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Title: The Robe of Lucifer Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1901161h.html.html Language: English Date first posted: Nov 2019 Most recent update: Nov 2019 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy and updated by Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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THE plot of this book maybe described as a sort of travesty on the first chapter of the Book of Job. A certain Arthur Greenstreet [sic. The name in the book is "Greenstrand." —Ed.], who is a pessimist, falls into argument with the optimistically-minded Julien Ray. The end of it is that Greenstreet is to prove by actual experiment that all men and women are conquerable by temptation. Satan makes one experiment and fails in it; the man who assumes the "robe of Lucifer" makes many and succeeds. This is not a bad scheme for introducing a good deal of savage satire on various things and persons, as a Bishop "escorted to the pulpit by a throng of cringing acolytes,"—do acolytes really go in throngs? It will be easily understood that the result is a succession of stories quite dismal enough to please even the most modern taste.
The Spectator, 24 April 1897
ONE traveller alighted at Port Gwyn Road, accepting his environments upon faith. There was a slip of worn platform, obviously pensioned from more prosperous areas, and now dank and mouldering an Lethe's Wharf. A hut, fashioned in the trunk of a decayed tree, served the dual purpose of waiting-room and ticket-office. A small steady rain pattered on the crumbling boards. Beyond lay a shelving sandbank and the sea—the only thing in motion there.
The traveller was quite alone, the station functionary having disappeared. A battered portmanteau stood at the traveller's feet. Under such circumstances, the most seasoned wanderer had fain been excused a resigned melancholy. Visions of cheerful hotels might have been fostered in that dreary spot. But Arthur Greenstrand was filled with the beatitude of a new sensation.
He turned out of the station, carrying his bag. Greenstrand had a destination and a welcome awaiting him on a contiguous spur of that ironclad coast. He saw the cliffs sweeping upwards, lifting their shoulders to the grey mist; he saw a clutch of white houses to his left, and boats keel-deep in the gritty sand. Despite the rain, a group of fisher-folk foregathered on what at one time might have been a granite quay. Thus Greenstrand's introduction to Cornwall. On the whole, he was rather disposed to like it.
No spot is devoid of redeeming features; even hell may possess natural advantages. At any rate, it is impossible for any one to refute the theory at present. Thus, the air of this place was superb. It came booming up from the Atlantic fields, crisp and fresh, and reeking with salt spume, nitrous as old wine. Greenstrand made his way across to the fishermen with a curious feeling of expansion and lightness. The group before him was picturesque enough, and lacking the vice of curiosity. There were grey beards and brown, there were deep-set eyes blue as the sea itself, there were hands oaken and wrinkled as the sails, nails with a firm rim of tar under them. The presence of a stranger excited no curiosity, and aroused no comment.
"I want to go to Port Gwyn," Greenstrand remarked.
An old sea-dog regarded him with a gaze so blank that the speaker was conscious of some confusion. He felt like a seal in the net.
"Well, you can go," the native responded gravely.
Nobody laughed, because neither rudeness nor repartee were intended. Whereupon the fishers fell to sea-chat again. As a matter of fact, they talked nothing else. They rarely saw a paper; letters came to them as birthdays, marked with gentle enthusiasm. But of all the human race, Cornish fishermen and country parsons have tapped the well-spring of true idleness; the rest are merely amateurs.
These men fish one tide daily for mackerel with hook and line; the rest of the time they spend in bed, or sitting on the shingle. To sit for hours on shingle and be happy is an art. In the winter they subsist upon salt herrings and potatoes, and sit upon a bench. Believe me, there are worse lives.
Greenstrand returned to the attack again. A man who can command the servile attention of millions is not to be baffled by a mere fisherman. The richest man in the world stood there before those primitive people, neglected and alone. Still, the situation was not without its charm.
"Do you happen to know," he asked with becoming humility, "where Mr. Julien Ray lives? I am on my way to his house."
Every face was turned quietly in his direction. Did Greenstrand but know it, this was enthusiasm, or the nearest approach to it to which the Cornish fishers aim. And it encouraged Greenstrand. Evidently Ray's fame had penetrated down here.
"Take yonder path over the cliff," one of the men explained, "and follow it till you come to the village. There's only one house there you can properly call a house, and that's Mr. Ray's. You see the path there?"
"Don't unnecessarily fatigue yourself," Greenstrand murmured as the speaker rose, the better to point out the way. "Will any one carry my bag?"
No reply came. Carrying the bag obviously implied largesse therefor, but what is vile dross compared with artistic laziness? So Greenstrand bore his own burden, like Christian of old, and rather enjoyed the sensation. He had reached a limit of civilization where money appeared to be a negative force.
And this man had literally the command of millions. He was in a position to make as much money as he desired. Did he require a yacht, or a continent, or a dodo, or a specially rare kind of canvas-back duck, he had only to give the order, and it was executed. He had everything he wanted. Yet this fact did not prevent his dragging a heavy portmanteau along three miles of vile cliff road in the pouring rain, and on an exceedingly empty stomach. For the nonce the tenant of an acre of furzy common and eke owner of a donkey was better equipped than he.
Greenstrand was, however, neither miserable nor unhappy. His old cynical boredom, his want of sympathy with humanity, seemed to have fallen from shoulders burdened with many millions. He saw the spume breaking on the rocks below, he saw the sea-wrack trailing in crystal pools, like a dead maiden's hair. The great heart of the sea throbbed responsive to his own. His lips were salt, a sense of sweetness filled his nostrils, underneath his feet the crushed wild thyme exuded a dying pungent perfume. Hundreds of ghostly sea-birds fluttered round his head, crying like familiar spirits. And God had the ocean in the hollow of His hand; the tide, spilt through His fingers, crashed upon the forehead of the world. The mystery of the sea is the mystery of life.
A benign sense of his own littleness filled Greenstrand; the consciousness of this had never been so forcibly brought home to him before. In the town he was great, men lisped his name with awe; here he was a mere unit—a wet one, without an umbrella. You can get a very good one for a guinea; but they are not to be purchased in the wilderness, even by the Squire of Golconda, who plays upon the money-market as on a barrel- organ.
The whimsical side of the argument tickled Greenstrand. What on earth was the good of all his money to him at this moment? Here, the unit plodded along in the wet; there, the capitalist was all-powerful. To-morrow he could say to himself, "I will go out and make some millions;" to-day he couldn't smoke a cigarette, because he hadn't any matches. You can't light a pipe with a cheque-book, though you may set a continent ablaze with one. And what is the use of tobacco at a guinea a pound when the rain gets into one's pouch? For once in a way Greenstrand could afford to indulge in the philosophy of the poor, a luxury usually denied to the rich.
And he was rich beyond the dreams of a philanthropist, or a religious man of business. Fortune had selected him as the recipient of her most frequent favours. In plain English, Arthur Greenstrand's late lamented father had invented a chemical process by which coal—or, at any rate, an equally good substitute—could be manufactured from refuse matter. The thing was simplicity itself. You had only to take a waste piece of ground, a huge pile of matter out of place—anything material, in fact—and charge the whole mass with the formula. A few hours afterwards it was, to all practical purposes, coal. Just think what this means!
It means one of the great necessities of life at the door of every dweller in towns. It means the same thing in every great ocean port all over the world. It means something like solid profit for allowing people to take away, at a fancy price, what you do not require for yourself. It means that you can shut up any coal-field in the country by depreciating the market value, and then demanding anything you like for your own article. In Greenstrand's case it meant the possession of so much money that he was bent, and almost broken, under the weight of it. Not that he had taken any unfair advantage of the family discovery to the detriment of others; he was too honest for that. But the possession of so large a fortune was to him the salt in the herring-barrel, the hair in the cider-press. It had crushed all ambition, all that was good out of him. Ambition, to the possessor of millions, is impossible. Why strive for fame or reputation in politics, or art in letters, when you can buy it as a cabman does his beer—by the quart? Consider what a man can do in politics—provided that he has means—by keeping one hand rigidly over his mouth, and the other constantly in his pocket!
It may be urged, perhaps, that a man of genuine ambition could put this wealth out of his life, and start from scratch, like the other runners in the race. But, whatever his faults might have been, Greenstrand was no fool. On the contrary, he was a man who knew his world very well indeed. He knew that genius does not necessarily imply success; besides, he did not labour under the delusion that the afflatus divine was his. Looking round him, he could see that the huckster's instinct was requisite to-day to turn "Shakespeare and the musical glasses" into good business, and that "the popular taste"—a thing he abhorred—was the thing to cater for to become successful. Suppleness Greenstrand did not possess. No; success, as we understand her to-day, was not for him.
It is a great deal easier, and more soothing, to be misunderstood and shunned with a large income and a house in Park Lane, than it is in a cottage furnished on the hire system. The slights are not so pointed. Also, your blighted genius has his corners, like the rest of us. Greenstrand preferred to view the drama from the stalls. The pit may be the best place in the house, but there would not be much trouble in persuading the pittite to change seats with an occupant of the dress circle.
Yet, without doubt, the possession of so much money embittered Greenstrand's life. Blessed—or cursed—with a sense of humour and a cynical temper, he judged the sycophants who fawned upon him correctly. He saw the worst and most sordid side of life; he gradually lost his faith in all that is good and pure. Belief in God or man he had none; in his eyes every action had a motive. There was no future state—nothing. The rest was a blank, and every man a devil in disguise. He had no friends, and all those who knew him were actuated by designs upon the coaly millions. Greenstrand hated the world, but he hated himself most of all. There was only one thing worse than life—death.
There is a certain temptation to the rich man to become his own deity. What can one expect else from the being whose calves are all golden ones?
Thus Greenstrand. He had tried everything, and found it empty. Society he had exhausted in a year. He could discern no real difference between Lady Midas, prating of the price of her carpets, and the Duchess of Sang Azul, smothered in diamonds what time there was an execution in Prehistoria Castle. The same vulgar ostentation ruled all, and reduced them to a common plane. In his despair, Greenstrand had even tried religions—not one of which he had found to fit. The bishop in lawn, escorted to the pulpit by a cringing throng of acolytes, and preaching the simple doctrine of a single Christ, drove back his soul in revolt from the blasphemy; the Methodist, unlettered, agibe with jealousy, and spattering frantic diatribes, flavoured with the gall-political, at those he would fain rub shoulders with, disgusted him.
There was a certain egotism underlying Greenstrand's lack of faith in everything. Had he been less clever, he had been a happier man. Instead of which, he was driven back upon himself by the open flattery of others. Perhaps none really cared for him, because he took no pains to conceal his contempt for others. If he had one grain of Platonic affection in his nature, it was for Julien Ray, the poet. Ray was the tonic his consumptive vanity needed, the North wind blowing over the hotbed of schisms and doubts which choked a really kindly nature.
Now, here was a man possessing unlimited wealth, a fine intellect, good health, and a fair presence, and yet there was no more unhappy individual in England. Why? It would have puzzled Greenstrand to answer the question. What is termed the perfectly happy man, the one who has everything he can require, and no wish ungratified, must be intensely miserable. Fancy any human being with nothing to long for, no ultimate goal to reach, no Promised Land afore! Picture the misery of him! Greenstrand was the individual in question.
Think of it! This man might have done anything, become anything. With his wealth and intelligence, nothing was impossible to him. That probably accounted for the fact that he was standing at this moment, tired and wet, dragging a portmanteau along, and regarding a little village lying in a hollow at his feet, girt in by broomy hills, and washed by the creamy tide. Our refined tramp stood there with a look of something like admiration in his eyes. However extravagant her moods are, Nature is never a snob; her work is thoroughly artistic. Greenstrand smiled with the feeling of one who stumbles by accident upon a perfect picture.
GREENSTRAND'S exotic enthusiasm was not misplaced. A spur of the sea ran like a spear into the green heart of the mainland, whilst terraces of foliage uprose on either side, crowned by rocky diadems. The tiny bay formed a perfect harbour of refuge, where ships ran what time the west wind raged along that cruel coast. There were many cottages peeping out of the foliage here and there, but Greenstrand saw that most of them were ruined and deserted. The only house of any note—and that anything but a dominant one—stood upon a rocky shelf on the opposite side; a ferny hollow lay behind, and a pretty garden in front. There was nothing else that suggested the Home of Poesy.
A ragged ray of light, penetrating the hood of cloudland, lighted up Port Gwyn for a brief moment, but nothing disturbed the perfect silence there. There were no boats on the silver strand, and consequently no fishermen either. Was there yet another somnolent way of getting a living in these parts, Greenstrand wondered?
He dropped into the valley, and climbed up the other side. Before the comparative cottage of gentility he stopped. Under the thatched roof the swallows were building, on the tiny stretch of lawn a few dove-hued gulls were squatting. A tall fuchsia covered the front of the cottage, begonias and maiden-hair fern ran riot in the borders.
Greenland rapped with his knuckles on the door, and a voice bade him enter.
The traveller had made no mistake, he knew that voice well enough. Few people heard it save in song; therein it was familiar enough everywhere that the Queen's writ runs. There was no inky controversy as to Julien Ray's position as the foremost of modern poets; even the Superlatives admitted the fact in guarded aphorism.
The poet rose from a white deal table, innocent of a cloth, on which, from a pewter platter, he was making a hearty tea on brown bread and fried mackerel. In figure he was tall and spare, his hair was cropped short to the long lean head, his eyes were blue and tranquil. There was absolutely nothing striking-looking about him. In the company of Cornish farmers he would pass as one of themselves, for Ray had a fine faculty for adapting himself to his company; he had mastered the art of being at home everywhere.
"I did not expect to see you for some days," he said; "indeed, you are so erratic that I really did not expect to see you at all."
"The very reason why you might have looked for my coming at any time," Greenstrand replied gravely. "Julien, I'm wet through."
Ray replied that he was glad to hear it. A millionaire, wet, and draggled, and miserable, is a sight that reconciles poverty to the inevitable.
"Of course, I can give you a bed," Ray went on; "only you will have to take your share in the work of the house, because I keep no servant, and do everything myself. This is my living-room, drawing-room, and library, all in one. Like the Irishman's description of a wigwam, so is this house. If you want to go from the drawing-room to the library, you just stay where you are."
Greenstrand looked around him with some interest. The door of this double-fronted cottage gave directly upon one room. On the stone floor lay a Turkey carpet. The uncurtained windows were full of flowers. The furniture was of the plainest. A few pictures on the walls were set off by gleaming domestic utensils. One wall was entirely lined with books; and under a window, let into the centre of these tomes, and commanding a magnificent view seaward, was the one handsome piece of upholstery there, an oak writing-table littered with papers. There was a double settle round the fireplace for use on cold or winter evenings. From the bagman point of view, five and twenty pounds would have covered the lot, the books excepted.
"I suppose you find eccentricity pays," Greenstrand remarked. "Commercially, it must be good business for a poet of your standing to live in a workman's cottage. That's where Salisbury gets the pull of Rosebery—one possesses a mysterious, Janus-like reserve, whilst the other is compelled to grin through the horse-collar of politics. During the seven years you have been here, you must have saved a lot of money."
"I haven't a penny," Ray responded cheerfully. "I had to borrow five pounds this morning from a farmer friend to pay a county court summons from a bookseller. The people about here take all my earnings as fast as I get them. But things are getting better; it's nothing like such a struggle as I had last year."
"You mean to say that you keep half the people about you?"
"My dear fellow, it's no exaggeration to say that I keep them all. You can be a great poet, and earn far less money than a third-rate novelist. In the spring I was so hard put to it, that I came very near to writing a detective romance, but happily the tragedy was averted. An American pork-packer started the fashion for early editions of my first volume, and I was saved. I happened to have a lot of copies by me."
"And you are actually happy here, Julien?"
"Greenstrand, I believe I am the happiest man alive. I have dreamed and hoped of fame, and it has come to me at thirty-five. Think of that! Again, I have not an enemy in the world. My health is perfect, my wants are few. With my limited means, I do more good than you with your millions. I have brought happiness here. When I came to Port Gwyn first, the people were starving—you should see them now. Port Gwyn lace will be as valuable as Rose-point some of these days."
"I heard that you had started a lace industry here. I read it in one of the evening papers, coupled with the information that you cleaned your teeth with cigar ash. There was also something about the kind of socks you wear; but I forget that priceless item."
"I have studied lace-making for years," Ray observed. "The people here used to catch pilchards in due season, and live on the proceeds for the rest of the year. But the pilchards don't come any more, and the people were starving. Perhaps you noticed the deserted cottages as you came along. Well, I taught the women how to make the lace."
"Incidentally finding the capital, I presume?"
"Of course. Where else do you suppose it came from? They took to the work splendidly. The men are picking it up too, but much more slowly. What we want now is a market, plus a call for our goods. The price obtained up to now hardly keeps body and soul together. So I buy it all myself, And sell it for what it will fetch. With your money and influence you might make the thing go for as."
"You mean as a commercial speculation for yourself?"
"Nothing of the kind," Ray cried indignantly. "I'm not a tradesman. If I could see a fair wage for my poor people I should be quite content. Then I could put a lot more hands on, all of whom want work at present. The greater the demand, the greater the profit for them. I should refuse to touch a penny of the money."
Greenstrand declined curtly. He was a trifle annoyed to find the hated topic of his money cropping up directly, even here. He had hoped to get away from that. The old familiar demon danced before him as he changed in his tiny bedroom. Ray was after his shekels already, like the rest—even Ray, to whom money was as last year's leaves. Doubtless before long the poet would be asking him for a subsidy, and artfully luring him into a broad scheme of philanthropy. Legions of hypocrites had tried the same thing before. Utopian programmes breathing Arcadian atmospheres—with a large margin for current expenses. Blest is the patron blind to the balance-sheet, only he is getting extinct.
Greenstrand came down to his brown bread and fried mackerel moodily. In his mind's eye he could see the sycophants who were fattening upon Ray's mistaken generosity. They would have none of his, for certain. Yet Dives enjoyed his meal as he had not relished one for many days; he expanded as he ate. Ray produced tobacco afterwards, and two clay pipes, also creamy ale in stone mugs.
"This is practically your fare whilst you are here," the poet explained. "More or less, I live on fish and potatoes. But, if you prefer a change, I'll go over to Port Jacob and get some meat for you, Greenstrand."
"No, thanks," Greenstrand said dryly. "You are a sufficiently good poet to be an indifferent cook. Besides, I came down here to get well out of the beaten track. I came quite alone, having given my secretary the slip at Bristol. But he knows my intentions, and I dare say he will find his way down here in a day or two. Death is a necessity to me. I suppose you can find room for him somewhere?"
"There is a furnished attic overhead," Ray replied hospitably. "I shall be glad to see Death again; the fellow is an enigma to me, and I am never tired of studying him. Let him come, by all means."
"Death is a curiosity," Greenstrand resumed. "You and he are the poles in emotional feeling. You have them all; Death has none. I believe that man to be absolutely devoid of feeling of any kind. If you stuck a pin in him, he would be none the wiser. Did you ever see him smile? He has a face like a wax mask. He would have made a magnificent judge, so great is his sense of fairness. He would acquit his greatest enemy on a nice technicality, and hang his own mother upon another. Misfortune marked that man for her own years ago, and pursued him as relentlessly as one Christian quarrelling with another on a point of faith. I dragged him out of a blacking factory, for which he was writing poetical advertisements—a Balliol scholar and Newdigate prizeman! That man will do anything I tell him; he never asks questions. Yes, Death is a curiosity."
"He is a very faithful servant," Ray remarked.
"Precisely. I pay him liberally, buying his virtues by the pound."
Ray smiled slightly. Friendship was not a cardinal virtue at all in Greenstrand's eyes. It existed only in books.
"I'm glad your views are not mine," the poet said; "if they were, I should be compelled to shut up shop to-morrow. It must be a horrible thing to believe in nothing, Arthur. And yet I have found goodness and faith and honour enough in the world. I believe it to be a good world, and the people in it good people."
Greenstrand paced the floor impatiently. A trailing wreath of smoke drifted round his head as he went. His dark grey eyes gleamed with scornful anger. He felt a passionate contempt, an envious contempt for Ray's happiness.
"Am I angry, or am I jealous to hear you talk thus?" he exclaimed. "What do you owe the world? Absolutely nothing. For years you were crushed and beaten down. Those who reviled you then come cringing to kiss your feet now. And yet you speak as if you had been cradled in purple."
"Well, it was a pull," Ray admitted, "but I am the better now for it. Is there nothing in fighting fortune as successfully as I have done?"
"You say nothing of three years' semi-starvation."
"It was worse than that," Ray said cheerfully. "More than once I have known the real want of food. The hard life killed one of the sweetest and dearest women that God ever gave to a struggling mortal. For five years I only tasted meat by accident, as it were; ay, I have picked up and eaten bread from the gutter. Once, when I was nearly crazy with hunger, I picked up a sovereign. What do you know about money, Arthur? Wait till you find a gold coin under the same circumstances. And all that time, thank God, I never lost faith in myself, my fellows, or my Maker."
"I am not acquainted with the disease," Greenstrand said cynically.
"No, unfortunately. Far better for you if you were. Without faith I should have gone headlong to perdition. I placed my trust in God."
"I have heard of others who are prone to lean upon the shoulder of Jupiter," Greenstrand replied thoughtfully. "You pray for assistance in the same faint hope that a struggling man goes to his banker for an overdraft—not that you expect it to come, but because it is the proper kind of thing to do. How truly English and insular, this asking the Almighty to back our bills for us! My poor mother used to say that unless I went to church I should never prosper. Therefore going to church is a pure matter of business, in which case the rich man could send a clerk instead. Ergo, the more clerks, the more pious."
"You speak as if there were no God," said Ray.
"There is no God," Greenstrand replied passionately. "It is a mere chimera. And if your God is the God of writ, how much greater is the devil? You call him a fallen angel, in revolt against the Deity. In revolt! Why, the devil is master of the universe! What a splendid lieutenant I should make with all my money. Backed by the power of the gold I have at my command, I could corrupt a continent I could place such temptations in the way of the best of people that they would fall miserably. At the outlay of a few thousands I could turn your little paradise here into a hell."
"There are thousands of good people beyond your power," Ray cried.
Greenstrand smiled as he took up his candle, a tallow one, in an earthern candlestick. The argument was not worth pursuing further.
"Good night, my simple child," he said, "and may you sleep better than I shall."
The rain pattered on the casement of Greenstrand's tiny room, the roar of the sea sounded hollow in his ears. Yet he lay back upon the coarse linen pillow, and slept as he had not slept for years.
MORNING came with a wind fresh from the North- west. The sea lay bright and crisp; the sunshine danced on the blue jewels of the waters. Ray, early astir, dragged Greenstrand from the snug somnolence of the coarse brown sheets, and placed a towel in his hand.
"We are going to bathe before breakfast," he explained. "Into your garments quickly. Do not tarry for the sleep-berries to leave your eyes, but dress and come."
Greenstrand complied laggardly. A heavy surf was plunging upon the crisp sand, the rocks were dank and chill to his unfamiliar feet. Like a white arrow shot from a bow, Ray flashed into the grey bath of spume, shimmering like some great fish in a fathom of crystal flood. Greenstrand followed down to the tangled sea- wrack. The flying spume lashed his shoulders; the salt sting was on his forehead, wild and glorious. A new vigour thrilled in every limb; Samson before meeting Delilah felt no stronger.
"That's fine!" he gasped, as he emerged from the bath. "I feel like another man. I shall be quite ready for breakfast by the time we get back."
"Death is cooking the soles," Ray replied. "I forgot to tell you that he turned up an hour ago. He got a conveyance from Port Jacob, and drove."
"So like him," Greenstrand murmured, as they started back. "Now, at Port Jacob, yesterday, I could get no conveyance for love or money. If Death and I were stranded in the Great Sahara, and I asked him to do his best, he would find me a caravan in half an hour. And if I requested the same day's Times under the same circumstances, it would be forthcoming. I——"
Greenstrand suddenly paused. Like some predatory Adam under parallel circumstances, he felt comparatively startled by what he saw. For, coming towards them, of a verity, was Eve in the guise of Aphrodite. She was tall and dark and queenly. She wore a dress of rough grey cloth with a divine grace. Her long hair was streaming in the breeze; her bare white feet kissed the sand. But for the milky feet, Aphrodite might have been the bride of broad acres. She carried her head haughtily and well. A smile cleft her red lips, and lingered in her splendid eyes. She seemed to see nothing strange in the two figures before her.
"Can't we go and hide ourselves?" Greenstrand suggested. "The lady might——"
But Ray was innocent of confusion. From his point of view, the situation was natural enough. At Port Gwyn they had gone back to the better part of nature. He shook hands with the glowing goddess, who blushed not, for the simple reason that she saw nothing whereat to blush in her lack of hose, and extended her taper fingers to Greenstrand.
"I have heard of you," she said. "I am glad to meet you. But you must not keep me now, because I am going down to the lobster pots."
"What a lovely lunatic!" Greenstrand remarked, as the stately figure passed on. "Have you any more eccentric angels of the same kind here, Julien?"
"There is very little of the lunatic about Margaret Trefroch," Ray said seriously. "You are a bit annoyed because her simple virtue and innocent chastity were too much for your boasted self- possession. You may admire that "front of brass" contact with the world brings, but it is nothing compared to the pure gaze of a little child. And yet Margaret is no child, apart from her unworldliness. Her father was accounted fairly well off until these cottages were deserted. Now he has to work like the rest. But Margaret and her brother Mark—for whom I have procured a situation in London—possess a rare intelligence. I educated Margaret myself; for five years she has been my pupil."
"Take care that she does not become your mistress," Greenstrand laughed. "Nay, man, I mean in the Elizabethan sense of the word, not as it is perverted to-day."
"I shall never marry again," Ray said gravely. "I buried my heart in my wife's grave. Yet Margaret could be a mate for any man. She has beauty and intellect. Few women in England are better educated, though I say it."
Greenstrand pursued the subject no further. Yet this chance meeting with the ocean goddess occupied his sole attention whilst dressing. Not that his speculations prevented a complete enjoyment of the fish and coffee prepared by Death.
The latter greeted his employer quietly enough. George Death never spoke unless spoken to first; he sat through the simple meal, his face disguised as a mask. There was no expression there, no speculation in his hard steel-grey eyes. He allowed himself to be quietly ignored; the others took no notice of his presence there.
After breakfast he rose, and quietly proceeded to wash the dishes. He appeared to be perfectly at home at the task, as he would have been waiting upon a Cabinet Minister. He was equally ready to negotiate the purchase of an estate for his employer. Liberally paid, everything came in the day's work.
Death invariably dressed in black; he wore no jewellery; he had no tastes or habits, and no dislikes or prejudices. What he did with his money, Greenstrand neither knew nor cared. He did know that Death was scrupulously honest in all his dealings; he was quite aware that his right-hand man could have robbed him of thousands had he liked. And Death professed no liking for or gratitude to his employer. His keen sense of justice told him that the arrangement between them was perfectly mutual.
The morning passed quickly with an examination of the place, and an inspection of the house where the lace-manufacture was in progress. Ray was doing a good work, perhaps, but it smacked of professional philanthropy too much for Greenstrand.
"Let us go on the cliffs and smoke," he said presently. "I'm getting somewhat tired of these ceaseless expressions of gratitude one hears from these people. Besides, I have been dragged over these kind of places so often before. I shall give you nothing."
Ray led the way up the cliffs. The boyish gaiety contrasted strongly with Greenstrand's sombre mood. They sat looking over the wrinkled sea, flushed with the love of the sunshine. The great heart beat and throbbed upon the rocks; there were voices in the wind.
"Why can't I be happy like you?" Greenstrand cried suddenly. "Why am I so full of discontent?"
"Because you have nothing to do," Ray replied. "And yet you have a fine intellect. With your opportunities and advantages you might become anything. Literature——"
"I might become a minor poet," Greenstrand sneered. "I can write verses sufficiently badly for that. And I should certainly be exploited in the evening papers. The more rude I was to them, the more they would extol my virtues. A rich man's failings are a poor man's vices. No; on the whole, I think I will steer clear of literature."
"Then why not politics ? It is the pastime of tin prosperous."
"Because I could succeed in attaining any position I required. My dear Julien, consider the want of stimulus politics offer to one in my position. With the millions at my disposal, I could actually found a party. Suppose I take up the occupation of waste lands. I might establish industries in the desert; whether they paid or not would matter little, because the subsidy would be always fattening. With money I could bribe the electors. I could choose my own candidates, and endow them with ample funds. There are hundreds of men of influence, apparently in a prosperous condition, who are tottering to ruin. Indirectly, I could buy the electorate as I would a flock of sheep. In five years I should become Premier. And where would the satisfaction be? My wealth, and not myself, would deserve the praise. No; I can see nothing in politics."
"Then why not deprive yourself of your money altogether?" Ray asked.
Greenstrand hesitated for a moment before he replied.
"Because I dare not," he murmured with the tone of one who makes a humiliating confession. "I lack the necessary belief in myself. So many better men never rise superior to circumstance. Should I, given your genius, have ever forced my way to the front? I think not. I have had a better opportunity of judging the greed of humanity than yourself. I have but one weapon, and I dare not lay that aside. And yet its might is crushing me. I want some mission, some occupation that money cannot buy. Everything has been tried. I thought I had found it once in philanthropy, but I was mistaken. On the whole, that seems to me to be the most sordid business of the lot."
"It seems to be a pitiable state of things," Ray remarked.
"Pitiable is no word for it. I am without hope, and without faith. Julien, do you believe, really and truly believe, that there is a God directing us somewhere?"
"I am certain of it," Ray cried. "I have proved it. I feel that God is, and will be. I feel His presence now; I seem to see evidence of it in the great waters. Without the help of Christ I should have gone down into desolation and darkness. Do not mistake what I say for the Shibboleth of the Churches; in the cant phrase of the day, I am not a religious man. For instance, I never by any chance enter a place of worship. The set parrot prayers day by day drive me to madness. The sermon is an invention of the devil. Fancy the smug, narrow sectarian preaching Christ's holy charity, and denying a dissenter burial in his churchyard—God's Acre, mind you! Picture the Nonconformist minister yelling his hideous secular politics, and quoting the Deity in support of his argument, as if God were a Gladstonian. See the prelate at the altar marrying innocent crushed May to scrofulous December, and telling his perfumed gallery that whom God has joined together no man shall put asunder. Oh, the pity of it! And yet one can feel the life of Christ to be the true one. God is everywhere, the just kind God that Jesus spoke of, and He prevails."
"I don't believe a word of it," Greenstrand retorted. "You evoke all this out of your brilliant imagination. If things are as you say, why is Satan all-powerful? I could be Satan myself. I could spoil your Arcadia here in a week. If I could but put a dozen men to the test, place in their way blazing temptations, and find them come out of the ordeal unscathed, I think I could believe myself."
"You think all men are corrupt at heart, then?"
"I am absolutely certain of it. My worldly experience has never shown me a single instance to the contrary. Mind, I grant there are certain instances where you must make the bribe big enough, or disguise the bait carefully. Julien, I have a great mind to turn devil, and test my theory practically."
"You would fail," Ray cried—"fail miserably. And if you did succeed in breaking up and ruining a home or two, what then? What would you do with your victims?"
"Send them down here to make lace," Greenstrand smiled grimly. "I should feel that I owed them something for the sport they had given me, in which case I should not mind giving you money for an extension of the colony."
Ray caught his breath quickly. He saw a way to extending his scheme, and confounding his friend at the same time. It might also be possible to fill Greenstrand with the faith through which real happiness alone lies.
"I have a great mind to accept your challenge," he said thoughtfully. "There are other places besides Port Gwyn along the coast where help is sorely needed, and I confess to a great desire to handle some of the thousands which represent so little to you. But what a Nemesis would be yours, were you to make the attempt."
"Why? The devil flourishes after the lapse of countless years. He has revolted successfully. There is no reason why I should not go and do likewise."
"You really are prepared to make the attempt, then?"
"Since you challenge me, I may say that I am both willing and eager."
Ray's eyes glowed with the light of battle. He was for humanity against mammon.
"So be it, then," he cried. "You shall go out into the world and tempt man, you shall play upon his weakness and his vanity, you shall fall like Lucifer. The collapse will be great, but God is merciful to all. I believe you will not succeed in one solitary instance, arrogant as the power of your money renders you. But who is to select the victims?"
"That shall be Death's portion," Greenstrand said eagerly. "And I will inform him that none but the strongest are to be chosen. My intention is not to pick out those who are in difficulties or dangers. Let us see what the best are made of. Death's strong sense of justice will be your safeguard; you can rely upon him thoroughly. He shall have carte blanche to go through the country and select subjects for my experiment, as a collector of old china goes afield for curios. And you will judge as to fair play."
"I shall certainly live to rejoice in your discomfiture," Ray replied.
"The challenge is made and accepted," Greenstrand cried. "Already I feel that I have an object in life. I am itching to be at work. Let us dispatch Death upon his errand without delay. Meanwhile, I shall remain here till Death returns. He will show no surprise when he hears what he has to do."
Greenstrand did not exaggerate. Death listened to the commands of his employer with no signs of animation or surprise upon his graven face.
"I am to start at once," he replied, "and I have no limit as to space, provided that I confine myself to England. It will cost a deal of money."
"It will," Greenstrand agreed. "You will want a blank signed cheque-book, and use your own discretion as to what you spend. And take your time."
Death departed like a shadow. For good or evil the die was cast. Ray's face was grave, whilst Greenstrand's features were flushed and triumphant.
"You fear for me?" be demanded.
"It is in God's hands," the poet replied. "I tell you I am frightened. Whether I have done right or wrong, the future alone will show. There is no turning back now."
NOT without some hesitation, Ray confided the story of the experiment to Margaret Trefroch. He did this because it was his custom to tell her everything. To the poet's surprise, Margaret displayed no signs of anything but pleasure.
The trio were seated on the cliffs at the time. In Margaret's eyes, something of awesome mystery hung around Greenstrand. The girl possessed a strong romantic bias. With her head in the mist, she saw men's virtues looming large; through the same phantascope their faults became mere miasmas. Greenstrand was a god; in his hands the gold was Aaron's rod to strike the barren rock, and cause the stream of goodness to flow until the flood-tide of the millennium was reached.
The girl sincerely pitied his doubts. She saw in the experiment a means of removing them, and rendering Greenstrand's future peaceful. She only knew three men—her father, her brother, and Julian Ray, the poet. And they were all noble.
Therefore mankind must be noble likewise. Greenstrand's experiment would fail hopelessly. He would realize what a good world it was. The sunward facet of it dazzled her eyes till the flaw was invisible.
"I am glad," she said simply.
Her long hair was blowing in the wind like a wild mane about her ivory shoulders; she spoke in prophecies reminiscent of the classics she had read. She babbled wildly as Cassandra, yet with the gentleness of Ruth. Greenstrand would be gathered into the fold, the flood-gates of his millions would be raised, and the golden stream flow over the land balmily.
"You will fail!" she cried. "I am certain of it. Then you will be utterly crushed for a time, but your faith will return. But you are not going to pick those people out who are likely to favour your theory?"
Greenstrand smiled into the beautiful face. "I am no professional politician, Miss Margaret," he said. "I have not yet learnt the art of moulding my theories to my facts. On the contrary, failure would please me particularly. I want to fail. I want to believe that people like yourself and Ray comprise the lump, and not the leaven. For this reason I have instructed Death, by letter, to fly at the highest game. Hut he will not fail."
"He will," Margaret retorted. "I am certain of it. God will not permit a mere human to stand between Him and the great scheme of salvation. You must be mad to dream such a thing."
"How do you know that I am not an instrument in God's hands?" Greenstrand suggested. "The mighty are put down from their seat sometimes. My whole scheme may be inspired to break the pride of an arrogant unit, in which case I am not a free agent."
"Heaven ordains everything," Margaret murmured.
"But does it?" Greenstrand urged. "If Heaven ordains everything, everything is predestined. Therefore, if you commit a murder, you should not be punished for a thing you cannot help. Your Deity, not you, is the real criminal. On the other hand, if man is entirely a free agent——"
"A truce to all this," Ray cried. "Out upon your free-agent theory! Take the birth and life of a flower, ponder over it, and tell me you cannot see God's handiwork there if you dare, Arthur. I am sorry, now, that I had anything to do with your experiment. When the crash comes, I hope I shall not be too near the ruins."
"The ruins will not be mine," Greenstrand said cynically. "It is a month now since Death went away, and every day I expect to hear from him as to the result of the first experiment. All I know, as yet, is the name of the intended victim."
Ray looked up with languid interest. "I suppose we should be none the wiser if you were to inform us who it is?" he asked. "Death is anything but an ambitious man."
"Ambition has nothing to do with it," Greenstrand replied. "What is mere ambition—only an emotion, at best—compared to the superb arrogance the contact with much money produces? Death has been with me long enough to know that gold can procure practically anything. Allied to this, he has a vivid imagination. He has gone, as I expected he would, to the top of the tree. After all, a prince is only a man in disguise. You can't strangle greed with a purple robe, any more than you can homicide with a rope of hemp. And Wallingford Hope is only human, like the rest of us."
Ray burst into a hearty laugh. Margaret smiled with amusement.
"Wallingford Hope!" the poet cried. "Is he to be the victim? Why not the Pope, or Mr. Gladstone, at once? Why, if there is one public man in this country more than another——"
And Ray paused for sheer lack of words. Everybody knew and admired the present Secretary of the Continental Department. On his inclusion in the Cabinet there had been a perfect chorus of praise, even in the Opposition papers. No words could tell his praises, his virtues were triumphant, even his microscopic faults were virtues dilapidated. A man of the people, Wallingford Hope had forced his way to the front by sheer talent and sterling integrity. He had lately married a wife, who brought him love and beauty and money. What temptation could be his?
"I am amazed, lost in admiration of Death's audacity," Ray exclaimed. "Had I been asked to select my beau ideal of a public man, past or present, I should have unhesitatingly picked out Wallingford Hope. Why, there is nothing to tempt the man with! He is certain to be the next Premier; he has almost scornfully refused a peerage; be is a K.G. Everybody knows that he is persona grata at Court. His seat, at Wallingford Royal, is an ideal place, for I have been there; and he has the finest collection of orchids in England. What can Death possibly do in such a case as this?"
"Spend a couple of millions if he likes," Greenstrand replied indifferently. "I don't anticipate procuring Wallingford Hope for much less."
"You have so much faith as that in your money?"
"Naturally. Don't suppose that Death would approach Hope and brutally request him to betray his trust for so much cash down. I tell you money can do anything. If the greatest imperial interests tremble in the balance, if a European war is practically settled, the Rothschilds can ban the whole thing by a stroke of the pen. Statesmen and armies forsooth! The destiny of Europe could be solved to-morrow by a handful of Jews, over a bottle of port and a pound of filberts. Money is the motive power. Who is the greatest man in Europe?"
"Per se, I suppose you expect me to say the Czar," Ray replied.
"The Czar, decidedly. I shall make no attempt upon the Czar, because he is not picturesque enough. The late autocrat of all the Russias was greater than the present one, morally and physically. And yet you will remember his collapse over the matter of the persecution of the Jews in his dominions. Who brought that about, I should like to know?"
Ray was silent. Margaret seemed pale and uneasy. Greenstrand was bringing the gods of her idolatry about her pink ears. A cold haze uprose from the sea and chilled her; a mist crept across the sky and veiled the sunshine. Along the headlands a flock of gulls were calling dismally. Could such things be?
"Oh, you must fail," she cried, "you shall! I cannot believe what you say. Men are better and nobler than that, and do better things."
"We are not all like you, certainly," Greenstrand said, with a note of regret in his voice. He was beginning to feel something more than an idle fancy for Margaret. Her beautiful transparency filled him with desire—a longing for possession. Were she his wife, he felt that he would never have occasion to doubt her. She would care for him only.
"I am not different to the rest," Margaret said with some indignation. "There are thousands better—more useful. We shall convince you yet, Julien and I. And you will eat the bread of repentance in sackcloth and ashes."
"Let us hope that I may," Greenstrand replied.
"Novelties are always alluring. For your sake I sincerely hope that failure will be my portion. At any rate, we shall know in a few days now. I may hear from Death at any time."
The conversation drifted on to more congenial topics. It was a great delight of Ray's to draw Margaret out, and display the beauties of her mind. She lay back upon the short thymy grass, and talked from the fullness of a ripe understanding. Greenstrand listened; her enthusiasm stirred him, as a glassy sea is ruffled by the wind. When Margaret rose to go at length, he pressed her to remain eagerly. But the girl tripped away down to the valley, saying that the household had need of her services.
"She is divine," Greenstrand said; "an absolutely perfect woman."
Ray smiled slightly. Such praise from Greenland was rare indeed.
"Strange to hear you say so," the poet responded. "According to your showing, there is no thing perfect under the sun. She is only human, after all, you know. How much money would Death want to corrupt her?"
Greenstrand fell into angry mood, therefore illogical. He had been hoist with his own petard, and no man likes to cut his finger with his pet weapon. He roundly accused Ray of coarseness, and a desire to appear for the nonce as a blasé man of the world. It was also a thing unpardonable that he should point his ribald gibes at so fair a creature as Margaret.
Ray's features beamed with fun. "Pooh!" he said good- naturedly; "your armour is only plated, after all. I hit you fairly, my friend; I have found a weapon with which I can crush you at any time."
"All jewels are not paste," Greenstrand said sulkily.
"No jewels are paste, else they are not jewels. But all diamonds are merely charcoal—to argue from your recent point of view. I pin my faith to Margaret. She shall reform you yet, and Death's failure shall complete the chain. We shall see you a proud father of fair children and breeder of fat beeves before we have finished the chapter. Now let us go home and see if there are any letters. There are boiled dabs for dinner."
There was a pile of letters for Greenstrand, most of which he pitched into the fire without the formality of opening them. The contents of most he knew by experience. Beyond these were a bulky packet addressed by Death, and yesterday's Daily Telephone, forwarded by the same hand. Greenstrand did passing justice to Ray's cookery before opening his correspondence. There would be plenty of time whilst Ray was washing up. The meal despatched, Ray proceeded with his domestic offices, whilst Greenstrand turned over the Telephone. Presently he gave a hard chuckle, but his face betrayed no surprise.
"There is an interesting paragraph for you here," he said. "See it for yourself."
Ray took up the paper. On the fifth page was a sensational heading, thus—
FATAL ACCIDENT TO THE CONTINENTAL SECRETARY.
SUDDEN DEATH OF THE MORGAN AMBASSADOR.
Just before going to press we are informed that, late this morning, the Morgan Ambassador was discovered in his library by his valet quite dead. On retiring to rest, the household left Mr. Wallingford Hope, M.P., with the Ambassador, and the latter did not leave the house till daylight. On the police inquiring at the residence of the latter gentleman in the usual course, they found that the Continental Secretary had not returned home. Shortly afterwards the startling intelligence reached Scotland Yard that a body, identified as that of Mr. Hope, had been found fearfully mangled on the line just outside Charing Cross station. It is supposed that the right hon. gentleman must have fallen out of the train, and been killed as he lay unconscious across the metals. For the present the affair is shrouded in mystery, and what brought the popular member there it is impossible to say. The police are investigating the matter. Meanwhile, many rumours are afloat, but it may be taken that the tragic sequence of events has no political significance."
"I thought that paragraph would interest you," Greenstrand remarked.
"It's a horrible thing," Ray said hoarsely. "What does Death say?"
"He merely remarks that he sends me a paper whereby I can see for myself that his efforts have been successful. He goes on to say that he has placed the facts in the form of a narrative, so that I can see the result of his first adventure. Death has one or two other victims marked down, and will advise me as to their experiences in a similar manner. It should make dramatic reading, and certainly not lack human interest. Shall I proceed to read you Death's first story?"
"Not yet," Ray protested. "I am too utterly bewildered just at present. Let us defer it till Margaret can be present. Remember how interested in the experiment she is. For myself, I feel like a man in a dream."
Greenstrand laid his bulky packet aside. It was evening before Ray returned with Margaret, who appeared pale and agitated as himself.
"Julien has told me everything," she said. "I could not have believed it possible. Will you please to read us the story without delay?"
"Certainly," Greenstrand replied. "Push the lamp across the table, please. I find the narrative to be very clear and succinct. As you know, it is in the form of a story."
And, followed with breathless interest, Greenstrand read as hereafter is written.
NO more successful statesman than Wallingford Hope ever held the Continental portfolio; no orator possessed a greater charm. In one respect his record was unique; he had represented one constituency during the whole of his political life.
By rapid strides he had risen to perhaps the most important position in the Government; even the Opposition newspapers admitted him to be the right man in the right place—a rare meed of praise when one considers how profound a student is the modern journalist. It is only natural that professional Irish patriots and pragmatic Scots should be less prejudiced where the needs of England are concerned.
Hope possessed a European reputation as a diplomat. He was never mistaken; anything he foreshadowed usually came to pass. His enemies said he was dull and stupid; luck favoured him strangely, they contended. But the Continental Secretary had one golden rule in diplomacy—a rule so simple and so amazingly successful, that the wonder is no statesman had ever adopted it before. He used no diplomatic weapon at all. If a certain line of policy was advanced by his antagonist, he invariably opposed it, shaping his course in direct opposition as the other exposed his hand. "Let the policy be your opponent's, and your business be simply to burke it," was Hope's motto. No other diplomatist had this view of diplomatic relationship; it had never occurred to him in his worst moments.
It was difficult to see what Wallingford Hope could require, and what ambition remained to be gratified. Early in life he had learnt the lesson that honesty in politics pays best, as it does in every other trade. He never trimmed, because he was rudely honest; office was by no means a necessity to a man of his means.
He possessed the outward grace of a D'Orsay, combined with the easy, polished, worldly courtesy of a Chesterfield. A son of the people, he found himself at fifty occupying a high position in society, a favourite at Court. He had, moreover, a beautiful wife, who was devoted to his interests, and one who had brought him exalted connections by marriage, and great wealth besides. A Knight of the Garter, and the certainty of becoming the same of the Thistle, Hope apparently had nothing to desire. True, he hadn't a tortoiseshell tom-cat, or a blue Mauritius postage- stamp; but these were spots on the sun, and besides, he didn't want them. His hobby was horticulture, and his proudest boast that he possessed the finest collection of orchids in the world; he had them all, with the exception of the Purple Damask. But nobody else had one either—the only specimen ever found and brought to Europe unfortunately expired. Most people will remember the gloom cast by that appalling catastrophe.
This dodo amongst flowers, this blooming auk, so to speak, is fully described in the "Encyclopaedia Botanica," enshrined in a special article all to itself, written by no less than four eminent authorities. Originally discovered in Sumatra by a Dutch hunter, the latter disposed of it to a local merchant for a pint of rum and a copy of the "Arabian Nights." From thence the Purple Damask passed into the hands of a syndicate, who finally sold it by auction to Ambrose Barclay, Esq.—subsequently brained in a drunken brawl by his dear friend the Tipton Slasher, of fistic fame. Ten thousand pounds was the price paid by this gentle patron of the Arts for his treasure; not because he wanted it, or because he knew an orchid from an orange, but simply because it struck him as a neat and brilliant way of disposing of a large sum of money without unnecessary exertion. In this gentleman's possession the orchid passed away.
To describe the flower: it bore no more than three blooms at one time; it was a large bell of deep imperial purple, and scored throughout in rich orange with a pattern so neat and regular, as to resemble fine Irish linen. To reproduce this treasure, Wallingford Hope spared no time or expense. Attempts were made by growers to find another; private collectors, away in primeval forests, were risking their valuable lives, and perilling their more valuable digestions, to obtain the reward offered by the Continental Secretary. Rumours, more or less authenticated, reached England from time to time, to the effect that the Purple Damask still existed. A millionaire collector in New South Wales was supposed to possess one, for which he would accept a fabulous sum. Another was hidden away in Paris by an eccentric grand-duke, who kept it for his own inspection. He neither denied nor refuted the soft impeachment, when questioned. Still, as he had lately lost largely at Monte Carlo, Hope had expectations in this quarter.
But there were other things to occupy his attention besides orchids, damask or otherwise. During his term of office, the Continental Secretary had been endeavouring to conclude a treaty with Libania. Hitherto he had been baffled by the intrigues of Morgany, the Foreign Minister of which state had thwarted him at every turn. To Morgany, a treaty between England and Libania meant the thrusting back of the clock for fifty years, and a consequent check upon Morgany's ambitious schemes. On the other hand, it represented to England a practically new route to the East, a new outlet for trade, and additional prestige in distant Europe. The Grand Hereditary Caliph of Libania had shuffled and wriggled; he had promised and deferred; but Hope persisted. It was in for a penny, in for a pound, this time. If successful, popular applause was his portion; if he failed, it would mean something like political extinction.
Urged on by Hope, who spoke with undoubted authority, the Cabinet was deeply pledged to the carrying out of the Libanian Treaty. Latterly they had been losing credit in the country—also bye-elections—and the brilliant prestige of this course was expected to restore the balance of popular favour. He of Libania had been brought to his senses at length, and there only remained Morgany to be dealt with.
