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Title: Collected Short Stories, Vol. III Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1300941h.html Language: English Date first posted: Mar 2013 Most recent update: Aug 2014 This eBook was produced by Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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APART from numerous novels, most of which are accessible on-line at Project Gutenberg Australia and Roy Glashan's Library, Fred M. White published some 300 short stories. Many of these were written in the form of series about the same character or group of characters. PGA/RGL has already published e-book editions of those series currently available in digital form.
The present 17-volume edition of e-books is the first attempt to offer the reader a more-or-less comprehensive collection of Fred M. White's other short stories. These were harvested from a wide range of Internet resources and have already been published individually at Project Gutenberg Australia, in many cases with digitally-enhanced illustrations from the original medium of publication.
From the bibliographic information preceding each story, the reader will notice that many of them were extracted from newspapers published in Australia and New Zealand. Credit for preparing e-texts of these and numerous other stories included in this collection goes to Lyn and Maurie Mulcahy, who contributed them to PGA in the course of a long and on-going collaboration.
The stories included in the present collection are presented chronologically according to the publication date of the medium from which they were extracted. Since the stories from Australia and New Zealand presumably made their first appearance in British or American periodicals, the order in which they are given here does not correspond to the actual order of first publication.
This collection contains some 170 stories, but a lot more of Fred M. White's short fiction was still unobtainable at the time of compilation (March 2013). Information about the "missing stories" is given in a bibliographic note at the end of this volume. Perhaps they can be included in supplemental volumes at a later date.
From the East Kent Standard:—
A tragic affair, resulting in the death of Mr. Mortimer Colles, the well-known scientist, took place at Reculvers on Monday. It appears that the deceased gentleman and his friend, Mr. Philip Lyne, Professor of Physics at University College, were making a series of experiments on heat with the aid of magnifying glasses. Whatever the peculiar nature of the experiment might be matters little. In the course of the proceedings it became necessary for the two gentlemen to separate, Mr. Colles proceeding some six hundred yards away from his companion in the direction of the sea, the whole business taking place on the cliff.
Nobody appeared to be moving, the cliff line thereabouts being particularly flat, sterile and uninteresting. It would have been difficult for a rabbit to pass without notice. On the verge of the cliff towards which Mr. Colles made his way stand the ruins of a martello tower. The tower is not more than six feet high, and nothing but the bare circular walls remain. At this moment the passing of the sun behind a cloud checked the progress of the trifling experiment. Doubtless in a fit of idle curiosity, Mr. Colles peered into the tower. Ten minutes elapsed, and he failed to emerge. Naturally Mr. Lyne grew somewhat impatient. After hailing his friend without avail, he entered the tower, and thereupon was horrified to find Mr. Colles lying there dead, his throat cut from ear to ear in three distinct places. The clothes of the deceased were torn from his shoulders, or rather cut off in some strange fashion. Death must have been instantaneous. An inquest will be held in due course.
* * * * *
The inquest connected with the above case was held at the Lion Hotel, Reculvers, on Tuesday evening. After evidence of identification and the usual official routine, Mr. Philip Lyne was called.
Questioned by the Coroner, he said that he had known deceased many years. He had always been regarded as a genial and entertaining man, and one, moreover, of great physical and mental strength.
The Coroner: Was Mr. Colles as cheerful lately as usual?
The witness replied that he was bound to say no. He had every reason to believe that the deceased gentleman was worried over a knotty problem of considerable scientific importance, and that he had complained of want of sleep. The nerves of an imaginative man were easily upset.
Dr. Heather was the next witness called. He deposed to the nature of the wounds, and was emphatic in his declaration that they could not have been self-inflicted.
By the Coroner: Were they all fatal wounds?
Witness: Undoubtedly. The cartoid artery was severed in three places. The deep slashes across the throat might have been planned out with a ruler and compass, so mathematically regular were they.
The Coroner: Done with some sharp instrument, doubtless?
Witness: Not particularly sharp. The wounds gave me the impression of having been inflicted by a dull razor handled by some one who possessed great muscular force. More I cannot say. I am strongly of opinion that this is a case of murder, and that this is not the first time an attempt to take the life of the deceased has been made.
The Coroner: You see the importance of proceeding further?
Dr. Heather: Quite so, sir. On examining the body the right breast of the deceased reveals three longs scars, healed some time ago, but evidently the remains of deep scars. There are three of them and the lines have the same mathematical regularity of those which subsequently resulted in death.
The Coroner: Can you tell us any more?
Witness: Unfortunately no. I am as hopelessly fogged as anybody else.
At the conclusion of the inquiry, which lasted upwards of four hours, the jury brought in a verdict of wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.
Two years passed away, and the public had forgotten the tragic death of Mortimer Colles; indeed, I trust I shall not be accused of callousness when I confess that I had almost forgotten it myself. It remained for Benham Carter to bring the matter back vividly.
He had written to me proposing a visit, with a corollary to the effect that the offer was off provided I had taken to myself a wife in the meantime. The proper assurances being vouchsafed, Carter came in due course. On the very first evening over the walnuts and the wine Colles's name came up.
"It was a great shock to me when I heard it in Paris," said Carter. "I was very fond of Colles. And the poor fellow died before his great discovery could be made public. What a thousand pities!"
"Did you know anything of it?" I asked eagerly.
"No I didn't, I'm sorry to say. Colles promised to tell me everything when he had worked it out to his satisfaction. He dragged me from Wady Halfa to Paris by way of Rome and Berlin searching for Stemitz, the eminent authority on bacteria, whom he desired to see. Give me the details of his death."
I responded at considerable length. Long before I had finished Carter had moved from his seat and was pacing up and down the room.
"Phil," he asked suddenly, "how far is it from here to Reculvers? Could we drive over to-morrow and inspect the scene of the murder?"
"We could—certainly; but what good would that do?"
Carter came over and tapped me significantly on the shoulder.
"To-morrow night," he said impressively, "if things are as I assume them to be, I shall tell how and by what means our friend Colles met with his death."
"You mean to say you know the man?" I cried.
"I am practically certain. I have been face to face with the murderer," said Carter. "No wonder the police have failed to solve the problem. This thing is outside their ken entirely."
Carter's eyes sparkled, and he laughed in a creepy kind of way vastly unpleasant to the ordinary listener. Then he turned to me abruptly.
"The more I think of it the more certain am I that I have solved the mystery," he said. "To-morrow I shall know definitely. Still, so sure of my ground am I, that if you like I will tell you the first volume of the romance this evening. What do you say?"
That my reply was an eager affirmative goes without saying.
"Then I will begin," said Carter, as he proceeded to light one of his peculiar ill-flavored cigars. "It is some two years and odd months ago that Colles came to me with the information that he had made a discovery. We had pushed on some way up the valley of the Nile—we were quite alone—in fact we were prospecting in the idle fashion of men taking a holiday. Colles had wandered off alone from our little camp only to return in the evening in a state of considerable excitement.
"'Carter,' he said, 'I have found the tomb of King Ramin.'
"Now, as you are probably aware, Colles was not in the habit of making rash statements. Neither need I enlarge to you upon the importance of the discovery. The next morning found us in the little valley where stood the pyramids—a miniature copy of the great pyramids—after which Colles proceeded to adduce reason why the pile contained the ashes of King Ramin. The arguments were cogent enough to convince any Egyptologist.
"'And what do you propose to do now?'" I asked.
"'Make the best of our opportunity and explore the place,' Colles responded. 'We'll burgle the tomb and ask permission afterwards if necessary.'
"At the end of an hour we had loosened the stones that sealed the entrance, Colles's unerring judgment picking this out at once, and then we proceeded to crawl along the dark tunnel leading to the heart of the pyramid. Instead of being close and stuffy, the air was quite fresh and sweet.
"When we reached the central chamber the reason for this became apparent. The apex of the pyramid had been left open, so that a circular shaft of light struck down and faintly illuminated the place. On a raised stone pile was a kind of brazen cage, and under this there rested, swathed and bandaged what is known to be the body of King Ramin. What a find! Colles' eyes fairly blazed as he regarded the illustrious mummy.
"'We must have these at any cost!' he muttered.
"Meanwhile I was gazing somewhat curiously around me. One thing that struck me as peculiar was the number of rats creeping like brown shadows over the floor. How did they get there, and still more pregnant question, how did they manage to exist? I could only account for it by the suggestion that there were small unseen egresses from the pyramids which we had not noticed.
"I could get Colles to take no interest in anything but the illustrious mummy inside the brazen cage. Already he had commenced a vigorous attack upon the stonework into which the metal was welded, and in a short time it was possible to move the brazen sarcophagus from its place.
"I was bending forward to assist in this operation when with a loud hiss something big and black and furry shot past me with the force of a catapult, and landed lightly on the summit of the cage.
"It was a huge black cat, Lyne, the biggest I have ever seen. It was certainly as large as a collie dog, and then I recognised that the mystery of the skeleton was solved. The animal that confronted us with almost devilish menace must have been born and bred in the pyramid, the descendant of a pair doubtless placed there thousands of years ago.
"'A dangerous and repulsive brute,' said Colles. 'Just as well to see if there are any more before proceeding further.'
"A careful investigation failed to discover another cat. As we returned to our charge, the brute on the cage hoisted her tail and swore horribly. Colles shot out his arm, and like lightning she was upon it. I was fairly quick with my knife which I promptly buried in the creature's body, but not before she had torn Colles' coat into ribands as if severed with scissors. Then the creature dropped with an almost human cry of pain and vanished into the darkness.
"At the end of an hour the tablets were in Colles' possession. They were indeed a precious find, far the most important ever discovered. In the excitement of the moment, I had almost forgotten that fiend of a cat, and as I live, at the minute Colles laid hand on those tablets, a long howl came out of the darkness, and I saw two great eyes glow like coals.
"'Clap the stone to, and shut the brute in,' said Colles, when at length we emerged from the tomb. 'It seems to have got on my nerves. We'll just do our best to make the place look as if it had not been disturbed. This find is too precious to be spoken of this side of Cairo.'
"Needless to say I heartily agreed. At the end of an hour we removed all traces of our work, and well pleased turned towards our camp. By this time we had forgotten all about the black cat when Colles happened to give an involuntary glance behind him."
"'Look here,' he said, 'give the beast one with your revolver.' Sure enough some 30 yards behind us was the black cat.
"A spasm of rage possessed me. I fired two shots at a fair range, and I saw a black mass of fur bound into the air and roll over into the feather grass along the side of the track.
"'He's settled, thank goodness,' said Colles."
We drove over to Reculvers the next morning, and there we made a close examination of the scene of the mystery, resulting in Colles' lamentable death. Carter left no stone unturned, he asked a thousand questions, he paced off the distance for some hundred yards round the Martello Tower, after which he finally strode away in the direction of the cliffs.
"Are you perfectly satisfied?" I asked.
"That everything is correct, yes," Carter responded without hesitation. "I am absolutely certain of it. Can we get down these cliffs?"
"Certainly not for quite half a mile either way," I said.
"All the same, I'm going to try," said Carter. "These chalk cliffs are a bit dangerous, but I am skilled at this sort of thing. I am a light weight, and I shall come to no harm. Don't be anxious about me."
Still I was anxious till Carter returned. And I was glad to see him safe on terra firma again. There was a subdued but certain triumph on his face that aroused my curiosity. My inquisitional nerve remained on the stretch till after dinner.
It was with a feeling of relief almost that I saw Carter light one of his unspeakable cigars and lean back in his Chair.
"You are doubtless on tenterhooks to hear the completion, of my story," he began. "I should have confided it to you last night, only I could not be absolutely certain of the facts as I am now."
"Then no doubt any longer exists?" I asked.
"None whatever," Carter replied emphatically. "I have solved absolutely beyond question the mystery of poor Colles's death, and the evidence to clinch it I discovered during my climbing expedition this morning.''
"Go on, go on," I cried impatiently.
"'Festina lente,' old man. Before going on I shall have to retrace my steps a little; in fact, I shall have to go back to the time in Paris when I joined Colles, when he was hunting Stemitz. We were staying in a small, old-fashioned hotel not far from the Rue de Rivoli, as both Colles and myself have a rooted dislike to the modern 'Caravanserai.'
"The place was dark and somewhat gloomy. Indeed, along the corridors and in the big dingy bedrooms a score of murders might have been committed with impunity. Colles and I were going upstairs one evening when we found on the landing a waiter or two with a couple of chambermaids simmering with excitement. The cause of the hubbub was found to be the invasion of the house by a huge back cat, which finally had been driven out on the roof by a courageous garcon.
"'But, such an awful brute, monsieur,' said the chambermaid. 'As big as a dog, ma foi, and eyes like pale blue saucers. It must have escaped from the show.'
"'We must lay a trap for the creature,' I said, 'and see that next time we don't make a mistake.'
"I sat on the edge of my bed a little later, lighted a cigar and fell into a reverie. Just as my cigar had burnt down to my fingers and I was drawing the last fragrant whiff, I was startled by a queer, strangled scream. Almost before I could rise to my feet the sound came again. Then I recognised both the voice and the direction of the cry.
"They came unmistakeably from Colles's bedroom!
"Like a flash I tore across the corridor and burst open Colles's door. Colles, stripped to his pyjamas, lay upon his bed fighting and clutching at some black object rolled upon his chest.
"'For heaven's sake, hurry,' he gurgled. 'You'll find my revolver under my pillow. The brute's throttling me.'
"Directly I had that weapon in my hand the cat jumped to the floor, swearing horribly. It came as a great relief to me to find that Colles was not greatly injured.
"The loss of blood was not much to speak of, but Colles was shivering and trembling, his face had the ghastly, blue look of one who has received a great shock, and, as you know, Colles was anything but a coward.
"Colles was not able to leave Paris for a day or two, and in the intervening hours we discussed the black cat from every point of view. How the brute had contrived to follow Colles to Paris was not so much of a mystery after all. A cat can find its way anywhere. It could travel easily on the axle of a railway engine, in the darkness it could easily slink aboard a steamer, and live on the mice and rats in the ship's hold. That part of the problem we had no difficulty in solving.
"I did not accompany Colles to London because you already know I had business elsewhere. I said good-bye to my friend, and his last words were that I should never see him again. I began to fancy so myself when the day before I left Paris I had a brief cable from Colles:—
"'Saw it night Hyde Park. Goodbye, old friend.'"
"The black cat killed Colles?" I asked.
"Assuredly. The brute had followed you on that fateful morning. It must have been lurking behind the Martello tower. A crouching cat does not occupy much room, you understand. Once Colles entered the ruined tower his fate was sealed. That cat must have dropped right on his shoulders, and with those razor-like claws cut his throat in three places, severing the carotid artery instantly. Don't you remember that there were three parallel cuts, exactly similar to those healed ones on the body."
Mine was the silence of consent, and Carter continued.
"At the inquest you stated that you saw, or fancied you saw, a shadow flitting over the cliffs. That shadow was the black cat. To be quite sure of that I made a close investigation of the spot where the murder took place. I even descended the cliffs, and there I was lucky enough to make a remarkable discovery. What do you think it was?"
"My dear fellow, how could I possibly tell?"
"Well, it was nothing more nor less than the skeleton of the black cat."
"There's something very pleasant in a new sensation," the man in the fur coat remarked. "You're in luck, sir. To be attacked by thieves in Grosvenor Square before midnight is something to boast about."
"Not if you hadn't come up so suddenly—and silently," Sir Gordon Lane replied.
The man with the fur coat smiled. The attempt at robbery had been an impudent one. The would-be thieves had offered violence to their victim. Lane had not called for assistance; he was not of that class of man. All the same, the shade of odds had been against him. Then the man with the fur-coat had turned up silently and scientifically, and the fight was over. It had come and gone with the rapidity of a dissolving view.
"I always wear rubbers over my evening shoes," the new-comer said. "I am a martyr to rheumatism, and I have got to be careful. These rubber goloshes are light and not ungraceful. Moreover, they are useful on occasions, as you have seen. But that is a nasty bump over your right eye; if you'll come as far as my rooms in Mount-street, I'll doctor it for you."
Sir Gordon murmured his thanks. A bit of a globe-trotter himself, he was never very nice in the making of new acquaintances. Moreover, his companion was a gentleman.
His air and manner, the cut of his clothes testified the fact. And the lining of his coat was a modestly dark, but genuine, sable.
Lane's further conclusions were verified by a glance at Julius Duckworth's sitting-room. There were prints of price in old frames, rare bronzes, an antique oak sideboard bearing date 1579; the silver was Jacobean. A Steinway grand piano filled a recess beyond a Gobelins tapestry curtain.
"Musical, I see," Lane said, sketchily.
"My passion, sir," Duckworth exclaimed. "The piano, however, is the only instrument I play. Once I sit down to that in an evening I forget everything. I was coming back from Queen's Hall when I ran against you. A cigarette?"
Lane nodded. His host produced whisky and soda and a flat tin box hermetically sealed. The band of which he proceeded to peel off as one removes the strip of tin from a high-class tobacco.
"There you are," he said. "I import my own cigarettes in small boxes, sealed as you see. Each box holds ten. To my mind, directly the air touches delicate tobacco, it begins to lose flavour. Hence the little dodge of mine."
The cigarettes were poems, the whisky soft and mellow. Lane lay back in a long armchair dreamily speculating as to the manner of man he had found. An educated American probably. But Duckworth was not American. He was a Duckworth of Anerley, and the last of his family. Hedley Duckworth had emigrated to Australia, and the present deponent was his son. Lane nodded again. He had known Hedley Duckworth as a small child.
"Funny thing," he said, "and shows how small a place the world is. I'll get you to come and dine with me to-morrow night in Belgrave place. I believe I'm just as musically mad as yourself and I fancy I can give you a few yards start in the way of old plate and canvas."
"You've got me on a tender spot," Duckworth cried. "Eight o'clock? Just cast your eye over this intaglio."
It was a fine piece of work in cornelian. Lane replaced it upon the mantelpiece. Just below his elbow stood a photograph of his host taken with another man, or, rather, with a reduplication of himself.
"Didn't you say you were the last of the family?" Lane asked.
"Well, yes," Duckworth admitted.
"Oh, that photograph. That fellow taken with me is the plague of my life. He's my double. No relation, mind you. A cosmopolitan scoundrel who lives on passing as me. I first heard of him eight years ago. Once in Paris and twice in St. Petersburg he got me detained by the authorities. If they had not caught the rascal the second time, hang me if I don't think I should have found myself in Siberia. On that occasion I compelled the fellow to be photographed with me, and now when I travel I always carry that in my kit-bag. It's a proof that I have I got a double, you see."
"A most amazing likeness," Lane murmured.
"And a most troublesome one," said Duckworth, with a look of annoyance on his good-humoured face. "That chap copies my dress. Once when suspected he contrived to get hold of one of my boxes of cigarettes. He keeps them now for emergencies; so if you find me some night rifling your Apostle spoons and Charles II. pepperpots, it won't be me, but the other fellow."
The conversation fluttered butterfly-like from one subject to another till it finally settled on music. Hereon Duckworth was with him. His features glowed with a fine inspiration; he passed backwards and forwards to the piano, playing a bar here and there with flattering interest. He also was an enthusiast, but not an authority like his host. Duckworth rattled off a heavily-scored work of Brahms brilliantly. The whole world seemed to be flooded with the music.
"I hope the other people here are as keen," Lane said.
Duckworth smiled as he dropped into a chair and took a cigarette.
"I am the only lodger," he said. "My landlady, Mrs. Manly, runs a high-class bonnet business and other feminine fripperies. She's quite a lady, widow of an Indian colonel, or something of that kind, and says she could listen to me playing all night, which is a great convenience, as well as a compliment. Very good to me, too. When I get absorbed, I hate to have anybody in the room; so if I don't ring my bell, the table is not cleared till the morning. You won't get many people to cater for a genius like that."
Lane admitted the virtues of this model landlady. He half rose to go, but easily allowed himself to remain. There was a fascination about his companion that attracted him. On the whole, he had never smoked cigarettes with quite so exquisite a flavour, and the full mellowness of the whisky was beyond praise. Moreover, Duckworth was familiar with many lands that Lane knew.
"Really, I must be off," he said, as a quaint bracket clock struck three. "I'm very glad to have met you, Duckworth; a pleasanter two hours I've never spent. Come to 95a, Belgrave Place to-morrow at eight, and we'll inspect my treasures. There's a complete set of Apostle spoons—"
"The Rubini set," Duckworth said absently; "valued for probate at eleven hundred and fifty pounds when your father died. I remember reading of it in the 'Times.' Shall we be alone?"
"Oh, I'm not afraid of you," Lane laughed, "though I am living en garcon just now, with a butler and two maidservants. I've got another man coming, but he will be after your own heart. He also is ready for an all night sitting on musical matters, though he can't play a note."
"A critic, eh? Do I know him?"
"By name probably. It's Hartley Mason, the novelist. Now I really must be going. Good-night, and many thanks to you, old chap."
Sir Gordon Lane's dinner was quite a little romance in its way. He held that three was the ideal number for a bachelor dinner—a thoughtfulness that Julius Duckworth thoroughly appreciated, specially as Hartley Mason proved to be a brilliant and entertaining talker.
Dessert had been trifled with, there was a blue drift of cigarette smoke across the dusky red-panelled walls of the small dining-room. Duckworth lay back in his chair, thoughtfully sipping champagne and apollinaris water. In a rapt way he contemplated the Rubini Apostle spoons. He discoursed in a scholarly expert way on silver hall-marks. "I can only look on and envy," Hartley Mason laughed. "I should like to live in an atmosphere of Apostle spoons and Queen Anne teapots, if I could afford it. I have to content myself with collecting specimens of humanity."
In the smoking-room the conversation drifted on to music. Once more the agile little novice professed to speak as a novice. He was passionately fond of all kinds of music, but he didn't know a note. He had heard of some ingenious arrangement whereby it was possible to play the piano without knowledge. Some good critics were quite enthusiastic about it.
"Mechanical," Lane snorted. "A thing call the Orpheusia. Sort of superior barrel-organ. All rubbish."
"Not quite," Mason said, mildly. "Quite out of curiosity, you know—well, I had quite half a mind to buy one. There are testimonials from great pianists like—"
"Testimonials!—Your artist as a rule is the most good-natured man in the world. Fancy having to listen for Salviati's Requiem, for instance, filtered through a mechanical device attached to a piano!"
"I've done—I mean, I've heard it," Mason said stoutly, "and its splendid."
Lane walked to his piano.
"Then you shall hear it again and confess yourself beaten," he said.
"Duckworth plays it perfectly, as testified by snatches last night. He shall humble you to the dust, friend Mason. Come along, Duckworth."
Duckworth declined hastily and with some confusion. The novelist was watching him through his eyeglasses keenly. It was the confusion of the idle boaster who knows nothing of an art on which he has prated as an expert. He coloured slightly. If a judge like Lane had not heard the Anglo-Australian perform, Mason would have set him down without hesitation as a vapouring liar.
"Fact is, I don't feel like it to-night," he said. "I'm afraid I've got one of my ague fits coming on. My feet are like ice. Ring the bell, my dear fellow, I really must get you to allow me to put my rubbers on."
"No ceremony here, my dear chap," Lane laughed. "The servants have gone to bed. You will find your goloshes in the hall."
Duckworth reappeared presently, avowing himself to be better.
"I popped into the dining-room for my spare box of cigarettes," he said. "Your case of Apostles is still on the table. Isn't that tempting Providence?"
"Lock 'em up before I go to bed," Lane said carelessly. "Now sit down and make yourself comfortable, Mason, you're not going?"
"I am afraid I must," the little novelist said, with marked regret. "There are some proofs I faithfully promised to deliver in the morning. As it is I shan't be in bed before daylight."
It was shortly after midnight when Duckworth rose in his turn. Lane lay deep down in his armchair with his feet near the fire. He protested gently that the evening was being spoilt.
"Hang me if I'm going to get up." he said.
"My dear fellow, I should be sorry for you to do anything of the kind," Duckworth cried eagerly. "I can let myself out. Good-night."
He stole away noiselessly in his goloshes, the door opened and closed with a dull sound. It occurred to Lane that the latch was up, but he did not move. He lay there looking into the glowing core of the fire for an hour or more. He should have secured the front door, he told himself indolently. But still—
He sat up alert and vigorous. His wonderfully quick ear caught a sound of somebody moving in the dining-room. He kicked off his slippers, and with a bound was in the hall. The dining-room door was wide open. Within, under the soft light of the shaded electrics stood Julius Duckworth conveying the priceless Apostles to his pocket.
"You infernal scoundrel," Lane cried. "But I shall know how to deal with you."
Duckworth never even started. There was a suggestion of gentle regret on his face.
"I was too eager," he said. "And I forgot that quick ear of yours. When I opened the door just a while ago I merely closed it again and waited. And now—"
"And now I am going to send for a policeman, Mr. Duckworth."
The other man smiled. He sat down with an unopened tin of cigarettes in his hand.
"In justice to my friend Duckworth," he said, deliberately, "I must correct you. It matters nothing what my real name is, but I am not Julius Duckworth."
"The point is too subtle for me," Lane said grimly.
"There is no point at all. I am the other man."
"The other man! What the deuce do you mean by that?"
"Precisely what I say. Nobody could remain long in Mr. Duckworth's company, without hearing of the other man, the alter ego, who has so frequently gotten him into trouble. I am that other man."
"You are nothing of the kind," Lane replied. "There is no other man. The alter ego was evolved out of your ingenious brain for certain reasons of your own. Seeing that I have you safe here, the scheme fails. Or perhaps you would like the second Duckworth to be your bail."
"The likeness is wonderful," the other man said, cheerfully. "But I beg to assure you most sincerely that the real Duckworth is at his rooms this very moment. He had a touch of fever this afternoon, and he wrote you that he couldn't dine with you to-night."
"Which letter I need not say I never got."
"But you will the first post in the morning. This afternoon I had occasion to call on my twin brother, so to speak. I wore glasses and a beard. For obvious reasons I was going to get Duckworth to advance me money to go to Australia. He had done so once before to get rid of me."
"He was in his bedroom. On his table was a letter to you saying that he was sorry the fever would keep him confined to his room. I knew you by repute, and here was my chance. You would never detect the difference. And I came with my goloshes and my choice cigarettes—commandeered this afternoon, as a matter of fact—and I got your Apostles. If I had not been quite so anxious I should have got clean away."
"But that does not explain the letter not coming."
"Ah! I had forgotten that. If the letter could be delayed I had nothing to fear. On second thought I decided not to wait and see my other self. Instead of that I hung about the house until the page boy came out with the letters. I handed him a packet addressed in pencil to a house in Brook-street, and offered him half-a-crown to deliver it for me in five minutes. I also offered to post his letters. The guileless innocence of youth saw nothing but half-a-crown and a benevolent stranger. The letter to you I posted too late for the 9 o'clock delivery."
Lane listened, not quite sure whether he was awake or dreaming. The story was glib and convincing. Duckworth had actually shown him the photograph of his double, and yet when the rascal was face to face it seemed impossible to believe that he was anyone but Duckworth. Still, the speech was a little thicker; there was a certain furtiveness in the eye—
"We'll go round to Mr. Duckworth's rooms and settle it," Lane said. "And don't you try any tricks on with me, my friend."
"I am not a fighter," the other man said. "Personally, I prefer finesse. I am quite ready to accompany you to Mount-street. Do you know that you very nearly found me out to-night? And I'm quite sure your astute friend Mason suspected something. It was when you asked me to play that Requiem. Now I know quite as much about old silver as Duckworth does. I find that knowledge valuable. Also, to play Duckworth's part well, I have rigged up the musical art patter. But I can't play a note. When you asked me to play to-night I was taken off my guard, and was within an ace of blurting out the fact. With that shrewd little beggar glaring at me behind his glasses I very nearly turned tail and bolted. Have a cigarette?"
"No thanks," Lane said curtly.
"Not one of my friend Duckworth's specials?" the other man asked persuasively. "Well, let me have just one. By the way, here are your spoons. It is with much regret that I am compelled to part with them."
He tumbled the precious Apostles out upon the table. Half suspecting some trick, Lane locked the door before proceeding to count and carefully examine his treasure. But they had not been changed, or anything of that kind.
"All correct," said the other man, genially. Lane could hear the patent tin band being peeled off the fresh box of cigarettes. There was a faint perfume as the lid was raised, and the other man extracted, not a cigarette, but a thick cotton pad soaked with something pungent. Then, like a flash, a knee was inserted into Lane's back, his head was forced over by a powerful grip, and before he knew what was happening, the pad was pressed and held securely over his mouth and nostrils. Mechanically he gave a quick gasping breath, and in a second, the darkness of night closed in upon him, and he sank like an empty sack to the floor.
The other man surveyed his work with calm approval.
"On the whole, I'll take the spoons," he said. "Might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb. How pleased Duckworth will be when our prostrate friend calls upon him in the morning! And what a lot of convincing he'll take! Bye bye, Lane."
Lane came to his senses at length. He had no feeling of anger in his heart, nothing but a grim determination to get to the bottom of things. At 8 o'clock the next morning he had pretty well planned out his line of action.
"I'll go and call on Julius Duckworth," he said to himself, "and I'll call before he's up. Pshaw! what nonsense! It's a plant from start to finish. I shall find no Duckworth at Mount-street. And I think—egad, hang me if I know what to think!"
Sir Gordon repaired to Mount-street in a strange frame of mind. Like most men of intellect, he was not in the habit of doubting the evidence of his own senses. Morning had convinced him that he had come across in Julius Duckworth a brilliant and original adventurer. When he reached Mount-street he would hear that Mr. Duckworth had been suddenly called abroad, or something of that kind. But the whole thing was bewildering.
Mr. Duckworth was dressing, a smart maid informed Lane. If the gentleman liked to walk in, as his business seemed pressing, she would tell Mr. Duckworth. The sitting-room fire was not yet lighted, but still—
Lane pushed his way resolutely, upwards. There might be some clue here. The remains of a small dinner were still on the table, an ash tray on the piano was filled with cigarette ends. A tall, pleasant-looking lady appeared to be superintending domestic operations. Lane began to wish that he had not come.
"I am Mrs. Manley," the lady said quite calmly. "I am sorry, but Mr. Duckworth is to blame for all this confusion. Not being very well, he dined at home last night. And when that happens, and Mr. Duckworth sits down to his beloved piano afterwards, he hates to be disturbed."
"He promised to dine with me last night," Lane said.
"Oh! then you are Sir Gordon Lane. Mr. Duckworth wrote to you."
'"Unfortunately, I only received the letter this morning," Lane said drily.
"That was my page boy's fault entirely," Mrs. Manley said. "Mr. Duckworth was most anxious about that letter. The poor fellow was shivering over the fire a few minutes before 8 last night wrapped up in a quilted dressing-gown, and even then he asked about the letter."
Lane felt just a little queer. It looked as if the story of the alter ego was true after all. Otherwise Duckworth would never have had the audacity to stay coolly here after the events of last night. On the piano lay the substantial score of Salviati's Requiem. It inspired a question.
"Mr. Duckworth felt equal to his piano last night?" he asked.
"Oh, yes; he was playing all the evening. He went through that Requiem twice. I enjoy the performances immensely; I believe I could listen to a brilliant artist like Mr. Duckworth all night. I was an academy student in my younger days. I tell Mr. Duckworth that if he had gone on the concert platform he would have been a formidable rival to the great performers."
Lane's suspicions were fading. Here was a lady in the best sense of the word who was prepared to testify to the fact that at a few minutes to 8 her lodger had been crouching over the fire quite unable to go out. He had dined at home, as the table testified; he had smoked numerous cigarettes, as the ashtray proved; he had played a long Requiem twice over. When the musical mood was on him, Duckworth never allowed himself to be disturbed. An adroit question elicited the fact that it was about 9 when Duckworth went to the piano. He had played Salviati's masterpiece twice; in other words, he must have sat down to his piano till practically midnight. There could be no suggestion of hiring an accomplice here, for brilliant pianists are not found at every corner; besides the whilom academy student, in the form of Mrs. Manley, would have noticed the change of touch at once. No; Duckworth's 'double' story was true. The latter's anxiety that the letter of regret should be posted in time clenched it.
A minute or two later, Duckworth yawned into the room, cuddled up in a bear skin and shiveringly cursing the vagaries of the English climate.
"I'm sorry about last night," he said; "but you got my letter. What a fool I was ever to have sampled that infernal Mosquito Coast!"
"I didn't get your letter," Lane said pithily. "But I had the pleasure of entertaining your double, who subsequently drugged me and levanted with my Apostle spoons."
Duckworth was properly sympathetic and properly angry. He listened to Lane's story with many outbreaks. At the same time he could not but admire the audacity and neatness of the scheme. His evident concern soothed Lane.
