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Title: Collected Short Stories, Vol. XI Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1301041h.html Language: English Date first posted: Mar 2013 Most recent update: Mar 2013 This eBook was produced by: Roy Glashan Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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APART from numerous novels, most of which are accessible on-line at Project Gutenberg Australia and Roy Glashan's Library, Fred M. White published some 300 short stories. Many of these were written in the form of series about the same character or group of characters. PGA/RGL has already published e-book editions of those series currently available in digital form.
The present 17-volume edition of e-books is the first attempt to offer the reader a more-or-less comprehensive collection of Fred M. White's other short stories. These were harvested from a wide range of Internet resources and have already been published individually at Project Gutenberg Australia, in many cases with digitally-enhanced illustrations from the original medium of publication.
From the bibliographic information preceding each story, the reader will notice that many of them were extracted from newspapers published in Australia and New Zealand. Credit for preparing e-texts of these and numerous other stories included in this collection goes to Lyn and Maurie Mulcahy, who contributed them to PGA in the course of a long and on-going collaboration.
The stories included in the present collection are presented chronologically according to the publication date of the medium from which they were extracted. Since the stories from Australia and New Zealand presumably made their first appearance in British or American periodicals, the order in which they are given here does not correspond to the actual order of first publication.
This collection contains some 170 stories, but a lot more of Fred M. White's short fiction was still unobtainable at the time of compilation (March 2013). Information about the "missing stories" is given in a bibliographic note at the end of this volume. Perhaps they can be included in supplemental volumes at a later date.
NOW, when Professor Cyrus Axiom went to the Chief Commissioner for a permit to hunt butterflies in North-West Samaraland, Hugloff asked him a question. And Commissioner Hugloff was there to ask questions.
"Did you ever hear of one Ulysses P. Odgers?" he said.
"Name sounds familiar," the Professor said thoughtfully. "Wasn't he the man who ate nothing but tripe?"
"I never heard of him in that connection, Professor."
"Then he was the man who always fainted at the sight of it," Axiom responded obligingly. "What's he got to do with African butterflies!"
"Well, he had a good deal to do with them at one time. I dare say it is an interesting study. Have you always followed lepidoptera?"
"I didn't quite get the hang of that remark, Mr. Hugloff, somehow."
"No? I mean, have you always made a hobby of entomology?"
The Professor remarked mildly that he must be a little deaf that morning. The same distressing malady possessed him when Hugloff spoke of the natural fauna of the district. And the Commissioner smiled. He did not often smile; his face was usually grave, which often goes to a man possessing an exquisite sense of humour.
"Mr. Odgers came here, like yourself, in search of insects. He was ten years up country, and I lost sight of him altogether. He sent a good many cases home—heavy cases—so I concluded that some of the butterflies in the interior were somewhat hefty. Well, one of those cases came to grief one day, and I had a look at the butterflies. Some of them had tusks quite six feet long. Then I knew that the Professor had been feeding his butterflies upon our elephants. Now, Professor, I want you to know that elephants are our star crop. They are strictly preserved, and that dodge of shepherding the flock over the frontier line and rounding 'em up afterwards doesn't cut any ice in Samaraland."
"What's all this got to do with me?" the Professor asked politely.
"Oh, nothing! I was only telling you the story. When I tumbled to what was going on, I went after Ulysses P. Odgers. He'd a Maxim gun and a whole battery of Winchesters and Brownings, and he'd taught his natives how to shoot—butterflies. But, all the same, he's dead."
"These things happen daily in the best-ordered families."
"They do. They happen here very often, and they are sometimes painfully sudden. What I mean is, I don't make international affairs of them. I don't give the British or the American Governments a chance to write a Blue Book on the subject. You won't find a word of it in the Yellow Press. I prefer my diplomacy to be a little more abrupt than that."
The Professor nodded thoughtfully. He was not asking any more questions just for the moment. He was making a mental contract between himself and the Commissioner. And Hugloff was doing much the same thing. The Professor took his permit and his papers generally and departed. The Commissioner looked out of his office door towards the forest, shimmering in the heat of the sun, and smiled dryly.
"Well, I've given him his warning," he muttered, "and I think he must have a pretty good idea of what I meant. Not a bad dodge of his, coming here in his own name and tacking 'Professor' in front of it. He looked the part, too—make-up and everything excellent. Who would think that that mild-looking old boy with the stoop and the grey hair and spectacles was an expert shot and noted game poacher?"
Now, Hugloff prided himself upon the way he ran the territory; he was proud of the way in which he kept out the inquisitive stranger and the peripatetic M.P. with the smug accent and the amazing aptitude for making mischief—so far even he had been free from missionaries. So the district throve and the elephants increased in number. It was a criminal offence to shoot one of these beasts in Samaraland, and Hugloff rejoiced in the fact. And he had a way of his own of dealing with poachers.
But there are poachers and poachers. There was trouble with the natives sometimes. Now and then a wandering shikari would bob up serenely, all unconscious of the law of the Medes and Persians, but he was easily dealt with. Professor Axiom was a different matter, however. He had come here cleverly disguised as a man of science, but Hugloff was not to be deceived. He had been warned, too, what to expect. For Axiom had a world-wide reputation as a poacher. He had poached sealskins from the rookeries, he had poached pearls at the imminent risk of his neck, he had poached anything and everything where profit and real live danger went hand in hand. And now he had come down here to try his hand with Hugloff and the British Government.
Hugloff had recognised him at a glance, despite his disguise. He did not regard Axiom exactly as a criminal, for everybody has a kind of sneaking admiration for a poacher. The man's audacity and bravery were beyond question. On neutral ground Hugloff would have most likely forgathered with him, for they had many interests and virtues in common; but when the man came here like this, looking for trouble, there could only be one end to it. Certainly Samaraland was not large enough for both Hugloff and Axiom; one of them would have to go, and that exit would be both violent and painful.
And Axiom had been warned. The story of Ulysses P. Odgers had been a mild fiction invented for the occasion; it was Hugloff's way of telling the other that he had been found out. There never had been any Ulysses P. Odgers—still, the parable was there for ordinary intelligence to read; and Axiom had read it with the greatest possible ease. Hugloff had told him quite plainly that he could go into the interior if he liked, but that he undertook the journey at his own risk, and that, if he tried on any of his little games there, he would be shot on sight. Norman Hugloff meant every word he said. And Axiom knew it; he knew exactly what risks he was taking—a fact which did not deter him for a moment. He bore no malice against Hugloff; on the contrary, he was grateful for the language in which the intimation had been couched. If he failed, he would be shot like a dog, and there would be an end of him.