It is hardly necessary to say that the lines of the treaty were a profound secret. The feather had been nicely drawn over the eyes of Admiral Mongolifor, Morgany's ambassador at St. James's, and he of Libania was practically landed. How much money he owed England in cash and pledged credit the Premier did not care to think; certainly there would be a pretty fuss in the constituencies if the truth came out. But if, on the other hand, the treaty was ratified, they could proudly point out how, at the outlay of a few pecuniary sprats, they had landed one of the greatest whales from the ocean of finance.
Apparently Mongolifor slept. Hope had assured him that a treaty between England and Libania had practically been signed. The admiral—a diplomat to his finger-tips—had immediately set down the information as a colossal lie, and gone away under the impression that the last thing England required was a treaty with Libania. He hadn't the least notion what they wanted; but since Hope informed him that it was a treaty, he immediately concluded it to be something diametrically opposite.
Lulled into security, Morgany was apparently doing nothing. The least inkling of the truth—such, for instance, as an intimation of the fact that diplomatic relations between England and Libania were broken off—would have seen fifty thousand Morgan troops on Libanian soil within twenty-four hours. They would have forced a treaty out of the fat, lethargic prince before England could interfere. Their superior geographical position rendered them dangerous; therefore the utmost secrecy and caution were necessary on the part of ministers.
Still the treaty remained unsigned. Hope pressed the Libanian ambassador in the latter's more sober moments, then finally threatened. The ambassador's salary was in arrear two quarters, and he was desperate. He puffed a cigarette in Hope's private room at the Continental Office, in defiance of all rules.
"It has come to this," Hope said firmly. "It is no longer a question of what you intend to do, but what we require you to perform. When are you ready to sign?"
"Let's drop all official nonsense," Mason Ali replied. "You and I were at Rugby together, before I made such an ass of myself, and I can't forget it. Fortune compels me to serve that adipose old scamp over yonder in various shady ways, and d—d sorry I am. To tell the honest truth, Hope, we don't intend to sign the treaty at all."
"Then what the devil do you mean to do?"
"Barney, as we used to say at school," Mason Ali replied. "Just barney as long as we can keep the ball rolling. Those are my instructions, and I have carried them out well, Lord knows. Oh, he is a downy old rascal, is my old man."
"I suppose you are alluding to his Majesty, King Selim, of Libania?" Hope asked grimly.
"That's the bloke," Mason Ali replied. "How familiar the old school words come, to be sure. Don't be angry, old chap; I'm just as miserable about it as you are. The fact is, Sancho Panza—I mean Selim—is, one way and another, pretty well played out. What with his harem, and his wine, and his gambling, he is frequently as hard up as I am. For certain considerations you are to have a lien on the harbour-dues, on the ruby-mines, and further, you are to buy from him the waterway along the Magnos, and the land for a Marmora Canal. You can't do it, because these things are all disposed of already.
The Continental Secretary started. Yet he had half feared as much.
"You don't mean that Morgany——" he suggested.
"Nothing of the kind. Morgany is standing off at present—afraid of Russia, I expect. If they knew you were moving, they would risk it, and spoil your game quicker than you could dot an i. All the concessions you speak of were sold two years ago to a Yankee for a quarter of a million dollars. The sacred dragon jewels were pledged as a guarantee of good faith, Brother Jonathan being too astute to part without."
"But if Prince Selim should repudiate————"
"And let the people know that an infidel has the marbles? My dear fellow, the populace would tear the old man in pieces; his very guards would murder him. You haven't seen Eastern fanaticism as I have."
"Then we shall have to purchase from the American."
"You can't do that, because another Richmond has been before you. Hiram L. Cobber has disposed of his grants, including the sacred alley taw, to a mysterious chap called the Chevalier Beckton, a grim skull-and-cross-bones individual, with a face like an enamelled mask. He is living at present in a place he has furnished at Hampstead, and a veritable little palace. What his game is I can't say."
"You know the Chevalier Beckton?" Hope asked.
"I don't know him," Mason Ali replied. "He's not the kind of man to permit any one to do that, if I am a judge. But I have dined at his house more than once. Would you like to try your hand upon him?"
"Like it! My dear Mason, it is absolutely necessary. You must bring us together."
"On my head be it," Mason Ali replied. "You can tell Beckton that I mentioned the concessions. Perhaps you may get them at a price. I don't suppose he bought them to look at. And why don't you get the King of Fizzihali to squeeze Selim for you?"
He of Fizzihali ruled the dominion adjacent to Libania, an Oriental prince of some wisdom and unusual sobriety. Add to which his Majesty was at present in England. Years agone he had received his education here.
"It never occurred to me," Hope replied. "Ayoub is a man of great intelligence——"
"And a collector of orchids, to boot," Mason Ali remarked.
It was the great bond of sympathy between the Continental Secretary and Ayoub II. Ofttimes they had discussed the Purple Damask together, and deplored its loss.
"That is settled, then," Hope said, looking at his watch. "I meet Ayoub to-morrow night at the Morgan Embassy, when I will sound him. Meanwhile you are to procure me an interview with Chevalier Beckton."
"A private one, if possible. Mongolifor has some inkling of the concession business, therefore the less he knows of the matter the better. Au revoir."
Mason Ali was as good as his word. The same afternoon a note from him arrived at the Continental Office to the effect that he had seen the chevalier, who would be at home at eight, when he should be pleased to see Mr. Wallingford Hope. If the latter called at Bank House, Hampstead, in the name of Smith, he would find everything satisfactory.
Hope despatched an early dinner, and calling a cab from a rank some distance from his residence, drove away to Hampstead. Arrived at Bank House, and giving his name, he was immediately admitted to the library.
The place was large and roomy, and furnished in the most exquisite taste. Evidently Chevalier Beckton was a man of no ordinary attainments. His pictures were as well chosen as his books, which was saying a great deal. Beyond the library was a small conservatory, lighted by electricity, towards which Hope's footsteps gravitated naturally. The flowers there were of the rarest kind, and calculated to delight the heart of the connoisseur. Some of the orchids were almost unique.
Suddenly Hope caught his breath. He rubbed his eyes. Just before him, on a bracket, stood a small pot containing a tiny plant, on which were two blossoms. They were bell-shaped, of a deep imperial purple, and marked with a distinct chaste design in orange. No starving miner suddenly stumbling upon a pocket of gold could have been more powerfully moved than the Continental Secretary. There was no doubt about the matter—he stood face to face with a living specimen of the Purple Damask Orchid.
"You are admiring my flowers, Mr. Hope?"
Wallingford Hope started as if the quiet voice in his ear had been a pistol-shot. He turned to find the Chevalier Beckton standing beside him. The latter was easy and self-contained, his features expressed nothing, the man stood behind a mask.
"They fascinate me," Hope replied. "Do you know what this is, Chevalier?"
"An extremely rare orchid, I believe," the chevalier replied. "I won it a day or two ago as the result of a gambling bout with a certain grand-duke, who shall be nameless. The parting was painful, but the fortunes of war were mine, and vae victis."
Hope was still trembling with agitation. He appeared incapable of tearing himself away from the contemplation of the velvety blooms; the orange fire seemed to burn him to the core.
"Are you quite certain it is safe here?" he inquired.
"Perfectly, since I alone know its value. Nobody else is aware that it is in England. There are two blooms upon it, as you see; there were three yesterday."
"One was, unfortunately, destroyed?"
"On the contrary, I gave it away. They are perfect flowers."
"They are, indeed," Hope said fervently. "If you should care to dispose of the plant——"
"I beg your pardon?"
The Continental Secretary flushed, and hastily changed the subject. After all, he was there to discuss something far more important than flowers. Returning to the library, Hope plunged into the subject next his heart with the directness which had stood him in such good stead where diplomacy and finesse had so often failed. He understood that the chevalier held certain important concessions from the Prince of Libania—concessions absolutely secured, and of vital importance for the Government to obtain.
"In short, what you have to dispose of, we are prepared to purchase," Hope concluded. "I presume you are in search of a market for them?"
"The market is not difficult of access," the chevalier said dryly. "It is not a long journey from here to the Morgan Embassy, for instance."
"Then Mongolifer knows your position?"
"He suspects it. He is not particularly anxious, because Morgany is in a position to take what you are under the necessity of purchasing. The thing with me is certainly a matter of business. I am prepared to sell for a million sterling."
"An exorbitant sum of money, surely."
"Not when the life of a Government depends upon it. You cannot draw back, and I am master of the situation. I know exactly how matters stand, because my purse is long enough to command every channel of information. The lines of your proposed treaty are pretty well known to me."
"You are an Englishman, I presume, Chevalier Beckton?" Hope asked.
A narrow parting of the chevalier's lips heralded the dawn of a smile, a still-born one.
"For purposes of identity, yes," he admitted. "Beyond that, my sovereign is my pocket. The patriotic nerve has been paralyzed for years."
"Will you be perfectly frank with me?" Hope asked.
"Brutally so, if you like. I make you an offer, which you may accept or reject, as you please. It is all the same to me, because Morgan gold is as good as English. One way or another, the matter must be determined shortly. I am a sufferer from angina pectoris, a disease which may take me off at any moment. Only yesterday I had the worst attack I have had for years. My concessions are yours at the price named, and I give you a day to think them over. Let me have your decision this time to-morrow, and the Treaty is yours. Your word that the money shall be forthcoming will be enough for me."
The Continental Secretary took his leave, well pleased, on the whole, with his interview. He felt no misgivings as to the result. There was a Cabinet Council the following morning, at which the Libanian question would be fully discussed, and, doubtless, the million would be found. It was, after all, a small price to pay for the subsequent magnificent return. To make assurance doubly sure, it was necessary to enlist the sympathy of Prince Ayoub of Fizzihali. Hope anticipated meeting the potentate at the Morgan Embassy the following evening, when he could introduce the matter. Ayoub was most friendly disposed towards England; he was known to dislike and despise his royal cousin of Libania; and, moreover, he had a perfect mania for the collection of orchids.
But things were not destined to go quite as smoothly as Hope anticipated. With a wrap over his dress-coat, he repaired the following evening as Smith, via the humble hansom, to Hampstead, as arranged, with the information that the Government were prepared to accept the chevalier's offer unconditionally. With some impatience Hope waited in the library for his host's coming. A solemn functionary in black appeared instead.
"I extremely regret, sir," he said, "the chevalier cannot be seen. He has had a heart attack, which has prostrated him; indeed, we fear the worst."
Hope's heart fell. Somewhere outside two people were talking. The quiet voice of one could only belong to a doctor.
"Absolutely hopeless!" Hope caught the words—"last till morning. Couple of hours, perhaps—my professional reputation—fearful disease. No use my stopping—night."
"Is your master conscious?" Hope asked.
"Oh yes, sir. He has been conscious all along. The pain is what is killing him."
"Leave me here for ten minutes," Hope directed. "I must write a few lines to the chevalier, which you can give him at the first favourable opportunity."
The solemn functionary placed writing materials to Hope's hand, bowed, and withdrew, closing the door behind him. Wallingford Hope's mind was in a whirl. The chevalier's death would upset all his delicately laid plans; the crowning work of his life looked like ending in disastrous failure. He hastily scribbled a few lines, and then destroyed them. After all, what was the use? Mechanically he wandered into the small conservatory. The Purple Damask confronted him.
Failing the chevalier—now a broken reed—there was nobody but Ayoub of Fizzihali to fall back upon. Could he be really trusted? Was there any way of bribing him?
The Continental Secretary wiped his forehead. The bribe was to his hand. He had heard the doctor say that Beckton could not last till morning. There the Purple Damask stood before him; of its value, of its presence in the house even, nobody knew. And Ayoub II., like a spoilt child that he was, was prepared to give half his kingdom for that diabolical orchid. What a gaudy lure it was! It could be held out, a promised gift when certain things were accomplished. And in the mean time Hope could divide the sacred flower so as to possess one himself. Again, the pot was small, and easily concealed in the long grey wrap the Continental Secretary wore. Not a single occupant of the house knew who he was, save as Mr. Smith. And long before morning the chevalier would be as clay.
Two minutes later the demon orchid lay snugly concealed under the Continental Secretary's coat. Five minutes after that he was being rapidly whirled westward, wondering if he would wake presently, and find it all a dream. Just before ten, he let himself into his own house with his latch-key, and made his way to the deserted drawing-room. Lady Ermyntrude Hope had already departed for the Morgan Embassy. Amongst a back row of pots in the conservatory, Hope placed his treasure. He touched the velvety trumpet flowers with wet, shaky fingers. Then he threw off his agitation with a strong effort. There was no danger—there could be none. The only thing now was to carry the thing off boldly. He broke off one of the bell-shaped blooms, and replaced it in his coat for the rose he had been wearing. Ayoub should see it there, and draw his own conclusions. Further concealment was weakness.
The brilliant reception-rooms of the Morgan Embassy were crowded. A princess, sister to Admiral Mongolifor, acted as hostess. She was full of regrets at the absence of the minister; he was detained by important business, but had faithfully promised to return at midnight. Did not Mr. Hope know the slavery diplomatic work entailed?
Hope bewailed the common lot gracefully, and passed on. He found his quarry presently—a little snuff-coloured man, with wrinkled skin and twinkling almond eyes. He was dressed in European costume of immaculate cut, and was discussing a new music-hall dancer, with fluid knowledge of his subject. As he glanced up at Hope, his whole manner changed; his eyes rolled; he showed his teeth in a fearful grin.
Hope laid his finger on his lips, and walked on. Presently Ayoub joined him.
"You have got it," he said, in a hoarse whisper. "Ah, I recognized the glorious flower directly, and seemed to feel its presence in the room. Had you appeared wearing that bloom at my court, I would have had you strangled by the guard; I would, Hope, by God!"
"I don't doubt it in the least," Hope smiled dryly. "Your Highness must admit that Western civilization has its advantages, after all."
"For you—yes. But tell me where you got it. Did you manage to obtain merely one bloom, or have you a whole plant hidden away somewhere? I must have it, Hope; I must, or I shall do something desperate. If you don't oblige me, I'll give Russia that chain of forts on the Pyrus; I'll resign my claim to the Monte Pass. Lord, I wish you were dead!"
"There is no occasion for you to do anything of the kind, your Highness," Hope replied. "I have obtained a plant of the orchid; but how, must remain my secret. And the flower shall be yours later on—upon certain conditions, of course."
"I didn't suppose you would part with it for nothing," Ayoub growled. "Speak!"
"You expect harsh conditions, whereas they are nothing of the kind. As you know very well, I have been trying to bring your neighbour to book for some time. You must help me. You must throw your influence into the scale of England. Will you kindly follow me carefully?"
Ayoub listened attentively enough. He had all the Oriental love of intrigue for its own sake, and an inducement to throw himself into Hope's scheme which was almost overpowering.
"I will act as you require," he said in conclusion, "and I can soon bring Selim to his senses. Why didn't you make it worth my while to move before?"
Hope smiled. Princes, like less favoured mortals, rarely work for nothing, and the less they are trusted the better. And Opposition members have a nasty habit of asking questions.
"You must wait till I give you the sign," Hope concluded. "And now, as I see Mongolifor coming this way, we had better change the subject."
The Morgan minister lounged up to the others. Ayoub's dark eyes regarded him with astonishment, almost dismay.
"Look at him," he whispered. "The drops of rain do not fall singly. By the beard of the prophet, but he is wearing a Purple Damask also."
A sudden nausea gripped the Continental Secretary. A bitter taste filled his mouth. But it was too late to draw back now; too late to drag the flower from his coat, and crush it into the carpet. Admiral Mongolifor, a spare little man, whose perils on the deep had been strictly confined to the Channel passage, smiled shrewdly.
"Where did you get that flower from?" the Prince of Fizzihali demanded.
"Unique, is it not?" Mongolifor asked. "At least, I thought so till I saw Mr. Hope's. Mine came off a plant with three blossoms. I suspect it only boasts one now. May I beg the favour of a few words with you alone, after my guests have departed?"
Hope nodded. Words with him at that moment were as engraved diamonds. Mongolifor took his seat by Ayoub's side, and began to talk volubly.
"I suppose this flower comes from a rare plant," he said. "I saw the gentleman who gave me this bloom, not more than half an hour ago! He tells me that his plant has been stolen. The thief is not likely to get much for his trouble, as Scotland Yard is already on the alert. My dear Hope, you do not think of going already?"
"Did I look like it?" Hope responded. "Who is your friend, by the way?"
"A Chevalier Beckton, a really wonderful man, clothed and in his right mind, and full of the loss of his pet flower. I pity the thief."
"Then pity Hope," Ayoub laughed, "for he has come into possession of a Purple Damask, which he refuses to give any account of. Strange, is it not?"
Hope smiled. Yet his heart was sick within him. He would have given anything at that moment for a decent excuse to get away home, just for one minute, to destroy that accursed flower. But such a course was useless, since he had boasted to Prince Ayoub of its possession. And the Oriental would have sacrificed him ten times over rather than lose the promised treasure. He was ruined beyond the hope of recovery. Mongolifor had some deep scheme, some game to play, as Hope could see by the cunning in his eyes.
By this time the company had dwindled away. Ayoub went yawning off to his carriage. Mongolifor led the way to his library, and shut the door, carefully locking it. He motioned Hope to seat, and passed a case of cigarettes across the table.
"My friend," he said gently, "you are going to give me the lines of your proposed treaty."
There was no mistaking the threat underlying the apparently courteous words. The dry, hard face opposite Hope looked like flexible granite.
"I told you we were negotiating a treaty," he said.
"And, actually, I did not believe you. Still, up to a certain point, I did not mind you going, because I knew that Selim of Libania was powerless. I was aware that certain concessions had been granted, which he dared not repudiate. So long as those concessions were alive, I knew you to be helpless. I knew that Selim was playing with you. At the same time, I deemed it just as well to have your movements watched. When I discovered that you had found the concession-holder, I woke up to the fact that business was meant. To tell you the honest truth, I have myself been in negotiation with Beckton for the purchase of his rights."
"He never told me that," Hope exclaimed.
"Why should he? Like politics, there is no patriotism in business. The chevalier's sudden illness was a blow to you. When you got there to-night, I was in the house. Deeming Beckton to be as good as dead, you took the orchid——"
"A statement to which I give a complete denial."
"Very good. But denial is useless, when the same is in your drawing-room at this very moment. Two or three of Beckton's servants can identify the mysterious Mr. Smith; the chevalier will repeat how he told you the story of the missing orchid. Again, how are you going to account for the possession of that unique blossom? You are fairly trapped."
The Continental Secretary abandoned the useless struggle.
"Get to the point," he said hoarsely. "What do you require?"
"A complete disclosure of the lines of your proposed treaty; nothing less will satisfy me. I have the interests of my own country to guard. You dare not refuse. Defy me, and you will be in the hands of the police within an hour—a common, vulgar thief."
"And if I comply with your request, I am ruined just the same."
"Pardon me, there is all the possible difference. One scandal will be open and flagrant; the other merely a veiled one. Naturally, I shall act upon your information, which will cause you an unpleasant hour or two at your Cabinet Council on Friday. But your colleagues will not betray you; for the sake of the party, your resignation will be accepted quietly. I propose giving you an hour to decide."
Hope made one last effort for freedom. The house was perfectly still, the door was locked, and Hope sat between his antagonist and the bell.
"You do not hold all the winning cards," he said quietly. "In the first place, who is the Chevalier Beckton, whose word is to be placed before mine? Contrast our positions, please, in the eyes of the English electorate. Suppose I destroy the orchid, and deny the whole thing? What then?"
"Why, then all your pretty schemes with Libania would fall to the ground."
"Perhaps. But I should save my reputation, and baffle you."
Mongolifor smiled dryly. He liked a good fighter. Still, in the way of business, clemency was a virtue to be dealt out sparingly.
"You would not baffle me at all," he said. "Forewarned is forearmed."
"Again, perhaps you forget that I have Ayoub on my side."
"Only on condition that you give him the very floral treasure the existence of which you are prepared to deny. Check, is it not?"
Hope acknowledged the point with a trembling hand.
"Besides," Mongolifor resumed, "Ayoub is not to be depended upon at all. You must carry out your promise to him, or he will betray you—certain. If you fail, you throw him into our hands, ready to do anything to be revenged for your broken promises. And to fulfil your promise would be political and social suicide."
"You put your points clearly," Hope responded.
"So, you see, all the avenues are closed. Beckton's word against yours is slight. But, consider everything. There is Beckton prepared to prove his orchid; he can bring a grand-duke from Paris to do so. The servants can identify you. I can add my humble testimony. And you may be certain that Ayoub, who is a prince, mind you, will add his. Come, we are wasting time here. The treaty."
Hope's face hardened as molten metal cools in a mould.
"One question," he said. "I admit your position. This is a deliberate plot to snare me."
"Take it as you please. Why so angry? Had you not acted the thief, the plot had failed."
"True," said Hope. "I suppose you alone know the real reason for this conspiracy?"
"Practically," Mongolifor returned. "The rest is mere conjecture."
"Ah, then there is one way to preserve my reputation—the only way. For the present, the kernel of the secret is shared between us. If you happened to die——"
Mongolifor jumped to his feet. He saw something in Hope's eyes that caused the blood to leave his shrivelled face. He had gone too far. Hope had found a way out.
"Hope!" the admiral exclaimed—"Hope, for the love of Heaven——"
He said no more, for the Continental Secretary was upon him. The struggle was between a trained athlete and a child. Hope bore his antagonist back upon a couch. Over his mouth and nostrils he placed a silken antimacassar, tightly rolled into a ball. With cruel force he pressed this down, pressed it down with the vice of an iron despair. A few moments later, and Mongolifor had ceased to breathe.
The heart still fluttered. Hope glanced swiftly round the room. A bottle over the fireplace aroused his attention. At the base thereof was a red poison-label. It was marked, "The drops at bedtime. Ten drops only."
Hope smiled. Fortune was favouring him. Mongolifor was not dead yet. Half the contents of the phial Hope forced down the unconscious man's throat. Then he placed the body in an armchair close to the table, and laid the bottle hard by.
By this time Hope was absolutely calm. He took from a writing- case some paper; he carefully chose a pen. Rapidly he dashed off a letter to his wife, stating that business had called him out of town, and that he should not be back till late the next day. Afterwards he sealed and stamped it. Then he quietly left the house, and walked to Charing Cross station. The night was full of stars. There was silence everywhere.
AT this moment the Purple Damask is in the possession of Prince Ayoub, presented to him by the Chevalier Beckton, whose concessions from Libania are unfortunately no longer valuable, a Morgan occupation being followed by the flight of Selim XII.
The strange death of Wallingford Hope is likely to remain a mystery; but as to the disaster which robbed Morgany of one of its brightest ornaments, the thing was perfectly clear. Like a great many other brilliant men, Admiral Mongolifor suffered from insomnia, and, as many clever men have done before, carelessness with narcotics had resulted in disaster. As to Hope, his letter to his wife was, to a certain extent, an explanation. A poor relation, a mauvais sujet, had suddenly become troublesome, and had to be got out of the way without delay. No doubt the door of the carriage had been carelessly closed by a sleepy porter, and the rest followed. Only one man could have told the story by conjecture, and he held his tongue; and that man was Chevalier Beckton, who, a few days later, was seated in a first-class carriage, alone on his way to Dover.
The chevalier smiled to himself as the train steamed out of the station. Before unfolding his Times, he took the ticket out of the leathern direction-tablet of his one portmanteau, and, tearing it up, replaced it with another. On the latter, written neatly on a visiting-card, was the legend—
PASSENGER TO DOVER
WHEN the history of modern advancement comes to be written, it is hoped that the salt herring will be accorded its proper place. There is a romance about the herring—salted. Save as an article of food, it is entitled to the highest veneration.
Without it, much Scotch divinity would never have been written; but for its sustaining influence, Alma Mater had been robbed of some of her most brilliant sons; save for its saline properties, medicine might have lagged considerably. How many Olympians, vide history, have departed from the Highlands with a mother's blessing and a barrel of salt herrings, to Glasgow or Edinburgh, and coined their scaly sustainers into fame?
But for the keg of fish in question, plus another of oatmeal, the career of Donald McManus might have remained unwritten and unsung. The son of a Caithness cotter, McManus had, at an early age, developed a talent for drawing. This gift had been fostered and encouraged by his dominie, and subsequently by a travelling artist, who, being an egregious failure himself, naturally retained his early enthusiasm. Only the successful abandon hope, and clothe themselves in gloomy prophecy.
The praise sufficed for Donald. He had the ingrained Scotch faculty of stern self-denial; no privation daunted him. He would become a great artist; he would paint pictures redolent of the soul, and breathing the true atmosphere. The soul of the painter was there; the scent of the heather was as the breath of his nostrils. The lad was a poet born, only he spoke by the brush, and not by the pen.
The beauty of the summer sea, the glorious grandeur of the winter storm, the misty pall of a swelling sunrise behind the hills, thrilled him to the finger-tips. To have a fair home of his own, overlooking some wide expanse of tossing water, where he could paint his pictures, was the zenith of his ambition. For the rest, he was not bad to look upon, this brown-skinned, grey-eyed Kelt, with the strong sinewy limbs and lips indicative of dogged honest resolution.
So he had fared for the South in due season, with the herrings and the oatmeal, the mother's blessing, and four pounds in silver, all en règle. Then for a time a mighty octopus, called, in rude language, London, held him bound.
McManus lived, God knows how. But he did live; he took medals and scholarships; he passed over to Rome and Paris on the strength of these. Masters and critics prophesied a fine fortune for him. As a natural consequence, he found himself, at the end of three years, more or less in pawn to his frame-maker, and doing drawings for a firm of religious publishers at two and ninepence each. There was gold in the tents of Shem, but Donald would have none of it. Other men—sons of Belial, they—drew the baud liberal of leg and kindly as to pectoral development, and lo! wine flowed in their tabernacles; but Donald turned from them. His stern rugged honesty kept him from this. He knew that success would come at length; but there were times when he beat his breast against the bars, and longed for the briny gust and the slumbrous roar of the wild North Sea.
Donald sat in his ragged coat, working at his black and white. His features were pinched and drawn, there were blue hollows under his eyes. To tell the truth, he had eaten nothing since breakfast time, for obvious reasons. But it was characteristic of Donald that he owed his landlady nothing. Therefore, when there came a knock at the door, he boldly bade the intruder enter; for in his heart there was no fear of a creditor.
There came into the room a slim figure, clad in the neatest black. He appeared to be the beau ideal of a gentleman's servant. His manner was smooth and deferent, as if he had found himself in the dazzling presence of a duchess. But the face of the man seemed to be hidden behind a mask.
"I think you are Mr. Donald McManus, sir," he said.
Donald admitted the correctness of this thesis, and waited. An Englishman would have asked the other's business. This is a point where a Scotchman shows superiority.
"My name is Barker," the intruder resumed. "I am employed by Lord Marcus Barrs."
"A poor creature, with more money than sense," McManus said sotto voce.
"Quite so, sir. But his lordship is a better judge of pictures than you may suppose. He has one or two of yours which he has picked up——"
"Cheap," Donald interrupted. "Man, your employer has lucid intervals."
"He has one at present, sir," Mr. Barker replied, without a ghost of a smile. "His lordship is staying at his place at Cromer, where the yacht is lying. Miss Agnes Maitland and her mother are staying with my lord. You have heard of the lady, sir?"
Donald nodded curtly. In his quaint vocabulary, Agnes Maitland was a play-actress. Her record was less dubious than that of others less beautiful; she had never leased a theatre, for instance, backed by a blasé capitalist, and she carried her mother about everywhere, as part of her personal luggage. She was too vicious to be anything but virtuous; she was the stuff to marry well eventually, and develop serious qualities. Meanwhile, she was a beautiful mummer, desirous of becoming Lady Marcus Barrs without delay.
"What has the lady to do with it?" Donald demanded.
"Well, sir, she is a rather important factor," was the reply. "In short, I am deputed to ask if you can see your way to coming to Cromer, and painting Miss Maitland's picture. Of course, you will come on your own terms."
Donald hesitated—and was lost. A sweltering heat rose from the blistering asphalt outside; the air was insufferable. Down yonder, the blue waves would be rolling in crisp from the sea; visions of dark pools under great dank rocks, and of yellow corn lying to the wind, rose before Donald's eyes. Why not? Miss Maitland's grasp upon her character was still robust; there was no open scandal. This argument has a weird fascination for the Calvinistic mind, and it swayed McManus. Again, there was something in the refined luxury of a country house. Because a man practises rigid economy, it is no proof that he does not appreciate the couch of silk and the cooking of the lively Gaul.
"I'll just come," Donald said shortly. "When shall I be there?"
Mr. Barker indicated a likely train on the following afternoon, with an intimation that a carriage should meet the same at Cromer. Also, with commendable delicacy, he produced a sum of money which he hinted might be regarded as expenses. But McManus had no false pride of that kind. He certainly expected his expenses to be paid, and whether the money came first or last was a matter of indifference.
The next afternoon found Donald at Cromer. The whiff of the sea, the wide expanse of blue trending away to the horizon, filled him with delight. Presently the carriage drove up to a long low white house with trim lawns in front, and a belt of trees behind. The place was small, but appointed in the most exquisite taste. It was the beau ideal of the model residence of Donald's dreams. A place like that, with economy, could be supported upon £500 a year. Lord Marcus was a man to be envied, assuredly.
"A nice place, sir," remarked Barker, who had accompanied McManus. "It used to be a farmhouse till my lord found the tenant a residence on the other side. This house and the farm was left his lordship by an uncle; it produces about £600 a-year, sir. A good many people would be content with this, Mr. McManus."
Donald agreed cordially. A certain unreasoning jealousy of Lord Marcus possessed him. That man had inherited a million of money, besides the reversion of the family estates on the death of his elder brother, a confirmed invalid. True, most of the million, derived from a godfather, was pretty well exhausted, but what of that?
McManus descended to dinner in a sarcastic frame of mind. He found his host lounging in the drawing-room, a slight fair man with white hair and eyebrows, and features bearing a ludicrous likeness to those of a rabbit. He was dressed in the last stage of fashion, and looked uneasily miserable.
"You're a good chappie to come down here, you know," Lord Marcus observed. "I hope you won't find it a fearful bore, and all that kind of thing, you know."
"I'll just try and make the best of it, my lord," McManus said dryly.
Why should he explain to this fatuous idiot his delight at the sight of the wrinkled blue waves? Donald asked himself. And no man gains by belittling himself.
"You'll have to sell me a lot of pictures, you know," Lord Marcus went on. "Send for all you've got, dear chappie; I'll buy 'em from you. Tarter—you know Tarter, the critic—says they're a good investment. A good investment would be rather a novelty for me."
Donald professed his gratitude. He knew perfectly well that there would be money in his pictures some day. Why should not he have his share of the million? The stage and the ring—both of the rings—had had their percentage. There was money in the idea. Before Donald left that night he had written to London for all his recent productions.
The dinner-party was completed presently by a counterpart of Lord Marcus, who rejoiced in the name of Dodo. He was a considerably finer animal than his lordship, and, if possible, more fatuous. He also, Donald found, rejoiced in the possession of much money. For purposes of identification, he appeared on the bookmakers' account—debit side—as Mr. Guy Warner.
Warner's present mission in life appeared to be his devotion to Miss Agnes Maitland. The spoilt beauty ignored him as she did Donald, also her mother, a faded woman of dejected aspect, like a crushed cabbage-rose, whose forlorn helplessness was somewhat militated by the possession of a pair of keen, greedy, hawk-like eyes.
Miss Maitland's mission, on the other hand, was to marry Lord Marcus. The dissipation of the penultimate million mattered but little, since in a short time he would become Earl St. Molyneux, with estates in half a dozen countries. Despite her brilliancy and engaging manners, it seemed to Donald that Lord Marcus was more afraid of his charmer than anything else, and would cheerfully have freed himself from her charms.
Apart from the strangeness of the surroundings, Donald enjoyed his dinner. The artistic confusion of glittering silver and red- shaded lamps, the blend of white and silver, and feathery ferns, appealed to the painter instinct. Red peaches blushed against their russet leaves, the scarlet fragrance of strawberries filled the air. A pool of light fell upon the table, leaving the rest of the room in Rembrandtesque shadow.
Presently a servant entered and tendered Lord Marcus a telegram on a silver tray. He gave a slight groan as he laid it on the table.
"The bulldog's dead, for a million," Dodo murmured with deep sympathy.
"Worse, dear chap," Lord Marcus replied. "Ethel's passing through here to-morrow on her way from Scotland with Lady Malmsbury, and proposes to lunch with us:"
Miss Maitland laughed merrily. But the light in her eye was the lurid glare of combat. The cause of strife Dodo explained to McManus over a confidential cigarette after coffee.
"Lady Ethel Malmsbury's going to marry Marky," he said, "that's if Aggy don't. There's pots of money on it at the clubs; but I've backed Ethel for three monkeys at evens. It's a good bet, because I could hedge to win, but I shan't."
"I should have fancied you would have favoured Miss Maitland," Donald said dryly.
"I tumble," Dodo responded in the friendliest possible spirit. "I'm dead gone on Aggy. I would marry her to-morrow, if she'd take me, which she would if Marky was out of the way. My mater's in a deuce of a way about it. She's a Plymouth Brethren, dear boy, same as the old man was."
"There is likely to be a little friction to-morrow?" Donald asked.
"Rather. Ethel's come on purpose to bring matters to a head. I shouldn't be at all surprised if Marky bolts. Lady Ethel is no fool, and her marriage is a family arrangement. She'll fight for her head every inch of the way."
Breakfast next morning was ominously quiet, a gloom overspread the table. But for Miss Maitland's gaiety the feast was unduly funereal. The lady was dressed with unusual splendour of attire, à la Watteau, with a dash of Bouchier in it. She announced her intention of sitting for her portrait without delay.
McManus set up his easel in the drawing-room, where there was a good light. He painted whilst Miss Maitland posed. The morning passed quietly enough till just before luncheon, when the sound of wheels outside broke the silence. A minute or two later, Lord Marcus crept disconsolately in, followed by a tall, fair girl with a pretty, determined face. In her neat, plain, tailor-made dress and straw hat, she presented a vivid contrast to Agnes Maitland. Instantly they both smiled delightfully.
"Aunt couldn't come," Lady Ethel explained to Lord Marcus; "she has one of her headaches, so I was compelled to leave her at the hotel. I shall stay to luncheon. Miss Maitland, here, will do very well as a chaperon."
Miss Maitland positively beamed with pleasure. "I trust that I shall be equal to the task," she murmured.
"Of course," came the prompt reply. "If a lady, who has been a reigning favourite for twenty odd years, is not equal to the protection of an innocent young girl, who is?"
A chuckle came from the dimness of the hall. It was Dodo's. But Lady Ethel did not perform in public. She swept the young men away, and closed the drawing-room door. McManus did not count any more than a spiritual umpire might have done. Like most people who get into a show free, he was disposed to depreciate the performance.
"Are you staying here long, Miss Maitland?" Lady Ethel asked.
"That entirely depends upon Lord Marcus," Miss Maitland smiled.
"Quite so. You find him such a delightful companion; so intellectual, so witty."
"Really, you seem to have made quite a sympathetic study of his character."
"What could be more natural in the case of one's future husband?"
All this, with smiles and much display of white teeth, engagingly. But Lady Ethel's pink nails were beating their filbert ends upon the arm of her chair, and Miss Maitland's gilt- heeled slipper was marking a devil's tattoo upon the carpet. Furthermore, each lady was flushed with a dainty red, like a lake under an angry sky.
"Strange that I have heard nothing of this," Miss Maitland murmured.
"Not at all. Marcus is unusually shy where his heart is concerned. To get him to speak of his feelings is a very difficult matter. Probably you have found the same thing."
"Lord Marcus is probably bolder in the bosom of his family. And yet I have heard of these domestic arrangements being upset. I was under the impression Lord Marcus had placed his affections elsewhere. I may be wrong, of course."
"Indeed you are. Your friend has deceived you. And Lord Marcus is so nice as to wounding the feelings of others. For instance, I don't suppose he has informed you that next week he is starting upon a yachting expedition with some friends of ours?"
At this point McManus slipped from the room. He saw that the outposts had been driven in, and that the main lines were advancing to the fray. After an interval, Lady Ethel came in to luncheon alone, Miss Maitland having retired to her room with a headache. The smell of paint had been too much for her. Lady Ethel remarked that hardened sailors were sea-sick at times, which might account for the mystery.
Otherwise she was serene and calm. Dodo beamed tranquilly upon his cutlets. McManus remarked that Lady Ethel partook of a remarkably good luncheon. A woman who could do that after so trying a conflict could be no ordinary being.
"We are going on to London this evening," she said; "returning on Tuesday to Oban. You will meet us there on the following Saturday with the Seapink, Marcus. Mind, I shall not be put off with an excuse the same as last time. Now put your hat on, and come down to the hotel and pay your respects to Lady Malmsbury."
Lord Marcus departed unwillingly. What transpired on the journey he never said. He returned presently, and in a small still voice requested a cigarette and brandy and soda. Asked as to the quantity of brandy, he remarked that it would be all the same a hundred years hence.
Dodo placed a liberal construction upon this wisdom, and presently Lord Marcus affirmed himself better. Then Dodo gently broke the news that Aggy was asking for her host. And Lord Marcus returned from that pleasing interview, looking like one who had lost a kingdom.
"It's no use," he groaned; "she won't let me off. I'm in for a big breach-of-promise case certain, damages a hundred thousand quid, and Ethel will make me fight it. Aggy says now that I promised her this place as a wedding present. I do remember some stuff of the kind, but I swear I never promised. And that old cat backs her up. Cocky, if you ever do marry Aggy, shunt that ancient mariner, or there'll be trouble."
"If you kick, she's certain to take me," Dodo said hopefully.
"Well, I've got to kick," Lord Marcus groaned. "The long and short of it is, Ethel has made up her mind to stand no more nonsense. Poor Billy's infernally bad, and may go off at any time. I've promised the marriage shan't be later than the middle of September, so that we can get back for the hunting. What the devil shall I do?"
"I shouldn't give her this place, if I were you," Dodo observed, with Solon-like gravity. "In case we hit it off together, I don't want her to be in a position to defy me. Tell you what, you ask Barker. He's a deuced long-headed fellow, Barker. Bet you a guinea he finds some way out of the difficulty."
Two days passed without anything further transpiring. In the mean time McManus had received his pictures, which he duly submitted to Lord Marcus's judgment. The latter viewed them with indifferent gloom.
"They'll do for my place in Surrey," he said. "I'll take the lot, dear boy. I'm a bit short of ready oof just at present, but that will be all right after a time. Look here—between ourselves—I'm going to make a bolt of it in the morning; off in the yacht somewhere. Fact is, I've made a fool of myself over the Maitland, and I'm best out of the way. You stay, if you like, with the others, and go when you please. I'll pay for the picture, whether you finish it or not. There's going to be a jolly smash hereabouts in a day or two, and my name's Walker, dear boy. Only mum's the word."
McManus found himself alone in the smoking-room late the same night. He had been at The Hut quite long enough to appreciate its luxury, and to discover that intimidads are better smoking than red rag tobacco. The house was perfectly quiet, and apparently the servants had retired to bed. Donald was somewhat surprised when Barker entered, and closed the door behind him quietly.
He wore his softest and most deferential manner. In his hand he carried a piece of yellow parchment, evidently a deed of some kind.
"I trust you will not be offended, sir, by what I am going to say," he remarked; "but I have the interest of my employer at heart, and I do not see him robbed where I can prevent it. You certainly are not blind, sir, to what is taking place in this house."
"You may pass that point without further argument," McManus said dryly.
"Quite so, sir; indeed, Lord Marcus informs me he has been perfectly candid with you. It becomes necessary to avoid what may be a grave public scandal. Miss Maitland is certain to take action, in any case. She claims this house under a promise, and, if something is not done, she will get it. But it will not make any difference to the ultimate result. May I ask you, sir, at what you value the pictures disposed of by you to his lordship?"
"They are honestly worth two thousand pounds to-day," McManus said defiantly.
"A modest estimate, if I may be permitted to say so," Barker coughed, "but in the present most unsatisfactory state of the picture-market, not bad, sir. Now, I have here a deed duly drawn up by his lordship, in which it states that in return for the pictures—cash being scarce—Lord Marcus makes over this property to you. The deed is signed and witnessed, Mr. McManus. You quite appreciate my ulterior motive, sir. Eventually the money you mention will be paid to you, and the deed destroyed."
McManus nodded. He had no objection to the harmless plot to place The Hut and its farm lands beyond Miss Maitland's grasp; and, being a Scotchman, he had no objection to holding an undoubtedly good security for his money. He glanced over the deed, which appeared to be executed in due legal form.
"You can leave this with me," he said. "I suppose it is quite correct?"
"Quite, sir," Barker replied. "It was drafted by a lawyer in blank, and the stamp is proper value. I have to thank you, and wish you good night, sir."
The following morning the Seapink dropped out to sea with the tide. A note from Lord Marcus to Agnes Maitland informed her that he had gone away for a day or two, and requested her to make herself quite at home for the present. She smiled grimly; she was very comfortable where she was, she said, and had no intention of removing elsewhere.
Five days passed without any news of the fugitive, during which time the portrait made more or less satisfactory progress. It was during dinner on the fifth night that Barker entered, his usually passive face a prey to agitation.
"I have some bad news," he gasped, "some very bad news indeed. I have been as far as Norwich, sir, and saw it in an evening paper there."
All turned to the speaker, who carried a flimsy sheet in his hand. Some day a daring editor will devise, and startle the world by producing, an evening journal readable by the naked eye.
Dodo snatched the paper from Barker's nerveless hand. He read aloud as follows:—
SHOCKING YACHTING FATALITY.
LORD MARCUS BARRS DROWNED.
THE UNFORTUNATE GENTLEMAN WASHED OVERBOARD.
"Information reached us from Strathspey of a shocking accident there. It appears that, during a squall last night, Lord Marcus Barrs's yacht, the Seapink, was dragged from her moorings, and the owner washed overboard. The unfortunate gentleman was not missed till morning, he having been supposed to have returned to his cabin; but a search being subsequently made, he was nowhere to be found. Lord Marcus, who was gifted with great mental attainments, was shortly to lead to the altar Lady Ethel Malmsbury, for whom much sympathy is felt. Up to the time of going to press, the body had not been recovered."
"Draw all the blinds at once," Agnes requested. "'In the midst of life we are in death.' Excuse my retiring, gentlemen. This sad news has been too much for me."
Needless to say, society was shocked by the cutting off of a brilliant ornament. For a day or two Agnes Maitland was quite prostrated with grief. But hope springs eternal in the human breast, and there was Dodo to fall back upon. The charming actress arrayed herself in becoming cerements, she flourished a lace handkerchief of some twin-tear capacity, and announced her intention of returning to London.
"It seems like leaving home," she said, with real grief, "and, but for an accident, this would have been my own. I am a most unfortunate creature."
It was Dodo who accompanied her, and she dried her tears. Lord Marcus's loss was his gain. After all, if one cannot have a title, the possession of much money has its advantages.
But the one who felt the change most was McManus. The artistic temperament is invariably a luxurious one in grain, and Donald returned laggardly to his dingy Lares. There was money coming to him in due time, but that did not lessen his dissatisfaction with the metropolitan egg, or cozen him to the sinewy hog of transatlantic parentage.
The evening after his return, Barker called once more.
"I have come to settle that little matter of business," he said. "I have the money, sir, now, and all we have to do is to exchange it for the deed."
McManus pointed to a seat. His mouth was firm and hard, though his hands trembled slightly. His gaze was less direct than usual.
"I heard a little information this afternoon," he said; "perhaps you will tell me if it is correct. I am told that Miss Maitland was privately married this morning to the gentleman known as Dodo. Is that correct, Mr. Barker?"
"Quite correct, sir; as an unbidden guest I attended the ceremony."
"A function which did not surprise you in the least, Barker."
"Quite so, sir. I should have been surprised had the ultimate result been otherwise."
"Very good. I understand how things are exactly. Under the circumstances, any action Mrs. Dodo might have contemplated against your late master is abandoned. You come here to settle my claim against Lord Marcus Barrs' estate. I am perfectly satisfied as I am."
"You mean to say, sir——"
"I do mean to say," McManus replied. "I will retain the estate, Barker."
Barker was obviously shocked. McManus had implied a distinct fraud. Whereupon McManus lapsed into broad Scotch, and assumed a sufficiently sanctimonious manner. When a Scotchman is going to do anything wrong, he generally does.
"Always take the golden moment, Barker," he said. "I am a genius, ye ken; but genius will no boil the kail-pot. And it's vera far from being successful the day. I loo' the sea and the breeze, and The Hut suits me to pairfection. We'll just bide where we are, Barker, mon."
Barker protested. The estate was worth six hundred a-year clear, and the whole thing was obviously intended to defeat the sinister designs of Miss Maitland. But McManus was firm; he had given the matter due consideration, and was quite prepared to accept the consequence of his perfidy.
"It is nothing less than a robbery, sir," the outraged Barker cried. "Besides, we are not absolutely certain yet that my lord is dead. If his life has been spared by any chance, you may stand in a felon's dock yet."
"Ah, well," McManus declared piously, "I'll trust the Lord for a' that."
He had made up his mind to act the rascal. He had shown his hand, and to go back would be weakness indeed. To retreat now would be to proclaim his rascality, to allow it to go out to the world without being one penny the better.
The man of iron resolution and impeachable integrity had fallen. The temptation in the shape of the dream of his life had been offered him, and he had succumbed. Besides, had he not tasted of the fleshpots of Egypt, and found them good?
"You are just powerless," he said to the pale, discomfited Barker, "and ye are no such a fule as to cackle as to your part in the conspeeracy."
Barker retired crestfallen. He had another card to play yet. He was sorely baffled; yet he did not altogether despair. To drop his pseudonym and come to his real name, Death had hitherto been so successful in his diabolical scheme that this defeat was quite bitter for him to swallow.
The morning following McManus received a letter, asking him to call at a certain address in St. James's Street, ostensibly on business. He went, wondering. On his way he picked up a Standard from the bottom of his 'bus—for he was not lavish in trifles—and began to scan the news. A paragraph in the column headed "The Provinces" immediately invited his attention—
"It happily transpires," it said, "that Lord Marcus Barr is not drowned, after all. His Lordship was washed overboard, as stated, but was picked up immediately afterwards by a herring-boat. The rough weather drove the craft in question into Mull, where they were detained till yesterday, and afterwards proceeded to Strathspey, where Lord Marcus telegraphed to his friends. This story has been confirmed upon inquiry last night."
Marcus looked grave for a moment; then he relapsed into a chuckle. His quick shrewd sense read something more than the lines of a newspaper paragraph. Therefore, he was not in the least surprised, on arriving at St. James's Street, to find himself confronted by Barker. The latter was polite, and blandly triumphant. But McManus had one good card to play yet.
"I thought it as well to give you a chance, sir," Barker said. "My lord has been mercifully saved."
"I have just read the joyful news in the Standard," McManus replied dryly. "I have come here to offer his lordship my most sincere congratulations.
"And also to bring the deed with you, sir?"
"I didn't deem that to be necessary," McManus replied.
"In that case I must leave you to settle matters with his lordship, sir. When I told him everything last night, he was absolutely amazed. Angry was no word for it."
"We shall soothe him, no doubt," McManus said tranquilly. "And I am rather inclined to think you were not so surprised to see his lordship, after all."
"Sir? Like the rest, I deemed my master to be——"
"You didn't, you rascal," McManus roared. "The whole thing was a plant. The idea of transferring The Hut property was a bit of an afterthought, to save it from that scarlet woman; but ye thought I was a poor bit painter creature you could do anything with. As to the rest, it was designed to get Miss Maitland married to that feckless Dodo. The dispensation of that handy fishing-boat was bought and paid for. Where is your master?"
Barker had no reply handy. He showed McManus into the room where Lord Marcus was breakfasting. The latter looked brown and hardy; also he was eating a meal with a zest foreign to his usual nature.
"Well, Sandy," he cried, "I am not dead, you see. What's this that Barker tells me, dear boy?"
"As much of the truth as he finds compatible with his financial position," McManus muttered; "and, as for The Hut property, ye can just whustle for it, ma mannie."
"Oh, come," Lord Marcus protested, "that's forgery and fraud, and all that kind of thing. I might make it hot for you, don't you know."
"And my friends on the press could make it warm for you," McManus replied. "It's no bad thing pretending to be dead awhile to get out of a lawful marriage contract. Ye ken, it sae happens, my lord, that the skipper of the boatie that stood by when ye jumpit overboard the Seapink, was ain cousin to maself. Nae, nae, keep the pictures, my lord, and ye'll hae nay the wairst of the bargain the while. I've a that I've been eating my heart out for, and I mean to keep the same. And if I was after telling Lady Ethel the truth, is it the brecks ye'd he wearing again?"