"But I was within an ace of spoiling the play," Duckworth cried. "Once last night I felt so much better that I half dressed to come and see you after dinner. But prudence prevailed. I wish I had followed my impulse."
"I wish you had, too," Lane said pathetically.
"It would have been splendid. Did you find the likeness amazing?"
"So amazing that I feel half inclined to doubt the evidence of my own senses and a strong desire to ring for a policeman and give you in custody."
Duckworth shook his head sadly. It was no laughing matter. Sooner or later, he felt sure, that confounded double of his would get him into serious trouble. He declared that he had no appetite for breakfast, but if Lane would join him—
Lane declined. No, he would not put the matter in the hands of the police; he rather inclined to consult a private detective. This would be far more pleasant for all parties. Duckworth not only applauded the decision, but he was in a position to furnish the address of the very man.
Lane walked off at length, chewing the cud of mixed reflection. Perhaps Hartley Mason would be able to make some suggestions. The wily brain of the novelist might prick a way to a more or less satisfactory conclusion.
Mason rose from his chair somewhat hurriedly and pulled a cloth over his piano. He kept that instrument, he explained, for the benefit of his friends. He gleamed with all the virtue and alertness of the man who has done a lot of early work.
"I have come to give you the plot for a story," Lane said.
Mason nodded without enthusiasm. Most novelists suffer in that way from their friends. But as the story unfolded his eyes gleamed. It was a psychogical problem after his own heart. It was a long time before he spoke.
"Julius Duckworth is your man, after all," he said.
"You mean to say that Duckworth is the real thief?" Lane demanded.
"Precisely," Mason said coolly. "The story of that amazing double is all hanged nonsense. It was invented and patented in case of accidents."
"But, my dear chap, I have seen the two men taken on one photograph plate."
"So you may imagine. But that can be easily faked. Why, years ago, in one of the 'Bits' type of paper, I saw the photograph of one man telling another story—a man telling himself a story, in fact. Photographers can easily manage that."
"Well, suppose I grant your point. How do you get over the fact that Duckworth actually wrote me a letter saying that he couldn't come, and that he insisted upon the letter being posted so that I should get it in time?"
"As a man, I cannot say. But, as a novelist, suppose a blank envelope was addressed in some fugitive ink—the ink that conjurers and spiritualists use and which entirely disappears in a few minutes. There's the letter mystery solved for you. After you caught Duckworth out he posted the real letter on his way home. That's why his so-called 'double' told you the story of the letter."
"Another score to you. Now let's go a little further. Duckworth was at home playing his piano all the evening. An expert witness will swear to his touch. At ten minutes to 8 he was huddled over the fire in his dressing-gown."
"Having all his war paint on underneath," Mason said crisply. "As soon as his dinner was up he slipped out of the room and house unobserved. You see how carefully he guarded against anybody entering his room by all that nonsense about the interruption of inspiration, and all the rest of it. Am I right so far?"
"You may be, but what about the piano, my astute friend?"
A queer smile trembled on the lips of the pianist as he glanced in the direction of his piano. He looked like the man who tries to conceal that he is holding up the ace of trumps or a great coup.
"As a novelist," he said slowly, "I often have to scheme a way for a man to be in two places at once. I wanted an original idea for a new alibi, and your friend Duckworth has given me one. A little weakness of my own has supplied the key. Now, didn't Duckworth say last night that Halliwell the numismatist had asked him to dinner on Friday?"
"He did say so. And, as a matter of fact, I am going too."
"Don't. Write regretting at the very last moment. Then come round here a little after nine and I will show you things, as the Americans say. Now, I must turn you out. But I am going to solve your problem."
Lane retired somewhat ungratefully.
Mason crossed over and pulled the rug away that covered his piano. The smile was not in deprecation of himself!
"Very neat," he murmured; "a plan to be in two places at the same time. Splendid!"
"Now we are going to work up to the climax," said Mason, as he rose from his seat before the fire. "We assume that Duckworth has gone to dine with old Halliwell to-night."
"Which is doubtful," Lane interrupted. "Duckworth had a touch of ague to-day."
Mason chuckled. He seemed to be pleased about something.
"A safeguard," he said. "Now you will be so good as to go as far as Hans Place and call on Halliwell. You must make some excuse for calling—ask if Fox is there, or something of that kind; but ascertain if Duckworth has arrived. You can easily get all that from the footman who answers the door. You will find that Duckworth is there. Then come back to see me here."
Lane went off in a state of mystery and a hansom cab. He returned presently with the information that Duckworth had arrived in due course, and that at the present moment he was smoking a cigar with Clement Halliwell, C.B., in his library. Mason chuckled in the previous irritating manner, and began to smoke. At half-past 10 he rose and donned his overcoat.
"Halliwell is an early bird," he said. "We must start now, unless we want to lose our little bird, too. Come along. We are going to call and see Duckworth."
"Who, as I told you, is not at home."
"What's that got to do with it? You'll see some fun presently; also your Apostle spoons."
Arrived at Mount-street, Mason asked the sprucely-starched parlour-maid for Mr. Duckworth. With mild amazement, Lane heard that Mr. Duckworth was far from well; that he had dined at home and could see nobody. As a matter of fact, he was playing the piano at the present moment. The exquisite strains of Saviati's Requiem filled the house.
"We'll go up," Mason said casually. "Mr. Duckworth is expecting us. No, you need not trouble to announce us. I'm afraid we're rather late."
Mason pushed his way upstairs followed by Lane mechanically. The latter was utterly and entirely bewildered. Could Duckworth be in two places at the same time? And how wonderfully well he was playing the Requiem!
Mason held the door of the sitting-room open for Lane and then closed it behind him. The curtains over the alcove containing the piano were drawn. The unseen musician appeared to have his soul in his work.
"What execution!" Lane murmured.
"What time! What brilliancy of touch! A little more soul, perhaps. But still, there are not five pianists in Europe—"
He paused, utterly at a toss for words. With a dramatic gesture Mason drew back the curtains, the wide end of the piano appeared in sight, but where was the executant? The alcove was empty! Lane gasped. Nobody was there, and yet the marvellous music went on. The room was flooded with the slow, wailing melody.
"Explanations all in due course," said Mason. "The next thing is to catch our hare. He won't come back until the house has gone to bed, which won't be long now. That's what I call a neat dodge to establish an alibi. Even if you take your criminal almost red-handed, and he can wriggle back to his den here, he's pretty safe. Once that is done, and the people here swear that he never left the house, he turns on the artistic story of the double, and there you are. Bet you anything more than one Continental police bureau is prepared to testify to the double."
"But that wonderful plaything?" said Lane.
"Ah, we shall come to that presently. Musicians are very conservative. On the whole, we had better step inside Duckworth's bedroom. He is sure not to be long now, especially as I heard the servants going to bed. Duckworth has his latch-key. Probably it is an understood thing that he fastens the front door."
Half an hour passed, the wailing music gradually grew slower and then stopped altogether. Then the sitting-room door opened, and Duckworth crept in. There was a serene smile on his face as he slipped off his great coat. From an inner pocket he took a small flat case, and laid it on the table.
"The earlier Saxon coins," he murmured. "It will be a sad loss to Halliwell. I fear he will be greatly cut up over it. These shall gladden the heart of another collector, who may surmise where they come from, but who will show them to nobody. Your born collector has no conscience. I wonder—"
"A good Wulfric," Mason said, laying a gentle hand on the speaker's shoulder, "and a remarkably fine specimen, I understand that there are only two others in existence. But Mr. Halliwell is not going to lose his coin this time."
Duckworth looked up swiftly. Just for a moment his eyes blazed. There was a cruel snarl on his lips. Then he reached for a cigarette with a steady hand.
"You are quite right to take it quietly," Mason said, "though I should be very sorry to be alone with you. Where are Sir Gordon's spoons?"
"I'll get them for you," said Duckworth with smiling alacrity.
"You'll do nothing of the kind," Mason said crisply. "If you attempt to rise, I shall lay you out with this life preserver. Your keys! The spoons are in that big safe yonder? Very good. Lane will you get them and see that they are correct? Good again. Also place that case of coins in your pocket. That being successfully accomplished, what are we going to do with the polished rascal?"
"Don't hit a man when he's down," said Duckworth, deliberately blowing a spiral of smoke down his nostrils. Sir Gordon Lane suggested. "Our interesting friend's same slightly feminine weakness. How did you find me out?"
He lay back in his chair perfectly at ease. Like a true philosopher, he recognised the inevitable. Perhaps it was not the first time.
"Might just as well say all about it," Lane suggested, "Our interesting friend's double was a figment of his imagination, of course."
"It was part of an exceedingly ingenious scheme," said Mason. "I need not go into the way it worked, seeing that it entirely deceived you. When you told me about it the other night I felt pretty certain that there was no double existing in the flesh. You told me all about the piano playing and the story Mrs. Manley had to tell. Also you challenged me to devise some scheme where, to all practical purposes, a man could be in two places at the same time.
"Well, by a little bit of good fortune, I solved that problem. I am as passionately fond of music as either of you, but I can't play a note. A little time ago a friend showed me that marvellous invention the Orpheusia. I was charmed with it. Paderewski says it exceeds anything the most brilliant performer can accomplish. Other great musicians bought one. I bought one. And I claim that I can, with the aid of it, far exceed the efforts of either of you. I was a little ashamed to speak of it when I was dining with you the other night because you were so contemptuous of the Orpheusia. But you heard it here tonight."
"So that was the Orpheusia?" Lane cried. "Mason, I take it all back."
"I knew you would, conservative as you are. Well, my Orpheusia gave me the first idea. Here was a way that Duckworth could be in two places at once. Here was his ingenious alibi. He had an Orpheusia. I made inquiries of the makers. Sure enough, one of these instruments was delivered here a few weeks ago, packed ready to go abroad. It is behind that curtain at this moment, plus an ingenious little arrangement for working it mechanically, and to reverse the action so that a piece can be played twice or three times over. Hence the selection of a long score like Salviati's Requiem. There you have it in a nutshell. Any mechanical affair like the Orpheusia could do this thing. And all the time the people here deemed this clever fellow to be shooting his soul with a sweet strain, he was elsewhere. The puzzle is solved. It looked dreadfully difficult at first, but, like all things of the kind, it is absolutely prosaic when you know how it's done."
Lane slipped behind the curtain for a moment. He found things pretty much the same as Mason had prophesied that they would be. He had heard of the wonderful possibilities of the Orpheusia, but he had scoffed at the suggestion hitherto. Duckworth smiled with the air of a man whose modest worth has been discovered.
"Simple and ingenious," he said. "The only time when I have known artistic simplicity to fail. And now I suppose there is nothing for it but to call a cab?"
"Out of the window," Mason said. "No going to the door. I have too much respect for your ability to give you the ghost of a chance. If you open the window and whistle. Lane, you are pretty sure of your catch."
"You little demon!" said Duckworth, with a flash of his white teeth. "I was a bit afraid of you from the very first."
"On the score of phrasing," Mason said coolly, "your compliment is crude. But of its sincerity there is not the shadow of a doubt."
"YOUR Majesty," said the Chancellor, "is so pig-head—so headstrong!"
His Majesty replied with some heat that the Chancellor was perilously on the verge of becoming a dreary old—well, fossil. Then Rudolph remembered himself and apologised almost as humbly as he used to do when Count Ferrera was acting Regent over the Kingdom of Farsala.
"You are not a bit like your father, sir," Ferrera said half regretfully.
For Rudolph I. had been a puppet in the hands of this terrible old man with the flashing eyes and white hair. The man of fire and marble had dragged his frightened master after him over the flaming bridge of the reeking, breathless years, to plant him, dazed and bewildered, upon one of the strongest thrones in Europe. Then Ferrera returned to his whist with a comfortable sense of accomplished destiny.
But fire and marble, blood and tears, like dragons' teeth, leave their crop behind them, and thenceforth the Anarchists were a sore thorn in the side of the terrible old Chancellor. He could hold them under, and he did. But this did not tend to save the life of poor Rudolph I., probably the kindest and most amiable monarch who ever sat uneasily on a throne. The story of that senseless, useless, sickening tragedy is fresh in the mind of Europe yet.
And now Rudolph II. stood in the shoes of his murdered father. There was no frightening him. He had the strength of a Hercules and the heart of a lion. He was brave and quick and accomplished, and a rare handful for Ferrera, who was loth to relinquish his power. Rudolph was going to cut his name deep in the granite front of history, only Ferrera had no wish to see it done all at once.
"If your Majesty were less wild and daring!" he murmured.
"0f course I am!" the King cried. "Did you ever know a promising young man who wasn't? Look at your own youth—twice in gaol, once a narrow escape of being shot! There was Madame Le Genlis and the beautiful Bertha—"
Ferrera hastened to change the subject. If his Majesty would only take proper precautions to guard his sacred person, the rest would not matter so much. In sooth, the grim old Chancellor loved the boy as if he had been his own son, though he would have cut off his right hand rather than own it. His Majesty ought to consider his people. Going out hunting alone was all very well, but ill would assuredly come of it. And did his Majesty know that Carl Brema was known to have returned to Farsala again?
"The Anarchist!" the King cried. "The most picturesque outlaw in Europe. Egad, Ferrera! I'd give half of the coal dues to meet him."
"If your Majesty pursues your present life," said Ferrera drily, " you are likely to meet him on far more economical terms."
In spite of all warnings, Rudolph went off with rod and fly-books, with nobody but a favourite groom for company. He had but recently purchased the "cottage" at Farma, some eighteen miles from the capital of Farsala, where the trout-fishing was almost a proverb. And Nello, the groom, knew every inch of the water, for he had been bred and born at Farma, and many a day's poaching had he known on that famous chalk-stream.
"Now we are going to enjoy ourselves," the King said gaily. "The Stadt is up for a month, and there is nobody but Count Ferrera to worry me, unless Carl Brema turns up, which would be annoying. Did you ever hear of Brema, Nello?"
Nello flirted out a shining cast of English-made flies out across the stream dexterously.
"I have seen him and spoken to him lots of times, sire," he said.
"And you never told me! Have you seen him here?"
"He lived here," Nello explained. "The great English artist, from whom your Majesty purchased the cottage just as it stands, in turn bought it from the Government. It belonged to Carl Brema's father, who also was a great artist in his day. The Government forfeited the property on account of the treason of the elder Brema. Carl Brema's mother was turned out at death's door, and died in the garden where the fountain is. Those were bad days, when the sword ruled in Farsala. Carl Brema was a boy then."
His Majesty remarked impatiently that it was a beastly shame—he had been two years at Eton and hoped to marry an English princess; that, upon his honour, he should have turned Socialist himself under the like conditions; and a great many other indiscreet remarks that fortunately could not reach the ears of his sage Chancellor.
"Tell me some more about Carl Brema," he demanded.
But Nello had not much to say. There was a deal of local tradition, for the neighbourhood was proud, in a way, of its Nihilist celebrity. But it was in Russia and Italy that Brema had made his great reputution. Like Stepniak, he had had many adventures. He was a widower, with one beautiful daughter, who was dying of consumption. And years ago, during one of the Nihilist's secret visits to his old home, the girl had been born here.
All of which information his Majesty kept discreetly from the Chancellor what time he returned to dinner in high good humour and with a full creel of trout. He was delighted with his cottage, charmed with its unique old oak and pictures and china. He was going to take up painting again. It was a pity to have so handsome a studio, filled with lay figures and everything to woo the brush, and yet not use it. Ferrera said that was all very well, but he should like to see a few soldiers about the place.
"Not a scarlet coat nor a wisp of gold lace!" the King cried. "No menservants, no lackeys, nor anything besides Nello and the maids. This is freedom, Ferrera; and upon my word, I revel in it."
* * * * *
His Majesty was smoking cigarettes in the studio. He had dined, he was tired, and he was at peace with all the world. Ferrera had gone post haste to the capital on business connected with some laggard diplomacy. He had departed much as an anxious peasant mother might have done who leaves the children alone with a box of matches. And to soothe him, his Majesty had promised not to leave the house.
Presently there was somebody at the telephone. For once, royalty regretted the absence of retinue. Perforce he had to get up from his nest of Persian rugs and answer the call in person. It was Ferrera, calling aloud from the capital for a red despatch-box. Would the King allow Nello to ride as far as Cammes, where a mounted messenger from the capital would meet him?
"Consider it done," his Majesty yawned. "Hi! Nello—the red despatch- box from the Count's writing-table; you are to ride with it as far as Cammes. Get me a fresh box of cigarettes and begone!"
Thus the King was alone in the house, and the women of the household had gone to bed. As a mere precaution, the ruler of Farsala strolled round the house and locked the doors. The blinds were down, save in the studio, where there were no blinds. Shaded lamps had been lighted everywhere. Verily, the cottage was a museum of rare and beautiful things. Rudolph could imagine anybody growing passionately fond of so refined and artistic a home. It seemed almost impossible to imagine this as the birthplace of a bloodthirsty Anarchist. Carl Brema's father had got all this antique oak and china together. His Nihilism had been of a type that even Russia tolerates to-day. It was hard lines, Rudolph thought.
He was thinking it all over as he stood musing in the studio by the dim light of a crescent moon. Carl Brema had seen his mother die outside yonder on the grass. That was the sort of thing that drives headstrong men to crime The lay figure yonder might have been an Anarchist ready to spring. A shadow crossed the bare window—perhaps that was another. But the shadow came again, all in white, and a pair of white hands beat passionately on the long windows opening to the lawn, and a piteous voice begged for admission. Without a minute's hesitation, Rudolph flung back the French sash and caught a faint, light, silked body in his arms. The girl hung there breathlessly for a moment.
"Get me to the light!" she gasped. "Your life depends upon it—quick!"
UNDER the streaming lamplight, Rudolph saw a beautiful face like marble, save for the hectic flush on the cheeks; he saw a pair of liquid eyes filled with terror and a fearsome gladness. He poured out a glass of wine and coaxed a little of it past the girl's lips.
"Now tell me who you are, little one?" he asked gently.
"Sire," the girl replied, " I am Enid Brema. Carl Brema is my father. He is close by, and there are two others. It was a mere trick, a tapping of the telephone wire, that deprived you of your servant's assistance. It was here that my father's mother died in his arms. Oh! your Majesty understands?"
Rudolph nodded grimly. He perfectly understood the situation; his imagination grappled with the dramatic scheme of vengeance. Three of the most reckless and dangerous criminals in Europe were close by, and he was alone. The frank, boyish look had gone from his face. He had often pictured some such plight as this. And now the time had come to act.
"I owe you a debt I shall find it hard to repay," he said. "I see you have risked a deal to come and save me. Why?"
"Because I am dying," the girl said simply. "If I had done nothing, I should have been a murderess. I couldn't die like that. And so I came. You look upon my father as a man without heart or feeling?"
"It is the accepted point of view," Rudolph said guardedly.
"Then it is wrong!" Enid cried. "No nobler or kinder man breathes! And he has never soiled his hands in crime. And there are some men who are sane on all points but one. And then to find you here, of all places in the world! It seemed like a foul insult to my father's mother's memory."
"I did not know till yesterday," Rudolph murmured.
"I believe you. They say you are good and kind. I argued with my father, I fell on my knees before him, I asked him to see you, and he laughed me to scorn. And I am afraid, terribly afraid, for both of you if you meet. Listen!"
There came the sound of stealthy feet outside. Rudolph turned down the lamp.
"Which way are they coming?" he asked.
"By way of the studio. There is a patent catch on the window which anyone familiar with can undo. One comes first to make sure of the ground, then the other to guard the exits, and, after him, my father. Let me go and draw them off. Let me go and make a diversion whilst you escape—"
Rudolph shook his head grimly.
"I am not going to escape," he said. "I have a plan. Do you creep upstairs and into the first room you come to. Even if you hear the sounds of firearms or strife, be silent. And if I am successful, there is a reward waiting for you far beyond your wildest dreams. Now go."
The girl obeyed silently. She was tired and weary and worn out. Rudolph heard her laggard steps impatiently, he heard the door close, and then he hastened to the studio. His own coat and smoking-cap were whipped off and hastily huddled on to the lay figure lounging on the sofa. A briar pipe was thrust into the mouth—a pipe filled with damp tobacco, into which a hot fusee was rammed. Swiftly, and yet without hurry, Rudolph looked around him. His eyes fell upon a score or more of fishing-reels holding hundreds of yards of strong salmon-lines. Then he crouched behind a suit of armour close to the couch and waited. There was no fear in his heart, nothing but a deep lust in the joy of the coming strife.
His patience was not unduly tried. Presently there came a crunching footstep on the gravel, a dark shadow fell athwart the floor, a hand was laid upon the catch of the window. After a little time, there came a cold gust of air, that caused the pipe in the lay figure's mouth to glow. The studio was filled with a pungent smell of fresh tobacco.
In the dim moonlight the shadow was coming nearer. Rudolph could hear heavy breathing and a subdued chuckle. Then the intruder became aware of the lay figure and paused. Here was the object of the raid, utterly unconscious of danger, ready for the knife. The Anarchist slipped towards the victim; Rudolph crept out and stood on tiptoe behind him.
The King calculated his distance to a nicety. He jumped forward, and passing his hand over the intruder's shoulder, gripped him by the throat. Once the feeling of utter surprise was past, the Anarchist struggled violently. He might as well have tried to free himself from the grasp of some powerful machinery. And the hold on his throat was bringing the red stars before his eyes.
"If you utter one word," said the King, "you are a dead man!"
But the other had abandoned the useless struggle. He suffered himself to be bent backwards and a handkerchief stuffed into his mouth. His hands and legs were bound in yards upon yards of the fishing-line, until he was trussed up like a silkworm in its slimy net. As if he had been a child, Rudolph picked him up and carried him to the dining-room. The lay figure, with the still glowing pipe in its mouth, seemed to look on with grotesque approval. Rudolph dumped his burden down and rolled him under the table, A long tapestry cover hid that evil fruit of the night from view. With a deeper, fiercer joy in the combat, the King returned to the studio.
So far fortune had favoured him. With strength and prudence on his side, he felt confident of the issue. It would be assumed by those outside that their colleague was guarding one of the exits. It was just as well that the Anarchists were so prudent. And here was another of them coming. The draught came in strongly, there was a deep glow in the dummy's pipe.
The second man displayed a little more caution than the first. There was something more creepy and murderous in his step. Once in the studio, he stopped. Obviously he was scared by the appearance of that still brooding figure with the pipe in its mouth. The first marauder could never have passed that. But then it was just possible that the other man had skulked into the cottage, and that the King had just come here. The new-comer stepped back, hesitated, and stood still for a moment.
If he took real alarm now, Rudolph felt that he had had all his pains for nothing. It would never do to let this fellow escape. The next few moments were anxious ones. What would the intruder do?
Apparently he decided to go on. Probably he reflected that Brema's watchful eyes were near, and that he would see that the victim made no escape. He crept within a few inches of Rudolph, and the next instant half the life was being crushed out of him by a pair of strong arms. The attack was so sudden, so fierce, that the victim could do no more than gasp. In the pallid moonlight the King could see a pallid, shifty, mean face, and he laughed silently. This was not the kind of thing that Anarchists were made of. This fellow had come for nothing more than loot.
"Don't speak," Rudolph said grimly. "If you do, I shall break your neck. What is the signal? Whisper it."
"The big Venetian clock in the hall," the white-faced man gasped. "Calo was to have moved the hands on to midnight and make it strike before its time. Brema can hear the signal outside."
"Um. That is very clever and not in the least likely to excite suspicion. Come this way. And if you make the faintest sound, you will cease to be interested in things mundane any more. Give me your handkerchief."
The trembling man obeyed. Rudolph gagged him as he had done the other. Then his palsied limbs were trussed up like a partridge ready for the spit, and he also was dragged into the dining-room.
"There!" Rudolph exclaimed in high good humour. "You will find yourself in excellent company, although you will not be bored with too much conversation. Now, I am going to make the family party complete by the addition of the most distinguished Carl Brema!"
He passed into the hall, where the great Venetian clock stood. It still wanted some five-and-twenty minutes to the hour. Rudolph opened the face and put the hands on till it pointed close to midnight. In the studio the dummy still sat smoking. The King threw a cloak over it; his decoy was no longer needed. He stood back in the shadow of the window and waited. Something gleamed fitfully in his hand. There was a buzz of wheels, and the silver bells of the great clock chimed twelve.
THE vibrating echo of the chimes died away. From a distant somewhere a lamb was bleating. Beyond the village a dog whined. The sounds only served to mark the intense silence. Rudolph was unpleasantly conscious of the beating of his own heart. Brave as he was, he knew the enormity of the task before him. Brema's scouts he had tricked with contempt. Brema himself was a different matter.
He was coming. The King's strained ears told him that. A shadow of a long head and a close-fitting hat crossed the moonlight. Like a shadow himself, Brema crept into the room. Almost instantly the cool rim of a revolver pressed upon his temple.
"Put up your hands, Brema," the King said quietly.
With a gentle sigh, Brema complied. He expressed no emotion; he did not seem in the least surprised or disappointed.
"That was neatly done," he said coolly. "Your Majesty should be one of us. And you are all alone, too!"
"I am all alone, as you say. And your friends are being carefully looked after. Precede me to the dining-room; you know the way."
Brema's teeth clicked together. He caught his breath with something like a sob. He knew the way only too well.
"I am not likely to forget it," he said slowly. "By all rights, divine and human, this place belongs to me. The sight, the scent, the smell turns my heart to water. And then the knowledge of my wrongs?"
His voice was quiet, low, almost caressing. In the hall, Rudolph looked at his victim. He was slight and spare, with a white, gentle face and deep, melancholy eyes. His thick hair was prematurely grey. It seemed almost impossible to believe that here was one of the most dangerous revolutionaries in Europe. And yet it was so.
He stepped back involuntarily half a pace as if to admire a picture. In some magical way his heels crooked in between the King's legs, and they came to the ground in a heap together. Rudolph's revolver was jerked from his hand and kicked to a safe distance.
Then followed a struggle, short but severe. Brema seemed to fight with the strength of a dozen men. He was elusive and slippery as an eel. They fought along the floor and into the dining-room, until by mutual consent they parted breathlessly, sobbing and gasping for air. Swiftly Brema locked the door and dropped into a chair.
"Now we are man to man," he gasped, "we will parley. On the whole, I have rather the advantage of you."
Thinking of the helpless figures so close at hand, the King was discreetly silent. Brema was gazing round the room avidly. Though his eyes were shining with the lust of battle, his lips quivered. He took a little Mazarin-blue spill-cup from a bracket behind him.
"Your Majesty's predecessor showed rare good taste in leaving everything here severely alone," he said. "The pictures and cabinets and china are as they were when I was a boy, with dreams of being a great artist. This cup is the one strange item, and I fear it is a forgery."
He held it at arm's length critically.
"I believe you are right," the King said. "It is out of place here. Therefore, we will dispose of it—thus."
There was a muffled report, a puff of smoke apparently exuding from his Majesty's person, and the spill-cup splintered into a score of pieces. The King lounged smilingly in his arm-chair, his hands deep in the pockets of the shooting-jacket he had donned after dinner. Brema was shaken out of his equanimity now. He regarded the fragments at his feet with an astonishment absolute and complete.
"Your Majesty is not alone, after all!" he stammered.
"Indeed I am," Rudolph smiled. "You thought you had the advantage of me, but you are mistaken. You are covered with my spare revolver at the present moment. It is in my jacket pocket. I learnt that trick of shooting through the pocket in America. I practised it with a perseverance that has been rewarded, as you see. I have only to crook my forefinger slightly, and you are as useless as that bit of Mazarin-blue. If I did so—?"
"Your Majesty would have the applause of the civilised world."
"I know it. And you came here to murder me?"
"I came here with an open mind. Also there were men with me ready to do my bidding. It was I who tapped the telephone wire and imitated Count Ferrera's voice. I had planned this thing out carefully. It seemed like the irony of fate to come and kill you here whence your minions expelled the best of mothers, the woman who died close by of a broken heart. My father was a loyal citizen, sire."
"I am prepared to admit it, Brema. I have been making a careful investigation of your case. Your father's sentiments to-day would be held to be no more than Radical views. But at that date, in the then perilous condition of Farsala, we could not afford too much liberty. Still, Ferrera's servants were wrong. The expulsion of your mother was an act of barbarity—one of many, I fear, in those troubled times. You loved this place?"
A queer spasm of emotion trembled on Brema's lips.
"With my whole heart and soul," he said. "I loved all the treasures here—every inch of the orchards, and cornlands, and vineyards was familiar to me. And it was my dream to be a great artist like my father. And he was a true patriot, sire, as sure as I am a wandering outcast whose life you hold in your hand. I have been driven to this. When I shut my eyes, I can see my mother lying yonder on the grass, with the soldiers thrusting her on with their rifles. She said she was dying, and they laughed. And she died there and then. When I think of that, the red light comes into my eyes and I am mad. Not that I hold with the slaying of rulers—save one."
"Meaning myself, of course?"
"Yes, your Majesty. As your father died before you. But I had no hand in that— violence is no part of my policy. I would have asked pardon ten years ago; I came back to serve my country, but the police ignored my suggestions. It was a bitter pill, but not for myself."
"You are alluding to your daughter now?"
"Yes, sire. A girl as sweet and tender as she is beautiful. And she is dying—dying under my eyes, of consumption. God help me when she is gone! Men call me a wild beast now—what shall I be like then? And the cruel irony of it all is that the doctors say she might recover if she came back to her native air. I—I thought if I could make you my prisoner to-night, if I could stand over you with a revolver to your breast, I might, I might—but that is all a dream now."
Brema's words trailed off to a broken whisper, his head fell upon his breast. The King watched him in a dreamy kind of way. It seemed almost impossible to believe that this slight, white man, mourning upon a half-made grave, could be one whom half Europe held in terror.
"Why?" he asked. "Why should it be a dream? Kings, like Nihilist leaders, are only human, after all. You have been badly treated, Brema—your father was badly treated; and when I think of your mother, I am filled with shame. There!"
From his shooting-jacket he produced his revolver and tossed it on the table. It was magnificent, but it was not war. It touched Brema, it brought the tears into his eyes. Here was a monarch whom he had heard well spoken of. The splendid audacity of it touched the Anarchist to the soul.
"My daughter told me you were a good man," he said. "She warned me for the best. Ah! if you knew, your Majesty; if you could only see her! If you could only give me an amnesty for a day, till I could bring her to your feet."
"Nonsense!" Rudolph cried. "I would kiss her hand. She has done me a service to-night that I can never forget. And as to seeing your daughter, I have had speech with her already."
"Your Majesty is pleased to jest!" Brema gasped.
"On the contrary, I was never more in earnest in my life. As a matter of fact, your daughter is under my roof—this roof—at this very moment."
IT was some little time before Brema spoke. When at length he looked up, there was a curious smile on his face.
"My daughter came to warn your Majesty of your danger?" he asked.
"And at the same time to betray you into my hands. You can imagine the agony and distress of mind of the poor girl. She looks upon you as the best and noblest of mankind. It is your boast that your hands are free from blood "
"Pshaw!" Brema cried. "The brute beast methods are none of mine."
"Yet, my good Brema, you cannot touch pitch without being defiled. Depend upon it, your daughter thought the whole matter out carefully. She would come to me and save my life, and plead for you afterwards. Under the circumstances, she argued—quite logically—that I must be merciful. So she came. I laid a little trap for your confederates, and they fell into it. I set the clock for your benefit also. Your accomplices are under the table. Bring them out."
Brema complied. The King took a knife from his pocket and contemptuously indicated that their bands should be cut.
"Wait!" Brema cried hoarsely. "When I came here to-night, I meant to kill your Majesty! When I crept into the house and saw all the old, familiar objects about me, a madness filled my brain. I should have struck you down without mercy. And now you have me—have all of us in your power. For Heaven's sake don't be rash!—don't place such a hideous temptation in my way!" He spoke as if pleading for some boon. Great drops stood on his forehead.
"Release them!" Rudolph commanded. "I am not afraid of them, seeing that I am not even afraid of you! You will never cut deep with two such poor, pitiful tools as these. Set them free!"
He stood up—big, strong, powerful, with the light of resolution shining in his eyes. Brema slashed the clinging cords away; he pulled the gag from the mouths of his discomfited allies. They looked small and mean enough now, but they would have done murder at the instigation of their chief, and the King of Farsala stood alone in their midst. All the hot anger died out of the Anarchist's heart.
"Bid them go!" Rudolph cried. "Dismiss them!"
They needed no second bidding. They passed like bats into the night. The King's manner changed, a ripple of laughter came from his lips. "Confess it!" he cried —"you are not sorry now that your daughter came here."
