pat and was about to rise when it clawed her sleeve to show her that it was awake. Staring at her with burning golden eyes, it climbed out of its basket and began to knead her overall with its claws.
"Cut it," she implored it. "I can't play with you now, buddy. Night life is definitely out. Back you go."
The cub allowed her to make it comfortable in its basket, but when she turned to go it jumped out and began to follow her. After the performance had been repeated several times she grew desperate. Her sense of responsibility was too strong for her to leave it alone, lest it should leap on the hot stove or injure itself in some other way.
"Darn the lot of them," she thought angrily. "An infant like this shouldn't be left."
She was too engrossed chasing the cub to realise that her complaint was receiving prompt attention. This time she did not hear the sound of bedroom slippers as a girl entered the kitchen. Her short dark hair was rough and she wore a grey woollen dressing-gown.
At the sight of Ann she started and clapped her hands over her mouth to suppress a scream before indignation drove her to the attack.
"Mine," she said, pointing to Ann's overall with an accusing finger.
"Rebecca," gasped Ann. "What are you doing here?"
"I've come to fetch Gloria. She always sleeps with me. She thinks I'm her mother."
As she remembered the cub's relationship to the beautiful leopardess—Delia—Ann considered that its intelligence had been slandered.
"Over to you," she said, thrusting it into the girl's arms. "Actually, she's rather too matey."
"She smells me," said Rebecca, pointing to the overall. "That is mine. She thinks—"
Ann was standing with her back to the door, but its opening creak, together with the alarm on Rebecca's face, made her leap to the shadow of the recess. Then she saw Sir Benjamin stare in astonishment at the little kitchenmaid's bare ankles.
"That's a quick change," he said, pointing to the nightdress visible under her short dressing-gown. "Regular Protean act. What are you doing with Gloria?"
He laughed when he heard the confused explanation.
"So Cook doesn't know," he chuckled. "Good for you. Bless you, I've sneaked enough cats to bed with me in my time...Be off with you—the pair of you. Young hussies."
He clapped his hands and laughed again as Rebecca scuffled from the kitchen—leaving a slipper behind her but clasping the cub in her arms. Then he turned to Ann and the smile left his eyes.
"I would like an explanation of this." He touched the white overall. "Didn't you hear me calling you? I didn't do it merely to exercise my voice."
"I know," faltered Ann. "It was terrible of me. But I didn't want to go with James and leave the party. You must understand that."
"Why? I never went to parties. I was a circus kid," said Sir Benjamin pathetically, apparently forgetting his pre-Eton childhood. He added briskly, "The party will soon break up. For the sake of a few extra minutes you've lost the chance of a personal escort back to your hotel."
"I'll be all right," Ann assured him. "I've only got to catch a bus...But you don't know what this evening means to me. I've not been in a civilised house for years. And I shall never be here again."
"What makes you say that?" he asked reproachfully, although his face brightened.
"I'm going to join the army and I shall try to get drafted abroad. I may want to—to forget."
Sir Benjamin smiled at her as he offered her his arm.
"I'm honoured," he said. "Please stay."
In spite of his invitation, Ann felt that she had been taken into custody when he marched her into the drawing-room. Too many accidents had happened recently for him to take more chances on an attractive stranger. He pushed her into a chair at the table and sat beside her.
"Ever played poker?" he asked.
"Yes," she replied. "But I haven't a chip."
"I'll stake you. I'm used to staking pretty ladies—all of them felines."
Ann felt a flare of rebellion before she yielded to superior pressure. The inner voice which she called "Mark" was silent and no prescience told her of her good fortune. She did not know that—whatever the fluctuations of the game and whether she won or lost, it was to her personal advantage to remain in the drawing-room with the other guests.
She soon became aware that she was not the only uneasy player. Isabella made no pretence of an intelligent interest in her cards. A dummy wound up to perform certain movements would have put over a better show. Victoria appeared to be annoyed by her losses. Her luck seemed to be completely out and presently she rose from the table.
"Where's Richard?" she asked impatiently.
"Here," said a harsh voice from the doorway. "At your service, Madam."
Directly she glanced at him Ann was chilled by his quivering lips—his glistening skin and gleaming eyes. She clenched her hands to subdue her nerves as Victoria asked him a question.
"Have you found those slides I want to see?"
"I have," replied Richard. "All is ready for the inspection of the famous doctor."
"Good. I'll come now."
"But you haven't given me my revenge," protested Kitty.
Victoria glanced at her watch as though she considered it the only reliable timepiece.