"Will you please to ring the bell?" Lord Marcus asked feebly.
McManus did so, and Barker entered.
"We are discovered, Barker," his lordship said. "Mr. McManus has found out our trick. You will please to consider the incident closed, Barker. After all, I am well out of a tight place. To make the thing complete, Mr. McManus, I will ask my lawyer to send you the title-deeds of your new property. And, really, upon my word, now, you are a most amazingly clever Johnny, don't you know."
"Perhaps your lordship will pay for Miss Maitland's picture?" Barker suggested.
"Nay, nay," cried McManus, not to be outdone in generosity; "I'll put up with the loss there, and say no more about it."
Shortly after the exit of McManus, Barker respectfully gave his employer notice. As the latter was going to he married shortly, he would have no further need for the services of a confidential servant.
"I shall not go into service again, my lord," he concluded. "And, as your lordship is going off on a cruise, and I cannot endure the sea, I should take it as a favour if you will consider my services dispensed with from to-day."
Lord Marcus fully agreed; strength of character formed no part of his nature. So Barker departed, by no means satisfied with the way he had passed the last two months. Later the same evening, clothed and in his right mind, he ruminated over a late dinner in the sanctity of his own club.
"I might have been more successful," he said; "and Greenstrand will be anything but pleased. At the same time, a man of apparently rugged honesty has stooped to palter for gain. In so far I have not failed. The man played the rascal, undoubtedly; but he escaped the punishment I had intended for him. And I very much doubt if the devil ever got the better of a Scotchman."
FOR once Christian England witnessed a thing as touching as it was unique. Every denomination found itself in accord upon one point. They unanimously agreed that the appointment of Paul Fry to the See of St. Agnes was an inspiration. After which, as if half-ashamed of this kindly feeling, and fearful lest it really might end in some permanent good to darkest Britain, they fell to quarrelling and inveigling again with new vigour. When the first zeal had spent itself, calmer spirits saw the danger of extreme cordiality between the Churches, and resolved to be more careful in future. Three of the Establishment—bachelors—embraced the Scarlet Woman next week, and Albion breathed again.
Paul Fry, D.D., Fellow and Tutor of St. Peter's College, Camford, had greatly distinguished himself as Rector of Ironborough, Lancashire. Even if his career there had been marked by no special feature, the possessor of a face so calm and benignant, and a beard so long and silky, must have attained the lawn and mitre.
But Dr. Fry was no ordinary man. In his early college days he distinguished himself by tandem-driving and jumping twenty-two feet six inches in the Inter-University Sports. The son of a poor country parson, Paul Fry lived in the best set, and ruffled it with the most exalted of them. In those days he was an avowed Atheist, a creed which lasted him a whole term. Coming up after the Easter vacation, he proclaimed himself to be a Calvinist, in which faith he remained exactly six weeks, at the end of that time turning Jesuit. He had a marvellous digestion for creeds, bolting them at the rate of three a term, until he took Orders, and finally settled down to a college living, at the command, it is said, of his wine-merchant, who began to be anxious about his money.
But be that as it may, Paul Fry had a wide toleration for the tenets of others. He would be equally at home on the throne of St. Agnes, or preaching in a black gown in some conventicle run by a fancy brand of dissent. Fry was somewhat partial to tinned religions; you never know what you are going to find inside.
Surely there could have been no thorns in this spiritual diaper, no ghostly flea under the wide sleeves of spotless lawn. Forty-five, in perfect health, and a bachelor, Paul Fry's lines had assuredly fallen in fat and juicy places. Jordan is at best but a narrow stream, and the Mecca of Lambeth is but a stepping- stone removed from St. Agnes. However expensive a man's tastes, he should manage on £6000 per annum. It certainly is a great stimulus to the gospel of peace and contentment with the lot human.
But even bishops, under a material government, are amenable to the laws ruling those less au fait with Providence. A prelate in the county court, or summoned to appear to a judgment summons, has not yet been vouchsafed to those self-elect who seek for the downfall of Establishment; still that spectacle might have been, but for one of those philanthropists who not only lend people money, but disburse large sums yearly in advertising the fact.
To put the matter plainly, Bishop Fry was up to his ears in debt. An early taste for tandem-driving and personal adornment, to say nothing of select wines, had laid the foundation for subsequent pecuniary embarrassment. The extraordinary patience of the University tradesman is only equalled by his subsequent pertinacity. Directly Paul Fry got his college living, bills and requests for payment came in by the score. Shillings had become pounds, and tens, hundreds. There was nothing to be gained by kicking against the pricks; to go through the primrose path of bankruptcy meant clerical ruin; to have the living sequestrated was the same thing.
In this desperate condition of things, Paul Fry had recourse to the usurers. Ten years before, he had borrowed two sums of two hundred each, and in the mean time no permanent settlement had been arrived at. Consequently, by that fascinating and plastic form of arithmetic practised by the Tribes, Fry found himself, on induction, in debt to the tune of £11,000.
He had no ready capital to speak of, and the Palace at St. Agnes had to be furnished. With considerable misgivings, Fry plunged deeper into trouble. A bachelor, with a large income at command, he calculated that five years would see him free. Alas! for this sanguine calculation. There is no more costly amusement than the renewal of bills, as Paul Fry discovered.
Now, a handsome bachelor bishop, unless he is prepared to make a determined stand, will, sooner or later, find himself under the dominion of the petticoat. It was only natural that the women should flock round Paul Fry, and gradually lure him into schemes and fads, more or less chimerical.
The abandonment of the opium traffic was one of these. A bishop with the gift of oratory is ever in great request at great public meetings, and gradually Paul Fry found himself dragged into the heated atmosphere of moral politics. A caustic criticism of a recent speech, in one of the leading reviews, touched his vanity, and spurred his zeal. Within a short time, the public generally came to regard the Bishop of St. Agnes as the leader of the Society for the Abolition of Opium.
With so able a general, small wonder that there should be so much zeal amongst subordinates. And amongst the latter, the Duchess of Longwater took first place. She subscribed liberally to the charity and parent society, and she it was who secured the lions necessary to give éclat to the frequent public meetings. St. Agnes's people were a little inclined to grumble at the constant absence of their bishop in London, but the consolation remained that he was engaged in a great and good work.
It was about this time that the duchess made a notable capture. The big fish in question was no less a person than the Begum of Banapore, an eastern potentate, with a large territory of her own in North-west India, and at present on a visit to England. The begum, a dusky personage of uncertain age and no uncertain adipose tissue, had a weakness for western modes and manners, and consequently fell an easy prey to the duchess. Her knowledge of our language was passably good, and her disposition amiable. As opium, in no shape or form, entered into her state or her revenues, there was no trouble in converting her to the society, to which, through her secretary, she subscribed.
"You will be charmed with the begum, bishop," the duchess remarked enthusiastically, when detailing the history of her capture. "She really is a most intelligent creature, and already heart and soul in our cause. For the ordinary social business she cares nothing, and her diamonds are something wonderful. You will come and meet her to-night at dinner?"
The bishop promised vaguely. His thoughts were far away at that moment. No errand of mercy or philanthropy had brought him to town on this occasion. His Semitic creditor was pressing him for a little something on account, taking the pleasing form of £5000, and he of St. Agnes had returned to his hotel with the assurance that if the sum in question was not forthcoming within a fortnight, something extremely unpleasant was likely to happen.
Fry was at his wits' end. To borrow the money from a friend was impossible; to seek another lender, involved as he was with Mr. Mostyn—once Moses—useless. To use a chaste and original metaphor, ruin stared him in the face. A fortnight's grace, like a fortnight's holiday, passes with marvellous celerity.
"Delighted to meet so distinguished a convert," the bishop murmured. "I trust she may be of great assistance to the good cause. Half-past seven, I think?"
"Whereupon, her Grace of Longwater departed in her glittering equipage, with its powdered servants, big bouquets, and all en règle, to take the chair at a meeting of the committee for the suppression of personal adornment. Her Grace was always suppressing something.
A select party dined at Longwater House that evening to meet the begum. There was a cabinet minister, who was also a licensed preacher; a pious journalist, whose writings less religious people regarded as distinctly blasphemous; together with a few minor lights. The begum, who was a blaze of diamonds, beamed pleasantly upon all those assembled. She appeared more or less bored, save at dinner, when she entered into the proceedings with pleasing zest. One English institution apparently met with marked favour, and that was the champagne, of which the dusky magnate partook freely.
Presently, a grave individual next the bishop rose quietly from his chair, and whispered a word to the butler. From that moment the champagne ceased to circulate. Fry made a note of the fact. He also saw the begum was regarding his neighbour with an eye of peculiar malevolence.
Mr. Cunningham shrugged his shoulders. Then his glance and the bishop's met. The latter saw a tall clean-shaven man, with a powerful face, the features of which were under perfect control, giving the man a mask-like appearance.
"I see you noticed my movements, my lord," Cunningham said easily. "My post as secretary and confidential adviser to the begum is no sinecure, I assure you."
"You have been with her long?" Fry asked.
"Only a few weeks, and I wish myself well out of it," Cunningham smiled frankly. "Shortly before her trip to England, my predecessor resigned. I thought the post would suit, and applied for it through a friend in India, and got it. For a month or two we have been doing Europe. The begum is naturally amiable, but——" And Cunningham shrugged his shoulders.
"We have all our little weaknesses," the bishop observed sententiously.
"And the begum's is champagne, as you might have seen. When she becomes over-excited, she is somewhat difficult. I do not allow her to carry any money, for fear of consequences. You would be surprised to know how fond she is of wandering about alone in London."
"Without any attendant?"
"Absolutely. She always returns in due course. You must allow caged animals a little latitude. Fortunately, the champagne incident does not happen every day. Once in Brussels, when the fit was on, and the begum without money, she pawned her diamonds for ten francs, and subsequently returned to our hotel in a condition of marked hilarity."
The bishop was profoundly interested. "We must make allowances," he said with kindly toleration; "still, it must be a source of great anxiety to you. And the diamonds?"
"Fortunately, one of the servants found the ticket—the pawn ticket, you understand."
"In my undergraduate days——" Fry began.
"Quite so," Cunningham smiled. "I am pleased to find myself understood. We had a little trouble with the pawnbroker, but a hint as to the police sufficed. Since then the begum has repeated the experiment here, never asking for more than ten shillings. You see, she has no notion of the value of money, and ten shillings produces the amount of Pommery she requires."
"But, my good sir, think of the risk."
"There is no risk now," Cunningham replied. "When we were at Amsterdam I hit upon the idea of having the diamonds faithfully copied in paste. When I see the distressing symptoms coming on, I substitute the paste for the real gems. The begum is none the wiser, and I am relieved from considerable anxiety. So long as the copies fetch the money, the begum is perfectly happy. She is wearing the paste now."
The bishop expressed his astonishment. The begum's neck and head appeared to be surrounded by a stream of living fire. And Paul Fry had a natural eye for stones, having made some study of them when dabbling in "stinks" at Camford.
"I could hardly have believed it," he said.
"Nevertheless it is perfectly true," Cunningham replied. "If you could see the reverse of that necklet you would notice the difference at once. Paste is never set plain, you know, like real stones. The latter are practically gold-threaded. I am not speaking as an expert, but merely repeating the information I gleaned at Amsterdam."
The bishop sighed gently. With one of these gauds in his possession, he would have no difficulty in once for all ridding himself of his troubles. Really, it almost seemed to him that the decree of fate was open to criticism. Here was a pillar of the church on the verge of ruin, and there sat a mere human document, a champagne label, so to speak, with the wherewithal to set him free once more.
He brooded over the matter on his return to his hotel, a quiet select retreat not far from Brook Street. The begum occupied his attention to the exclusion of holier things. Therefore it came upon him as no surprise as he went upstairs, plated candlestick in hand, to find the begum on the landing, on the point of retiring to her room, followed by two tiring-maids. Cunningham was hovering discreetly in the background. The begum presented an aspect of smiling, yet faded gaiety; she gave a Hindustani ejaculation which, in rude English, would have passed for a hiccough.
"She will be herself in the morning," Cunningham murmured; "the attack is passing away. There will not be another for a day or two."
"You may rely upon my discretion," the bishop replied. "It is rather strange that I should meet you again so soon, and in so quiet a place. I should have thought——"
"Quite so. You are staying here at present?"
"It is my house when in London. I am here for a few days on business."
"We shall make it our headquarters during our stay in London," Cunningham explained. "The very quietness of the place is what we most desire. Waiters and servants talk so, and things get into the papers mysteriously; and, afflicted as the begum is——"
"Quite so," replied the bishop. "Good night, Mr. Cunningham."
A week passed quietly by without anything further happening. Nothing satisfactory had transpired regarding the debt which hung like a millstone about Fry's neck. More than one application to the financial gentry had ended dismally. It seemed wonderful how they appeared to hang together. Indeed, in going from one office to another, the bishop was startled to find how much was known of his private concerns.
He kept the best till last; but here again disappointment met him. The financier in question might have been a prelate himself, so far as appearances were concerned.
"I regret that I cannot see my way to assist you, my lord," he said; "but Mostyn's security seems to have covered the ground. Unfortunately, your income ceases with your life; in case anything happened to you, I should lose my money. A good name, or possibly two, as sureties would make all the difference."
"And without them you can do nothing?"
"Absolutely nothing. I suppose you haven't anything in the way of pictures or plate, now? Or jewellery? Good jewellery is always a valuable commodity."
But the bishop had nothing save what was legally given into the maw of Mostyn. The begum and her diamonds rose up before his mind's eye. Those dazzling streams of flame mocked and dazed him. He saw them as he walked along Piccadilly, and turned into a quiet restaurant there for sherry and soup.
The place was comparatively empty. In the far corner sat a dusky figure with a glass and a bottle of Pommery before her. It was the begum. There was a somnolent smile on her face, and she was absolutely bereft of jewellery. The bishop walked out.
The same evening, dining out, he met her at dinner again. The weakness must have passed away for a time, because the begum partook of nothing but water. During dinner the conversation was almost wholly of opium, and its concomitant evils. A great meeting was to take place the following evening at the Albert Hall, for which a prince—made in Germany, it is true, but still a prince—had been captured. The begum also had signified her intention of being present, and altogether it was hoped that the gathering would force the Government to do something—nobody knew what; but that was a detail.
"I hope you are prepared with something special for the meeting," the Duchess of Longwater beamed upon the bishop. "We look to you for great things."
"What meeting?" the bishop said vaguely. "Oh yes, certainly. I was thinking of something else."
As a matter of fact, the great gathering of the Clan of the Bonneted Bee had entirely escaped his mind. Up to the present moment he had neither made a note, nor evolved an impromptu; and only a few hours remained between now and the meeting.
"I will do my best not to disappoint your Grace," Fry responded, with a somewhat melancholy smile. "I dare say I shall be ready when the hour arrives."
There was only one way to be ready, as the speaker very well knew. Of late years the midnight oil had not smelt in his nostrils to any damaging extent; at any rate, not since he took his double-first and got his cricket blue in the same year. He had all the necessary books and papers in his portmanteau; and by sitting up all night, he could be ready for the fray on the morrow.
It was not till midnight that he found himself once more alone. In the next room to his own reclined the begum, who was crooning to herself some ditty which, doubtless, in her distant possessions, passed for music. At the same time it might have been a snatch from some modern composer, patented by a malevolent superior critic.
Presently the music ceased, and the trumpet-note common to nations succeeded. A man may be a poor linguist, and snore in many languages. But the bishop struggled bravely on, and by eight o'clock his oration was complete.
He felt fagged and worn out with want of sleep and anxiety. He rang his bell with a view to obtaining a cup of coffee, but no reply came. Looking out into the corridor, the bishop could see no one. Presently a substantial shadow crept along and descended the stairs with ponderous caution. It was that ubiquitous begum.
She was dressed for the street, and evidently off upon one of her alcoholic rambles. In a vague, uncertain way the bishop followed. After his long toil, it struck him that a walk would freshen up his jaded faculties.
Not a soul witnessed the exodus. The respectable family hotel was anything but an early place; they did not cater for the class of visitor whose mission in life it is to be sacrificed on the altar of Bradshaw of the pearly dawn. The key of the bishop's room was in his pocket, for all his papers were still littered in confusion.
Just in front was the begum. After loitering a little, she increased her pace as if she had some ulterior object in view. The bishop noted presently that the potentate carried in her hand a shabby leathern case. Suspicion became certainty presently, when the lady paused before a small jeweller's shop in a side street—a shop over which were suspended three gilt balls in pleasing symmetry. A minute or two later the begum had swiftly disappeared by a side door.
The bishop had not long to wait. Presently his quarry reappeared, minus her case and plus a fatuous smile to balance things. With a sportive air she cast from her a yellow ticket, which the wind fluttered to the watcher's feet. He picked it up curiously.
As an artistic production it was a failure; from a curt business point of view the docket left nothing to be desired. It merely contained a legend to the effect that Sara Jones—the bishop smiled—had pledged with John Müller certain chemical diamonds for the sum of ten shillings.
For a little while the bishop stood contemplating the card. A certain boyish buoyancy possessed him. If such a sensation is possible in a prelate, he felt "larky." Yielding to the spirit of the moment, he stepped into the pawnshop and tendered the card to the assistant.
"Unless I am greatly mistaken," he said, "the thing mentioned here was pledged with you by a lady. She is—Dr—in short, given to that kind of thing. A little mental weakness, you understand. I should like to redeem the article."
"Right you are," the assistant replied. "Ten and a tanner, please. I thought the old party was a bit off it, but as the thing was of no value, it seemed all correct. There's your change; no, I'll keep that card, if you don't mind."
Paul Fry pocketed the case, and left the shop hurriedly. He had been a bishop quite long enough to resent the awful familiarity of that young man. A little ruffled, he returned to his hotel. He passed up the stairs, and into his own room, without encountering any one, as before. After breakfast he could return the case to Cunningham, and doubtless would amuse the discreet secretary with an account of his adventure. He felt quite gay over the matter. He packed up his papers, and took the shabby case from his pocket, and opened the same in a spirit of idle curiosity. The full morning light fell upon the contents thereof.
The Bishop of St. Agnes gave a gasping cry. No dull muddy lustre met his eye; instead, the wonderful yellow fire perfectly dazzled him. The stones leapt and tumbled as they shook in his hand, like orange cascades flecked with blue electricity. Without doubt, he had come into possession of the begum's diamonds.
These jewels were no paste; the little knowledge he possessed of such things told him that. Besides, they were not set flat, as paste usually is, but practically were gold-threaded. The bishop tried them on his water-bottle, the result being a deep scratch. Then he took from his dressing-case a finely tempered nail-file, and tested the facets of a large stone. The file slipped over the polished surface, leaving no trace behind.
The bishop dropped on the edge of his bed, trembling from head to foot. Not a soul had seen him enter or leave his hotel; the tiny dungeon from whence he had obtained the gems was so dark as to render it impossible to identify him. Again, the flippant assistant had not the remotest idea of the value of the article pledged.
And to-morrow, in the ordinary course of events, an execution would be put into the palace at St. Agnes. He would be the first, and perhaps the last, bishop ever destined to dispense hospitality to a man in possession. In a few hours the whole thing would be public property; he would be compelled to resign his see, and sink into oblivion, a ruined, dishonoured man. Nothing could save him.
But could nothing save him? Had he not the means of salvation in his hands? By no possible chance could anybody learn the truth. All he had to do was to remove the stones from their setting—an easy task—and dispose of them without delay. What they were worth the bishop could not say, probably £10,000, or more. With the money they were likely to fetch, he could not only pay Mostyn the sum demanded on account, but get rid of him altogether; it meant salvation, indeed.
The bishop hesitated no longer. Once he had made up his mind, the fit of trembling passed away. His plan of action was decided upon without delay. By way of divesting any semblance of suspicion, he ordered breakfast in his room, and this being despatched, called for the Times. On one of the advertisement pages there a notice caught his eye. It was to the effect that Messrs. Noble & Co., of Fenchurch Street, were prepared to buy old plate and jewellery to any extent, and pay for the same promptly.
An hour later the Bishop of St. Agnes stepped into the somewhat dingy establishment of Noble and Co., and demanded to see the proprietor. A little man, with a shy, nervous manner, conducted him into a back den, and asked his business. The bishop explained it in the frankest manner. He was concerned for a friend, he said; there need be no disguise, but publicity had to be avoided as much as possible. Messrs. Noble were purchasers of precious stones, and he had a quantity of fine ones to dispose of, with which the loose diamonds were produced from his pocket. Mr. Abner Noble started as his eyes fell on them.
"They are very fine," he said, with an effort at coolness, "very fine indeed; but, unfortunately, diamonds are to a certain extent a drug in the market at present. If they were pearls now! If you will excuse me I will consult my partner."
The shy little man returned presently with a face of resigned melancholy, and the intelligence that his partner could not see his way beyond £14,500. If that sum would suffice, the transaction might be settled in the course of an hour. It was merely a matter of arrangement with bankers. Before lunchtime the bishop was in a position to call upon Mr. Mostyn and pay that gentleman off, to his mingled chagrin and delight.
The bishop was absolutely free, he had nothing further to fear. The haunting nightmare had passed away; ruin no longer mocked his footsteps and leered in his face. Nevertheless, he did not dine at the hotel alone; he was afraid of his own society. He wanted to get away from himself, and he looked forward to the great meeting with positive relief. His speech was the speech of the evening; never had he been so brilliant, never had his points been so clear, his arguments so cogent and effective.
Only once during his oration had he faltered, and that was when the begum, rather late, came on to the platform, blazing as usual. The bishop almost broke down for a moment; he could hardly believe his eyes. There was the necklace and tiara he had disposed of, adorning that ample form. What did it all mean?
But then the bishop recovered himself. He would rather have avoided the begum and her secretary the same evening, but Cunningham willed it otherwise. The two parties reached the hotel simultaneously. Supper was laid in the dining-room for the bishop. Hardly had he finished when Cunningham came in and took a seat. Save the two men in question, the great dreary apartment was absolutely deserted.
"A fine effort of yours to-night, my lord," Cunningham said—" a memorable one, considering it is your last in your present capacity."
The bishop beamed benignly upon the speaker. "I do not understand you," he said. "Any one, to hear you speak, would be under the impression that I was about to resign my bishopric."
"And they would not be mistaken."
There was a metallic hardness in Cunningham's dominant note. The bishop's smile was suddenly arrested and frozen on his lips.
"If this is pleasantry, sir, I——"
"Nothing was further from my intention," Cunningham replied. "I merely stated a fact. When you have heard all that I have to say, you will come to precisely the same conclusion. This morning you were indebted to one Mostyn, a money-lender, to a large sum; at the present moment you are quit of his claim. This morning my mistress had a valuable set of diamonds, which she pledged."
"But she was wearing them this evening!"
"Precisely. Only the possession of much money can work miracles of that kind. And only fools, when they extract jewels from their settings, leave the latter in a portmanteau."
The bishop groaned. All the dignity in him suddenly became flabby and invertebrate. He waited dully for Cunningham to proceed.
"This morning the begum went out, as frequently happens. She had with her her diamonds—the real ones. The fact was known to me. This unusual course was permitted, because the paste copies were pawned a day or two ago, and the ticket mislaid owing to the carelessness of a native servant. To lay an embargo on the begum is dangerous, because her civilization is so much veneer. So the real gems were entrusted to her, and a careful watch kept. What happened early this morning I need not detail. But when you made no sign, the watching process was transferred to you. Need I enlarge upon the visit to Noble and Co., and the subsequent financial transaction?"
"You know everything?" the bishop said unsteadily.
"Everything, indeed. I can enlighten you upon a few points. Up to now your conduct is a profound secret. I had no difficulty in obtaining the stones without delay, as money was no object. They cost a great deal more than you sold them for; indeed, Noble and Co. may be congratulated upon an excellent day's work. The settings, removed from your portmanteau, and the jewels, were handed to another firm, who speedily repaired the mischief. I have merely to ask now what you are going to do."
"I must have a day or two to think," the bishop murmured. "I propose to return to St. Agnes to-morrow, and after that——"
"Quite so. I have no objection. In a day or two you will write me here. For the present there is no more to be said."
Cunningham bowed himself out of the room, and the bishop retired to his bed. He slept peacefully through the night, and the following day returned to St. Agnes. In the evening he called upon a chemist for a sleeping potion, complaining that his rest had been greatly disturbed of late. The chemist complied with the request, with an injunction to be careful as to the dose. Never had the compounder of pills seen his lordship so affable and genial, so free from care. Therefore, when it transpired the following morning that the Bishop of St. Agnes had been found in his bed stone dead, like many of his fellow countrymen he was greatly shocked.
There was an inquest, of course, a perfunctory affair, nicely glossed over by the coroner, who chanced to be the bishop's secretary as well; no blame was attached to any one, and justice was satisfied. The overstrained mind—a thing that bishops suffer from to a distressing degree—had given way under a pressure of work—also an episcopal malady—and relief had been sought in drugs. A little carelessness, and the late ornament of the bench was no more.
Cunningham read the account of the disaster in the evening paper with unclouded appetite and untroubled nerves. Paul Fry had taken the course he had anticipated. Whereupon Cunningham, whose real identity has already been guessed, dined quietly, and subsequently tendered his resignation to the begum. So far as he was concerned, the incident was at an end; the traditional jewels were restored, and the cost of the experiment was Greenstrand's. It had been dear, but big game is always expensive.
In the first place, it had meant much money to obtain the position on the begum's staff at the opportune moment, but that was a trifle compared to the repurchase of the diamonds. The only person benefiting by the transaction, apparently, was the money- lender; but that was in accordance with the eternal fitness of things. The rest had been brought about by patience, and perseverance, and an expensive inquiry into the past life of the late Bishop of St. Agnes. Luck had served Death a little more quickly than he anticipated; but he had had several means of decoying his game, nor had he any doubts from the moment when he had assured himself as to the bishop's financial position.
"The third out of the catalogue," he reflected over his cigar. "At this rate, two years will see me through this hateful task, and then I shall be free. And when the end comes, my master, you will give all your millions, past and future, to recall the day when you bought my soul, and sent me out on such a task as this."
GIVEN a fair literary ability and a sexual problem, there is no reason why the average woman should not become successful in the trade of authorship. If she mixes up her petticoats and primroses judiciously, the thing is accomplished; she may even attain the rare distinction of the Free Library Embargo—a distinction vouchsafed to few. But there is no reason why this crumb from the gods should be reserved for the great, seeing that it is only a matter of comparative indecency.
Lydia Lobb was a case in point. She had many natural advantages. To begin with, her name was ugly enough to make the fortune of a novel without anything else; her personal appearance was striking, and she possessed a large fund of that child-like faith in personal ability which was less pregnable than the brass front of a labour leader. Added to this, Lydia came of respectable parentage, with money to spare, and awe of their only offspring. That her parents had been lawfully married in the old- fashioned way was a grief to Lydia—so she said. As no man had ever summoned up courage to marry her, she professed the Cairdic faith in the matter of matrimony. She wrote "Minor Keys," and "Studies," and the like, all of them according to the teaching of the Yellow Bible.
Still, Lydia Lobb had not boomed. Perhaps the bourgeois home surroundings had fettered her to a considerable extent. She yearned for publication in slim tomes, and to be denounced from pulpits—the Daily Telegraph would have done admirably. To have her photograph in the Sketch, with a thumbnail interview attached, was her ambition.
At one time it seemed as if fortune meant to smile upon her endeavours. An early study of hers in the Cerulean had attracted the attention of no less a person than Azalia Leigh, the famous author of "Stockings and Stark Madness." Thousands of readers of an older generation, now quite five years ago, will remember the sensation caused by that work. The motif, as will be recalled, is the domestic misery caused in an alternately happy household by the fact that an otherwise perfect wife will persist in wearing garters below the knee, thus inducing wrinkled hose. The anguish of the refined husband is very finely portrayed. His subsequent liaisons with a Sappho who is more hidebound on the garter question, form the episodes of the book. What might have been the ultimate circulation of that volume it would have been impossible to tell, for its realistic reputation was wrecked by a Humanity Reviewer, who suddenly sprung upon the world the fact that every modern woman wore suspenders, occupying three pages of close type to prove the point. The crux was felt to be a false one, and from that hour "Stockings and Stark Madness" rapidly declined in popularity.
But true genius cannot he crushed. Azalia Leigh immediately set up housekeeping with an atheist poet, who never washed himself, on principle, and thus kept up the boom. Under these auspices she published "Scarlet Sketches," a defence of free love so lurid that the moral authorities interfered, and she and her partner, also a contributor, suffered three months' imprisonment. During his incarceration, the poet was thoughtlessly cleansed by the authorities, and in consequence of the severity of the shock, died. Subsequently Azalia became serious in gaol, and on emerging from her dungeon allowed herself to be married to a pious young man who rashly imagined that her conversion was permanent, after which Azalia so far forgot herself as to have two children. But these misfortunes are always on the knees of the gods.
It was just before this episode that Lydia Lobb's work first attracted Azalia Leigh's attention; she wrote the former a letter so daring and startling that Lydia was charmed. Azalia had found the kindred soul for which she had been longing; she offered her ripe experience, her invaluable tuition and advice in return for the pure love for which her soul craved. They should come together, and their twin affection should surpass that of David and Jonathan; Damon and Pythias should pale their ineffectual fires, and the lamps of Orestes and Pylades be extinguished. Would Lydia come to Azalia, bringing nought but her transparent soul, and as little else as was compatible with the absurd prejudice in favour of sartorial adornment?
Thereupon Lydia procured an elaborate trousseau from Paris for this spiritual union, and went.
For two years they practically lived together, publishing in new magazines of erratic tastes and delicate constitutions. The world was promised something great before long, but it did not come, and Lydia benefited very little by Azalia's friendship. Perhaps the latter required all the kudos for herself. Therefore the inevitable quarrel came.
After this Azalia abandoned the luxurious flat in Manchester Street, which she had feelingly allowed Lydia to furnish and maintain, and went off to her liberally encrusted poet. For the time being, this was the death-blow to Lydia's hopes. Save an occasional copy of verses, the better periodicals would have none of her; publishers declined her novels.
A year or two passed, during which Azalia shone dimly; then, as was inevitable, she startled the world again. She left her husband and small children for the garret of a juvenile Shakespeare of seventeen, who, some day, was to convulse a waiting world. This was going a little further than even society could tolerate, and not even the Yellow Bible dared print any of her work any more. The budding Shakespeare fell back upon tales for children for a moral house, and Azalia drifted abroad, where it was understood she had perished miserably, and under the most indigent circumstances.
All the gall in Lydia Lobb's nature was aroused. She felt she had been fooled. Five years of her life had been wasted, and to- day she stood on no higher rung of the ladder than she did at the outset of her literary career. Indeed, she was considerably worse off, for the taint of Azalia clung to her still. Up to a certain point, Azalia's friendship had been one to be proud of; but the pampered hound of to-day is frequently the mangy cur of the morrow. Azalia became as the leper, and those who have been near the leper are not much better, and thus Lydia suffered.
She was ready for anything by this time; it was all the same to her whether her model was the cleanly, pure-minded Besant, or the prurient realistic—Well, no matter. In those very rooms, where she and Azalia had scoffed at so many scarlet crises, she sat down and wrote a novelette for the British Monthly, which was courteously rejected. She haunted the society of literary people until the imperturbable Binder, of Sleek and Binder, Paternoster Row, declared that he could not keep the woman out of the house.
"She's a perfect nuisance," he remarked to the individual who had lately purchased the New Chronicle, that leading light amongst journals. "I can't free myself anyway. What the deuce do I know or care about views? I'm a tradesman, and all authors are merely so many commercial travellers to me. Sell me what I want, and I don't ask any more. But I'm not going to buy anything of Lydia Lobb's."
The new proprietor of the New Chronicle smiled behind his mask. His name was Death once more, and this time there was no disguise. Nobody asked his pedigree, or his qualifications to judge the merits or condemn the faults of others. He was simply the proprietor of the most powerful of organs, and that sufficed.
Death seemed to have taken a fancy to Lydia Lobb from the first. The brethren of the pen foregathered strongly at Binder's luxurious mansion in Portland Place twice a week, and most of them owed something to the eminent publisher, who knew less about literature and produced more annual successes than any one in the trade.
Lydia Lobb's inordinate conceit, her vast belief in herself, and her insane jealousy of others, touched Death's cynicism. He was half inclined to give her a commission to write a novel for the Chronicle. He was in a position to boom her work, for the despised critic has his uses. How many hidden beauties, how many gems of analysis and subtle meaning, utterly unsuspected by the author, do they find in books from year to year? How frequently do they prove to the humble individual his own undreamt greatness?
Death had peculiar faculties for booming Lydia Lobb. He had purchased the New Chronicle with quite another purpose, but chance had removed his intended prey beyond his reach, and he was on the look out for another victim in the literary world.
Lydia Lobb presented many facilities for the purpose. Being well-to-do and unattached, she had no temptations to do wrong. She had a restless ambition and a pretty talent for smart writing; her egotism and self-assurance were unbounded.
DEATH crossed the drawing-room, leaving his host discussing the advantages of bone manure for mangels with a perfervid poet of distinction, and took his place by Lydia's side. She made room for him with a serene smile. Miss Lobb was quite alive to the advantage of cultivating the good offices of the New Chronicle director.
"I saw a little thing of yours in the Owl, yesterday," Death said; "I was very much taken with it. It reminded me of the better and earlier manner of Azalia Leigh."
"I was her pupil before she became impossible," Lydia smiled. "That Owl piece was only a fragment from a complete work I am trying to find a publisher for."
"Publishers are conservative, and so commercial," Death replied. "Send your work to Wanless, and I will see that it is favourably read. I cannot say any more, you understand."
Lydia nodded brightly. Wanless was a publisher with a craze for new people, over whom he had more or less crippled himself. He also ran a class magazine. Before Lydia slept that night she had posted her manuscript to Wanless and Co.
Death listened as Lydia favoured him with her opinion of Azalia Leigh, couched in that strain of bitterness which quondam bosom friends use towards one another. The ordeal came to an end at length, and Death made his escape. By this time the rooms were practically empty. Death lured his host into the smoking-room for a final cigar.
"Do you know," he said presently, "that I am going to boom Lydia Lobb?"
"It's time your journal took up somebody fresh," Binder chuckled. "But you take my tip—drop the analytical-nasty business, because it's played out. I'm all for Fielding-and-Water at present. It was only by a bit of bad luck that I missed having a finger in the Scotch boom. We're going back to beans and bacon for a time, and a good job too. I'm tired of these filthy-minded works."
"I shall boom Lydia, whatever she writes," Death replied. "Books are like soaps, if you puff them properly they are certain to go. Azalia Leigh's manner——"
"Played out," Binder remarked, with a wave of his cigar; "gone, exploded. I've got a novel of Azalia's in my safe here at this moment; a manuscript novel I bought four years ago, and gave a deal of money for. I haven't read it myself, but my taster was most enthusiastic at the time. Then the corner in Azalia's petered out, and the stock is on my hands."
Death's eyes gleamed redly behind his cigar; his face grew more mask-like than ever.
"What do you intend to do with it?" he asked.
"Keep it, of course. One can never tell what is going to happen in the book trade. Most people think that Azalia Leigh is dead, but they are wrong. She's living very quietly at Berne, on a trifle that one or two of us allow her; but this in confidence. She does not write now."
"Would you mind letting me see this story?" Death suggested; "or, I'll buy it from you at the price you gave for it. What do you say?"
"Done," Binder replied with alacrity. "Don't you get publishing the story at present; wait till Azalia has drunk herself to death, which won't be very long. Then some sap-headed author is sure to discover the fact, and make a lot of sympathetic copy out of it. There is always a revulsion when public opinion is violent one way, and you may land a bit out of the backwash. Tone down a trifle when the time comes, and serve the posthumous work up hot."
Thus discussed the publisher in private. When Death left an hour later, he took the manuscript with him, forwarding a cheque for the same the next day. Binder congratulated himself upon a good deal, and straightway forgot all about the matter.
At the end of a fortnight, to Lydia Lobb's great joy, Wanless & Co reported favourably upon her novel, and accompanied the flattering note with a request for an interview. Lydia found a little dark man in spectacles awaiting her.
"Your book is somewhat slight, Miss Lobb," Wanless said, "but it will suit our purpose admirably. We are, as I dare say you have seen, bringing out a series of one-and-fourpenny popular novels. Our initial author has disappointed us, and we therefore propose to make your work the first of the series. The royalty will be——"
The royalty was perfectly satisfactory. Within a week the proof-sheets were corrected, and eight days later, "A Woman and Some Men" was on the market. Plot in this story there was absolutely none. There was plenty of subtle analysis, some cheap and nasty philosophy, and a good deal of heart-searching in the life of an American woman, who had been divorced and married three times, only to revert for the second time to the original husband. It will at once be conceded that the scope afforded for the requirement of the modern lady-novel was more than ample. With outward indifference, but really in an agony of impatience, Lydia awaited the verdict of the superior persons.
The New Chronicle led the way. The next issue of that journal came out with a leaded leader, calling attention to the new departure in fiction. They were charmed and delighted at the fresh vigour and indomitable courage displayed by the author. In her work they saw traces of the teaching of Azalia Leigh at her best. A new and great master had arisen, who was not afraid to preach the doctrine of real freedom. Maida Vale might hold hands uplifted, but the prophet of the true would prevail.
"What do we find here?" cried the pioneer of thought. "A woman who, in the struggle for human felicity, has not scrupled, has not hesitated to place herself in the wrong in the eyes of the world. Read the story of her parting with Charles Seabright, her first husband. Can anything be more subtly true than the first sneer over the toughness of the fried potatoes, which leads up to the final quarrel and parting? Is there anything artistic in fried potatoes, the cynic may ask? Read the book, ponder over the broken dish, see the second husband looming like a vision out of the mists illuminated by Cynthia's cry, 'Heaven, merciful Heaven! it is a kitchen-maid this man should have wed.' And then the tourist Travers comes upon the scene; Charles has gone. Travers is hungry and athirst. In the bitterness of her despair, Cynthia hands Travers the potatoes, which he eats and praises. The next day they are married. The intervening analysis is worthy of a Spencer or a Meredith, and is quite as lucidly clear. Assuredly the veil has been lifted——" And two columns more.
Lydia read every word again and again in a rapture of delight. How great a writer she was she had never known before. Simple sentences, mere padding behind the jewels of her imagination, became so much diamond dust in the eyes of the reviewer. Every note of interrogation had its meaning, every comma was replete with understanding.
A day or two elapsed before anything further transpired. After all, the New Chronicle was not the only journal of note. There were others capable of undoing the excellent beginning. But, as a rule, the other weeklies followed the initial opening faithfully. Two of the great dailies, whilst guardedly admitting the brilliancy of the volume, condemned the morality in the roundest terms, with the result that Mrs. Grundy's grown-up daughters began to ask for the volume at the libraries, and its popularity was thus complete.
The dream of Lydia Lobb's life was apparently realized. In a month she had risen from comparative obscurity to the top of the tree. Her portrait appeared in the illustrated papers. A prominent divine refused to shake hands with her at a big reception, and within a week five thousand more copies of the book had been disposed of. As yet no Free Library Committee had banned the novel, which was disappointing, especially as Lydia had composed a letter in the event of the same happening.
Yet, strange as it may seem, there were no publishing Oliver Twists asking for more. Not a single commission resulted from the good fortune; no magazine editor wrote, offering his space and a blank cheque for anything Miss Lobb liked to produce. One editor of note actually returned a manuscript, with a mere printed form of thanks.
Even the usually sanguine Wanless displayed no alacrity at Lydia's offer of another novel. He was sufficiently in the know to be aware that the magazines would have none of her, and there is no permanent success in literature without that favour. To Lydia's surprise and mortification, an old story hastily furbished up was returned by her publisher.
"Take my advice," he said in quite a different manner, "and try something higher and better. Second books on the same lines are never successful. One of the happiest and truest sayings of a leading painter is, that the plain of popularity is strewn with the bones of men of many editions. You can call to mind a dozen cases in point. And take your time."
Lydia shook the dust of that office from her feet, and started in high dudgeon to call upon Death at the New Chronicle. It was the kind of idea only likely to occur to a woman, and a spoilt literary one at that. She was furiously angry with Wanless, and her vanity required soothing. And who more likely to administer the deserved pabulum than the enlightened journalist who had exposed her brilliant genius to the world? Had Miss Lobb been aware that Wanless's action had been inspired by Death she might have been less eager.
Death received his visitor courteously enough. To a certain extent he shared Wanless's opinions.
"Believe me," he said, "the kind of literature you are engaged upon at present is too ephemeral. With your talent, I should certainly look higher; indeed, I am looking for something specially good for my journal. My dear lady, I know of nobody more capable of filling my requirements than yourself. If you have something more solid, more substantial, I shall be prepared to give it my most favourable consideration."
Lydia returned to her flat somewhat soothed and less ruffled. She had been sufficiently wise to conceal the fact that she had at home some two hundred pounds avoirdupois of stories in various stages of progress. On more than one occasion she and Azalia Leigh had discussed the production of a pastoral story, something to be a combination of "Adam Bede" and the "Vicar of Wakefield," with a dash of "Lorna Doone" thrown in. Amongst other things, she had a pile of manuscript from the office of the New Chronicle to examine—a legacy left Death by his predecessor, who published from time to time. These had been found in a safe, it being Lydia's business to destroy all those beyond identity, and to return those where possible.
Perhaps there might be something good there, Lydia thought. They were all stories evidently abandoned by their authors. Pearls are sometimes discovered in mussels; Lydia might find a gem there. If so, it might be cut and polished, so as to be impossible of identification by the original bivalve.
Lydia lighted her lamp and scattered the pile on the table. She was angry still, and her faith in the guileless publisher yet unrestored. There was no honesty in the world; why, then, should she damage herself by the cultivation of so obsolete a quality? Story after story she tossed aside after reading a page or two, until she came to a bulky packet halfway through.
It was neatly bound and fastened, and written in a hand familiar to the reader. Lydia's pulses quickened as she glanced at the pages. The story was one of Azalia Leigh's, and, from the date at the end, had evidently been compiled at a time when she and Lydia were friends.
"The wretch!" Lydia murmured; "and she never told me a word about it. I suppose she deemed it too good to allow me to collaborate."
But Lydia's sneer vanished as she read the first four pages. There was nothing prurient in the story, nothing to which even a man of the world could take objection. Lydia's lamp burnt low, and finally flickered out fragrantly. With a mixed sigh of hope and unreasoning jealousy, Lydia retired to rest, but not to sleep.
She was up betimes in the morning, and by breakfast had finished Azalia's story. Lydia was naturally a judge of good work—in others—and she recognized that she had of the best here. And Azalia Leigh was no more. The thing was absolutely safe; here was a real literary reputation absolutely thrust upon her. In the light of this new treasure, Lydia could not fail to recognize the thin artificiality of her own work.
Her mind was made up. Within a little time the precious manuscript was in the hands of a city office devoted to the gentle art of type-writing, with an intimation that the work must be returned complete within forty-eight hours. The sub-division of a large office provided for this, and at the specified time the clear copy was returned, together with the original folios. Lydia went through them carefully, counting them in proper rotation; not one was missing. A short but brilliant conflagration, and all evidence of the deed was destroyed.
With a sense of elation, Lydia drove off to the New Chronicle office. Death was there, and received her courteously, smiling blandly at the bulky parcel.
"You have not lost any time," he smiled.
"Because I am egotistical enough to imagine that I have found what you require," Lydia returned. "I cannot think how I have overlooked it so long. I have had the soiled copy typed, so you will have no excuse for delay in the reading."
Death did not delay. Within a week he had written complimenting Lydia upon her story. He intended to publish the novel, which was not too long, as the summer number of his journal, and had already instructed the artists in the matter. There would be no delay, and Lydia would please to sign the enclosed contract.
Where was Wanless now? Lydia wondered triumphantly. It never occurred to her that she was acting entirely upon that individual's despised advice.
The expiration of a month saw not only the production of the wonderful summer number, but also a series of notices of Miss Lobb's brilliant story. They all spoke of it as a brilliant story. When the lexicons of critics find no such word as "brilliant," it will be a bad day for the reviewers. But there was in the present outburst of praise a sincerity that previous notices lacked. There was no straining after effect, no mention, even, of analysis or subtle motive. There was not an epigram or a paradox to be found from first to last. There was no great demand for the number; but, all the same, Lydia found herself in real request this time.
Yet she derived no enjoyment from her triumph; she felt no shame, but rather a feeling of resentment against Azalia Leigh for writing such a book. Why could not the same have been shared by her long ago, instead of being held over in this way?
Lydia came back to town one evening, after a two days' absence, and proceeded to array herself for a literary "at home," which would otherwise have been incomplete without her presence. She was sick of the country already, and yearning afresh for flattery and adulation.
But this evening it was lacking. It took the successful novelist some time to discover the fact that she was being positively avoided by the rest of the guests there, but, when the truth dawned upon her, she could only attribute it to jealousy. She found herself presently alongside of the latest thing in the way of a minor poetess, who had no aversion to fling the stone which the others hesitated to do, though they all carried flints in their pockets.
"What on earth is the matter with everybody to-night?" Lydia asked.
"Haven't you seen to-day's Telephone?" burning Sappho asked.
"My dear madam, I haven't seen a paper for three days."
"Ah, that accounts for it," was the enigmatic reply, as the speaker moved on.
Lydia went away raging, and yet suspecting no catastrophe. From the porter on the ground floor of her flat she borrowed the Telephone, and carried it to her room. After a hurried search she found something calculated to illuminate the darkness. It was a letter headed, "A Serious Accusation," and the signature at the foot was that of Azalia Leigh.
Lydia's head grew singularly light for a moment She had a curious feeling of having been buried, and suddenly come to life again. Then she read as follows—
"It is some years since the pen fell from my wearied fingers, and I relinquished for ever, as I thought, my connection with the press and the publishers' bookshelves. Thousands of my former admirers deemed me dead, and I was content to leave them in that faith. I trusted to the gentle hand of time to heal their sorrow.
"A reviewer of note once said that my bitterest foe was myself. Up to three days ago I regarded that opinion as a wise one. But I have a bitterer enemy still, and that, I need hardly say, in the form of a once trusted and beloved friend.
"That friend was Lydia Lobb—that enemy is the same person. Putting her tinsel talent aside, all she has she owes to me. She was my favourite pupil; I guided her tottering footsteps until she was strong enough to run the primrose way alone. I linked her name to mine in many a literary production. She did but write from dictation, sir; I even corrected the spelling.
"And when the dogs turned upon me and hounded me from public life, as they have done with nobler animals before, my pupil was first in the yelling pack. This I expected; this caused me no concern. But that is not all.
"Shortly before I left England for all time, I finished a novel. I disposed of that novel. For years it has reposed with a certain publisher, whose conventional prejudice apparently did not rise superior to popular prudery, for it has never appeared—till lately.
"By the irony of fate, I find my story appearing as the work of my whilom friend. Even the title has not been changed. I accuse Lydia Lobb of stealing my story wholesale, by what means I do not know, and passing it off as her own.
"I say no more; I leave matters here. I sign my own name to this; of my address I make no secret. Let Miss Lobb accept my challenge if she dares; my proofs are ready. For the present, I pause for a reply.
For a little time Lydia was crushed. What was possible under the circumstances? But why not proceed to deny the letter in toto? Azalia Leigh could prove nothing. There was only the word of one woman against another, and the one an outcast, discredited.
Who was the publisher referred to in the letter? And would he remember the novel in question? Probably not, as he had not deemed it worthy of preservation. On the whole, Lydia decided that a bold denial of the accusation was the correct card to play.
She scribbled off a hasty letter to the editor of the Telephone, and despatched it at once, in the hope that it might appear in the next day's issue. Then she went carefully over her ground, until too utterly confused to think any more. The sanguine side of the human temperament flourishes best in the gaslight, the morning air being too chilly and bracing for so sensitive a plant; therefore daybreak saw no repetition of roseate dreams.
Lydia felt anxious and uneasy. Her letter had been printed without comment of any kind, but she could not rest with that. To wait was out of the question. Lydia would go and see what George Death thought of the matter.
At that very moment a telegram from Death was handed in. It contained a request that Miss Lobb would favour him with a call. Lydia suddenly realized that she had no wish to see Death, but she was literally forced to comply.
There was nothing reassuring in Death's unusual gravity. He motioned Lydia to a chair. Was it her legs, or those of the chair, that were so shaky?
"You have seen yesterday's Telephone, I presume?" Death asked.
"I might reply to your question with another, and ask if you have seen to-day's?" Lydia replied.
"Very well; we will take your side of the case first," said Death. "The accusation is a serious one. What do you intend to do?"
"What can I do, but deny the whole story? Azalia Leigh is utterly discreditable and discredited. She has chosen to attack me this way out of pure spite. You have only to consider the story in dispute, and come to the conclusion that it cannot be hers."
"Would not the same test of past works apply to yours?" Death replied.