So he packed up his traps and his cases and departed. He made his way into the interior, with no white man for company. He was going to depend entirely on the natives, a wild, treacherous, hardy lot; but Axiom had a way with him and a knack of getting the best out of everybody that he came in contact with. At the expiration of a couple of months he had about him a force of a dozen armed men, and every nigger for a hundred miles round was his spy and slave. And Hugloff, to whom vassals brought news of the thing, could only sit at home and groan, and wait for his opportunity. So long as Axiom left the precious elephants alone, he was powerless to act; and, so far as he could hear, not so much as a single shot had been fired.
"This chap's going on a different line altogether," Tremayne, Hugloff's second-in-command, said; "he's driving the game. By Jove, his knowledge of the country beats mine, and I've had ten years of it! He's got over four hundred elephants in a sort of ring fence of black humanity, and they just edge the herd exactly where they want them to go. They're gradually getting the beasts accustomed to trekking. It's a long job, and it requires patience; but one of these fine days those elephants will be over the border into the Sad Lands, and then the Professor can have all the ivory he needs."
"It wouldn't be the first time we fetched the herd back, Tremayne."
"Quite right, sir; but those were strictly family affairs. If Axiom gets away with the herd out of our beat, he'll make an international business of it. We should have a score of asses asking questions in Parliament, and next recess one or two of 'em here weeping on the bosoms of the natives. And, begad, the beggars are beginning to laugh at us as it is! They know exactly what is going on. Question is, how can we stop it?"
Hugloff pondered over the difficulty. It was necessary to force Axiom into some open act of defiance. If they could only compel him to lay his hand upon one of the sacred elephants! It came to the Commissioner presently.
"I fancy I've got it," he said. "Now, listen carefully, Tremayne, for this part of the campaign will be left in your hands."
Tremayne expressed his whole-hearted approval. He set out at daybreak with two pack-mules and himself alone, with the object of picking up Axiom's tracks. There were cogent reasons why this shy solitude was necessary. Axiom's camp must be approached without the Professor being any the wiser. There would not be much difficulty about that, for the Professor was not suspicious, and, moreover, he was conscious that his conscience was clear. He was going to win the game without taking any risks, and he half regretted the fact.
Under the cover of a black, starless night, Tremayne crept away from the near vicinity of Axiom's camp and waited for results.
The fire had a good hold by this time; the wind was blowing strong from the west, so that Axiom and his retinue were hard put to it to save their skins. They were glad to get away with their guns and cartridges—the mere fact that all other supplies were destroyed seemed a mere trifle at the time. Nor was there the least suspicion of anything in the way of treachery. These spurting bush fires were constantly happening—must happen as long as tobacco formed a part of the pioneer's religion. Tremayne lurked about for another twenty-four hours, and then returned to headquarters with a water blister on either heel and a peaceful content down inside his moral anatomy. But his face was grave and officially correct as he limped into the Commissioner's office.
"I've come to make a report, sir," he said. "I regret to inform you that the American Professor Axiom has been poaching. I found the carcase of an elephant in the immediate proximity of his tent. I produce a portion of the carcase with some of the bullets, also some empty shells. I am prepared, sir, to lay an information in proper form."
Hugloff took it all down with great gravity. He was seriously disturbed. He dismissed his subordinate in quite his best official manner, but it was quite another Hugloff who met Tremayne at dinner.
"We can act now," he said, when the cigarette stage was reached. "I am going to take matters into my own hands."
"It's a serious business," Tremayne said thoughtfully.
"Perhaps the most serious we ever had in hand. Axiom will fight. It will be a case of shooting at sight. One or the other of us has to go. Did I ever tell you what happened over those poached pearls? No? Axiom got the pearls all right, and they caught him as he was leaving one of the islands—I don't remember which it was, but no matter. He killed four of them and plunged into the sea. How he reached the schooner nobody knows. I had it all from Gilray, who was on the coast at the time. It was Gilray who warned me that Axiom was coming this way."
"We'd better take all the force we can get together, sir."
"We'd better do nothing of the kind," Hugloff said grimly. "My dear boy, the last thing we want in the world is to be talked about. Axiom has just got to fade out and be forgotten. The natives with him are not under our control, so we need not fear gossip from them. What we have to fear is talk on the part of our niggers. I don't want to have a commission over here some fine morning to inquire into the violent death of a distinguished scientist called Axiom—the whole thing engineered by some confounded member of Parliament. We are going out to do the thing alone. Axiom will guess what to expect—he will know that the killing of the elephant would come to my ears. It's just you and me and nobody else. No ostentation, no notice, nothing but hard business. Strangers are slaying our elephants, and we are going to punish them. If somebody is killed in the fight, that's no fault of ours."
Tremayne accepted the situation with proper philosophy. All this, of course, was in the day's work.
"I'm quite ready when you say the word, sir," he said. "I suppose the sooner we are off the better. It will take us three days to get up to Axiom, and goodness knows how long afterwards. I'll see to the provisions and the rifles. Like to start to-morrow, perhaps?"
Most emphatically the Commissioner would, There was a grim look on his face as he explained his plan of campaign. He had been through this kind of thing before, though usually in connection with native troubles, but he had never had a foeman so worthy of his steel. By the time that the expedition was finished, one or the other would be finished, too. And Axiom had had a fair and solemn warning. He had known from the first exactly what penalty he was incurring. Hugloff had told Axiom in as many words that he knew exactly what and whom he was dealing with, and if the alleged Professor cared to go on in the face of danger, then his blood would be on his own head. They had parted on friendly terms enough, but the next time these men met it would be as deadly enemies.
Hugloff knew pretty well where he could pick up his man. Axiom was too old at the game to start off on a long and perilous expedition with only one baggage and provision train. He would have other stores safely hidden away, and these his native servants would fetch. The elephant had probably been slaughtered for the sake of immediate food, and perhaps also for the tusks, which might be given to the natives as a sweetener of extra labour.
"We shall find him pretty close to the spot where you—I mean where the fire broke out," Hugloff said. "I wish I had that beggar's wonderful way with the natives. I never could do anything with them. Yet Axiom comes along, and he's 'Hail, fellow, well met,' with them directly. I've heard that he is just as successful amongst cannibals. And it makes it all the harder for us."