"From the bottom of my heart I am glad," Brema cried. "Your Majesty has beaten and humiliated me in every way. Never will I raise a hand against you again. Now call my child, and let us go, before—"
The Anarchist hesitated; he moistened his dry lips. There was a curious gentleness on his face, yet his eyes were troubled as he looked about him.
"The madness will not return," Rudolph said quietly. "Sit down and talk, Brema. I have need of men like you, Brema. Farsala wants you. And they tell me your child may recover in her native air."
"If I could only leave her here!" Brema murmured. "If your Majesty would permit—"
"And why not? The girl saved my life. Incidentally, she has probably saved you from the gallows. She shall stay here; and if you like to take the oath of allegiance, there is a commission in the Army ready for you. And if I come here occasionally—"
"Your Majesty!" Brema said falteringly. "What do you mean?"
"That the place is yours. It was forfeited to the Crown quite unjustly. And I am going to restore it to you just as it stands. Ferrera will laugh at me— oh! he will laugh at me most confoundedly! Brema, shall we show him that the laugh is on our side?"
Brema sat there speechless. His face was all broken up and there were tears in his eyes. Some mumbling words escaped him. He turned to Rudolph. The latter was sniffing like a hound in the air.
"Don't you smell something burning?" he exclaimed. "Egad! it would be a pity to lose the place just as you came into it again, Brema. I know! When I threw that cloth over the lay model, I forgot the lighted pipe—"
There was a little cry outside and the patter of light feet. Without ceremony, Enid Brema dashed into the room.
"Your Majesty!" she gasped, "I dared not stay any longer. A fire has broken out in the house—in the studio... Father!"
"I am here in the service of my King!" Brema cried. "No more wanderings, my child. You have saved my soul to-night, and I have found the one man I can call my master. Come along. Where shall we find water?"
In the studio the fire had gained a good grip. A heap of picture-frames and easels were glowing and flickering, the lay model, cause of all the mischief, one gleaming mass. The place was full of acrid smoke, beyond the veil a series of crocus blue and yellow eyes flared.
"Stand back, child!" Rudolph cried. "I am going into the little fernery to the right yonder. There is a hose and tap there. Brema, do you try and close the window, to keep the draught down."
Rudolph plunged into the smoke with the zest of a schoolboy. At some considerable risk, Brema contrived to close the window. Presently there was a roar of delight from the fernery, followed by a spurt of water and the hiss of steam. At the end of half an hour the flames were beaten flat and dead.
"I hope your Majesty is not hurt," Enid said timidly.
"My Majesty is as jolly as a sandboy!" Rudolph cried. "I never remember enjoying myself more. A perfectly delightful evening of adventures. Farce to tragedy and tragedy to farce. And that is life!"
"Farce enough!" a deep voice growled. "What's the meaning of this? Still, I am only too thankful to find you alive, sire."
"Ferrera!" Rudolph cried. "Why back so soon?"
"Because I have been hoaxed!" Ferrera thundered. "And Nello here was dragged out on the same fool's errand. I came back expecting to find that some ghastly tragedy had been enacted. Brema is close by—"
"At your elbow," Rudolph said coolly. "Brema, this is my devoted and dear old friend and tutor, Count Ferrera. Ferrera— Brema. The house was on fire, and Carl Brema took the risk of getting it under. He has been of the greatest service to me."
"It seems to me that I have arrived in time," Ferrera growled.
"Just in time, Count. Brema has saved the house—he and his daughter between them. And Brema had come all this way to place his services at my disposal, and to— er—become a credit to Farsala. That being so, it is my good pleasure to restore his family property and to ask permission of his daughter to stay here for the present. Ferrera, there is a lady present."
"Perhaps, on the whole, it is a good thing," Ferrera said sotto voce.
There was something bitter in his politeness. Rudolph cast a warning glance at Brema, who understood that the early events of the evening were to remain a secret between his sovereign and himself. He took the King's hand and carried it silently to his lips.
* * * * *
"The man is a dangerous Radical, your Majesty, and will ever remain so," said the Chancellor.
"He was," Rudolph laughed. "Do you remember the story of the Scotch Radical who so suddenly changed his views and became a rigid old Tory? When reproached with his backslidings, he responded that in the old days he 'had nae coo,' which is Gaelic for cow. So soon as he acquired a cow, he became a respectable member of society."
"The moral of which is, your Majesty?"
"That Brema has got his 'coo'"
THE EDITOR of the New York 'Flashlight' was not happy. For the last week the interesting and 'newsy' sheet over which he presided had had no sensation. Nothing seemed to be going on in any part of the world, the big Trusts were singularly quiet, and Tammany was doing nothing conspicuous just now. Van Decker, the editor, had a bright set of young men about him, men who suffered no lack of imagination, but they all seemed to be off colour at present.
Valentine Johnson came in listlessly, nodded to his chief, and helped himself to a cigarette. Then he tilted his chair back, and sighed gently.
"Nothing seems to be doing," he said.
"That's a fact," Van Decker responded shortly.
"Seems to me as we shall have to manufacture something," Johnson went on. "Suppose we go out and kill a man and discover his body in the cellar afterwards. Guess anything seems to have been done to death. Got any ideas?"
Van Decker intimated that he was out of stock for the moment. Johnson tilted his chair back to a more dangerous angle, and smoked dreamily. Van Decker began to have hopes.
Johnson somnolent always meant business sooner or later. Presently the latter spoke as a man from the heart of a vision.
"What's the matter with an interview with Norman Forbes?" he asked.
"Nothing," Van Decker responded, grimly, "except that you couldn't get it. The greatest and most petted novelist of our generation has never been interviewed, and he never will. I had four shots at him when I was on the 'Sun.' I followed him in a Cunarder from here to Liverpool, and I never got a paragraph. You see the beggar's been on the Press himself, and knows the ropes."
"Find him a bit standoffish at all?"
"Not a bit. Affable as they make 'em. Chatted as freely as you like. Eight of us tried him when he had that house in the Adirondacks two years ago. At the end of a week he had interviewed every one of us, and we didn't even gather the kind of baccy he smoked. You can drop that syndicate, Johnson."
"Never got inside the house?" asked the imperturbable Johnson.
"Inside his house," Van Decker said, scornfully. "Well, I should smile! You'll be telling me that you have been inside his house next."
"Not yet," Johnson said placidly. "But I am going there to-morrow."
Van Decker sat up and lighted a cigarette. For a genuine Simon Pure interview with Norman Forbes he would cheerfully have paid a thousand dollars. The most popular novelist in the world had never been run to earth. An interview with him illustrated with sketches—Johnson was no mean artist—would be worth anything on the paper. And the thing would be freely quoted in two hemispheres. But then the thing was impossible.
"You can't do it," Van Decker said breathlessly.
"I can, and I will," Johnson replied. "As you are aware, Norman Forbes has rented a house out New Jersey way for two years. He has brought most of his lares and penates, so that the place shall be as homelike as possible. No journalist has ever been under his roof tree, and in the ordinary course of business never will. But to-morrow afternoon I am going out to tea yonder with Norman Forbes. I shall spend two good hours in his company, and if my pocket Kodak and my memory, aided by my sketch-book, don't provide me with three columns, write me down Hollander."
"How the Dickens are you going to manage it," Van Decker demanded. "Forbes is a powerful man, and particularly handy with the gloves."
"My dear chap, I shall be welcomed," Johnson said. "I shall be expected. And, when the whole circus is printed, Forbes won't be able to contradict a single word. It is just possible there may be a shindy afterwards, but if the paper'll see me through I'll risk the rest."
Van Decker hastened to give the desired assurances. A smart thing was going to be accomplished, and any subsequent 'explanations' would merely serve to keep the sensation alive.
"How are you going to do it?" he asked.
Johnson winked solemnly. He had no disposition to show Van Decker too much. On the face of it he was going to work a miracle, and modern miracles, when they come to be expounded, have a way of appearing extremely commonplace.
"I'll keep that a secret if you don't mind," he said. "The idea is too good to give away; besides, if Norman Forbes chooses to lie low over the matter, the dodge will do for another time. So long."
Johnson brought himself to a perpendicular and lounged out of the office as if the mere act of living was utterly beyond his strength. Van Decker was alert and vigorous once more, and consumed with curiosity. The thing was almost too good to hope for, but Johnson was not given to idle vapouring. Short of the revelation of some important cabinet secret, no newspaper editor would have preferred anything to an interview with Forbes. Three columns on the front page. Splendid!
It was past 7 the next evening before Johnson reached the office. He was attired with immaculate good taste in a frock suit and white hat, his moustache and beard were gone, and he wore a pinc-nez that greatly added to his intellectual appearance. There was a quiet smile on his face that allayed Van Decker's rising fears.
"Well, you are changed," the editor exclaimed. "I'd give a trifle to know what game you have been up to. Have you managed it all right?"
Johnson nodded as he produced a bulky package from his tail pocket.
"A good three columns," he said in tones of quiet triumph; "to say nothing of a series of photographs just developed. 'Forbes in his study,' 'Forbes making a cigarette,' 'Forbes and his dogs,' 'Forbes romping with his children.' I tell you those detective cameras are a fine invention. I managed to get into three rooms and collect about fifteen photographs, which you had better put in hand in once. Not bad, are they?"
"Magnificent," said Van Decker, with a voice of awe. "How did you manage it?"
"And, I've got a lot of material here. You'll hug yourself presently when you see what Forbes has to say about English and American publishers. Also, I have discovered all his favourite authors, and a great deal about his boyhood. Oh, it's a real live interview, and every word as true as gospel."
"He gave it you at that?" Van Decker gasped.
"Not a bit of it," Johnson said, cheerfully. "He had no more idea than the dead that he was being interviewed. But I don't fancy he will mind. He's a humorous beggar, and I shouldn't wonder if he enjoyed the joke as well as the rest of us."
Van Decker was glaring down the copy now in a deeply grateful frame of mind. The thing could have suited him no better had Norman Forbes done it himself. It was so good that he had a hazy idea that Johnson was playing some colossal jest on him.
"I can't believe that it's real," he said.
Johnson rapped the photographs with a bony finger.
"You can see these are genuine," he said. "It's a thousand pities they can't be reproduced as they are. But if we wait till Forbes has discovered the racket we've put on him, he'll get an injunction or something like that, and knock the bottom out of our little scheme."
Van Decker nodded approvingly. He quite recognised the point. A couple of hours later and the whole thing was in type. Doors were locked to keep the precious thing from leaking out, and the 'Flashlight' was in for another big coup.
It was a little before midnight that a little clean-shaven man in eye-glasses, came clamouring to see Johnson. He had been vicariously told that Johnson was busy, that he was dead, that he was out of town for the next few days, but nothing seemed to shake his nervous temerity. He was not going to be put off, he said: if necessary, he would remain outside the office till the rascally Johnson emerged. All this Johnson heard with the calmness of the victor. He had corrected the last slip of the proofs, he had supped in the office, and now he was enjoying a cigarette.
"Show the little beggar up," he said, casually.
The stranger came, white, heated, furious. He was an Englishman, he said, and he was going to have redress for the outrage put up on him. For a time he was so incoherent that Van Decker had not the least idea what he was talking about. All the same he connected the stranger in some vague way with the Forbes coup.
Johnson stood with a look of deep feeling and sympathy on his face.
"Would you mind telling me who you are?" Van Decker asked, politely.
"Yes, sir," the other fumed. "Perhaps you have heard of Stephen Belt, the novelist."
Van Decker bowed, and intimated that the name was familiar to him as that of an English author who was coming prominently to the front.
"I came over here for a holiday," Belt proceeded. "I had several letters of introduction to prominent people here, amongst others one to my compatriot, Norman Forbes. That letter was given me by Lord Wellesley, the Foreign Secretary."
Van Decker choked slightly, and immediately apologised. Johnson's expression was one of deep sympathy.
"I am staying at the Washington Hotel, on Seventh Avenue," Belt went on, "where that scoundrel yonder is also residing. Yesterday I informed him of that letter which I said I had forwarded to Mr. Norman Forbes, and in response to which I received a letter from the great man, asking me to go and have tea with him to-day."
"I hope you enjoyed the tea," Van Decker said, with great politeness.
Belt was too angry to see the delicate badinage of the question.
"I never got there, I never had it," he wailed. "On the way out I was accosted by yonder fellow, who said he was walking in the same direction. It was very hot, we walked fast, and I was very thirsty. Your—your friend yonder proposed a cocktail, to which I gladly responded. We entered a bar of seemingly respectability, where the cocktails were produced. In ten minutes I was asleep—drugged, sir, drugged."
Van Decker was manfully trying to look sympathetic. As a matter of fact his prevailing emotion was one of admiration for Johnson's smartness.
"You look all right now," he murmured.
"I am all right, now," Belt said, pointedly. "I woke about eight, under the eye of a ribald bartender. Then I began to understand why I had been tricked. I went straight away to Mr. Forbes' residence and sent in my card. It was returned with the information that Mr. Belt had already been there, and that he had departed some time ago. When I protested and insisted, a stern intimation came that unless I took myself off I should be handed over to the police. I need not say that I have already posted a letter to Mr. Forbes, giving him the real facts of the case. And when you have discharged your reporter, and when I have prosecuted him—"
"Are you going to do that?" Van Decker asked, blandly.
"Why not?" Belt demanded. "Why not?"
"It all depends upon the point of view," Van Decker replied. He was thoughtfully punching holes in his blotting pad. "Over here they call it a smart trick. I dare say a good many people in England will say the same. And I am afraid it is a cold world without too much sympathy. If you lie low nobody will know anything about it. If you fight the case you will probably be laughed out of court and become an object of ridicule on both sides of the water. Now I need not point out to you, Mr. Belt, that it is no light matter for a popular novelist with a growing public to be laughed at. If you take my advice you will laugh with us, and leave everything to Forbes, who will never take the trouble to admit or deny the veracity of the interview which we are going to publish in the 'Flashlight' to-morrow. And look what a temptation you put in Johnson's way, when you told him Forbes had never seen you!"
Belt broke out furiously, but his anger faded away into faint murmurings. Usually he had a fine vivid humour of his own, and already he was coming to see the funny side of the situation. And there was a deal of sound common sense in what Van Decker said. In any case it would be merely advertising the man who had so despitefully used him.
"What would you do under the circumstances?" he asked.
"Be as dancing mad as yourself," said Van Decker, promptly, "and keep my tongue between my teeth. There's nothing else to do."
Belt seemed to think so too, for presently he departed. Two days later he walked into the office of the 'Flashlight' and laid a letter on Johnson's table.
Dear Mr. Belt (it ran),—
I am so sorry for your misfortune, and for the rascally trick played upon you, and incidentally upon myself, by that fellow Johnson. Will you come to tea to-morrow, and bring Johnson with you, unless you have wiped him off the face of creation. Personally I shall ignore the 'Flashlight,' but I should like to see Johnson again. Only this time he comes in a private capacity.
"I'll go," said Johnson: and added, half regretfully, "I'm afraid there's no 'copy' in it this time."
CLIFFORD STEELE quietly remarked that the game was over, which patent fact his opponent admitted cheerfully, with the rider that there was more in the game of draughts than people imagined. The two were playing comfortably between their cigarettes in the luxurious lounge of the Brema Castle Hotel. A band was playing somewhere in the distance, there was a crescendo of chattering voices, the soft swish of draperies. A tall girl, with a white, sad face, passed along as Steele was packing up the draughtsmen. She paused suddenly.
"Perhaps you would like to play, Miss Denbury?" Steele hazarded. His late antagonist had strolled away. "If so—"
"I loathe the game," Angela said almost passionately. "To my mind, there is something so horridly weird—Mr. Steele, are you a good player?"
The girl paused, and her manner changed suddenly. The keen-eyed, shrewd young barrister was regarding her intently. Surely mere dislike for an innocent pastime could not have touched her passions so deeply. Angela Denbury was more beautiful than she had been when Steele first met her at Davos Platz some eighteen months before, but then the white sorrow of her face had been the glowing happiness of irresponsible youth. The passing months had made sad history for Angela Denbury lately. She sat down by Steele's side and commenced to fan herself gently.
"Mr. Steele," she said abruptly, "do you remember Raymond Hare?"
Steele nodded. He was beginning to understand. Raymond Hare had been at Davos Platz at that time. .. . Certainly a handsome, healthy young fellow, with everything good on his side. There was a flush on Angela's face now.
"If I can help you," Steele suggested, "pray command me."
"Yes, yes. You are very good. When I met you in the corridor yesterday, it occurred to me that you might be disposed. .. . Raymond liked you; indeed, you were very friendly at Davos. Do you know that Hare Park, Raymond's place, is not far from here?"
"Then I shall certainly ride over and call," said Steele. "I hope he's well. But that class of athlete is never sick or sorry."
"Indeed, you are quite wrong," Miss Denbury replied. "Raymond is dying. He is dying of a broken heart. And it will be merciful if he is taken away before he loses his mind altogether."
Steele was deeply shocked. Something told him that he was to hear more, but he had too much tact and delicacy to ask questions. With the dreamy murmur of the band and the smiling faces about him, it seemed hard all at once to grapple with the tragedy hanging over two lives.
"It seems almost farcical," Angela went on—"at least, in one way. You were surprised a minute or two ago at an outburst of mine over a simple question about a game of draughts. If that game had never been invented, I should be a happy girl to-day with—with—"
"Raymond Hare," Steele murmured. "Won't you take me into your confidence? Anything that lies in my power to do I will do gladly."
It was some moments before Angela replied. Her dark eyes were fixed upon space.
"Do you believe in warnings and banshees and occult things?" she asked suddenly.
"Not in the least," Steele replied. "I have found the air of the police-courts wonderfully efficacious in solving mysteries of that kind."
"Then you would look with suspicious eyes upon a game of draughts played by invisible hands in an old castle at mid-night."
"I should indeed. That is all very well in the pages of Christmas fiction."
"Mr. Steele, I have seen it myself; I have felt the icy draught; I have heard the clash of steel; I have seen the red and white men moved. And when the game has been played for the fifty-second consecutive Saturday night, Raymond Hare will die—if he does not go out of his mind first."
The last few words were uttered with the deepest sadness. They were none the less sad because they sounded so strangely out of place there.
"The fulfillment of a legend," Steele murmured. "Please tell me the story. You have no idea how deeply I am interested. Those spectral antagonists are playing for the life of a living man. As a champion performer, I should very much like to be present at one of those contests. Does one invariably win?"
"Oh, no! Sometimes one player, and sometimes the other. If red is successful in the majority of cases, then Raymond's life is spared. Otherwise—oh, Mr. Steele! is it possible that such things can really be?"
The man of the world smiled sceptically. Those family legends were generally very interesting. He intimated that he would much like to hear this one.
"I can tell you in a few words," said Angela. "The Hares and the Monks have ever been bitter rivals; and when the War of the Roses broke out, the heads of the two houses took different sides. After the disaster of Bosworth Field, Alyward Monk fled home, and Amyas Hare betrayed him. The former surprised the latter at dead of night over a curious draughtsboard in the big hall. Then there was a scene. They were neither of them armed, but there were plenty of rapiers about. Monk swore that he or Hare should die. Then they played each for the life of the other across the draughtsboard, and Alyward Monk won. Amyas Hare handed a rapier to the victor, who stabbed him to the heart under the very eyes of the unhappy man's wife, who had come down to see why her husband had not gone to bed. And ever since then, for a year before the death of the head of the Hare family, that ghostly game is played every Saturday night. No doubt you have heard many similar legends, but I have seen the working of this one for myself. Sometimes the curse misses a generation, but it is working for Raymond Hare now as it worked for his father. The latter knew his end was coming, and it did. Within a week of the end of his year he broke his neck out hunting."
"It might have been a coincidence," Steele suggested.
"Oh, I grant you that!" Angela exclaimed.
"More especially as ever since that dreadful discovery by the distracted wife, the Hares have been a highly strung, emotional, imaginative race. But the thing is going on now, and Raymond will never be able to stand the strain. If he is not driven to suicide, his mind must give way. And we were so happy together; we loved one another so dearly. And now, and now—"
The girl paused, with the tears brimming on her lashes like diamonds. The deep sadness of her face touched Steele to the heart.
"Let me ask you one practical question," he said. "In the event of Raymond Hare's death, who comes into the property?"
Angela Denbury did not quite know. There was an elderly second cousin, a very nice kind of man who lived with Hare, who she imagined was next-of-kin. George Minton had once been marked out as a great geologist, or something of that kind, before he gave up his career for the sake of Hare. Steele nodded carelessly, but he made a note of the same.
"Now tell me something about the phenomena," he asked. "When and under what circumstances did you see it for yourself?"
"Well, of course I have known all about it for years," Angela replied. "Raymond told me how the thing had acted in his father's case. But that was some five years ago, and, after all, it rested on the evidence of servants. Moreover, Raymond's father was a very hard-living man, and in any case could not have survived long. Raymond had never seen those metal draughtsmen move till shortly after we were engaged, and then there was a big house-party at Hare Park. I shall never forget his face the next morning. At my urgent request the secret was kept from everybody but Mr. Minton. At the same time I could not quite bring myself to believe in the phenomena. I decided to see for myself the following Saturday night after the house was quiet.
"A little after midnight I came down into the great flagged hall. It was a warm night and I felt no inconvenience. I reached the place where the queer metal draughtsboard stood with the metal men ranged upon it. I had a queer feeling that somebody was watching me. One or two electric lamps were always left burning in the hall, so that I took courage. Then, with a kind of feeling that it was all so much nonsense, I hid behind a curtain."
"At the end of ten minutes an icy draught swept along the hall. There were murmurs like the sound of strife, a little pause, then, to my horror, one of the draughtsmen moved! It was only by a great effort that I kept myself from yelling aloud.. .. . Well, I watched that clever, weird game played till white won—white, the colour of the House of York, whose cause Alyward Monk had espoused. If the material fingers of two champions had been on the table, it had been no better played. I saw the taken pieces rise in the air and fall on the table with a dull clink, then I heard the thud of a body and the clatter of a rapier, as the victor carelessly tossed it on the floor. If you ask me what happened after that, I frankly say that I don't know. When I came to myself again, I was lying on my bedroom floor, and the stable clock was striking three."
The girl paused with a long-drawn sigh; her dark eyes were full of pain. She half glanced at her companion to see if he were smiling at her. But there was no smile on Steele's keen, clean-shaven face.
"Can you find it possible to believe my story?" Angela asked.
"Every word of it," Steele said promptly. "I feel sure that your eyes did not deceive you. Also I feel pretty sure that there is some explanation. And now I am going to help you if I possibly can. In the first place, you are not to let anybody know what you have told me—not even Raymond Hare. He must be led to understand that the family secret is intact. In the next place you must contrive for me to become a guest at Hare Park for a few days. Does Hare come here at all—to see you, I mean?"
"Two or three times a week; indeed, I am in this hotel so as to be near him. He has insisted upon our engagement being broken off; but so long as there is life, there is hope, and I shall never give Raymond up, never!"
"Indeed, I hope there will be no reason," Steele said warmly. "Write and ask Hare to come and see you to-morrow. Say I am leaving for Scotland in the morning, and my room is already engaged. Under pretence that I cannot stay here, I am going to ask Mr. Hare to put me up for a day or two."
"He will be delighted. The face of an old friend distracts him from—"
"Then that is settled," Steele said cheerfully. "I'm going to my own room now, where I can think the matter out over a quiet cigarette. Also I shall have to write one or two important letters. Good night."
He pressed the girl's hand warmly, leaving her with a glow and a feeling of happiness to which she had long been a stranger. He sat down beside his own window till the noise and clatter of the hotel had ceased; he looked out into the darkness with a cigarette glowing between his teeth. Gradually something like a theory began to shape itself in his mind. Then Steele switched on the light and wrote a couple of letters, which he decided to post personally. One was addressed to a well-known firm of private detectives. There was nothing in it besides a single person's name, written across the middle of the page, with a query after it. Steele smiled grimly as he fastened down the flap and sealed it; after which he dismissed the subject from his mind and went to bed.
With a post-prandial cigarette well alight, Steele was thoughtfully regarding his host. There was another man present—a slight, tall man, with a pleasant face and open smile, who had been introduced to Steele as Minton. Raymond Hare himself was making pictures on the tablecloth with his breadcrumbs. He was deadly pale, fitfully silent, and feverishly gay. His dark eyes expanded strangely, the lids twitched in a quick, nervous way. Steele knew two men who had been all through the siege of Kimberley, and he recognised the same symptoms—nerves of the worst type.
"You ought to be a happy man here," he said. "I never saw a more perfect specimen of a Tudor house. A man who possesses seven Romneys could not possibly be miserable. What do you think, Mr. Minton?"
Minton smiled in his pleasant manner. Hare started. He seemed on the verge of an outburst, but checked himself.
"I am never quite happy on a Saturday night," he said, as if speaking more to himself than anything else. "What nonsense I am saying!"
Steele's air of polite bewilderment was perfect, Minton's expression was one of annoyance. On the far side of the electric flower-stand Steele could study the features of the other two. Electric lights in old copper fittings were everywhere. The night was a little chilly, so that an electric radiator gleamed in the deep, old-fashioned fireplace. Raymond Hare rose from his seat, muttering that he had forgotten something. His face was ghastly pale, and there were heavy drops on his forehead, though Steele affected to see nothing of this.
"My nephew is not quite himself lately," Mr. Minton said.
"Not enough to do," Steele laughed. "It is a favourite axiom of mine that the man who has everything is never really happy. Now, the change from a hotel to a house like this is a great treat to me. How wonderfully well the electric lights blend with these old walls! Do you run your stoves on the same set of wires?"
Minton explained that there was practically a second set for the stoves. If the ordinary lights went wrong, then they had always the stoves to fall back upon. The scheme was his own, though he did not profess to know anything of the technical part of the business.
"You have not studied electricity, then?" Steele asked carelessly.
"I am ashamed to say that I know nothing whatever about it," Minton laughed. "Take a cigar and come and play a game of billiards. I dare say Raymond will be down again presently."
On the whole, it was an exceedingly dull evening, and more than once Steele wished himself at the hotel again. Hare was distrait and uneasy, and Minton appeared to be keeping an anxious watch over him. Steele put up his cue after the third game and refused to play any more.
"I am afraid that we are neither of us up to championship form," he said. "As it is just eleven o'clock, I dare not play, lest the game should carry us into Sunday, which is one of the drawbacks of Saturday night."
"To-night is Saturday," Hare said suddenly. "Ugh! somebody is walking over my grave. I hope I shall be better to-morrow."
Steele murmured something appropriate. Personally he would have liked to have suggested sending for the doctor, and the advisability of having somebody to look after his host, but that was out of the question. Outside the walls of an asylum, he had never seen anything like the face his friend turned to him just for the moment. No mind could stand a strain like that for long.
The house grew quiet presently; there was a faint light or two in the hall and corridors. For the best part of an hour Steele sat in his room smoking. A few minutes before midnight he put down his cigarette and crept out into the corridor. It looked very dim and lonely, despite the specks of light here and there. The black walls, with their strong portraits, the ghostly figures in armour, all appealed to a strong imagination. Well in hand, as he usually held himself, Steele was conscious of an extra heartbeat or so as he crept downstairs. He stood presently on the polished oak floor close by where stood the fatal draughtsboard, with the men neatly arranged thereon.
Steele proceeded to examine the curiosity carefully. The board stood on a slim iron leg fantastically decorated with beaten copper. The foot was ornate with the same rich scroll-work; the top was a perfect specimen of the ironworker's art. The foot was bolted into the floor, as it was liable to topple over. The twenty-four draughtsmen were made of some kind of metal; the tops were enamelled in red and white. Altogether it was the kind of graceful work of art that one might see at Christie's, and which might fetch anything up to a thousand pounds. As Steele stood there, the clock struck midnight.
Almost instantly the corridor was filled with an icy current of air. Steele looked round, expecting to find an open window somewhere; but there was no sign of that, and the cold air continued. There was a faint moaning sound that came from somewhere overhead, a weird sound calculated to fray a set of nerves not too highly tempered. Steele was feeling the influence of it.
He stepped back for a moment, and as he did so, one of the red draughtsmen moved a square. Steele could distinctly hear the slide of metal on metal. A curious sensation shot up his spine, there was a queer tingling at the roots of his hair. Just for a moment he had a wild impulse to rush back to his room and lock himself in there.
"I'm not surprised at Hare," he muttered. "Seen unexpectedly, it would try the nerves of the strongest man."
The phantom game continued. Steele crushed down the fear that held him. He was watching with a vivid curiosity that almost amounted to pain. Not only was a ghostly contest in progress, but it was a masterly one. A man would be pushed forward and taken, it would rise with a little quick motion in the air, and fall with a dull click on the side of the table. Steele watched the whole thing with eyes that fairly started from his head. He saw the skill of attack and parry, and saw that gradually the unseen white foeman was getting the best of the contest. At the end of a quarter of an hour the game was won. White had two men left. It was a strange feature of the game that neither antagonist ever made the smallest effort to get a king. The contest was a cutting down one from start to finish. Perhaps the king at draughts was an innovation since the early Tudor days. The game was over. Almost immediately upon its termination came a dull sound like the falling of a body, then the rattle of steel, as if somebody had carelessly tossed a rapier on the oak floor.
The sound brought Steele out of his waking dream. He felt that he had had quite enough of it for one night. There was bound to be some explanation for this uncanny performance; but all the same, Steele felt that he could work it out better in the light of his bedroom. As he turned, he ran into something soft and yielding. It was Raymond Hare, standing petrified and absolutely unconscious of the fact that he was not alone.
"White won!" he whispered hoarsely. "White again! That is three Saturdays in succession—nearly two to one against me. God be good to me!"
He was swaying from head to foot in terror. As he suddenly realised Steele's presence, he opened his lips for a cry of despair. Steele's hand was over his mouth instantly.
"Not a sound," he commanded sternly. "Come up to my room with me, and I'll give you some brandy from my flask."
The strong mind bore down the weaker one. With a shaking hand, Hare began to place the draughtsmen in order again. He whispered something about the servants, and that they must have no opportunity to gossip. Perhaps he was not so far gone, after all, Steele thought. He was bound to admit to himself that he should not have cared for the task.
With a feeling of pleased satisfaction he found himself in his room again. A spoonful of brandy brought a little colour into Hare's cheeks.
"How long has this been going on?" Steele asked.
"Getting on for a year," Hare replied. "I suppose you found out. Well, I am not sorry, Steele; if I don't tell somebody, I shall go mad. Sometimes white wins and sometimes red wins, but always the balance against me. And when this year is up, I shall die, as my father did before me."
"I hope not, old fellow. Was your father's case authenticated?"
"I suppose so," Hare said hopelessly. "Not long before he died, an old servant said she came down one morning and found the draughtsmen lying on the side of the table, as if somebody had been playing a game."
"That's a coincidence, of course. At the same time, a careless servant may have swept them off by accident in passing. Personally, I refuse to believe that there is anything occult about this business at all. Let's talk about something else. I was saying to your uncle how well those electric fittings go with the old house. Have you had them for very long?"
"The light was first used on December 19 of last year," said Hare.
"Well, there's nothing the matter with your memory, anyway," Steele smiled—"if a man can recollect things like that."
"But, my dear fellow, I have the best possible reasons for remembering," Hare broke in. "It was on the third day after that that the ghosts came back again to play their hideous game for my life."
"In that case you would recollect," Steele said thoughtfully. "Did you see the game for yourself, or did one of the servants?"
"The servants know nothing of the present trouble. My uncle saw it first. He was so fearfully upset and agitated that I guessed what had happened, and taxed him with it. As a man of honour he was bound to tell the truth. And for many a weary Saturday since then have I watched the game. God only knows why I am sane to tell the story now."
There was a deep pity in Steele's heart, a pity steeped in a more violent emotion. He was beginning to see his way. Meanwhile he wanted to be alone to think. Most part of the next day he wrote letters. Two long telegrams he despatched, and waited for the reply personally. Later on in the evening he called at the post-office for letters, receiving one small parcel that looked like a bottle of some kind. It was a tiny phial of white liquid that he slipped into the pocket of his dress waistcoat as he sat down to dinner. If there were anything in his theory, Steele was determined to put it to the test before long; and if he were right, he promised himself a pretty piece of comedy before the week had elapsed.
It was a quiet evening and a quiet dinner, like the others. Steele, pleading that he had letters to write, retired early, as did the others. But the letter-writer must have been quick over his work, for a little later, in his shirt-sleeves, he marched boldly out into the corridor and thence into the hall. In his hand he carried a hammer, a pair of pliers, and a screwdriver. He let the hammer fall with a loud clang in the corridor. Not a sound followed. Then he made his way down into the hall and proceeded to turn on an extra light or two.