"Well, it might," Lydia admitted. "But the story came from me. I have no proof but my own word, and Azalia Leigh no proof but hers."
"I have not come to that conclusion from her letter."
"You mean her letter to the Telephone?"
"No; I mean a private communication addressed to me, as editor of the New Chronicle. She said therein that the novel in question was disposed of to Mr. Binder, and that he did not choose to publish it, for certain obvious reasons. The novel was purchased absolutely, and there was an end of the matter so far as Miss Leigh is concerned. But, after seeing our summer number, she could not maintain silence any longer. Now, I am absolutely certain that Mr. Binder spoke the truth, because, with an eye to future contingencies, I purchased Miss Leigh's story from him. I looked for it yesterday, and it could not be found."
"That is very remarkable," Lydia stammered.
Death called up his tube, and his chief assistant shortly entered.
"You remember my giving you that story of Miss Leigh's?" the principal said. "Will you be good enough to tell me where you placed it?"
"In the safe there, of which I have a duplicate key," was the prompt reply. "The other safe is only opened by yourself, sir."
Death dismissed his assistant. His face grew more mask-like still.
"You heard what Mr. Dalziel said," he went on. "Now, I gave you all the manuscript in that safe to look through for me. I make no accusation at present. I simply say that Miss Leigh's story passed into your hands. Where is it?"
"I must have destroyed it," Lydia murmured.
"Strange, very strange indeed; ominous, I may say. Assuming for the moment that Miss Leigh is telling the truth, nobody but herself, with one exception, has seen the story—Mr. Binder taking it on the faith of the author's reputation."
"And this exception is, of course, unfortunately dead?" Lydia managed to say.
"On the contrary, he is fortunately very much alive," Death replied. "He is Mr. Binder's reader, and at my request he has read our summer number. Will you see what he says?"
Death passed a letter across to Lydia. It was short, but pregnant.
"Dear Sir (it ran),
"In response to your request, I have perused the story which composes your special issue of 14th July last, and in reply have no hesitation in saying that the story therein is identically the same as the one of Miss Leigh's recommended by me to Mr. Binder.
The silence which followed became uncomfortable at length.
"What do you require me to do?" Lydia almost whispered.
"Do I understand, then, that you admit the—er—misunderstanding?"
"Certainly; I have nothing further to say. The temptation was too much for me. I—I—thought Azalia was dead. I deemed it no great harm. The story was not yours, or so I thought, and you had good value for the money. Be merciful to me."
Death turned his face away for a moment. The pleading misery of the girl's face almost touched him; he felt contempt for the miserable part he was playing. After all, that vain little butterfly had been deliberately crushed by him. But for him, it might have fluttered out its giddy life, unscorned by other moths.
"I shall do nothing," he said at length. "You will go away and write a full confession, and you will send a cheque for the amount I paid you to the woman you have defrauded. I have finished."
Lydia caught Death's hand to her lips in a broken spasm of gratitude. He wrenched it away, as if the hot scarlet had scalded the flesh. Hard as he was, he was not quite devoid of feeling. He pointed sternly to the door.
"You owe me nothing," he said hoarsely. "God! if you only knew that—Go!"
Lydia crept away, broken; not ungrateful. But for Death's clemency, things had gone hard with her. He listened till her footsteps had died away. His face was bitter; there was a passionate look of self-scorn in his eyes.
He struck his hand upon the table, bruising the white flesh.
"What a creature, what a loathsome snake, I am!" he cried. "And yet I must earn money, or share a similar fate. I shall share a similar fate, or a worse one. Yet that woman regards me as a man who walks upright!"
IN the equipment of youth for the battle of life, sufficient care is seldom bestowed upon his religion. Considering the number of fancy brands in the market, it would be difficult to find a good excuse for this laxity. That of a Jew is perhaps the best for a mercantile aspirant, because it is capable of giving a man seven days' work in the week without arousing the distrust of his neighbours.
But if Judaism and finance go together, Nonconformity is equally good. It is impossible to build up colossal concerns like Glasgow Banks and Liberator Securities without a solid substratum of distinguished piety. Nothing in this country balances the weight of a ledger so well as a Family Bible.
In a similar way, Mr. Luke Prout had practised these valuable precepts. Left at an early age with a father's blessing, and a little cash dubiously obtained, he had pushed his way up until, at the age of fifty, he found himself a respected citizen, a borough magistrate, and chairman of the Licensing Committee of the Maryborough County Council, Maryborough being a county- borough in view of its prosperity and importance.
No man enjoyed a greater meed of respect than Luke Prout. He dwelt in High Street, immediately over the shop, and for five and twenty years no Sunday had seen him absent from his pew in the sacred edifice devoted to Evangelistic Calvinism in Maryborough. A tall man, with a bald, shining dome, intensely respectable nose of the large retroussé type, and the slack mouth of bourgeoisie, Prout naturally appealed to confidence.
A man of great mien, Luke was supposed to be comfortably endowed. At the same time, an application for £2000 trust-money, held for a distant relative, was causing him considerable anxiety just now.
It would mean a sacrifice, and sacrifices of that kind are not palatable. True, a sale of "bargains" at advanced prices might have produced the money; but the man who followed the dictum as to putting one's trust in princes was nothing like so squeamish where outside brokers were concerned.
A depression of the market had produced a somewhat similar sympathetic result upon the corners of Prout's mouth. Therefore, when an assistant entered the office with the information that a lady desired to see Mr. Prout, the latter gave the order for her admission gloomily enough.
The lady followed a neat, highly glazed card, on which the legend, "Mrs. Oscar Vereker," was inscribed in small Roman capitals. A dainty figure clad in sealskin stood before Luke Prout. That she was a shade made-up, even his worldly and slightly bilious eyes could see. The effect, on the whole, however, was pleasing enough, for the lady was young, and her hair was as the glory of the morning.
"I am sorry to disturb you, Mr. Prout," she said in the most seductive of tones, her smile warming the heavy heart of her vis-à-vis, "but I have been directed to come to you on a little matter of business regarding the premises next door."
Proud bowed. He was thawing a little, in spite of himself. Even a Puritan with seven children may not be insensible to womanly beauty.
"I desire to buy it under certain conditions," Mrs. Vereker explained.
Prout's interest increased. The premises next door were in the occupation of one Corcoran, a carpet dealer, who occasionally trembled so nearly on the verge of bankruptcy, that the United Evangelical Calvinists had given him more than one broad hint that he might find a more elastic religion elsewhere. Had Corcoran not been a magistrate and county councillor also, the fiat would have gone forth before.
"May I ask why you approach me on the subject?" Prout asked.
"Because I understand that you hold the mortgage," Mrs. Vereker said with engaging frankness. "I may be doing wrong in speaking so plainly, but I want the place for a concert and music-hall."
Prout gasped. A raging Valhalla next to his own house!
"A music-hall?" he stammered, "with drinking, and—Why, there is not such a thing in the town! Nothing of the kind exists here. My committee——"
"That is exactly why I want the premises," Mrs. Vereker smiled. "Your voice on the committee will turn the tide in my favour. When I heard you preach on Sunday evening, I said to myself, 'There is the man to assist me.' I have plenty of money, Mr. Prout, and I have set my heart upon providing your people here with rational amusement."
"It cannot possibly be done," Prout replied firmly.
"And I am prepared to give £18,000 for the premises."
Mrs. Vereker spoke as if she considered the matter already completed. In any case, would Mr. Prout consider the interview as confidential? she asked. Perhaps Mr. Prout would call upon her the same evening, and let her know further. She was at present lodging with Mrs. Brown, in the Homefield Road.
"A most estimable woman," said Prout, "and a member of our Church."
"Then you will come," Mrs. Vereker responded with a flashing smile. "There was a point or two in your sermon on Sunday night which—Good-bye."
Nothing should induce Prout to call on that woman, he told himself. The idea of a music-hall in Maryborough was horrible! Luke swelled with proud humility. How many men in his position would be able to resist such a temptation? There were several sons of Belial, both on the Bench and County Council, and the change of a vote or two would make all the difference. Corcoran was in low water, his property was mortgaged to Prout to its value already, and at the offer of a few hundred pounds would readily change hands. Mrs. Vereker was prepared to give——What a very easy way to a small fortune, and pay off that £2000, without any distressing sacrifice!
Filled with this virtuous pride, and fully convinced of his superiority to the great majority of his fellow men, Prout found himself by easy stages working his conscience and himself towards the residence of Mrs. Brown that same evening.
Not that he intended to call there. But £18,000 is a deal of money. Anyway, there was no harm in seeing Mrs. Brown, with a view to asking a few questions concerning her fascinating lodger. It might be all done in a few weeks, and that troublesome trust- money paid off without worry or annoyance.
It will come as no shock to the cynic to learn that half an hour later Luke Prout was sitting opposite Mrs. Vereker, a cigarette between his lips. There was another person present during the earlier part of the evening, a quiet person with a face like an ivory mask, who appeared to be Mrs. Vereker's secretary.
Prout enjoyed his cigarette in a carnal fashion. He subsequently partook of some sole à la Princesse, with a piquant sauce prepared by Mrs. Vereker's fair hands, and, to fill up the measure of his iniquity, crushed a cup of Mumm, a seductive liquid which in some vague way he identified with Anno Domini 1884. On the whole, the conclusion was forced upon Prout that there are suppers in the land of Belial which can compare favourably with bread-and-cheese and cider.
"And now, Mr. Prout," quoth the lady, what time Prout's eyes shone with a metallic glitter, and his legs were thrust out like those of an untrussed knight, "regarding the premises next to yours. I must have them; will you negotiate the transaction for me? You know my price. If you could buy the place yourself, and then transfer them to me, it would be better,"
"And your license?" Prout asked.
Mrs. Vereker's eyes twinkled as the diamonds on her fingers.
"I am prepared to risk that," she said. "Depend upon it, I shall bring a majority round to my way of thinking; and as to the conduct of the place——"
"It will leave nothing to be desired," Prout said thickly. "Recreation, my dear lady, within decent bounds, is good for all of us. Even my own girls are allowed to indulge at home in Terpsichore's gentle art, with the dining-room chairs for partners. Rest assured that I will do what I can with the committee."
By morning, Prout had reduced his conscience to a fitting docility. Like most of his fellows, he suffered from the form of spiritual indigestion that assimilates the succulent camel, whilst it rejects the crapulous gnat.
Early in the forenoon Prout dropped in upon Corcoran. The little man received his creditor with an uneasy smirk. A visit from Prout rarely meant pleasure. The man to whom you owe a large principal, to say nothing of a regular accumulation of interest, is not the companion the genial soul yearns for.
"Well, Peter," Prout commenced, "and how is business?"
Mr. Corcoran responded that it was very bad, adding as a rider, it could not possibly be worse. Prout looked gravely sympathetic.
"I'm sorry to hear it," he said, "and none the less so because I want money myself. I shall have to call up the mortgage, Peter. Why don't you sell the place, and start elsewhere on less expensive premises? I could do with this house myself, for a little speculation I have in my eye. Once for all, I'll give you £800 over, and close your mortgage and arrears, and say no more about it."
"It doesn't seem a lot," Corcoran murmured.
"It isn't so bad, when I could call the place my own in three months, and keep my eight hundred in my pocket," Prout said with unction.
"Well, perhaps not," Corcoran admitted; "still, many things happen in three months, and I've had my bit of luck this week. You haven't been a hard creditor to me, Mr. Prout, but business is business. I've been offered £6000 for the place this morning."
Prout's jaw dropped. Was it possible that——But, no.
"Is it for some immoral purpose, like singing, Peter?" Prout asked.
"Maybe it is," Corcoran said somewhat defiantly.
"But the Lord's people spoilt the Egyptians; and in any case they won't get a license, so my conscience is easy. Still, I'd rather sell the place to you, Mr. Prout."
"At £6000 do you mean, Peter?"
"No, at £8000, Mr. Prout. The sum you mention was the first offer, and I believe they will go higher, as they seem very keen. I had the hint from a graceless nephew of mine, who has gone on the stage, to the great grief of his mother whose sole support he is; and yet that lad might have got a pound a week in a Christian firm! Think it over, Mr. Prout. I am, to a certain extent, in your hands; and you may benefit by the transaction."
Further persuasion was useless; Corcoran fortified himself behind a rampart of texts, and forthwith Prout gave up the contest. It seemed to him that Providence was unkind. That Corcoran should have gleaned so much, was a distinct misfortune. It meant practically the loss of £4000 at one fell swoop.
And yet Prout had to decide one way or another in the course of the day. Unless he did so, the theatrical syndicate might slip in and offer Corcoran an enhanced price. And £10,000 on the transaction was a fair profit, even for these degenerate days.
Why had Corcoran preferred to sell to him? Probably, because a license would be one of the conditions of sale, and without Prout's support that would be out of the question. In this matter Corcoran had displayed more than his usual acumen. Was there something else concealed in the background? Mr. Prout gazed sadly at the motto, "Trust one another," suspended over his desk, and sighed.
If he did make the plunge and buy the place, nobody must know anything of the real reason till the last minute. There was Captain Hamley, for instance, deputy chairman of the Licensing Committee, who took a deliberate delight in thwarting him. He liked to take down one whom he dubbed a sanctimonious hypocrite. If Hamley, and one or two others, guessed his interest, they would reject the license out of pure contrariness.
That evening Peter Corcoran enjoyed the rare distinction of supping with his esteemed friend and neighbour. Before they parted, the transaction was completed; Prout to buy the property at the stipulated price, and Corcoran, like the astute Br'er Rabbit, to lie low for the present, and say nothing.
"I'll get Barker to draw up the contract in the morning," Prout said in conclusion. "There's no reason why the thing should be delayed longer."
The contract was duly drawn up and signed, the purchase to be completed in a month.
For the next day or two a London architect, accompanied by Mrs. Vereker's silent secretary, was extremely busy about Corcoran's premises.
Mrs. Vereker professed herself to be delighted. She had paid £20,000 into a local bank, the deposit-note for which Prout incidentally saw. He had an absent-minded way of turning over other people's papers, an affliction chastened by occasional practical results.
"The only thing we have to do now," Mrs. Vereker remarked, "is to assure the license. Hadn't we better make application to the committee, and deposit our plans before going any further?"
Prout smiled. The application was as good as granted. It would be carried by a majority of two—his own vote and Corcoran's. As yet Mrs. Vereker had signed no contract to purchase from Prout. The latter did not care to hurry this matter. When every difficulty was smoothed away, he looked forward to squeezing a little more out of his client, since he would be absolutely master of the situation.
All the same, the plans were prepared and deposited, and due notice given that on a certain day an application for a music and dancing license would be made, in connection with certain premises in High Street, Maryborough.
The Nonconformist conscience was aroused. Maryborough business people, proverbial for commercial acumen, thoroughly appreciated the value of an advertisement; and here was one for the display of a hard-wearing durable piety at serial rates. Every little bethel seethed and boiled, each conventicle echoed with denunciation.
Mr. Prout was foremost in the fray. It was impossible for so hard a spiritual rider to hang back from the first flight in this brilliant run without attracting attention. Besides, he had a deal at stake. To raise the capital necessary to carry out the scheme, he had had to borrow money on certain shares, and also to obtain an advance from his bank by means of a deposit of deeds.
He breathed a little easier when at length the purchase of Corcoran's premises was completed. Only a fortnight more, and the license would be granted. His vote would doubtless come as a surprise to Maryborough; but nobody would know that he had made anything by the transaction. He could easily account for his vote; he could suggest that the presence of an architectural Hades in Maryborough was intended to act as an example to the lewd who debauched on penny readings, and the like; he could preach broad-mindedness, and last of all, he could vote against the license, and save his soul alive next year.
It must be nice to have a mind like this.
Saturday before the fateful Monday, when the license was to be applied for, came round. The publicans and sinners on the committee made no mystery as to what they intended to do; noses had been counted, and the license would be rejected by two.
Upon Prout's sanguine reflections there intruded a deputation from the Evangelical Calvinists. They had a solemn request to make. In Prout's discourse upon the following evening, would he denounce this infamous attempt to corrupt the youth of Maryborough, led on by that depraved play-actress.
Mr. Prout gave the desired assurance. It had always been his endeavour to protect virtue, and to grasp the nettle vice boldly, though he did sometimes mistake tares for grain. On Sunday night the chapel was filled with an immense congregation, amongst which Prout was a little disconcerted to see Mrs. Vereker in propriá personá.
His effort was unquestionably a fine one; indeed, it could not have been otherwise, seeing that it was translated literally from the Scotch of the Reverend Angus McGruder, who had consumed a whole bottle of whisky over its composition. Some of the diatribes on the side-lights of drink in connection with dancing were, apparently, inspired.
The audience was much moved; tears were freely shed, and Mrs. Vereker, who was known to some of the audience by sight, buried her face in her handkerchief for the most part. She seemed to fully realize the extent of her own wickedness.
Most of the good people who went home that night regarded the new hall as doomed. But a further surprise awaited them the following day. Very little time was wasted by the committee in hearing the application made by a solicitor (who was chairman of the Local Veto Union), and opposed in a passionate speech by counsel from London (who had been mainly instrumental in floating the phenomenally successful Anatomy Theatre), then the committee retired to consider their verdict.
At the expiration of ten minutes they returned. The face of the chairman was that of a thundercloud. He was one of the elect.
"The application is granted," he said, "by seven votes to five. What motives my colleague, Mr. Corcoran, may have had in voting for the license may be transparent, but the public are certain to demand some explanation from Mr. Prout, in view of his very recent denunciation of the entire scheme."
Prout rose amidst a dead silence. He had voted for the license. Why? That was what the public was curious to hear
"I do oppose the whole scheme," he said, "and that is why I voted in its favour. To appreciate the evils of this kind of thing, it is necessary to see it rear its hydra head in our midst. Absence of danger renders us callous. The hand relaxes, and the eye loses its vigilance. My action to-day will strengthen our hands, we shall rally together as against a common foe. Vice will be beaten back, and virtue will smile triumphant. The waverers will rally to the flag, and fight like men. And if anything is further wanted at my hands, I am prepared to justify my action at another time, and in another place."
Prout sat down, and looked into his hat for a moment. Perhaps he was praying for power to soften the hearts of his enemies.
Naturally, he had his following. Every good man has. And Prout felt he had time on his hands now to strengthen his position. The community of Evangelical Calvinists were rent in twain; so glorious an opportunity for bitter internecine strife was by no means to be lost.
Within a week the split was complete; new premises were procured, and an entirely novel sect founded, under the title of "Selected Christians." Thus does the slang of the counter permeate the pulpit. England was the richer for yet another religion, and forty quarrels to the death waxed and grew fat.
Meanwhile Prout had seen nothing of the seductive Eve, who was the cause of all this strife in the select and bourgeois Eden of Maryborough. Not that it mattered very much, seeing that the deed was done. Mrs. Vereker was popularly supposed to be in London selecting a Star Company, and a wardrobe to match. Prout was in no great hurry; the further preparations were pushed, the more money he was likely to derive from the transfer of his new property.
But at the end of a fortnight Prout began to grow uneasy. The strife had settled down, and the interest upon his loan was running up. It was an easy matter to procure Mrs. Vereker's London address, and write her to the effect that all things were now ready.
By return of post came a reply that caused Prout's heart to sink, and his faith in the future to waver. The letter ran thus—
"Dear Mr. Prout,
"I have changed my mind respecting the Maryborough Music-hall. I am convinced now that the idea was a mistake from the beginning, and to this view I have been converted by yourself.
"Within the narrow limits of a letter I cannot express my feelings. Perhaps if you were to come and see me, I should be able to explain my change of views. In future the stage will find in me a deadly foe.
Prout quoted something sulphurous from his newly established vitriolic creed. He called for a Bradshaw, finding subsequently that a train would land him in London about six o'clock. By that time he arrived in Paddington, and proceeded at once to Marion Square, where Mrs. Vereker resided. Whilst waiting for that lady he had plenty of time to prepare his attack.
After a decent interval, Mrs. Vereker entered the drawing- room. Prout was immediately conscious of some subtle change, a soberness of attire, that warned him of the worst. The glittering jewels, the diaphanous drapery, were no more. In their place reigned sombre black, set off with white flowers. Mrs. Vereker conveyed the impression of one who is in mourning for some remote relative. She had recently buried her own frivolity, and as yet was barely accustomed to the bereavement suffered.
"So you have come, Mr. Prout," she said, in tones of gentle resignation.
"I could do little else," Prout replied. "What is the meaning of this nonsense, Mrs. Vereker? At great expense and trouble I procured those premises for you—the loss to myself is some thousands of pounds."
"Then why not sell them again, Mr. Prout?"
"Sell them? For mere business purposes they would not clear my mortgage. Unless you carry out your promise I am practically ruined; besides the money, I have dropped quite half my customers."
Mrs. Vereker sighed with deep sympathy. "I am quite helpless," she murmured, "and you are entirely to blame."
"I to blame? Why, I did everything that a man could."
"You did; you made me see the error of my ways. I regard that powerful sermon of yours as the turning-point of my career. I tried to shake off its effects in vain; I grappled with the spirit upon me helplessly. I could not continue my carnal career. In twenty-four hours my mind was made up. I renounced the stage, and everything connected therewith; to clinch the matter, I made a present of my ready money, £20,000 in all, to further the movement for the suppression of stage plays. Beyond a small annuity from my late husband, I have nothing, and yet I was never so happy before."
Prout stared helplessly at the speaker. The Madonna-like purity of her face, the rapt expression of her eyes, bewildered him. No brand plucked from the burning had ever so singed saintly fingers before.
"You certainly mean all this?" he gasped. "You are not playing some dodge?"
"Dodge, Mr. Prout?" Mrs. Vereker exclaimed. "How dare you insult me?"
"Insult be hanged!" yelled the victim. "You have deluded me with your confounded caprices, and now I am to be ruined as well. I'll have the law of you. I'll expose the whole transaction."
Mrs. Vereker laughed. Her gentle mirth brought Prout to his senses.
"You are not likely to gain much by that," the lady observed. "I am under no obligation to you, and an exposure of the whole transaction, as you call it, would scarcely redound to your credit. The sudden conversion from Sunday to Monday——Oh, Mr. Prout, let us be friends. I cannot bear to quarrel with one who has been the instrument of my conversion. It was your burning eloquence that first illuminated the new life for me. Do not quarrel because I have been so apt a pupil. Beware of the greed of gold, Mr. Prout; lay not up for yourself——"
"Are you going to carry out your contract, or not?"
Mrs. Vereker elevated her eyes with true Christian resignation.
"I cannot," she murmured; "I have placed it out of my power so to do. Still, hope is not entirely lost. There are other theatrical speculators——"
"To whom the license has not been granted. Do you suppose that, once having shown my hand, they will play into it again? Why, those in favour of such things would vote against me out of pure spite."
"Every good man has his enemies, Mr. Prout."
Over the rest of the scene it is well, perhaps, to draw a veil. It was impossible to make any impression on the lady; the evangelist and the worldling had changed places. Finally, Prout took his leave, after a fearful exhibition of feeling, calculated to cause another rift among the Selected Christians.
Scarcely had he departed with words culled from the Commination Service on his lips, before Death entered the room. He listened, apparently without interest or amusement, to a recital of what had transpired.
"An easy matter," he said. "There is a cheque for your fee, which you have well earned. It will be something to relate in part to your fellow Thespians in America on your return there. I am obliged to you."
"Don't mention it," Mrs. Vereker replied, with a vivacious change of tone; "only too pleased to oblige again at the same price. What will he do—eh?"
Death shrugged his shoulders. "Eventually, you mean? That is a class of stuff the professional martyr is made of. A fair gift of gushing sentiment, and a child-like personal confidence. Were I a speculator, I should not mind giving him £10 per week, and running him as a martyr. There is plenty of money in the business yet, and many fields besides politics. Prout will never want; rest assured of that."
Mrs. Vereker smiled as she placed the cheque in her purse.
THE origin of the Purple Fan is unknown. In remote ages it is believed to have monopolized the devotion of the greater portion of the Celestial Empire, to the detriment of a first chop Joss of amazing ugliness. The fan occupied an adjacent temple for many cycles, until, one day, it was discovered in a slightly damaged state on the floor, what time Joss was observed to smile benignly. Subsequently the fan fell into disuse as a deity, although never quite shorn of its healing virtues. It passed thence to the royal palace at Pekin, from whence it was stolen at the time of the war with China, and after many adventures, arrived in England.
By bequest the fan was subsequently left to the Honourable Herbert Cressingham, who gave it as a wedding present to Lady Capulet on her marriage. The two were over head and ears in love with one another, but Cressingham's poverty barred the way. Capulet was fairly rich, and verging upon seventy; his bride was beautiful, and eighteen. A roué and libertine from his youth up, it is no great stretch of fancy to imagine Capulet a jealous and exacting husband.
He cursed Cressingham in a gentlemanly way, and bade my lady return the fan without delay. What did that pauper fool mean by passing on so valuable a commodity, and thus setting people talking again? For Lord Capulet was Under-Secretary for Asia; he had made a study of that mysterious, but fascinating, continent, and he knew that Cressingham could have disposed of the fan to the Son of the Moon and Stars for a sum large enough to place him on a pecuniary level with a brewer, or financial journalist. Li Sing, the Chinese minister, would have given anything for the fan, or he would have stolen the same with equal celerity.
It is hardly necessary to state that Lady Capulet did not return the fan to Cressingham. In the first place, she shrunk from such an act of self-abasement; and, in the second, she was a woman and a lover of pretty things. As a work of artistic beauty, the fan was unique; its gold sticks and wonderful purple-painted brocade had no fellow. Therefore the fan was carefully placed away, after the lesson inculcated by Poe, in an oak chest in the library at Verona Castle, where nobody was ever likely to seek it. The fan might appear at Court yet what time Providence gave Lady Capulet an opportunity of wearing her weeds with pious resignation. For my lord was short of neck as of temper, and there is always hope when these two go together. When Isabel Montagu had sold herself into bondage, she had carefully taken her ticket-of-leave into consideration.
These, however, were minor vices. Lady Capulet had seen them all before at home, and, as everybody knows, the Montagu family was founded by Squire Western. The great grievance was as to my lord's real position. He posed as a rich man, whereas he was fearfully poor, and heavily in debt into the bargain. Politics and the Ministry he still stuck to, because the £2500 per annum derived from the Asiatic Office was a perfect godsend.
The estates Capulet had no power to encumber; but the furniture, and pictures, and plate, were all more or less in pawn, and there remained little but the library now on which to raise money. Most of the financial agencies knew something of Verona Castle.
For the present my lord was confined to the stately edifice in question by an attack of the gout, a distressing malady from which he periodically suffered—all the more unfortunately just now, since the Asiatic Office was about completing an important commercial treaty, which was quite at a standstill during Capulet's indisposition.
Dr. Herbert Lennox crossed the hall on his way to the morning- room, where his distinguished patient reclined, his right foot swathed in bandages. The elder Lennox, up to the time of his death, had been the Capulet family physician, and consequently their practice was an aristocratic one. Herbert Lennox was more or less a society man himself, which meant that, though a bachelor, he lived up to and beyond his income. The smart, well- groomed young doctor, with his easy manner and distinguished appearance, did not by any means look the struggling man he really was.
And yet, if possible, he was worse off than his noble patron. An execution upon his household goods loomed in the near future; but that was not the worst. The late senior in the firm had been greatly in request as family, friend and executor, and many of these trusts had devolved upon the younger man. And the application of trust-money to foreign purposes is apt to be attended with disastrous results. It is hardly necessary to say more. The time comes when the money has to be repaid, and in Lennox's case the time was exactly ten days. There could be but one possible ending.
Capulet greeted his medical adviser cordially enough, considering.
"I was bound to send for you, Lennox," he said. "You must patch me up some way. I've got a most important piece of work to transact next week in connection with the Asiatic Office; in fact, the ambassador, Li Sing, is coming down here on purpose."
"I dare say we shall manage it," Lennox smiled. "Rather singular that Li Sing is coming down here, isn't it? He'll be breaking open everything to try and find the Purple Fan."
Capulet grunted. Everybody was familiar with Cressingham's wedding present; but few knew that the same had presumedly been returned to the donor. Lennox was amongst the elect, the little domestic trouble over the gift being followed by a fit which had promised to carry Lord Capulet off, after which the doctor naturally learnt the truth. But that the fan was still in the castle nobody knew, with two exceptions.
"This worry does me a lot of harm," Capulet proceeded. "Unless you can make something like a man of me, Li Sing is certain to come off best. There's one of those money-lenders coming to-day as well. One must have money, Lennox, though what the deuce security I'm to give him, Heaven only knows. Perhaps Mr. Ralph Lawson is a financial philanthropist. I've heard of 'em, in books."
Lennox started slightly. Ralph Lawson and Co were a money- lending firm who had been doing a deal of advertising by circular. Their terms were easy, their desire being to benefit humanity at any trouble to themselves. The circulars had done their work. Lord Capulet had risen to the bait, and so, sub rosa, had his lady—dressmakers, even, require to be paid sometimes—and Lennox was in the net also. Mr. Lawson had written personally to him, saying that he would be at Verona Castle in a day or two, when he should have the pleasure of calling on Dr. Lennox.
On the doctor's appearing next day he found the castle the richer by two arrivals. The first was Li Sing, gorgeous in Oriental robes, and resplendent as to pigtail. His manner was open and amusing, also he displayed an amazing knowledge of English ways, and the tongue of the Saxon. There was a cunning twinkle in the eyes, however, and the smiling mouth betrayed lines of determination. He came now in the spirit of conciliation; he was equally agreed with Capulet on the need for the treaty, and on the whole, the visit promised to be an agreeable one.
Interesting as Li Sing undoubtedly was, Lennox deemed Mr. Ralph Lawson more so. The latter individual he found to be tall, immaculately, if quietly dressed, and having urbane manners in the minor key. His inscrutable face rarely smiled; his features seemed to be concealed behind a waxen mask. The reader has met Mr. Ralph Lawson before, it is hardly necessary to observe.
Lennox remained to luncheon, after which Capulet and Li Sing were left over their cigarettes and claret, only Li Sing drank tea, brewed by himself. As Lennox was about to take his departure, Ralph Lawson requested his company in the library. He found that most of the valuable books had been taken from the shelves, and were piled up in assorted heaps upon the floor.
"We can talk business here," Ralph Lawson suggested. "You will not mind my going on with my work whilst you make me au fait with your affairs. I am pressed for time."
"You are purchasing this library, then?" Lennox asked.
"Practically. There is nothing else here available, and some of the books are exceedingly valuable. There are no less than four Bibles which——But I am detaining you. Go on, please, whilst I separate the wheat from the chaff."
Lennox placed the best possible face on his own affairs. Lawson appeared to possess the faculty of listening and working at the same time. He had a bunch of keys, which he proceeded to fit to various chests and lockers, the contents of which he turned out upon the huge table in the centre of the room.
"I am sorry that I cannot assist you," he said in a voice which Lennox knew to be decisive, as he turned out a small oak desk. "But it would be merely throwing good money after bad. Still, there may be others of my profession."
Lennox was not listening. The sudden sickening sense of disappointment had given place for the nonce to another feeling. His eyes were riveted on the contents of the chest. There was a pile of photographs, a bundle or two of letters, and a plain chagreen case, marked with Chinese figures in gold. With trembling fingers, but with a fair assumption of carelessness, Lennox gently opened the box.
As he quite expected, it contained the Purple Pan.
He glanced hurriedly at Lawson. At the same moment the latter carelessly replaced the contents of the chest, without locking it, and hastened from the room. A little later he returned and snapped the lock to, but not before the Purple Pan, minus its case, had been transferred to the tail-pocket of Lennox's frock- coat.
After a commonplace remark or two, Lennox left the room and the castle. Lawson's first proceeding was to unlock the chest again and examine the chagreen case. He gave a smile of satisfaction at finding it empty.
"My information was quite correct, then," he murmured. "I felt sure the fellow would never be able to resist such a temptation as that, though I must admit I was lucky in finding the fan yesterday. But then, luck always does assist a man when engaged upon such devil's work as mine. My next step will depend upon the action Lennox takes. He must have money in a few days, and the inference is that he will try and sell his treasure to Li Sing. I can precipitate matters by showing this case and these letters to Lord Capulet, if necessity arises. Really, the coil promises to be so pretty that I must allow it to wind off a little further. There is nothing to lose by delay, and everything to be gained."
With which Lawson abandoned his dirty work for the hour. So far as was possible, he devoted his attention for the rest of the day to Li Sing. On the second evening this espionage suddenly ceased, and simultaneously Lawson announced to his host the completion of his examination of the library, and his desire to settle the financial question forthwith.
"I can see my way clear to find the sum your lordship requires," he said. "But there are one or two little things I should like you to examine, as it would be just as well to keep some of those old manuscripts in their original boxes. One of them contains what appear to be private papers. Will you kindly see to this, my lord?"
Capulet growled something. His gout had improved that day in a ratio adverse to his temper. And Li Sing, instead of remaining for his diplomatic chess when his opponent for the first time was up to the game, had rushed up to town for the day on business of a private nature. Still, as Lawson paid the piper, he called the tune, and Lord Capulet followed unwillingly to the library.
The fictitious money-lender cut no time to waste. In furtherance of his plan he placed before his host the chest containing the fan-case and the packet of letters and photos.
"I will return presently," he said. "Your lordship will probably be some time, and I have other business in this locality. I shall be back by dinner. To-morrow I can give you a cheque for the amount stipulated, and trouble you no further."
A few minutes after Lawson had left the Castle, the library bell rang violently. The Baron of Sheppey, bereft of his boots, was not more beside himself with consuming passion than he of Capulet. The footman was frightened.
"Send my lady here at once," Capulet cried hoarsely.
She came, white, statuesque, as usual. It was an oak rocking in a gale of wind over a field of frozen snow. There was nothing new to Lady Capulet in these unseemly exhibitions of passion. She was accustomed to curses; there was a hidden blue mark under her dress that told of something worse.
But she faltered now, and clutched at the back of a chair for support, as she saw the chest on the table. Her secret had been found out. Capulet had the fan, which he supposed had been returned to the donor, and worse still, he had the passioned letters, written from time to time by Cressingham to his lost love.
"I have found these," Capulet said in a hoarse whisper. "I have read them. You wretched woman! What have you done with the fan?"
"It is there," Lady Capulet said calmly.
It was the placidity of despair. She expected no quarter; asked for none. The letters were not those of guilt, despite their Sapphic glow. But in the jaundiced eye of jealousy they were confirmation strong as proof of Holy Writ. A jury would probably decide the worst; certainly they would have the opportunity of doing so. Lady Capulet had nothing left but her good name; it was hard to lose that.
She bent her head to the storm, listening. What had become of the fan? Li Sing must have found it. Had he done so, there would have been no hesitation on his part. He had stolen the long-lost treasure; by this time it was on its way to Pekin.
Suddenly the storm broke, and died away. The overtaxed machinery relaxed. Homeric wrath collapsed to senile gibbering as Lord Capulet lay on his back in the centre of the Turkey carpet, babbling of strange things. Plainly the Asiatic Secretary had had a fit of the worst possible kind. He smiled at his wife as they carried him away; asked her to go birds'-nesting with him on the morrow.
Lennox, summoned post-haste to the bedside of his distinguished patient, shook his head. Whilst there was life there was hope, he said. His lordship would require great care and attention, the relaxation of which might be fatal.
Li Sing, on hearing this verdict, expressed his regret and his vexation at the delay in a matter calculated to cover both his host and himself with glory. They must hope for the best, he told Lady Capulet politely after dinner, but for the present he was in the way, and would be far better employed in London.
Lady Capulet glanced at the smug face of the speaker. His boyish air, and the blandness of his almond eyes, did not deceive her.
"One thing before you go," she said. "What have you done with my Purple Fan?"
Li Sing's face did not lose anything of its placid expression.
"Stolen, in the first place," he observed as he peeled another peach, "from Pekin."
"And stolen in turn by you from Verona Castle, your excellency."
"Ah, there you are profoundly mistaken. You ask me where the fan is. A day or two ago it was here; now it is on its way to China, under a trusty escort. We view these things quite differently to what you do. I obtain that sacred object as I can; in fact, I was actuated by a desire to obtain it when I came here. We have known for a long time that the same was not returned, contrary to your husband's wishes, to Mr. Cressingham."
"But you have stolen it. Disgraceful!"
"Indeed, I did nothing of the kind," Li Sing said imperturbably. "I did not have the opportunity. Not that I should have hesitated. The thing was really ours; I may say it formed an integral part of the Celestial Empire. I should not have hesitated to kill you to obtain it; as it is, I can eat your peaches with an easy conscience."
"But your statement is tantamount to a confession of theft."
"My dear lady, in the Books of Confucius——"
Lady Capulet waved the easy philosophy aside impatiently.
"If you did not steal my fan, who was the thief?" she demanded.
"To obtain a thing surreptitiously, theft must be the first cause," Li Sing remarked. "Pity your logic is so fragmentary. Your fan was stolen, not by me, but by Dr. Lennox, who delivered the same into my hands for the sum of £5000, English money. I had to buy it from him, and the money has been paid."
Li Sing's air was one of truth. His expression was too refinedly cynical for falsehood. He had the manner of a man who bears with the wrong-headed ignorance of childhood, or angry illogical femininity.
A sequence of facts, known to Lady Capulet only, coloured the plain statement. Lennox's father had known the whole history of the ill-starred Cressingham's attachment and its sequel; and when Lady Capulet had lain at the point of death, during the brief gamut of her child's life, he had been her father confessor.
In case anything happened to her, it would have been the old family physician's lot to see that the contents of the oaken case were returned to Cressingham. But, with every desire to die, Lady Capulet had, as a natural consequence, lived, and there was no necessity. The elder Lennox must have made his son acquainted with this episode.
"I suppose it is a waste of time to be angry with you," she said.
Li Sing shrugged his shoulders, a gesture he had learnt in Paris.
"Quite," he replied. "We regard the matter from entirely different standpoints. To obtain that fan at any cost is practically part of my religion. Dulce et decorum est, etc. Only our patriotism does not take the same form as yours, and it is far less remunerative. At the risk of arousing your ridicule, let me tell you that the fan is a sacred object, which it is death to handle, save by the bonzes. Of necessity I had to handle it. And do you know what reward mine will be when I return to the Flowery Land?"
"Something unique in the way of a button, I presume," Lady Capulet said bitterly.
"Death," replied Li Sing, with a smile, "death, accompanied by horrible torture. Strange, is it not? But, then, our ideas are different. I merely tell you this to justify my conduct. Really, these are most delicious peaches."
Lady Capulet retired, baffled and defeated, and on the following day Li Sing departed also, with the hope that he might return in time, and find Lord Capulet so far recovered as to complete the pressing diplomatic business so rudely interrupted.
Her ladyship's parting with Li Sing was not unfriendly. After all, that gaud had brought her nothing but misery, and the envoy was only obeying his ingrained fatalism in obtaining possession of the same by any means in his power.
The whole thing was as nothing side by side with the fact that Lord Capulet possessed Cressingham's letters. Lady Capulet had searched for them in vain. Should her liege be restored to health, the certainty of divorce proceedings was absolute. And Lady Capulet shrunk from the contemplation of such a thing with all the horror of her proud pure nature.
Capulet must not recover! This conclusion forced itself upon her at last. She made no attempt to battle with the temptation. Why should he recover? Of what service was he? Nothing need be done; a negative policy, a little cold neglect, and she was free!
Why did he not die? was her constant question. There was only one thing for it. It was on the third day that she taxed Lennox with his fault.
"Do not deny it," she said. "Denial is useless. Acting upon secret information, you found and sold my fan to Li Sing. I have his word for it. I have seen the receipt for £5000 signed by you. 'Twas a mad thing to do."
"Desperate people do desperate things," Lennox muttered. "It was a matter of life and death to me, my lady. You are mistaken in one particular, however; though I did know the history of the Purple Fan, its hiding-place was betrayed to me by accident. There was my temptation and my opportunity. Under the same circumstances——"
"Enough of that. The thing is done. Did you see anything else when you took the fan?"
"Yes. A packet of letters, so far as I could judge."
"Mr. Cressingham's letters to me. Innocent as they were intended to be, they are capable of a terrible interpretation. My husband has them. Once my lord recovers his health, I am ruined. Need I speak any more plainly?"
"I am deeply sorry," Lennox commenced.
Lady Capulet gripped his arm with convulsive force. "It is no time for sorrow," she whispered; "it is a moment for action. I hold your future in the hollow of my hand; a word from me, and your ruin is absolute, complete. Listen to my terms—the price of my silence. My lord must not recover."
"Great Heavens! Do you mean to say——"
"Hush! Remember, I can crush you if I choose. Lord Capulet lies at death's door. Were he to die to-morrow there would be no surprise felt. You told me that the slightest neglect—Capulet must not live."
Lennox wiped the moisture from his palms. Lady Capulet was cold as ice.
"Lord Capulet's recovery is dubious," Lennox said. He made no further protest. Like a spent fish, he came quietly to the gaff. "The chances are against it. Neglect is not criminal, neither can it be regarded as manslaughter. You belong to the devoted order of wife who prefers to do her own nursing. Medical science can avail but little."
Lady Capulet bowed as her eyes met those of Lennox for a moment. There remained no more to be said; the understanding was perfect. When a man is like to die, is it murder to allow nature the career of her humour, or in humanity to refrain from medical experiment? In any case, the ethical point is an exceedingly nice one.
FOR some days Capulet lingered on in the same comatose state. He got neither better nor worse. The policy of Lennox was one of masterly inactivity. Meanwhile, the heads of the Asiatic Office grew impatient. If Capulet could be patched up so as to complete his negotiations with Li Sing, he could subsequently die decently in his bed; at any rate, it would be just as well for him to settle matters one way or another, and, if the worst came to the worst, make room for some one who would ensure finality of the Asiatic question.
So it came about on the eighth day that Lennox found himself in the library, confronted by no less a person than Sir James Fitzmayer, the eminent specialist. He had come down by desire of the Prime Minister, he said.
"This is no ordinary case, Mr. Lennox," he remarked. "When imperial interests are at stake, one's professional etiquette necessarily becomes elastic. At Lady Capulet's desire, I have seen your patient. May I ask what your treatment has been?"
"Nothing," Lennox stammered. "There is literally nothing to be done."
Sir James instantly launched into a learned dissertation upon nerve-paralysis and its concomitant evils. Had Mr. Lennox, for instance, thought of—or—? He had not. Sir James's manner became more hard and dry.
"It seems to me that you are disposed to allow Nature to anticipate you," he said. "I presume you are aware that the domestic relations existing between Lord and Lady Capulet are the theme of common gossip? And our press to-day is uncommonly outspoken. Lady Capulet is an extremely beautiful woman, Mr. Lennox."
Lennox replied nothing. This man seemed to see everything. The idea that another doctor might interfere had never been dreamt of.
"Perhaps I have been wrong," Lennox faltered at length.
"Well, we are all liable to err. You will be perhaps glad to share the responsibility with me for a few days. Will you kindly follow me upstairs with that case? Mind the table, my dear fellow; no more noise than is necessary, please."
Four days later, Lord Capulet was sitting up in bed, discussing certain papers with Li Sing, who had travelled from town on purpose. There was a wild glare in his eye, and a twitching of his fingers; otherwise he was perfectly sane.
"Keep my wife and that fellow Lennox away from me," he mumbled to Fitzmayer. "I haven't been so blind as they imagine. They were simply allowing me to die, by George! But I shall be even with them yet."
Sir James said nothing, but privately urged Li Sing to further despatch. By nightfall the business was absolutely completed. The next morning found Lord Capulet sitting up in bed with a handful of bed-feathers in his mouth, and in a mumbling childish treble, proclaiming the fact that he was the pelican of the wilderness, and not to be disturbed on any account, as he was about to lay an egg.
"Practically, the end has come," Sir James informed Lady Capulet, as he drew on his gloves previous to departure. "His lordship may live for some years yet, but he will never vary from his present condition. He is absolutely harmless."
Lady Capulet breathed more freely. With a sense of oppression lightened, she watched Sir James drive away in the direction of Lennox's house.
But Lennox was not at home; he could not face that interview. In a note he had left for the eminent specialist, he explained that he was going abroad—to America—for the benefit of his health, and that business in London, in connection with the sale of his practice, would prevent his seeing Sir James again.
"The least said—" Sir James muttered; "but I should like to get to the bottom of it."
THERE was another man equally curious—Lawson, otherwise Death. That the temptation of the fan had been too much for Lennox's honesty, he knew perfectly well. In all probability, Lady Capulet's threatened exposure had driven him to new pastures. On the whole, the financial guise had served Death well.
But, astute as he was, the truth never dawned upon him. That one crime is certain to lead to another, he did not take into account. Lord Capulet had his wife's lover's letters; but then the mad nobleman was incapable of using them, so no light on the subject could be expected from that quarter.
"A qualified success," Death summed up the affair finally, "and a tremendous amount of energy wasted in the breaking of a butterfly."
Wherein Death was absolutely wrong. To the ramifications of a crime, like the radiations from a stone dropped in a quiet pool, there are no ends.
THE editor of the Seeker regarded his visitor with polite interest bordering on admiration. Most men would have been conscious of a tincture of fear in their dominant emotion. For the stranger who walks coolly into one's sanctum and proceeds to reel off a detailed history of one's outer—and inner—life generally wants something.
"You will correct me if I am in any way mistaken," the intruder suggested.
Mr. Max Farre glanced at the stranger's card which lay on his table.
"You would make a good biographer, Mr. Death," he responded with a bland smile. "Your memory is superb, and you display an attention to minutiae which is remarkable. I am not prepared to deny a single statement made by you. But permit me to ask, why this keen, if flattering, interest in my welfare?"
"The usual reason. An equally keen interest in my own."
The editor and proprietor of the Seeker smiled. He looked more like a soldier of the empire than a mere journalist. His air was distinctly military; his white moustache bristled; his Vandyke beard disguised slightly the lines of an obstinate chin. The son of a Frenchman of family and distinction by an English mother, Max Farre favoured the consanguinity of his sire—a stormy petrel of politics from the death of the Corsican to the deposition of Louis Philippe. There had been no arrière pensée in the politics of Felix Farre; hence his exile and poverty.
By adoption and inclination his son was English. A scientist, a chemist, and a scholar, he had preferred to devote his earlier years to the furtherance of the cause. A strong poetic vein in his composition had driven him back on the seamy side of Party; the mysterious connection, the occult sign, the bowl and dagger business, had appealed strongly to the sentimental side of his nature. For some years the continental police had marked Max Farre as "dangerous" on the records.
Now, given education, and the calmer outlook of increasing years, and your young Shelley of the Dark Conclave is apt to become your mild Conservative, with strong views on the rotary crops question. In Farre's case, marriage had lured him to the safe, if prosaic, side of the Rubicon, and his first child and the Seeker were produced simultaneously. Everybody knows the Seeker—that glorified arbiter with a strong scientific bias, mildly liberal and duly didactic, as such literature always is. There is not much money in scientific research, but as a chemist the name of Farre enjoyed a continental reputation.
Hitherto the profits of the Seeker had sufficed to keep Max Farre and his family in comfort and luxury. It enabled him to reside in Cromwell Road, to entertain an extremely select circle, and to place his children before the world with liberal educations and many influential friends. On Farre's record no speck rested; he was the soul of honour, simple and unaffected, despite the vast range of his attainments.
Latterly, however, the scope and influence of the Seeker had somewhat diminished. That shining light of jackdaw journalism, the proprietor of the Muckrake, profiting by the immoral condition of the copyright laws, had produced Scientific Plums (twenty-four pages, profusely illustrated, one penny), a series of bold piracy from anywhere at the bare expense of the necessary cutlery, and success had crowned honest endeavour. Not to be outdone, the editor of Sneakings followed with another equally original journal, the Finder (also twenty-four pages, profusely illustrated, one penny), and from that day the Seeker gradually declined.
Farre found it hard work to keep before the world, and this at the very moment when it was absolutely imperative to do so. Another three years, and the necessity would not be so great. His children would be firmly established in the world, and then Farre would be in a position to accept an alluring lecturing offer in the States, and thus wipe off the burden of debt under which he was staggering along.
Death he did not fear in the slightest. He was too brave a man, too profound a philosopher, for that. And Death would have cleared away the bankruptcy which Farre dreaded more than anything under the sun. His life assurance policies would render that impossible, but the premiums payable upon a sum of £20,000 haunted him like a nightmare. He paid them as a man pays for heaven—with his heart's blood.
A wonderful man, an ideal man, Death thought as he sat there discoursing calmly. Presently he concluded his recital.
"You would not be in the least flattered," Farre smiled, "by my declaration that you are anything but an ordinary individual. There is certainly nothing of the blackmailer about you; and even if there were, I have little to fear. Will you kindly come to the point of this remarkable interview?"
"I was about to do so," Death replied. "You see how thoroughly conversant I am with your affairs. Now, you must have frequently noticed how the lives of two men, often utter strangers, are bound up together. Our lives are part of the same piece. Imprimis, you are a member of 'The Decree of '55.'"