Tremayne recognised the force of the argument. They were not only after Axiom, but they had the niggers to guard against as well. They would not be indifferent, not disposed to throw in their lot with the winning side. On the contrary, they were much more likely to turn their arrows against the attacking force. They might also be on the look-out for Axiom's pursuers. Anyway, Axiom must be pretty sure of his ground, or he had not been so careless over the elephant and the evidence of his crime left on the great plain for such as could read.
For the next day or two Hugloff and his companion pushed their way cautiously on. It was not safe to light a fire, it was not safe to smoke even. They had to put up with dried food, their bed was the open bush. It was on the evening of the third day that they reached Axiom's camp. It was a dark, still night, in favour of the expedition in one way, but against it in another. It was possible to creep forward under cover of the darkness, but, on the other hand, the slightest sound could be heard. Inch by inch the Commissioner and his companion drew nearer to the tent where Axiom lay. A bright fire crackled in front of the tent, a score of dusky forms lay all about it. A stick under Tremayne cracked like a pistol-shot, and instantly a dozen black, shaggy heads were raised like feeding rabbits at the first sign of danger. Axiom was standing in the door of the tent, looking suspiciously about him. The air and manner of the Professor had vanished, his stoop was gone, so also was the grey tinge in his hair. He looked a grand specimen of fine-drawn humanity as he stood there shading his eyes with his hand. Even in that moment of danger Hugloff could not repress a feeling of admiration.
For a long time Axiom stood there gazing into the darkness. He seemed to be satisfied at length that his suspicions were groundless, for he turned on his heel and disappeared, but not until he had said something to the natives round the fire.
"No use," Hugloff muttered. "We shall have to try strategy. He's too wide awake for us to take him by surprise. Anyway, we know where he is and something of the geography of the place. We'll do nothing further to-night."
All the next day they dogged Axiom through the bush as the camp moved along. They were amongst the elephants now—a restless, uneasy herd, none too good-tempered at being shepherded from their favourite feeding-grounds. Another week of this and they would be hustled over the border, and, once that happened. Axiom could laugh at the Commissioner. To kill him now would be justified; to shoot him across the border would be murder.
They lay there in the heat as the sun dropped down—lay there almost under the feet of the restless, uncertain herd. It was dangerous work, and more than once they had to roll over quickly to avoid the crushing weight of a passing foot. It was quite dark at length, and in the distance Axiom's camp fire twinkled. Hugloff rose to his feet, every inch of the ground about him photographed indelibly on his mental retina. His plan was quite clear, and he was going to put it into execution. He felt his way round to the rear of the herd of elephants, now feeding more or less restlessly. He crept behind one of the great slate-coloured monsters, a box of fusees in his hand. He slid one of these down the leg of his breeches, and, as the flame sputtered and roared, pressed it hard against the flank of the elephant.
A mighty trumpeting filled the forest, the fusees flared one after the other. The big fellow lunged forward, followed by the rest of the herd. Whether they were frightened or angry, Hugloff neither knew nor cared. He and Tremayne were behind them, following now openly and recklessly.
"They only needed touching off," he panted. "Axiom has been trying their tempers the last few days. And they're heading right for the camp. We'll just follow and take our chance in the confusion."
The forest seemed to shake under the thud of heavy feet; the elephants charged forward straight for the camp as if it had been an enemy. They were mad with rage and terror now, as Hugloff's trained eye could see. Between the swaying, wobbling bodies he caught glimpses of the camp fire, he heard the sharp crack of a rifle.
A dozen natives rose to their feet and waved blazing torches snatched from the fire. It was just possible that they might stop the stampede. But the big fellow was quite out of hand now, and, in any case, it would be impossible for the leaders to pull up with that ponderous weight of flesh and muscle pressing on behind. Over the camp and over the fire they swept like a torrent. They scattered the natives right and left, like a handful of chaff in a gale.
Hugloff was taking it all in now—he was pressing close behind the rearmost elephant. He saw Axiom burst from the tent and hurl himself into the bush. He marked the spot where the poacher lay almost to an inch, then he dropped himself as if he had been shot. For a moment the camp fire had been beaten flat, but now a stick or two caught fire and blazed brilliantly. With his head upraised cautiously, Hugloff could see something moving in the scrub. He did not need anyone to tell him that this was Axiom, and it was any odds that the American was unarmed. In that wild rush for safety he would not have time to snatch his revolver. The natives seemed to have vanished altogether; it was even possible that they would not return. When a herd of elephants once gets out of control, they are cruelly ugly customers to tackle, revengeful and vindictive, and intelligent withal. And Hugloff had taken this into consideration when he started the circus with the box of fusees. For all the natives would know to the contrary, the elephants had actually been attacking the camp, and it is not good, or even commonly prudent, to face a herd of maddened elephants with a bow and arrow. Hugloff knew also that an infuriated elephant will track a foe for days, and the natives could not possibly discover that the animals were merely frightened.
Thus it seemed to Hugloff that his stratagem had succeeded, and that he had Axiom entirely at his mercy. Where Tremayne was, and what had become of him, he did not know, and did not care very much, either. The two had lost one another in the mad scramble, and probably Tremayne was hiding somewhere in the brush, waiting on events. Hugloff drew a revolver from his pocket and fingered the trigger; by the fitful light of the fire he could mark the very spot where Axiom had dived into the brushwood. He saw a twig move; his lips set into a smile of grim satisfaction.
"You can rise up out of there, Professor," he said. "I know exactly where you are, and I've got you covered. Stand up at once, or I'll fill you with lead!"
No reply came from Axiom, save a queer throaty sound that might have been intended for a chuckle. Something flashed and spat, and a hot pain caught Hugloff along the ridge of his right ear. Without hesitation he emptied his revolver in the direction of the spot where Axiom lay.
"Guess it's you or me," a harsh voice said. "I guess—"
The voice broke off with a choke and a cough. And Hugloff knew that cough. He had heard it rattling in the throat of many a hard-hit native—he knew as well as if a doctor had told him that he had shot Axiom through the lungs. He had only to lie there and wait; to move forward now would be madness. The wounded man might still be full of fight and resource, and there was no getting away from the fact that he was armed. The cough came again. A little distance away Tremayne was whistling gently.
"It's all right," Hugloff muttered. "Just stay where you are, Tremayne; don't show as much as the end of your nose, because I've got him. I'm not boasting—fact is, I'm more than sorry. But the fact remains that I've got him, and I've shot him through the lungs."
"Now, how in thunder did you find that out?" Axiom asked.