One o'clock was striking as Steele returned to his room again. There was a smile in his eyes, but his lips were grimly set. On the whole, he had the air of a man who is satisfied with himself.
"If I were a novelist," he said, "I would make a rattling good thing out of this."
The great clock over the stables boomed the midnight hour. Before the second stroke had sounded, Steele was out of the room and into the corridor. There was no disguise about his movements now. He reached the door leading to Mr. Minton's room and rapped sharply. He waited for no reply, but entered without ceremony.
The lights were up, and as yet Minton was fully dressed. There was just the shade of annoyance on the elder man's face. He was coldly demanding to know the meaning of Steele's intrusion when the latter cut him short.
"It is a very pressing matter," he said. "I want you to be good enough to come with me without delay. I have made a discovery."
"Ah! so you have found out the secret of the house! Did you ever hear of anything so distressing, so—so—you know what I mean?"
"I know what you mean perfectly well," said Steele drily. "And I can quite understand why this thing is never mentioned to a stranger. Meanwhile, it seems to me I have found a way to save your unhappy nephew. Will you come this way?"
Minton nodded. He seemed to be swallowing something hard. Steele's request sounded more like a command. Down below in the hall, Raymond Hare was standing watching that infernal game of draughts in dazed, sick fascination. No murderer waiting for the verdict could have had a more agonised look in his eyes. He was absolutely unconscious of the other two, he had no gaze for anything but the ghastly shifting pieces. The game went on; red made his last fatal move; it was obvious to the meanest understanding that the contest was finished, though a piece or two stood on the table. Then came the sound of the falling body, the clash of steel on wood.
Steele touched Raymond Hare on the shoulder. He looked up with a start. Minton would have hurried him away, but Steele interfered.
"I am not quite satisfied," he said quietly. "Personally, I have yet to be convinced that there is no material reason in this thing. I am going to put the men on the board again, and when I have done so—"
"For Heaven's sake," Minton said hoarsely, "be careful! This is no time—"
"I know it; but I am not in the least afraid. I set the men out so; I am going to challenge the spirit of the House of York to a little game. Now, sir, if you are quite ready."
Steele bowed mockingly. He just reached forward and touched the board, and a white piece moved of its own volition. Immediately a red man jumped from one square to another. Steele turned with a smile to his deeply interested audience. A queer, shaky cry came from Hare's lips.
"It is a new game," he said—"the moves are different. Heaven knows I should be able to tell, seeing that they are burnt into the very matter of my brain!" He was trembling from head to foot with a sudden, sickening hopefulness. The moves of the new game were terribly one-sided. Almost before it had commenced, white's men were slaughtered right and left, and the conflict over.
"We have brought the science up to date," Steele said flippantly. "The shade of your departed ancestor has evidently been attending a tournament or two. A coup or two like that will always give him the best of his old antagonist. Really, my dear Hare, you need have no further anxiety in future. Stay quietly tucked up in your bed Saturday nights, and at the end of the year white will find himself in a hopeless minority as regards wins. Again!"
Once more he placed the men, and once more they started of their own volition. This time the moves were slightly different from the last, but after half-a-dozen squares were covered white was once more in difficulties. The weird element seemed to have dropped out of the situation almost. The white, drawn agony had left Hare's face; he was looking on with the air of a man who sees something new and strange in the way of machinery for the first time.
"Come away," Minton said hoarsely. "There is something almost blasphemous in this. And in any case, this flippancy—"
He moved over towards the wall, and immediately the place was in darkness. The electric lights had suddenly failed. Hare cried in affright, his nerves all frayed out at once, and fearful of some ghostly visitation. But Steele took one step near to the draughts-board and waited. Presently he felt a hand just creeping past his own fingers. He fastened on it at once. He uttered no sound, he only held on with a vice-like grip. It was useless for his unseen antagonist to struggle.
"Switch on the stove in the fireplace," he said. "I'm told that's on a separate current, and it will give us plenty of light. Aha! I thought so."
A dull red glow from the big radiator filled the hall and disclosed the figure of Minton on the other side of the board. His wrist was firmly grasped by Steele, his pleasant face was pallid, dark, and scowling.
"He's pulled away the 'cut out' fuse," said Steele coolly. "Mr. Minton, kindly give me a fragment of copper wire, so that I can restore the circuit again. I know you usually carry some in your pocket. Your uncle is a clever man, Hare; he is quite a specialist in electrical matters."
Minton muttered something. All the same, he produced what Steele required. It was only a moment's work to restore the circuit again, almost as easy as a child knots two pieces of string. Hare looked from one face opposite to the other. A light was dawning upon him.
"I have been fooled," he said. "Some infernal jugglery—"
"To the top of your bent," Steele replied. "So far as Mr. Minton is concerned, the thing is finished. So much for a family carefully nurtured on old superstitions. Your ancestors before you have told that story till they came to believe it. Your father's death looked like a case in point. And that gave the wicked uncle yonder his cue. I did not really suspect him till he assured me he knew nothing whatever about electrical matters. When I ascertained that it had been a study with him, I began to put two and two together. See here."
Steele took a strong screwdriver from his pocket and proceeded to release the quaint old draughtsboard from its fastenings. Under the floor there were a score or more of fine electric wires running up the hollow stem of the table.
"The top of the table is hollow," Steele explained. "Hence the little arrangement was rendered all the easier. If you will examine the top of that board with a strong glass, you will find a tiny copper disc has been let into each of them. This once being done, the rest is easy. You only wanted a certain combination of moves to be arranged, and the electric agency does the rest. There is a little time-clock attached, so that the apparatus could be made to work at a given hour, and there you are. Night after night you have stood watching the thing with fascinated horror, whilst all the time it has been merely mechanical. And yet I was quite able to understand your feelings."
"What were your own the first time you saw it?" Hare asked hoarsely.
Steele freely admitted that the thing had touched his nerves.
"The icy draught was easy," he continued. "It was easy to open a skylight window in which was placed an electric fan. One of those things will soak that air all through the house in less than thirty seconds. As to the clash of steel, a flat piece of metal under the floor attached to one of these wires would do that. The whole thing has been most ingeniously arranged and carried out. You had an utterly unscrupulous rascal to deal with, and everything fitted most beautifully into his hands. If I were in your place, I should not prosecute; I should merely kick him out of the house in the morning. And if ever a scoundrel deserved to be hanged—"
Hare turned round passionately. But already Minton had discreetly disappeared. The sullen bang of his door could he heard, and the quick, grinding rasp of the key in the lock.
"Exit Minton," said Steele grimly. "If you are not too tired—"
"Tired!" Hare cried. "Tired! I feel as if I should never want to sleep again. If you could but faintly imagine what a load has been removed from my heart, if you could only understand the rush and joy of life, and know that the curse—"
"The curse never existed at all," said Steele. "But come to my room, and over a cigarette I'll tell you everything, from the moment that Miss Denbury confided in me and I promised my assistance."
Hare followed eagerly enough. He lay back, puffing his cigarette with exquisite enjoyment. Already there was a healthier tinge on his sallow cheek.
"First of all, I had to suspect somebody," said Steele. "I gave your uncle first choice; as a matter of fact, there was nobody else. I took the trouble to inquire into his antecedents. They were very bad; he was deeply in debt, and trading upon what might happen if you died. If you died, he came into everything. If you lost your reason, he would only be a little worse off than a wholesale inheritance. Then I found that your relative was an electrical expert. Also I found that the vision of the draughts-players had never been actually seen till the introduction of the electric light into the house.
"After this my case was pretty clear. I read up the subject, I drugged your dear uncle's whisky-and-soda one night, and then set to work. I took that said draughts-board to pieces, and before daylight had not only mastered all its secrets, but reset the mechanical part to a problem of my own. I was going to have a certain amount of fun at your uncle's expense, but he got frightened, and so I had to act on the spur of the moment. Did you see his face when he saw the new combination move under a touch of my hand? No? I dare say you had no room for any thought but your own."
"He wanted to drive me mad!" Hare whispered.
"I fancy he wanted to drive you to suicide," Steele replied. "And when I saw you the first time I came here, he was not far off the accomplishment of his design."
A bright wave of colour came into Hare's cheeks. He seemed to have some little difficulty in getting out his words.
"Very nearly," he said in a low voice. "But for the fact that there is a girl who loves me and who would have so keenly felt the disgrace and sorrow of it, more than once I was on the verge—but why speak of that now? Steele, how can I possibly thank you? How can I—?"
He broke down utterly; then presently his eyes grew bright and sunny as they had been in the old days at Davos. He rose and came across to Steele with outstretched hands.
"Let this be a secret between us for all time," he said.
"Granted, on one condition," Steele laughed. "It is for me to make conditions."
"Of course; but I fancy I can guess what it is. You want to be—"
"Your best man," Steele said quietly. "It is my right, I fancy."
THEY said in Verolstein that the young Queen was sorely afflicted with distemper; gossips had it that she could do no more than paint red roses, that she lived in a bower of red roses, and that she spoke and thought of nothing else. All of which was bad, for Verolstein was disturbed over the outbreaks on the frontier, whence the rebel Count Arnheim, the Queen's cousin and a strong pretender to the throne, was making much headway. Verolstein appeared to be loyal enough, and there was a strong disposition to give the sweet young Queen her chance. But then, Verolstein had ever been fickle as a courtesan, and the thoughtful growled under their breath for want of a king.
And for once rumour spoke the truth. Perhaps there was some method in the young Queen's madness, for this was the eve of St. Agnes—Queen Agnes's patron saint—and all good and true Verolsteiners and Arturians generally would don the red rose of royalty to-morrow. Up amongst the hills yonder were white roses by the hundred, where Arnheim's followers lay; for to-morrow, strange to say, was Arnheim's birthday, and every follower of his would don the white rose as a matter of course. The same thing had happened a year ago, and the streets had run red with the blood of those who carried the white rose. It is a slippery throne that rests on a foundation like this.
There would be no white roses to-morrow—at least, so far as the province of Verolstein was concerned. And it would go hard with anyone who was seen without a red one. Therefore, towards afternoon, the giddy and heedless were scouring the gardens far and wide for the wine-dark blossoms. Before nightfall there was no such thing to be found in the whole fair province. Even the Queen's roses were exhausted. She crossed the studio where she was painting the typical red flower, and looked out into the wide, wild, beautiful jungle of rocks and gorges and ferns that formed the castle garden. She was very slight and very pale and very fair, with the most wonderful red-gold hair in Europe, and her blue eyes, if filled with trouble, had no glitter of madness in them. It was hard to be young and enthusiastic and tender for one's people, and yet to be thwarted at every turn by traitors thinly veneered as friends.
A slight, handsome little fellow crept into the studio with something of the timidity of a brown mouse. He picked his way daintily between the artistic confusion of bronze and silver and statuary, his absurd little moustaches were faintly cocked.
"Ambrose!" the Queen cried, "you have been successful?"
The other bowed till his rapier started from the scabbard.
"Even I, your Majesty," he replied. "Your poor troubadour has accomplished this thing. I am going to show my sweet mistress yet that I am capable of more than a rondel or a neat couplet in praise of a set of drooping lashes."
"We must not quite lose our fascinating minstrel, Count."
"Ah! that you never shall, madam. But as to the Duchess. De Mignon was pleased to be flattered by my attentions. She is fifty, and the language of love is my mother tongue. Therefore when I pressed a note into her hand imploring an assignation, she consented. At lovers' perjuries they say Jove laughs. That is well for my future state. She came, that painted spy of Arnheim's, that creature of D'Arolles the infamous. We rambled hand in hand over the heath, in the rocky ways, and behold! love's dalliance was cruelly wrecked by a fall on the part of the Duchess. By my dear saint! one of those slim ankles of hers is now as the knee-pan of a kitchen-maid. De Mignon is like to keep her couch for three days to come."
The Queen came hastily forward, knocking her easel over on the way. The crimson smear on the canvas lay there unheeded.
"Then at last we can act," she said. "We are free at length to move without being observed. De Mignon is an ally of Arnheim's and D'Arolles'. See here."
From the bosom of her dress Queen Agnes produced a roll of paper. From it fell a few withered petals of white rose.
"Natalie brought me this just now," she went on; "she found it in the pocket of one of the Duchess's dresses. Ah! if she only knew how regularly her rooms were searched! There is the conspiracy for eyes to read. Do you know what is going to happen, Ambrose? To-morrow my dear old friend and tutor, Cardinal Marmaison, holds a service in the Cathedral at Rems in honour of my fete-day. All my ministers and friends will be bidden to attend. As the State Convocation will be sitting at Rems, nearly everybody devoted to my cause will be there. Rems is my great stronghold. And yet every one of my followers will wear a white rose."
Ambrose stared at his mistress with respectful amazement. For once his eyes expressed more than he intended to convey.
"No, no," the Queen cried, "I am not mad! Nobody should know better than yourself why I have assumed this malevolent distemper. What I say is true. To-morrow D'Arolles gives a dinner to my ministers and others devoted to my service. Afterwards he will present them with the rose, which is my badge, and then they will proceed to the Cathedral. D'Arolles will feign illness and go out. Then every red rose will become a white one, and all these good men and true will be slain as they stand by my infuriated burghers of Rems."
"But, madam," Ambrose stammered, "if those red roses—"
"Will really be white ones. The matter is foreshadowed in this letter. To-morrow the Duchess is to lure me out into a distant part of the grounds. From thence I am to be spirited away. In the anarchy following my disappearance and the death of my faithful ones, Arnheim will sweep down from the hills and make a bid for power."
"Yes, madam; but those changing roses," Ambrose persisted.
"Man of little wit!" the Queen cried. "Is not D'Arolles one of the most subtle chemists in Europe? Did he not come near to the stake at Vamprey for his witchcraft?"
"I have always been sorry for that escape," Ambrose said regretfully.
"Those roses will be chemically treated. A certain exposure to the air. and the red will fade and the white come through. A whisper will go forth in the streets of Rems that my ministers are bearing Arnheim's colours on their breasts. Even if they destroy them and appear without badge at all, it will make no difference. They must be saved."
Ambrose flushed. The pretty spoilt darling of the Court, the squire of dames, the butt and sport of ruffled gallants, he saw his chances now.
"I am ready to die for you," he said proudly.
"Do better than that," the Queen exclaimed. "Live for me. Ambrose, I have every confidence in your courage. And you are quick and smart, some of my devoted fellows are not. You will have to ride far and fast in time to spare the tragedy. You will be barely able to reach Rems Cathedral before three of the clock to-morrow."
"I pledge my word on it, madam."
"Then go. Two of my guard shall accompany you. Choose for yourself."
"Then I will have Ulric and Eric Sarnstein," Ambrose replied. "Right swordsmen both, and distant kinsmen of mine. They know that my rapier is gilded goose-quill. Ah! here will be something to sing of by winter firesides."
He stooped, caught the Queen's hand to his lips, and swaggered away, looking a little more like an audacious brown mouse than usual. To the peril of the way and the danger of the journey he gave no single thought.
Out from the jaws of the western gate of the castle three cavaliers rode away with the jaunty air of men on pleasure bent. On Ambrose Valery's saddle-bow was a small packet which he secured with careful attention—a small box of wet moss in which the Queen had packed the blood-red roses for her followers to wear on the morrow. There would be none to be got in Rems, and without them there would be short shrift for the three anywhere within a league of that city.
"Safe from all prying eyes!" Ambrose cried. "The cat has pinched her foot, and the cream is safe on the shelf. It is a fete, not a fight, that lies before us."
"Cats have nine lives," said Ulric. "And we have not done with the Duchess yet."
"It is D'Arolles we have to deal with," Eric observed more quietly. "Until his twig is limed for good and all, our lives are in jeopardy. I fancy there may be a fight to-morrow. I pray by my patron that I may be near D'Arolles when the steel is stripped, and that my arm may be as ready as my heart. Scotch that black snake, and our sweet Queen is safe for many a long day hence."
The three men looked one to the other swiftly. The bolder Eric had merely voiced the thoughts that ran rampant in the minds of the others. Of all the unscrupulous scoundrels in that fair province, none could compare with D'Arolles. No son of the sword or brother of the rapier was he, but a cunning diplomat ever playing for his own hand and purse, and possessing a fatal faculty for clearing foes from his path. Man or woman, it was all the same to him. He quarrelled not with them, he smiled fairly in their eyes, and then they died of plagues of fever, suddenly and awfully sometimes. Heaven alone knew the secrets of that sealed laboratory of D'Arolles.
"We shall have him unawares!" Ambrose cried. "He little guesses our errand. So he is going to feign illness and creep from the Cathedral unseen. Ha, ha!"
He laughed gaily as he whipped up his sorrel pony. Ulric and Eric stretched along at a hand-gallop, as fine a pair of reckless soldiers as a maid's eye could fain to see.
"He will go out feet first," said Eric. "A vengeance—a vengeance, swift and unexpected and terrible as the death of one of his own foes."
As they swept down the road in a cloud of dust, a figure in rusty leather suit rose from the bracken and whistled softly. The next moment the bushes parted, and a fine, up-standing black horse came out. With an approving pat of the glossy neck, the shabby wayfarer flung himself into the saddle and dashed headlong down a bridle-path so that he emerged presently on the high road some miles or so ahead of the Court rufflers pressing in his rear.
They road on gaily through the mountain paths, clamouring as they went. There was no fear before their eyes, they were on the Queen's business, and it would have gone hard with any man who said them nay. Not that they had any fear—nor, indeed, hope of this, seeing that their mission was secret even from D'Arolles' ally, De Mignon, now happily held from mischief by reason of her afflicted ankle. Ambrose told the tale in his own inimitable manner until the others creaked in their saddles with laughter.
On, on they rode, sparing not their horses till the curtain of night fell from the silent, everlasting hills. They were up on the crest of the ridge now, and far away across the plain they could see the brown haze where Rems lay. They had forty miles to travel, yet they would be there in time.
"A plague on it!" Ulric cried. "My mare has gone lame!"
"And mine," said Eric, "sobs like a maiden for a faithless lover. Do I dream, or is there good entertainment for man and beast hereabouts?"
They came to an inn presently, a long, low, beetling building, where lights were flashing in every window, and the din of voices and the crashing of flagons smote on the uneasy air. A crowd of rufflers and helpers hung about the doorway, the long taproom was crowded with the low, swaggering type only seen where trouble and strife are in the air. A fat, greasy man in a leather cap and blue apron accosted the travellers with surly impudence.
"A bed!" he chuckled in an oily wheeze. "Not for our gracious Queen herself."
Eric rattled the handle of his rapier significantly.
"Our mistress would indeed be sore pressed before she came here," he said, with a contemptuous glance for the company and the reeking walls of the low room, where some two-score adventurers were carousing. "Clear a table yonder, sirrah, and get us supper at once! We shall want a change of horses, too."
Boniface protested more civilly that a horse could not be procured for love or money. There had been a great call for them lately; besides, Arnheim's followers had been raiding the hills in search of likely cattle. Their Excellencies might make inquiries, of course, but no horses would be found. The man was lying fluently, with his tongue in his cheek all the time. Even Ambrose grew grave.
"Someone has been before us," Eric muttered, as he pushed his way none too civilly to their table. "No horses in the hills! Did ever man hear the like?"
"The horses will be found," Ambrose smiled. "We can travel no further on our own. Do you stay here and keep your ears open whilst I see to our steeds' comfort. Mayhap I may see something likely in the stables yonder."
Ambrose returned presently with the air of a man whose exertions have not been in vain. He came with the intelligence that the horses were utterly foundered, and that if Rems was to be reached in time to avert the calamity, they must needs be unfettered by anything nice in the way of scruples.
"There are those about here who are used to finer quarters," he said. "There are four black beasts in yonder stables that might belong to a prince, and their harness to a coxcomb of neighbour Louis' court. What are they doing here? And what is his business?"
By the door sat the man in shabby leather, the man with the black horse who had preceded our three cavaliers a league or so on the journey. With a big leather 'jack' before him, and a long Dutch pipe between his lips, he seemed to be heedless of everybody.
"Do you know him?" Ulric asked, carelessly stretching his legs.
"Aye, marry I do. The rascal is one of D'Arolles' familiars. An evil-looking fellow, who can be mighty agreeable amongst the kitchen louts when he has the mood. Sings a good song and has a fine ear for a keyhole. And there is Wandering Will, too. Hi, Will!"
The new-comer took no heed. He was dressed fantastically in a cast-off Court suit, which was reduced to a neutral tint by exposure, and torn to rags by reason of the owner's wanderings in the bypaths of the hills. His long, matted hair hung on his shoulder's, behind him was a kind of rude minstrel's harp. A rollicking rattle of ironical applause greeted his entrance, to which he bowed with profound gravity.
"Have a care for the Queen, have a lip for the cup,
Keep your rapier polished wherever you go,
And take care for your horses, yet other men's steeds—"
He flashed over a bright, meaning eye at Ambrose as he flung himself into one of the benches. Also with a gesture he indicated the man behind him in the rusty leather suit. The look and the gesture were not lost on Ambrose. And Wandering Will was a mine of information ever. Tossing off a brimming cup of somebody's, Will began to sing.
His fine bass voice rolled round the room and rang in the smoking rafters. A roar of applause followed the singing of the song.
"A mere nothing," Will muttered. "There is one here who is my master. Come, Excellency, will not you put up with us for once and let us hear what singing is?"
"I believe the varlet is speaking to you, Ambrose," Eric growled. "Give him the flat of your rapier for his insolence."
Ambrose shook his head. Assuredly there was some deep scheme behind Will's audacity.
"He speaks between lines," he said. "There is mischief afoot. Did you hear what he said about the horses? I'm going to sing, I tell you. When I start, do you step out and get saddles on to those three black horses. There is only one dolt of a helper in the stables. Wait for me outside. I'll join you as soon as possible."
With some assumption of hauteur, Ambrose hummed a song. Presently his fine tenor voice broke out fresh and clear as a lark. Keen and convivial as the company were, they had never heard anything like this before, this simple little love song like a gem on a dust-heap. In the breathless silence, Ambrose could hear the jingle of bit and bridle outside. As he finished, and the last pure note died away, there was a yell for another.
"One at a time, my friends," Ambrose laughed. "I see one by the door whom I have heard trill a jocund ditty before now. Come, Leather-jacket, it is my call. Give 'em the song of the Five Horsemen."
"I will see you all on the rack first," the leather-jerkined man growled.
Something like a threatening growl followed. The last speaker put down his pipe and slid towards the door. Wandering Will stood before it, his arms outstretched. A dozen dirty hands were laid on the fellow, and he was hoisted on the table.
"Sing, sing!" they roared. "Sing, or we'll tickle the notes out of you with our blades!"
Leather-jacket started hastily to comply in a rolling voice that filled the room. It was a long song that Ambrose had purposely chosen. He slipped out in the uproar, glad when the fresh, pure air smote on his lungs again. Eric and Ulric were already mounted, a third horse stood pawing the ground close by.
"That was neatly done!" Ambrose cried. "We shall not be missed for a good ten minutes yet. I set my fellow a task, and Will will see that he does not move too soon. And you?"
"Our task was easy," Ulric explained. "There were the horses, and no more than the oaf of a stableman to say us nay. He protested that the cattle belonged to men of position, and, in faith! he was not far wrong. See the crest?"
In the shimmer of light Ambrose could just make out the design on the harness. Then he felt hastily in his own saddle-bag. The precious packet of wet moss was safe.
"Arnheim!" he cried. "Arnheim in that very house yonder! It seems to me, gentlemen, that we have had a narrow escape."
"And that our mission is understood," Eric smiled.
"Also that Wandering Will's ready wit saved us," said Ambrose. "Hark! We had better press on before yonder brawl gets worse."
There was a roar as of angry bees inside the inn, stamps and yells, and the sound of blows, as the three cavaliers dashed into the darkness.
It was long past noon when the three drew rein before the 'King's Arms,' in Rems high-street. As they came into the city they did not fail to notice the strange feverishness that seemed to possess the town like a plague. The streets were thronged with people moving to and fro in twos and threes, partly as if for protection, and partly as if furtively suspicious of everybody else.
They were troubled times, and strange rumours were in the air. The Queen's malady and the story of the painted red roses was on every lip. Arnheim was coming down from the hills, like one of his wolves, with twenty thousand swords behind him. The Court and ministers had turned against Queen Agnes, and were only awaiting the signal to declare themselves. D'Arolles' agents were everywhere, and they had circulated their poisonous reports cunningly.
More than once during the century the cobble-stones of Rems had run red with blood. The citizens were getting sick of intrigue and slaughter. They had only lately seen a young girl succeed to the throne, and they had hoped for peace and tranquillity to develop their prosperous trades.
They were all for the Queen, but they did not know her well enough, as yet, to carry their loyalty to the sword's point. If D'Arolles came down from the hills sufficiently strong to carry the city, the city would submit. Not that they loved Arnheim, but anything was better than that hideous slaughter.
All the same, every man, woman, and child sported the red rose. D'Arolles, ruling the city as a blight, and cursed by every citizen under his breath, had ordered it so. If only they could be rid of the dark, little, sardonic man and his constant intrigues! All bowed down to him, all feared him, as he was trusted by none. All the same, those armed rufflers in the narrow streets were his agents, and it was they who stated covertly that the Court and ministry were going to throw off the yoke to-day and appear at the grand Cathedral service wearing the white rose of Arnheim. And if they did, those assumed friends of the Queen swore to massacre the lot, including his Eminence Cardinal Marmaison, on the very altar-steps. No wonder that Rems was uneasy and restless; no wonder that they would have heard of D'Arolles' dissolution with complacent satisfaction. The trap might be set for them, after all.
A score of armed ruffians were swaggering before the 'King's Arms' as the three dismounted. More than one of them glanced curiously at the black barbs. But the three sported the crimson roses on their breasts, and no questions were asked, nothing more than insolent stares on the part of the ruffish crew.
"D'Arolles' lambs to a man," Ambrose muttered. "There will be stiff work for us presently. It would be well to be at the Cathedral early."
"It would be better to line the inner man first," Eric muttered. "It is but sorry work fighting on an empty stomach. Fellow! take these horses and see to them."
Eric swaggered into the hostel, followed by the rest. Here all was quiet enough, for they had the great dining-hall to themselves, and in the mullioned window fared royally on a haunch and a flagon of red wine each, after which they smoked a pipe of Virginia each at leisure.
Meanwhile the crowd outside was increasing. Red roses could be seen on every side. Presently a small cavalcade rode down the centre of the street, the populace making way respectfully and yet with no signs of heartiness or warm greeting.
"Who's the devil's disciple in the centre?" asked Ulric. "The little man with the eye of a hawk and the skin of dirty parchment? By the rood! I should be loth to trust him far."
"D'Arolles himself!" Ambrose said quietly. "Evidently the banquet to ministers is a thing of the past, and he is on the way to the Cathedral. And there goes the Cardinal. Our Lady keep him! He little knows how near he is to death."
"Or D'Arolles, for that matter," Ulric growled, as he touched his rapier.
"Messieurs, the game commences in earnest. If we are going to get a good seat at the play, it seems to me that we had better be up and doing."
"The man in the corner sees most of the game," Ambrose observed. "Our place will be a lowly one, near the north porch."
"And what shall we do there, my cheerful bard?"
"Why, intercept D'Arolles' escape, of course. Stay where we can watch the infernal juggling from start to finish. We will want to see the roses turn from red to white, want to see D'Arolles rush out with simulated horror to tell his armed assassins outside what has happened, so that they may rush in and murder everybody there in the name of Queen Agnes and the sacred call of loyalty. Wait there, my brothers, and stop that part of the tragedy, and—turn the roses from white to red again."
Ambrose's head was flung back, his whole aspect changed. He was no longer the sprightly Court dandy, the squire of dames, the pet of a circle. He spake in ringing tones; his eyes flashed with a strange, grim purpose.
"There is a plan in that clever head," cried Ulric, not without admiration. "Glad am I that you came along, Ambrose."
"What would you have done without me?" Ambrose laughed.
"I' faith!" Ulric confessed frankly, "I do not know. Died with the Queen's name upon our lips—"
"And left D'Arolles to his triumph! We shall see something presently that Time will write in red, large letters in the history of Europe. Allons!"
They swaggered out into the street as if they had no care in the world. Yet their red roses were displayed conspicuously on their doublets, and the rapiers were ready. All Rems seemed to be out of doors to-day—anxious-looking citizens, eager students pushing the mob this way and that, wolfish-eyed men with the brown stains of the hills on their faces, men who seemed ready for anything.
"D'Arolles' parasites, these," Ambrose whispered, "and followers of Arnheim to a man. Their hands will be red presently, or so they think. My faith! it is a poor sort of greeting that waits for her Majesty's ministers to-day."
Through the jostling, pushing crowd a statesman thrust his way. The ministers were greeted with a faint murmur and hostile looks. Small wonder, when the good people of Rems had been told that ere long one and all would be traitors to their Queen. The poison had been poured steadily into willing ears.
The Cathedral was reached at length. In the large open square a dense mass of people had gathered. The lean-flanked men from the hills were well to the fore. Only those invited had entered the Cathedral. Ambrose and Eric and Ulric swaggered past the guard with the easy assumption of invited guests.
There were not more than two hundred guests altogether, but a glance on the part of the adventurers disclose the fact that they constituted the cream of Queen Agnes's following. Without them, she had been a rudderless ship on a stormy ocean; without them, Arnheim might push his way to the throne unaided. And they were doomed every one of them by a plot as infamous as any ever conceived by the Borgia.
The doors closed presently; the organ boomed in the fretted roof, the service commenced. Outside came a rocking, uneasy din, as an angry sea on a rocky coast. Ever and anon could be heard a sound as of the clashing of arms. In the gloomy niche of a high tomb near the great north porch, the adventurers watched and waited. Higher and higher grew the din outside, so that the good old Cardinal paused in his sermon with a gesture of pitiful patience. Ambrose could see the expression in that grand, broad face, he could see the heaving of the shoulders and the fall of the breast. Then he saw more; he saw the red rose over Marmaison's heart change from crimson to drab, to white.
Others had seen it, too, for there was a cry of astonishment. The Cardinal paused and looked down in amazement. He could see white roses everywhere. For a moment hands sought rapiers, for every man fed upon a deep distrust of his neighbour. Each man had been tricked he knew not how, but each deemed the rest to be traitors.
From the great stone pulpit Cardinal Marmaison looked down helplessly. At the same time a slight figure with pale face and gleaming black eyes was hastening to the door—the only man save our adventurers who wore a real red rose on his breast. He reached a hand for the lock, but Ulric had him in a grip of steel.
"Not yet, traitor and murderer!" he hissed. "This is your doing. Your hired assassins wait outside for the signal that the red roses have grown white. And so you would destroy all those who are on the side of our gracious Queen."
"I am D'Arolles," the other said hoarsely. "Out of my way!"
"If you were ten times D'Arolles, and ten times the abandoned scoundrel that you are, no!" Ambrose said. "If you would save your skin, go back."
The Cardinal looked down uneasily from the pulpit.
"Ruffling in the house of God!" he cried. "Shame on you, whoever you are! Surely the fiend has been at work enough here already."
"Help! help!" D'Arolles cried. "There are traitors here! Traitors! traitors!"
Immediately there came a thundering on the doors, the clash of steel, the shrill yells and cries of the hillmen. Ambrose strode up the aisle.
"There is no time to waste!" he screamed. "D'Arolles is the traitor—the arch-traitor, and the most cunning chemist in Europe! It was he who gave you all the red roses so deftly treated that the crimson turned to white on exposure to the air. You are all for the Queen, but the people here have been told that you would dare to come here to-day wearing the white rose of the House of Arnheim. A pack of Arnheim's wolves wait outside to destroy you all; they will point to the white roses on your breasts as their justification, and the people of Rems will hang you in chains. Bah! cannot you see that if this thing is done, Arnheim's path to the throne is clear?"
As Ambrose spoke, his own rose seemed to go out to a pale drab. The other two noted the change in their own badge.
"At the inn last night," Ambrose whispered. "The man in the leathern suit. He must have tampered with my saddle-bag."
A cry from within the Cathedral rose noisy and rampant as the din outside. The big oaken doors were giving under repeated blows.
"No murder here, I beg of you!" the Cardinal cried. "Consider, consider—"
He came down amongst them, his flowing robes rustling. He might as well have addressed a pack of hungry wolves with the quarry in sight.
"D'Arolles!" they cried. "The blood of D'Arolles!"
"I will have no murder here!" Marmaison thundered.
"Then we are all to be murdered here," a voice cried. "D'Arolles, or all of us! He dies!"