Farre started slightly. Then he smiled again. "I must ask you to give me proof of that statement," he said.
"Naturally. Allow me to shake hands with you, thus. You note the grip? The passwords remain identically the same. On your left fore-arm are the figures '55.' On mine are the same. Like yourself, I am a member of the Decree."
"But I no longer hold with violent unconstitutional methods, Mr. Death."
"Which brings us to the crux of the question. Neither do I, and that is why I am here. It is many years now since you set the Decree at defiance."
"I will conceal nothing from you, for obvious reasons. In the year '67 I withdrew from the Decree, and refused any longer to consider myself under their instructions. There was a plot on foot to assassinate Napoleon III. Bah! the adventurer was certain to meet his deserts ere long. I was the chosen instrument. I preferred leaving matters to Providence. I was right."
"There was another little matter which has escaped your memory," Death remarked softly. "I know this, because I have recently refreshed my memory with the Decree records."
"You must be in the confidence of the leaders, then."
"I am, or rather, I was. A great deal of new blood has been imported lately, with the usual result. They are anxious to know why you should have been allowed to escape so lightly. Your life is in considerable danger, Mr. Farre."
"Is that really so?" Farre asked calmly.
"I am perfectly serious," Death replied. "We are comrades in misfortune, for I, too, am a rebel. I am perfectly aware that you are not afraid. But there is another matter. If you meet with a violent death at the hands of the Decree, your life-policies are forfeited."
"An important consideration. Upon what grounds, pray?"
"Well, bluntly speaking, fraud. Not intentionally, of course, but considering at the time you first insured you were actively connected with a dangerous secret society, the fact should have been disclosed. The legal point is a nice one."
For the first time Farre was visibly disturbed. Dishonour after death seemed to him coequal with the loss of a good name whilst living.
"There are certain means," he said presently, "certain death- dealing instruments capable of giving an appearance of decease by natural causes."
"Again I have to thank you for an opening," Death replied. "My information is to the effect that at one time you discovered a vehicle for the destruction of life which could not be traced. This vehicle you were commanded to surrender to the Decree. You refused to do anything of the kind."
"True, because a relation was to be removed by such means. Thank God, I realized the horror of my position in time. A wholesale murderer, a walking pestilence! Horrible!"
"You are still in a position to put your theory into practice?"
"Certainly; I could destroy a nation without fear of detection. Why?"
"Why? Don't you see that, such being the case, you are in a position to laugh at your foes? What this reinvigorated Decree makes up in determination it lacks in numbers. With the means at your command, it would be easy to discover the names of all the members. After that you could destroy them at your leisure—not that there would be any necessity after the first tragedy or two. Fear would render the rest powerless."
"Absurd!" Farre smiled. "I am not an avenging angel. To the point, sir."
"Quite so. Now, my life is in the same danger as yours, whilst I am not so nice in my means of defence. What my fault is matters nothing. If your discovery is what you claim for it, I am prepared to purchase the same from you."
"For the purpose of destroying the Decree? You offer me money to betray my oath, to become the instrument for the destruction of those misguided men?"
Death was silent for a moment. Such was exactly his intention. At a vast deal of risk, trouble, and expense, he had joined the Decree for that purpose. He had marked down Farre—a portion of whose past history had come to him by accident—as not the least noble of his quarries. Farre's financial position had been easily mastered. To bribe this man for the sake of his family and his honour, to say nothing of personal safety, was Death's main object of the moment.
Money had placed the Decree on its legs again; money had procured the peculiar class of desperado necessary to the success of the plot. After all these years Farre had been warned that Nemesis was upon him.
"What do you propose as to the extent of your bribe, Mr. Death? "Farre asked.
"I am not prepared to admit that I am offering you a bribe at all," Death replied. "I am a very rich man, and value my life accordingly. If your discovery is efficient, I am prepared to give you £20,000 for the same."
"To destroy my whilom colleagues and pay me for breaking my oath?"
"And to preserve you from dishonour, remember. Do not forget my point, re the insurance companies. I have had legal opinion on the matter. If, however, you think that no attempt will be made on your life——"
"On the contrary, I am sure that one will be."
"And the result may be the dishonour you dread."
"Perhaps," Farre said dryly. "Like the fox in the fable, I have many avenues."
There was a light lurid as of inspiration in the speaker's eyes.
"I am fain to confess that you puzzle me," Death murmured.
"Precisely my intention," said Farre, with a brilliant smile. "With the queen apparently in check, it is not well to betray your combination for saving your game. I have to thank you for an involuntary suggestion. A good swordsman always learns something from his opponent's rapier-play. I shall take time to consider your offer."
"And your invention? I should like to know something of its outline."
"You shall do more. I will explain the whole thing to you. Come this way."
Farre conducted his visitor from the editorial sanctum to a large room behind, fitted up as a laboratory and workshop, the key of which he always carried. Then he produced from a safe a curious-looking instrument, closely resembling the double ball and india-rubber tube peculiar to scent-sprays, only in the present case covered with something that seemed like fish- scales—in reality fine plates of tempered steel.
"There is my instrument," he said. "The only one made; the only one that ever will be made. This tube is calculated to resist a pressure that would astonish you. The nozzle or barrel is, as you see, exceedingly fine, the charge being inserted in this lower sphere by means of this sliding valve. A sharp pressure of the hand forces the projectile along to the second chamber, and thence along the nozzle."
"A tiny projectile, truly."
"On the contrary, as large as my clenched hand. Only, as the same is wrapped in a plastic envelope or tissue, it expands to its full size directly it is impelled from the nozzle. There is absolutely no noise at all."
"A strange toy, surely!" Death exclaimed. "But the wound?"
"There is no external wound at all—nothing but a slight bruise, which medical science would be powerless to trace, or even to account for. My projectile is compressed air encased in an elastic envelope no thicker than a soap-bubble. The impact would shatter this coating to nothing, leaving no trace behind. As far as any suspicion of foul means, why————"
Farre shrugged his shoulders. Each instrument was only capable of one shot at a time, he proceeded to explain, although the projectile might lie dormant in its case for weeks without any sensible diminution in power.
"And your means for compressing and enclosing the air?" Death asked.
"Is my secret," was the reply. "Turn that nozzle on to your victim through a button-hole, press the globe sharply, and you can destroy him in the street, in the theatre, anywhere, under scores of eyes. You are perfectly safe. Death is caused by violent inward eruption—what-not? A few days' talk, a medical correspondence, and silence."
Farre threw his instrument back into the safe again, and closed the door sharply. Then he proceeded somewhat pointedly to examine his watch.
"I will call again in a day or two, and hear your decision," Death remarked. "In the mean time, permit me to thank you for your kindness, and bid you good morning."
On the following day Max Farre received another warning from the Decree. Death was evidently losing no time in forcing the hand of his antagonist. Farre smiled strangely as he read the mysterious missive, which he proceeded to burn.
"The fools!" he muttered. "They little know they are playing into my hands. All that remains now is to ascertain when and where the meetings are held. I know the passwords, the sign and the knock I have not forgotten. De Reska will tell me. If my destroyer is to be chosen to-night, as they are kind enough to inform me, there is no reason why I should not be present, and ascertain who it is to be."
A little while after dinner the same evening Farre left his house in the most cheerful mood. Over his evening dress he wore a long overcoat; he smoked a cigarette with jaunty air. After a while he turned into a shabby side street, where he slackened his pace and proceeded to count the houses carefully. Presently at one of them he knocked.
The door was immediately opened as if by secret means, and Farre found himself in inky darkness. Out of the chaotic mist a voice addressed him.
"Will the light never come?" the voice said.
"Patience and candour will bring light as well as liberty," Farre replied.
Immediately something fell at his feet. Apparently Farre knew what to do, for he took up the object, which turned out to be a mask, and placed it carefully over his features. After a short interval the gas flared up, and the new-corner strolled along a passage until he came to a large apartment filled with people masked like himself. Amongst them were one or two women as well.
Presently they gathered round a long table and drew lots for a chairman; the choice falling upon a thick-set individual, who spoke in indifferent, guttural English. The routine business of the company was quickly transacted; then Farre pricked up his ears as he heard his own name mentioned.
He was not kept long in suspense; he was denounced as a traitor, who too long had been allowed to remain in rebellion against the Decree. The only business remaining was to draw lots as to who should remove the miscreant.
As the business proceeded in solemn silence, Farre looked keenly around him. The assassin would draw a marked card, all the rest being blanks, so that he alone should know the secret as to who had been chosen for the desirable deed. Presently Farre noticed a man on his left give a quick start with a sudden indrawing of his breath, and then as rapidly resume his self- control. Beneath the mask the square resolute chin lay exposed, and Farre smiled; evidently the chosen one would carry out his task to the letter.
Then the conspirators broke up into little groups, which dwindled away one by one. Farre lingered until the individual he had marked out made for the door; then followed him. It was a difficult and dangerous business, but it was successfully accomplished at length, the quarry being tracked down to a small house in Bloomsbury Crescent, into which he proceeded to admit himself with a latch-key.
"Good!" Farre muttered. "I shall recognize that mouth and chin anywhere, and I can easily find out who my friend is in the morning. It seems to me that I can relieve him of a vast amount of responsibility. No man likes to incur the risk of being hanged, however deluded a patriot he may be. I can save him and myself at the same time."
Before the bloom of the following day had faded, Farre had succeeded in his endeavour. The apparently lawless occupant of No. 7, Bloomsbury Crescent, was a young German, Erenthal by name, who followed the precarious occupation of teacher of languages. He was comparatively a new-corner in England, and bore an excellent character, albeit his rent was not paid with the regularity his landlady could wish. He had most of his meals out, and avoided all contact with the other boarders.
All of which Farre learnt with a smile. The rest of the afternoon he spent in his office, destroying a vast quantity of private papers. When this had been accomplished to his satisfaction, he cleared the desk, and drew paper and ink towards him. After putting down the date, he wrote as a heading, "My Friend," and then paused in deep thought; at the same moment a messenger came up with Death's card.
With a gesture of impatience, Farre directed that his visitor should be shown up. He came quiet and imperturbable as ever.
"Need I state my errand?" he asked by way of greeting.
"Perhaps it is hardly necessary," Farre replied. "You want to know whether I am prepared to betray my old comrades for a certain sum of money? No."
"You have carefully considered your reply? You quite understand that you would merely be acting in self-defence in so doing?"
"Certainly. But I will not violate my oath, least of all for money, Mr. Death."
"Your scruples are honourable," Death replied. "Your destruction otherwise is certain. And if the insurance people fight your claims——"
"They will do nothing of the kind," Farre interrupted with a quiet smile. "In any case, it would be a vast injustice after receiving my money all these years. But they will not refuse. You must get out of the impasse as best you can, Mr. Death; it is certain you will have no assistance at my hands."
Death retired, feeling baffled. Not that he owned to defeat yet. That Farre contemplated some tour de force he felt certain. No scheme of Death's had failed yet, but, on the other hand, he had not set himself to cope with so brilliant an intellect before.
Meanwhile Farre finished the letter addressed to "My Friend"—a somewhat lengthy communication, which he placed in a box together with something of scientific appearance, and despatched the whole by messenger to the address written on the same.
TWO nights later a considerable number of people were supping at the Oriental Restaurant. The place presented a brilliant spectacle, with its men and women in the full panoply of evening dress under the glare of the electric light. The tables were mostly filled, there being but one empty seat at a certain corner nook occupied by two men, evidently strangers to each other. One of them wore a white chrysanthemum in his button- hole.
Presently another man strolled in, and, glancing carelessly around him, made his way to the vacant seat opposite to that occupied by the wearer of the chrysanthemum. He recognized one or two of the other guests there with an easy smile. Most of the flâneurs knew Max Farre by sight and reputation.
He ordered oysters and Chablis, chatting briskly to his fellow-feeders the while. A mot trembled on his lips, when suddenly he fell forward on the table without a groan. A moment later and the whole place was in a ferment. A doctor hastily summoned from an adjoining table hurried forward, only to pronounce that life was extinct.
"The poor fellow is quite dead," he said. "So far as one can judge, the cause is the bursting of a small blood-vessel on the brain. There is an indentation of the frontal bone that suggests a severe blow quite recently. Do you gentlemen know him?"
"He is an absolute stranger to me," replied the man with the chrysanthemum.
The papers were full of the strange affair next day.
The post mortem disclosed a rupture of a blood-vessel on the brain, no doubt caused by a blow, though how and when the blow was administered there was no evidence to show.
The inquest of the two chief witnesses was brief enough. Mr. Galby, a stockbroker, could say nothing save that he supped at the same table as deceased; and the same remark applied to the man with the chrysanthemum, who gave his name as Carl Erenthal, of No. 7, Bloomsbury Crescent, teacher of languages. A verdict of the usual kind was returned. The leading papers devoted a column to the brilliant editor of the Seeker, and the incident was forgotten in the passing of a day.
One man remained unsatisfied, however, and that man was Death. How had the thing been managed? Beyond question Farre had perished by means of his own diabolical invention, which must have been supplied to one of his fellow supper companions by himself. Mr. Galby, the florid and prosperous stockbroker, was out of the question. Who, then, was Carl Erenthal?
Death set himself to find out. With the means at his command, this was no difficult matter. Erenthal was a member of the Decree; he was present on the night when lots were drawn as to who should remove Max Farre. The power of gold over the scruples of the patriot is in the same ratio as its influence over more mundane subjects.
It was nearly a week later before Death called upon Erenthal at his rooms. He was prepared to take for granted that the latter was Farre's murderer. Personally he had no fear, and his declaration to Farre that his life was in danger was a mere façon de parler. He was not so sure even now that his plot had failed; after all, he may not have let loose the bloodhounds and attacked Farre's honour in vain.
Erenthal received him sulkily, and with some suspicion of manner.
"What do you want with me?" he demanded.
"A trifle," Death replied. "If I mistake not, you are a member of the Decree, and your number is 175. If you make another suspicious movement like that, I shall be compelled to shoot you through my coat-pocket. I am a member myself, if it will ease your mind to know it. How did you murder Mr. Max Farre?"
"I had nothing to do with it," Erenthal said doggedly.
"Oh yes, you had. You carried in your pocket a pneumatic tube, charged with compressed air and covered with metal scales. The nozzle of this thing was trained through the flower you were wearing on that night, and by its means Farre died. Are you going to confess to me, or shall I call in the police?"
"He was a traitor, and he had to die," Erenthal said sullenly.
"Don't be a fool," Death retorted. "I have not the slightest intention of doing you any harm if you will only tell me the truth; otherwise the police will compel you to speak. And you would rather be a living Anarchist than a dead hero, or you would not have been so eager to avail yourself of absolutely safe methods. Tell me everything, and you are safe."
Erenthal rose after a pause, and produced a letter from a desk.
"Read that," he muttered; "it will tell you everything. As to the instrument, you will not be surprised to hear that I destroyed it days ago."
Death proceeded to read as follows:—
"It becomes necessary that you should act as the instrument for my destruction. This I have ascertained beyond the shadow of a doubt.
"I make no protest, I say nothing; I do not attempt to ward off the inevitable. But since I must die, I ask to be allowed to perish in my own way, having no fear in my mind that this letter will ever be betrayed to any one. Am I not right, dear friend?
"For friend you are, did you but know the facts of the case. I am content to die by your hand, but in my own way. Herewith I send you one of those means of destroying life secretly, which the Decree has been trying to coerce me to part with for years. Attached to the same, you will find the most minute instructions for its use.
"On Friday night I propose to sup at the Oriental, the hour ten to the moment. If possible, keep a seat opposite yourself for me. Wear in your button-hole a white chrysanthemum. The flower will be useful for two reasons—identification, and something more important; the latter you will find set out in the instructions for using the machine. I shall order oysters for supper. When I have taken the seventh, I shall lean across to you, and then—well, if your nerve is steady, the rest remains with you.
Death slowly tore the letter into minute fragments.
"The explanation is entirely satisfactory," he said, "as explanations are when they run parallel with one's own theories. There is absolutely nothing more to be said. Rest assured that we are never likely to see one another again."
"Ja wohl," responded the German, phlegmatically.
Death retired, cogitating deeply. After all, he had not failed. Reduced to its first proportions, the thing resolved itself into deliberate suicide on Farre's part. He had not fallen into the trap that Death had set for him; but, in avoiding that, he had quietly, and with his eyes open, stepped into the gulf.
He had been a party to his own murder—a murder committed in such a way that Farre had saved his reputation, and died in the possession of a sum large enough to satisfy his creditors and leave a handsome balance. Under the circumstances, the insurance companies would not dream of disputing their indebtedness.
"And I shall say nothing," Death muttered to himself. "Peace to his ashes! He was a brave man, and one after my own heart."
DEATH listened quietly as his companion chatted on. They were seated alone in a first-class smoking-carriage on the three o'clock express from Paddington. Death's appearance was indicative of holiday mood; he wore a suit of grey, with knickerbockers, and his hat was garlanded with flies. Outside, 'twas sweet June weather.
His companion had the air of one who has travelled. His pleasant features were bronzed, his frank speech was veined with strange colloquies. He looked like a trusty companion, a fair friend. As a matter-of-fact, Digby Collingwood was an unadulterated rascal, a fact perfectly well known to his fellow- passenger.
"Strange that we should run together like this, you knowing something of my friends," said Collingwood; "especially as you are going to stay at Marlwood."
Death nodded gravely. So far as he was concerned, there was no occasion for wonder, seeing that he had deliberately marked Collingwood down for some time, and had spent both trouble and money learning his history.
"I shall be pleased to call upon the Miss Leytons," Death replied; "I should much like to see the household of the ladies who write so charmingly. My aunt, the late Sophia Risdon, was a school-fellow of theirs, I understand."
"You mean the authoress of 'A Dual Life'? My dear fellow, my old friends rave about her. It was she who directed their feet into the paths of literature years ago; until Miss Risdon's larger talents sought a wider field, in fact. As a relative of that distinguished writer, you will find a hearty welcome at Rock Cottage."
"The sisters are no relation of yours, I understand?"
"Distantly—very distantly connected," Collingwood responded carelessly. "I am always certain of a welcome there after my wanderings. I have been home from Chili two months without seeing them, and a pretty lecture I shall get."
Death smiled, and changed the subject. Collingwood had been less easy in his mind had he known how much Death knew of his reasons for visiting Marlwood. Presently the train reached Stroud, and here the two passengers alighted. There was no conveyance to take Collingwood to Marlwood, a distance of ten miles, therefore Death volunteered a seat in his dogcart, waiting by appointment to carry him to Manor Farm, his headquarters for a few days' trout-fishing.
"Well, good-bye for the present," Collingwood remarked. "We are only a mile further along. Any one will show you the way. You'll call in a day or two."
"I shall certainly do myself that pleasure," Death responded gravely.
For two days he fished with fair success. He took his meals in the panelled farmhouse parlour. Ten o'clock found him between sheets of homespun linen, lavender-scented. He had tracked the snake to the paradise; his plans were matured.
For puppets, Death had two maiden ladies of good family, of high attainments and spotless reputation; and, on the other hand, a shameless scoundrel, who, in the guise of a friend, was trading upon a family secret.
Death knew the record well enough. It had cost a good deal of money and some time, but now the coils of the spring lay in the hollow of his hand. And Sophia Risdon, the late talented authoress of "A Dual Life," was no myth, albeit she was no relative of Death's. It mattered little; he could trade upon her reputation. He knew everything; he knew how the estimable sisters lived upon the proceeds of their pen; he knew how their little patrimony, hundred by hundred, had gone into Collingwood's pocket; he knew how the latter would ruin them eventually.
And their earnings were little enough, in all conscience. They had the entrée to more than one sixpenny magazine of repute, like the Sunday Morning and the Golden Hour, published by a pious corporation paying twenty per cent., and remunerating struggling authors at the rate of two shillings a page, in the name of God and pure literature. There were occasional novelettes, halfpenny erotics, written by one sister or another, with shame in the secrecy of the closet; but life lay that way. And most of this hard-earned money found its way into Collingwood's pocket.
Three days passed before Death called at Rock Cottage. He passed up the neatly gravelled path, between rows of standard roses, finding himself at length in a sweet-scented drawing-room, furnished in a bygone fashion. Yet there was no mistaking the place for anything but the abode of ladies; a pleasant hush dwelt there; the place was scrupulously clean. The Leytons kept no servant.
Presently they came in together; two gentle-faced old ladies, with lace caps on their snowy little curls, and red bloom a- cheek, like the blushing sunward side of their famous Ribstone apples, which they marketed so carefully in due season.
They were dressed precisely alike, in thick silk cord, overhung with black lace; they had large lace collars and mittens. A family portrait or two hung on the walls, for the Leytons had been persons of importance in bygone days. Despite their pretty timidity, it occurred to Death that one of them, at least, could show the old wild blood still, should occasion arise.
Miss Delia came forward first, and swept a stately curtsey. Then she presented her younger sister Dorothy in due form.
"We are glad indeed to see you," said the elder in a thin, but not unpleasant voice. "My sister and I have been anticipating this visit with pleasure."
"Mr. Collingwood assured me of a welcome," Death smiled.
Looking swiftly up, he saw the shadow fall on the two faces opposite at the mention of Collingwood's name. Miss Dorothy sighed; Miss Delia clenched her hands. There was resolution in her eyes, and a desire; a longing for opportunity.
The conversation naturally gravitated to the late Miss Risdon. The belief of the two sisters in their late friend was something touching.
"She taught us all she knew," Miss Delia remarked. "She put us in the way of supplementing our little inheritance by writing. But we never had her fibre, her dramatic power. She was the pioneer of the present strong school of fiction."
They plied Death with questions, some of which he turned adroitly. But for all this he had been prepared; and concerning many things in the history of Miss Risdon he could speak freely, having been coached for the part.
He was somewhat relieved presently, by the announcement of tea. Miss Dorothy had slipped away, on hospitable thoughts intent, and presently returned with the information that the cheerful cup was ready.
"We keep no servant," Miss Delia explained. "They are so troublesome. Mr. Death, you will be good enough to take a dish of tea with us?"
Death responded with alacrity. He found himself seated presently at a round oak table, covered with a fair white cloth. There were cups and saucers of old Chelsea; the teapot was silver, of an early George pattern; the worn spoons were Apostles. There was thin bread-and-butter and dainty cakes; honey fresh from the fragrant sweet-peas of the cottage garden, and preserves of apricots culled from the same south wall. Altogether, Death seemed to have gone back a generation.
The meal proceeded cheerfully till Collingwood entered. His presence was like that of a cold wind blowing over a bed of flowers. He brought in with him a drifting atmosphere of tobacco, which seemed foreign and offensive there. In his hand he carried a huge Navy revolver, which he deposited on the high mantel.
"Been keeping my eye in with the dickey birds," he explained breezily. "Aunt, do you suppose Mr. Death would be offended if I asked for something a little stronger than tea? Habit, you know, is second nature."
Just for an instant a change crossed Miss Delia's face. Jeanne d'Arc might have looked like that as she donned her armour. Another instant, and the lurid light faded. There are volcanoes nearer than Etna or Hecla, if we only knew it.
From an old-fashioned secrétaire Collingwood produced brandy in a cut-glass vessel. The liquor was old, for it diffused a scent like peaches. Then, as the wanderer's tongue was loosened, he began to speak of many things and lands.
He was a wolf—a handsome one, mayhap—amongst the sheep. His air was a trifle swaggering; his assumption that of a master there. Death's insight enabled him to see the fascination and terror exercised by Collingwood.
"How long are you going to stay in England this time?" he asked.
It was evident at once that neither of the ladies had dared to ask the question. They hung upon the reply with a flattering interest.
"It all depends," Collingwood responded carelessly. "I'm a consistently unfortunate beggar, and my speculations go awry with undeviating regularity. My good friends, here, are always glad of my company, and sometimes they are pleased to participate in my ventures. I try to dissuade them, but they have always faith, and this time I hope——"
"Dorothy, you are bending your teaspoon," Miss Delia said sharply. "Mr. Death, you were saying something just now respecting your distinguished relative's unpublished manuscripts. Is there any chance of the world seeing them? We lost sight of our kind friend for so many years before her death, that we know nothing of her latter occupations."
"There was very little left," Death replied. "Miss Risdon was in the habit of finishing one story at a time. There is something of hers at my rooms in London, carefully sealed, which I have never seen. Proof-sheets I understand them to be. But the magazine died a sudden death, and the tale was never published."
"And you have never seen the story," Miss Dorothy said reproachfully.
"I plead guilty to the charge," Death smiled. "In fact, the matter had entirely escaped my memory till this moment. Will you allow me to make you a present of the packet? The contents may be useful to you; perhaps you can construct a story out of them. I will send for them with pleasure."
The two ladies professed to be delighted. Anything from the pen of their dear friend and guide would be treasured by them. But as to making use of the story, why, such a thing was out of the question.
"Delia shall see it first," said the younger lady. "Sophia was her friend. And perhaps she will let me have a peep at the treasure afterwards. That is the way we read our good books, you understand. One of us peruses the volume carefully, without mentioning it till the other has digested it also. Then we compare notes."
Death departed at length, with a promise to send for the precious proof-sheets, Collingwood accompanying him part of the way. The latter discoursed fluently in his very fascinating manner; his gaiety was boisterous; with his revolver he took pot- shots at such birds and small game as crossed his path during the journey.
Death shook him off presently, and continued his way alone. The people at the Manor Farm were early in their habits, and by ten o'clock Death had the house practically to himself. He heard his host go slowly to bed, and a door bang sullenly behind him. Then Death lit a cigar from a wax candle standing on the table beside him.
From a desk he produced some sheets of paper, printed in indifferent ink upon poor material. Plenty of the same quality can be found in magazines of fifty years ago. There were twelve quarto pages altogether, fastened with wafers at the corner, and forming a rough galley proof of a short story. The margins were marked with corrections in a faint feminine hand. Under a strong glass Death examined every page carefully.
"They seem to be perfect," he said, after a close scrutiny, "and are certainly calculated to deceive an expert. But one never can be too careful in such matters. Lenay has executed his forgery very carefully indeed."
The proof pages purported to be the last story ever written by the late Amelia Risdon. The story was a strange one, with an ingenious plot. As a matter of fact, the whole thing had emanated from Death's busy brain. The main idea had suggested itself to him after the issue of the "White Chrysanthemum" experiment. The ground plan was somewhat the same, its natural advantages obvious. Altogether, Death had hit upon an extraordinary idea—a desperate way of clearing Collingwood from the field. And by means of these proof-sheets, the suggestion, ergo the temptation, would be placed in Miss Leyton's way. The inspiration must come as a voice from the dead; of it the living must know nothing. Afterwards the story could be destroyed, and then——"
A woman is capable of much in defence of her child or her home. That there were latent possibilities in Delia Leyton, Death felt certain. And ere long the beloved home would have to go, unless Collingwood's power was scotched. For the present he traded upon her secret; he extorted money by means of the same. What the secret was, Death could only conjecture. Every house has its skeleton, and in any case it has nothing to do with the story. The snake was eating the rabbit, and the rabbit was powerless. Death's intention was to furnish the latter with fangs necessary to strike for life and freedom.
Death took from his desk a faded sheet of paper, and folding it in the shape of a rude envelope, enclosed his proof-sheets therein. Round this he proceeded to fasten a length of blue rep, securing the whole with a light-coloured wax, which he impressed with an unmounted seal. Then he locked the whole carefully away and went to bed.
The afternoon of the second day he walked over to Rock Cottage, and delivered his packet. As the house at first appeared to be deserted, he entered the open door. Before the dining-room table stood Collingwood in an attitude of easy defiance. Miss Leyton sat there, pale and trembling, a pile of sovereigns clinking in her shaky hand.
"Take them," she said, "take them. It is all the same to you. They are nearly the last. What that money means to us, Heaven only knows. Better ruin————"
Death allowed his stick to clatter on the floor. Collingwood came out breezily, and clinking something in his pocket; Miss Leyton following more slowly. She sought Death's face, but could glean nothing from its mask-like expression.
"I merely looked in as I was passing," he said. "No, I cannot stay. I have the story with me that I promised you. It is absolutely yours, to be dealt with as you please. Apparently it was considered valuable, seeing how carefully it is sealed. Perhaps that is why I never felt inclined to lay sacrilegious hands upon it. Your sister is well, I trust?"
Miss Leyton had quite recovered her self-possession by this time.
"I have to thank you," she said earnestly, "for what will be a great treat. I shall have this evening all to myself to read the story in; for my sister has gone into Stroud to see some friends, and I do not expect her to return until the day after to- morrow."
"You will have a stalwart protector in Mr. Collingwood."
"Mr. Collingwood will stay with me, of course," Miss Leyton replied.
The individual alluded to laughed boisterously. Evidently his equanimity was not in the least disturbed. After a little further conversation Death passed on his way.
"She will do it," he murmured to himself, as he reached the solitude of the fields. "She has the courage of race, and, what is better still, the courage of despair. The opportunity presented is unique; she only requires the suggestion contained in my story. Her imagination will be fired, and————"
DEATH strolled back from the river, his feet drenched with the early morning dew, his basket heavy with speckled trout. His appetite was keen for breakfast; he had forgotten his errand to Marlwood for the nonce. It was two days later than his last visit to Rock Cottage, and nothing had happened in the mean time.
An excited group were causing the kitchen rafters to ring as Death entered the homestead. Despite the excitement, the farm servants appeared to be pale and somewhat frightened. As Death came in, his host entered by an opposite door.
"What has happened, Mr. Turner?" Death demanded.
"Matter enough for that, sir," Turner replied eagerly, and with a natural desire to be first with tidings, good or ill. "I couldn't have believed it, sir, and him so cheerful, sir."
"Well, what has he done?" Death asked impatiently.
"Blown his brains out, sir. Committed suicide, Mr. Death. I was passing Miss Leyton's house an hour ago, and she called me in. A good job there was somebody about, because the ladies don't keep a maid, and that poor soul, who had just come down, was all alone with the corpse. He just lay back in her chair, sir, like one asleep, with a hole in his forehead, and that big revolver he was always popping about with on the table by his side."
Death's eyes flashed just for an instant.
"You are alluding to Mr. Collingwood?" he asked.
"Nobody else, sir," Turner replied. "Poor dear gentleman! the last man in the world you would have expected anything of the kind from. And premeditated, too."
"Was there any evidence to show that?"
"A letter, sir, written just before the thing was done, scribbled on a half-sheet of paper, and addressed to Miss Leyton. I saw it myself lying on the table, with the pen and ink alongside. A failure in some enterprise, so the letter said. There was an allusion to some £20 besides, but I was too dazed to take any note of that."
"You left some one with Miss Leyton, of course?"
"Just as if I should think of coming away without!" Turner remonstrated. "I left Mrs. Lane there, and the policeman, and I sent into Stroud for the chief. I expect there will be an inquest this afternoon, and then we shall know more."
It was two hours later before Death presented himself at Rock Cottage. He found Miss Leyton calm, but ghastly pale, and quite ready to converse with him.
"My sister has returned," she said, "but does not feel equal to coming down. The inquest is at five. I shall be glad when it is over."
"Mr. Collingwood was related to you, I believe?" Death asked.
"Very distantly; in fact, he had no relatives besides ourselves. I left him up last night when I went to bed. He had been drinking lately more than was good for any man."
"He was not particularly well off for money?"
"On the contrary; only two days ago he borrowed £20 from me."
Evidently there was very little to be gained from Miss Leyton. There was a new hardness and reserve about her, quite foreign to her usual manner. During the inquest she gave her answers clearly enough, and was complimented by the coroner.
"This letter to you is in the handwriting of the deceased?" the official asked.
"It is," the witness replied. "It would be as well to read it, perhaps."
Amidst a breathless silence, the coroner read as follows—
"My Dear Aunt,
"This is the last time I shall ever address you; by the time you read these lines I shall have solved the great mystery. What may appear to you to be a rash step has been taken after long and painful deliberation.
"I am going to destroy myself; my life is a burden to myself, and to my only friends—yourselves. Why should I accept your money and the cheery hospitality you can so ill afford, when all my schemes for repaying you twenty-fold result in miserable failure?
"Two days ago I encroached again on your scanty store. Before I could part with my ill-gotten gains, I heard of another disaster. I am accursed.
"Enough of this. It must be ended. Farewell from—
"Your grateful and devoted
There was little more to be said or done—nothing beyond the medical evidence. Without the letter, even, the conclusions pointing to suicide were absolute.
The local practitioner came forward, a cheery man, with a good word and a fund of sympathy for every one.
"It is hardly necessary to state that death is due to the wound in the forehead," he said, in answer to the coroner. "From the position of the body, the deceased must have leant back in his chair and deliberately placed the revolver against his temple—the right temple, as the table was close to his right elbow. Before muscular action ceased, the revolver must have been laid on the table again. I find that one chamber alone has been discharged. Oh yes, death must have been practically instantaneous."
The coroner summed up rapidly and clearly. He spoke in words of kindly sympathy towards the two estimable ladies who had suffered so cruel a shock. The jury had a simple duty to perform, and he left it in their hands.
After a whispered consultation of a few minutes, the jury returned their verdict. They found that deceased committed suicide when suffering from temporary insanity, and expressed their condolence with the relatives on their sad loss. A few hours later the Rock Cottage tragedy was relegated to the category of village chronicle.
Death lingered there a few days longer. It seemed to him that Miss Leyton was disposed to avoid his society, but he was not the man to be deterred by any scruples of that kind. The evening before his departure he dropped in at Rock Cottage and begged a cup of tea.
"I am leaving here to-morrow," he explained, "and with a wandering bird of passage like myself, there is no knowing when we may meet again."
"Your visit has been anything but a pleasant one, I fear," Miss Dorothy sighed. "For the sake of our dear old friend, we could have wished to give you a heartier welcome."
And yet, despite the gloom, it seemed to Death that something, a blight, had lifted from the place. He mentioned Collingwood in a minor regretful key.
Miss Leyton's chest expanded, her eyes blazed. "Let me tell you the truth," she cried; "I must. Digby Collingwood was a man utterly without principle or feeling. For years he traded upon a family secret; he reduced us to the verge of ruin. His going away was life; his return, a lingering death. He had our savings; he took nearly all our small income. We struggled night and day to keep pace with his rapacious demands. And now we are free. To have killed that man would have been no sin; to slay him as he lay insensible with drink there——"
The speaker paused suddenly, for Death's eyes were fixed intently upon her. She broke into a kind of quavering laugh, like a harp the strings of which are loosened.
"Pray do not pursue the painful subject," Death murmured. "In any case, what I have heard is not likely to pass my lips. You have not told me yet what you thought of the story I sent you, Miss Delia."
"And I declare that I have never seen it," Miss Dorothy cried. "I suppose it entirely escaped my memory during the dreadful days last week. Delia, I really must read that story before I go to bed."
"Is it worth reading?" Death asked.
Miss Leyton shook her head. She appeared to have some trouble with her breathing.
"Frankly, it was not," she said presently. "I was disappointed."
"Was not! Do you mean to say, Delia——"
"That I destroyed the story, Dorothy. Yes, I did. The thing was strained and artificial, so very unlike our dear Sophia's style. I could not bear to look at it again; the more so because I was reading it the night before—you understand."
Miss Dorothy looked disappointed. "Perhaps you were right," she admitted. "But Mr. Death may be pained by the frankness of your criticism. His own relative, you know."
Death disdained any personal feeling in the matter. A close observer would have declared that the man was secretly gratified about something. For he had known all along that Miss Delia would never show that story to her sister, and her confession of the fact was evidence that the plot had been successful. The temptation hidden under the sacred seal of the envelope had appealed irresistibly to her imagination—the thing was done.
Death rose and took his leave, his farewell, of the gentle ladies whose lives had hitherto been wholly blameless. He passed through the neat hall and into the garden, where the old-world flowers were blooming in the sunshine.
At the top of the hill he turned and waved his hat.
He saw the two figures side by side, in the black silk and lace of early Victorian respectability. Trouble and crime seemed as far away from them as the prussic acid lurking in the kernel of the peach is from the blushing fruit. Death smiled as the umbrageous shade hid them from view.
"Who would guess it?" he cogitated. "What would people say if I were to disclose that that sweet, gentle lady murdered Digby Collingwood as deliberately as Eleanor murdered Fair Rosamond? Who would dream of regarding her in the light of a feminine Lefroy? And yet she took the idea from my forged story, deeming that no living eye had ever seen the plot before. She lured Collingwood on to act as her amanuensis; she concocted a story in which a would-be suicide writes such a letter as the one to 'My dear Aunt;' she even gave the desperate puppet of her story the same initials as the one she meant to destroy. Thus she had evidence of his intended suicide in his own handwriting. And was not that the very crux of the story I gave her—the story purporting to be written by Sophia Risdon? Is it possible that crime and dishonesty would come natural to every man and every woman on God's earth, provided that they could be absolutely assured of safety?"
There were thousands of exceptions, though Death's experience was unfortunate. And yet—well, let Divine philosophy settle so awful a question, so dangerous a problem.
"Armed with this letter, ostensibly a part of the story dictated," Death proceeded, "that brave woman approached Collingwood in his drunken slumbers, and slew him with his own weapon. Then she laid the evidence of suicide on the table, and left him. There was home, happiness, and freedom on the one hand; exposure, disgrace, the poorhouse, on the other. Which is the worse hell, I wonder—the one we eat of and suffer when poverty comes, or the liquid damnation of the future? That woman has risked the latter. Why not? The rotten pear on the wall looks as fair as its sounder neighbours? Was it a crime at all? The law would say yes; but the law was made by men for men, and therefore is an imperfect and a mundane thing. Was not Justice Shallow a lawyer, too?"
THREE men were seated in the inner office which Mr. Herbert Oakeley devoted to his business, or profession of a barrister. They were the occupant himself, a certain solicitor, one Wellcome by name, and George Death.
Imprimis, Mr. Herbert Oakeley, clean-shaven, rather a wide mouth, with hardish deflective corners a mixture of sourness and self-satisfaction. His softened vivacity suggested the Oxford school; under the environment of a less favoured training he would pass perilously for a middle-weight jock, or a trainer of horses.
Time was when the man of light and leading rejoiced in the possession of the Wellington or Napoleonic nose. Lord Randolph seemed to have set the fashion for large pugs, depressed on the bridge and displaying a pleasing width of wide nostril. Thus Oakeley. There are scores of such noses in the Commons, mostly attached to the legal profession.
Herbert Oakeley was the coming man. Everybody said so. In politics a philosophic Radical, a man of programmes, a cold sentimentalist, withal a struggling man, who found it difficult to keep ahead of the stream.
He had come down from Oxford with a reputation. Higgins of Corpus had predicted great things for him. There had been five of them at Balliol, Higgins of Corpus being admitted to the charmed circle. Most of the rest now had drawn journalism towards them, waxing fat on "leaders." Where would our superior journals be, but for the Oxford men of a school? They boomed Oakeley genteelly, they spoke of him without prefix, which is the first sign of greatness. Everything was in the man's favour. The son of a prominent north-country political Nonconformist, he naturally had the ear of the elect in the House. That he himself was a pronounced Ritualist mattered little; his robust Radicalism covered that. Higgins of Corpus, who apparently preferred leader- writing on the Daily Press to a Lord Chief Justiceship, or a seat in the Cabinet, boomed Oakeley steadily. As a debater, Chamberlain was not to compare with him. When they crossed swords, there was never any doubt of the issue; both sides of the House freely admitted the fact—pace the Daily Press. And Higgins possessed the rare gift of leader- writing—there are not more than seven or eight hundred journalists in London who do.
All the same, Oakeley had not "come" yet. His practice at the bar was a small one, he had no money behind him, and he was loaded down with debt. Had he been an actor this might have been of service to him, no stage favourite ever being quite worthy of his profession, minus an assignment, or better still, a brilliant bankruptcy. A chancery barrister is nothing, if not respectable. At thirty-eight Oakeley still found himself struggling on, a childless widower without office, despite the fact that he was fairly popular in society, and despite Higgins and the Daily Press.
At the same time, the man was certain to succeed; he had tenacity of grip, he could put temptation from him if the hour were not expedient. His respectability was intense. There was but one way to touch such drops of emotion as were still floating in his granite soul—to appeal to his ambition.
Death studied his intended victim whilst Mr. Wellcome talked. The two men were not quite strangers to one another. Death had come over from America, he stated, to prosecute a dormant lawsuit in which he was interested. He had taken it up on behalf of a young friend who lacked the necessary means. Meanwhile he was staying with a brilliant American author and diplomat, who was accredited to the Court of St. James's. Later on, this Mr. Joseph Nock was entertaining a large party at his country house, and Oakeley was one of the invited guests.
There was to be another distinguished visitor in the person of Miss Gertrude Vanstone. Every one knows the beautiful and talented singer of that name; her romantic story is familiar to all. At the age of twenty she had quarrelled with her own patrician relatives, and gone on the stage. Her success had been stupendous. Her birth, and the marvellous fascination of her manner, opened up every avenue. Apparently, the parental Vanstone must have repented his harshness to his child, for a few years later he died without a will, and his only daughter inherited a large fortune. Subsequently, she retired from the stage, and devoted her attention to society. At thirty-five she was still lovely, more fascinating than ever. With a wife blessed with such beauty and means, a man of ambition might attain any position short of being Pope, or Henry Irving.
Apparently Oakeley was of the same opinion. He pursued Miss Vanstone with a dogged patience that sometimes frightened her. His resolute manner kept other suitors away. That these two would marry, the quidnuncs felt certain. Miss Vanstone's manner towards her admirer was one of rooted dislike; she professed hatred of him. But this mattered little where a woman was concerned.
Towards solving this problem, George Death had turned his attention. Here was the magnet to lure Oakeley from his uncompromising honesty, the honesty of one who thoroughly believes it to be the best policy, the cautiously honourable man. It is harder to undermine this class than a natural, and, consequently, emotional saint.
Death, however, had arranged his plans. His boundless resources procured him a ready opening everywhere. For the present, he was a mere listener.
"This interview is somewhat irregular," Mr. Wellcome said; "but my client, Mr. Death, wished it. As you are aware, Mr. Oakeley, having had our case in hand from the beginning, we are quite powerless to strike until we had the information respecting the late Mr. Secretan. I need not explain further to you. Had Secretan been alive, we could have put him in the box, and there would have been an end to the matter. But Secretan died just at the critical time, before Mr. Death took the matter up, and now his solicitor is dead also. It is very perplexing."
"It is absolutely fatal to our case," Oakeley replied. "Candidly, I should not advise you to go any further. I am the only one who would really benefit."
"An unusual confession for a lawyer," Death replied.
"Candour is one of my vices," said Oakeley. "I had known this case for some years before your young friend went to America—sick of the whole thing. It is very good of you to——"
"Candour for candour," Death replied. "There is no philanthropy about the matter. I bought young Mason's claim as a speculation, and he gives me a power of attorney. I have been going into the matter very carefully lately, and I have come to the conclusion that Mr. Secretan's late solicitor, Mr. Malwood, could have told us everything."
"He would not have done anything of the kind. With the exception of a certain famous firm in Ely Place, Malwood had more patrician secrets locked in his breast than any man living. His business was an entirely personal one."
"Which I have purchased from the executors for a friend who shall be nameless. More philanthropy, you may say. Not in the least. I purchased the business so that I could obtain possession of Malwood's diaries. I have them all at my hotel."
Oakeley favoured Death with a glance of admiration. "You are certainly thorough in all that you undertake," he said. "Have you found anything of particular interest therein?"
"Plenty," Death said dryly. "Enough to set up as a flourishing blackmailer for the rest of my life. Already I have destroyed some of the volumes. But there are two which bear upon our case, and these I will ask you to peruse carefully. Afterwards, you will give me your promise to burn them."
Oakeley nodded. From his pockets Death produced two bulky volumes bound in buckram, which he laid on the barrister's table. Then he and Wellcome took their leave. Oakeley opened one of the volumes, and commenced to read idly.
Oakeley's rest was badly disturbed that night, a most unusual thing, since insomnia and gastric vagary generally are rare amongst the possessors of broad noses and deflective mouths. No novelist worthy of the name ever had a good digestion, and no chancery barrister ever had a bad one. It is all a matter of more or less imagination.
For the first time in his life, Oakeley gave his fancy play. He saw himself the husband of Gertrude Vanstone; he saw his position enhanced by her wealth; many fresh avenues opened up to him by her beauty and fascination. Not that he loved the woman with the poet's passion; Oakeley was conscious of no such distressing emotion.
But he admired her; he longed to possess her, as the poor scribbler longs for a paradise by the margin of the waters. Gertrude Vanstone was something to be proud of. The husband of Miss Vanstone might become premier. She was something to hang his honours upon, as Mrs. Murdstone's bosom advertised the Murdstone jewels.
And it seemed to Oakeley he had found the lever necessary to remove the mountain of indifference, the strata of dislike that barred his path. In the pages of the buckram-bound volumes, which Death had left in his charge, he had discovered many things besides certain facts bearing upon the case in hand.
Should he attempt it? Should he keep the secret, or boldly grasp the opportunity which fortune had placed in his hands? No such chance would ever occur again. Oakeley tossed and turned till morning came, and then it seemed to him that he had come to no decision. Should he struggle on as at present, or——
He put the thing entirely out of his mind after breakfast. It was characteristic of the man that he could sink everything for the matter of the moment. He had an open mind on the subject, he told himself. As an axiom, he had nothing of the kind. When a man adjourns temptation for a more fitting debate with the devil, there is but one issue.
Nevertheless, Oakeley thought no more of it for the present. Thanks to the diary, he had a good case for Death now, and it occupied most of his attention. A day or two later the case came on for hearing, and a verdict for the plaintiff followed. Higgins of Corpus congratulated Oakeley in a brilliant article, in which he was favourably contrasted with the judge who tried the case; indeed, Higgins of Corpus and Oakeley seemed to share the distinction between them.
"I should be obliged to you," Death remarked, subsequent to the verdict.
Oakeley disclaimed any credit in the matter. "Thanks to you," he said, "the diary did the business. It placed me on the track of the desired information, and a private inquiry agent did the rest. But there are not many of us who are in a position to buy our opportunities wholesale, as you do."
"That was the way I was taught to do business," Death replied. "Still, the death of Mr. Malwood and the subsequent somewhat reckless sale of his private papers was pure fortune."
"And the successor, for whom you purchased the practice?"
"A myth, a kind of legal Mrs. Harris. The thing is forgotten by this time. I presume I shall see you next week at Nock's little place. Good day."
Death said nothing anent the diary. Neither did he care to inform Oakeley what a fancy price he had paid for the papers to Malwood's next of kin. The close old solicitor had died without a will, leaving a surprisingly small fortune behind, for, sub rosa, Malwood had been a free liver. Death had bought the papers with an eye to eliciting private information respecting what might prove to be victims. The reversion of a small lawsuit he had purchased merely to get at Oakeley, for Death liked his victims as an angler likes his salmon—clean and vigorous.
To touch Oakeley closely, it was necessary to discover, if possible, the cause of the misunderstanding between Miss Vanstone and her late father. Malwood had been Vanstone's solicitor. Perhaps the diaries would shed some light on the matter They did. A patient perusal told Death everything. He carefully lifted the information, i.e. the small lawsuit, into this particular volume, and passed it over to Oakeley in the ordinary course of business. It would have been a moral impossibility for any one who once took up that volume not to finish it. No novel ever written was half so thrilling and fascinating. Death felt quite easy on that score.
He knew that by this time Oakeley was in possession of a secret which Gertrude Vanstone would have cheerfully sacrificed her whole fortune to preserve. Oakeley was in love with the woman who had refused him more than once; he coveted her beauty, her wealth, and her influence; he was approaching forty years of age, and he had his name still to harden into permanent fame.
Would he be able to resist the temptation? Would his policy of honourable honesty stand the strain? The thing had been done very cleverly; nobody was aware how the secret had passed into his power. True, Death must have read it; but would he bear in mind any solitary instance out of such a mass of painful sordid facts, bearing upon the lives of so many people known to society?
Death was perfectly satisfied. He had flung his match into the powder, and he would be present to see what form the explosion would take. At Nock's country residence Miss Vanstone and Herbert Oakeley would meet, and then——
After that the deluge, so far as Death cared. If only Oakeley would use his secret to obtain a mean, dishonourable advantage, Death would be satisfied, and the theory once more triumphantly vindicated. In this frame of mind he departed for Nock's place, The Glen.
The house-party gathered there was small but brilliant. There was Lucas, the poet, whose verses were so bad, and political opinions so strong, that his claim to the laureateship was seriously discussed; and the scientific author, who had covered himself with distinction by the publication of sixteen complete novels in two years. There was a noted M.P. of strong agnostic views, who sat for a Nonconformist constituency; likewise a Tory lord—a shining light on political economy, who had thrice compounded with his creditors. One or two rich nonentities, without which no society gathering seems to be complete, leavened the lump with a saffron flavour of respectability. Oakeley and Miss Vanstone completed the party.