"When I come back I'll play for another ten minutes," she said. "You could win a fortune—or lose one—in that time."
Ann watched Victoria and Richard go from the room with a baffled sense of helplessness. She wanted to shout a warning to Victoria—but she did not know what she feared...
She only knew that two had gone out of the room—and only one would return...
Although the game went on the life had died out of it. Even Kitty seemed to have lost interest in her winnings.
"I don't want anybody's money here," she confessed. "I'm only playing to keep my luck warm. When the doctor comes back I'm going to raise her to the ceiling. And when I say 'ceiling,' I mean the R.A.F. one."
Presently Isabella pushed her hands distractedly through the waves of her blonde hair.
"Big Ben," she asked, "do you mind if I ring up my John? He's not come—and I'm worried about him. He may be suffering from the results of his fall. Concussion—or anything."
As she hurried from the room, she presented a picturesque type of anxious wife which deceived nobody who knew her. Then the game limped on again, while Kitty grew still more impatient.
"What ages she is," she groaned, looking at the clock. "We'll be terribly late getting home, but I'm set on having my revenge." She broke off to exclaim at Ann's tense face. "How spooky you look. What's the matter?"
"Can you hear anything?" asked Ann.
"I can. It sounds like dull footsteps a long way off. Someone's running down the passage from the Tropical House."
"Imagination," said Sir Benjamin.
"No." Lady Peacock spoke with authority. "I heard the slam of a door. Someone's in a hurry. I hope nothing's wrong."
All eyes were fixed upon the door as the card-players sat motionless at the table—listening...
THEY heard footsteps crossing the hall—pelting down over the marble flags as though someone were in desperate haste. The door was pushed open and Victoria stood on the threshold. She waited there for a few seconds to regain her calm, before she crossed to Sir Benjamin and spoke to him in the quiet professional voice of a doctor announcing a death.
"You must be brave. I've bad news for you."
Ann saw the panic leap into his eyes.
"What?" he asked hoarsely.
"It's Richard. There's been an accident." Victoria paused before she added, "A fatal accident."
"The Snake House."
Sir Benjamin's face looked the colour of a black plum from a sudden rush of blood.
"That's impossible," he said. "He couldn't get in. I keep the keys."
"He told me he had a duplicate," quavered Ann, fearing to hold back any evidence.
Sir Benjamin still stared at Victoria with dazed and incredulous eyes.
"But I warned him off them," he said. "I forbade him to touch them. Are you sure he is—dead?"
"There's no doubt about that," said Victoria. "The rawest medical student would know that life is extinct. But if you would like a second opinion, may I ring up your own doctor?"
"No, no. You know your job."
Once again Ann watched the backwash of blood in a ghastly ebb which left his face ashen and streaked with minute purple veins. His lips quivered and his eyes looked blurred as he put out his hand, groping as though he were blind. Instantly Kitty took it and began to chafe his fingers gently, before she put her arm around him and soothed him as though he were one of her children.
"There, there," she murmured. "It will all come right."
At that moment Ann saw her stripped of her meretricious and grasping qualities—a compassionate woman and a loyal friend.
"Kitty," whispered Sir Benjamin. "You know what this means. It's the end of everything. I've lost it. I've lost my Zoo...How shall I tell my friends?"
"You needn't worry about them," said Sir Oswald. "I will see that a discreet version of the accident is circulated. I am sure you will meet with universal sympathy and—"
"Don't be a fool, Oswald," interrupted his wife. "Sir Benjamin is talking about his poor animals."
At that moment Ann felt that Sir Benjamin's tragedy eclipsed her own menaced hopes. She was playing for a high stake—her future happiness—but he was seeing the end of the game....boy in a circus—loving wild animals with passion—had dreamed a dream which came true; and now he was waking up to the misery of a grey rain-spattered day...
"Kitty," he said, "I have to make a bitter decision. I have to ask myself whether it is kinder to destroy or sell. And you know the answer."
"Yes." Her voice was choked. "The other way would be too cruel after all they've had. But you must shoot them yourself. Romulus and Remus—"
As Kitty broke down her husband spoke for the first time.
"It may not come to that. We'll all rally round and make a hell of a fight for it."
"Thanks." Sir Benjamin brightened up like a child who has been promised a treat. "Peacock," he said abruptly, "you want that new land for a factory. If the Zoo is saved, I'll make a present of it to the nation. I'll only keep a belt of rough between it and the Zoo."
Ann recognised that he was offering the ancient sacrifice in propitiation to the Fates, even while Sir Oswald registered a business bargain.