A hundred voices took up the echoing cry. From outside came answering yells, half a yard of rapier came through the splintering door. D'Arolles fled hastily, made to fling his body across the altar. He would be safe there. But a nimble-footed gallant headed him off, so that, perforce, he was compelled to fly for the chapel of St. Mark's, with the faint hope of reaching the cloisters beyond.
"Put your poor, faded roses in your pockets, comrades," Ambrose said between his teeth. "I will show you a good use for them presently. We will defend this door. Meanwhile, unless ill befalls us, D'Arolles is doomed. Then we shall know how to act."
A panel in the door burst like a pistol-shot, and three figures staggered in. Two of them were instantly transfixed, the third rolled upon the floor. He scrambled to his feet and turned with flashing, dazzling blade. A cry of delight burst from Ambrose.
"Arnheim!" he yelled. "The white wolf himself! Engage!"
He fell on the man with incredible dash and fury. Beaten back and taken absolutely by surprise, Arnheim fought but feebly. There was a slip—a stagger—and he went crashing to the ground; Ambrose's weapon passed clean through his heart.
He raised the slim, wiry figure with a grunt of triumph. As another panel of the door gave way, he thrust the dead body forth.
"There is your leader!" he cried. "We have scant use for traitors here. We are all for the Queen, as we shall prove to Rems presently."
A strange lull in the outside tumult followed. The whole thing had been so terrible and so unexpected. The townspeople had fallen back when the news had reached them, hardly knowing what to think. They had been innocent of the fact that Arnheim had been amongst them. Did it not point to the collusion between the dead rebel and D'Arolles? And how could those folk in the Cathedral yonder be traitors when they had struck such a blow for the Queen? And yet they had been told that they should see the white roses for themselves.
Clearly, it was, after all, no concern of theirs. They fell back uneasy and ashamed, leaving Arnheim's followers to fight for the Cathedral. Meanwhile, D'Arolles had reached the cloisters; he turned and kissed his hand to his foes. He was free. Then a fleet shadow seemed to rise from the brown walls, there was a flash and a cry, and D'Arolles lay back with his heart's blood pouring out into a hollow cup in the flag-stones worn by countless feet down the dim avenue of past generations.
"Fate well deserved!" Marmaison murmured. "Praise God he died not in the Cathedral itself! And what are we to do now, gentlemen?"
Ambrose stepped forward. He had come swiftly along at the cry that D'Arolles was no more. He took from his doublet his faded rose.
"They said outside we were not for the Queen," he cried. "They said that they should see the white roses of Arnheim's on our hearts. But the traitor has died so that we can drive the lie back to their lips. My lords, behold the red rose of Queen Agnes!"
He stooped, dipped the pallid flower in the blood of the traitor, shook it, and held it aloft. The thick, crimson fluid dyed it to the deepest crimson. A rocking, thundering murmur of applause followed. Five minutes later, and the red roses glistened in every breast. Then the doors of the Cathedral were flung open, and five-score of gallant gentlemen, with the badge of the Queen over their hearts, emerged.
One instant, and then Rems burst into a mighty cheer. Taken utterly by surprise, leaderless, their cause hopelessly lost, the wolves turned and fled and were seen no more. It was a day of fierce excitement and wild enthusiasm, but the good people of Rems slept that night with a tranquillity they had not known for years.
* * * * *
The Duchess de Mignon avowed herself to be better. Positively she felt able to stand the strain of a walk from her own closet to the studio of the Queen. Her elderly cheeks were painted, her wig reflected every possible credit upon her perruquier, the smile on her red lips was good to see.
The Queen was painting her flowers, her everlasting red roses.
The Duchess chattered gaily. She stopped presently, as hoofs clattered into the court-yard, and after a pause Ambrose and Ulric and Eric entered unannounced. The Duchess was outraged.
"This is an insult!" she said. "And—and when it comes from you, Ambrose—"
"We are from Rems, madam," said Ambrose. "It was as you said. The plot has failed."
"The plot!" the Duchess gasped. "What plot is that?"
"Your Grace's plot with D'Arolles," Ambrose said coolly. "We found the letter in your pocket; we have found other letters on the dead body of D'Arolles."
"The dead—dead body. Oh! I do not understand."
"D'Arolles is dead. The scheme of the juggled roses failed," said Ambrose. "Every man who emerged from Rems Cathedral had a red rose over his heart. Ah! your Grace turns pale. I will tell you presently how that was done. So sure of his position was Arnheim that he dared to lead the attack upon the Cathedral in person. I slew him with my own hand, and I glory in the deed."
The Duchess could say no more. She lay back half swooning in her chair, regarding the three travel-stained cavaliers between her half-closed eyes. The Queen had risen to her feet, pale and trembling, yet with a great resolution shining in her eyes. The easel had fallen to the floor, her foot had torn through the canvas, but she heeded it not.
"You have all fresh red roses," she said. "Show me how it was done."
"With pleasure, your Majesty. The first part you knew; the Duchess knows also. If I have your Majesty's permission to order a bowl of warm water—"
The Queen rang the bell with her own hands.
"I could deny you nothing," she cried. "You have saved my happiness and my throne, and may God bless you for it! Rene, a bowl of warm water here."
The water came, and Ambrose solemnly soaked his rose in the clear fluid. As deliberately and solemnly the others proceeded to treat their flowers in similar fashion; and when the flowers were shaken, they came out a streaky, faded white.
"Will you explain the enigma?" the Queen asked, with a smile.
"I will, madam," Ambrose went on. "All the roses in the Cathedral were white. The wolves were ready for us. Rems had believed the slanders. We caught D'Arolles as he was about to leave the Cathedral. We exposed his scheme; and in the cloisters someone killed that arch-fiend.. .. . When we left the Cathedral, we all wore red roses."
"Still I don't quite see," said the Queen.
"Madam," Ambrose said solemnly, "they were red, and white, and red again, and the last red was the crimson, treacherous blood of a traitor."
He laid the rose at the Queen's feet; so did Ulric and Eric. Her face was pale and agitated; she spoke no word for some time. Then she held out her two hands.
"My friends," she said brokenly. "My friends, if ever I could—"
"Madam," Ambrose said shortly—"madam, the Duchess de Mignon has swooned."
THE spirit of spring was in the air; a thrush piped with full-throated melody from a swinging blackthorn. Over beyond the water-meadows a ridge of larches gleamed with the tenderest green, save where their crests flamed into the sunset. A March evening full of light, a sky wind-swept and saffron to the zenith, crisp and cold, and yet it had been the sort of day when Nature turns in her sleep. There was a jingle of harness somewhere, the bleat of lambs; a long thread of noisy rooks melted into the flaming-red furnace of the west.
A quaintly hammered pair of iron gates (Quentin Matsys gates, Walter Whitworth felt certain) opened upon a winding drive, carpeted on either side by primroses and violets. It was Whitworth's destination, but he hesitated. He was not quite filled with the beauty of it yet. The silence was a little oppressive, for the din and roar of the train was in his ears still.
And he was an artist to his finger-tips. A day or two ago he had been a poor and struggling student, with nothing but genius and a fine ambition behind him. The turn of a day had changed all that He was heir to Grey Gables and a matter of some six hundred pounds a year besides. Miss Mary Bentley's prim letter testified to the fact.
It was all very dreamy as yet. Walter had not yet grasped the full measure of his happiness. Here was a young man who pined for the country. In his dull bed-sitting-room, under the tiles of a Bloomsbury lodging-house, he had drawn glowing pictures against the background of fog. He would have a country residence like Sir John Pettifer, R.A., in whose studio he worked. He thought of the dewy lawns in the sweet June twilight, of the cool splash of the sea against the moonlit rocks, of heathery uplands, and the music of the rippling waters where the ferns grew. He didn't know that he was breaking his heart for it, but he was.
And then came that advertisement, the visit to a dingy solicitor in an equally dingy office, and the production of the last will and testament of Colin Whitworth of Grey Gables, in the county of Norfolk, the uncle of whom Walter had only heard casually. For the best part of a year the family lawyer had been advertising for Walter Whitworth. The cast-iron manner of the man of enactments was in fine contrast to Walter's feelings.
'There are a few formalities, of course,' Mr Benn had said; 'but there is no reason why you should not take possession of your property. There is a distant relative of my late client's there, and a Miss Bentley who has been your uncle's housekeeper for many years. I am afraid it will be a wrench for them--um--because attached to the place, and so forth. If you can see your way to giving them a considerable latitude in the way of--er--um--'
Walter smiled. So there was a heart somewhere even in that flinty bosom....
'They shall stay as long as they like,' Walter said. 'I dare say they won't mind looking after my comfort: the plainest food, and a room to paint in. Seeing that my father is still abroad--'
'Oh, your father is still abroad, eh,' Mr Benn asked dryly. 'In his younger days I knew your father well. To put it mildly, he was a source of some anxiety to his friends. Your uncle Colin was a long way off being my ideal of a wise man, but he showed a fine discrimination when he passed over your father in favour of you. Is he likely to be away long?'
Walter muttered something to the effect that, in his capacity of a mining engineer, his father might be in Spain for months; but, on the other hand, he might be at home next week. He was vaguely impressed with the fact that Mr Benn regarded his father as a mauvais sujet. Walter would have called him a Bohemian. In all the young man's struggles he had not had the least paternal support. Jim Whitworth was proud of his son's genius; he was prodigal of good advice; but there it ended. Walter felt vaguely conscious that there was some mystery here. Mr Benn looked significantly at his watch.
'Go down to Grey Gables,' he said, 'and do your best to please Aunt Mary--I mean Miss Bentley. Good-day.'
And now Walter was at the gate of his terrestrial paradise with Miss Mary Bentley's passport in his pocket. He felt a little nervous and uneasy, for the letter had been terribly stiff and formal. There was a suggestion of chill disappointment about it, too. Walter's quick, artistic temperament had not failed to see that.
He passed up between the shining belt of primroses, past a lawn edged with old-fashioned rose-trees of the standard variety, and under an Elizabethan porch shielding a monastic door. Walter drew a breath of pure delight. He had read about these kind of things; he had studied them lovingly. In his dreams he had pictured a home of this kind when he should have grown rich and famous. There was a blurred mist before his eyes, so that the quaint brass knocker loomed large. Of course there must be an old-fashioned bell-pull somewhere--one of the hanging sort, wrought in bronze. There it was.
A bell clanged somewhere in the distance, and presently an ancient servitor appeared: an old woman amazingly clean; an old woman with white hair, and cheeks red and hard as the sunny side of an apple, and as glowing. She had on a lilac cotton-print dress and a cap of quaint design. It was almost an extinct type, the old-fashioned servant who spends all her life in one family.
'My respects to you, sir,' she said; 'you are Master Walter. And how like your father you be! But a better face, thank God--a better face!'
The last words came involuntarily, like an anxious thought put into words. There was the same strange feeling again, the feeling that his father somehow was at the bottom of some disgraceful family secret. Mr Benn had hinted as much, and old Martha was confirming it. And yet Walter knew that his father was a popular man.
'Miss Bentley is expecting me?' he asked.
'Oh dear, yes,' Martha replied. 'And you just try and be gentle with Miss Mary. The parlour isn't quite ready just yet. Here is the dining-room.'
Walter drew a deep breath. Old oak on the floors; old oak on the walls. A low ceiling that suggested Pugin, a great black settle, a Cromwellian dresser with a marvellous old willow-pattern dinner-service, some carved chests, a deep seated-window or two, a suggestion of stained glass. There snored a grandfather's clock with a date 1694 Wonderful! wonderful!
It was the same in the drawing-room. The great John Pettifer, R.A., would have raved over those fluted-backed chairs. Some cunning hand had arranged blue plates and dishes with a hawthorn pattern along the picture-rail. Spode! Walter had seen collectors tumbling over one another for worse specimens at Christie's. Had he been commercial-minded he would have appraised his surroundings highly. But he was only excited and uplifted by the atmosphere of the place. It was Tennyson's haunt of ancient peace. Some rooks were cawing somewhere. The glow of the March evening filled the room.
That was a portrait by Hoppner in the corner, of course; and there was a Lely and a Romney, also a Gainsborough, and two more portraits by Reynolds: a small collection of pictures, but all of the best The spirit of rest and refinement breathed upon everything like some magic varnish. All this belonged to the young man who had merely dreamt of such things a week ago.
Everything else was as it had been for two centuries. Behind the brass lattice of the bookcase atop of the Dutch bow-fronted bureau were old editions, the one modern volume being Tupper's Proverbial Philosophy. A Shakespeare in leather, a worn edition of Bacon, Beaumont and Fletcher, Ben Jonson, Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, and a long row of manuscript music-scores. Colin Whitworth had been a fine musician. There was an organ in the house built by Father Prout himself.
Tea was laid out on the oval oak table: a fine service of Chelsea, a fluted teapot circa William and Mary; six candles ready for lighting sprang from candelabra of old English Sheffield plate. The fair white cloth had a faint suggestion of lavender about it Wonderful! wonderful!
Somebody was speaking to Walter, who stood there in a waking dream. He was conscious that a timid hand was touching his shoulder. He came suddenly to earth again; the golden light was fading from the room.
'Martha told me you were here, sir,' the prim voice said. 'I have the honour to be Miss Mary Bentley, at your service, sir.'
WALTER bowed and held out his hand. The prim little figure before him took no notice. The young man's face flushed. He had come down here actuated by the kindliest thoughts and feelings. But, after all, he must make allowances.
He saw before him a slight little lady who might have been any age between thirty and fifty. Her complexion was pure and brilliant, the skin without a wrinkle. The mouth was gentle and sensitive, though now it was drawn tight with a droll attempt at sternness. The hair, piled high on the erect little head, was quite white; and the spare, dignified figure was clad in stiff gray silk; at the throat and neck was lace so beautiful that Walter was quite fascinated by it. He was a little chilled and disappointed, but the man had to be born yet who could be angry long with Miss Bentley. Despite her frosty dignity and the hauteur of her manner, she carried an atmosphere of kindness about her. The small white hands, covered with glittering gems, trembled slightly.
Walter smiled despite himself. It was such a quaint yet pleading picture! He could easily imagine that slight figure at a bedside; those slim hands were made to render hot pillows soft and cool; those dark-gray eyes----
'Aunt Mary,' Walter said with a sudden impulse, 'indeed, indeed I do want to be friends. Won't you shake hands with me?'
The sensitive mouth shook, with the ghost of a smile upon it. Two trembling little hands went out, and Walter caught them heartily. The dark-gray eyes had a yearning look in them, a touch of retrospection. They were reading Walter. He wondered why they filled with tears so swiftly.
'You are very like your mother,' Miss Bentley said. 'The same handsome features; the same fearless eyes. And yet--well, you have your mother's soul and expression. I am glad of that--ah, I am glad of that!'
'I have often heard my father speak about you,' Walter said. 'Of course I knew there was some bitter quarrel, and that the two brothers had not met for years. They called you Aunt Mary when you were quite a little girl, didn't they?'
Miss Bentley nodded with her hand pressed to her side as if some sharp pain racked her. Just for a moment the prim gray figure drew up swiftly.
'Won't you take a seat?' she asked politely.
'Certainly not!' Walter smiled. 'At least, not yet. Aunt Mary, won't you forgive me? It wasn't my fault that Uncle Colin left me this property. I never expected it. Won't you give me a kiss?'
'So like his father!' Miss Bentley murmured. 'So very like his father! And yet different.'
Her face was broken up with smiles and tears, a young face now smiling and rosy. Only the eyes were a little sad and retrospective. 'I am a silly, selfish old woman,' she cried. 'There! That is the first time a man has kissed me since--Well, never mind, sir. I told Kathleen exactly how I was going to treat you, and she laughed. I am afraid my dignity is not a robust plant But Colin Whitworth had no business to leave the property to you, sir.'
'I never expected it for a moment,' Waiter replied.
'Oh, I quite believe you. Did your father ever tell you why he and his brother Colin quarrelled so bitterly and finally?'
Walter shook his head. The little figure in the gray silk lay half-buried in a deep arm-chair, the fitful light of the log-fire touching up her pretty, thoughtful face. The crocus flames were reflected from the blue Dutch tiles of the hearth, with their presentment of the story of Ruth.
'Your father was always a popular man,' Miss Bentley said. 'There was a fascination about him. And he was so handsome, but always careless and charmingly selfish and inconsiderate for the feelings of others. Your uncle Colin was worth a score of him. Colin was engaged to your mother, and Jim--I mean James, your father--to--to somebody else. Then he ran away with your mother and married her. It was a dreadful time for--for all of us. And that's why your uncle and father never met again.'
'I am very sorry,' Walter said humbly. 'It was not a--eh, well, you know what I mean.'
'I understand, my dear boy. Then I came here to keep house, and little Kathleen followed. On the whole, we have had much to be thankful for: years and years of peace and quiet happiness. Your father's name was never once mentioned till three years ago, when he behaved so nobly over that mining business in the north of Spain. It was in all the papers. It was just the kind of reckless, magnificent bravery that your father always revelled in. And he was always so passionately fond of children!'
'Extraordinarily so,' Walter hastened to say.
'Colin Whitworth thought a great deal about it. He told me he should leave the place and the money to your father in trust for you till you came of age. After all, Kathleen was no blood-relation of his. It wasn't at all just; but it was a case where I could say nothing. So the will was made. A little over a year ago Colin told me he had changed his mind. He had heard good accounts of you. He said it would be best for an ambitious young man to make his own way. And Kathleen was ill--'
'I hope she is better now,' Walter said politely.
'Kathleen will never be better. She is dying.'
There was a ring in the little speech, a suggestion of the bitterness of death that is past. A flame leaping from the blue tiles touched the hopeless sadness of Miss Bentley's face. A new world was opening to Walter.
'You will see her presently,' Miss Bentley said. 'Kathleen is dying of consumption. We have to take the greatest care with her. A sudden chill, a cold air, and----You will see her presently. And that is why I am sore and angry with you. By all moral rights this place should be Kathleen's. Colin promised me he would revoke that will; but he put it off till it was too late. And when I heard that they had found you at last, and that you were coming down here, I was hard----'
'Aunt Mary, you were nothing of the kind. You couldn't be.'
'Well, I tried to be. I pictured you as being easy and charming and selfish, as Jim--I mean your father--used to be. You would be very polite and very fascinating; but, all the same, you were going to turn us out of the house'
'Aunt Mary, I swear to you that I never meant anything of the kind,' Walter cried. 'My father has so often spoken of you that I was quite sure from the first we should be friends.'
A blue flame seemed to give a red glow to Aunt Mary's cheeks.
'I am an artist. I have often dreamt of a home like this. Only I never expected to find anything half so perfect. Here I can follow my own bent, and do just the class of romantic picture that my soul loves. I had planned it all out as I came along. You were to look after my comfort, and find me a big room for a studio. And, on the other hand, you were to do me the favour of stopping here, and we were to be as happy as the day is long, Aunt Mary.'
Miss Bentley made no reply. She was crying softly into a cambric handkerchief. Hers was the rare kind of woman's face that looks none the worse for tears.
'Aunt Mary,' Walter said pleadingly, 'you won't go away?'
Aunt Mary dabbed her eyes with fierce little pats.
'I am a very foolish old woman,' she replied. 'Go and get ready for our high tea. Your room is the first door to the right. I am going to do the silliest thing of my life--I'm going to stay here. Goodness knows the complications and troubles there will be; but I stay. Kiss me again, my bonny boy; you are very like your--mother.'
It was quiet and still in the hall; beyond a door at the end of a passage somebody was playing the organ. Walter's artistic soul expanded to the music. He crept down the passage and opened the door.
Here was a lofty room, oak panelled and lighted by two long windows. The very place for a studio! Between the long windows the reeds of an organ upraised. A figure sat before the worn, yellow keys that gleamed in the light of two wax candles in silver sconces. The atmosphere of the place was intolerably warm by reason of a tortoise stove, the one modern innovation in the house.
The room was flooded with the glorious melody. A girl with fair shining hair and a white, purely cut face was playing, with her heart in the music. She turned suddenly; her fingers dropped on the keys; the wailing melody stole into the shadows. There was a hush of silence in the room.
Walter spoke very softly; but his words were plain to the player's ears.
'Kitty,' he said, 'what a day it has been! Oh, Kitty, Kitty!'
NO reply came from the slim figure by the organ. Her lips were parted as if she were worn by some physical struggle. The light from the high window was still on her face.
It was a fine face: white, almost transparent, with a broad forehead from which the fair hair was pushed back; a sweet, refined, noble face rather than a strictly beautiful one. The features were marked with a high intelligence; the small mouth suggested ambition.
'So you have found me out?' she said presently. Walter came forward; he noticed the clear whiteness of her hands, the fragile figure, the pure brilliancy of the complexion. His mind had not taken it all in yet. This was the girl who was dying, the Kathleen to whom Aunt Mary had alluded. The Kitty of Walter's dreams and Kathleen Evershed were one and the same.
'I ought to have told you,' the girl said without moving.
'You knew who I was all the time?' Walter asked.
'Yes. I discovered that the first time we met in Mrs Pettifer's drawing-room. You see, I had heard a great deal about your father----'
'Not all to his advantage, I expect.'
'No. But I--I liked you. We both had ambition; we were both full of enthusiasm. You were to make your fortune as a painter, and I as a musician. It was your uncle who first fired my ambition in that way. He played the organ like a master; you shall hear some of his compositions.'
Kitty Evershed spoke rapidly, nervously. She seemed to have some difficulty with her breathing. Walter watched her with shining eyes.
'But why did you run away from me?' he asked.
'But I didn't; at least not in the way you mean. I never went to the Pettifers' again because I was afraid of meeting you. But you found me out, and we met elsewhere. They were happy days for me, Walter. But I was frightened because I feared what they would say at home.'
'There was no reason why we should not have loved one another, Kitty.'
'Perhaps not,' Kitty said doubtfully. 'I don't know. But as I was going to be a great composer and you a great painter, it didn't seem to matter. Then I had to come down here because I was ill. Soon after that Dr Evans told me I was dying of consumption. He gave me a year to live. I don't think that anybody quite realises what a sentence like that means. And that is why I never gave you a sign or a word. Your pride would be wounded; you would try and forget me. It would save you much pain and suffering.'
'You knew that I should never forget you.'
'Perhaps I hoped that you wouldn't. I tried to arrange it so that you shouldn't find me. It was only for a year, and then it would be all over. And so it comes about that Uncle Colin is dead, and I linger on waiting for the end. But you couldn't be found, and that gave me a cold kind of comfort And then your letter came, and I dared not tell Aunt Mary after all that time. Oh! I did it all for the best.'
Her voice shook; she could say no more. Walter caught up the slim hand still resting on the keys. The golden glory beyond the long windows was fading to a pale-gray like the dim light on Kitty's face.
'I am not going to believe it,' Walter cried. 'Kitty, I have never kissed you yet. But I am going to kiss you now, because you belong to me. We are going to fight this thing together. Just now I thought I had found everything that my heart wanted. But if I am going to lose you, the rest matters nothing.'
He took the girl in his arms and kissed her. A page of music fluttered to the floor. It was the piece that had attracted Walter to the room.
'This is your own?' he asked.
'Yes,' Kitty said hopelessly. 'It is part of a short oratorio. People say that it will live, that I have a fine future. As if they knew! But I shall never see it; I shall never see the day when----Walter, suppose you were suddenly blind! Try to imagine yourself blind, and then you may understand.'
Walter could feel the slender frame shaking passionately. Words seemed cold things to pour on a sorrow like this. Kitty dried her eyes, and a smile shone on her face.
'I have finished,' she said almost gaily. 'I have never broken down like this before, even to Aunt Mary. Was she very frigid to you, Walter?'
'She tried to be,' Walter laughed. 'The regal dignity of five-feet-one! But her eyes betrayed her, and when I called her Aunt Mary and asked for a kiss, she yielded like the dear old soul she is. She's quite in love with me now.'
'Can't you understand why that should be?'
Walter responded that he could see nothing to account for the change beyond his own merits and virtues. But his humour was subdued.
'Did Aunt Mary say anything about your father?' Kitty asked.
'Little to his credit,' Walter admitted. 'Personally, I am fond of my father, though I don't see him much. But he seemed to have behaved badly by stealing the affections of my uncle Colin's choice, and deserting somebody else who----'
'But surely you can guess who that somebody else was?'
'Aunt Mary?', Walter cried. 'Of course! I might have seen that by the way she looked at me. And she said I was very like my mother. Kitty, I believe she is the dearest little woman in the world.'
In the hall a chiming gong made music. Kitty threw a shawl over her head.
'I must make a dive for tea,' she said. 'I have to avoid all draughts and cold airs. It seems superfluous, but these are the doctor's orders.'
Walter followed thoughtfully. It was hard to believe that that bright young life was so near an end. It could not be; it must not be. Walter set his teeth together and choked down a sob. Aunt Mary stood smiling behind the big tea-urn. She was glad, she said, that the young people had found each other out. Why, they might have known each other for years!
'So we have,' Walter said coolly. 'Aunt Mary, a great surprise awaits you. I am going to tell you a love-story--Kitty's and mine.'
'Well, I never did!' Aunt Mary exclaimed.--'Kitty, I am ashamed of you. I don't know when I have been so angry.'
'You never were angry in your life,' Kitty said sweetly. 'You don't know what it means.'
'Well, perhaps not,' Aunt Mary said, setting her cap severely.--'Tell me all about it, Walter. I made those fish-cakes especially for you.'
It was a pleasant meal, despite the dark shadows that had lain over Grey Gables for the past few months. Walter told his story simply, Aunt Mary following with a smile on her face and the tears in her eyes. Then she drew Walter on to speak of his hopes and ambitions: how he meant to travel all over the cities for himself; how Rome the desirable, the unattainable, was now in his hands.
'I'm sure you can't grudge Walter the property after that,' Kitty said. 'It would have been useless to me--to Walter it means everything. And now let us have some more music. Aunt Mary, do have another look in the old Dutch bureau for that fugue of Uncle Colin's. I know it's amongst the manuscript music somewhere.'
Aunt Mary made up her accounts, solemnly debated the next day's domestic programme with Martha, and folded up her work-basket with mathematical precision. Then she donned a huge cotton apron and proceeded to take down a dozen volumes of manuscript music, most of it original compositions of the late Colin Whitworth.
One volume after another was disposed of, but the missing fugue was nowhere to be found. Perhaps Aunt Mary's search was not a very careful one, for her eyes were dim to-night, and her mind was full of bitter-sweet imaginings.
The little love-story, with its inevitable sad ending, touched her. And yet it was far better as it was. Kitty was dying. The property would have been no use to her. And to Walter it had meant everything. What a nice boy he was; how clever and ambitious! Colin Whitworth had always intended to change that impulsive will made after Jim's gallant exploit in Spain, and leave the property to Kitty. Here was a letter from Mr Benn urging him to do so. Mary had remembered that letter. She turned it over idly. A reply in Colin Whitworth's handwriting was duly set out on the other side. Aunt Mary fumbled for her spectacles. She read the letter; then she sat down with her limbs shaking.
'Shall I?' she murmured. 'I recollect my father telling me that a document like that--Yesterday I should not have hesitated. To-day it would be wicked folly. And he is so like his--mother.'
She dropped the letter back, and restored the volume to its place. Then she blew out the candles as if she had done something that needed the shelter of the darkness.
THE big music-room had been transformed almost beyond recognition. In the centre stood a huge easel with a partially finished picture upon it. Walter's two sets of old armour had been imported from London; a carpet had been laid on the floor; there were pictures on the walls and old furniture scattered here and there. Kitty's taste had provided the flowers and their settings.
'It's grand!' Walter exclaimed, with swelling pride. 'I used to envy Pettifer his studio, and wonder when I should have one like it And now look at this!'
'Sir Walter Whitworth, P.R.A.,' Kitty laughed, 'as seen at home in the pages of the illustrated weekly papers. Here is the celebrated Flemish buffet, yonder the Lady Erskine by Hoppner. You are a lucky man, sir.'
Kitty coughed and dropped into a chair. She was looking terribly white and fragile. There was a dull, echoing pain at Walter's heart. Sometimes that dreadful trouble was forgotten; at others Walter fought against it with passionate rebellion. The atmosphere of the studio oppressed him; it was like a greenhouse.
'I am,' Walter sighed dubiously; 'I suppose I am. And if I were to say----Hullo!'
The studio door opened breezily, and a big man in a large-pattern tweed suit stood in the doorway. He was bronzed and bearded; he had a reckless, easy air, and a large cigar in his mouth. He looked just a little disturbed as he noticed Walter's companion.
'Why,' Walter cried, 'it's my father!--I thought you were in Mexico.'
'Just back,' James Whitworth said, with the contempt for distance of the seasoned traveller. 'Finished the job there; back in England looking for another. Pettifer told me of your good fortune, so I thought I'd run down and see you. As you're of age now, my authority over you ceases; but, unless I am mistaken, I am still more or less guardian to this young lady here.'
He held out his hand with a frank smile that most people found so taking. With his bright, breezy selfishness, James Whitworth was not an easy person to snub.
'I am sorry Miss Bentley is not here to receive you,' Kitty said coldly.
'I declare I had forgotten all about her,' Whitworth cried, as if the circumstance was one of the most natural in the world. 'To be perfectly candid, I expected to find Walter in bachelor quarters here. Otherwise--well, I treated Mary Bentley shamefully years ago, and, with all my faults, I'm not blackguard enough to--you understand. My dear young lady, you know all about the story, or the expression of your face belies you. Upon my word, I really am most dreadfully sorry.'
In a vague kind of way, Kitty seemed to feel that James Whitworth was more sorry for himself than anybody else. Yet he was a brave man and loyal to his friends, and he had a perfect passion for little children. Kitty had heard that often. Instability and a desire for change were the alloys that had spoilt his character.
Kitty slipped away, leaving father and son together. Whitworth roamed restlessly about, puffing furiously at his cigar.
'What's the matter with that girl?' he asked. Walter explained. He had a sympathetic listener.
It was a chord that touched Whitworth. He would have parted with his coat to help anybody in sorrow or trouble. The romantic vein in his nature was tapped. Kitty was wonderfully beautiful, and Walter loved her.
'Never heard anything so sad, so pathetic,' Whitworth said huskily. 'That girl must be saved; she must go away. Change is everything in this matter.'
'Change requires money,' Walter said coldly.
'I see. And the poor girl hasn't got any. Also, you are quite sure that neither she nor Aunt Mary would hear of touching yours. Who's the doctor?'
'Mr Evans of Morton Cross.'
'What! that old ass? Biggest old humbug in the profession. Why, he was pretty well past his work when I left home. What's the course of treatment?'
'Perfect seclusion from draughts, a high temperature, and all--'
'I knew it. My dear chap, that poor girl is being slowly murdered. That old-fashioned way of dealing with consumption is as dead as Queen Anne. I'll go and see Partridge. He's got a place at Ambermouth yonder where he comes every weekend. I once saved Partridge's life on the Mosquito Coast years ago, and he'll do anything for me. We'll have that girl of yours about in no time. Fresh air--lots of it--bedroom window open all night all the year round, and, when she's up to it, a trip to St Moritz. Got a cycle of any sort about the place?'
The big man spoke in sanguine, strident tones; in his mind the desired end was already accomplished. It was the buoyant spirit that had lifted him beyond the reach of many a peril. Walter caught a little of the infection.
'Dr Evans will permit no interference,' he said doubtfully.
'Won't he?' Whitworth said, with a resolute air. 'I'll see Evans presently. I'll open his eyes for him. Do you think I am going to stand by and see a lovely creature like that done to death? If you've got as much feeling as I have----'
He paused with just a touch of colour on his bronzed cheeks. A slight gray figure stood silently in the doorway. Her lips were parted; her hands were pressed to her side. Otherwise she gave no sign whatever.
'I did not think it possible,' she began, 'that--'
'I didn't do it on purpose,' Whitworth said. He stood there downcast and ashamed; all his buoyant manner had vanished. 'I swear I had no notion you were here, Mary. If I didn't know that you had forgiven me---'
'I forgave you long ago, James.'
There was a strange contrast between the two figures, the one so small and gray, so upright; the other big and loud, and yet bent as if caught in some shameful practice.
'I'll go away,' Whitworth said, with loud meekness. 'I'll take my blackguardly self off. I never cared much for any one, so I can't expect any one to care much for me. But I didn't know; upon my word, I didn't know.'
'I believe that,' Miss Bentley said in a low voice; 'I believe that--'
'I was never half good enough for you, Mary.'
'I knew that too. I always knew that you were not the man to make any woman happy for long. But that didn't prevent my loving you, Jim.'
There was no reproach in the speech, no anger or resentment, nothing but sorrow. The humiliation of the man was so complete that Walter was fain to come to the rescue.
'My father is greatly distressed by what I have told him about Kitty,' he said; 'and he is quite convinced that Dr Evans's treatment is all wrong. The modern cure is practically an open-air one.'