It may be asked what brought Death in so exclusive a coterie. In a word, philately. His fine collection of stamps was the envy of Mr. Joseph Nock's soul. The latter had money, influence, an assured literary position; but he lacked a maroon surcharge of the Riddlemaree Islands of 1874, and his heart was as lead in his bosom. Death had two. It is perhaps superfluous to speak further on this vital question.
For the first few days nothing of importance transpired. It seemed to Death that Oakeley rather avoided Miss Vanstone, and abandoned her more or less to the fascinations of an American comedian, who had attained the giddy height of fame by an exquisite whistling of topical songs with a cigarette in his mouth simultaneously. Such an intellectually histrionic grip as this is certain to dazzle, and Oakeley seemed to be superseded. But he displayed no signs of disappointment.
On the contrary, his manner was grave and assured. He treated Miss Vanstone with marked deference, which at the same time only half disguised a conscious power. Death fully appreciated the man with whom he had to deal.
A week elapsed before Oakeley made any sign. The whole party had been on a visit to some ruins for the day, during which Oakeley had drawn Gertrude Vanstone away in a manner which utterly puzzled the actor. When they joined the rest subsequently, Gertrude was filled with gentle gaiety, Oakeley more quiet than ever. But the deflected lines of his mouth were hard and stern.
"To-morrow;" Death said to himself; "he has merely unmasked his battery as yet. I would give something to be present at the real engagement. And the man will win; I would stake my life upon the issue."
Everything comes to he who can afford to wait, and certainly Death was in that enviable position.
A local race-meeting formed the following day's programme, which Miss Vanstone declined.
"I hate races," she said with a brilliant smile. "I have a particular reason for so doing which is my own secret. On the whole, I will stay at home and have a long day with my correspondence. Conscience is beginning to be troublesome."
The host murmured his regrets politely. Being gifted with a real sense of humour, he did not smile when Oakeley begged to be excused also.
"It really wouldn't do," the latter said regretfully. "My constituency is notoriously one of the most wicked in the kingdom; consequently the Nonconformist conscience is extremely restless there. Besides, the chairman of my election committee in his hot youth suffered martyrdom in the cause of sport, in connection with an austere employer and a convenient till. On the whole, I think I will refrain from accompanying the party."
It is perhaps hardly necessary to say that Death also was an absentee. The party drove away soon after lunch, leaving the house solitary and still. It was nearly the hour for afternoon tea before Death made his way towards the library.
He looked in; at the same moment Oakeley entered the apartment from the conservatory. At a table Miss Vanstone sat, a pile of letters before her. She rose as if about to leave, when Oakeley detained her with a gesture. Death waited. No servants were likely to pass at that hour of the day, and the light in the hall was a dim religious one.
"Do not go," said Oakeley; "I have a word or two to say to you."
His voice was slightly rasping; there was a menacing ring in it. Gertrude drew herself a little closer together. There was a red spot on either cheek.
"Again?" she said. "Surely you have not so soon forgotten yesterday?"
"Yesterday was—yesterday. We are all creatures of circumstances. Nobody cares for cold mutton until there is nothing else to eat. Yesterday I asked you to marry me."
"And I refused—with slight variations on the old formula. You will not repeat the question?"
"That is precisely what I am going to do. To be cold and practical, it is necessary that you should become my wife, Gertrude. I lack capital which you possess. I have no settled home, which in itself is a great drawback. Every Cabinet Minister should have a drawing-room with a wife in it. With you for mine, I could do anything."
"I believe you could. But the thing is impossible."
"So the unexpected generally appears. But the thing is not impossible. On the contrary, this marriage will take place before Christmas. Mallory is going to resign at the opening of next session. I intend to have the offer of his office."
"Have you and Sir Charles Mallory settled this little matter between you?"
"Sit down again," said Oakeley, pointing to a seat.
Miss Vanstone, a little to his surprise, complied. Her astonishment was far greater. Why had she complied so readily? she asked herself in vexed wonder.
"With a house of my own, with a wife like you, the thing would be certain," Oakeley continued, in the same crisp tone. "In time the advantages would be mutual."
"But I don't like you sufficiently. To be candid—I hate you!"
"What on earth has that got to do with it?" Oakeley asked calmly.
Gertrude Vanstone laughed. There was a tonic flavour in cynicism like this.
"Nothing at all," Oakeley pursued. "Come to that, I don't know that I like you. It is merely a matter of business. Mind, I should be proud enough to see you at the head of my table, and there must be satisfaction in owning the handsomest woman in London."
"But in that case I should own you. You would be Mrs. Oakeley's husband."
"Precisely what I intend to be; but the accent in this particular instance would be on the 'Oakeley,' and not on the 'husband.' You will have absolute freedom; you will be——"
"Gertrude Vanstone to the end of my days. There are reasons——"
"There are reasons. And I know them perfectly well."
The silence lasted so long that Death crept nearer the door and looked in. He was perfectly safe from observation, with the sombre background behind him. Gertrude Vanstone had risen from her chair, backing towards the wall, as if the tiger-skin upon which she had been standing had suddenly reclothed its one-time feline cruelty.
"You—you know my story," she said slowly.
Oakeley made no reply for a minute or two. He was drawing skeletons on the blotting-pad with Miss Vanstone's gold pen, a present from the American comedian. He waited for the full force of his statement to strike home.
"I know why you did not go to the races to-day," he said presently.
Gertrude Vanstone shivered. Her face was pale, save for her cheekbones, upon which the humid pink seemed to be frozen. The iris of her eyes were purple-black.
"You are trying to frighten me," she said. "What can there be to know? My life lies before people so that those who run may read."
"They cannot read the pages which are doubled down. And some of them are missing. By accident, I am in a position to supply them. Come, you have not forgotten how you spent your nineteenth birthday. The count is dead, but the evils that men do live after them. Shall I say any more?"
"Since you have commenced so well, you shall finish the story."
"Your attention flatters. As a girl, you were headstrong, romantic, impulsive. You formed what your father deemed to be an undesirable attachment. This attachment culminated in your running away with your lover, under the plea that you were going to stay with a relative in Normandy. Your count turned out to be a racecourse blackleg, who had a wife alive at the time. Your father kept your secret, but he would not have you in the house again; he left you to your own devices after the death of your child. But, though you hear this for the first time, the count cost your father infinite trouble and much money before he died. Is there any occasion to say further?"
"You are in a position to prove your facts?"
"Absolutely. A diary of your father's late solicitor, Mr. Malwood, came into my hands the other day, and I read it there. At the present moment the secret is ours alone. Whether it is to go further or not, rests with you."
Miss Vanstone stepped back on to the tiger-skin again. The dead and the bankrupt have nothing to fear. She seemed like one frozen.
"The story is not quite finished, it seems to me," she whispered.
"Place aux dames," Oakeley responded. "Should I be so ungallant as to write the postscript, which is ever a woman's work? Besides, I offer you a fascinating choice. You may finish the tale in any way you please. You can float at the floodgates of society, a glorified Magdalene, but a Magdalene all the same; you can fall back upon charity, and never taste a crumb of it yourself; you can——"
"Enough; I see your drift. You offer me an alternative."
"I do nothing of the kind; I implore you to take it. Retain your position by all means; remain your proud, popular, fascinating self. 'What's in a name? the thing we call a rose———' And Oakeley is as good as Vanstone; under the circumstances, better."
"You are asking me to marry you still?"
"Yes. The fact seems to surprise you. Why not? It will make no difference to me, I assure you. Your crime is in being found out. There will be many couples more miserable who carry it off under a smiling exterior; and as to you and I being happy in the curds- and-whey form of bliss, that is out of the question. I offer you safety; and, in return, you become the rudder of my ambitious bark."
"And if I refuse this offer?"
"My dear Gertrude, you will not refuse. The sacrifice is too great. Already you are debating the colour-scheme of a wedding- gown in your eye!"
"I am the most miserable woman on God's earth."
The passionate plaint touched Oakeley, as the thistledown does the forehead of a granite cliff.
"Perhaps; but that will not prevent your going-away dress being of the smartest," he replied. "I want nothing of you but your fortune, your fascinations. Love there is none. You shall be my wife in name only, an you list. Come, I am waiting."
"Ah, if you only knew how I hate and despise you!"
"I can imagine it. Cui bono? You will marry me."
"I will stand by the altar and blaspheme, because I dare not do anything else."
Oakeley drew from his pocket a case, and from thence a flashing ruby-and-sapphire ring. With a masterly grasp he slipped it upon Gertrude's engaged finger. Then, without another word, he silently withdrew by the same way that he had entered the library. Death crept away also. There were limits even to his curiosity.
Dinner that evening was unusually lively and vivacious. Most of the party had won. Presently they fell to bantering those who had stayed at home. Across the wax lights, the glittering glass and purple fruit, Gertrude's face was flushed, sweet, riante.
"You must have found congenial occupation," Nock said.
"She did," Oakeley remarked slowly. "We were bored to death after you went. So, out of sheer self-defence, Miss Vanstone and I amused ourselves by getting engaged to be married. You have no idea what a fascinating pastime it is."
"Is he really to be the fortunate man?" the host asked.
Gertrude held up her slender left hand. On it the sapphires and rubies blazed. There was a smile on her face, a luminous mist in her eyes.
"Behold my badge of servitude," she said in liquid tones. "I told him that I hated him, that he was bent upon rendering me the most miserable woman in England, but his heart was hard; there is no escape for me now."
The others laughed. Gertrude crushed a grape, and ate it slowly. Her mien might have been that of an empress who had found a new kingdom.
"Is it a true bill, Oakeley?" asked the future laureate.
"True as—as your poetry," Oakeley responded. "Let us change the painful subject. We must not monopolize all the attention."
Death said nothing; he was lost in admiration. Success had crowned his efforts; but he scarcely expected to see rascality flaunting in the purple—placid, victorious.
"That man will die a premier of England," he said to himself; "and as to her, what she might attain, Heaven only knows. Splendid!"
PERHAPS the easiest way of creating surprise amongst people in this nil admirari age, is to tell them certain truths about themselves. As an example, had you told Lomas, père, that his son was a contemptible snob, he would have regarded you with reproachful astonishment; and had you conveyed the same patent fact to the junior——
But really there was no necessity. The thing was too apparent to others. In the eyes of the Reverend James Lomas, his son was the pink and ideal of a gentleman. The father had found his way into the Church by tortuous secret means, with the aid of a friendly bishop; otherwise the thing had been impossible, since he had no degree. His start in life had been extremely humble; and Peter naturally excludes from heaven such priests of the establishment as are not University men. In the eyes of certain people it must be a hideous blot upon the record of the Apostles, that they never went to Oxford.
It is hardly necessary to say that James Lomas, once in the black garb that elevates man above his fellows, longed to give his son the advantages which had been denied himself. Heaven knows how he managed it out of his miserable stipend; but to the good all things are possible, and with the aid of a school scholarship Arthur Lomas managed to scramble through Oxford, and take a passable degree.
He was a gentleman now. James Lomas beamed with pride upon his son, his simple soul rejoiced in the fact. Arthur's supercilious manner was the grand air; his smartly made clothes, with the absurd suggestion of caricature about them, bespoke the well- dressed man. It was almost pitiable to see the single-minded, simple gentleman, worshipping the Dutch-metal idol, which was so like the genuine golden calf in his eyes.
In sooth, the fellow was a contemptible snob, shallow and vain, and quick to take offence. He despised his father's friends; he was secretly ashamed of his progenitor's plainness; they were rarely seen together, if Arthur could help it. Had any one told Arthur that his father was as far above him as Lord Belton, the great local magnate, was above his footman, he would have scoffed. And yet there were people in Markham who secretly wondered whence the inferiority of the son came.
The school of Oxford is a good one for those who can rise to it. If a man has the right stuff in him, there is no better training-ground in the world. If not, then as a finishing seminary for the smug prig and the unutterable snob, the place is without a rival. To know people—to be in a good set—had been Arthur Lomas's ambition. To keep others from knowing him had been another constant endeavour.
Most people know the finished article. It is to be found in towns where a Grammar School, with scholarships attached, flourishes. It is here that the ambitious tradesman aspires to make his lad as great a gentleman as the parson or proctor whom he has to sue for his money periodically, and eventually half beggar himself to find professions for the lads who despise the shop, and blush when it is mentioned. If drink is the great evil in this favoured land of ours, cheap ostentation makes a good second.
People sneered at the Reverend James Lomas behind his back. Biggs, the chemist, whose own cub was ruining him by instalments at Cambridge, wondered what the parson was going to do with the youngster he had made such a fool of. Meanwhile, Lomas swaggered about the place in his own seedy, smart clothes, rendered all the more glaring by reason of a pair of white spats over shabby boots, and the bit of handkerchief hanging out of his breast- pocket. A profession was out of the question, there was no money for that, and a trade was not to be thought of for a moment.
Lomas was not without brains, which rendered his offence all the more rank. There was only one profession open under the circumstances, and that was journalism. Did the uninitiated but know it, there is a fair living, as things go, in wild-cat literature. Belles-lettres of "the-villain-still-pursued- her" type is by no means played out. The piracies of Drake and Frobisher, et hoc, led to affluence and honour; modern piracy with the lethal scissors generally finds its outcome in a baronetcy nowadays. And penny novelette writing, like burglary, is an occupation capable of strict privacy.
Accordingly, Lomas drifted into journalism. After two years of indifferent success, Markham lost sight of him for a time. The place had become too small, and the people knew him too well there. The fringe on the erstwhile fashionable trousers had called forth scoffing on one occasion, and this way the loss of self-esteem lies.
For three years Lomas laboured in London. During that time he did fairly well, especially in the personal line, reviewing, and the like. His superiority made the elegant sneer possible; he had a fine memory for phrases culled from books he condemned. He was a spurious critic, and with all a tyro's ingratitude. What would these Lazaruses at the feet of the literary Dives do for ideas, but for the crumbs of thought cast contemptuously from the rich man's intellectual feast? But there are critics and critics. Lomas belonged to the latter category.
Fortune was not unkind to him, on the whole. For one entire twelve-month he found himself acting as assistant and sub-editor on the Daily Magnet, a paper of established fame and wide influence. The man whose place he occupied had gone away for the benefit of his health, which had temporarily broken down. Parker was a prince amongst sub-editors, and to pay his expenses for a trip round the world had been more policy than generosity on the part of his employers. Editors can be obtained by the cartload, but a good sub is a thing of beauty and a sub for ever!
On the whole, Lomas did his work well. But on Parker's return he found himself out of harness again. He had looked for a position on the literary staff of the Magnet, but subs are not allowed to rise that way. The thing isn't fair to other papers.
For a year after that Lomas remained at home, devoting himself mainly to the halfpenny sub-religious novelette, twenty-five thousand words for three guineas. Still, a man of strong physique and vigorous muscular action can easily earn ten pounds a week this way. With cold baths and dumb-bell exercise it is possible to do more.
It is a very circuitous way to fame, however. Lomas chafed and fretted; he pined for the class of society which London and his connection with the Magnet had opened unto him. People of position found it convenient to be civil to the chief sub on an important daily paper, though they ignored him quickly enough when the connection ceased. The dinners and afternoon teas at certain houses filled him with bliss unalloyed. To hold the cup of a countess, or stand chatting on the stairs with my lord, satiated his shrivelled soul. Most of these people wanted something, but that did not matter in the least; the majority of the gilded ones were more or less connected with the City, and it was possible on occasions for Lomas to give prominence to paragraphs capable of influencing the market. There was the Earl of Beverley, for instance, who had introduced Lomas to his brilliant niece, the Honourable Adela Balmayne, and invited him to dinner. Most people regarded Beverley as a bit of a leg, but to Lomas this was Society.
He longed for it; craved for it again. He boasted of his aristocratic connections, as only a snob can; he kept in touch with the Magnet, hoping for better things. Some day, perhaps, the gates of the promised land would open again.
It was early in the season, two years later, before the opportunity came. Occasionally, congenial souls were encountered in Markham, and Lomas found one in the person of a passing stranger, to whom he was introduced casually, and who incidentally mentioned that he was financially connected with the Morning Mirror. The Mirror was equally good as the Magnet. Death heard the story, and went upon his way, promising to bear the matter in mind. Months passed, and the whole incident faded from Lomas's memory.
A telegram was carried up to his den about this time. The message was brief, but pregnant, and its entirety was as follows—
CAN YOU SEE ME TO-DAY—FIVE—AT MIRROR OFFICE? RE: PAPER. REPLY PAID.
The blushing maiden, who for the present was defying the chartered libertine, whatever he might be, was forgotten. It was only a matter of two hours from Markham to London, and at the time appointed Lomas found himself in the manager's room at the Mirror office. With that functionary, Death, and Mr. Egerton, the editor, the company was complete.
"You had better state the reason why we have sent for Mr. Lomas," Egerton suggested. "The affair is quite as much yours as it is mine."
"A client of mine," said Death, without notice of the growl, "is one of the principal proprietors of the Mirror. Probably you have heard of Mr. Greenstrand?"
Lomas replied respectfully. It was impossible to think of that name without awe.
"Usually we do not interfere with Mr. Egerton in any way," Death proceeded. "On this occasion, however, I have taken the liberty of bringing you here. I presume you are willing to undertake the editorship of the paper for a week or two?"
"Of course he will," Egerton grumbled. "Did you ever know a man yet who couldn't edit a daily paper on sight? That's the worst of these proprietary concerns——"
"Mr. Lomas has had two years on the Magnet," Death proceeded. "Mr. Egerton's wife has been taken seriously ill at Cairo, and he is compelled to proceed there at once. Mr. Delfosse, the assistant, is in America on business, and our chief sub has resigned in a huff. You will take Mr. Egerton's place whilst he is away!"
Lomas professed himself delighted. The head—actually the head of a great London paper! Visions of a permanent occupation of the chair danced before his eyes.
"I dare say it will be all right," Egerton said hopefully. "You leave my leader-writers to themselves, and keep the sporting news up to the mark. As we cater for a concrete class of politician, you can take it out of your conscience by abusing the financial coterie. We seldom touch company advertisements, and the showing up of bogus concerns is our strong card. Keep to that line, and you can't do much harm." With which Egerton looked at his watch, and hurriedly departed.
Lomas's occupation was anything but an arduous one. The machinery of the office worked like an express engine; he had only to sit and give directions, and enjoy his solitary glory. At the Writers' Club he found a new meed of reverence awaiting him. Men who had scoffed in days gone by remained to worship. Under such conditions, the lot of Lomas was a happy one. He assumed the mysterious air of the literary Jupiter. In such matters the air is everything. And there were better things to happen.
Lomas strolled into the park on the Saturday afternoon, with a feeling that fame had been accomplished. The exercise of the muscular novelette had found him the sinews of war; his frock- coat, glossy hat, and lavender continuations left nothing to be desired. People seemed to recognize him again; apparently the dimness of vision had been transient.
He came presently to a yellow barouche, in which a brilliant brunette was seated. By the wheel stood two men in languid conversation. Lomas's heart beat faster. Apparently the brunette did not see him. The taller man of the two did, for his grey, hawk-like features wrinkled into a smile, his gloved hand was extended.
"Is it really you, Lomas?" he asked. "Where have you been lately? I heard you had gone out to Japan as special correspondent; but one could get nothing definite. Adela will be delighted. You were always a favourite of the child's."
"I had a heavy commission which took me from London," Lomas replied—"a great bore for a society man; but needs must, you know. Just for the present I am taking Egerton's place on the Mirror. My plans are uncertain after that."
The Earl of Beverley was delighted to hear that the Mirror people had secured an editor worthy of the name, even if only for a time. He professed a boyish surprise, which was prettily assumed, inasmuch as he had known the fact from the first from Death, with whom he was acquainted slightly. He had cut Lomas dead enough on the day of the latter's arrival in London; but we are all liable to mistakes of that kind.
"I saw you last Thursday," Lomas could not help saying.
"And I saw you, my boy," Beverley replied. "Last person I expected to meet. Fact is, I was talking business with Sir Cyril Bridges. Know Bridges?"
"Only by reputation," Lomas replied. He would only have been too pleased to speak of the great North African explorer in this way. Bridges was the founder of a dozen kingdoms. He added millions of acres to British territory on his own responsibility. He was supposed to indicate the African policy of the Colonial Office. He bullied ministers royally; they were all terribly afraid of this shock-headed north-country boor, who got his own way by sheer force of character.
To know Bridges was esteemed a privilege. He had made many fortunes besides his own. In the savage region, over which he reigned supreme, millions of English gold had foundered. And yet nobody lost confidence in the man. Sometimes one of the papers knocked the bottom out of some company, but for the most part they floated. Beverley was a close follower of Bridges' fortunes; judicious investments and quick sales were floating the aristocratic derelict into the haven of prosperity.
"Wonderful man," quoth his lordship. "Follow his tips, and fortune is yours. If you've got any money to invest, put it in the Lobelguna Concession."
"But what about this morning's news?" Lomas asked. "Lobelguna has turned against Bridges' force, and the whole lot are supposed to be cut to pieces. Our City editor says that Lobelgunas won't be worth five shillings per share on Monday."
"Pooh—a mere scare. Nothing confirmed yet. Bridges says the place is a veritable gold-mine. Splendid climate, plenty of water, and all that kind of thing. Come and speak to Adela."
Miss Balmayne was delighted to see Lomas again. From a penny chair Death watched the little group with a faint smile on his face. He had laid his train carefully, and subsequent events were moulded to his will. The figures there were his puppets. He had dictated everything; he had only to stand by and watch the performance.
Lomas went away treading upon air. He was to dine in Lowndes Square that same evening, and meet Sir Cyril Bridges. He dressed himself with more than usual care, for was not the fascinating Adela to be present? Editors of distinguished journals have married into the ranks of the aristocracy before now, and Adela was all for mind.
Sir Cyril Bridges was the only other guest present in Lowndes Square the same evening. He had nothing to speak of besides the Lobelguna Concessions. His whole atmosphere was one of money; he seemed to diffuse a magnetic influence. He should like to see Lobelguna try any of his slippery tricks upon him. The public was an ass; he has no confidence. And if any of them wanted to dispose of their shares, why, he was ready to take them. His big raucous voice boomed until the dining-room echoed.
"Well, I hope you are right," the earl laughed. "I'm loaded down with Lobelguna Concessions. I bought forty thousand yesterday at five shillings."
"Buy the sanguinary lot," roared Bridges—Adela had gracefully vanished—"and stick to 'em. They'll be up again next week like a rocket. By Jove! I must be off, Beverley. I promised to meet Ayrton at Sundrey's house at ten, to discuss the proposed line to Missolonghi. I'll put a flea in his ear before the night's over. So long."
"A rough diamond," Beverley said sententiously; "but the kernel's there."
Lomas agreed. Over the walnuts and the wine the twain waxed confidential. The earl confessed himself not quite so easy in his mind over Lobelgunas as he seemed.
"In fact, my dear Lomas," he said in a burst of candour, "if the thing goes wrong, I shall be posted. I want you to do me a little favour. I am going to transfer half my shares into your name, and pass the scrip over to you for the present. If things go right, why, there is an end of it; if not, why——"
Lomas accepted the responsibility, not without secret misgivings. If things went wrong, he would be utterly swamped. But to please his noble patron, he would have stood on his head in the centre of Lowndes Square with pleasure.
"You may send me the scrip, if you like," he murmured.
Beverley professed his warm thanks; it was so pleasant to do business with a gentleman. Lomas left the house at length with an easy consciousness that society awaited him. He was to go down to Beverley Hall to shoot later on; the earl would take no refusal. How pretty a paragraph in the Markham local paper would read to that effect!
For the next day or two Lomas saw nothing of his exalted friend. He had received the Lobelguna scrip, and a transfer note from a city firm, but beyond that no sign. Therefore, he was surprised and delighted the next evening when Beverley's card was sent up to his room, and that pillar of the constitution followed in a condition of patrician agitation.
"My dear fellow," he exclaimed, "I have a lot of exclusive information for you. Lobelguna has been surprised by Bridges' followers, and has capitulated utterly. The German fellows, who are playing the very bear there, have fled up country. Here's our telegram."
With trembling hands Beverley produced the cable form. There was material enough, when properly expanded and sub-edited, to make a column of attractive matter. The information was minus its heading and address, which had been torn off. Though it had assuredly come by marine wire, Lomas's trained eyes scented a trick.
"I am very sorry," he said, "but I cannot publish this."
Beverley was grieved; he was shocked at the want of confidence in his honour. Under the circumstances, any further intercourse, etc. Before the clock struck again, Beverley's wounded feelings were restored, and the African telegram was in the foundry. But Lomas felt restless and ill at ease. He had betrayed his trust; he had published that which he felt to be false, in order to curry favour with one whose reputation was, to say the least of it, shady. What the news lacked in veracity, it certainly made up in sensation. For the first few hours nobody dreamt of questioning its truth. The Mirror had a reputation for sterling information, its editor was beyond reproach. There was a boom in Lobelgunas that day on the Exchange such as had not been seen for years. People rushed to buy. Before closing-time the five-shilling shares were at a pound premium.
Drawn there by a fascination he could not resist, Lomas drove down to the scene of madness. One of the first persons he met there was Beverley.
"I've been searching for you everywhere," he said. "Put your shares on the market. Go over to Conway's office and instruct them at once. I will see you later."
Mechanically Lomas obeyed these instructions. For the first time the full force of the plot burst upon him with lightning force. The spotless reputation of the Mirror had been besmirched to bring about this extraordinary outburst of public confidence—and greed. The acting editor had been tricked and fooled by a blackleg peer, who, after using him, would cast him aside carelessly as the stump of a cigar. Had Beverley not done the same thing before? And the whole thing would be certain to come out.
In fear and trembling Lomas waited for two days. Then the deluge. The Berlin correspondent of the Times was first in the field, with a long extract from the Tagblatt. Lobelguna had utterly defeated Bridges' expeditionary force; there were only two survivors, and they had drifted into Marra Leone with a frightful story. Lobelguna had appealed to Germany for protection; he had placed himself under their flag. The whole story carried veracity on the face of it. Before Lomas had time to recover his scattered senses, Egerton returned from Egypt as fast as steam could carry him.
Lomas cowered before the majesty of his wrath. He had been deceived, he was sorry. More he could not say or do.
"The copy did not come through one of the press agencies?" Egerton asked.
"The Earl of Beverley supplied the information," Lomas stammered. "It was a bonâ fide cablegram, Mr. Egerton, for I had it in my hands."
"The biggest rascal in London," Egerton groaned. "We have been deliberately swindled for business purposes. It will take years to restore popular confidence in the paper. Never again do I accept office under a board of directors. Don't you say a word; you are as big a scoundrel as Beverley. It's a criminal matter, sir."
"You are not choice in your expressions," Lomas said, stung into retort. "I might be the victim of misfortune; but, at the same time, I don't allow——"
"A pretty victim, indeed; and you will allow me to say anything I please. I anticipated what had happened directly I saw the Times at Southampton, and I suspected you. A man doesn't do these kind of things for nothing."
"You mean that I was paid for allowing——"
"Oh, don't split straws with me. I examined the Lobelguna Concession transfer-books this morning, and what do I find? Twenty thousand shares purchased by yourself from Beverley, and sold two days ago at a handsome premium. Sixteen thousand pounds was your price. However, the thing will be out of my hands presently, and the less you say the better. And let me remind you that this is my room, Mr. Lomas. Silence is your best policy."
Outside the Mirror's palatial Fleet Street abode Lomas encountered Death. The incident was robbed of singularity, for the simple reason that the latter was there to await his victim. Death led the way to the Writers' Club, where the sad story was unfolded.
"These things will happen," he said consolingly, "and, in any case, we have no remedy, so far as you are concerned. Your great misfortune is that nobody will believe your story. The transfer of the Lobelguna Concessions is terribly against you."
"But," Lomas protested, "I tell you that Lord Beverley——"
"I suppose you haven't told any one else the particulars?"
"Certainly not. There is no reason why——"
"You should say anything to any one," Death said dryly. "We shall be dumb; we have been hoaxed, and are not likely to give ourselves away by a history of the facts. By so doing we should shake confidence more than ever. To all practical purposes you are £20,000 odd better off than you were a week ago. Nice sherry, this. Will you have another?"
Lomas said no more. His share in the affair was going to be a dead secret—he had left the Mirror because Egerton had returned. There was a large sum of money waiting for him to draw at the office of Conway and Company. Before the day was out, the scrip had been transferred, and the cheque duly passed into his once meagre account.
So far as Lomas was concerned the incident was closed. Sooner or later he would have to meet the Earl of Beverley—an interview which he looked forward to with anything but pleasure. Bridges had departed hurriedly for North Africa, and his bold front on leaving had somewhat restored public confidence.
Beverley turned up eventually. His manner was subdued, but his smile was pleasant, slightly tinged with melancholy. He was terribly vexed, he said, with the turn affairs had taken. Would Lomas come round that evening and partake of a family chop? Lomas consented. He dressed at his rooms, and, after fortifying himself with two glasses of the Writers' Club's famous brown brandy, departed on his way.
The dinner was excellent; the wine of the best. During the meal, business was rigidly excluded. With the cigars, Beverley's manner changed.
"I am leaving town early next week," he said. "We shall see you in October, of course. We'll get that little affair of the Lobelgunas settled first, however."
Lomas took a pull at his nerves. He found them perfectly sound. The brown brandy had not failed him in the hour of need.
"I am rather unsettled about October," he said. "By the way, my lord, did you ever discover who sent you that bogus telegram?"
Beverley shook his head sadly. The subject was too painful.
"It has ruined my career," Lomas proceeded. "It has but one redeeming feature."
"I am delighted to hear it, my dear fellow. What is it, may I ask?"
"I have made over £20,000 out of the transaction."
Beverley's face changed; there was no mistaking Lomas's meaning.
"You infernal scoundrel!" he whispered. "You impudent thief, you——"
"Arcades ambo," Lomas said. "The titled blackleg who tempted me made twice as much. And now he wants it all. I am to be the miserable tool—the orange to be sucked dry and then cast into the gutter. You thought to flatter me, and to a certain extent you succeeded. To clinch the thing, you partly took me into your confidence. My share was to be nothing; but I've got my share, and possession is nine parts of the law. Not a penny-piece of that money do I part with, so help me, God!"
Lomas crashed his fist upon the table; his eyes glittered fiercely. Beverley's face was white with passion; he looked more hawk-like than usual.
"So you are going to swindle me?" he demanded hoarsely. "The law——"
"A fig for the law! You dare not appeal to it. Come, you had my assistance in your infernal swindle, and you must pay the price. I am as good a man as you to-night, and I know you better than most people."
"You are a rascal," Beverley said sullenly.
"Would it be a figure of speech to call you another? But there is nothing to be gained by our sitting here calling one another hard names. And, as my company does not appear to be congenial, I will wish you good night."
"Go to the devil!" grunted the hereditary legislator.
DEATH chuckled to hear the result of the interview. Like a sportsman, he rejoiced because he had dropped two birds, right and left barrel. The dual acts of rascality on the part of the Earl of Beverley and Lomas had been both inspired by him. It was a fitting termination for what he intended to be nearly the end of his labours.
"Keep your own counsel," he said to Lomas. "Remember that silence is golden, and there is a career before you yet. With your money you might do anything. You may be sure that I shall say nothing regarding the transaction."
"A VISITOR to see Dr. Andrew Morrison, please. Shall I show him up?"
Morrison rubbed his red eyes. The ashes of his spent pipe trailed down the front of a grey flannel dressing-gown, and lay neglected there. He nodded his shock head grimly. But the visitor had not waited to be announced; he walked right in.
The two presented a curious contrast. Morrison, unshaven and unkempt; his leonine face dark like filaments of tar in the thoughtful creases; the wide mouth, tremulous yet defiant. His high broad forehead knitted; his hands shook. A pair of trousers strapped at the waist, loose baggy slippers, and the filthy flannel dressing-gown, completed his attire.
The other man was black and neat; he had a face in quiet contrast to the other's.
"My name is Death," he said. "Yours is Morrison. I require your services."
"I suppose you know that I'm drunk?" Morrison inquired. "I always am, more or less, miserable devil that I am. I'm the cleverest doctor in Edinburgh; people used to prophesy great things of me. Look at me now. I'm drinking myself into my grave. Brandy and tobacco make a poor substitute for food. God, what a fool I've been!"
"Incidentally, so have I," Death replied without the least emotion. "I am here to give you a chance. You don't look a man who drinks for the love of it."
"I don't. I drown care; I suffocate my moribund self-respect. Your business?"
Death coolly rang the bell, and ordered a cup of coffee. Morrison smiled grimly. Here was a man after his own heart. He drank the coffee. At Death's command he went to his bedroom and sluiced himself thoroughly in cold water. Then he dressed himself suitably enough, and professed to be ready for anything. Death produced cigars.
"Now we are ready for business," he said. "Can you keep sober for any length of time?"
"Certainly, if I have anything to interest me. Make it worth my while, and see."
"That is precisely what I am going to do," Death replied. "Now, I have here a volume of short stories by a certain Angus Hume. His writings are a little too powerful and gloomy to become popular, yet they are really wonderful stories. Poe, at his best, never did anything finer. There is one fragment here which has produced a great impression on me—story proper, it is not. It treats of the life of an imaginative sensitive man of letters, who is married to a wife out of sympathy with him. She is fair, she has money, and she loves him; but there is a relation of the wife's, living in the same house, who is the author's ego, his inspiration. He has affection and esteem for the one woman, but he loves the other. Is he justified in ridding himself of the wife, to whom he owes so much, for the woman to whom he owes his career? His literary work hardly pays him, and his wife has a fortune. The study is so vivid, so powerful, and so subtly analysed, that it must be a personal experience. That is all. Do me the favour of reading the sketch; it will take barely an hour."
"It is a question," said the doctor, "to whom he owes most. Could he have written that stuff in adversity? Give me the book."
Death smoked a whole Trichinopoly cigar before Morrison had finished.
"Well," he asked, "and what do you make of it?"
"My opinion entirely coincides with yours," Morrison replied thoughtfully. "The writer has taken himself for a model; he has described his own feelings. Psychological studies and brain troubles were my pet subjects before hell got hold of me. There is no doubt in my mind, that the author has contemplated removing his wife."
"Do you think he will make the attempt?"
"No; decidedly not. Naturally, Angus Hume's moral standard is a high one. I happen to know something about him, because he was a student at the university here in my young days. I know him by sight, as he had been pointed out to me as a married student. His wife was affected with suicidal mania; she afterwards died, I heard."
"That must have been the first wife, then. Your inference is that Hume has simply gone one better for the sake of strengthening his narrative. Morally, your judgment is correct. Our author bears a high name. As a young man he beggared himself to pay his father's debts, devoting his mother's property to that purpose. From all I hear, I entertain a high opinion of him. You think he would brood over this trouble without dreaming of an attempt to rid himself of his incubus?"
"Certainly. Did you never commit a crime in imagination? The stronger the magnetism, the more vivid the mental picture, the more complete the details would be. Besides the wrong, the danger of discovery is a wonderfully powerful deterrent."
"Would Hume fall if an absolutely safe opportunity were placed in his way?"
"I think he would—most of us would, for that matter. The idea has evidently taken a strong hold on him. What would be the chances if an honest starving man picked up a purse? But there must be no risk in the opportunity."
"That you will be the judge of," Death said quietly. "You will find the safe means."
"I am to show Hume how to destroy his wife without risk of discovery?"
"Certainly. You have guessed my meaning exactly."
"Do you want me to throw you down those stairs?"
"No; on the contrary, I want you to earn a large sum of money easily and pleasantly. I am prepared to pay you no less a sum than £10,000."
"In return for which I am practically to commit a murder?" Morrison said hoarsely.
"Nothing of the kind. You are to provide the opportunity only. If it is not accepted, there is an end of the whole business; if it is accepted, it will be your part to prevent crime at the critical moment. I am interested in the study of temptations, and I am rich enough to pay for my object-lessons. Are you going to assist me?"
"Under those circumstances, certainly," Morrison replied. "Such a sum of money as you mention would be my salvation. I could set up a fine laboratory, and carry out series of experiments, which I have been working out for years. Give me the shilling."
"There is your bounty money," Death replied. "The rest follows subsequently."
He took from a pocket-book as he spoke ten Bank of England notes, each for £1000. Folding them once dexterously across, he tore the crisp sheets in twain. Half he handed to Morrison, the rest he replaced in his case.
"I take it that your line will be a professional one," he said. "I give you a week wherein to mature your plans. For the present I am residing at Braeside, on Loch Lomond, within a bowshot of Angus Hume's house. I need not tell you why I am there. Drop a line to say at what time you are coming, and I will meet you at Ardlui."
A few days later, one afternoon a neat cart stopped off the pierhead at Ardlui, and awaited the coming of the Empress. Morrison was the only passenger. He presented a very different appearance to the individual Death had discovered a week before. Very little passed between the twain until Braeside was reached.
"That large white house yonder is Hume's," Death explained, as the twain smoked their cigars on the lawn after dinner. "Hume is coming here presently."
"You have become fairly friendly, then?" Morrison asked.
"We have become very friendly indeed," Death explained. "This house belongs to his wife, and is practically within the grounds. The late owner was an Anglo-Indian, and preferred to live in this cosy bungalow in the summer months. The high fence all round gives me a feeling of protection, and enables me to leave my windows open at nights—a thing impossible in bungalow models, as a rule."
"And what of the ladies?" Morrison asked.
"There you must judge for yourself. To my mind, Hume has hit off the womenkind admirably in the story which brings us here. His wife is a pretty, nervous, enemic little woman, who is fond of her husband almost in an animal way, and jealous withal; but she is utterly without any kind of sympathy in his work. Miss Alma Ogilvy, on the other hand, is all sympathy. It is wonderful how those two are drawn together. She is Hume's inspiration. She thoroughly understands him. Once she comes into the room, he is a different man. You can understand how exasperating a silly wife is to such a being. Mrs. Hume is emotional and imaginative in a way—one of those women who have every ailment they happen to hear of. Persuade her that she has heart-disease, and she would die of fright in a month."
Morrison followed every word carefully. He had a vivid recollection of Hume's story, and all that Death said seemed to tally with that remarkable narrative.
"And has Mrs. Hume any feeling for her relative, Miss Ogilvy?" he asked.
"She is very jealous of her. I can see that this causes Hume much suffering to a certain extent, and as regards his feelings for Miss Ogilvy there can be no doubt. The man's love for her is a perfect passion, and it burns none the less fiercely for being suppressed. As to his attitude towards his wife, I can say nothing. But things are in a critical state. There are times when the wife's silliness drives Hume almost to the verge of madness. Would he be tempted to remove his wife if a safe means presented itself? Personally I am baffled."
"The story shows that he has dwelt upon the point to the verge of monomania."
"Precisely," Death replied. "More than once—treating the question from the moralist view—he has discussed with me the theory of finding some way of taking life without danger of discovery."
"With a view to Miss Ogilvy taking her place eventually, of course."
"Quite so. So much I have deduced. But such a scheme is even beyond the range of an imaginative writer."
"Because the imaginative writer is not a medical man," Morrison said thoughtfully. "I could show him a dozen ways. There were scores of them known to the ancients. I have stumbled across more than one in the East. Of course, you know that at one time I made a bid for fame as an Egyptologist?"
"So I have heard, which suggests mystery. The fact you mention had much to do with my consulting you. But if you are going to put temptation in Hume's way, it must not be a vulgar one. A refined, imaginative man such as he would shrink from any brutal deed of blood. Something weird, a mixture of science, fiction, and the supernatural, would be the idea. But already Hume is interested in you; directly I told him about you, he became quite excited."
Morrison rose from his seat, and left the room. He returned presently, carrying in his hand a small brass box covered with quaint designs. A peculiar odour, a strange mixture of musk and earth, was given out by the metal casket. Inside was what looked like a beetle, cunningly formed of copper; down the back were black spots, reflective, like tiny pools of wine. The eyes of the insect were an angry sullen red, fixed and malevolent.
"A pretty toy," Death remarked, "and cleverly made. It looks like old workmanship."
"It is probably some thousands of years old," Morrison replied. "That scarab was taken out of the tomb of one of the Rameses by myself. The scarab was a sacred thing with the old priests, you understand. Hold it in your hand for a moment."
Death took the dull heavy thing, and acting upon Morrison's instructions, pressed it in his palm. Presently he laid it upon the table hastily.
"There is some cunning mechanism hidden there," he cried. "The thing has pierced my hand."
"Because it is alive," Morrison replied. "There are only two of these beetles known, the other being in the collection of an Indian prince. Probably it will live as long as the world lasts."
"But what does it live on?" Death asked.
"Putrefaction, mainly; dust, anything. A little human blood will keep vitality in it for weeks; but give the scarab full license; and its capacity for blood is enormous."
"Would it take long to kill a human being that way? Excuse me, but I was so interested that I quite forgot to make my presence known."
The speaker had come quietly in through the long windows leading to the balcony, his footsteps noiseless on the thick Persian carpet covering the floor. He was a slight pale man, with a face vital with nervous force, and eyes dark, brilliant, and restless.
"No matter," Death said cordially. "You have arrived at a most opportune time. Here is something that should be of the greatest interest to a novelist. This is my friend Dr. Morrison—Mr. Angus Hume, the author. Last, but not least, the Scarab."
Hume's interest in the insect knew no bounds. He poured out question after question concerning its life and habits; his curiosity was insatiable.
"Is it absolutely dangerous to life?" he asked.
"Under certain circumstances, undoubtedly," Morrison replied. "For instance, you attach it to my foot when I am asleep; I feel nothing at the time, but by morning I have lost over an ounce of blood. Repeat this operation for a time, and I pine away and die."
Death crossed to the window for a moment. When he returned his face was calm and bland. He saw that Hume's gaze was fixed intently upon Morrison's features.
"But discovery would certainly follow," he exclaimed.
"Medical suspicion would certainly be aroused," Morrison admitted gravely. "Here is a plot for you, sir, ready to your hand. How to avert this suspicion is the key of the story. Solve that, and you have a perfect tale."
Hume's interest deepened. He paced the room excitedly, his imagination aflame. Morrison had cunningly touched the mainspring of his enthusiasm.
"You positively thrill me," he cried, "and at the same time you fill me with despair. Professional zeal amounts to a positive disease with me. One of the great regrets of my life is that I never studied medicine. What would I not give for Conan Doyle's wasted opportunity! Dr. Morrison, I implore you to suggest a way out of the impasse."
"You want to make your assassin absolutely safe, I presume," Morrison replied, "and to pile up the horror at the same time. Well, for the sake of argument, you have reduced your victim to the necessary stage of physical weakness. Mental debility follows as a matter of course. Play upon his nerves—drive him to suicide——"
A sudden cry broke from Hume. He was fearfully agitated. In imagination he was acting the part of the assassin—the poison was at work. A plentiful moisture stood upon his forehead.
"I have it!" he exclaimed; "but, no—the thing is too horrible to contemplate. Put your beetle away, Dr. Morrison, and let us discuss more gentle topics."
Death dexterously turned the conversation. Morrison carelessly snapped the lid of the casket, and deposited his treasure in a drawer in an old-fashioned escritoire standing in one corner. Hume followed his movements with fascinated eyes. After a little desultory talk, mostly upon questions of medical jurisprudence, Hume rose to go, having first extracted from his companions a promise to dine with him the following night.
"Well, what do you think?" Death asked, almost eagerly for him.
"I think the design you foreshadowed is there," Morrison murmured, "and our early conversation this evening gave Hume the necessary inspiration. Why did he stop so suddenly after the plan flashed into his mind? Because our knowledge of his secret would have rendered it futile."
"Have you any notion what the scheme is?"
"I have my suspicions. In any case it is certain to be a complex one—all that man's writing turns upon intricate problems. Did you notice one question he asked me just before leaving? The conversation rested upon transfusion of blood. He wanted to know whether, if we transfused blood, say, from the veins of a dipsomaniac to the body of a normal patient, any effects would follow, or if any craving for stimulants would manifest itself."
"Well, would they?" Death asked. "I was not following the discourse carefully."
"They certainly might for a time, and provided that the patient was low enough. The virus in the corpuscles might show to that extent. But directly the patient tended towards recovery, the ill effects would assuredly pass away."
"Then you think the idea is being nourished in Hume's mind."
"Not precisely. He is certainly in the throes of temptation, and eventually his moral nature will succumb. But, you see, we are a force to be reckoned with. Hume alluded to the drink corpuscle theory so carelessly that I feel sure he has another idea—an idea on the same lines, mind you, but not precisely similar. He does not think for a moment that we have any suspicions at all of his inner feelings, any more than Eugene Aram anticipated trouble from his telling his dream to the schoolboy. Like that criminal, he must tell some one, and he tells it to the world—as a story. You are one of the few who reads between the lines."
"You think the temptation will be too much for him?"
"I am absolutely sure of it," Morrison cried, "and I wish I was well out of the business."
"But apart from deus ex machinâ, the attempt would have been made some time."
"I don't agree with you for a moment. Why can't you leave this naturally honest man alone? Still, if my vigilance will prevent actual crime, it shall not be spared. All the same, I shall have well earned my money before the tragi-comedy is finished. Good night."
Personal contact with Hume's household only served to confirm Death's suspicions. His keen eyes discerned the latent misery hidden there. Pretty, fragile Mrs. Hume evidently meant well, but she had an awkward, irritating way of expressing herself occasionally. Her unskilled fingers played upon Hume's nerve- strings until they quivered with pain; her jealousy of Alma Ogilvy's superior fascination for, and sympathy with, her husband, was patent to the meanest understanding. Hume's occasional gusts of passion showed the torture which he endured. And yet Janet Hume tried her best, the knowledge of which added to her husband's torture.
For the last day or two Mrs. Hume had been anything but well. During the first three weeks of Death's visit to the locality, she had gone about her duty more or less languidly, with displays of temper peculiar to those in indifferent health; but of late a languor and lassitude had set in, which Morrison noticed uneasily. He noted Hume's occasional bursts of high spirits, followed by intervals of deepest gloom.
Nothing was said, however, and no startling incident presented itself until one evening, when Mrs. Hume suddenly collapsed in the drawing-room. In crossing the floor she suddenly swayed and fell, striking her head violently against a marble table. Fortunately, Morrison was present, and the fainting fit passed off without further evil results.
"Your wife wants tone," he said to Hume at parting. "I will send her a tonic."
Morrison was grave and silent on the way back to the bungalow. Once arrived there, he took a tiny phial of dark fluid from his pocket.
"A little blood let by Mrs. Hume in her fall," he explained. "I have been racking my brains for a way to procure this for some days. When I have made an experiment or two, I shall be more sure of my ground. I am going to show you something presently, calculated to startle even your iron nerves."
A room at the back of the bungalow had been fitted up as a temporary laboratory for the doctor. At the end of an hour he returned, grave and somewhat agitated. He had in his hand a sheet of paper, on which were traced a series of characters resembling a medical prescription. There were two formulæ, the other written on the second half of the paper.
"I have been making a careful analysis of the blood," Morrison explained. "Will you kindly cast your eye over this formula, and then compare it with the first?"
"So far as I can see," Death observed, after a critical examination, "they are identically the same."
"They are the same," Morrison replied. "I have tested them in every known way. But I see you are puzzled. For the last fortnight I have not fed my beetle, and yet a daily examination of the scarab finds him apparently well-nourished, if I may be allowed the expression. Now, whence has he derived the blood which is his natural food? There are evidences of it in the casket which I have analysed. And what do I find? That these two bloods come from the same body—both from Mrs. Hume!"
"Cannot you possibly be mistaken?" Death asked.
"Certainly not," Morrison replied emphatically. "Mind you, I am not in the least surprised. I knew that the scarab, with its weird history and mystery of ages, would fascinate our friend Hume; that is why I placed it in such a position that he could put his hand upon it when he pleased. Again, he never mentions it. Why? Because he is desirous of averting anything like suspicion. My theory is that the scarab is borrowed regularly by Hume, and returned to its place again. We are in his grounds, the window-catches are easily pushed back by a knife, we are neither of us early risers. Hume is a literary man, and, as such, is permitted eccentricities of habit which call for no comment. Frequently, when he cannot sleep, he goes for long night walks. For the last two nights I have sat up till dawn to test my theory, but hitherto nothing has happened. Will you share my watch this evening?"
Death assented readily. By eleven the bungalow was in darkness, the two interested occupants taking up their places in the hall, where they could see into the dining-room. The clock struck one before anything happened.
Then one of the windows was pushed cautiously open, and a figure crept in. He listened for a moment before drawing a match silently along his thigh. The vesta gave a dim light enough, but it sufficed to display Hume's features. Without hesitation he crossed to the old secrétaire, and removed from it to his pocket the casket containing the scarab. Another moment, and he had as silently departed.
Hume returned again just before dawn, and reversed the programme. Morrison hastened to examine his scarab. It was swollen to nearly twice its natural size.