He put the question out of the darkness in a spirit of friendly curiosity. He might have been a mere spectator watching the grim game from a place of safety.
"Practice. We all play for our own hands here, Professor, and I'm not taking any risks. But if you'll give me your word—"
Axiom staggered to his feet. He threw his revolver towards the flickering fire.
"There," he said, "that's my last chance. Now, boys, take me and put me on my back by the side of the fire. Make me as comfortable as you can, for I'll not trouble you for long. I'm just bleeding slowly to death inside, and that's a cold fact you can gamble on."
"I'm sorry," Hugloff said unsteadily. "I was never more ghastly sorry for anything in my life. Come and give a hand, Tremayne."
They settled him down carefully by the fireside, and he asked for his pipe. There was brandy somewhere, if they could find it. There was a cheerful smile on his face, the friendliest gleam in his eyes.
"No, there's no pain," he said. "And don't you go asking yourself questions. You gave me as fair a warning as a man ever had. You told me plainly that you knew exactly whom you were dealing with and what the penalty might be. And I took all the risks, pard—I went in with my eyes open. And, if I could get over this bout, I should be doing it again before long. Sorter in the blood, mates. I've been poaching all over the world, and I was bound to get it good and hard some of these days. And I don't leave anyone behind me, and not a red cent out of all the money I've made times. Here, shake!"
He shook hands solemnly and heartily with the others, his eyes closed, and he died without another word or sound. And they buried him, and lit a fire upon his grave in the silence of the forest, with no human eye to see. They were very still and very silent, and Hugloff's eyes were not quite dry.
"Don't say anything," he muttered—"at least, not just yet. I'm sorry, Tremayne, sorry to the bottom of my soul. For he was a real white man, and in this old world of ours there are none too many of them."
FOR scenic purposes the grill-room of Caro's Restaurant consisted of an exceedingly pretty girl in a tailor-made costume and a nice-looking, clean-shaven man in a blue serge suit. There were tables, of course, and red-shaded lamps on little flower-decked tables, a few ubiquitous waiters, and the usual flavour of bygone food. The crowd consisted of other diners, but the man in the blue suit was not in the least concerned with these—indeed, he was ungrateful enough to wonder why the pretty girl with the intelligent grey eyes had seated herself at his table when there were so many places to spare. It was not until the fish was finished that the girl looked up and addressed her companion demurely by name. "I am afraid you are offended with me, Mr. Roscoe," she said.
"Well, no," the man said. "On the whole, I think not. By the way, you are quite sure my name is Roscoe?"
"Of course," the girl smiled. "Mr. Paul Roscoe. Don't you remember that adventure in Norway many years ago, when you saved our party after the fall of the avalanche. I think it was the bravest thing I ever saw. And you were so modest about it, too. You disappeared before any of us could thank you."
"It sounds very nice," Roscoe murmured. "I mean, it's very flattering to one's vanity. I hope you will give me the credit for no desire to pose, but I had quite forgotten all about it. In fact, to tell you the truth, I was not quite sure who I am till you addressed me by name. I suppose there is no doubt whatever that I really am called Roscoe?"
The girl looked up swiftly. But no smile lurked in her companion's eyes—he was cool, but grave.
"Why do you speak so strangely?" she asked.
"Well; I don't mind telling you," Roscoe said. "By the way— Thank you very much. Miss Lucy Lake, of The Daily Telephone. I have never met a lady journalist before. But I like your face, and I think I can trust you. If I don't trust someone, I shall go mad. Now, three days ago, late in the evening, I woke up from a sleep on the Thames Embankment, and since then I have lost my identity. I was dressed as you see me now, I had a few sovereigns and my watch and chain in my pocket, together with a card-case containing some pieces of pasteboard bearing the name 'Paul Roscoe.' For the first time in my life I regretted the fact that it is one of my silly habits not to have an address on my cards. I suppose it is because I change my lodgings so frequently. At any rate, there I was, absolutely alone in London, with no idea of where I lived and where I came from, except that my name was probably Paul Roscoe. But then I might have been anybody else—it might easily have been some other chap's card-case. I gathered I had met with an accident, because, if you look at me closely, you will see that I have a long strip of plaster under my hair, and uncommonly tender the place is. You can imagine what I felt at the time."
"How deeply interesting!" the girl cried. "What did you do then? You did not go to the police, because—"
"Because the police are looking for me," Roscoe smiled, as the girl hesitated. "I am quite aware of that fact. But why they want me, and what I've done, goodness only knows. I don't feel a bit like a criminal, I don't feel as if I had committed any crime. Do I look like a thief?"
"No," Lucy Lake laughed, "you don't."
"Precisely my opinion," Roscoe said. "But don't you think we are getting on rather too fast? Let me go back to the beginning. As a matter of fact, I did not go to the police. I did not feel in the least nervous, because, you see, I had money on me, and I thought that, perhaps, in an hour or two my memory would come back to me. But it did not, and here I am now, feeling like a grown man who was born at the beginning of the week. I can recollect nothing that happened before Monday evening. I walked about till quite late, and then I decided to look for lodgings. But though a man may be well dressed and have money in his pocket, he can't walk into any place at eleven o'clock at night without a portmanteau, even if it happens to be filled with bricks. So I decided to go to one of the Rowton Houses and take a bed-sitting-room there. I knew I could get this for a shilling a night, and that I could obtain my food from the nearest cookshop. You see, the advantage of the Rowton Houses is this—you can go there in rags or in dress-clothes, and nobody is in the least curious. When I woke in the morning, my mind was as blank as ever. But I felt perfectly fit and well, and inclined to let the adventure take its course. I read the papers to see if anybody was interested in the noble family of Roscoe; but no one seemed to be worrying about me till the third day, when I saw a notice issued by Scotland Yard to the effect that one Paul Roscoe had absconded from his lodgings, and that fifty pounds reward was offered to anybody who would give such information as would lead to his—or, rather, my—arrest. This was sufficiently alarming, and none the less so because I had not the remotest notion of what I'd done. Now, do you happen to know?"
"They called it robbery with violence," the girl said.
"Is that a fact?" Roscoe asked blankly. "Then I am mad—Broadmoor is my place. I ought to be locked up. I can only admire your courage in calmly talking to me like this."
"I am a journalist," the girl said. "I have only just joined The Telephone, and I am anxious to make good. To get hold of a really fine story means so much to me. I may tell you that the mysterious disappearance of Paul Roscoe has gripped the popular imagination. Some crimes do."