Miss Bentley stiffened visibly. She had all the prejudices of the old school to her finger-tips. She and the recreant Evans had not been doctoring the whole parish all these years for nothing. Aunt Mary's essences and herb-teas were famous. There was one noted cure of a stubborn rheumatism where even a great London doctor had failed.
'Nothing has been left undone,' she said. A little red spot glowed on either cheek. 'Dr Evans is very sound. The modern "cure" is murder. Expose my dear child to all kinds of weather; expose those delicate lungs to air! My dear Walter, I would sooner cut off my right hand. Kitty would be dead in a week. In this respect you will find me firm--quite firm.'
She drew herself up; her little foot tapped the floor imperiously. A great principle was at stake. Walter poured oil on troubled waters.
'But, aunt, 'he urged, 'there have been some wonderful cures. The most famous physicians in the world are adopting the open-air cure. And Kitty is dying. Even your friend Evans gives her but a few months to live. We won't hurt his feelings, but we will get him to call Partridge in. It is our duty to try it.'
He spoke pleadingly, and Miss Bentley obviously faltered for a moment. Then she drew herself up resolutely again.
'I cannot discuss the matter further,' she said. 'I came to tell you that luncheon was ready. I am going to give James Whitworth the tulip-panelled bedroom.'
She swept out of the room with her head high in the air, the gray silks rustling. But the offender had been forgiven; the pregnant information as to the tulip-panelled bedroom proved that.
'The best and kindest and dearest little creature in the world,' Whitworth cried, with a little click in his throat, 'but as absolutely obstinate as a loving woman can be. But I'm going to have my own way over this, Wat.'
'Indeed, sir; and how do you propose to get it?'
'Oh, I've thought out a way. Under my brother's will, I am guardian to Kitty until she comes of age. If necessary, I am going to enforce that authority. I don't often do a wise thing, but I 'in pretty sure I'm about to do one now. Old Evans is going to have a lovely afternoon.'
DR ROBERT EVANS partook of his breakfast with the meek and contrite air of a man who knows that he thoroughly deserves the lecture to which he is being subjected. Usually the doctor was accounted rather a terrible person, except to his housekeeper. The rest of the world he rather bullied. He was a small, round, bald man, exceedingly neat and clean-shaven and old-fashioned. His knowledge of archaeology and entomology was international; beyond that, his fellow-practitioners whispered that Evans was an old woman, and he was darkly suspected of such exploded practices as cupping and bleeding.
The doctor had personally attended a call in the middle of the night, a thing absolutely forbidden by the housekeeper, Mrs Allnutt. In vain the little man pleaded that his assistant was quite tired out, and that it was an urgent case.
'Don't tell me,' Mrs Allnutt replied vigorously. 'If you ain't wise at seventy-one, when do you expect to be? And, of course, to make matters worse, you must go off without your flannel waistcoat!'
'Bless my soul! so I did,' the doctor said meekly. 'I'm very sorry.'
'Yes; and it's still sorrier you'll be when you 're lying in your grave with pneumonia,' the housekeeper went or relentlessly. 'Here's Miss Bentley coming up the drive to ask your advice about something or another. She'd get a deal more sense if she consulted my scullery-maid, I'm thinking.'
With which parting shot Mrs Allnutt went out and Miss Bentley came in. Dr Evans wiped his heated face hurriedly. The mingled distress and relief of his features conjured the ghost of a smile to Aunt Mary's lips.
'Mrs Allnutt is in a militant mood to-day?' she suggested.
'A most excellent woman,' Evans said hurriedly, 'and absolutely devoted to my interests. The fact is, I was called out last night and I forgot to put on my--er--um. There's a meeting of the Field Club at Ambermouth this afternoon, and Mrs Allnutt insists--I mean suggests--that I should not go. But there! How is the patient?'
'The patient is no better and no worse. Dr Evans, my dear old friend, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but isn't it just possible that you have made a mistake in your treatment of the case?'
'Bless my soul! no,' Evans said. 'Why?'
Miss Bentley gazed absently round the room. Her eyes were turned from a large case of butterflies to the cleanly pink of Evans's cheeks.
'James Whitworth is absolutely certain of it,' she said.
'James Whitworth! My dear Mary! You don't say--you don't really say--that fellow is at Grey Gables?'
'Indeed he is, Dr Evans.'
'And knowing that you were in the house all the time?'
'He was ignorant of that He was quite distressed about it And, with all his faults, I never knew him to tell a lie.'
'Urn!' Evans muttered, with plentiful lack of enthusiasm. 'You were very angry with him, of course. You informed him that it was impossible for both of you to stay under the same roof. After that he withdrew, with many apologies. Of course that is exactly what happened.'
'Dr Evans, if you are going to be sarcastic I shall ring the bell for Mrs Allnutt'
'Don't; please don't. There was another alternative. It was to make Jim Whitworth welcome, and give him the tulip-panelled bedroom.'
'That's exactly what I did do,' said Aunt Mary, pinkly defiant
Dr Evans replied, with shameless change of port, that he should have been frankly disappointed if Aunt Mary had acted otherwise. She was the kindest and dearest woman in the world; also, Walter Whitworth was a fine young fellow.
'But I am quite right as regards Kitty,' he said firmly. 'I stick to my guns there.'
'And I entirely agree with you,' Miss Bentley replied. 'There must be no change, though James Whitworth insists upon it'
'Oh, he insists upon it!' Evans said blankly. 'Why?'
'Because he says your treatment is all wrong. He declares you to be old-fashioned and hopelessly out of date. He wants to have all the doors and windows open. Kitty is to have a bedroom in the corridor.'
'And he'll get his own way, too,' Evans growled. 'He always did have his own way--confound him!--ever since he was a boy. Does he want to murder the girl? Not that he cares a scrap about that so long as he gets his own way. I tell you that open-air cure is a dangerous fad. I never saw anybody who benefited by it. Didn't we cure Lucy Stiles exactly as I am trying to cure Kitty?'
'James says the Stiles family merely have weak lungs.'
'Much he knows about it! But I am firm; I am resolute. Once roused, and James Whitworth will find me a difficult man to deal with'
'And he wants you to call Dr Partridge into consultation.'
Dr Evans's jaw dropped. If he was a man of iron will and resolution, his looks very much belied him. Dr Partridge belonged to the modern neck-or-nothing school that Evans heartily despised; but then more than one poor body clad in the purple had passed through the hands of that eminent specialist with magnificent results. It was all very well to pooh-pooh the methods of the great surgeon who made Ambermouth his holiday-resort.
'It appears that James once saved Dr Partridge's life,' Mary went on; 'but that has nothing to do with it. I want you to stand firm'
'To the last ditch, my dear Mary.'
'James is coming to see you. You have only to be resolute.'
'Oh, he is coming to see me? And I have only to be resolute? My dear Mary, if you had put your foot down firmly at first you might have saved me--I mean after that there would have been no more to be said.'
'My dear doctor, James Whitworth is not shaken off so easily. You know his ways.'
Evans nodded. He did know those ways by painful experience; and however elaborately he might lay his plans, Whitworth was certain to carry his idea into effect.
'I shall convince him that he is mistaken,' he said.
Miss Bentley sincerely hoped so. All the old-fashioned prejudices in the little gray body were aroused. It was easy to see that she belonged to a bygone generation. Change, reform of any kind, was absolutely painful to her; and she was sincerely impressed with the idea that any alteration in the treatment of Kitty would only hasten the end.
'I'll do all I can for you,' Evans concluded,' if you'll send that impetuous fellow here--'
'Mr James Whitworth to see you,' Mrs Allnutt said as she entered the room with no suggestion of ceremony. 'He is in the consulting-parlour, and he's just as good-looking and impertinent as ever he was.'
The woman's face glowed with pleasure; she might have been a mother who had announced the return of a favourite son.
'Now, what do you think of that?' Evans cried indignantly. 'That woman in my hearing scores of times has vowed and declared that if ever Jim Whitworth came this way again she'd throw a bucket of dirty water over him. And she's as pleased as Punch.'
'I'm afraid it will be a trying interview,' Aunt Mary said, gathering up her skirts for flight
'Oh, it will,' Evans said with pathetic melancholy. 'I will be firm--firm!'
THE wind had gone round to the west; there had been rain during the night, so that the beds of hyacinths gave out a subtle perfume. The jonquils were nodding in the borders; under a lichen-strewn apple-tree was a carpet of yellow daffodils. It was so mild and warm after tea that Kitty had begged for a little turn outside.
She was walking up and down now, leaning on Walter's arm. In the strong flush of sunshine she looked terribly white and fragile. She had to walk slowly, to pause every now and then with her hand on her heart. The exertion of breathing parted her lips and showed the little white teeth within. Just for a moment Walter looked across to the wide sweep of landscape beyond the garden, but he could see nothing but a blurred gray mist. It seemed so-hard, such a useless mockery without Kitty.
'You are not so well to-night,' Walter said gently.
'I don't know,' Kitty replied. 'I fluctuate so terribly. This morning I felt splendid, as if new life came to me. I was going to have a long day at the organ, my mind was full of lovely melodies, my oratorio was to grow apace, and your father actually found me two of the fugues that Uncle Colin left unfinished. Then the room seemed to grow suddenly oppressive, and I could only lie down all the morning.'
Walter nodded in sympathy. He had worked all the morning in an atmosphere that seemed to take the life out of him. For Kitty's sake he had endured it And if old Dr Evans proved to be wrong after all!
But Walter did not dare to think of that; the mere suggestion set his heart beating painfully. No; he must brace himself up for the inevitable. Kitty would be with him for a few months longer; then she would pass away into a beautiful, tender memory. He would work, and forget the past in his labour. Yet he would cheerfully have forfeited everything and started again with nothing but hope and ambition to know that the girl by his side would be with him always.
The little gray figure of Aunt Mary came into the porch presently, and gently reproached Kitty for her imprudence. She begged for one more turn round the garden, for the evening was mild and balmy, and the air eased the pressure on her lungs. A big figure in a loud check loomed over the little shadow in the gray silk; there was a smell of a cigar on the air.
'If you would keep this poor child out in the fresh air for a month right away,' James Whitworth said in his strong, confident voice, 'she would be well on the way to recovery. If something isn't done I shan't be able to stay here.'
'We are not disposed to hamper you,' Aunt Mary said coldly.
She stepped out on to the gravel with her head in the air. Whitworth walked mildly by her side, whistling softly to himself. Presently the small gray figure shrank a little and the clear face began to flush.
'I am sure I beg your pardon,' Miss Bentley said. 'I am very, very sorry. I can't imagine how I came to say such a thing.'
'Never was there a woman like you in the world before!' Whitworth cried. 'And what a blackguard I have been! It would have been less cruel to knock me down out of hand. But I should never have made you happy, Mary.'
'I don't think you would, James. But a woman in love rarely thinks of those things; and the past is buried.'
'And flowers grow on its grave, planted and lovingly tended there by you, Mary. I hurt your feelings just now, and I'm sorry for it; but I honestly meant what I said. I am a man of action. I simply can't sit down here and see that poor girl die without doing something to avert the tragedy.'
'Everything possible has been done. If loving care counts for anything--'
'Then Kitty would be the strongest girl alive; but everything possible has not been done. I say that Evans's treatment is entirely and utterly wrong. With the very best intentions, the poor child is being slowly done to death. My dear Mary, I have seen cases of that kind cured.'
'Not similar cases to Kitty's,' Miss Bentley said with gentle obstinacy.
'There you are! You won't be convinced. I have known men in South Africa who have come out as a last resource to see what open air will do for them. They came with death written on their faces. A few months later and--well, you should see them!'
'Tom and Albert Cotton went to Canada for the same reason, and they were both dead before they had been there a month.'
'Because they waited too long. You can't expect Nature to perform miracles. Kitty has not gone too far. If so, she wouldn't possess so much nervous energy. That fine spirit of ambition would have been quenched long ago. I love that girl as I love my boy. It is only since I came down here that I have realised how shamefully I have neglected Walter. I met two big painter fellows in London the other day, and they were loud in praise of my boy. Now that he has money behind him his fortune is made. I've nothing of my own, but I shall not touch a penny of his. And I thank God for giving my boy the great and glorious chance. By every moral right the money ought to have gone to Kitty. Up to a certain point my brother intended her to have it'
'He never really changed his mind,' Aunt Mary said quietly.
'I suppose not. It was that affair in Spain. It was nothing wonderful either.'
Whitworth put this aside with contempt His sanguine nature was full of Walter's future. It seemed to dominate all his ideas, to rob him of all the selfishness that had ever been his besetting sin. And he was going to save Kitty. Walter's good fortune would be as nothing unless he had Kitty by his side. He did not care a jot for the opinion of a thousand of the Evans type. He had seen Evans that morning, and he had very soon put that individual in his place.
'All the same, I shall not allow it,' Miss Bentley said. 'I cannot. If Kitty came to premature harm I should feel like a murderess.'
'Well, it's going to be done,' Whitworth said coolly, 'and the sooner you make up your mind to it the better. Those young people have gone in, I see. Come along--I promised Kitty to overhaul some more of that old music for her.'
But Miss Bentley elected to remain outside. She was anxious and disturbed. She was going to fight for her old tenets to the last gasp. At the same time she fully realised the strong mind that was bending her. In her heart of hearts she knew that sooner or later she would have to yield. But when the little woman in gray felt that she had right on her side she could go far.
Still, she was troubled and uneasy. All that James Whitworth had said came back to her now: his sanguine hopes, his new-found pride in his boy, his breathless, eager interest in Walter's career. And he had spoken with tears in his eyes of Kitty. Aunt Mary's love for James Whitworth was dead and decently buried years before. She had forgiven him as she had forgiven everybody, but she had never respected the man quite as much as she did to-day.
The mellow notes of the old organ stole into the garden. Walter was singing. Out of the mists a rotund figure absurdly wrapped up loomed largely by the side of the little lady in gray.
'Dr Evans!' Miss Bentley cried. 'Why, what does--'
'Had to,' Evans said with resignation. 'Mrs Allnutt insisted upon it. Otherwise she would have assuredly spoilt my dinner.'
'And so you braved her wrath to come and see me. That was very good of you.'
'Not at all; not at all,' Evans gasped. 'Do you think anybody could see from the road if I took this muffler off? I was anxious in my mind. I had a most exhausting interview with Whitworth to-day.'
'I was afraid of it Still, so long as you were firm--'
'But, my dear lady, I wasn't. To begin with, I was dignified. I sheltered myself behind my superior medical knowledge. I said I was quite prepared to answer any questions, but I could not--I really could not--open a discussion upon my treatment of the case with a mere layman.'
'And what did he say to that?'
'He laughed, simply laughed in my face. He implied that I was a greater ass than he had taken me for. My views on butterflies and on old Gothic architecture he respected. And then he bullied me. He actually called in Mrs Allnutt to back him up. Oh, it was a dreadful time!'
Dr Evans wiped his heated face from a fine perspiration not entirely due to the closeness of the evening. Aunt Mary was duly sympathetic.
'So long as the argument was general it didn't matter,' she said.
'But, my dear Mary, the argument was not general,' Evans cried. 'That man has been reading up his facts. He quoted cases against me. He seemed to know all about what the new school call the consumptive bacillus. Then I really had to stand upon my dignity, and ask him by what right he interfered on behalf of Miss Evershed.'
Miss Bentley drew her breath quickly. A more observant man than the doctor would have noticed her trembling agitation.
'And what did he say to that?' she murmured.
'Why, as her guardian. Under the will of Colin Whitworth, you know. Of course he had me there, and he was not slow to see his advantage. Never was there such a man before. I never meant to yield; I was going to be quite firm. And yet, before I knew what I was doing, I had actually promised about Partridge.'
'Oh, indeed,' Miss Bentley murmured. 'And, pray, what was the promise you made?'
'Why, to see him in consultation, of course. Naturally, I shall have to be exceedingly firm with Partridge. It will be my duty to point out to him that, with all his great skill and with all his wonderful cures, there are cases where humble men have made a critical study of patients.'
Miss Bentley cut this tirade short coldly.
'You have made a great mistake,' she said. 'Dr Partridge may come--indeed it is inevitable now; but nothing shall induce me to follow a different course of treatment And if it comes to the worst, I shall be able to prove that----But I am talking nonsense. Good-night, Dr Evans.'
She turned on her heel and walked slowly and thoughtfully towards the house.
THE family party at Grey Gables bad assembled in the studio. James Whitworth could smoke his strong cigars there without let or hindrance. He was the kind of man who liked plenty of space. The candles were lighted on the organ; a large shaded lamp stood in one of the high window recesses; another one glowed on a big oak table. There were flowers everywhere. The artistic beauty of it all--the mellowed oak, the pictures, the carved rafters, the slender figure before the organ--appealed to Whitworth with a strange new force. For the first time in his life he realised what home meant.
And the life and light of it was Kitty. It would all be as the earth without the sun when she was gone. She looked so bright and well this evening! It seemed hard to realise that the red of her cheeks was the flag of death. James Whitworth swallowed a hard lump down.
The soft melody died away in the carved rafters. Miss Bentley declared aloud that Kitty had played enough.
'But I feel so particularly well and strong tonight,' the girl pleaded.--'Uncle Jim, where is that fugue you promised to find for me?'
'My dear child, I am one of the finest promisers in the world,' Whitworth cried. 'I'll go and look at once.'
He went off in his bustling, imperious way. A solitary lamp glowed in the dining-room. Colin Whitworth's musical library lay dully behind the brass trellis-work of the bookcase over the Dutch bureau. With characteristic energy Whitworth tumbled a score of the bound manuscripts on the table. It was also characteristic of the man that he found what he desired. As he bundled the volumes back again a paper slipped out of one of them, a letter in the neat handwriting of his dead brother.
There were words here and there that he could not fail to see. Whitworth's face was very grave as he read. Then he carefully placed the letter where he had found it, and made a mental note of the volume. He puffed mechanically at his cigar, utterly unconscious that it was extinguished.
'Well, here's a pretty discovery!' he said, addressing a stately Romney on the opposite wall. 'Here's a puzzle for a Puritan! Well, the truth must be told, cruel blow as it will be to poor Walter. Still, that lad is certain to make his way in the world. And if I tell the truth? Stop.'
He frowned hard at the serenely unconscious Romney.
'Stop. If ever there was a case of the end justifying the means, it is here. If I speak now, I lose my grip on Mary and Kitty. The dear little gray lady will be in a position to defy me. And Kitty? Well, Kitty must be saved. Yes, I'm pretty sure I'm on the side of the angels in this business.'
He sauntered back to the studio, dangling the faded manuscript in his hand. He did not look in the least like a dark conspirator. With a pleased little smile Kitty began to play. Aunt Mary, by the light of one of the big lamps, was knitting industriously. Whitworth drew up a chair to her side.
'Why are you looking so preternaturally grave?' he said.
Aunt Mary's lips moved for a moment. She was counting her stitches. Whitworth had to repeat the question before he got any reply.
'I am in great trouble,' she said. 'Dr Evans came up just before dinner. I find that you have been bullying him unmercifully.'
'Nothing of the kind. I went to his house to-day, as I told you I should, and gave him a piece of my mind about Kitty. He was disposed to be obstinate, but I soon knocked that nonsense out of him.'
'You found him very firm?' Aunt Mary asked, with a slight smile.
'I found him very pig-headed. But, of course, he hadn't a ghost of a chance with me from the very first. He consented to a consultation with Partridge. I've written to Partridge to come over here to-morrow afternoon, being Saturday. By this time to-morrow we shall have started the new treatment.'
Whitworth spoke as if the whole thing was settled. He might have been the head of the universe. The little gray lady's lips grew rigid.
'I think not,' she said. 'Of course, I shall be deeply interested in hearing what Dr Partridge has to say. But I go no further. From the bottom of my heart, I firmly believe that the best possible means for prolonging Kitty's life are being taken. To make a change now would be nothing but murder. James, I am forced to forbid it entirely.'
'Then you push me to extremes,' Whitworth replied. 'The happiness of two people is at stake. I don't want to be brutal; I don't want to remind you that our little Kitty is doomed to die, because you already know it. The whole thing is in the nature of a delicate and dangerous operation on an expiring patient. If it is successful, she lives; if not, then she dies in any case.'
'You are too strong and wise for me, James.
But I object If God wills it----'
'Well, the retort to that is obvious to any one besides an illogical woman. Now, listen to me, Mary. A few years ago my brother made his will. For the moment his heart was soft to me because he was pleased to consider that I had done a creditable action. He left everything to Walter, and I was to be his trustee till he came of age. He is of age now, and his own master. But Colin also left me guardian to his dear young relative Kathleen Evershed. That puts you out of the count, Aunt Mary.'
Miss Bentley gasped. The smooth melody of the organ softened the voices. The cruel power of the man was gradually unfolding itself.
'You can't do it,' she said. 'There is no reason why. I can prove to you by--James, James, you are never going to use this cruel advantage?'
'Indeed I am. Call me a brute if you like. It is the only way possible to save the life of that dear little girl opposite. It seems a brutal thing to do after you have so carefully tended her all these years; but I must be firm.'
'I am quite certain that Dr Evans----'
'Will throw you over. Indeed, he has practically done so already. Partridge will turn him inside-out in ten minutes. Try and discount your disappointment, Mary. When that conference comes to an end to-morrow, Evans will be against you. He may be pompous, but he will be plastic.'
Aunt Mary urged her case no further. She knew the resolute nature of her opponent Her lips were tightly pressed together; she had all the aspect of one who is conquered. And yet her lips were tightly pressed together to guard the secret that struggled for words and freedom behind them.
She was not quite sure yet whether she ought to speak or not. She could not fight off the impression that James Whitworth was acting for the best. There was a terrible element of doubt as to whether he was right and she criminally wrong. But the old-world prejudices of the little gray lady were not to be swept aside like that. And she had a terrible weapon behind her.
Should she unmask her battery? The silver-throated organ had ceased; Walter was talking to Kitty, who looked up radiantly into his animated face. He was speaking of Rome and the wonderful things he was going to do there.
A few words and Aunt Mary could have stripped the happiness from that glowing young animated face, she could have tumbled down the house of cards. But for what end? Merely to bolster up what might prove to be a stupid prejudice. And before long Kitty would be no more. Aunt Mary's lips closed together; the secret was conquered.
'Really, it is dreadfully late,' Kitty cried. 'I can only justify myself by saying that I feel so well this evening, I am afraid that when Dr Partridge comes to-morrow he will decline to regard me as an invalid.'
'So you have heard all about that?' Aunt Mary asked blankly.
'Walter told me. I promised him I would not get excited. But, all the same, it has given me hope. If you only knew how I want to live, what a pleasant world I find it now----' She stopped and smiled unsteadily.
James Whitworth huskily proclaimed the fact that he must have caught a cold somewhere. Walter looked steadily at a picture that he could not for the moment see.
'Go to bed,' Aunt Mary said with amiable ferocity. 'Don't you see it's nearly eleven? We are all silly people together, and I am the silliest of the lot' She took her candle from the old chest in the hall and marched stiffly upstairs. The silent tears were running down her cheeks. She was beaten and baffled, and yet she was not in the least angry. Nobody could possibly have believed it, but Aunt Mary looked as if she had been doing something to be ashamed of.
PLUNGING horse in a high dogcart cut up the gravel in front of Grey Gables, and a jolly-looking, well-built man clad in tweeds stepped out He looked more like a prosperous gentleman-farmer than anything else, only there was something about the keen eyes and clean-shaven lips that suggested a successful barrister. But he had a very pleasant mouth, and the gray eyes had a twinkle in them. Dr Partridge brought an air of cheery confidence with him; he was a good doctor to have in the house. Day in and day out he grappled with death, but ever with a smile on his face and a serene confidence in the future.
'Well, Whitworth?' he said breezily.--'Miss Bentley, this is a pleasure I have tried to anticipate for a long time. Do you know, that fellow Whitworth once saved my life.--Dr Evans, I am very glad to meet you. I am taking up entomology. Would you mind imparting some of your learning to a willing pupil?'
Evans went over to the enemy at once under the eyes of Aunt Mary. James Whitworth caught her suggestion of disdain, and winked openly. For the next hour or more the local practitioner did no more than look wise, throwing in an occasional 'Um' and 'Ha!' as dignity required. Walter and his father paced up and down outside for the best part of the hour. It was a trying time, but it came to an end at last.
In the dining-room Partridge was telling a professional story. Kitty was laughing merrily at it with not the slightest sign of the fluttering fear that had poisoned her a while ago. The thick silk scarf had gone from her neck; the three latticed windows were wide open.
'Got a good report?' Whitworth asked with a fine assumption of indifference.
'Of course we have,' Partridge cried. 'Part of one lung is gone, and the other is badly affected; but that's nothing, bless you!--nothing at all. Still, I'm glad that my friend Dr Evans decided to call me in. He quite agrees with me that there must be a change of treatment. Before the summer is over Miss Evershed will be a different girl. I'll pledge my professional reputation on that.'
'Dr Partridge is right,' Evans murmured--'absolutely right.'
'The great thing is plenty of fresh air. Wet or dry, rain or shine, Miss Evershed must be out in it all. She must always be in a room with the windows open; night and day this must not be neglected. Late in the autumn she must go to St Moritz and stay there till the spring. And if she doesn't come back then absolutely cured, why----Well, I'm quite sure she will.'
'We are absolutely convinced of that,' Evans said crisply.
Partridge bowed himself out cheerfully, taking the plastic Evans along with him. The little man was none too loath to escape the cold, displeased eye of Aunt Mary. Never had an ally so basely deserted his consort before. From the very first he had made no show, no kind of fight at all.
'It was absolutely disgraceful!' Aunt Mary cried.
'It was amusing,' Kitty laughed. 'Dr Evans's dignity was splendid at first. Then that subtle stroke about the butterflies finished him completely.'
The girl laughed unsteadily. Her eyes were gleaming with unshed tears. Outside, the sun was shining gloriously; there was a cool touch in the air. The reprieve had come, and their hearts were overflowing with gladness. Walter would have said something to Kitty, but she put him aside.
'Not yet,' she whispered. 'I cannot grasp it all yet. Go into the garden and wait for me. To think that I shall always be able to breathe the air in future! I must be alone in my room for a time, Walter. I am going to have a good cry. And then--then I am going down on my knees----'
She turned and was gone. Walter fumbled his way into the garden, across the neat geranium-beds, without the least idea where he was going. Aunt Mary watched quite unmoved the desecration that at any other time would have stirred her to the depths. With an assumption of indifference, Whitworth was trying to light a cigar. It was a long time before either of them spoke.
'Dr Evans----' Whitworth began. 'I fancy that Dr Evans----'
'James,' Miss Bentley said formally, 'I beg you not to mention that man's name again. In future he and I must be as strangers.'
Whitworth smiled, a slow, exasperating, irritating smile.
'At least, I am very angry with him, James. He was either right or wrong. And the way he deserted me was simply abominable.'
'My dear Aunt Mary, are you sorry or glad that he has deserted you?'
'James, may God send the day when I shall be glad! Fate has taken the matter out of my hands; though, if I had been perfectly honest, I might----Still, they say Dr Partridge is a great man. It will be an anxious time for me. But that St Moritz trip is out of the question.'
'Why? When Walter and Kitty are man and wife----'
'They will not be so until Kitty is pronounced absolutely cured. And this St Moritz business is part and parcel of the cure. I am absolutely poor, and Kitty is poorer still.'
Whitworth was laughing quietly to himself.
'I shall find a way,' he said. 'When you discover the part that I have been playing in this business you will cut me off with a shilling. At the same time I am going to show you how this trip can be accomplished without loss of dignity to any one. My dear Mary, you would be the happier for the loss of your stiff-necked prejudices.'
Aunt Mary made no demur. She was crying softly to herself. She had been baffled and defeated in all directions; but there was a warm feeling at her heart to which she had long been a stranger.
'I am going to my room,' she said. 'I am not quite myself.'
'Ditto to that,' Whitworth murmured as he looked dubiously at the cigar that he had tried to light in the middle. 'I fancy that a five-and-twenty-mile walk would be about the best cure for my distracted feelings.'
Kitty came down into the garden presently. Her eyes were red and swollen; her cheeks were flushed with the marks of recent tears; but the dark shadow was no longer there. She was going to live and be happy, to be strong and well and buoyant like others of her years; the whole shining world lay before her.
A great weight seemed to have rolled from her shoulders. She had something more than hope to carry her forward. In the kitchen-garden, where the apple-blossoms glowed pink and tender, Walter was patiently awaiting her.
* * * * *
The days were running their smooth course along. June had come and gone, and the first virgin green of the trees had departed. And as the days passed, so had the white, wan shadows fallen from Kitty's face; the languor had departed from her limbs; there was a healthy flush on her cheeks.
The new cure was progressing splendidly. Long before the summer was over Kitty was walking with the best of them; she could sit at the organ now without the slightest sense of fatigue. She slept peacefully as a child; the distressing cough was no more than a painful memory.
Autumn had come at last with a touch of frost, followed by warm weather. And still Kitty was going back from the shadows in the valley. Dr Evans openly plumed himself upon the success of the experiment, much to the indignation of Aunt Mary, who had long ago made her peace.
'It's positively shameless of Dr Evans!' she said. 'To hear him talk, any one would imagine that he and not Dr Partridge was responsible for the change.'
'All the same, Kitty is not quite so well today,' Whitworth replied. 'I am afraid she is feeling the fog. A year hence it won't matter at all. I telegraphed to Partridge to-day asking his advice.'
Aunt Mary waited anxiously for the reply. It came at last:
'No cause whatever for alarm. In present state of case, dry air essential Take patient to St Moritz at once, and stay there till April.'
Aunt Mary frowned at the offending telegram, and dropped it amidst the confused artistic litter of the dinner-table.
'It is out of the question,' she said. 'There are no funds. I know what you are going to say, James; but I can't hear of it'
She swept majestically out of the room towards the studio, where the young people had preceded her. With a slow smile, Whitworth crossed over to the music library above the Dutch bureau.
'Now to explode my little mine!' he murmured. 'It will come in quite dramatically at this point. Now, where did I put that letter? I'm certain it was in Fugue 45 of this volume. I'm sure----'
He paused, and dropped the ubiquitous cigar from his lips.
'Gone!' he cried. 'Stolen! Is it possible that----No, she could not do such a thing!'
HERE,' said Whitworth, 'is a most abusive letter from Partridge. He wants to know why Kitty is not at St Moritz.'
There was just a faint suggestion of malice in the speaker's tone; but Aunt Mary quite overlooked that. She had appeared dreadfully troubled and worried the last few days. Kitty had not been nearly so well, either.
'I cannot see my way to it,' she cried. 'It will be dreadfully expensive. If it were somewhere in the direction of Cornwall, for instance.'
'St Moritz is not Cornwall,' Whitworth said sapiently.
'But, James, it will cost quite two hundred pounds. Where is the money to come from?'
'You don't want any money. You must both go to St Moritz as Walter's guests. I shan't be there, because I'm off to Brazil in a day or two. And a good thing, too, seeing that I am down to my last few pounds.'
Aunt Mary protested that the idea was indelicate. She believed that such things were done in modern society. She had heard of dreadful cases where poor brides owed their trousseaux to wealthy husbands.
If Walter and Kitty were married it would be altogether a different matter.
Miss Bentley spoke slowly and with disdain for modern innovation. Whitworth was half-amused, half-inclined to respect her prejudices. But something would have to be done, and he said so bluntly.
'I fancy I have found a way,' Miss Bentley said presently. A pink spot burned on either cheek. 'I am going to Ambermouth presently, and when I return I shall be able to speak more definitely.'
She went off presently in her best gray silk and her sable cloak that had come down from a bygone generation, and wearing a black bonnet of the severest Puritan style. It was no shock to her pride that she travelled to Ambermouth in the carrier's cart, which she graced as if it had been a barouche-and-pair.
A little later James Whitworth swung into Ambermouth with his long, free stride and his easy air, and made his way without the slightest regard for appearances in the direction of the side-door of a jeweller's shop over which hung the familiar trident of brass balls.
He swaggered into one of the dark little closets of the pawnbroking department as if he had visited his bank for the purpose of drawing a large deposit.
'Diamond ring,' he said, 'repeater watch, chain. I've had eighty pounds on the ring alone lots of times. I want a hundred and fifty pounds altogether. Look sharp.'
The keen-eyed man behind the counter gave a searching glance at the valuables. Then he nodded cheerfully. An assistant was attending to a customer in the next box. He came along to the manager with a diamond-and-ruby frame inside of which was an exquisite miniature.
'Lady wants a couple of hundred on this,' he whispered hoarsely.