After breakfast Hume entered the bungalow as if nothing had happened. He seemed a little more grave and preoccupied than usual.
"I have come on a professional errand this morning," he said. "The fact is, my wife is much worse. She has had several of those fainting fits, and she appears to be deplorably weak. Your tonic appears to have but little effect, doctor. May I suggest another remedy, which we have more than once discussed—the transfusion of blood?"
"The idea has occurred to me more than once, as you say," Morrison replied gravely; "and I confess that I should like to try the experiment. We want a subject, though."
Hume extended his arm, at the same time smiling frankly.
"Why not myself?" he suggested. "Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, you know. Let me literally shed my blood for my loved one. At any rate, in my case there will be no danger of diseased or acquired corpuscles contaminating the system. What do you say?"
"I have nothing to say at all," Morrison replied; "it rests entirely with Mrs. Hume. If you will explain your proposal to her, I will come over presently and further discuss the matter. You may rely upon me to do my best for all parties."
Hume protested his thanks, and withdrew. With a cloud of tobacco smoke drifting behind him, Morrison paced the room in a state of great mental excitement.
"Now, what is that man's scheme?" he cried. "Something diabolically clever—something that could only creep into the brain of a novelist. Death, if that fellow baffles me, and succeeds in his diabolical plan, I shall kill you."
"Better kill him first," Death replied coolly. "Anyway, you can confront him with the scarab if things grow desperate. Hume is absolutely under your thumb. I must confess to being deeply interested myself. Hadn't you better go across?"
At the end of three hours Morrison returned. The operation had been successfully performed, he said, and the patient was sleeping peacefully. There would be no further occasion for the scarab, Morrison thought, and the events of the subsequent week proved that he was right. The beetle required to be regularly fed.
But Morrison's patient made no rapid strides towards recovery. She was stronger, certainly, but she had apparently become the prey of some secret terror; she seemed to be keeping a constant watch upon her own actions. By some means not explained, Hume had sustained an ugly plastered wound upon his throat, a spot that Mrs. Hume regarded with awed, fearsome fascination. Morrison was apparently driven to his wits' ends.
"The woman is going mad," he said. "I can see self-destruction in her eyes. But how it is all managed passes my comprehension."
"Hadn't we better call in another novelist to solve the problem for us?" Death suggested.
But Morrison was in no jesting mood. He was anxious and unnerved. Any slight catastrophe now might precipitate the accident he was most desirous of avoiding. He was for disclosing the affair of the scarab to Hume, and ending the suspense then and there.
"Get Hume out of the way for a day," he suggested, "and allow me to be alone with my patient. Go off fishing, and stay away till nightfall. I am going to try a desperate remedy. If it comes to nothing, I must play the only card I have left."
Death was pleased to fall in with this suggestion. As a matter of fact, he was quite as much piqued and curious as Morrison, little as he showed it. The following day he and Hume were away from early morning till nightfall, returning to the bungalow to dinner. Morrison did not appear at the friendly meal, deferring his presence till later.
It was about nine when he entered. His face was dark, his eyes gleaming with uneasy triumph. Without returning Hume's salutation, he crossed the room and caught the novelist by the throat. With a nervous, sinewy grip, he tore the disfiguring patch of plaster from Hume's carotid. There was no wound there, nothing but the white strip against the brown skin.
"The man is mad," Hume said. "He will do me a mischief."
"There is much method in my madness, then," Morrison replied, as he dropped into a chair. "At any rate there is no homicidal mania in my family."
The effect of the apparently simple words upon Hume were electrical. He started; his lips grew ashy and dry. Words seemed to fail him. In a dazed, fascinated way he watched Morrison as the latter took a packet of papers from his pocket—old letters, seemingly, tied up with a piece of faded blue ribbon.
"Look at that man's throat!" Morrison cried. "He led us to understand that there was a wound there, but the flesh is sound as mine. Look at these letters! They purport to come out of an old oak chest—dormant evidence of a terrible family curse. They show how for four generations the tribe of Hume suffered from homicidal mania. They are wonderful literary productions, but they are all forgeries."
"It is false!" Hume cried hoarsely. "They are my father's writing. I discovered them only a week or two ago, and learnt my family's awful blight for the first time."
"They are forgeries," Morrison repeated. His anger had died away like a passing wind. "They were executed to order, artificially faded, and smoked to their present brown stain. And every sheet of paper contains the watermark of 1891—nearly fifty years later than the supposed writer passed away. But they served their purpose. You would have been far wiser to have destroyed the evidence of a hellish crime."
No reply came from Hume. Like a criminal he stood waiting for the judge to pronounce sentence. His hands, knotted over the back of a chair, completed the semblance to the dock.
"The fiendish simplicity of the plan is amazing," Morrison proceeded. "In the first place, he invokes the aid of my Rameses' scarab."
"Ah!" shot from Hume's lips. "But I am interrupting you. Pray proceed."
"With the assistance of my beetle, you reduce your wife's vitality to the lowest ebb. You dare not proceed any further, for fear of arousing suspicion. Then a great idea comes to you—it came to you in this room, remember. You allay all suspicion, and even arouse our admiration, by your willingness to shed your blood for your wife's sake—having previously drained her of the same vital fluid. That was grand. There was a touch of mediæval romance about it. The experiment is performed by me successfully."
"You are very slow," came from Hume's white lips. "Pray come to the point."
"Here is the point," Morrison said, slapping the letters. "You make up your mind to play upon your wife's nervous fears. To do so, you forge these letters, proving that homicidal mania is hereditary in your family. You tell your wife this with dramatic fervour; you tell her how you have struggled with the frequent longing to murder; you tell her that your blood flows in her veins, that she will inevitably suffer the same malady. You go further, and invent a story of her having attempted your life in her sleep; you have the plastered wound to prove it. Does not the whole thing sound strange, and far-fetched to a degree? But not in the case of a hysterical woman. She accepts every word for gospel truth. Your idea was to let this horror play upon her mind till you drove her to suicide. You were very nearly successful, for I dragged your wife from the lake this afternoon, and forced this wretched story from her. The letters we obtained by wrenching open your desk. As to the use of the scarab, Death and I saw you take it from here, and replace it later. But your wife is not going to die now."
Nobody spoke for a moment. Hume raised his eyes slowly.
"What do you propose to do?" he asked hoarsely.
"I propose to do nothing," Morrison replied. "Your wife may take what action she deems necessary. For the present she has gone to London. I am desired to inform you that you are at liberty to go where you like, so long as you make no attempt to see your wife again. There is absolutely nothing more to be said."
"Miss Ogilvy is with my wife?" Hume asked.
"No; your wife refused to see her, and of Miss Ogilvy I can say nothing."
Hume shivered as if with cold. The information contained in the last few words seemed to affect him profoundly.
"I am going to make a clean breast of it," he said. "Do either of you happen to have read a story of mine entitled, 'Alter Ego'? It was published in a volume."
"We have both read it," Death replied, "and I was particularly taken with the sketch."
"In that case, I need not analyze my feelings," Hume proceeded. "The curse of my life is there set out. To my wife I owed everything material, yet I could not feel the gratitude I should. She would have killed my creative soul, killed it unintentionally, but destroyed it all the same. Alma Ogilvy it was who kept me mentally alive. I loved her. I could see that my wife designed to part us. She might as well have cut my heart out at once. But, knowing my passion for Miss Ogilvy, I presume you allowed no hint to drop concerning my real motive?"
"I hope that I have the feelings of a man," Morrison said gravely.
"I am obliged to you. I know that my days are numbered, and that my hours of remorse will of necessity be few. With my wife out of the way, the autumn of my days were worth the sin. The scarab gave me the first inspiration, my imagination lent the rest. I thought I had managed it to perfection, but since I was seen to take the scarab, your subsequent deductions followed as a matter of course. I have finished."
Hume turned to leave the room. Death detained him by a gesture.
"Would you mind telling me where you are going?" he asked.
"Home, for the present," Hume replied; "to-morrow to Liverpool. America is my destination. I have sufficient money for my present needs; my pen will keep me till the end comes. You have saved my soul between you, and I thank you."
The door closed behind him with a sullen bang, his footsteps died away in the distance. Morrison took his sacred scarab from his box, and threw it far out into the lake, where it dropped like a golden plummet in the crystal water.
"A pity," Death said musingly; "a great pity."
"Not so," Morrison replied. "Let that spawn of Satan lie there out of harm's way. My friend, you came very near your death to- day. Had I been too late to save that woman, your life would have paid the forfeit. Give me my money."
Death counted out the second halves of the ten thousand-pound notes. Morrison took them, and walked sternly from the room.
"That was a good man," he said, "and we nearly condemned him to eternal punishment between us. May I never look upon your accursed face again."
Death finished the cigar he was smoking, not in the slightest moved.
"All the same," he mused, "I have proved how poor a creature your good man is, when exposed to the right phase of temptation."
THEY were seated on the cliffs as Greenstrand read the story. They were bathed in the serene beauty of a summer silence. Below them a white fringe lapped the sand; overhead blue, blue below, vividly contrasted with the flame of the gorse on the hillside. From somewhere in the hollow there came a trilling song; one of the village girls working the spun cobwebs of her lace in the amber afternoon. Strife and the fret of life seemed to have found decent burial there.
"What do you think of it?" Greenstrand asked.
Margaret made no reply. Her face was turned as if scanning the horizon for the sails of hope there. Hitherto it had been all despair. The girl's face might have been carved as a cameo of melancholy.
Greenstrand glanced at her furtively. Perhaps his heart was heavy as her own. The many months spent there, the regular life, and the pure air, had not been urged against his cynicism in vain. The lusty breezes had gradually peeled off the outer shale of doubt, as the Atlantic swell did the rocks along the foreshore, until the soul was pregnable to assault.
It had come to this, the tattered doubts still remained, yet Greenstrand wanted to believe. Could his faith but be restored to him, Margaret would be his. But he dared not claim her until the blest consummation.
No man can rise superior to environment, even though he be ten times a millionaire, who carries the same in the guise of portable luggage. And Greenstrand had been no exception to the rule; he had not tried to be. He had not risen superior to his environment; rather, he had aspired to it.
For no man could possibly lead his present life without being the better for it. He was constantly in communication with two people in whom he could not but believe, save as noble clauses in the catalogue of humanity. And the faith he longed for would bring the diadem of love in its train.
Therefore he had come to long with a restless eager craving for Death's failure. Given, say, three examples of contempt for temptation, and Greenstrand was prepared to capitulate and evacuate the castle of doubt. It was all he asked for, all he prayed for; it had come to that. He prayed for his lost faith, but with the iconoclasm of modern teaching he could not bring himself to believe in that which was incapable of practical demonstration.
Failure on Death's part would be as living water in a thirsty land; he wanted the stream poured on his parched soul, so that it might grow green again, like the dry wheat after February rains. But the failures came not; the drought seemed as if it was eternal.
"What do you think of it?" Greenstrand demanded again.
"My opinion you have known from the first," Margaret said. "The whole conception is horrible; it must culminate in some overwhelming catastrophe. And yet I know that the light will come first; I am certain of it."
"Meanwhile success treads on the heels of success," Greenstrand remarked gloomily.
Margaret rose from the grass where she had been seated. The sweet smell of crushed wild thyme filled the air as she walked away. Her heart was too full for words, and the others, respecting her trouble, suffered her to depart in silence.
"And what do you think about it?" Greenstrand inquired combatively. "You have not said a single word as yet, Julien."
The poet roused himself from the reverie into which he had fallen.
"It is unwise," he said, "to criticize an unfinished picture."
"What do you mean by that?"
"The picture—the story, if you like the expression better—is not complete. The dramatic sequence is untold still. As a poet and passim an author, I cannot commend Death's workmanship as yet."
"Won't you enlighten the ignorance of one who is nor poet nor author?"
"You are the author of many tragedies, at any rate," Ray responded. "The picture is by no means complete. It will not be complete until we know what becomes of Miss Ogilvy. Have you considered her?"
"As a human document, certainly. She is merely an ingredient. She is like cucumber in a claret-cup; without her, the beverage lacks subtlety of flavour."
"Therein, my friend, you are certainly wrong," Ray replied. "Alma Ogilvy is not merely a human document; she is the envelope enclosing the whole. The finest character in the story, Arthur, though merely a sketch. I have conceived the highest regard for her."
"Had not you better follow it up?" Greenstrand suggested coldly.
"Precisely what I am going to do," Ray responded. "I am fascinated, caught upon a whirlwind of emotion. On Friday I am going to London, as you know. Through Death, I can easily find Dr. Morrison."
"To discover finally that Angus Hume and Miss Ogilvy have thrown in their lot together?"
Ray laughed serenely. There was something in his boyish faith, always, which moved Greenstrand more than the subtlety of a logician could have done.
"I shall find nothing of the kind," said the poet. "Miss Ogilvy will make an attempt to save Hume, so far as this world is concerned, and she will be successful."
"You mean that she will contemplate some heroic self- sacrifice?"
"She will accomplish it," Ray cried. "She will succeed. I feel as certain of it as I feel certain of the all-seeing God."
"Would that I could feel reasonably doubtful, even, of either," Greenstrand smiled. "But, if you are right, then Death fails, comparatively."
Ray smiled in return. "How your eyes shine at the thought of it," he said. "Yes, you have hit upon my idea."
"Death's triumph shall have a rider—an epilogue which shall be a dismal failure from his point of view. Miss Ogilvy shall play Gabriel to his Lucifer."
"And in that case, the result we long for will be accomplished."
"Precisely," Ray cried. "Look at the fair things in nature which rise from corruption and decay. And decay again, you may urge. But not of their own volition. Arthur, I have thee on the hip, lad. Behold the proof of my theory in nature. But then, as you are not a poet, you are purblind. If I can prove Miss Ogilvy to be the thing of light I take her for, will it not go far to convince you?"
"Ay," Greenstrand said hoarsely, "it would indeed. Give me but three or four such cases, and there would be new life for me. My anxiety to be convinced consumes me. And yet it is hopeless. Look at Death's successful career."
Greenstrand's voice died away in moody cadence. The darkness of spiritual night seemed to have crossed the day again.
"I challenge," Ray said eagerly. "I am at issue with you entirely as regards Death's notions. I do not accuse him of unfairness, but I do say that his desire to win has coloured his selections. Most of his puppets have been in worldly case——"
"Is it possible to find marionettes made of anything but clay?"
"I have seen some exquisite Dresden-china figures," Ray said dryly. "No; Death has not looked high enough."
"Did not you regard Wallingford Hope as a high life?—or the bishop?"
"Certainly not. Few of us know, until we are tempted, how honest we are. And yet there are thousands of men absolutely beyond the reach of temptation. And in the case of Farre, for instance, I doubt if the recording angel would not drop a tear on the record of his so-called crime. But Death will fail yet. Signs are not wanting that he is getting tête montée. Then he will aim far higher, and come tumbling ignominiously to the ground."
"May the God whom you worship grant it," Greenstrand said fervently. "And yet I never met with any unit of those thousands whom you prate of so glibly."
"They are all around you, Arthur—our missionaries."
"Who never come near me for a moment without asking me for money."
"There you go with your money again," Ray said petulantly, yet good-humouredly. "What a millstone about your neck it is! How can a man hope to float with such a weight attached to him? Personally, I think nothing of Death's successes. Up to now he has been merely successful enough to prove the rule. He has been lucky in exploiting so many exceptions. His hour is coming."
"Well, I will try to think so. And Miss Ogilvy?"
"I will let you know further in a day or two. I shall leave no stone unturned to find out the facts. Say no more at present."
Before Ray went away on his errand, which was primarily one of charity, he confided to Margaret what he intended to do. It is needless, perhaps, to say that the girl applauded his decision. And so Ray departed, filled with enthusiasm, and leaving behind him a sunshine which was intoxicating.
It was not till the sixth day that Greenstrand heard from his friend. He had seen both Death and Morrison, he said, and furthermore, he had himself, in the enclosed narrative, completed the story of the Scarab.
With the packet still unopened, Greenstrand went in search of Margaret. He explained to her the gist of Ray's letter.
"Come upon the cliffs, and let us read the chronicle together," Greenstrand said.
Nothing loth, Margaret complied. She placed her hand under Greenstrand's arm with the confidence of a child, for she loved him. Seated on the purple heather, Greenstrand lay at her feet. And in the sunshine and the silence, Greenstrand read the story that Ray had to tell.
IN the richest fabrics there is not infrequently a warp of stronger tissue that preserves the whole from premature destruction. The same thing applies to moral nature also; and as the strands of a hempen cord are rendered terse by storm, so is poor human nature braced by adversity.
Perhaps this faculty is more highly developed in woman than in man. And it came to Janet Hume at the time when she most needed it.
Picture the condition of the woman for a moment. She was one to whom environment was as the air she breathed. She had a husband whom she loved; otherwise she had not been so jealous of him, all armchair philosophers notwithstanding.
And everything had been torn away with one single wrench. She had not merely lost her husband—it was far worse than that. Hume's death would have been a minor grief by comparison. And the woman was absolutely friendless. Allied to a genius of erratic temperament, he had gradually forced the wedge of coldness between his wife and her relations. There had been coolness, and then absolute enmity.
And under any circumstances, Janet Hume's pride would have prevented her from parading her wounds before her flesh and blood. The secret of Hume's attempt upon her life would be kept; there was no scandal. She decided upon her course of action rapidly. In the first place, she must get away; she had her money under her personal control; and the association of home surroundings was impossible.
In that hour she rose superior to physical weakness. Long before Morrison's revelations had ceased to ring in her ears, she was on her way to London. Where she went to mattered nothing. She made no concealment of her proposed address, so far as the servants were concerned. That her husband would dare to follow her after what had happened, she did not for a moment believe.
Janet Hume would have been less than human had she refrained from all communication with Alma Ogilvy. In her eyes the girl was the more guilty party of the two. But for Alma, would Angus have acted as he did? Her heart told her not.
Therefore, ere the outraged woman fled South, she left a letter for Alma Ogilvy, detailing the history of the plot against her life, and more than hinting that the girl was responsible for the diabolical scheme.
It was, perhaps, three hours subsequent to Janet Hume's departure that Alma received the letter. Anger and the coldness of despair had whispered the winged words in the writer's ear as she scored them down at white heat on the paper. The narrative was succinct, and complete in every detail.
Alma read the letter slowly, and with a mind as clear as glass. Her first inquiry was for Hume; but he had also left some time before, the housekeeper being under the impression that he had accompanied her mistress to London. All that functionary knew was that her mistress had been hurriedly called away, and that the latter had promised to write to her in a few days.
Alma drew a deep breath. There was no scandal, then, nor was there likely to be honey of Hybla for slanderous tongues in the future.
For herself, the girl was not troubled at all; her only thought was for the man she loved, and who was lost to her for ever. Under no circumstances could she take his hand again; he had sinned too grievously for that. And out of her wide charity, she felt the deepest pity for Janet Hume. The quivering edge of insult, as couched in the letter, turned passive as a razor on fine steel. In the moment of her despair Janet had said mad things.
"The pity of it," Alma groaned—"the pity of it all! And what will become of Angus? He is no more fitted to fight the battle of life alone than a child. His kind of work is hardly sufficient to keep him from starvation."
Alma was a very woman. The codes of love were no algebraic signs to her. That Hume's passion for her was the keynote of his life she knew well. And yet no word had ever passed between them possessed by a shade of vivid colour. They had been fain to hide Cupid's shaft behind a panoply of flowers of speech. The train was there leading to the magazine; they skipped lightly over it a score of times a day, yet neither had ever held the match to the powder.
The girl's thoughts were for Angus alone. If there ever had been anything animal in her love, the brighter flame had burnt it out long since.
For her own future she cared nothing. But Angus! Alma's eyes were clear of the rose tint so far as her lover's failings were concerned. She discerned lucidly enough his unfitness to cope with the world; he was not the man to suffer and be strong; the staff of life was nothing to him unless the butter thereof was the purest. Old port and a temperature below sixty do not assimilate together.
Plainly, Hume was a sybarite. Not only must the wind be tempered to this literary lamb, but it must be precisely west- south-west besides. Like peaches, he required protection from frost to bring out his exquisite flavour to perfection.
Alma was cognizant enough of this fact. But the connoisseur in pines loves them none the less because their flavour is more costly than the twin savour of the hardier strawberry; and thus the girl, so far as her lover was concerned.
His weaknesses were as virtues in her eyes. Something must be done for him. Janet Hume knew the whole wretched story by heart now; but was there not still a lingering possibility of bringing husband and wife together again? Was there no sacrifice on her part equal to the desired consummation? The pine must have its hothouse heat again, the peach bloom under its crystal shelter. The world needed Hume; he had yet to write his masterpiece. The thing should be done; it must. But how to bring the thing to a head?
Alma sat herself down to think out the matter deliberately. Her happiness had gone by the board; she was prepared to throw reputation over as well. No light of inspiration came to her; she worked out Hume's worldly salvation with the critical care of a Gunsberg or Steinitz over a chess problem.
There was nothing else to do; no train leaving for the south till the morning. Alma ascertained Janet Hume's address in London, after which she dined quietly. A broken heart does not of necessity vitiate a delicate palate.
Morning broke cold and stormy. A leaden hail thundered on the hillsides, and ran down in turbulent, yet impotent, yellow tears. As the express from Edinburgh sped towards the Southern Cross, the gale intensified in fury. London came at length, glistening under a curtain of drifting mist; the lamps twinkled fitfully. Alma rather liked it; the tempest suited her tossing soul.
She had some distance to go, into Regent's Park, where Janet Hume had taken up her quarters with an old servant, who studied human nature adown an avenue of past lodgers. A little way from the house Alma dismissed her cab. She was absolutely cool, so cool and collected that she felt a nervous dread of the reaction which was certain to follow.
The rain danced upon her cloak, and sparkled like diamonds in her hair. Opposite her destination she paused for a little time. At the same moment a man loomed in her sight. He was without a greatcoat, devoid of umbrella. In a white face his eyes gleamed like stars; his long hair made derisive sport for the wind.
"Angus," Alma cried, "Angus, you here like this!"
Hume laughed recklessly. What were the elements to him?
"Yes," he said, "I am here. If you ask me why, I reply, God knows!"
"Have you been to see her yet, or are you waiting?"
"To screw up my courage? No, I have no intention of trying to see my wife. Why am I here? Because my conscience drags me here with warps of steel. Did ever a man treat woman who loved him so diabolically as I have treated her?"
"Your remorse is a two-edged weapon, Angus."
"Yes, I understand what you mean. I did it for love of you. I can speak freely now the scalding truth has seethed in our hearts for years."
Alma bowed her head before Hume's passioned words.
"Say no more on that," she murmured. "If God can forgive you, I can."
"You forgive me! In your eyes I am still a man who walks upright?"
"Why not?" Alma asked, with the first touch of recklessness she had shown. "I should be more—or less—than human did I hate the man who had perilled his life in this world and the next because be loved me. I am no hypocrite, Angus."
"Which means that you know everything, Alma?"
"Yes; your wife took care of that."
"Ah! She dipped her steel into the gall, Alma. I can see it in your face."
"Why not? What would my logic be under the same circumstances? The woman who loves does not tarry to reason. Without cause there cannot be effect. In your wife's eyes I am far worse than you."
"Alma, you are as innocent as newly created Eve by Adam's side."
"I know it," Alma replied calmly. "The knowledge keeps me from despair. But we are wasting time here. Angus, are all three of our lives to be wrecked?"
"A pretty question to ask the wrecker," Hume said bitterly.
"Because there is good under chaos. And it is not too late. You owe Janet much."
"Don't!" Hume groaned. "Don't pour oil on the furnace."
Alma crushed down the pity that came to her lips like water at the flood.
"I must," she said. "And it is not yet too late. Remember your promise at the altar. And you have taken everything, and given so little in return. Angus, you must go back to your wife, and render her Indian Summer happy. There will be more deceit, but it will be for the best. You are bound to make some sacrifice."
"You will find me a penitent sinner," Hume replied; "but how is it to be done?"
"Through me," Alma responded. "If I succeed, you must follow. And I shall succeed. How? By deceit—by lying as never one woman lied to another before. I am going to take all the blame on myself. Where are those letters?"—
Hume produced them; they had been handed to him by Morrison the day before. He regarded Alma with a sense of stupefaction.
"Listen," the girl went on rapidly. "Those two men are not likely to divulge the secret they have learnt. I forged these letters."
Alma tapped the documents with her knuckles as she spoke.
"The plot was mine," she proceeded, in the same even monotone. "From your wife's letter, I gather she does not know everything; in fact, there is something concealed from me."
"And always will be," Hume said hoarsely. "Go on!"
The story of the scarab was not known to Janet Hume. Morrison had made his revelations as light as possible; only the more subtle part had been revealed.
"I forged those letters," Alma repeated. "I placed them where you were certain to find them; it was I who laid that terrible temptation in your path. You honestly believed that the awful taint really existed in your family. My artfully concealed documents gave you the main suggestion. To your wife I am going to admit all this; I am going to——"
Hume burst into a peal of hoarse laughter. "To try and cobble a tragic failure into a farce," he cried. "Was ever such a mad project conceived out of Bedlam before?"
Alma felt the words not at all. She had expected something of the kind. It only served to harden the crust of her resolution.
"Your wife will believe every word of it," she said quietly.
"Believe that you are the most depraved of your sex? Impossible."
"Why impossible? She never thought very highly of me. And, so far as she is concerned, the bottom has fallen out of the universe. If you could be guilty of crime, how much the more could I? And do not forget that Janet loves you. And love is a cancerous growth; the more you cut it away, the further the roots spread. But we are merely arguing in a circle. Angus, this thing must be done."
Hume protested with the feebleness of the physically exhausted. He fought against the sleep that overpowered him like wine. What use was the sacrifice? he asked.
But Alma was not to be turned from her purpose. She fought Hume down; she gradually wore away his strength, till he was in her hands as a sick child. He covered his face with his hands, a long shuddering sigh escaped him—he consented.
"As you like," he said. "What would you have me do?"
"Stay here," Alma replied. "I shall not be long."
She crossed rapidly over to the house where she knew Janet Hume to be. She rang the bell, and demanded to see the object of her quest. A moment later she was standing in the presence of the injured wife.
IT was an hour later when she emerged. Hume was still there, in the semblance of one who walks in his sleep. But he noted the pallor of Alma's face; the quivering of her nerves caused her to respire with long quick breaths.
"You have failed," he said. "I knew you would; I am glad."
"On the contrary, I have been successful. Ask me nothing. There are some tortures which one cannot put into words. Go to your wife this evening, later on, and say that you have heard from me. I told you that she would welcome any excuse for you, and I was right. Good-bye."
"Alma, you are not going to leave me like this!"
"I am. You and I must never meet again. There is a friend of mine who is Mother Superior of a certain Sisterhood. I am going to join them. Good-bye."
Hume stepped forward a pace, and paused. Then he held out his hand. To kiss the girl now would be sacrilege. For a moment he conquered himself.
"Heaven bless and keep you!" he murmured. "Say good-bye, and go. I will do my best to live up to your noble sacrifice, to atone for the past. Good-bye."
Alma flitted out of sight, lost in the misty rain. For nearly two hours Hume paced round Regent's Park. Then he steeled himself for the coming interview.
He found his wife seated before the fire. As he entered she rose to her feet.
"I have heard from Alma that you wanted me," Hume said.
Janet Hume replied nothing. She groped her way with outstretched arms, her eyes so blind with tears that she could see nothing.
"Am I to stay?" Hume asked gently.
"Yes," came the reply. "I forgive you. After all, the fault was not yours. I tried to pluck the love from my heart, but——Kiss me, Angus; I am so tired—so very tired."
Hume stooped and kissed his wife. What the effort cost him, God knows. But the thought of the lonely figure, with her face to the rain, gave him strength. If she could rise so high, and yet a woman, surely he——
He laid his wife back in the armchair. Her eyes closed, the lips smiled.
"Janet," he said—"Janet, if you and I——"
Then he paused. He spoke to the air. She had fallen into a peaceful sleep.
THERE Ray's manuscript ended abruptly. In silence Greenstrand tore the sheets into fragments, and cast them over the cliff.
"No other eyes but ours must see that," he said.
"Does Julien say whence his information came?" Margaret asked.
"Yes; principally from Morrison. It appears that Hume told him. And Hume is the kind of man who must confide in some one. He could not put that story in cold print. Julien was right in his deductions, you see."
There were tears in Margaret's eyes, but the smile behind them turned salt water into diamonds.
"A noble woman," she said; "though the world might sneer at the sacrifice. Arthur, do you not rejoice with me? Is not the story perfect?"
"It has almost persuaded me to be a Christian," Greenstrand said lightly.
And yet there was no levity in his heart; he only spoke thus to disguise his feelings. The story of Alma's sacrifice had profoundly moved him. It seemed to him that he had been carried far towards his goal.
"You think I cannot see into your heart!" said Margaret. "But it is easy so to do."
"Then there is no reason for words on my part, Margaret. Another such as this, one more, and afterwards——But I dare not think of that."
"There are good people in the world, Arthur."
"Press your advantage. I admit it; I was wrong. And yet, on the other hand——Ah, my faith was very close to me then; I could nearly grasp it. It eluded me like a sunbeam."
"But you think that it is coming, Arthur?"
"I am certain of it, Margaret. Let Death fail once more. Mind, I only asked for three, and this one gives strength and encouragement——"
Greenstrand broke off, incapable of saying more. High overhead a white gull shot upwards. A feather fluttered from his wing, and dropped in Margaret's lap. She brushed the glossy bloom upon it gently.
"The gull still flies," she said, "despite the loss of this."
"Because it has faith, and is not afraid, I suppose?"
"YOU desire to see me on a matter of business."
Death bowed in reply to the speaker. At the same time his eye took in the poverty of the room in which he had been ushered pending Dr. Seaforth's arrival. The apartment was scrupulously clean, but the fact only served to heighten the suggestion of bareness. The poverty was evidently of the grimmest genteel kind, the life beside which penal servitude pales into insignificance.
The doctor's attire was correct enough; his features were cast in one of nature's choicest moulds, yet want gave him a lean and hungry alertness. There were dull patches on the shoulders of his frock coat, suggestive of the abuse of ink as a restorative. A poor doctor, struggling hard to live in a poor quarter down the river, was Seaforth. The tyro in humanity would have guessed as much.
Death saw his card flutter and tremble in Seaforth's long lean fingers. The thin transparency of the hands told their own story.
"You wish to consult me professionally?" Seaforth proceeded.
He caught his breath as he spoke. On the answer a day's food, perhaps, depended. But Seaforth might have spared the agony of his heroics. Death was perfectly well aware that there was no money in the house.
"Yes," the latter replied, "if you have an hour or two to spare."
Seaforth signified a chair. A bitter smile crept under his fair moustache.
"I hear you well spoken of," Death went on, "as one devoted to your profession."
"I should be; it has cost me sacrifice enough."
Death bowed again. He knew that story also. Seaforth had quarrelled with his family, and given up a bright future because he preferred the lancet to the mitre—the latter, in his case, represented by a juicy family living. The breach had been absolute; from that day forward he had never seen any of his own kin again. For a time fortune had favoured Seaforth; she found him the weapons necessary to fight his way into the profession, she provided him with a wife and child. And then the jade tripped smilingly to the making of a brassy millionaire, and left him to his fate.
"The errand I am here upon is a somewhat unusual one," Death explained; "but, as it is in the nature of your business, I apprehend that you will not see your way to refuse it. Your presence is required on board a hooker down the river, to attend a man who is suffering from delirium tremens."
"I am ready to accompany you at once," Seaforth replied.
"Good. In that case we had better start. There is a flavour of romance in the case which I will explain as we go along. Very likely I shall be compelled to leave you on board for a time, and, as I am a total stranger to you, I should prefer to pay you a fee for this consultation in advance."
Death laid a sovereign and a shilling on the table. Seaforth's eyes gleamed as he dropped it in his pocket. There was material there to keep the grey wolf away for a time. And within a week, if money for the rent of the house was not forthcoming, Seaforth would be driven out into the world again. But that the evil for the day sufficeth Seaforth had learnt from bitter experience.
A minute or two later Seaforth and Death had left the house behind them, but not until the doctor had left the sovereign behind.
"Let me explain the peculiarities of this case to you," Death said. "I need not ask if you are acquainted with the name of Sir Grant Laycock?"
"The greatest living authority on brain and nervous diseases? Of course."
"Sir Grant is at present in Italy on a holiday. That is what the world thinks. As a matter of fact, he is secluded in a village not far from Florence, in charge of a keeper. Laycock, my dear sir, is as mad as the proverbial hatter."
"You astound me!" Seaforth murmured.
"Nevertheless, I am speaking the truth. I need not say that this disclosure is in the strictest confidence. Sir Grant has been insane for years. You can quite understand how the deep and intricate study of the brain has affected his own. For a long time these attacks have been getting worse, but hitherto nobody has suspected anything wrong. You know how wonderfully cunning the insane are in hiding infirmity of the kind."
"Many instances have come under my notice," Seaforth replied.
"Precisely. At times Sir Grant is clear and brilliant, as usual; latterly the attacks are so severe that he has to hide himself away. Now, it is perfectly natural that, with a mind so troubled, a man should have a pet mania. We all have them. And in Sir Grant's particular case this mania takes the form of desire to recover lost treasure. Since he first read "Treasure Island"—which brilliant romance he practically has by heart—Sir Grant has devoted the whole of his spare time to the subject. As you know, he is a rich man, and a bachelor, therefore he can afford to gratify his hobby. He has a huge pile of books and records devoted to the history of rich galleons lost at sea. Without making public the matter, he has more than once fitted out a vessel with all the appliances for the recovery of heavily laden wrecks. The last was an attempt to raise The Holy Rose, a Spanish vessel, in specie, which foundered in the Gulf of Mexico some sixteen years ago, latitude uncertain. To effect this purpose, the hooker Stornaway was fitted out two years ago. The captain, Rooke, was furnished with some wonderful plans which had fallen into Laycock's hands, and he had every confidence in the success of the expedition. The Stornaway is now in the Thames."
"And were they successful?" Seaforth asked, interested despite himself.
"Personally, I should be prepared to wager a handsome sum against it," Death said dryly. "As to the rest, I can say nothing, for the simple reason that Rooke is at present down with an attack of delirium tremens, as I told you. There was a large safe built into his cabin for the safe custody of the treasure, but I can find the key nowhere."
"But, surely, the crew would be in a position to tell you!"
"There are only three Lascars on board; no one of the original crew remains. From what I could gather, Rooke is a ruffian and bully of the worst possible type. All the Englishmen on board deserted at Pernambuco, and, with only five Lascars, the hooker was navigated home. However, I can get the duplicate key in a day or two—in fact, it is on the way from Italy now—and then we will see. But here we are."
They were far down the river by this time. Death led the way along a rotten and deserted wharf, strongly reminding Seaforth of that of Lethe, at the end of which the hooker was lying. As they stepped on board, Seaforth noticed the air of disaster, and signs of dirt and slovenliness everywhere. Everything was out of place, the decks were slimy with filth and discoloured by expectoration. Plugs of exhausted tobacco, masticated to fibre, oozed clammily underfoot. A foul smell rose from the hatchway.
"Faugh!" Seaforth said with a shudder. "The place is a perfect fever-trap."
Down below they found the captain, Rooke. The inert, indifferent Lascars had stripped his cabin and locked him in, where he was raging like a newly-caged tiger. Death obtained the key, and threw open the door.
A dark man, with red-rimmed staring eyes, advanced towards them. His black hair was matted on his forehead, and limp with perspiration. Over the temples, the veins stood out like purple cordage.
"Take them away," he cried, "all of them! There's no treasure, here, I tell you. We never found any. I knew that when we started. If I could only find the key, I'd prove it, and then they would go away. Send them off, I tell you!"
He burst into a torrent of lurid oaths, the cosmopolitan fruit of many ports. He beat upon the cabin table with senseless passion.
"A bad case," Seaforth whispered, "and all the worse, because this is by no means the first attack of the kind. He wants sleep badly."
"Do you think he is going to die?" Death asked.
"I should say, certainly," Seaforth responded. "In any case, he must sleep. I came prepared for a violent paroxysm, and I have a sedative in my pocket. Could you find me a tin cup anywhere?—not a glass, if you can help it."
A tin measure was produced by one of the somnolent Lascars. Seaforth poured into it a little water, and then the sleeping potion. At the sound of liquid tinkling in the cup, Rooke turned round wolfishly.
"Drink!" he cried hoarsely. "Give it me, quick. They took all my rum away."
He tossed the liquid down as if it had been sherry. Then he demanded more. Seaforth gave him a little water. He staggered to a chair, and collapsed therein. A few minutes later his ravings lapsed into sleepy murmurs, then silence. He slept.
"He will do now for some hours," Seaforth said. "Here, you men, carry him away and lay him in his bunk. I'll come back again at nightfall. He won't wake till then."
There was no longer anything to remain for. At the bottom of Thames Street, Death parted from his companion.
"I will call on you again to-morrow, or the next day," he said. "By that time I am sure to have the key of the safe. You will visit the hooker again before night? On second thoughts, perhaps, I will come down to the hooker myself this evening, if you will name a time."
"Then say half-past ten. I will meet you here, if you like."
"Don't wait for me, as I may be late. If I am not on the hooker by twelve, I shall not come at all," Death remarked. "As a matter of fact, I am sick of the whole business, and I'm sorry I ever undertook it."
Death's forecast proved correct, for he was not at the appointed place in time. With the aid of a friendly policeman, Seaforth picked his way to the dreary wharf. A bright moonlight aided his adventurous efforts. One of the Lascars showed a lantern, and thus assisted, Seaforth scrambled on board.
Only two of the dusky crew were visible, Seaforth gathering from his guide that the other was sick in the forecastle. Seaforth smiled grimly. It would be his duty to visit the ailing Lascar in his bunk presently; and if the forecastle was as fragrant by comparison as the cabin, the interview would be anything but a pleasant one.
He found his chief patient just as he had been laid in his hammock, suspended across the cabin. All the same, Rooke must have moved, for on the cabin table lay what looked like the missing key of the safe. Seaforth laid his hand upon the sleeper's forehead, then he started slightly.
The man was cold—dead. Familiar as he was with death and disaster, Seaforth was conscious of a creepy feeling. The dirty ship, the vile smell, and the silence, all added to the grim realism of the thing. But the man was dead. There was nothing for it, now, but to wait until the arrival of Sir Grant Laycock's emissary.
Seaforth examined his surroundings curiously. The place seemed to teem with vivid fascinations in tune with Seaforth's sombre mood. The whole story was a salty romance—a little decayed. And perhaps the safe contained the epilogue of this sea mystery. Rooke, doubtless, had found the key; perhaps had it all the time of his drunken maunderings.
Seaforth took the warded steel in his hands. Something seemed to draw his fingers to the safe.
"Why not?" he said aloud. "There can be no harm in it, anyway."
He moved the ship's lantern so that the light would fall upon the safe. The key fitted the lock, the heavy door swung back easily.
Inside there were some score or more of leathern bags. Seaforth took one of them in his hand. It was so heavy that he could hardly get it on the table. He untied the green leather thong, and plunged in his crooked, trembling fingers. The fitful light of the lantern shone upon a glittering heap of gold dollars.
All the bags contained coin. There must have been thousands upon thousands there. And this man, who alone held the secret, had but one shining yellow disc between himself and those he loved and starvation. No other living soul knew of this, and the putative owner of it all was a madman. It lay in Seaforth's hands to become master of wealth, to save his home, to raise himself in the scale of humanity.
He trembled so that he could hardly replace the bag. A plentiful moisture ran down his face. There were tears of self- contempt in his eyes. In those few moments Seaforth passed through the agony of a lifetime. As he attempted to drag the key from the relocked safe, it seemed to hold his fingers in a vice.
Then resolution conquered. With his clenched fist, cut and bleeding, he smashed one of the porthole glasses, and cast the key far into the river.
"They can manage without it," he said aloud. "I have sunk pretty low, but I am not going to lose everything that makes life tolerable. I am no thief yet, thank God!"
A sudden spasm seemed to check his breathing. He tumbled blindly up the companion-way, longing for air. At the head of the steps he encountered Death. He was not aware that the latter had watched the whole scene from the ladder. How was Seaforth to know that Death had placed the key furtively for him to find?
"You got here before me," Death said. "I am sorry I was late. The patient?"
"Is a patient no longer, being merely a corpse. I was bound to stay here for you. I presume you will see to the funeral."
"To everything. There is nothing to detain us here longer to- night."
Death evinced no surprise at Seaforth's disclosure. He had felt perfectly assured from the first that Rooke's decease was only a matter of time. He had carefully laid his plans for Seaforth's successful temptation, and he had failed. So far as he was concerned, there was an end of the matter. He had found at last a man who was above the lure of the devil. The modern Aesop had been successful in his search.
"One moment," Seaforth remarked. "I might as well earn my fee whilst I am here. One of the Lascars is down ill in the forecastle; I should like to see him first."
"Very well. In that case, I think I will accompany you."
Death crammed some sheets of paper into his pocket, and followed. In the forecastle they found the dusky sailor on his bunk, in great agony. His lips looked purple in the sickly light; the limbs were almost rigid.
Seaforth drew back with a cry of horror. He grasped Death by the arm, and hurried him up on deck.
"What frightened you in that way?" the latter asked.
"Cholera," Seaforth said hoarsely. "That poor fellow is in extremis, and another one is sickening for the same disease. Say nothing at present. It is our duty to get away, and warn the authorities without delay. Come quickly."
Death needed no second bidding. This was a dramatic termination to his experiment, which had been totally unlooked for. Despite his iron nerve, he felt somewhat sick and cold, as a man does who is not accustomed to disease. And he had been on that cursed death-ship three times that day already.
"What are we to do?" he asked helplessly.
"Return to my house at once," Seaforth replied. "Fortunately, it is late, and therefore we shall not meet many people. We must avoid those we meet as much as possible. My wife will be sitting up for me. Without going anywhere near her, I shall inform her what has happened, and send her and my daughter across to Dr. Gretton's. He will take them in for a day or two, and also see that the authorities are warned. Of course, you understand that for days you and I will be as prisoners in my house. We shall be shunned like the plague, and fed like lepers."
"I suppose you are not mistaken?"
"My good sir, I was an assistant-surgeon at Aden for two years. That unhappy man has virulent cholera, as sure as you are alive."
Death accepted the inevitable with outward equanimity. At the outset he had contemplated the possibility of finding a knot in the board sometimes, but a coffin-board, and that his own, had not come within the focus of the kaleidoscope.
No word was spoken on the homeward way. Seaforth rattled his key in the latch at length; then there were sounds of footsteps coming down the stairs. From the ring they made, it was evident that the upper part of the house was but scantily furnished.
High up the well of the stairs a solitary candle shone. Death could see a red transparent hand before it, a figure like a silhouette in the gloom, playing round the yellow light. Seaforth explained the situation clearly.
His wife made no demur. She was practically cutting herself off from her husband, with the chance of never seeing him again; but her reply had a strong and cheerful ring. The husband had decided, and what he said was right. Seaforth motioned Death into the scantily furnished dining-room, and offered him a chair. Presently, there were footsteps in the passage, and the sullen banging of the hall door.
"Thank God," Seaforth said fervently, "that they are out of danger!"
"Meaning that our case is a great deal more serious?" Death suggested.
"Well, yours may be," the doctor remarked coolly. "Asiatic cholera is not a toy in the hands of prattling children. For my part, I always take proper precautions."
Death made no reply for a moment. Warm as the evening was, he shivered. A sudden feeling of giddiness and sickness came over him. An instant later he doubled up with a terrible inward pain. The physical torture rendered him rigid.
"In the name of Heaven, brandy!" he gasped. Seaforth produced a little from a cupboard, and literally forced it between Death's teeth.
"Relax your muscles," he commanded sternly.
"I cannot. I seem to be drawn up like a bow. Have I—is it——?"
Seaforth examined the speaker's face intently. "Yes," he said quietly. "One of the worst features of this awful disease is the swiftness with which it strikes down its victim. You are in God's hands now. I will do my best for you."
The last words conveyed nothing to Death. He was unconscious. The horrible pain had got him down and mastered him.
IT was four days later before he came to his senses again. Seaforth sat opposite to him. All that the invalid could require had been brought there; the authorities had seen to that. When the quarantine was raised, everything in the house would have to be destroyed. Ninety-six hours of suffering had reduced Death to a skeleton. But his skin was cool and moist, and the flood of fever had ebbed away.
"You are out of danger now," Seaforth explained. "All you want is good diet, and what I have not here can be easily obtained. You must not talk too much."
"It must have been awfully dreary work for you."
"Yes; but it was my duty. And I had no time to think—a luxury in itself. But you are not to say any more at present. Be silent."
A week passed by, and at the end of that time Death practically was himself again. A few more days, and the embargo was removed. No precaution had been neglected; the inside of the house was practically gutted. Everything was destroyed.
"I owe my life to you," Death said at parting. He held out his hand.
Seaforth ignored it sternly. "As you remark," he said, "you owe me your life. And yet I should have been justified in allowing you to die, like the hound that you are."
"I do not understand your meaning."
"No? Then let me explain. It became necessary to know who you were, so that people outside could communicate with your friends. There was a great mass of papers in your pocket, and it became my duty to examine them."
"Go on," Death said quietly, "go on."
"I examined those papers and a diary singly, and from thence I got a fair idea of what appears to be your mission in life. Concerning its cynical depravity I say nothing; words of mine would be wasted upon so callous a wretch as yourself. And you could not leave alone a man so poor in fortune's suits as I am; you must even try to rob me of my honesty. I have read it all for myself. You scoundrel!"
"Have you any more to say?"
"Very little. It is useless to reproach you. All this I read in the earlier stages of your illness. I was tempted, then, to let you die. I ought to have let you die, and rid humanity of such a pest; but I did not do so. I conquered my feelings; I nursed you as tenderly as if I had been of your own flesh and blood. Under Providence you were saved by me. Dwell upon the fact; dwell upon it, and go."
"One moment," Death replied. "If there is any way that I can——"
"There is none. A situation has been offered me by letter since I have been here, and the same I have accepted. Receive help from you? I would rot first. Now go!"
They parted thus. Failure there might have been on Death's side, but one man, at least, had triumphed as it is given to few men to triumph in this world of ours.
IT was night as Greenstrand sat and finished the manuscript. On the table lay a note enclosed with the chronicle, which Greenstrand had not opened yet. He perused every word again with a wild triumph at his heart, and a mistiness before his eyes. Ray was not there to share his gratification, for he was in London still; he was due on the morrow.
"Thank Heaven!" Greenstrand murmured. "There is a God, as there are good men who follow His teaching. My lost faith has come back to me."
It seemed to rush into his arms, and beat its unseen wings against him. He and Belief stood smiling at each other across the solitary hearthstone. The joy was not without a sense of shamed guilt, which was the first thought of awakening understanding. And Margaret must know of this before she slept. He crossed over to the cottage, bareheaded, in the moonlight. He tapped the glowing casement, which the girl opened.
There was a faint flush on her face as she saw who her visitor was.
"I am not going to detain you now," Greenstrand said hurriedly. "I found this waiting for me when I got back this evening. Will you read it to-night?"
"Arthur, your news is good. Yes, I see it in your face. In your eyes there is the love of God."
"And now," Greenstrand cried, "read, read, and we will meet again in the morning!"
He turned away quickly. His feet brushed the heather, but his head seemed as if pillowed on the clouds of Olympus. He quivered in every limb, his face was wet with tears, like those of a little child whose fear is changed to happiness.
For an hour he sat contemplating his glowing future in the fire. Alma Ogilvy had gone far to restore his faith, and Seaforth had crowned the awakened statue. Margaret would know that he spoke from his heart; he could claim those tender scarlet lips now, and Death should be commanded to sin no more.
Here Greenstrand's fingers touched the letter, which he had not read. He idly broke the seal, and scanned the contents.
"I send you the history of a failure," it ran. "Between the lines of your letters I read the desire for one, and can guess at the reason. If my hand for fiction has not lost its cunning, the enclosed should suffice. You understand? If more of the same kind be required, I can supply them."
The paper fluttered from Greenstrand's fingers. Then the story was a lie—a piece of hyperbole, written for the purpose of deceit? Should he let it pass, and allow Margaret to believe that the story was as true as his own newborn faith? She would have no doubts; she would take his word, and all would be well. Greenstrand swayed before the temptation as a reed bent by the winter gale.
He reeled before it. To stand upright against such a hurricane of tempestuous temptations would have been possible only to Olympians. And Greenstrand fought against the stream as a strong swimmer caught by the tide. He fought it sitting there; he fought it out in the night, with the stars above him; he fought it till the grey of dawn.
When Margaret came, smiling and rosy as the newborn day itself, her eyes met a face filled with despair. And yet her lover had never looked so strong and resolute.
"What has happened?" she demanded instantly.