"Oh, come, I say!" Roscoe protested.
"Well, you see," the girl apologised, "I must for the moment regard you as a case. Robbery with violence has actually been committed, you have disappeared from your lodgings, and the police are looking for you everywhere. I had only a vague idea that you were the Mr. Roscoe I knew; but when I came by blind luck into this restaurant here, and saw you sitting at this table, I was sure of my ground, especially when I saw you had shaved off your moustache. That was a foolish thing to do."
"Do you think so?" Roscoe asked forlornly. "Well, perhaps I was a bit nervous. You see, I had money, and it was easy enough to buy a few necessaries, such as shirts and collars and toothbrush, to say nothing of a safety razor. But I have not made the slightest attempt to hide myself—my presence here proves that. I dare say that's why the police have not picked me up. And, you see, there was always the chance of running up against someone who knew me—yourself, for instance."
"It really is a most remarkable case," Lucy said, with professional enthusiasm. "I am speaking now, of course, as a journalist. As a woman, I sympathise with you deeply, and I feel quite sure there is a hideous mistake somewhere. But had not you anything about you to prove your identity beyond a card-case? I thought all men carried a lot of letters in their pockets."
"Oh, thanks for reminding me," Roscoe exclaimed. "There was a telegram. I dare say, when I got it, it was intelligible enough, but it's so much Greek to me now. As a personal favour, tell me what you make of it."
Roscoe flattened the telegram out on the table. The postmark was Birmingham; it was addressed to one Roscoe at the lodgings which he had, so to speak, evacuated, and ran—•
ARRANGE FOR YOU TO SEE VENDOR TO-NIGHT.
WHATEVER YOU DO, BRING THE GOODS WITH YOU.
WILL MEET YOUR TRAIN. WALTER.
"Now , what do you make of that?" Roscoe asked. "Who the Dickens is Walter, and what is he so anxious for me to take to Birmingham? Did he meet my train by which I did not arrive, and has he communicated with the police? Now, how I got that telegram I have not the remotest idea. And there's another thing—in one of my side coat-pockets is a piece of a broken plate. Now, where on earth did I get a piece of broken plate? Why—oh, why did I put that platter in my pocket?"
Miss Lake's eyes lighted up swiftly. She bent forward eagerly and grasped Roscoe by the arm.
"I hope you did not throw that away?" she whispered.
"Well, I did not," Roscoe said. "Here it is. And, in some vague way, I seem to feel that I am, or was, a judge of old china. You see, this piece has been part of a plate which has been broken and most cleverly mended without the aid of rivets. You can see that by the brown edges of the paste. I should say that the plate had been dropped, and that the shock had detached this fragment without further damaging it. It looks to me like a bit of the famous apple-green which is one of the characteristics of Chinese pottery belonging to the Ming Dynasty. You will see that there is a curious thread of gold running through it— indeed, I should not be surprised to find that this plate at one time had formed part of the famous Middleton dinner service. There was one plate missing in that amazing collection, but I am so misty and confused that I can't work it out anyhow. Now, do you happen to know anything about Oriental china?"
"Absolutely nothing," Lucy Lake admitted. "Now, in return, would you mind answering a question for me? Is the name of Sir Peter Mallison at all familiar to you?"
Roscoe rubbed his forehead vaguely.
"It is, and it is not," he whispered. "When you spoke of the man, a flash of lightning seemed to dart through my brain, but everything is dark again now. As I told you, I recollect nothing prior to the time when I woke up on the Thames Embankment on Monday night. Now, is there any sort of connection between that piece of apple-green platter and the source of my trouble? You seem to know everything, and, if you will tell me, I shall be exceedingly grateful. What have I done?"
"Perhaps I had better tell you," Lucy said. "About eight o'clock on Monday evening you went round to St. Peter's Court in Kensington, which is a large block of flats, and you went by appointment to see Sir Peter Mallison, who resides there."
"It's strange how illusively familiar the name is," Roscoe murmured. "Most irritating, I call it."
"It is, perhaps, not so strange as you think. I see I must treat you as one who hears all these details for the first time. But it is a fact that you went round to St. Peter's Court to see Sir Peter, who is one of the most famous collectors of coins and works of art in Europe. He is a very old man, who lives alone in his flat, where his wants are looked after for an hour or two a day by a charwoman, and his meals are sent in from an adjacent hotel. The old gentleman has been the mark of thieves more than once, and especially lately, because it has leaked out that he has recently bought a valuable collection of gold coins. Amongst his other treasures he happened to possess the missing plate from the Middleton dinner service. Sir Peter only found that out lately, and, when he did so, he made up his mind not to sell it to the owner of the Middleton china unless he could get a fancy price for it. I understand that two hundred guineas was what he was asking— an exorbitant price for a plate—but, on the other hand, its possession would enhance the value of the great service by quite a thousand pounds. Now, I know—for I've had it from the police themselves—that you, or, at any rate, somebody calling himself Paul Roscoe, wrote and asked Sir Peter for an appointment last Monday evening, to go into the question of the purchase of the plate. That letter was found by the authorities when they were called into St. Peter's Court on Tuesday morning by the charwoman. Sir Peter lay on the carpet in his bedroom; he had evidently been severely ill-treated, and up to to-night had not regained consciousness."
"Oh, I'm mad!" Roscoe said. "I am suffering from delusions. You are an illusion—a beautiful one, of course, but a figment of the imagination, all the same. Of course, the police found my letter, and that's why they are after me."
"You are suffering from no delusion," Lucy said sympathetically; "your deductions are too logical for that. As a matter of fact, your letter was found, and so were the fragments of the historic plate, with the exception of the piece on the table. Moreover, the gold coins are all missing, and so far have not been traced. No doubt by this time they have been melted down. Some reporter, a little wiser than the rest, found out the history of the apple-green plate, and wrote quite a nice little story around it. It was a neat and clever piece of work, and appealed strongly to the popular imagination. This is why everybody is talking about the missing Paul Roscoe, who is walking round London quite ignorant of the fact that he is a fugitive from justice."