Whitworth fairly gasped. The miniature in the lovely setting was quite familiar to him. The manager of the establishment shook his head.
'Not worth it,' he said. 'Probably fetch more money at Christie's; but too risky for us to advance more than a hundred upon.----Your name, sir? James Whitworth? Will you have the money in notes or gold?'
Whitworth elected for notes, which he carelessly stuffed in his pocket He strode into the street and waited with confidence for the coming of the person he expected to see. A moment later and Miss Bentley emerged with a face of crimson and eyes full of tears. What an effort it had cost her to enter a pawnbroker's she alone knew.
'What were you doing in there?' she asked indignantly. 'Such a disgrace for Walter! Just think if anybody had seen you!'
She had quite forgotten herself; she was always thinking of other people.
'So I have found you out!' Whitworth said coolly. 'There's pride for you! My word, if anybody had recognised you coming from that place! Mary Bentley in a pawnbroker's! The mind reels at the mere suggestion. Mary, I think you are the best and dearest little woman in the world.'
'Don't!' Miss Bentley faltered. 'If you only knew what I have endured! But I was shocked to recognise your voice.'
'Were you? My dear girl, I am quite used to it Nobody has more ups and downs than a mining-engineer. My last job was a short one, and I had been out of collar for months before this. Now that I am off to Brazil I need money. Now, which is best--to go sponging on friends who may never be repaid, or raise money honestly on your own property? I am glad of the accommodation; the pawnbroker has done an excellent stroke of business. There is nothing to be ashamed of.'
Aunt Mary shook her head sadly. The pawnbroker represented to her the last signpost on the broad road to ruin. She little realised how often the prosperous of to-day have availed themselves of that friendly aid.
'The miniature was worth the amount you asked,' Whitworth said dryly. 'You may flush and tremble, my dear Mary, but I never admired you quite so much as I do at this moment It must have been a dreadful thing for you to violate your feelings in the way you have. But I'm glad you didn't part with the miniature of Marie Stuart, because there is another way out of the difficulty.'
'What do you mean by that?' Aunt Mary asked, trembling violently.
'Never mind for the present. When we come to have an explanation presently, we shall both have something to confess. And yet I am sure that the recording angel will drop a tear on our indiscretion as he did on that of Uncle Toby.'
There was a suggestion of fear in the eye that Miss Bentley turned on Whitworth. He was whistling, with his hands stuck deep in his pockets, whilst his companion fairly trotted along by his side.
'I'm walking too fast for you,' he said. 'We'll have a cab home.'
'Always so fearfully extravagant,' Aunt Mary gasped.
'Not a bit of it. Pocket full of money and a good appointment before me. You have to-day seen an object-lesson in thriftiness. I don't care a rap for a gold watch, and diamond rings for men I abhor. But in a moment of prudence I bought both. What is the consequence? I am in a position to raise a large loan on strict business lines without being under an obligation to any one. I 've got to send off a telegram to Partridge saying that you start for St Moritz on Saturday.'
'But, my dear James, so far as I can see--Eh, what an impulsive man he is!'
'Well, that's done,' Whitworth said cheerfully as he came down the steps of the post-office. 'You think you are not going on Saturday? My dear Mary, unless something entirely unforeseen occurs, the journey is inevitable. Oh! you designing, wicked woman, I have found you out at last.'
'I have done nothing to be ashamed of, James.'
'Of course you haven't You have acted magnificently. At the same time, a judge would say some severe things to you if he knew as much as I do. Here's our cab.--Grey Gables, Anscombe, driver.--Mary, will you answer me a question?'
'Certainly, if the answer is not too difficult'
'Nothing of the kind,' Whitworth said. He bent forward with a mischievous look in his eyes. 'All I want to know is what yon have done with that letter yon found in the third volume of Colin's manuscript music compositions.'
KITTY and Walter were seated with their heads close together by the organ. Whitworth had just airily proclaimed the fact that he would be off in the morning, and that it was rather a good thing, seeing that the others were leaving for St Moritz on Saturday.
'That is, if Aunt Mary can get ready,' he concluded.
'I shall be quite ready,' Miss Bentley said, as if the words hurt her.
'Then come along with me,' Whitworth cried. 'Well go into the dining-room and work out the whole thing. A seasoned traveller like myself can put you up to all the tips. Come along, and leave these young people to themselves.'
Miss Bentley followed slowly. Her face was pale and her eyes heavy with tears. Whitworth carefully closed the dining-room door.
'Now, where is that letter?' he asked curtly.
Very slowly Aunt Mary took a letter from her pocket Her face flamed scarlet
'James,' she whispered, 'I did it for the best.'
'God bless the woman! I know yon did,' Whitworth burst out. 'I suppose you found out quite by accident, and decided that it was best to keep the secret. And yet you knew perfectly well that it would have ousted Walter from here.'
'Yes, I knew that. When my father was going blind I did all the work of his office for him. I am more than half a lawyer myself. If I had mentioned this letter--'
'--Walter would never have come here at all.'
'Oh yes, he would, James. You see, I never found the letter until after Walter came here. I meant to be cold and polite to him, but he won my heart from the first. And when he called me "Aunt Mary" and kissed me I was conquered. I said he was like his mother. But that wasn't the truth. The reason why I took to him was because he so reminded me of you when you were his age.'
Whitworth rubbed his right eye violently. He took Miss Bentley's hand and carried it to his lips. His voice was just a little unsteady. 'Always the best and dearest of women!' he murmured. 'Always.'
'James, don't be foolish,' Aunt Mary said, crying softly. 'The boy went straight to my heart Then, when I was looking for some music for Kitty, I found the letter. It was from Colin to Mr Benn, but when written I can't say. Perhaps it was written before the will was made--the will in Walter's favour, I mean--in which case--'
'It was written after the will in Walter's favour, as I shall prove to you presently. Now, will you read the letter aloud?'
It was a letter written on a sheet of business paper and headed 'Grey Gables, Wednesday,' without further heading and minus a date:
'My dear Benn,--I have given your letter my careful consideration, and I have at length come to the conclusion that you are right and I am wrong. When I made my will two years ago, leaving everything to my brother James in trust for his son Walter on the latter attaining his majority, I am prepared to admit now that I was carried away by the glamour of my brother's bravery in Spain. Acting on that impulse, I allowed myself to commit a gross act of injustice against my adopted daughter Kathleen Evershed.
'My brother I have long since forgiven for the great wrong he did me. He is capable of looking after himself. His son, I hear, is a genius, and would perhaps be spoilt by too much prosperity. Let him make his way in the world.
'This, then, is my will in little. I instruct you to draw up a new testament, leaving everything to my adopted daughter, Kathleen Evershed, with a legacy of one thousand pounds to my nephew Walter. Return the will so that I can sign without delay.--Yours very faithfully, Colin Whitworth.'
'Now, why did you suppress that letter?' Whitworth asked.
'I am coming to that,' Miss Bentley explained. 'It is not dated. It might have referred to one of the last half-dozen previous wills made by your brother Colin.'
'Turn it over,' Whitworth suggested. 'It is written on the back of a letter from Benn asking how much longer the recipient is going to prolong an act of injustice. That letter of Benn's was dated 17th September 1900, two years after the will was signed. Now, if that letter came before a judge, and he was assured of the soundness of mind of my brother at the time he wrote it, it is pretty certain that the will of September 1900 would be set aside and that letter ordered to stand in its place.'
'Really!' Miss Bentley cried, aghast 'I--I never thought of that.'
'And yet I am merely stating a fact That letter is absolutely signed by the would-be testator, setting out his ultimatum deliberately. Why, the draft of a will in the handwriting of a mere lawyer's clerk has been allowed to stand before now. And yet you knew of this--you knew that if you only produced that document Walter would have stood aside and Kitty would have taken his place.'
'Stop!' Miss Bentley cried. 'I did know of this. I found the letter before you did, and in the same way--looking for music for Kitty. It was a great shock to me; but after careful consideration I decided to do nothing. And why? Because I was absolutely and sincerely convinced that Kitty's days were numbered. Again, that letter is not a will in the strict sense of the word. Otherwise I would never have behaved as I have done. Kitty was dying. No harm could possibly be done by holding my tongue. Kitty was dying. The rest mattered nothing. And here was Walter, the boy who so strongly reminded me of you, on the threshold of his career. If you could only have seen his pure delight in the beauties of the old place! All his dreams were realised. And you were so proud of him. I was proud of him. I had not the heart to dispel those dreams. And so I held my peace.'
Again Whitworth kissed the speaker's hand. 'But Kitty,' he urged. 'Kitty came back from the grave. Surely, you should have spoken then. The money was morally all her own.'
'Too late, James. My prejudices were too strong for me. And I always had the miniature in the diamond setting to fall back upon. All this time I had not the slightest idea that you knew of the letter; and James, James--'
Mary Bentley's face lighted up suddenly; she smiled behind her tears. Whitworth smiled too, in an unsteady fashion.
'It's coming,' he said. 'My turn was bound to come. Go on.'
'James, you are worse than I am,' Aunt Mary cried. 'I am an angel of purity compared with you.'
'Well, everybody knows that,' Whitworth said coolly. 'Pray, proceed.'
'You found the letter as well as myself. You knew that Kitty
was morally entitled to everything here. And yet you kept the secret. You
allowed my foolish prejudice to stand in the way of Dr Partridge's cure, when
a word from you would have
made everything quite smooth. Was it for your boy that--'
'No, I'm hanged if it was,' Whitworth cried. 'It was for Kitty's sake. Oh, I am quite as guilty as you are, perhaps more so. But you refused to see Partridge; you declared that all that could be done had been done, and that Kitty must die in the orthodox fashion. Then I played my strong card. As Kitty's legal guardian, I insisted upon having my own way, and you had to yield. That's why I said nothing about the letter. If I had mentioned it you could have defied me, and--'
'And Kitty would have died,' Aunt Mary whispered.
'I'm afraid she would. It seemed to me that here was the typical case where the end justified the means. Mary, let us forgive one another.'
Their hands met across the table, and they smiled. They would be firm friends to the finish now, but nothing more. The old romance was dead and buried, but the fragrance of it lingered, and would sweeten their lives to the end.
'It is best as it is,' Mary said softly, and this was the requiem. They were sitting very quietly when the young people came in.
'Your father leaves us to-morrow,' Aunt Mary said in the same quiet fashion; 'and on Saturday we start on our journey. You smile, Walter. Well, my prejudices have vanished. Sit down, you two, and I will tell you a story.'
She told the tale in her own simple way. She passed the letter from one to the other.
'This is not really a will?' Kitty asked. 'No. And it makes little difference whether the property belongs to Walter or me. Mine is thine, and thine is mine. And now we can settle all disputes like this.'
She rolled up the letter quickly and dropped it into the glowing heart of the wood-fire. The quick spurt of blaze fell on the Romneys and Lelys, who seemed to smile down approvingly. Aunt Mary raised a mittened hand in protest.
'I feel so well to-night,' Kitty said; 'so strong and happy. Aunt Mary, you are the sweetest and dearest woman in the world. And I am going to get well for the sake of those who love me'
'Amen to that!' cried Whitworth. 'Amen to both, say I.'
"THIS," said Meredith gravely, "is most interesting. Quite a remarkable discovery, in fact. It points to the confirmation of poor Saxon's story. If you will permit me—"
"Oh, shut up!" Gaskell growled. "Shove the confounded thing in your pocket and let us press on. Funny thing that you never use two words when three will do. Look at the sky, man, and the dogs. They are pretty well fagged out, and we're fifteen miles from the ship. If we do get a downfall—well, I don't like to think of it."
"The atmospheric conditions," Meredith said complacently, "according to recent observations—"
The third man, Ottaway, rapped out something like an oath and whipped up the dogs. Meredith was a good fellow and an ardent scientist, but he was a bit of an ass all the same. He could see no danger beyond those tinted spectacles of his. The trio had left the Far North in the ice early in the day, to make some observations round the bend of Cape Ressan—the farthest point reached by any Polar expedition up to date.
It was bitterly cold, and a thin, cutting wind had commenced to blow. It had been sunny and fine enough when the little party started, and two at least of them began to wish they had stayed on the ship. Fifteen miles was no great distance to travel over hard snow with a team of good dogs, but anything like a further fall would have spelt disaster. Gaskell muttered to himself as he glanced at the sky.
"Really this is very interesting," Meredith went on. "I mean this medal, which I have just found. It was struck by James Montgomery, of Greenock, to celebrate his discovery of the North Pole. James Montgomery was a millionaire, you remember."
"No, he wasn't," Gaskell growled. "He was a swindler with a craze for notoriety. After his disappearance he was found to have embezzled trust money on a huge scale. He fitted out a Polar expedition, hoping to get a C.B., or a baronetcy, or something of that kind. I had the offer to skipper the Research, It was never heard of again."
"Aren't you wrong?" Meredith suggested mildly. "A man named Saxon came back. The poor fellow was quite mad; had been living for some time with the Esquimaux, when a whaler brought him home. He told some rambling story as to the way in which Montgomery got the whole of his crew on the ice and sailed off in the Research alone. Said that Montgomery was suffering from chronic delirium tremens, Montgomery was always a crank—nobody but a crank would have had those medals struck. Now, it strikes me as a remarkable thing that I should have just picked up one of those medals."
Meredith babbled on, but the others did not appear to be listening. The sun had disappeared in a red haze, with a curtain of lace whirling before it, the wind grew colder and more cutting. Ottaway, snugging down in his furs, declared that he would cheerfully sacrifice ten years of his pay for a sight of the Far North. From the set expression in his eyes Gaskell seemed fully to realise the danger. Yet when they had set out, the glass was high, with every specious promise of a fine day. The dogs were fretting and whining, too, as if they realised what was before them. Ottaway steered off the ice, and under the shadow of one of the desolate hills they moved a little faster when out of the full swell of that cutting wind. A high crag stood up a mile away, with a black crag on the top, where the white sheet had been torn off it. Suddenly the crag was blotted out as if by the fall of a curtain, instantly a wall of whirling flakes shut in the sledge. Before the occupants had time to draw breath, the white terror was upon them.
It appeared as if all the world had been swept away, that the universe had been dissolved into a grey powder. The snow was overpowering, there was no getting away from it. The dogs clustered together with cry and whimper; they refused to go any further, nor had Ottaway the power to force them on. He could only drop the guiding-reins and bow his head to the storm. Very soon the sledge and its burden was no more than a hummock on the swept plain.
After all, it was only a matter of muscle. All this had happened in the space that it takes to tell the story. Apparently there was nothing to be done but to wait patiently to the end. At the first onrush of the snow fury the sledge had tilted on one side, so that it offered a slight obstacle to the furious charge of the white brigade, and yet affording a slight protection for those inside. The snow curled over them like wave swept in from the sea, and froze as it fell. The men were huddled up in warm furs; they were recently fed and well nourished, so that hope was not altogether abandoned yet. When the reeking fury had passed, there would be an exploring-party sent from the ship, but over those millions of white, gleaming acres it would be as the needle in the proverbial rick of hay.
The snow was piled high over them now; there was warmth with the three human bodies and the pack of dogs all huddled together. It was not sufficiently light to see, but at length Gaskell contrived to get his hand to his watch and press the slide of his repeater.
"Been here nearly an hour," he said. "Wonder if it is snowing still? An hour of this is as good as a week's fall at home. Let's scrape a hole under the side of the sledge."
It was something to do, at any rate, so they went for it with a will. The deeper down they dug, the warmer it became, what with the dogs and the rugs and the reek of their own steaming bodies. But though they were safe for the present, the danger was by no means done. All the old, familiar trails to and from the Far North made by them for months past would be filled up by the new fall. Some of those deep tracks would not be safe for an exploring-party for days. And meanwhile they would have to lie there and slowly starve.
The hours went by and the snow ceased at last. Ottaway burrowed a hole in the side of the drift and crept out, followed by the others, into the open. The whirling, grey desolation had ceased now; the sky was like steel, covered with a powder of brilliant stars. So far us the adventurers could see, they were in the crater of a snow volcano. If the frost held, they would be able to creep out in a day or two, otherwise they were in a prison-house. It was freezing hard enough now, which was one consolation. They crept back again and blocked up the passage once more. There was nothing for it but to huddle together and sleep.
Morning came at length, a dull, opaque light piercing the snow wall. The dogs whined and shivered, with their dark eyes turned on the men, mutely seeking for food. There was a raging pain at the pit of Gaskell's stomach as he came back to consciousness. A born Ishmaelite, he knew quite well what the feeling meant. He had been ravenously hungry before. The others sat up presently and looked about them. Even Meredith was retrospective and absent-minded no longer. It was be who suggested that they should go out and prospect.
It was an utterly dreary prospect at the best —nothing but a deep pit of snow, with high, dazzling walls towering on all sides. They were only fifteen miles from the ship, and yet they might as well have been a million. There were no natives on that thick coast, no chance of food, and they had positively none of their own.
"It's a fine prospect, boy," Gaskell said with a grim irony. "They will send to look for us, of course, but it's like to be a slow job. They may hit npon us right away; they may take a week. And if they do take a week "
"'Subsequent proceedings interest us no more,'" Ottaway quoted. "Still, we've got plenty of baccy, which is one comfort. Talk about Robinson Crusoe, why—"
"He's here!" Meredith shouted. "Robinson and his man Friday! Look for yourselves."
The other two glanced uneasily at each other. Meredith was not an imaginative man, and his nerves were no part of his daily conviction. Nerves and fancies would come surely enough, as Gaskell very well knew, but they were not due for a day or two yet.
"What are you talking about?" he growled. "It seems to me that—Good Heavens!"
It was no chimera of a disordered imagination. There on the snow, close by the impromptu hut, was the track of a small, delicate, human foot.
"'Tell me not in mournful numbers, Life is but an empty dream!'" Ottaway yelled. "We are three utterly sane men—as yet—" Meredith could imagine nothing, even patent facts must be proved to him.—"Therefore I am prepared to swear that those are footprints—six, seven, eight, nine, ten dainty little footprints made by a lady's boot. We are a million miles from civilisation, an eternity from an educated woman, and yet there she has been within recent memory, evidently as much at home as she would be in Hyde Park."
"It's stunning!" Gaskell muttered; "nothing less than stunning! What does it mean?"
It certainly was a most amazing discovery. The Far North was further north than any vessel of discovery had been yet, and the crew of the Far North were proud of the fact. The sledge-party were in grievous danger of their lives, they were in desperate need of food, and yet close by somewhere was a woman, evidently a lady by her footgear, who walked about, as Ottaway put it, much as if she were strolling in the Park.
There could be no doubt about it whatever—there was the shape of the foot, clean-cut as a cameo on the frozen snow—a small foot, in a stout boot with nails on the heels. There were seven footmarks in all, then the print disappeared suddenly, as if a slide of snow had obliterated them. It was nothing more nor less than a miracle; had the sky fallen on them, the pioneers would have been not a whit more astonished.
"Never heard of any hermit up this way, have you?" Ottaway asked grimly. "No family party taken a furnished house here for the sake of the pure air and the fishing? Never heard of anything in the way of a convent in this delightful sylvan glade?"
The others laughed in a constrained kind of way. There was something pathetic as well as startling in this stupendous discovery; the footprints reminded them all of home. But it was not good to dwell upon that kind of thing just then. Gaskell bit his lip.
"Some fine old reindeer reading the fashion plates," he said, with a wild attempt at frivolity that he was far from feeling. "What an ass I am, to be sure! Heaven knows how that woman reached this cursed spot; but here she is! And quite at home, too—there's no sign of hesitation about those footprints. Let's follow them up."
It was quite easy to follow the footsteps as far as they went. It was obvious also that there was some way out of the snow-crater in which the sledge lay, as the owner of the boots could not have vanished so swiftly and mysteriously.
"Can't be natives, I suppose?" Meredith suggested. "Looking at the thing from a matter-of-fact point of—"
"You can't, you fool!" Gaskell cried. "How can there be anything matter-of-fact about a discovery like this? It is an amazing romance, as puzzling to me as the mystery of Creation. And you know there are no natives within a thousand miles."
"So far as we can go by exact scientific data," Meredith began, "we are forced to—"
"Oh, shut up, you idiot!" Ottaway said savagely. "What's scientific data to do with this?"
"It is just possible," Meredith continued, quite unabashed, " that the Research—"
The others laughed a little boisterously. The Research had been lost utterly in the Polar Seas three years before, and only one man, and he an idiot, had lived to tell the tale. Those footprints had another meaning than that.
"Let's track her little footsteps in the snow as far as they go," Ottaway suggested, as he proceeded to suit the action to the word. "Not that one has much to go by... It seems to me that the snow has shifted slightly just at this point. One thing is certain— there must be some way out of this crater. Stand by to give me a hand in case I disappear."
But Ottaway did not disappear. He mounted up the slope, feeling his way as he went, till he had nearly reached the top. Here and there were little, jutting crags of rock which offered a good foothold, and presently he stood on the top of the crater.
"It must have been a tremendous fall of snow!" he shouted. "All our familiar landmarks have utterly disappeared. If I could smell food, I should not know where to go for it. Come up and have a good look for yourselves."
Ottaway stood there, a figure black and clean-cut against the dazzling background. He looked strangely large as he stood there, a statue in the silence. It was deadly silent there—so quiet that the others could hear the blood humming in their ears, all the more intensified by the fierce hunger that was beginning to assail them. Suddenly the silence was broken by a sharp, whiplike crack, and Ottaway jumped in the air with a yell of pain. Then he fell headlong down, till he was brought up sharply at Gaskell's feet.
"In the name of Fortune, what was that?" the latter asked.
"A rifle," Ottaway groaned. "Never saw where it came from, but it's got me through the fleshy part of my arm. It stings like blazes. Doctor, come and have a look at it." Meredith stripped the arm in the shelter of the improvised hut. Sure enough, a bullet had passed clean through the deltoid muscle, leaving a hole a little bigger than a pin-point, so that there was practically no loss of blood. The bullet itself had lodged against a silver tobacco-box, and Meredith examined it eagerly.
"No harm done," he said; "but, on the whole, a lucky escape for you. And as I am a living soul, this is nothing else than a Mauser bullet! Some luxurious individual in these parts has a place of his own here, where everything seems to be quite up-to-date. The hermit of the snowy glen shoots his game with the very latest pattern of small arms."
"And a proper murderous ruffian he must be!" Gaskell exclaimed.
"My dear fellow, are you quite sure that it is a he?" Meredith went on in his crisp, matter-of-fact way. "You don't suggest that we have a colony of educated people here. Is it not just possible that the sharp-shooter who nearly wiped Ottaway's number out might chance to be the lady whose footsteps I found in the snow?"
Gaskell gave a long, low whistle. The point had not occurred to him before. It might turn out exactly as Meredith had suggested. But then that theory only deepened the maddening mystery. Still, whoever the miscreant might be, he or she was plentifully supplied with all the modern of equipment, and food assuredly formed part of it.
"I'll get to the bottom of this, if it costs me my life," Gaskell said between his teeth. "We may as well die fighting as die of hunger. Let us lie low here till it gets dark, and then go and prospect for ourselves. We are three desperate men, and we know the way out of our cage now. Come and lie low, lest worse befall us."
There was nothing else to do but to fall in with this suggestion. The slow, torturing hours crept by, relieved from time to time by the judicious application of tobacco. But even that was partaken of sparingly, for the supply was limited. They were talkative at first, as befits the opening of a remarkable discovery, but they grew cross and moody as the day progressed. Meredith would have talked—he would have talked on his way to the scaffold, as Gaskell rudely reminded him—but the others drove him to silence by snarling epithets. Finally the scientist dropped into an uneasy slumber, with a dog on either side of him, and the others dozed, too.
It was Gaskell who aroused the rest as the darkness commenced to fall. There was a fierce light in his eyes and a sting of colour in his cheeks. He was going to do or die this time. It was freezing hard as the little party stepped into the open; there was a faint light in the sky that just served to pick out the way that Ottaway had tried in the afternoon. They were all at the summit at last and picking their way cautiously down the other side.
"Go easy," Gaskell whispered, as the snow whistled and crunched underfoot. "It isn't as if we had not plenty of time before us. Hallo! unless my eyes deceive me, here are more of those footprints, leading to that queer-looking hummock yonder. Here's a seal-hole, too. We must have found our way on to the water again. What's that?"
A quick, crisp, rippling sound in the near distance, a roll of melody. Ottaway stopped and checked a wild desire to burst into hysterical laughter.
"Don't you recognise it?" he cried. "May I live on bread and water for the rest of my days, if it isn't one of Chopin's Impromptus in F, played on a grand piano!"
GASKELL and Ottaway regarded each other uneasily. They had both heard of that strange form of madness that comes from the solitary contemplation of the snow. It seemed to Gaskell that somebody had told him that this form of delusion often occurred to several men at the same time. But a piano up there! The thing was too utterly absurd. Yet they had both assumed to hear it, and even the practical and matter-of-fact Meredith had followed suit. Ottaway repressed the strong desire to laugh that possessed him.
"A piano, sure enough," Meredith said, much as a scientist would speak if he had stumbled upon a rare fossil. "A grand piano, I should say, with one of the notes in the minor very much out of tune. Still, to look for Queen's Hall form up here!"
Ottaway broke out into a cackle of laughter suddenly. It was a relief to Gaskell's feelings to take his friend by the shoulders and shake him vigorously.
"You fool!" he panted. "We're not going out to afternoon tea. There's danger here, as that shot this morning should have told you."
"Upon my soul, I simply couldn't help it," Ottaway whispered contritely. "There is something so ghastly comical about it, if you understand me. There is a girl I know who plays that Impromptu in F, and I was thinking of her mother's drawing-room.... The warmth and the lights, you know, and the firm flesh-tints."
"Oh, Heavens! I understand!" Gaskell groaned. "And we poor wretches here doomed to starvation! Yes, I understand. But for Heaven's sake don't laugh like that again!"
"What are you fellows maundering about?" the practical Meredith asked. "It is a very strange thing, but there is the piano. I dare say the explanation is a perfectly simple one. Where pianos are found, food and light are found also. The sound seems to me to proceed from the centre of the hummock of snow on which we are standing."
"Bless the man! even he has his uses," Ottaway said in a saner tone of voice. "We had better proceed to investigate; only it's a case of festina lente, lest the first hospitable opening take the form of a rifle-bullet. Let us search."
But the search produced nothing, though the music still continued. The air changed presently to Handel's Largo and slid from that into the grand impressiveness of Liszt's Étude in F, but the explorers got no nearer to the mysterious musician.
"What fools we are!" Meredith exclaimed. "Let's put one of the dogs on the trail."
Strange that nobody had thought of it before. One of the dogs were brought up, held by the collar to a trace. The stiff, stocky little creature could smell food, evidently, for he whined and commenced to scratch at what looked like a wall of snow. Something black appeared at length, and the black thing revolved itself into what at one time had been a cabin door.
"Good boy!" Gaskell said approvingly. "Take him back and give him a biscuit, Meredith. We will now proceed to do a little burglary. Civilisation in the Arctic region is progressing! Be as quiet as you can there."
The door was not fastened in any way—it opened with a thong and strap. Inside was a dark tunnel, with a suggestion of dubious warmth breathing from it. It was like the fragrant breath of a beautiful girl on the cheek of an intoxicated lover. There were other odours—more prosaic, perhaps, but equally reeking of Araby the Blest.
"Food!" Ottaway said exultingly. "Hot soup! the magical savour of vegetables! We've struck the back door to the Garden of Eden. I never realised how ravenously hungry I was till this very moment. Let us make a rush for it."
The mouths of the others were literally watering. It was only the cool sanity of Gaskell that held them back now. They fumbled their way noiselessly along the tunnel until Meredith nearly betrayed their presence by stumbling down a ladder, a companion-way, as the three of them versed in the way of ships could tea even in the dark.
"It's a ship bound in the snow," Gaskell whispered; "though what ship it can be. why—"
"The one I told you of," Meredith muttered, rubbing his shin. "It's the Research, for a million. Now we shall be able to see what we are about."
He stood at the foot of the ladder, looking towards the saloon. There were lights now and a fairly good view of everything. Silently Meredith pointed to a lifebuoy that lay on the floor. On it, in white letters, was painted the legend "S.S. Research 1901." The story of the poor, mad sailor who had found his way back to Greenock was true.
The music in the saloon suddenly ceased, and a cabin door opposite flew open. A woman's voice called out that everything was ready.
"So are we," Ottaway groaned. "Good Heavens! so are we. My dear lady, if you only knew how ready we are!... Pretty voice, too!"
It was a very pretty, sweetly modulated voice, evidently the voice of a lady. Then a figure stood out against the light in the cabin. The hungry eyes of the watchers saw a nice-looking girl, partly clad in furs. A certain youthfulness was given to her appearance owing to the fact that she wore her hair in a neat plait down her back. After a year or more in those white solitudes, the sight of a woman at all was in itself a thrilling episode.
"Are you not coming. May?" the girl called. "Everything is quite ready."
May responded from the distance that she was coming at once. There was a crashing chord on the piano, and then the patter of other footsteps. In the distance somebody laughed in a hard, staccato voice that seemed strangely out of harmony. The girl in the cabin started, and a little cry escaped her. There was a shrinking motion about her.
"Oh, May! is he bad again to-night?" she asked, as the other girl came along. "What have we done, to be punished like this? A hideous prison, with the prospect of starvation coming nearer and nearer day by day. My dear child—"
Gaskell stepped forward. At the sound the girls turned round. They were singularly alike, dressed in the same way, both with clear skins and blue eyes. Their eyes were dilated, Gaskell noticed, as with a certain chronic terror. The girl called May would have screamed, only the other one pressed a hand upon her lips.
"Don't be afraid," Gaskell whispered. "We've—we've come to help you, you know. I dare say that you have seen something of the Far Norths
Evidently the Far North was no more than an abstract name to the girls. They clung together as slaves might do who had changed their masters. In any case, the figures of Gaskell and his companions were not exactly calculated to induce confidence.
"We have heard something about you," Gaskell went on hoarsely. "One of the sailors of the Research managed to reach a native settlement. His sufferings deprived him of his senses. People did not believe the story of James Montgomery, and the strange way that he abandoned his crew for—"
"It is as true as Gospel," one of the girls said. "He is coming. If you are not armed—"
The intruders were not armed, save with clasp-knives. Gaskell looked at the girls.
"A dangerous criminal lunatic," one of them said. "We go in terror of our lives. The only wonder is that he has not killed us both long ago. If he sees you—"
A trembling, snarling laugh came from the end of the passage leading to the bows of the great steam-yacht. Though they were not aware of the fact, Gaskell and his companions were standing under the lamp suspended from the roof, and full in the stream of light flung on them through the open cabin door. The queer laugh was repeated, followed by the crack of a rifle and the scream of a bullet. There was a crash of glass and a patter of warm oil on the floor. If the would-be assassin were mad, his aim was true enough, for the lamp overturned and was smashed into fragments.
"How now, you secret, black, and midnight hogs!" the thin, reedy voice screamed. "So the devil has come for me at last. Two years I have fought him—two years, day by day. But I am an old gentleman, and there has been madness in my family for generations."
"Put that rifle down," Gaskell said, with a hard ring in his voice.
The madman laughed aloud. Evidently his moods were subject to lightning changes. The pathetic, personal touch had vanished like a flash.
"James Montgomery!" he yelled, "of Greenock, millionaire—the man who used people's money for his own ends. The benefactor of man, the great explorer. And then to come back and stand in the dock! No, no, no... And then they were all on the ice, with their party and that; and only I and the two engineers, with the captain's children, aboard. It was only a matter of two shots, and the Research was mine. The beautiful engines spoke and laughed with me, and they cursed me from the shore with the white loneliness of the snow coming up behind them. I was free, I tell you—free, free, free, and none left to tell the tale. Till you came. Curse you! take this."
Then came a series of whiplike cracks, followed by the soft splash of bullets on the side of the companion-way. Evidently the maniac had armed himself with a repeating rifle. There was no help for it now; the only chance was to rush for the cabin and close the door behind. Meredith was conscious of a hot, singeing sensation along his scalp. Gaskell was more concerned for the girls. Had the light been less dim, it would have been impossible to say how the story had ended, but by great, good fortune nobody was hurt.
"Well, of all the adventures!" Ottaway gasped. "I'll never disbelieve anything I see in print again, not even in a halfpenny paper. Truth is stranger than fiction."
"Fiction is a prosaic old dowager," Gaskell said, as he removed his outer furs. "Let me introduce myself and my friends, ladies... Your names are?"
"Irene and May Broxwood," the girl who had first appeared said. "We came here with the ship at our own earnest request— you see, we had no mother. My father was the captain of the ship. He was in the Royal Navy at one time—Captain Ernest Broxwood."