"Very generous of you, Watson," he said. "As things are, it looks as if the land would be useless to you, so you'll be forced to throw it on the market. Frankly, your offer is another Spitfire bribe; but as I'm among friends, I'll admit I am open to corruption."
Then his smile faded and he shook his head.
"The snag is," he said, "I'm doubtful now of being able to swing it after such a specially nasty accident. Snakes are definitely unpleasant—whether you're drunk or sober. All I can promise is to do my best for you at the meeting."
"It's no good, Peacock. You're right. I knew it all along. My Zoo is doomed."
Sir Benjamin covered his eyes with his hand, but after a few moments regained mastery over his emotions.
"I must see Richard," he said to Victoria. "Where is he?"
"I left him there in the Snake House," she told him. "I shut the door for safety."
"Yes. Quite right. I'll go to him. But first, I must ask you all to leave at once."
There was a general movement as the guests rose from their seats—each conveying the impression of relief at the end of a harrowing scene. Only Ann stood as though her muscles were locked. Her face was pale and her eyes were dark with despair as she gazed at the clock. The last half-hour had been broken and only a margin of minutes now divided her from midnight.
She was beaten by the time-factor. In the new and tragic circumstances, she could not plot to hide or ask for permission to stay. Decency demanded her departure since Sir Benjamin had made it plain that he wanted to be alone with his tragedy.
"Richard will see you to the gates," he said. "Oh...forgot....shall miss the boy. He had his faults but he knew his job."
Even in her dark minute, Ann was struck by the redeeming phrase which covered up a cankered character—"He knew his job." Then she remembered that. Isabella too would be broken by Richard's death. It seemed a heavy moment of total loss. Sir Benjamin had lost his Zoo—Isabella had lost Richard—she had lost Stephen...As she lingered, Victoria—who had gone out of the room—returned holding a glass.
"Drink this," she said to Sir Benjamin. "It will steady your nerves. Afterwards you can see your nephew. As I'm a doctor, would you like me to stay on?"
"Yes," he muttered, swallowing the draught mechanically. "But the others must go."
"We're all going now," Kitty assured him. "I'll be over early to-morrow."
She kissed Sir Benjamin and the professor patted his shoulder, while the Peacocks murmured conventional expressions of condolence. Sir Benjamin appeared to be unconscious of them all as he stared into vacancy. Then Kitty gripped Ann's arm and drew her towards the door.
"I'm glad that doctor thing is staying with him," she whispered. "He can't stand much more. I'm terribly anxious about him."
As she spoke Sir Benjamin struggled to his feet.
"I will see you to the gates as usual," he said. "I must be sure that the Zoo is safely shut up for the night. Get your coats and be quick."
When they reached the hall Ann spoke to Lady Peacock.
"I'll get your coat for you."
She had never run faster as she dashed up the stairs and into the guest-room where she snatched up the fur coat from the bed. Throwing it over one shoulder, she sprinted down the connecting passage and burst into the tower-room. It was still empty and her smile was bitter as she gazed around her.
"The end of seven years," she said.
As she snapped off the light and plunged the place into darkness, her action seemed symbolic. Her sun had been swallowed by the Snake which is supposed to ring the Globe.
The Peacocks came to meet her in the hall and Lady Peacock received her coat with gracious thanks.
"How thoughtful of you to get it and how quick you've been. Your legs are younger than mine. Are we all here? Yes, the Blakes are with Sir Benjamin. But where is Mrs. Cumberland?"
"Isabella?" asked Sir Benjamin vaguely. "Isn't she here? I'll call her."
He raised his voice in the familiar boom but Isabella did not appear. He shouted again, when in the following pause the passage-door which connected with the Tropical House was opened and she entered the hall. It was plain that she knew about the tragedy for Ann was shocked by the transformation in her appearance, caused by the violence of her grief. Her large eyes were reduced to slits by swollen lids and her face was puffed and wet with tears. When she spoke, however, her voice was controlled.
"You," she said curtly to Victoria. "I've some questions to ask you. I have just seen Richard. I want to know exactly what happened."
Victoria ignored her and spoke pointedly to Sir Benjamin.
"I was going to give you the details in private," she said.
"What does it matter now?" asked Sir Benjamin heavily. "He's dead. Let them hear what happened. In a few hours it will be everybody's secret."
He staggered as he spoke and Isabella took his arm and led him back to the drawing-room, while the others followed them. She guided him to a chair and stood behind him; then—putting her arms around his neck—she pressed her fingers, over his lips. It was no longer the gesture of a siren, but a measure of precaution to prevent him from speaking.