"But the thing's incredible!" Roscoe cried. "I suppose the assumption is that I hit that poor old gentleman on the head and walked off with his collection of coins. If I were as clever as all that, why did I leave behind me the very thing I went to fetch? Besides, had I intended to rob the chap, I should have never been idiot enough to send him a letter. And what price that nasty wound in the side of my head—I mean the blow that has deprived me of my memory? I must have walked away from St. Peter's Court and gone straight to some doctor's surgery. He would never have sent me out in the street unless he had deemed me capable of finding my way home. Has this doctor turned up? Has he been to the police? You know so much about the case that you may be able to tell me. Of course, you may also think that I am trading on your credulity—"
"One moment," Lucy interrupted. "You see the lamp on the table, don't you? Would you mind taking out the electric bulb? It seems to me to need cleaning. Thank you very much. Now, do you know what would happen if I took this knife and connected the positive and negative poles at the point of contact?"
"Oh, that's easily answered," Roscoe said. "You would fuse the wires and plunge the whole place in darkness."
"That is precisely what I am going to do," Lucy said coolly. "As a matter of fact, two detectives have just come into the room, and I have a strong suspicion they are after you. Call me selfish, if you like, but I cannot have my story spoilt by any clumsy interference. Now, then, quick!"
The lights went out—darkness fell like a blow. Roscoe felt himself dragged by the arm along the floor, and a moment or two later he was being urged across the road through a mass of traffic. Then something seemed to strike him violently on the back of the head, and when he came to himself, he was seated in a taxi under a battery of curious eyes, and Miss Lake was quite coolly giving directions to the driver. All this Roscoe watched with an odd feeling of detachment. So far as he could understand, a policeman was saying that Dr. Frant's house was only just round the corner. In the same apathetic way, Roscoe found himself presently lying on a couch in a consulting-room, with a little keen-eyed man diving a set of long fingers into various parts of his anatomy. Then for the first time one of the inquisitive digits touched the plastered spot on his head, and the rising surgeon looked grave.
"Hello, hello, hello!" he muttered. "Look here, Miss Lake, the smack our friend got on the head from a passing horse is nothing; but this other place is serious. Now, would you mind telling me, sir, where you managed to get sand-bagged?"
"Don't ask me," Roscoe said indifferently, "I don't know."
He lay there, taking no interest in the proceedings. He had a strange obsession that he was somebody else, that he was in a dream, and that the other people were talking behind curtain upon curtain of pink gauze, and the knowledge that someone had been plugging his ears with cotton-wool. Then presently it was borne in upon him that he was the subject of a discussion.
"Oh, dear, no, Miss Lake," Frant said. "He is not going back to his lodgings. He is going straight away to a nursing home on the other side of the road, and within an hour I am going to operate upon him. You see, I spent a year or two in San Francisco, and Mr. Roscoe will not be the first patient I have had who has been murderously assaulted with a sand-bag. No, it won't be a serious operation; there is a slight displacement of bone, where that sticking-plaster is, that presses on the brain. Roughly speaking, the bone will want forking up. Our friend will be as right as possible in a week. I'll just telephone to the hospital for the anaesthetist and a colleague of mine, and meanwhile we'll get Mr. Roscoe ready for the fray."
Roscoe was quite resigned now. It seemed to him that he was the sport of fortune— a helpless cork tossed on the waves of chance. He felt curiously indifferent to whatever happened. He was not nervous or excited—indeed, all the elaborate preparation interested him in a languid way. He was lying on a table presently, and someone was feeling his pulse. Then someone else placed a curious sort of inverted cup over his face, and told him to breathe easily. All the lights in the world and all the lamps of the universe went out, and everything was finished....
When Roscoe came to himself, he was lying in a neat little bed in a cool, sweet room filled with brilliant sunshine. He could feel the morning breeze cool and refreshing upon his face, he could hear the leaping life of London from the outside. Everything was plain enough now—the cotton-wool had gone from his ears, and the pink gauze no longer veiled a keen and joyous world from his eyes. He lay there very still, very contented and happy, and gradually his mind began to reconstruct things. At first it was all a curious medley of grey facts heaped together like the tangles of a jig-saw, and then outstanding parts began to marshal themselves into mathematical figures. Here were a telegram and a letter; here also were a set of chambers filled with all kinds of beautiful objects, a tall man with an air of settled melancholy, a man in evening-dress, wearing a heavy, drooping moustache. Came presently in the procession another man, diminutive and active, very dark and with slanting, sinister, almond-shaped eyes. Then an apple-green plate lying broken in fragments on a Persian carpet...
From that point reconstruction became easy. The real Paul Koscoe lay on his bed with a full knowledge that he was twenty-six years of age, that he was the Honourable Paul Roscoe, a Cambridge graduate and an old "Rugger" Blue, also that he was a man of considerable private means, and that people spoke of him as one of the finest experts in Oriental china. Also that telegram had come from Walter Helmore, a beastly rich young merchant, who was going to marry Roscoe's sister, and that the Middleton dinner service in its complete state was going to be one of the presents to the bride. Then into the picture came the pretty face and sweet intelligence of Miss Lucy Lake. Ripping girl that! Real good plucked 'un, too. Evidently had saved him from a nice mess. He went over the whole ground now, from the moment when he had arrived at Sir Peter's flat till he had lain on the operating-table in an adjoining room. His eye was clear and his smile pleasant as the white-capped nurse came in to see how he was getting on.
"Absolutely top-hole!" Roscoe said. "Never felt better in my life. If you give me some breakfast—a whole lot of breakfast —I shall be awfully obliged. And then, if it's allowed, I should like to see The Telephone for last week."
It was all in The Telephone, of course. The erudite reporter with the gift of imagination had made the best of the apple-green plate. It was quite a little Oriental poem in its way, and a discriminating public had evidently appreciated the effort. There was a good deal about the missing coins, to say nothing of the savage assault upon the unfortunate Sir Peter. So far as Roscoe could gather, the aged virtuoso was considerably better, but still was quite unable to give anything like a coherent account of the outrage. There was a good deal also concerning the past record of Paul himself, and many ingenious theories to account for his mysterious disappearance.
He was still turning the matter over in his mind when Dr. Frant appeared, followed a little later by Lucy Lake. A day or two at the outside, and Paul would be free again.