By way of reply, Greenstrand handed her Death's letter. She read it carefully three times, then tore it into fragments.
"The thing was a lie," Greenstrand said. "You read the story?"
"Yes; and there seemed to be truth in every line. Why should it trouble you like this?"
"Why? Another fatal success comes at the moment when our hands are on the point of meeting for good and all. It gave me back my faith, and now——"
He turned away, unable to proceed for a moment. When he faced Margaret again, he saw that her eyes were luminous with happiness.
"Why do you smile?" Greenstrand demanded, almost fiercely.
"I will tell you in a moment. Did not that story complete your cure?"
"Last night it did, but now——"
"I saw it in your eyes; I could hear it in the timbre of your voice. And this letter of Death's is impudence unparalleled. Arthur, how blind you are!"
"You are speaking in riddles, Margaret."
"No, no; plain fact," Margaret cried. "Do you not see? Death's story is true. His letter is to tempt you to say nothing, and so deceive me. He knows, he guesses; the letter displays that. How skilfully he has laid his plot to tempt his master to a base act!"
"It is a scheme to tempt me?"
"Yes; and it has failed. I feel certain that I am right. Oh, it is glorious, glorious! We have had two fine examples of superiority over circumstances, and you are the third. Arthur, in yourself you have proved the fallacy of your argument. Have you not fought a great temptation, and conquered?"
The full force of the words came to Greenstrand in a blinding flash. He seemed suddenly to be uplifted. Fool that he had been not to grasp this before, and save himself a night of misery. Margaret's woman's wit had penetrated where his duller comprehension had failed. He was beyond his environment.
"Margaret," he cried, "if I could only prove this!"
"It is easily capable of proof. There is a telegraph-office at Port Jacob, and you knew Death's address. Telegraph him in plain terms for the proof; and say, if he has deceived you, there is no occasion for further experiments."
"You are satisfied that I am satisfied at last?"
"I am," Margaret blushed. "Not yet, Arthur. When the reply comes, I may kiss you then."
The answer was long in coming. Finally, about sunset, it arrived; a fisher-boy brought it by the cliffs, whistling shrilly as he came.
Greenstrand snatched the envelope from his hands, and tore it open.
"You have solved the problem," it ran. "Your suggestion correct. Two failures in one experiment. You would have been the finest capture of them all; my eagle amongst a collection of kites. Am in midst of experiment now, which shall finish, and desist as commanded."
Margaret held out her hands. Her face shone like a star.
"You may kiss me," she said. "What does the rest matter, now? You are convinced, and I have proved you true. And this is the end."
Greenstrand kissed her once on the lips, then suffered her to go.
PEOPLE in society wondered what was the reason for the friendship between the Princess of Serena and a mere working journalist like Ambrose. True, the princess held extremely advanced views; she was a frequent contributor to the best, e.g. the half-crown ephemerals, and this might have constituted a bond of sympathy.
To all practical purposes, Princess Corona was English. She had been caught young, and educated here for political reasons; the consequence being, that when diplomacy arranged for her to share the little toy throne of Serena, England found a firm friend at the court there, and Russia an uncompromising foe.
As most people know, Serena is a buffer state erected by the genius of Lord Beaconsfield, and confirmed by the Treaty of Berlin. Penetrating politicians of the Lawson type had sneered at the time, but years had proved the wisdom of the creation. So long as Serena stood, Russia was powerless in that direction. And a more popular queen country never boasted.
As a matter of fact, Princess Corona was king and queen in one. Like the great majority of rulers, Prince Karmis, her husband, was a victim to the criminal system of royal inbreeding, which threatens before long to confine all the crowned heads and their collaterals within an asylum. He was slight and puny, he was subject to strange fits of depression, he was a cunning liar of the first water—a sure sign of moral weakness—and his heart was seriously affected. Small wonder that the prince was more of a spoilt boy than a responsible sovereign.
But the consort's troubles did not end here. She knew, nobody better, that Russia was working quietly to break up the State of Serena, a task rendered all the more easy in consequence of the unruly behaviour of the hill tribes. Their fanaticism was a constant source of trouble, all the more so because the hills contained a hybrid sect, who were the object of constant persecution, and whom Russia chose to regard as forming the followers of the Greek Church. And Russia, with her enlightened views and morbid love of liberty, is peculiarly fitted for the Champion of Christianity—a fact which diplomatists, with characteristic lack of humour, have come universally to acknowledge.
That the agents of the "divine figure from the North" constantly fomented these atrocities, Princess Corona knew perfectly well. That they were devised also to drive her husband from the throne she was also aware. Prince Karmis out of the way, she, too, would be powerless. A puppet would grasp the sceptre, and a Russian occupation follow directly afterwards, as a matter of course.
The princess stood at the top of the stairs at the Shan Embassy, waiting for the consort. She was a strikingly handsome woman, of some six-and-twenty years. Her tall slim figure was wrapped in a white cloak, with down about the throat, behind which a circle of diamonds glittered. The red lips were a trifle wide; there was both power and passion in the dark face. The brown eyes looked like slumbering fires.
By the princess stood Ambrose. They made a fine couple, for the man was big and strong; had he not been a journalist he would have made a pattern emperor.
"Have you found the prince?" she asked.
"Yes," Ambrose replied, "I have just left him. He cannot come to you."
The princess drew in her lips sharply. She seemed to be suffering from some physical pain that she was desirous of hiding from her companion.
"Ah," she said, "the old pitiful story; he has been drinking again."
"I fear so. As you suggested, I have been watching him all day. I suppose you can guess who the prince's companion has been?"
The princess nodded. A great personage passed along the flowery way, and she forced a smile to her lips. She pulled a rose from a pot beside her, and plucked its red heart out leaf by leaf.
"You mean Samouiski, of course. Mr. Ambrose, you are my friend?"
She flashed a magnetic glance at him, the look which brought the wildest of the hillmen to her feet. Ambrose thrilled.
"I am something more than your friend," he replied.
The listener's face flushed. That this man loved her she knew well. And she was none the less cognizant of the fact because his passion was returned. The situation was tragic and farcical at the same time, as are most of the serious businesses of life. That a mere Fleet Street journalist should dare to lift his eyes to a reigning sovereign seems absurd; but that the exalted object should return the admiration was madness. But, madness or otherwise, there it was.
"I will tell you a secret," the princess went on more calmly.
"Samouiski is here to arrange for the prince's abdication. That much I have gathered. You can guess what will follow that act. My poor little country will be distracted, there will be strife and bloodshed. And all my fault for coming here. Heaven knows I did it for the best. I thought to strengthen our position here, but I know now that we should have stayed at home. There I knew how to deal with my husband, I promise you."
The mask fell from the speaker's face for a moment. The native Berserker blood flamed into her eyes in angry red. After all, the coat of civilization was no deeper in grain than a tiger- skin.
"Do you know this Samouiski?" Ambrose asked.
"Not well. They tell me he is one of the new favourites at the North. He is a man with a face like a mask. I believe the grand- duke met him here recently, and recommended him for this commission—the grand-duke who collects the orchids, I mean. But there is only one thing to do; we must get home to Serena without delay. And now take me to my husband."
Ambrose started. What the princess asked was impossible.
"I cannot do it," he said. "Pardon me, but you know what the prince is. He is like a vicious youth released from home for the first time. And this Samouiski has led him on until—You understand? It is a low gambling den."
"I care not where it is. The prince must have money, though his follies have drained our exchequer. And when he is in need of money, as at present, he is capable of any folly to obtain it. I tried hard to keep him from Samouiski, but my vigilance has been defeated this time. For all I know to the contrary, the Act of Abdication may be signed. And before the prince is himself again, take me there."
The manner of the princess had grown suddenly hard and imperious. Ambrose saw there was nothing for it but to obey.
"Shall I call your carriage?" he asked.
"No, a hansom will do. Quick! There has been delay enough already."
Just as she was, with her white robes about her, and the diamonds glittering round her milky throat, the princess entered the cab. The driver whistled low when he heard the direction given. Ambrose purchased swift discretion with a sovereign.
They came to the place at length, a dark shuttered house in Leicester Square. Ambrose knocked at the door in a peculiar way, and the same was opened. There are few mysteries in London impregnable against the sesame of the journalist.
A man with one eye, and that a focus of many villainies, stood in the opening. Ambrose brushed him aside in a few words.
"Here is my card," he said. "We are here to see a gentleman who is ill. He came here with a Russian this afternoon. Take us to him at once."
The resolute tone, plus the great morning newspaper italicized on the card, clenched the matter. Without demur the single-eyed Cerberus led the way upstairs.
"You will find the gentleman in there, asleep," he said, indicating a door. "When you and the lady come down, I shall be prepared to let you out."
The room was upholstered in a tawdry, showy way. The gas was flaming high. On a couch lay the slight figure of a man, his face turned to the light. A cut on the forehead was open and livid, the fair moustache was clotted with blood. The features were handsome in a delicate way, yet weak and sensual. Ambrose felt the feeble pulse, which hardly beat at all. The figure lay like death.
"Will you please to search his pockets?" the princess suggested.
There was nothing found beyond a cigarette-case, some letters, and inside the vest, in a secret pocket, a roll of notes to the value of thousands of roubles. A shade of contempt passed over the princess's face as she saw them.
"It is as I expected," she cried. "Look there."
She pointed to the table, whereon stood pens, ink, and paper, together with an empty champagne-bottle and two glasses. The princess examined the latter.
"One of the glasses is perfectly clean and dry," she said. "You can draw your own inference from that. You may be certain that the Act of Abdication has been signed here. We must get the prince away, and bring him to his senses without delay. But not to our hotel like this."
"I have some rooms in Cecil Street," Ambrose said after a pause. "I sometimes sleep there when I am detained very late in Fleet Street; and frequently I use my sitting-room for literary purposes. The landlady is a worthy old soul, who would do anything for me. We will go there, if you like."
The princess caught eagerly at the suggestion. "If we could only get him away from here," she sighed.
Ambrose solved the problem curtly. He raised the slight wasted figure in his arms, and carried it downstairs. Outside, the same cab was still waiting. In twenty minutes Prince Karmis was in Ambrose's bed in Cecil Street, and a little later a doctor was making a diagnosis of the case.
"The gentleman is in great danger," he said finally. "In advanced cases of heart-disease, a large use of alcohol is absolutely suicidal. The patient will require careful, constant watching for some hours. I will send a powerful medicine, which must be administered literally drop by drop at intervals of five minutes. In the morning I will call again."
The busy man departed. Downstairs in the sitting-room the princess waited.
"And who is to attend him?" she asked, as Ambrose explained. "Who will save his life?"
Ambrose volunteered to do so, though the promise cost him an effort. If that wretched creature upstairs were to die!
"Corona," he cried suddenly, "it would be far better so. It would ensure the happiness you deserve—your happiness and mine. 'Fore Heaven, as I see you standing there, white and weary, and withal so strong, I could find it in my heart to poison him! Oh, I am mad, I know—I, a poor writer, daring to aspire to the hand of a princess! And yet I feel that, if that man were out of the way, you would throw precedence to the winds, and marry me. Your affection is as great as mine."
The princess laid her head upon her hands, and laughed drearily.
"I would," she said, "as Heaven is my witness, I would. We should be the mark of scorn for fools, yet I should not care. I am as mad as you."
She raised her head, and looked at Ambrose half defiantly. There was more of the flame of invitation in her eyes than she dreamt of. Ambrose moved swiftly to her side, and took her in his arms. She swayed slightly towards him.
How long she reclined there, with Ambrose's kisses flaming on her lips, the princess could not have told. But the midsummer madness burnt out presently.
"Let me go," she said. "Assuredly, never was such folly as this. I must get back to my hotel. In the morning I will come again."
Ambrose made no effort to detain her; he heard the door close, and wheels drive away. Then, with slow lingering steps, he went up to his bedroom. Prince Karmis lay like death still. It was so easy, detection impossible, over-neglect would precipitate the end, and thereafter loomed for Ambrose a lasting happiness. On the table by the bedside was the medicine the doctor had sent. Ambrose allowed it to remain there.
AT this point the manuscript closed abruptly. A few hurried pencil lines at the foot stated that Death had not had time to finish his story, being called suddenly away upon a delicate and dangerous mission, but promising the remainder by next post.
"How do you think the narrative will turn out?" Greenstrand asked.
"It looks bad," Ray responded, as Margaret did not speak. She seemed to be struggling with some puzzling memory. "Death looks like being successful."
"Nonsense!" Greenstrand cried, with a vehemence that amused the others. "Ah, you think that there is no zeal like that of the apostate. But I am prepared to believe in the goodness of every one now. Margaret, why so silent?"
"Because I am puzzled, and just a little frightened," Margaret answered. "I fear very much for Death's last subject. The temptation is a cruel one. We have passionate love and a profound pity for a good woman, tied to such a creature as you read of. And I cannot rid myself of the feeling that Ambrose is my own brother."
"Your own brother! But why?"
"Because his name is Ambrose; because he also is a journalist; and because he, too, has rooms in Cecil Street, Strand. I am anxious."
The afternoon wore on. Still restless and anxious, Margaret returned to her work. It was late next day when she returned.
Her eyes were dilated; her face was as pale as snow. In her hand she held a telegram. She threw it across to Greenstrand.
"Read that," she said, in a hoarse, strained voice. "It is as I feared. I knew that my presentiment would prove correct. Read your work there."
Greenstrand took up the flimsy paper, and read—
CAN YOU FIND ACCOMMODATION FOR A LADY FOR A FEW DAYS? IF SO, WIRE. BE SILENT, AND ASK NO QUESTIONS, AS MY HAPPINESS DEPENDS ON THE ISSUE. FOR MY SAKE I IMPLORE YOU TO DO THIS. REPLY TO MY ROOMS IN CECIL STREET.—AMBROSE."
The paper fluttered from Greenstrand's hand. "I do not understand it," he murmured.
"And yet it is as plain as daylight," Margaret went on in the same strained voice. "The Ambrose of Death's story is my brother. He has fallen. Don't you see that he is going to send the Princess Corona here? The temptation was too great for him, and the prince is dead. Need I speak more plainly?"
"But I understood that your brother lived in a kind of romantic brotherhood," Greenstrand faltered; "that he belonged to a band of men gathered together to do good in their leisure hours. It cannot be the same."
"I am afraid so," Ray murmured. "The brothers of St. Thelma have their work, for the most part, like other people."
"I cannot believe it; I will not!" Greenstrand cried passionately. "After the light has come back to me, it would be too cruel. And yet if it is true?"
"I can never look you in the face again," Margaret interrupted. "As the instrument responsible for the death of my brother, as his moral murderer——"
She paused, unable to proceed. Greenstrand quivered.
"We may be all wrong yet," he faltered.
"In the face of that telegram?"
"No; I admit the correctness of your deductions. I mean that Ambrose may have risen superior to temptation, after all."
Margaret laughed, a laugh that curdled the blood of her hearers, so full of despair it was. She beat her hands wildly upon her breast, the long hair came tumbling about her shoulders; the beauty of her grief was fascinating.
"Perhaps you are wrong," Greenstrand repeated. "A chance allusion to——"
"I am not wrong!" Margaret exclaimed passionately. "My heart tells me so. My own dear brother is the victim of your devil's instrument. I have sat here, day by day, allowing you to destroy souls, hoping for the light to come to you, and God has punished me. And I loved you, loved you, which is worst of all."
They tried to soothe her; they raised her from the floor, where she had fallen, but she thrust them aside fiercely. All the wild blood in her veins was aflame, the fire of adversity had burnt off the veneer, the natural heart lay bare.
"But listen," Greenstrand urged. "The story may yet end as you wish."
"Never. I could not bear it. I have killed my brother; your friend has conquered him. I know what will be recorded in the sequel, as well as if I had learnt the story by heart. The fearful Nemesis, the deserved Nemesis of it! Let me get away; the place stifles me!"
Margaret burst from their detaining hands again. Her eyes were hard and tearless. In a blind way she groped for the door, and, opening it, let in a flood of light. Far below, at her feet, the great waves were breaking.
She held out her arms towards them, as a tired child does to a mother.
"The sea," she murmured. "Thank God, there is the sea left."
Like an arrow from a bow she darted down the slope, her figure, dark and lithe against the white spindrift. Atalanta's feet never brushed the dew more swiftly than she on her race for oblivion.
Ray was the first to recover from his fascination. "Quick!" he cried. "The girl does not know what she is doing. Once off these rocks into such a ground sea as this, and nothing could save her."
Down below the great waves rolled in grandly to the shore. The moonlight glistened upon their crowns of white jewels. They broke with a white thud, and carried the grey-green spume far up the jagged fringe that bound them. Save for the roar, the silence was intense. As Greenstrand shouted, the echo of his voice came back to him clearly.
But Margaret held on her course. Her ears might have been closed, for all the heed she gave. Fleet as the deer she bounded down from rock to rock, leaving her pursuers further behind at every step. The free, fearless life of her childhood lent her speed.
"We shall never reach her," Greenstrand groaned. "I would give all I had in the world to stand by her side for a moment. My God!"
Margaret had reached the water. She stood on the edge of a black rock, the white veil surging up to her feet. Then she turned for a moment. The moonlight fell on her face. She smiled a smile of sweetness. The light of madness was no longer in her eyes—nothing but steady resolution.
"I could live no longer," she cried. "It is better thus. Good- bye."
Her hands were raised above her head; her body was bent like a bow. As Greenstrand gained the rock, she suddenly leapt forward, falling like a plummet into the trough of the sea. A huge wave curled over her, then she was seen no more.
Ray held Greenstrand back forcibly. They were met with the flying scud, the salt lash swept over them like rain before the gale. Underneath yawned grey hell. Yet it was so calm that the quick breath of each could be heard clearly.
"Let me go!" Greenstrand cried. "There is nothing to live for now."
With a sudden effort Ray forced the speaker to his knees.
"There is much to live for," he said. "Why add suicide to murder? Margaret must have been dead directly that wave struck her. Poor child!"
There was no more to be said—nothing to do but wait and watch. The tide was rising higher; the moon lay like a copper shield on a wall of oak. They stood there for an hour or more; and then, by common accord, turned and walked homeward.
The lamp was still burning brightly; Death's last story lay upon the table. It seemed ages—a lifetime since the first page had been commenced—an age in which the world had fallen into chaos. Margaret was dead. Pile Pelion on Ossa, phrase on phrase, and grief on grief, and it was impossible to say more than that.
They sat thus through the night, saying nothing. Morn came, but they did not move. The post came presently, and with it another packet from Death—the conclusion of the last experiment doubtless; but neither of them touched it. It lay by the first fatal chapter. What did it matter how the thing ended now?
"Arthur," Ray said at length, "is there a God, now, think you?"
Greenstrand bowed his head as if the words had been a blow.
"Not yet," he said imploringly; "don't strike me yet. Surely I have been punished sufficiently. I loved her, Julien; I loved her as myself."
"You deemed her to be good and pure—all that goes to make a noble woman?"
"Ay, ay," Greenstrand said hoarsely. "Why?"
"Why? Was not that enough to restore your lost faith in humanity? But you must set yourself up against the Almighty—a tinsel devil, a shoddy Beelzebub—backed by the power of your gold. And the hand of God lies sorely on you now."
"It does indeed," Greenstrand confessed humbly. "You said that Nemesis would overtake me, and it has. Oh, there is a God, surely! I felt it days ago; how much more do I feel it now!"
He bowed his face on his hands, utterly overcome. Of what use was his money to him now? In the whole wide world there was no poor wretch so utterly miserable. The starvelings under Waterloo arches were better off than he. A few of the broad pieces, which had produced so great a blight, would have rendered their paradise possible.
Presently he took up Death's communication, just received, mechanically, and began to read. He was too utterly crushed as yet to realize the severity of the blow. He read on to the end; then cast the pages from him with a hard laugh—forced, horrible.
"The wrong of it," he cried—" the bitter wrong! Truly fate has sported with me to some purpose. Why did I not read this first; why did I not lock that door? Why is not Margaret with us now? For Death has failed, failed!"
Greenstrand's voice rose to a scream. He dashed the sheets on the floor; he cast them over his head; he danced upon them violently.
"I tell you Death has failed," he proceeded in the same wild, high note. "The experiment ended in utter disaster. Ambrose stands before the world at this moment free, inviolate. And Margaret is dead! Why do I live?"
Presently Greenstrand's passion exhausted itself. The last stroke was overwhelming. Nemesis had come, but there was no need of it. Margaret had not waited to hear. Death's last letter had shaken her faith to the crumbling-point.
"There can be nothing more," Greenstrand murmured; "the worst is worst."
Ray said nothing. He took up the scattered sheets from the floor. There were only six folios in all; and as Greenstrand sat there, inert and listless again, he read the last of the story which had produced chaos and tragic desolation.
FOR half an hour Ambrose stood by the bedside of Prince Karmis. Not until the end of that time did he throw off the hideous nightmare which lay upon him. He took up the bottle and tore off the cover.
"Dear God!" he cried. "I was going to murder that man! But not now—not now. Surely I can find some less infamous way than that?"
Prince Karmis had stirred slightly, and lay on his back, his lips parted. For over an hour Ambrose stood over him, dropping the ruby fluid spot by spot on his tongue. The time elapsed sufficed to empty the tiny phial. Then a faint hue of colour crept into the white sodden cheeks, the chest heaved perceptibly.
For the present Ambrose's task was done. The clock was striking one as he crept down to his sitting-room. He had conquered self so far, but the desire to grasp the flower he had won still possessed him.
Corona loved him! Had she not lain in his arms? Did not the nectar of her kisses still linger on his lips? He would plead with her; the fervour of his passion should sweep all barriers away.
Ambrose was heavy for lack of sleep, yet his brain was aflame.
Yes; Corona should be his. He would send her away from the world—hide her from its ken. He would send her to Port Gwyn, to his sister Margaret.
He wrote out the telegram—it pleased him to do so, though he was faintly conscious, at the same time, of the absurdity of the action—as the child who endows her dolls with human possibilities. At the same time it soothed him; it seemed to bring Corona and himself closer together.
He compiled the telegram carefully; he laid it on the table, knowing that it would never be sent—yet he completed the mummery by placing a florin on the form. At the same time a knock was heard at the front door. Ambrose answered it in person. It was the doctor, perhaps, and the rest of the household slept. But it was not the doctor; the newcomer was one Jermyngham, a leader- writer on the Morning Herald, Ambrose's paper.
"Found you at last!" the latter cried. "You are wanted at the office without delay."
"What is wrong?" Ambrose asked.
"A big trouble in the East," Jermyngham responded. "A colossal shindy between the Serena hill tribes and the Christians. Russia threatens occupation, and there is a rumour that Prince Karmis has abdicated. As you are the one man who understands the question thoroughly, you are wanted."
"I can't come," Ambrose said doggedly. "It is absolutely out of the question. McNeill must do it. Drop a paper in the letter- box as you go home."
Jermyngham departed wondering. But he did not forget the paper. Ambrose heard it fall into the box. He took out the sheet and turned to the fifth page. It was all there. Russia had doubtless anticipated matters a little. No doubt they felt certain as to the success of their agent, Samouiski, and therefore they were prepared to press forward. The abdication of Prince Karmis would form an excuse which the Powers would find it difficult to withstand. If Samouiski had parted with the Act of Abdication, Corona was doomed.
There was only one thing to save the state from a sanguinary conflict—the prompt return home of the prince, and such vigorous action on the part of the princess of which she was quite capable.
The news changed the current of Ambrose's thoughts. If he suppressed this news and won Serena to his will, then, morally, some thousands of murders would lie at his door. It was his duty to tell her, and save the country she loved so well. A new and terrible set of temptations were here.
They grappled with Ambrose till the dawn. And with daybreak the princess came. She had not slept, evidently. She looked fagged for want of rest.
"How is he now?" she asked. "My carriage is below. Is he fit to move?"
Ambrose explained that the medicine seemed to have been wonderfully effective, and that the prince was sleeping peacefully. The princess went up. She bent over the bed and laid her arm upon the sleeper's shoulder.
"What is it?" he murmured. "Another bottle! My throat is on fire."
Princess Corona started back with violent repulsion. She was sick to the soul. To stay there longer at present was impossible. A kingdom depended upon—another bottle. She crept into the sitting-room, hectic, defiant.
"Ambrose!" she cried, "Ambrose! take me away—anywhere. It is past my strength."
He was by her side in a moment. As he strode towards her, his coat crackled against the copy of the Herald lying on the table. It was necessary to strangle the temptation before it rose like the fumes from the sheard where the genii lay concealed.
"Not yet," he said hoarsely; "read what is in the paper there."
There was no mistaking the significance of the tone. The princess snatched up the sheet. In a few moments she had mastered its contents.
"You are a great and good man," she said, with shining eyes. "I know what the effort to utter those words cost you. Ambrose, I have never loved you as I do at this moment. But we must act now. I must get my incubus home."
"And then, princess?"
"And then to set the wires in motion. By the telegraph I can speak to my people. I will let the tyrant from the North know whom he has to deal with. If only I could recover the document which I am certain my partner signed last night! It may not be too late. Samouiski may have the document still."
"I understand your meaning. Give me his address. And if that document is still in his possession, it shall be yours within two hours."
"How can I thank you? You will bring it to the Imperial Hotel?"
"Yes. And now to get the prince away. Courage! we shall win yet."
Within a few minutes Ambrose was on his way towards Jermyn Street, where Samouiski had his apartments. He found that the Russian had not long come in, and would see his visitor without delay.
Samouiski was still in evening dress. Ambrose started as they came face to face. He had seen the man once before, but he had not been called Samouiski then. But it was not the cue of the intruder to say so yet.
"You wish to see me on important business?" the Russian suggested.
"I do," Ambrose replied. "Yesterday you obtained a certain document from Prince Karmis of Serena. I know that you have the paper still. I require it."
"Indeed? And presuming that I refuse?"
Ambrose had closed the door behind him. With one step he placed himself between Samouiski and the bell.
"In that case I shall be compelled to murder you," he said.
"Ah! You find Princess Corona a most beautiful and fascinating woman?"
"I do. A fact that you, no doubt, counted upon in your scheme, Mr. Death."
The listener started slightly, but the smile did not leave his face.
"You have ascertained my name, then?" he asked.
"Yes. You were recognized by a friend of mine, one Angus Hume, who is at present an inmate of our St. Thelma retreat, during the absence of his wife, who is on a visit, and he told me a great deal about you. Now that I find you and Samouiski are one and the same, my eyes are opened considerably. You are the devil's agent that the poet Ray told me of during a recent visit to London. I see now that the Princess Corona and myself are to be your victims. I may say you have ignominiously failed."
"The fact causes me no annoyance," Death replied. "I own that my machinations brought you and the princess together—never mind how. You want that paper? Why?"
"To return to the princess."
"And you have fully considered what such a course will mean to you?"
"You hound!" Ambrose cried. "Another word like that, and I strangle you. Give me the paper. If not, I will kill you, certain, if I die for it; I little care how soon."
He was in earnest; Death could see that plainly. He took from his breast-pocket a long envelope, and handed it to Ambrose, who glanced at it for a moment.
"Take the document," Death said; "it is no further use to me."
Ambrose buttoned it up close. With a swift motion he was by Death's side. With one hand he grasped the collar of his antagonist, with the other he snatched up a cane that chanced to he lying across the table. The blows fell like merciless hail. Death writhed and struggled, but no cry came from him. Not till he felt the figure become inert and limp did Ambrose desist.
Then he strode out of the room, laughing aloud. Half his amusement was caused by his own temerity. Who was he to fling himself into the Niagara of European politics, to try and check the current with his puny force? The recollection of the telegram he had written tickled him till he laughed again. He must destroy that foolish evidence when he got time.
Then that trivial matter escaped him; it never returned again. As a matter of fact, the telegram was despatched later. His careful landlady had found the form and the money, and deeming it to be forgotten, had despatched it herself.
Ambrose reached the Imperial at length. He sent in his name, and immediately was admitted to the presence of the princess.
"We cross to-night," she said. "A series of special trains are already ordered. In seventy hours we shall be in Serena. You have the document?"
Without a word Ambrose laid it on the table. Every word the princess read slowly and carefully; then she tore the paper into fragments, sifting them thoughtfully between her fingers.
"How can I possibly thank you?" she murmured. "You have saved my country—and myself."
"And myself also. In time, doubtless, this will be a source of satisfaction to me. At present it seems to me that our moral code of ethics is open to criticism. I strive to speak lightly, but I think you know. Now let me go."
"It is sad to think that you and I may never meet again."
"Do not. As you are strong, be merciful. Good-bye."
Ambrose held out his hand. The princess appeared not to see it. Her lips were quivering.
"Not like that," she murmured; "not quite like that. This way."
Just for a moment she lapsed into the soft and yielding woman. Her arms were about the neck of the man she loved; their lips met in a lingering pressure. It was a moment long as eternity, yet short as death.
"Now go," she whispered. "Good-bye, and God keep you, my hero, now and always."
Ambrose groped his way to the door. He passed out into the street, away towards his lodgings. And there, worn out with fatigue, he dropped into a chair and slept. But there was a smile on his lips, for he had fought the fight, and been victorious.
"A FITTING termination," Ray murmured. "If we had only known before!"
Greenstrand writhed in his chair. "What might have been" were words which rung in his ears like the distant fret of the sea.
"Why harp upon that?" he demanded.
Again Ray was silent for a little time.
"We are a pair of murderers," Greenstrand resumed; "only I am the principal. Julien, my punishment is great, but no greater than I deserved. Do you feel as if you could not face me, or any honest man, again?"
They regarded one another quietly. There was more shame with the broad light of day. Yesterday, at the same time, they had dined gaily. There was no thought of eating now.
"Pull down the blinds, and shut out the light," Greenstrand groaned.
"The truth must be faced," Ray responded; "the whole story told."
"How easy it is to counsel that for others. Still, I recognize the truth of your words. The sunshine seems to frighten me. I have lost my nerve in a single night. Is that the same sky which I shall see to-morrow, and the next day, and the next? Why is life so long, Julien?"
"Most of us find it far too short," Ray replied.
"I never have. I suppose the money clogged my soul. It will do so no longer. I am going to destroy my formula. I am going to place it beyond my power to make more money. What I have already shall he devoted to the public good. Take as much as you want for your own purposes—throw it in the sea, where Margaret lies. I must work, Julien; I must slave for my bread in the sweat of my brow, or lay violent hands upon myself. Leave me alone for a little while, I pray you."
Ray took a loaf from the cupboard and cut himself a slice. It seemed to choke him. Only by moistening it with a little milk did he contrive to swallow the morsel.
"I am going out," he said, taking up his hat. "It will be low water in an hour's time."
Greenstrand nodded without reply. He knew exactly what Ray meant. It was his duty to go along, but his whole soul shrank from the ordeal. And yet the solitude of the cottage seemed almost overwhelming.
He gathered up the sheets of Death's last communication, which still littered the floor, and burnt them carefully. Then from his own room he brought more papers, and destroyed them also. One of the documents was the famous formula for the transmission of refuse into coal. Only he knew the secret, and it was carried with him always. It lay black and charred now. The piling up of the fortune was no longer possible, for the formula was an elaborate one, and impossible to be committed to memory. Greenstrand's fortune was limited to his absolute possessions.
He felt the better for this. He wrote letter after letter to his business clients; he disposed of thousands with the stroke of a pen. Within a few hours the letters had been despatched; he would be practically a beggar.
He did not forget Ray; his lace industry was provided for handsomely. By the time all this business was transacted, the sun was westering. Ray had not returned. Presently a shadow loomed large in the doorway.
"You have returned, then?" Greenstrand said, without looking up.
"Yes. I have come to render an account of my stewardship."
The speaker was not Ray, but Death. His face was more pallid even than its wont; an ugly strip of black plaster disfigured his cheek. He limped in slowly with the aid of a stick. He looked like one who had met with a grievous accident.
As a storm peels the shale from the cliff, so had this misfortune deprived Death's features of their customary mask. His face was marked by strong passion, his eyes were broody with hate. For the real man showed itself.
"You seem to have met with some trouble?" Greenstrand suggested sardonically.
"I have," replied Death. "The marks you see are the result of personal violence. I shall never be quite myself again. You got my letter?"
"The brief history of your latest and greatest failure—yes. Should I be wrong in ascribing your present condition to that catastrophe?"
"You would not, sir. I thought I had laid my plans carefully and well. To have brought Ambrose Trefroch to his knees had been the greatest triumph of all. He was so immaculate, so superior to the rest; and there was a beautiful woman who loved him. He cared for her—but all that was set out in detail in my report. St. Antony would have fallen. But he found me out. Look at me now."
"He thrashed you within an inch of your life. Pity he hadn't killed you."
"For doing my master's bidding?"
"You scoundrel!" Greenstrand cried. "At intervals between the weaving of your diabolical schemes you have been here to see me. The exigencies of business demanded your presence. You are no fool; you knew the attraction which chained me here. And yet you dare to lay hands upon the brother of the woman I loved."
"Why not?" Death demanded. "There was no restriction; he was a splendid subject. The undoing of Ambrose Trefroch was the cup I thirsted for."
"You attempted it deliberately! What for?"
Death advanced a pace or two nearer to his employer. His eyes gleamed.
"For revenge," he said. "I meant to spoil your love romance, and come between you and the woman you cared for. Why should you not suffer like the rest? Surely fortune did not mean everything for you? For years I have been a tool, a beast of burden, carrying out your designs to the letter. You have barely treated me as a man at all. Heavens! how I have hated you all these years! Yes, you have paid me well, I have money enough and to spare; but I would give it all to know that I had succeeded. And from this moment I am no longer servant of yours."
"You mean that you have deliberately tried to do me a great injury?"
"Certainly I do," Death replied without the least trace of emotion. "It has been my intention for some years to do you a deadly mischief. Don't prate to me of gratitude; it has nothing to do with the question. You have been well rewarded in return for my liberal salary. You can't buy gratitude; money kills it. With contempt you picked me out of the gutter, with contempt you placed me on my legs again. The experiment was a great success. But you might have treated me with a little more consideration. Still, I have failed."
"It may gratify you to hear that you have done nothing of the kind," Greenstrand replied. He was so utterly broken down that there was morbid satisfaction in abasing himself before this crippled wretch, this paltry tool of his. "Listen."
Without comment, he told the whole story plainly and simply. He extenuated nothing, and put in no plea on his own behalf.
"I stand before you now," he said in conclusion, "as man to man. I am a monarch without a kingdom, a general deprived of his army. All the rest matters nothing. You have not failed, Death; on the contrary, you have been signally successful."
"And I say you have baffled me entirely," Death replied. "You place the cup to my lips, and you snatch it away before I can drink. My sense of justice deprives me of any feeling of personal satisfaction. It is not I who have reduced you to your present position; it is the avenging hand of Providence. I am not the principal, but the instrument. And you stand before me now with a dignity that I envy—curse you!"
"Margaret is dead," Greenstrand whispered. "The rest is nothing."
He seemed to be incapable of any display of strong emotion. Yet he was not bereft of dignity. There was sullen admiration in Death's brooding eyes.
"There is but one thing," he said presently—" one thing that I should like to witness. I would give my right hand to witness your interview with Ambrose Trefroch."
Death had touched his employer at last.
"You take it for granted that I shall see him, then?" he asked.
"You must. There is nobody else to do so. Ray will decline, and he will have justice on his side in so doing. Ah! that I should like to see. You do not know Ambrose Trefroch—I do. Man, you will have your punishment yet."
"Peace, fool!" Greenstrand cried. "As if anything was equal to the mental torture which fills me at this moment. What do you know—what can you know—of my inward feelings? And yet you are not the soulless creature I took you for. I am ready—nay, eager—to face Ambrose Trefroch at this moment."
At the same instant Ray entered the room. It was characteristic of the man that he should find for Death a kind word and a sincere grip.
"A disastrous end to our experiments," he said. "I gather from the few words I overheard that Greenstrand must have told you everything. You have done your work well."
Death's pale face flushed; he said nothing. Ray had touched him to the core. The poet beckoned Greenstrand from the room. The latter divined what had happened.
"You have found her?" he said simply.
"Yes; but this mission is yours. She loved you. God help me if I wound you undeservedly, but her death lies at your door. I wash my hands of it. Come."
The long Atlantic ground-swell had died away; there was a creamy fringe lying on the crisp sand beyond the rocks. In the tiny pools green-and-crimson anemones waved their tendrils. The painted weed floated like brilliant forests, varnished, clear as crystal.
In one of these pools Margaret lay. A bunch of emerald sea- wrack formed her pillow; she floated still and peaceful, as if asleep. Her long hair trailed and streamed like a thing of life. It was a picture, a perfect one; there was no terror there.
"Carry her to the cottage," Ray commanded, "and I will follow."
They laid her out upon Ray's bed. As the news spread, villagers came in, silently, reverently, and the moisture in their eyes was as the salt of the sea she had loved so well. Presently the cottage became silent and deserted again.
"What are you going to do?" Ray asked.
Greenstrand started; his thoughts were far away.
"I am going to London," he replied. "One of us will suffice to attend the inquest. You may tell as much or as little of the story as you choose; it is all one to me. I am going to see Ambrose Trefroch, and confess everything to him. He may kill me; it would be the kindest thing he could do. The curse of Cain is mine."
Ray said nothing. Presently Greenstrand reappeared, ready for his journey. Death had stepped away silently; he had vanished, never to be seen by either of them again.
"Will you shake my hand?" Greenstrand asked with humility.
"Why not?" Ray responded. "There is but little difference between us. Some day perhaps——"
He turned away, unable to proceed. Greenstrand lingered uneasily. There was much to say, yet he had no heart for words.
"Good-bye," he said. "Wish me God-speed, and let me go."
Ray's lips trembled, but no sound came from them. Greenstrand passed out into the sunshine, but the shadow on his face was the shadow of despair.
GREENSTRAND drove at once, on reaching Paddington, to his London residence. A trim valet met him in the hall without any expression of surprise. The servants there were far too accustomed to their master's vagaries for that. Consequently the house was always ready for his coming, as if it were really a home.
The owner of all this dazzle and costly splendour, this glittering panoply of art and taste, strode along to the dining- room. He was full of bitter thoughts. There were hundreds of people who might have been rendered superlatively happy by the possession of such a place. It contained treasures which princes and moneyed oligarchs had bid for against him vainly. Greenstrand was filled with a hysterical desire to smash everything, to chip the statues, to rip the glowing canvases from their frames, to hurl the costly china out-of-doors. What a mockery it all was! In a short time everything would be sold, and the proceeds applied to one of the great metropolitan hospitals. All was arranged.
Greenstrand pressed the electric button, and his house-steward appeared.
"I am going away, Gilmour," the master said. "Probably I shall be absent from England for years. This place is to be sold without delay. Give the servants a year's wages each, and what character you please, and let them go. Let this be done in the morning."
Gilmour bowed and withdrew. There was nothing surprising to him in this command.
"Mr. Death was here yesterday and the day before, sir," he said. "He left this letter."
Greenstrand tore open the bulky packet. It contained an account of Death's expenditure during the past two years. The total was stupendous. Upon such a sum of money as that a man might have set up an establishment in Park Lane; on it a yacht and a country house would have been a mere necessity. Greenstrand crushed the papers together and tossed them carelessly into the grate.
It was night before he found himself outside the gate at St. Thelma. A brother whom he recognized as a popular actor opened the outer portal and inquired his business. Beyond, Greenstrand could dimly discern an ancient cloister, a trim lawn, in the centre of which a fountain was playing. Behind it all rose the delicate tracery of the chapel. A light filtered through its stained-glass windows; there was a drony sound of music made by a mellow, silver-throated organ, like the murmur of insects on the sleepy summer evenings. How restful it all was!
"I am very sorry," said the brother; "Ambrose is away for two days. He has lost his sister, and has gone home to bury her. He will return on Saturday."
Greenstrand retired, disappointed, yet relieved. So Trefroch must have heard, for ill news travels fast. Eight and forty hours to wait.
The days dragged on heavily. With the exception of a deaf old caretaker, Greenstrand had the house to himself. Would the hour of Trefroch's coming never arrive? Greenstrand's thoughts grew more dark and gloomy, the desire to live less supportable.
Why not end it all? Life was a hell without Margaret; there could not be a worse torture. The miserable man hurriedly dashed off a few lines to Ambrose Trefroch. The writer had done the latter a great injury, he said; he was about to throw himself into the Thames. A crime like his was utterly beyond forgiveness. He knew now that Christ had died for sinners, but not such sinners as he.
He signed this letter, and left it with the caretaker for Trefroch. That the latter would attempt to see him sooner or later he felt certain. About the same hour Margaret's brother would be returning to St. Thelma.
In an aimless way Greenstrand wandered along the Embankment. The tide was running out dankly swift, and there might be an opportunity presently. Greenstrand felt a sense of relief now that his mind was made up.
By the Needle an itinerant preacher had taken his stand. A listless group was listening to the raucous voice, watching the wild gestures of the man. He was illiterate, grammarless, but this he made up in earnestness.
"This night," he cried—" ay, this next moment—we may stand in the presence of our Maker. How does the record read, my friends? Are you ready? Is there anything left undone? Our hopes of salvation rest upon a slender thread. Face it out, show courage, confess your faults, and God's hand will rest gently even on you. Cowards every one!"
The speaker's eyes seemed to light upon Greenstrand for a moment. Was that man right? Was there hope for him even yet? A coward! Yes, he was a coward. Greenstrand turned away from the man towards the City. Not that way yet.
He would see Ambrose Trefroch; he would try to face out his life. Presently he came to the outer gate of St. Thelma and knocked. He knocked again, without result. He tried the fastening, which yielded to his touch.
Inside was peace and quietness. The dwellings round the cloister were all in darkness; evidently the brothers were away. A shaft of purple light from the chapel turned the waters of the fountain to a livid blue. Inside, the organ droned with mournful cadence. Anon there came a swell of chords like a triumphant march. The music drew Greenstrand on with a fascination he could not resist.
He crept into the chapel, which looked dim and ghostly in the uncertain light. There was quiet beauty there; the music served to soothe Greenstrand's fretful soul. He could see the features of the organist; he went forward and accosted him.
"I am here in search of Brother Ambrose," he said.
The music ceased with a loud discord. Greenstrand's voice echoed loudly there. He saw that the musician had a handsome clean-shaven face. He was dressed in black; there was the shadow of a recent grief under his eyes.
"I am Brother Ambrose," the other said; "and you are Arthur Greenstrand."
"Yes; I might have known Margaret's brother anywhere."
"I went directly to your house on my return to London," Trefroch replied, with the even, gentle tones he might have used towards a casual stranger. "I found a letter there for me, which, insecurely fastened, I opened and resealed. You meant to make away with yourself; the proof that you had done so is there. Who admitted you?"
"I could make nobody hear, so I took the liberty of entering."
"I am the only person here, save one; all the rest have gone to a meeting, from which they will not return until late. What have you to say to me?"
"You have learnt everything, I presume?" Greenstrand asked.
"On the contrary. But I have surmised much. From your creature Death I forced a kind of confession. What have you to say?"
Greenstrand spread out his hands hopelessly. The fine scorn glowing in Trefroch's eyes rendered him abashed and humble. And, in sooth, what had he to say?
"I loved your sister," he murmured, "and she is dead. There is no more."
"And you killed her; as sure as we are standing face to face, you killed her! The inquest was a perfunctory affair; the jury said it was a case of suicide whilst in a state of unsound mind. Perhaps they were correct. But who was responsible for Margaret's mental condition? Come, sir, we stand in a holy place; the shadow of God's altar is upon us. Tell the truth."
"I will," Greenstrand cried. "I came for that purpose. You know what my life has been. Margaret, doubtless, told you of me. I had no faith and no hope; God, to me, was a chimera—a superstition of the fool."
"You know better now, then?"
"Can you look in my face twice and doubt it? I would be in revolt against the Almighty Christ! To think that such a miserable man as myself should set up to tinker with the scheme of creation! Picture it, and pity me."
Greenstrand grasped the rood screen, shaking it in a perfect passion of despair. Trefroch's face changed not from its marble rigidity. No reply came from him.
"In all my life," Greenstrand proceeded again, "I have met but two people in whose sincerity and integrity I believed—your sister and Julien Bay. All the rest were knaves, self- seekers—anything. There was no good in humanity. And I set out to prove it with such temptations as my vast wealth placed in my power. For a time I was successful—miserably successful. I wanted to fail, and failures came——"
"Amongst others," Trefroch replied quietly, "myself. Still, I take no credit for that. I suppose it never occurred to your arrogant mind that there are limits to human endurance—that you could not practically compel an honest man to be a knave? Proceed."
Greenstrand did so. He disguised nothing. He told how the dread of her brother's fate had driven Margaret to sudden madness. He painted his own conduct in the blackest colours. Nothing was extenuated.
"So that is all," Trefroch said, after a long pause. "You had no pity for your victims, no sympathy for their weakness. I could kill you as you stand now, and none be any the wiser. None saw you enter; we are practically alone here. In your own house is your confession that you intend to destroy yourself."
"Margaret is dead," said Greenstrand; "what does the rest matter?"
Trefroch went on to speak freely. From his heart came barbed words. He poured out a withering stream of sarcasm; he rose to the limits of invective. But nothing touched the listener; no tinge of shame stained his cheek.
"Margaret is dead," he repeated. "What is all your scorn to me? Hold me up to public execration; imprison me; put me in the pillory if you like, and I shall not feel it. My heart is dead; there is no feeling left."
The dreary hopelessness of the words touched Trefroch.
"I will say no more on that score," he said. "Who am I to judge you? And, in the end, Margaret could never have been happy with such a man, despite the newborn faith you boast of. And, had I not been guided, I, too, might have been outside the pale at this moment. Come with me."
Greenstrand obediently followed. Trefroch led the way from the chapel across the quadrangle and into one of the small rooms there, which formed the cells of the brothers. There was only one apartment for each, the library and refectory and recreation rooms being common. On a bed lay a man asleep.
"Look at him carefully and mark his face," Trefroch whispered.
Greenstrand did so. The sleeper was evidently not long for this world.
"You do not recognize him, of course," Trefroch said, as they withdrew; "but you have heard of the author Hume. He was one of your victims, I understand."
The adventure of King Rameses' Scarab came vividly into Greenstrand's mind.
"Hume is dying," Trefroch resumed. "He is not one of our permanent brothers, but a visitor. His story is known to us, and we pity him sincerely. We pity and admire Alma Ogilvy more. When your tool came to tempt me, Hume saw him by accident and told me. Then I began to comprehend dimly. After a time suspicion became certainty. But Death will remember me for some time to come."
"What are you going to do with me?" Greenstrand asked.
"I?—nothing. You must live. Life shall be your punishment. Were I disposed to slay you, it is too late now, for I see that there are lights in the refectory, and by that I know most of the brothers have returned. I have other things to show you yet. Follow me."
Trefroch led the way into the refectory, a noble granite hall with a high groined roof. The stone walls were bare. Down the centre of the hall ran a long table, at which a number of men were seated, supping. The meal was plain; fruit there was in plenty, and a little wine. Each man waited upon himself. There were a few ladies present.
They were all laughing and chatting gaily; of the stranger they took no heed.
"There is no pretence of austerity here, you see," said Trefroch. "Most of our brothers are men of the world, working in the world, and only their leisure is spent here. There are some notable people amongst them. You see that man with the fine head—the one opposite the fireplace?"
"The features seem familiar to me," Greenstrand murmured.
"They should be," said Trefroch. "He is a Cabinet Minister. There are many great and good men here; but even some of them might not have been proof against Death's evil arts. This is shown you as an instance of what you might have done."
Greenstrand's lips moved, but no sound came from them.
"What am I to do now?" he asked presently.
Trefroch regarded him with stern displeasure.
"Live," he said almost passionately. "Live and work. Find some useful sphere; set up some ideal, and try to mould yourself to it. Your penance has not commenced yet; there are years of remorse and agony before you ere you find comfort. You must serve your probation, as a prisoner does his sentence. There is no royal road to the throne of God for sinners such as you."
"Is there any road at all?" Greenstrand asked hopelessly.
"Yes, scores, when you can find them. Do you hear anything?"
Greenstrand listened. It was silent enough there; but faintly from beyond the grey stone walls came the roar of the mighty city that never sleeps.
"I hear nothing but the murmur of the town," he replied.
"That is what I meant. It is the voice calling you. That sound is made up of happiness and misery, want and splendour, despair and joy. And the minor predominates. Go out and lessen it if you can; try and do good, and be tolerant of the feelings of others. Remember that no man knows how honest he be till dire temptation and opportunity come together. You will find the work of your life waiting for you there."
"Stop," Greenstrand cried, as the other turned away. "If the time comes when you can say freely from your heart that you forgive me——"
Trefroch's hand fell not unkindly on the speaker's shoulder.
"I forgive you now," he said. "I speak in all sincerity, God knows. Come to me in a year's time, and tell me what you have done. Good-bye, and Christ be with you."
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