"You're a doctor, Victoria," she said. "Were you able to diagnose the cause of Richard's death?"
"Of course." Victoria shrugged contemptuously. "Sir Benjamin will confirm it the moment he sees his nephew. Richard died from snake-venom."
"You mean—poison? Was he bitten by the snakes?"
Ann was startled by the sudden light which flared up in Sir Benjamin's eyes. Isabella still pressed her fingers over his lips while she looked across at the Blakes. Although Kitty seemed puzzled, she plainly scented a development, for her face grew suddenly acute as she whispered to her husband. He responded by picking up a spare scoring-block which had been left behind them by the bridge players when they went to the library. Sitting behind Victoria, so that she could not see what he was doing, he drew from his pocket his cherished pencil, in readiness to take down her statement.
As she watched the scene, Ann sensed a change in the atmosphere of the room. She had a curious feeling of the presence of an invisible audience. She fancied that a shadowy company of "twelve good men and true"—butcher, baker and candlestick-maker—were seated in a ring around Victoria, listening to her with impartial justice and waiting for her to make a fatal admission...Then Sir Benjamin removed Isabella's fingers from his lips and spoke in a steady voice.
"It seems I've been mistaken. I was under the impression that my nephew had been interfering with the big snakes and that they had crushed him to death."
"I never told you that," said Victoria suspiciously as though she scented a trap. "The others heard what I said. He's been poisoned."
Suddenly a belated memory caused Kitty to gasp with excitement even while it seemed to Ann that the dim circle of twelve men had moved closer to Victoria.
"I would like to hear exactly what happened," said Sir Benjamin. "I want my friends to hear it too. Leave out nothing. Don't spare my feelings."
Victoria snapped her black eyes over her audience and became instantly at her ease. Accustomed to lecturing, she appreciated especially those classes where no member was in a position to challenge her statements or ask awkward questions.
"Richard came with me to the Snake House at my request," she said. "I'm experimenting with the curative properties of venom, so naturally, I'm interested in the fountain-head—the snake itself. As we were going there, I was struck by his bad colour. As a matter of fact, I diagnosed heart trouble with liver complication. When we reached the Snake House, he told me to wait in the passage while he went on alone, to be sure that all the cages were securely closed. It seemed an unnecessary precaution but he was insistent that there must not be another accident for the sake of his uncle."
The statement about Richard's anxiety rang false and the ring of shadowy jurymen tightened around Victoria.
"I waited for some time," she went on, "and then I grew uneasy. I wondered whether he had fainted as the temperature was so high. So I went into the Snake House. Richard was stretched out on the floor and his body was contorted into an arched posture, while the door of the poison-snake cage was wide open. I stamped to frighten the creatures away and then made a hasty examination. There was not the least doubt that he had been bitten fatally. His face was cyanosed and he was rigid." She turned to Sir Benjamin and added, "He must have fainted before he was attacked, so he did not suffer."
In the silence which followed, Ann was amazed by the change in Sir Benjamin. The unnatural pallor had left his face and his eyes were bright with interest. He nodded when Isabella whispered in his ear, and then he spoke in a strong vibrant voice.
"I have only one more question. Did he linger or was he killed by a virulent poison?"
"I have already told you that." Victoria's voice was impatient. "His death was probably a matter of seconds."
Again Sir Benjamin's voice rang through the room.
"No one is to leave the house. This is not an accident. It is murder."
"Not an accident," cried Kitty jubilantly. "Then Romulus and Remus are saved."
Ann too felt a surge of joy at her eleventh-hour reprieve. There still seemed a chance for her to keep her appointment with Stephen. Then she noticed that the Peacocks were seriously disturbed by Sir Benjamin's words. Lady Peacock's face was flushed with indignation and she took her husband's arm as though for protection. He patted her hand to reassure her but his own colour was high as he challenged Sir Benjamin.
"You must explain exactly what you mean, Watson. You cannot level a vague charge of murder and leave it there. As your guest, I speak for my fellow-guests. I demand to know if any one of us—or all of us—are suspected. And on what grounds?"
"Pipe down, Peacock," said Sir Benjamin. "I'll make it clear and simple. Dr. Pybus has just told us that Richard was poisoned by venom which acted very swiftly. Now I say he was murdered. So the inference is that he was poisoned by the last person who was with him. Is that correct?"
"Correct," said the professor while the Peacocks nodded agreement.