"But shall I?" he asked. "Perhaps I had better tell you all about it. I can recollect everything now. I went to Sir Peter's flat and found the front door open. The bell was out of working order, so I walked in— walked straight into the dining-room—and there, on a table, was the plate I had come to bargain for. I picked it up, to make sure it was the genuine article, and, as I had it in my hand, the door opened and a man walked in. He was a tall, melancholy chap in evening-dress. Behind him came a little man who looked like a Jap. Of course, I suspected nothing wrong. I had still got the cemented plate in my hand, when somebody gave me a tremendous whack on the head, and down I went. After that I seemed to dream a bit. I dreamt that I found myself in the road, with a piece of the apple-green plate in my hand. Really, I suppose those chaps must have flung me outside and left me for dead. Anyhow, in my dream I looked up a doctor, who asked no questions, but patched me up and sent me about my business. As far as I can recollect, he did not seem to be a very observing sort of chap. For the life of me, I could not recollect where I lived and who I was, so I walked as far as the Embankment, where I went to sleep. I dare say Miss Lake has told you all that happened after that. And, by the way, how is the story getting on?"
"Oh, it's going to be great," Lucy Lake laughed. "You will see it all in The Telephone to-morrow. But it's dreadfully selfish of me to be talking like this. You don't know how delighted I am to see that you are so much better. Now, I wonder if you feel up to seeing some more visitors? You have seen them before—they are the two detectives who were looking for you in the restaurant where we were dining last night. If you don't feel up to the interview "
"Oh, let 'em all come!" Roscoe laughed. "I don't mind. I suppose, sooner or later, I'll have to see them."
The two officers listened gravely enough to Roscoe's story. When he had finished, they smiled at one another significantly.
"Now, that's all right," the leader of the two said. "We do get a bit of luck sometimes, and this is a case in point. We know the two men you speak of— in fact, only yesterday we had a cable from the New York police, saying they had arrived here, and asking us to keep an eye on them. If necessary, we were to trump up some charge against them, pending the arrival of witnesses in connection with an extradition case. The big man is called 'The Colonel,' and was at one time in the Army, and the other is a Japanese servant known as 'Harry the Valet.' Been in a good many gentlemen's houses, he has, and his great game is robbing collections and museums. No doubt they were after Sir Peter's coins, and they had probably got hold of them when you interrupted them. At that moment Sir Peter was lying unconscious in his bedroom, and your presence must have been distinctly awkward. Oh, yes, I can see that you have been sandbagged. Of course, we are very sorry to have given you all this trouble, sir, but your mysterious disappearance made it very awkward. Besides, we had to do something to keep the real culprits quiet. But we are on the track of our men now, and if you'll excuse us, sir, we'll just run round to a Bloomsbury boarding-house and make the arrest."
It was a week or so later before Roscoe saw Lucy Lake again. He met her quite casually in the Temple Gardens. That the story had been a great success was evident from her happy expression and the light that sparkled in her eyes.
"My fortune is made!" she said.
"I dare say," Paul said, without enthusiasm. "It all depends on the point of view. Oh, I'm quite well now. But what I want is someone to look after me—I mean in the way you looked after me the other night. I don't feel half so conceited and cocksure as I did. Look here, Lucy, I am a rotten bad hand at beating about the bush, and, besides, the story is not finished. It isn't rounded off properly. You know what I mean. And if you could see a way to finish it—"/p>
"I could not publish it!" the girl laughed.
"Oh, yes, you could," Roscoe insisted. "What's the matter with the front page of The Telephone?"
"Yes, that's just what I mean," said Roscoe.
BILLY HIGGS stood listening there, the fighting light in his eyes filling them with little red and orange specks. He clenched a lean, and skinny fist, and shook it threateningly in the direction of the floor. The boards were worn and rotten, and the snarling voice going on with grinding monotony floated up to Billy's ears. Outside in the snowy court a barrel organ droned monotonously; and yet, despite the cold and slush, the ragged children danced to the music, for even down there, in that poor, poverty-stricken district, the spirit of Christmas had penetrated, and the pinched, white faces were wreathed with smiles. It was cold and chilly to the bone up there, but Billy was not thinking of that just now. He was wondering vaguely what sort of a Christmas he was likely to get, and if there was any way of helping the man downstairs.
Now, Billy Higgs was young and tough and a little worldly, but at the same time he had an artistic soul hidden away in that frail, underfed body of his. Billy read a great deal of fiction. He knew vaguely that Christmas passed for a happy time, though one of these had never come his way, and he was wondering if this might prove an exception to the rule, and incidentally how much longer John Kenyon was going to stand it. There would be a tragedy some day, of course. Old Timothy Clark would be found murdered in his bed one of these fine times, and John Kenyon would be hanged. For Clark was Kenyon's employer—a cold, hard-fisted skinflint of a man who sneered at everything but money, and grudged the two days' holiday at Christmas as if they had been something taken from his pocket. And there he was down below, girding Kenyon as usual, and driving his unhappy clerk to the verge of madness. And Billy knew a good deal of the art of nagging, for his mother had been a past mistress of that particular form of torture, and Billy had seen his father writhe and twist under it till—well, there had come an end of it at last, and it had all happened as quickly as a flashlight picture. And Billy's mother lay dead on the floor, and the big, silent man had walked to the police-station and surrendered.
All this had happened five years ago, and in consequence, Billy was still something of a celebrity in the neighborhood. He knew what it was to lack a meal. He was grudgingly grateful to old Timothy Clark for the garret he occupied over the office and the six shillings paid him weekly for doing the errands and the old miser's frugal housekeeping. Time was when Clark had done a flourishing business as a shipping agent, but that was a thing of the past, and he was hard put to it to find occupation for his clerk, John Kenyon, to whom he paid a pound a week and treated as if he was the veriest mongrel that ever scavenged for a living in the docks. Why did Kenyon put up with it?
He was a fine figure of a man, an athlete to his finger tips, with some of the sweet fragrance of the country still clinging to him. He had a handsome, pleasant face, and a clear blue eye which would have spoken for his honesty anywhere. And yet here he was, week in and week out, the bond slave of that miserable old miser, a victim to hate and malignity never excelled by the villain of those lurid novelettes on which Billy Higgs spent too many of his precious pennies. Doubtless there must be a vengeance somewhere. Surely time must come when this good-looking slave would be released from his bondage. And Billy had been wondering lately if mayhap he might not have been selected by the gods as the chosen instrument.
For he knew a good bit, did Billy. He knew, for instance, that some years before Kenyon had married Clark's niece. He knew that this had given mortal offence to the old man, for it had deprived him of an excellent servant and a housekeeper to whom he paid nothing. It had been a stolen marriage, and yet within a few weeks Kenyon was down there at Wapping acting as Clark's factotum, and apparently bought body and soul for twenty shillings weekly, and this in the face of the fact that Clark openly said that all his money would go to charity.