"I knew him slightly," Gaskell said. "I was in the service myself; Ottaway, here, is still. But it seems incredible that the story just told by James Montgomery—"
"Is absolutely true," May Broxwood said. "We knew that he was eccentric and very moody, and all that kind of thing. There were frequent quarrels. But nobody ever expected that— The men stood on the beach, with the snow coming up behind them, and my father was with them. I can see the grey light on his face now as he implored that for our sakes—"
Something rose in the throat of the pretty speaker and checked further utterance. A shot splintered the door and spattered the wall like a molten star on the far side of the cabin. There was an oak table in the centre, devoid of a cloth, but the silver on it was beautifully clean. A large tureen of soup smoked on the table; there was meat and hot, tinned vegetables at the other end; the whole place was filled with the delicious perfume of it.
"Oh!" Ottaway muttered, "I can't stand this any longer! The mere sight of that food seems to deprive me of all my manhood. Ladies, if you don't mind "
"We have had nothing since early this morning," Gaskell explained . "We got caught in a snow-storm and lost our bearings. We should have starved and died if Providence had not brought us here. Really—"
Gaskell stood at a loss for further words. He felt dazed, like a man who walks in his sleep; he had eyes only for the table.
"Oh, forgive us!" May cried in deep distress. "We could not possibly know. We imagined, naturally, that your ship was close by. Quick, quick! the danger is not over yet."
The girl pointed to the roof of the cabin, which was partly of glass. Two of the slides had been removed, for the atmosphere of the stove was stuffy, even in that climate. It was easy enough to take in the danger at a glance. If the madman recollected, he would station himself on that coign of vantage and shoot the occupants of the cabin down like dogs.
"We must risk it," Ottaway said between his teeth. "I am like a veritable infant for the want of food. It is no time for ceremony."
They fell to eagerly, wolfishly. They had been saved by a marvellous intervention of Providence; there was a curious feeling amongst them that they could come to no harm now. As they ate of the delicious soup and vegetables, the strength and vigour of manhood came back to them. It was only a matter of moments, for the horrible singing and cackling was going on outside, and presently the madman moved afar off. The men in the cabin grew suddenly grave.
"His cunning brain has taken up the idea," Irene Broxwood said. "Oh, we are well used to scenes like this—they are the portion of our daily life. Thank God it has been no worse! We might have been kitchenmaids, for all the notice James Montgomery has taken of us. There, did I not tell you? I can hear him overhead."
A footstep clanged over the skylight, and the gleam of a rifle-barrel was seen. Ottaway whipped the clasp-knife from his pocket and flung it with all his force at the hanging lamp. The aim was true, for the globe and chimney were shattered; there was a puff of black smoke, and the cabin was in pitchy darkness.
A yell of rage came from the skylight, and the leaden hail began again, accompanied by oaths and curses and snatches of song. They were all down now, by Gaskell's order, against the door. He whispered to Ottaway to open it quietly. Whilst the din from above went on, Ottaway did so, and the four fugitives crept into security.
"Now's our chance," Gaskell said between his teeth. "One of you pretend to be hit. Roll about the floor, and toss your coat inside as if you were in agony. Miss Broxwood, I am going to ask you to attempt a task of some danger. As you know the ship well, I want you to guide me quietly to the place where that murderous old rascal is standing. With this row going on, I shall have no difficulty in securing him. If you are afraid—"
"I am not afraid," the girl said quietly. "I am afraid of nothing that will end a life like this."
They slipped away together into the darkness. For the next few minutes the fusillade into the cabin went on; then there was a yell, wilder and fiercer than any that had come before, followed by a noise of falling bodies, and silence... Gaskell whistled softly.
"Bring some rope," he said. "It's all right. I'm sitting on his head."
Ropes were procured, and irons as well, and presently the madman was secured in a small cabin, where he seemed sullenly resigned to his fate. The lights of the Research were restored; there was smiling content in the warm cabin, where supper had been laid.
"We can finish our supper in peace," Ottaway suggested. "My dear young ladies, what a really dreadful time you must have had! Your story—"
"Is almost incredible," May Broxwood said with a shudder. "Fancy seeing a whole crew of men abandoned to their fate in that cruel way, and we able to do nothing! Then there was the solitude of it—those dreadful outbursts of madness, for James Montgomery is mad indeed. Of course, we had plenty of coal and oil and provisions to last for years, seeing that there were only three of us; and everything we had was of the very best and latest. But think of the monotony of it, and the certainty that, sooner or later, the food and fuel would become exhausted, and that we should have to sit down and die! Can you imagine a worse fate for young girls like us?"
"It beggars imagination," Gaskell said. "Naturally everybody regarded the Research as one of the ill-fated Polar expeditions. But there is going to be an end of this before long. We are quite safe here till the Far North sends out an expedition in search of us. We know that they are only fifteen miles away. It may be a week or two—"
"Not if the Research carries anything in the way of a big gun," the practical Meredith suggested.
"What should we do without our Meredith?" Gaskell smiled. "We will fire a shot or two from the big gun, and that will soon settle matters."
"I cannot understand how you contrived to find us?" Irene Broxwood asked.
Gaskell proceeded to explain all about the footprints in the snow, and the shot which very nearly ended in the unexpected demolition of Ottaway. He noted the change that had come over the girls in the last half-hour; the change was still more noticeable at breakfast the next morning. And when at length the long, black string that formed the search party from the Far North came in sight, even the practical Meredith was bound to volunteer the statement that the Broxwoods were the prettiest girls that he had ever seen.
THERE was a sudden rush of figures, the suggestion of a badly acted quarrel, the gleam of a revolver-barrel or two, and the crowd round the roulette-table realised that a bold attempt to rob the bank was in progress. To add to the dramatic swiftness of it, someone in the conspiracy had cut off the electric light, so that the greater part of the big saloon was in darkness.
The thing had come so unexpectedly that the croupier, old and hard in the ways of the wicked, could only bend over his bank and hug the shining metal there, much as a hen squats over her chickens when a hawk is overhead. An arm shot out of the half-gloom, and the croupier, his head laid open by a heavy blow from a loaded stick, ceased to take any further interest in the proceedings, snoring like a pig. Just for a moment it looked as if the amazing audacity of the proceedings were going to be crowned with success. Two or three revolver-shots rang out in quick succession, women of all kinds clung together and screamed, a shrill whistle trilled somewhere in the distance.
All this about half past six on a rather dark February evening, the hour when the saloons of Monte Carlo are not at their fullest, and an attack like this would be most likely to succeed. The three Englishmen who had just come in looked at one another, doubtful of what to do next. They were not in the least frightened; they would have been capable of anything, had only somebody given them the lead. The lead came unexpectedly from a man who was struggling with a tangled knot of humanity on the floor.
"Hi, there, you look a likely lot," he gasped. "Trip up that chap with the red hair. Get him down and jump on him. I can manage the rest."
Two of the Englishmen moved to the attack. There were no more revolver-shots, seeing that the noise of conflict was likely to do more harm than good. The third Englishman did not move. He was slighter than his companions, and though his mouth was hard and firm almost to the verge of cruelty, he was still palpably in the grip of some lingering illness. He seemed to be fascinated, too, by a queer sight that met his gaze from the floor. Out of the tangled knot struggling there, a hand shot—a nervous, sinewy hand, with a peculiar scar in the shape of a crucifix upon it.
"Come on, Duckworth," one of the other men called. "Twist that fellow's arm behind him."
But the man called Duckworth never stirred. He was like one who sees a ghost. The sinewy hand with the scar upon it was no longer visible, for it had got back to work again; the eager watcher could not discover what body the limb in question belonged to. He was still standing in the same dazed way when the lights came up again, and the saloon filled with men in uniform. The raid was over almost as soon as it had begun, there was a buzz of excited conversation, and pale, fair cheeks began to draw blood again. The other two Englishmen were still breathless from the struggle.
"An American gang," one of them panted. "Headed by a chap who has a bad reputation on two continents. By Jove! that fellow would have made a big name as a soldier. Pretty mad thing to try, all the same. Heart worrying you again, Duckworth?"
"It wasn't quite that, Herries," Duckworth stammered. "Of course, the excitement was trying to anybody in my wretched state of health. After the adventurous life I have lived in America, a little thing like that could not hurt me. But in the middle of that struggle I had a shock that seemed to knock the breath out of my body."
"Saw something unpleasant, eh?" the third man asked. The other two were good average Englishmen of the better type—clean-lived, well-groomed, sportsmen both. "Sight of that croupier with his head cut open?"
"Croupiers are cheap enough," Duckworth said somewhat brutally. "It wasn't that, Gilroy. A hand shot up from the floor where those fellows were struggling—a brown hand, with a scar like a crucifix upon it—the hand, mind you!"
"You don't say so!" Gilroy cried. "Quite sure that you are not mistaken?"
"Perfectly certain," Duckworth replied. "There was the clean mark of the crucifix, exactly as you described it that night in Rome. My dear chap, it is impossible for two men to have a mark like that on the back of a hand. You can imagine the effect that the discovery had upon me, with my nerves in their present condition. That fellow has followed me here, he has got on my track again."
"You mean to say," Herries said slowly, "that the man in question—"
"Is looking for me to murder me. Yes, I do. He tried it in Rome, as Gilroy knows. But for a bit of luck I should have been killed in my bedroom at the Maremma Hotel. It is terrible to be tracked and followed by a merciless, murderous assassin like this. If I only knew the man by sight, if he would only come out in the day-light—"
Duckworth paused and shuddered. Yet he had a justly high reputation for courage.
"Well, anyway, you've got a chance to drag the ruffian into the open now," Herries said cheerfully. "You will be able to recognise your assailant in future. All you and Gilroy have to do is to go before the local police and swear an information—"
"But I tell you I am as much in the dark as ever," Duckworth protested. "Let us go over to Nice and dine at the Gordon Hotel—my nerves call for a private room. I saw the hand and the scar plainly enough, but in the struggle and the semi-darkness it was impossible to identify the particular body to which the hand belonged. All I know is that my enemy followed me here, and that I have had a fortunate warning of the fact."
The speaker looked like a man who has the fear of the rope about his neck. Herries was inclined to make light of the matter. All they had to do was to keep their eyes open for a man with a peculiar scar on the back of his right hand. Once they found him, it would be a very easy matter to hand him over to the authorities. Perhaps he was already in custody, perchance he was one of the gang of captured desperadoes.
"I don't think so," said Duckworth thoughtfully. "The scarred right hand seemed to be on the side of authority; anyway, he had a pretty good grip on the red-haired chap. But for the life of me I could make nothing of his face, or even the colour of his clothes."
"Bet you a fiver I find the chap before twenty-four hours have passed," Herries boasted. "If we buck up, we shall just catch the 7.5 train to Nice, where we will dine at the Gordon Hotel. And we'll humour old Duckworth with a private room."
The colour was creeping into Duckworth's pale cheeks again, his mouth had recovered its hard lines. Herries and Gilroy were old school and college chums, their 'people' were intimate, but of Duckworth neither of them knew much. He alluded to no past, beyond the time when he had gone to California, where he had made a fortune in the goldfields, and where he had met with many strange adventures. But his form was correct, he was well dressed, he gave very good dinners at a small house of his own in Hill Street, he always contrived to get the cream of the Scotch moors and the Norfolk partridge-shooting. A man like that forms a very desirable acquaintance in these days of semi-illiterate financiers and foreign magnates of doubtful origin. In their frank, short-sighted way, both Herries and Gilroy summed Duckworth up as a 'good sort; just a little close, you know, but a dashed good sort, take him all round.' It was the philosophy of the club and the smoking-room, so that Duckworth's position was assured.
He did not look particularly assured as he adjusted his dress-tie in front of the glass in his bedroom before joining the others at the Gordon Hotel. True, he was just getting the better of a most malignant attack of rheumatic fever, which had left his heart in a sad state, but that did not altogether account for his slackness to-night. His mind went back to that night in Rome, a little more than a year ago, when Gilroy had saved his life from the man with the scarred hand, the same man who was after him now. It came back to him that he had never quite satisfactorily explained to Gilroy why that mysterious and murderous attack had been made. He had said something about a revengeful madman who had some fancied grievance in connection with gold-mining and a disputed 'claim,' a man whose face he had never seen, and Gilroy was pleased to accept the explanation. Gilroy was a gentleman as well as a man of the world, and he had expressed no vulgar curiosity—there were doubled-down pages in the life of everybody, as he knew perfectly well.
The other two were waiting in the lounge of the hotel for Duckworth. Though the house was crowded, they had managed to get a private room, where dinner would be served in a few minutes—a room on the first floor, with a balcony looking out towards the sea. The crowd in the lounge was getting on Duckworth's frayed nerves.
"Let's go up to the room and sit in the balcony," he suggested. "We shall have just time to get through a cigarette there before dinner."
It was cool and fresh on the balcony, and the silence of it was soothing. Presently, from the dining-room came a clear, sharp voice demanding to know things, the apologetic whine of a waiter, and a peremptory order for somebody to go and fetch the manager.
"Some Johnnie trying to commandeer our room?" Herries suggested. "Come on, you chaps. I dare say it's one of those all-devouring Yankees."
A tall man with a beard stood before the fire, addressing the manager. He was perfectly dressed, and his manner seemed to be good. That he was annoyed about something was apparent from the expression of his face.
"If it is a mistake, then it is yours," he said. "I ordered this room this morning—I even arranged for those very flowers. It was settled with the head waiter. As I am a stranger here, I paid for the dinner in advance. The fact that my three friends have been detained in Paris makes no difference. This room is mine."
"But, m'sieur," the hotel proprietor protested, "as you are quite alone, and your friends are not arrived, and as the other gentlemen have ordered dinner here—"
"I am afraid we are out of court, sir," Herries said pleasantly. "We came from the balcony to dispossess you by force of arms, if necessary. But after what you say, we can only bow to the inevitable and resign ourselves to the table d'hote."
"Which is half over by this time, sir," the stranger said. "Moreover, the table d'hote dinner here is frequently open to criticism. Are there three of you?"
"There are three of us exactly," Herries said. "Let me introduce myself by name. This is my friend, Mr. Gilroy. Here also is my friend, Mr. Duckworth, who is an invalid. It was to please him that we engaged this room. But after your recent remark to the landlord, I am afraid that we must retire gracefully."
The stranger smiled and shook his head.
"My name is Harrington," he said—"a cosmopolitan at that. Let me make a suggestion to you. Why not dine here with me? I have ordered a special dinner for four, but my friends have been detained in Paris. You look like getting no dinner at all. Is the suggestion that you should be my guests too inconvenient to you?"
"It's deuced kind of you," Gilroy said warmly. It seemed to him that the metal rang true. "I am sure that my friend Duckworth will make no objection."
"Your friend Duckworth will be confoundedly glad of the opportunity," the latter said. "The suggestion was very kind and thoughtful of you, sir. It's a very odd thing, but I seem to have heard your voice before."
"Same idea occurred to me," Herries remarked. "By Jove, I've got it! Weren't you in the Casino to-night when the row was going on?"
"And didn't you ask us to lay hold of that red-headed chap?" Gilroy cried.
"You have guessed it," Harrington smiled. "Directly the dispute began, I tumbled to what was going to happen. When the first shot was fired, I felt certain of it. And I had some little grasp of the kind of reputation that that red-headed man enjoys. So I just dropped to the floor and clipped as many of the gang by the legs as possible. They were all on the top of me, and it was only now and then that I got a glimpse of anybody. Then I spotted you two gentlemen as being likely fellows in a fight, and I called to you."
"Where did you get to afterwards?" Gilroy asked.
"Oh, I was dragged off with the rest. The fools of police took me for one of the gang, and they were all for clapping me in durance vile, but for the intercession of a French officer who happened to know me pretty well. Audacious thing, wasn't it?"
The rest admitted that it was, and at the same moment the waiter came in with the dinner. The respect entertained for him by Harrington's guests was deepened as the meal proceeded. It had been chosen with care and taste and a nice discrimination, which same remark applied to the wines. The Englishmen felt that their lines had fallen on pleasant places. They sat round the table toying with their liqueurs and cigarettes, quiet and restful now and at peace with all the world. A little colour had crept into Duckworth's pale face, he seemed to have forgotten his fears. Harrington looked at him from time to time with a sympathetic interest.
"You have had a very bad turn, Mr. Duckworth?" he asked.
"Well, yes," Duckworth replied. "I caught rheumatic fever out duck-shooting before Christmas. I had a fearful time of it—in fact, it was touch and go with me. The worse of it is that the malady has affected my heart so dreadfully. I'm a bundle of nerves at present. It seems odd to be like this; because up till lately, when I heard nerves mentioned, I regarded the word as a mere abstract quality. For a man like myself, who has roughed it for years in California, the idea of being a broken-down invalid is terrible."
Harrington's dark face showed distinct traces of interest.
"So you know California?" he said. "I also know the States very well—in fact, I made most of my modest little fortune there. What part?"
"Up along the ridges by Sierra Gradanna principally. Know the region?"
"As well as I know myself," said Harrington. "I nearly lost my life there on one occasion. But we won't talk of hairbreadth escapes to-night, as you look so white and tired. I'm afraid that the shindy in the Casino was too much for you."
Duckworth hesitated as if about to say something.
"It was a shock," he said after a pause; "not exactly the row, but something that happened then. I am to a certain extent a creature of circumstances. It was my fate some years ago to incur the hatred of a lunatic whose name I don't even know; indeed, I should not recognise the man even if he stood before me at the present moment. That fellow followed me to Europe with the full and deliberate intention of taking my life; indeed, he would have succeeded once a while ago, had it not been for my friend Gilroy here. I saw that man in the Casino to-night."
"Indeed," Harrington replied. "This is deeply interesting. But there is one point that I do not quite follow. You say you would not recognise your mysterious antagonist if you met him in the flesh, and yet you say that you saw him to-night."
"Certainly I do. He was on the floor in the melee. I did not see his face; I could not for the life of me tell you what he was wearing. But I recognised him by a peculiarity that would render him conspicuous anywhere. On the back of his hand was a scar in the shape of a crucifix. That is also the mark of the beast on the right hand of the man who has come all these miles to take my life."
A short, queer laugh broke from the lips of Harrington. His dark face changed, then altered again to its normal expression in a dazzling flash. He very quietly apologised for his mirth.
"Pardon me," he said; "I had forgotten how serious—But the strange coincidence! However, we will come to that presently. If Mr. Duckworth—"
"Do you happen to know anything of the man with the crucifix scar?" Gilroy asked at length.
Harrington leant back in his chair and coolly surveyed the company from behind his cigar.
"Yes," he said very slowly and distinctly, "I know the man with the scar very well indeed."
The muscles of Duckworth's thin mouth quivered. He breathed hard, as if he had recently been undergoing some trying physical exertion. The others were deeply interested, but they showed no emotion of any kind—it was to them like the unfolding of the last act of some fascinating play. The stranger was absolutely quiet, too, though a close observer would have noticed the whiteness of his knuckles as his clenched right hand lay on the table. The tendons of the wrist were rigid.
"It is very fortunate that we have met, sir," Duckworth said.
"So it would seem," Harrington replied. "But before I tell my story I should like to hear yours. That comes first in proper sequence, I think. I should like to know whence you derived your information about the star-shaped scar, seeing that you have never been face to face with the owner of it. Are you a good shot?"
The question sounded natural enough, but Duckworth backed from it as if it annoyed him. He was understood to say that he knew something of the use of the gun.
"Oh, that won't do," Herries cried. "My dear chap, why this morbid modesty? You must know, Harrington, that or friend is a marvellous shot, especially with the revolver. Have seen him mark the nine pips on a white card at fifteen paces.'
"What has my shooting to do with it?" Duckworth asked with some irritation.
"I may come in later on," Harrington said quietly. "But first let me know how the secret assassin is identified with the star-shaped crucifix."
"That is where I come in," Gilroy proceeded to explain. "The thing happened in Rome two years ago. It was soon after I had met Duckworth, and we were travelling together at the end of the summer. Duckworth—if he will excuse me saying so—is rather a reticent kind of chap, and not given to confidences. All the same, he hinted to me that he had a something that he was afraid of. I put it down to nerves, and thought no more about the matter for the time. We were staying at the Maremma Hotel, a house which is only on two storeys, as you know, and which has a garden on two sides of it.
"Duckworth had gone to bed fairly early one evening, for we had had a tiring day, and I was preparing to do the same thing in my room, when I heard a scuffle and the noise of blows. Then somebody called for help, and I heard a revolver shot. I don't know why, but the memory of what Duckworth had told me flashed into my mind, and I rushed into his room. It was pitch dark, for the electric lights were out, but I could hear the struggle going on by the bedside. I called out, and a tall figure made for the window. He was outside before I could lay my fingers on the electric light switch, and all that I could see, looking towards the window, was a hand on the ledge. I suppose the fellow was holding on with one hand to steady himself for the drop into the garden below. I could just see that hand for an instant, and no more. On the back of it was a scar in the shape of a crucifix."
Harrington nodded thoughtfully. He appeared to be deeply engrossed in the story, though he did not look once in the direction of Duckworth. He helped himself to a fresh cigarette and poured a little more claret into his glass.
"All this is exceedingly interesting," he said. "The dramatic part appeals to me. Mr. Duckworth has a deadly enemy whom he cannot identify save for the peculiar scar. The man with the scar is the sword of Damocles hanging over his head. The knowledge of that near presence gets astride his nerves. Is not that so?"
"I'll not deny it," Duckworth said gloomily; "especially in my present state of health."
"Let us get on a bit further," Harrington proceeded. "Did you bring the matter before the authorities?"
"No, I didn't; I had no desire for any unnecessary fuss. I don't mind saying that I took a great many precautions to throw my would-be assassin off the track—"
"With the result that there has been no further attempt on your life? You have seen and heard no more of the man with the scar from that day to this?"
"Not till I saw that queer, maimed hand in the Casino to-night. You may argue that this is no more than a strange coincidence, but I know better. That fellow has got on my track again; he has followed me here. There could not be two men with scars like that. But seeing that you know the fellow perfectly well—"
"Stop a minute," Harrington interrupted. "Don't let's go too fast. In the first place, tell me what is the real or fancied grievance that the man with the scar has against you. Didn't you say it had something to do with gold-mining."
Duckworth nodded curtly. Evidently he had no disposition to be communicative. He shuffled about in his chair; he seemed to be uneasy under the gaze of Harrington, which was turned full upon him now for the first time.
"Come," the latter urged. "It is only fair to yourself that you should make your case good. When you have spoken, then I will present the case from the point of view of the man with the scar. And if your story rings true, I will promise you one thing—you will never have cause to fear the man with the scar again."
"You will tell us all about him?" Gilroy asked eagerly.
"Certainly I will," Harrington proceeded, "when Mr. Duckworth has spoken."
"But I assure you there is little or nothing to tell," Duckworth exclaimed. "It was merely a case of diamond cut diamond up in the Sierras yonder. We were not mining in the strict sense of the word; we were placer-hunting—that is, looking for pockets of gold washed down by the water from the snows, or placed there ages ago in the Glacial period. As you know, they were a pretty rough lot in those old days."
"I know that by painful, personal experience," Harrington said gravely.
"Well, I had to take care of myself. I had located a likely spot on the spur of one of the mountains, and I had pegged out my claim. I couldn't work it for a couple of days, for the simple reason that I was down with a touch of fever. When I went back in due course, I found that somebody had taken my place. I found the fellow and ventured to expostulate with him. He threatened me with what would happen when his partner returned. You know how one word leads to another in that quarter, and it soon came to the drawing of weapons. I was quicker on the trigger, and my man went down with a bullet through the lungs. We were fighting on the edge of a narrow plateau, with the valley two thousand feet below us, and he went headlong back over the edge and was seen no more. Nobody could ever have found that body. It would lie there for ever under the snows. But I tell you it was a fair fight."
Duckworth uttered the last words with a snarling challenge in them. His face was deadly pale, and little beads of moisture stood out on his forehead. Nobody spoke, the interest was too great for mere trivial interruption. It was only Harrington who asked a question at length.
"Did the partner intervene?" he suggested.
"Not in a manly, straightforward kind of way, curse him!" Duckworth said. "I tell you the claim was mine, and not a soul in the world could fairly dispute it. I was myself in those days, and feared neither man nor devil. I worked that placer pocket single-handed for a week, and I took out of it over two hundred thousand pounds' worth of gold-dust. So far as I was concerned, I had finished mining. When I had done, the partner came back just too late to meet me, for I had started for San Francisco. This partner was the man with the scar on his hand, though I had never seen him and never heard his name. But another successful man who got to 'Frisco a day or two afterwards brought tidings of the fact that a mysterious ruffian had sworn a bitter oath against me, and that he was going to follow me to the end of the earth. As the fellow did not know me by sight, and had never heard even my people's name, I did not give myself any great thought over the matter until that night in Rome. And if there was anybody who can say that I have not told my story honourably, I should like to meet him face to face. I think that is about all."
"It is certainly your turn now, Harrington," Herries suggested.
"Yes, I fancy it is my turn," Harrington said slowly and distinctly, "especially as I told you that I know the man with the scar on his hand quite well."
"He must be an abandoned scoundrel, a poisonous ruffian!" Gilroy said hotly.
"Well, it sounds odd, but I cannot quite agree with you," Harrington proceeded in the same smooth and even manner. "Let me present the story from the point of view of the other man. When you have weighed the two narratives up, you shall judge between them. And when you have done so, I will undertake to produce the man with the scar on the right hand."
The little audience thrilled; even the two healthy, clean-lived Englishmen were conscious of the fact that their pulses were beating a little faster than usual.
"We will call the man with the scar Clarkson if you like," Harrington proceeded. "He had left the good old country, meaning England, ten years ago, to seek his fortune. No need to speak of his ups and downs, of which he had many. He was a man of few friends; he had left nothing behind him in England but one little girl, of whom he was exceedingly fond. This little girl was delicate and needed more than the man could send her. He worked very hard for her, he led a clean life for her sake. And after many adventures he reached California, and there, together with a partner called Challis, he struck a rich placer of gold. It was an opportune find, for the little girl was ordered to the South of France, and but for the gold she must perforce have remained in England and died. She did die, as a matter of fact, because at the last moment the gold was not forthcoming, and I will tell you why.
"The placer was difficult to work, because it lay on the sheer side of the mountain—it had only been located at all by means of rope. But then it was enough to make the fortunes of more people than one. They decided to rig up a kind of crow's-nest, and procured the necessary timber and ropes. They got the thing going at last, they worked the whole of one day, perhaps the happiest day those two passed in their lives. They were just going to knock off work for the day when they heard a shot at the head of the spur. It was quickly followed by another, there was a sudden jar on the rope, and then they were going headlong into the valley, and both of them fell two thousand feet below. The rope had broken.
"After the first second or two, memory deserted the sole survivor. He recollected nothing more till he woke two or three days later in a shepherd's hut, more dead than alive. He had been lucky enough to be thrown off a cushion of snow into a great bed of dry litter in an old stream, and by a most amazing miracle he escaped altogether. Of his partner the man heard nothing more, he was for ever buried in the snows of the hillside.
"There is no reason to dwell at length on that. As soon as Clarkson could get about again, he tried the hillside once more with some new tackle; at any rate, the gold was still there, and there was no reason why he should not procure it. But the gold was no longer there—somebody had come along and removed the lot of it. It was a startling discovery, for the secret had been well kept, and it struck Clarkson all of a heap at the time. He began to make inquiries quietly; but nothing came of it until the second day, Clarkson got a pointer or two from a man called Mad Billy. Mad Billy had met with an accident in a mine, which had turned his brain. He did odd jobs about the place, and as to the rest, he spent his time gloating over imaginary finds. And Billy had a story to tell."
Harrington paused and lighted a fresh cigarette. He glanced round the table to see that the audience were following the story. There was no need to do anything of the kind. The two Englishmen were looking at the speaker with parted lips, Duckworth's face was pinched and blue.
"Gentlemen, the thing was no accident at all. According to Clarkson, another man had got on the track of the secret. He had watched the rigging up of the crow's-nest, and in his secretive, furtive way Billy had watched him. He had seen the other man spying, and his movements had excited the suspicions of poor Mad Billy. The plan of the stranger was simple in the extreme. He dared not show himself against the edge of the cliff with the snow for a background, because there were other men mining there, and there—he had a better notion than that altogether. He was a fine shot, as fine a shot as our friend Mr. Duckworth here."
Duckworth started slightly and coughed. He seemed to have trouble with his breathing.
"The sound of a revolver would arouse no suspicions there. So the revolver was fired twice from the cover of some shrubs—Mad Billy looking on all the time—fired full at the rope that held the cage where Clarkson and his partner were working. The shots were true and straight so that they cut the rope as clean as a knife. It was a pretty scheme, because, as the rope was shot in two, there would be no suspicions of foul play; the thing looked just as if there had been a flaw in the new rope; and, indeed, I could not tell the difference when the rope was shown to me."
There was a long pause before anybody spoke. All of them seemed to feel that Harrington was coming to the crux of his story.
"You see, this was no madman's chimera," he went on again. "Billy's tale was well backed up. But the gold was gone, and the man had gone also, and the child died, and Clarkson swore a great oath of revenge. A little time after that, Clarkson had the luck that he no longer wanted, so he left California, taking Billy with him. Billy was the only one who could identify the ruffian who had done that thing. For a year or more they hunted Europe in an aimless kind of way. It is rather strange that I should stumble by accident upon the man that Clarkson was seeking."
"But I don't see," Herries cried, "that you have done anything of the kind. So far as I can see—"
"Pardon me," Harrington said, "but your friend Mr. Gilroy gave me the clue by telling me all about that business in Rome. The man with the scar on his hand was Clarkson. Clarkson shall tell the rest of the story in person. Let me produce him."
Harrington's voice had suddenly grown hard and cold. He stretched out his right hand and laid it with force on the limp right hand of Duckworth, who started at the touch.
"Take my serviette," said Harrington in the same cutting voice, "and dip it in the finger-glass. Now rub it across the back of my hand hard—hard!"
In a dazed kind of way Herries did as he was desired. Then a quick, gasping cry arose from all round the table, as a brown stain of paint peeled off Harrington's hand, and the red edges of a scar like a crucifix rose in the place. Duckworth's mouth was trembling: he looked into the face of the man holding him with fearful eyes.
"Behold the man!" Harrington said. "I am Clarkson. It was in Rome that I ran my quarry down, at the Maremma Hotel. Billy spotted him as he entered his bedroom one night. All he would say was that the object of my search was in his bedroom. I asked no questions, I aroused no suspicions, I took Billy's word for it. I had made up my mind that the man should die. His life belonged to me, I was going to take it. Mr. Gilroy knows how I was prevented; the rascal whose hand I hold knows how he baffled me subsequently. And when Billy died six months ago, I decided to abandon my search altogether—it seemed as if Fate had deserted me. But the accident of circumstances is on my side at last; by sheer good luck I have found my man. Had Mr. Gilroy said nothing about that affair at Rome, I should have parted from you all on good terms. Heavens! I might even have become a friend of this fellow!"
Duckworth attempted to say something, but the words clung to his twitching lips.
"What he tells you is a lie," Harrington said. "What I say is no more than the truth. Let him stand up and deny it if he can. Let him try to refute me. One thing is certain, he does not escape me again. Stand up!"
The command was harsh and stern. Mechanically Duckworth obeyed. He rose slowly to his feet, holding on to the table for support. There was no reason to deny the accusation, no reason why the others should not urge him to that course. His guilt was stamped on his face. He pressed his hand to his heart and suddenly sat down heavily again. He had fallen forward with a crash against the glasses there, then lay quite still.
"You are wrong, sir," Gilroy said in a hoarse whisper. "He has escaped you. He is dead."
Duckworth lay there, dead, truly enough. And outside, the stars shone, there was light laughter on the air, and the soft sound of music in the distance.
The titles of works by Fred M. White listed below were found in the on-line index of the A.P. Watt Records #11036, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The material in this collection documents sales of authors' works to publishing companies, newspapers, magazines, broadcasting corporations, and film studios. The on-line index lists the authors' names and the titles of their works, but does not say where and when these works were published, nor does it indicate whether a specific work is a novel or a short story. The collection itself is organised in a system of folders, each of which is identified by two numbers separated by a period. The following list of titles displays the folder number for each item in parentheses. For more information on the A.P. Watt collection, click on the link given above.
No source could be found for a work entitled The Missing Blade, mentioned in the following citation: "Fred M. White, author of 'The Edge of the Sword.' 'The Secret of the Sands,' 'Anonymous,' 'The Missing Blade' etc." (Introduction to the short story "The Arms Of Chance," The Queenslander, Brisbane, Australia, 27 Jul 1918).
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