"I protest," declared Victoria. "I was the last person to see him. The autopsy will confirm my diagnosis that he was poisoned by snake-venom. I have been sparing you, Sir Benjamin, but you force me to tell you something rather horrible. After I left the Snake House, I looked through the glass and saw that the snakes were crawling over your nephew."
"I believe you," said Sir Benjamin. "You counted on the snakes covering-up for you. That was possible for when they're scared they get angry. Even one puncture could account for the presence of poison."
It was evident that Victoria accepted his admission as weakness. Her eyes gleamed as she spoke in a threatening voice.
"I don't know what you mean by 'covering.' But I warn you that you have slandered me indirectly before witnesses. I could bring an action and claim heavy damages. It is fortunate for you that I value my professional reputation too highly to risk even the suspicion of smut which might stick if I took the matter into court."
"The matter will come into court, whether you wish it or not," Sir Benjamin told her. "You know a lot—but not quite enough. You don't know that there is not a single poisonous snake left in my collection."
As she listened, all the life went out of Victoria's face, so that Ann was reminded of a death-mask; only her eyes glittered with the fury of a trapped creature. Sir Benjamin pointed at her with a shaking finger as he pressed home his charge.
"You killed my unfortunate nephew with a shot of virulent poison. You either induced him to swallow it by trickery or you jabbed him with a syringe when his attention was distracted. Then you opened the large poison-snake cage—but you were misled by the old label...On the outbreak of war, I was obliged to take the precaution of having every venomous snake destroyed in case of air raids."
As though exhausted by his emotions, Sir Benjamin lay back in his chair and closed his eyes. It was Sir Oswald's chance to take command and clarify the points of the situation.
"Medical evidence has been supplied by Dr. Pybus that the deceased has been poisoned. Since the snakes have been proved impotent, it follows that he was killed by human agency. I would like to point out that—with the exception of one person—we were all in the drawing-room, so our alibis are established. The exception is Dr. Pybus. In fairness to her, we would like to hear if she has anything to say."
Victoria laughed contemptuously.
"It's utterly fantastic," she said. "Even supposing I had opportunity, what motive could I have for killing a man I hardly know?"
In the silence which followed, Ann again looked around her. She found it difficult to believe in the reality of the scene because it reminded her of a stage play which was ceasing to grip her interest. She had the familiar sensations of a playgoer, towards the end of the third act, when the outside world was beginning to distract her attention with the problems of weather and transport. Therefore she felt no thrill of excitement when Isabella made a dramatic charge.
"You killed him, Victoria, because he was blackmailing you. You were doing too well out of your bargain and he wanted some of the loot. I don't want to damn his memory now he's dead—but he wouldn't be dead except for you—so you're going to take the rap...Listen—all of you."
Isabella stood under a strong light which shone down on her shimmering gown but shaded her face—making it appear semi-invisible—so that she seemed less human than an accusing justice, speaking through the metallic lips of a silver image...Again Ann listened to the story of the sordid pact which she had heard first in the Tropical House. She noticed that Kitty occasionally whispered to the Peacocks, so she was not surprised when Sir Oswald asked a question.
"Dr. Pybus," he asked mildly, "why should Richard tempt you to forestall Nature and murder so old a man as Sir Benjamin's uncle? Surely his death was only a matter of a short time?"
Victoria acknowledged the elementary attempt to trap her with a scornful smile.
"As this is the first time I've heard of it," she said, "you had better ask Isabella. It's her story."
"Can't you work it out for yourself?" asked Isabella impatiently. "Actually the old uncle could go on existing for centuries while Big Ben could stop a bomb, or get measles, or anything. Big Ben was Great-Uncle's sole heir. The ancient relative was incapable of making a fresh will, if Big Ben pegged out first, so his wealth would be divided among a host of relatives. But Richard was also Big Ben's sole heir, so he would scoop in the lot if the ancestor died first."
"If he was waiting for dead men's shoes, the chances were he would wait the dickens of a time for mine," snapped Sir Benjamin. "I am not an old man."
Isabella hesitated before she spoke.
"I'm terribly sorry, Big Ben, but you've got it coming to you. Richard reckoned you'd break up if you lost your Zoo. He was behind all the accidents."
Sir Oswald walked towards the door.
"At last we can take action," he said briskly. "Your first step, Watson, is to establish the fact of a conspiracy. Once that is proved, any other charge which might be brought"—he stressed his words—"would have little chance of success. With your permission, I will ring up Hogarth and get him to fix the earliest possible interview with the man Browning, at the hospital. He'll probably be still up. It's not yet twelve."
His words seemed to ring a bell in Ann's brain. Before she could obey its summons, Sir Oswald spoke again.
"After I've dated Hogarth I will ring up the police."
"The police?" cried Victoria.
"Yes, Dr. Pybus. It will be your chance to explain."
Victoria turned on Sir Benjamin and spoke viciously.
"If I explain, you'll be sorry you started this. When Richard promised me five thousand, he pointed out that I was safeguarded, because you signed the cheque. He knew he could work it when you were half-drunk. So you see, you can't rub me out without getting rubbed out yourself, as the other partner in the conspiracy...Of course, I shall deny everything."
"So you admit to a plot with Richard," said Sir Oswald triumphantly. "As to denying what you've said, Professor Blake has been putting it on record and we shall all be prepared to testify that it is the truth. I need hardly add that Professor Blake and I both bear characters of proven integrity."
Ann noticed Lady Peacock's proud smile as she gazed at her husband but the others were watching Victoria whose eyes were dark as dead stars in her white face...Then she looked at the clock and saw that it was seven minutes to twelve.
Suddenly she realised that, after Victoria's admission, there was no question of her being a suspect and that she was free to leave the house. With a foretaste of liberation, she told herself joyously that within a few minutes, she would have broken free from every complication and gone forward into her own future...She tried to attract Sir Benjamin's attention but he was engrossed in the drama being played out within his four walls. As Victoria was still the central figure, holding the eyes of her audience, Ann lingered in the doorway and bid them all a mute farewell. Isabella—the jovial professor and his vivacious wife—the stately Peacocks—Sir Benjamin with his gigantic voice and wistful eyes—all these would soon be only memories.
She closed the drawing-room door softly while she saw her own pathway stretching out before her and was filled with a surety of coming joy. Terrified lest someone should try to bring her back again, she stole into the cloakroom and drew on her fur coat and hat with nervous haste. When she reached the hall, she hurried to the foot of the stairs—only to turn away.
That grand sweep of staircase had led to so many disappointments that she was superstitious about risking a last crowning one. She told herself that the right way to the tower-room was through the turret door...Creeping through the hall, she reached the front door safely and then stopped to look back at the theatrical hall and the pink azaleas.
She heard the faint sound of voices from the drawing-room but already the people inside were fading to shadows and she was glad to get rid of them, just as she was grateful to have reached the end of a perilous adventure. She never wanted to return to Ganges or see any of her late companions again—even while she knew that something of the evening would remain with her always.
As she stood on the portico, waiting for her eyes to get accustomed to the darkness, she was conscious that there would be times when a policeman on point duty would remind her oddly of a friendly elephant on guard, just as she was sure that she would rush to perform trifling services to severely-correct elderly women. She knew too that she would hurry past posters advertising circuses and zoos; she would never see dyed red hair without a queer wistful pang of affection; she would never read in the newspaper that a murderer had been hanged at eight o'clock, without shrinking from a memory of dead black eyes in a white enamel face.
Blowing a kiss to Kitty, she stared out into the night. The stars had changed their course and those which had swung high were now dipping towards the horizon; but although the Guards were blotted out by clouds, she managed to find the dim pinprick of the Pole Star.
When she reached the bottom of the flight of steps, she stopped to plan her journey. At the back of the house and towards the left of it her way would be blocked by the huge outcrop of the Tropical House and the other buildings—so she turned to the right. The wall of the house seemed to stretch on for a long way before her heels no longer sank into damp turf but struck on a hard surface.
She thrilled to realise that she was back at the beginning of her wanderings—in a familiar paved courtyard with a sundial in the middle and a flagged path leading up to a lancet-shaped wooden door. As she turned its handle, an elephant trumpeted in the distance—a high jubilant note—as though sounding the charge. It rang in her ears as she obeyed its signal and plunged into the darkness of the lobby, where she stood—listening.
She had completed the circle and was dipped again into a moment she had looked forward to for seven years...Suddenly she heard a movement from above as though someone was growing impatient of delay and she looked upwards, to see a faint glow from the top of the stairs.
Someone had turned on the light again. At the sight of it, she began to rush up the stone steps, her heart hammering with hope and suspense. When she turned the last spiral, the open door revealed the tower-room and she knew that at long last she had reached the reunion.
Smiling at her was a face which she had pictured so often during her years of exile. It had grown thinner and stronger but the hair grew in the familiar way and there were the same clear-cut corners to the mouth—the same laughter in the eyes.
"Stephen!" she cried.
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