"Lor', listen to 'im," Billy muttered. "There will be murder done down there some day, sure as fate. Got an 'old over 'im, 'e 'ave. Forged papers or somethink. I knows. Locked away in that ole desk of 'is. Jest like a story in that 'Britannia' series. And 'ere's me creepin' abaht the 'ouse and watchin' the ole geyser, and 'im none the wiser. 'Ere's the chance for an 'ero. And dash me if I don't do it. Give 'im a 'appy Christmas, per'aps, an' me sittin' at the table along of 'em drinkin' of sherry wine. Lor', I could write one o' them stories meself, if I 'ad the eddication. Come along then."
Billy's thoughtful, somewhat truculent expression softened wonderfully as he knelt upon the floor. From his pursed lips came a low whistle, and immediately a tiny brown object crept into the middle of the room. From one of his pockets Billy produced a pinch of crumbs, and the mouse came and took the food boldly from his hand. He fondled the small rodent tenderly, speaking to it as if it had been human and capable of understanding every word that he said. Then he flicked his fingers, and the mouse was gone.
"Now I'm goin' to be very busy," the boy declared.
Down below the snarling grinding voice had ceased. In the court urchins shrilly cried aloud for the miscreant who had stolen the baby's milk. By this Billy knew that Clark had gone out and that the juvenile population was ragging him according to their wont.
Not for nothing had he been a close student of the blood-and-thunder school of detective fiction. And, remember, he knew a good deal, did William. And he was fond of this man, and, perhaps, fonder still of the pretty, kind-hearted woman, now Kenyon's wife, who had been the first person in his drab life to treat him as a human being. Ah, well, he was going to pay that debt now. And, perhaps, afterwards they would take him away to their house in the country, and send him to school. Bill had been in the country once on a day's outing with the slum children, and he dreamt of it still. He advanced boldly to the man leaning over the desk.
"Guv'nor," he said—"guv'nor, you're in trouble."
"That's very clever of you, Bill," Kenyon, said bitterly.
"Oh, no, it ain't," the boy went on. "You are in the power of yonder scoundrel. 'E's got an 'old over yer. Two innocent lives are embittered by that wicked wretch. If you could put yer 'ead on the forged document all would be well. You could defy the miscreant to do his worst, you could laugh in his beard."
"He hasn't got a beard," Kenyon said wearily. "It's quite evident to me that you're reading too many of those trashy novelettes. I know you mean well, William, but you cannot possibly help me. I must go my own way, and put up with the consequences. What's that you say? Oh, yes, if you want to know, he has got a hold ever me. Most people guess that, I suppose."
"Now, look 'ere," Billy said soothingly. "I've been thinking. What you wants is a proper sort of Christmas. It's getting pretty close now, but there's plenty of time, if you only does as I tells yer. If you really wants to give old Timothy the push——"
"No man would serve Timothy Clark who had the strength to break stones. It's very odd I should be talking to you like this. But you can't do anything. So long as the family skeleton remains, it is my duty to shield it from the public eye."
"No, it ain't," Bill insisted. "Once aboard the lugger—I mean, if we could get hold of the forged papers, why, we've got that ole blighter in a tight place, and don't you forget it."
"So you are sure there are papers?" Kenyon asked.
"Of course I am, guv'nor. And, what's more, they're in yonder desk. You have only got ter say the word——"
"No, no," Kenyon said, hastily. "I'm no thief."
"Once an 'ero always an 'ero," Bill said, complacently. "I knew you wouldn't do it when I made the suggestion. But that's the place where the papers are, all right. How do I know? I keep my eyes open of course. Don't I live in the place, and don't I keep a sharp watch on the old man? If yer cast yer innercent eye up yer will see an 'ole in the ceiling—made that mysel', I did. Many a night 'ave I watched the perisher countin' his money and his notes and chuckling to 'isself, like one o' them ghouls you reads abaht. I could take you at this very moment to the 'oard where the treasure is 'idden. But I ain't no thief neither, guv'nor. I tell you as 'ow I'm what my favorite writer calls the Chosen Instrument. But I'm gettin' a bit off the map, I am. Every night the ole man does the same thing. He always winds up the same way. When 'e's put his money away 'e opens the desk yonder and takes aht two or three pipers wot's fastened together by a helastic band. There ain't more than enough, to make 'arf a dozen spills, and yet he chuckles over them, and laughs like a Chinese idol. Then, arter 'e's cursed you a bit, 'e goes and actually kisses them pipers afore 'e puts 'em back agin. Lor bless yer, I've seen 'im do it a score of times. And there the papers is shoved away in that desk at the present moment."
Kenyon half-rose from his seat, then dropped back with a groan. Salvation might be to his hand, but it could not come to him in that way. And Clark would be merciless, as he knew full well.
"Yer feelin's does yer credit," Bill said, patronisingly. "All the sime, yer kin leave it to me. You 'av a bit on Bill 'Iggs. I've thought aht a way. There's not one of them writin' blokes ever copped such a winner. Now, to-morrow is Saturday. You goes off at one o'clock and don't come back till Monday mornin'. The ole man 'e goes off on Saturday, and 'e don't come back till Monday mornin' neither. Where 'e goes to, Heaven knows. Perhaps 'e's got someone else under 'is thumb; but that don't matter. When you turn up on Monday mornin' give 'im the sack. Say you ain't comin' any more. Tell 'im to go to Jericho. And if he cuts up rough, ask 'im to produce the pipers. 'E won't be able to produce—why?—they won't be there."
Billy's voice had sunk to an excited whisper. He shrewdly read the doubt which was passing in Kenyon's mind.
"Not 'arf," he went on, eagerly. "I ain't goin' to touch the desk. I won't lay a finger on it except to—but that's my business. When the ole man comes to open the desk them pipers won't be there. You can gamble on that, guv'nor; but, of course, if you're afraid——"
"A desperate man is afraid of nothing, Billy," Kenyon said. "In any case, I cant be worse off than I am already."
Billy smiled the smile of conscious victory. "That's all right," he said. "Don't you worry. Jest defy 'im and leave the rest to me. And now let us dissemble."
Billy Higgs was busy in what he called, in his expansive moments, the outer office. He was making a pretence of dusting, but as a matter of fact he was straining his ears so as not to lose a word of the conversation that was going on between Kenyon and his employer. This was not a difficult matter, and Billy grinned expectantly as he heard Clark's snarling voice rising higher and higher. It was as if that dreadful old man grudged Kenyon his Sunday respite, and was now making up for lost time. Would Kenyon be able to rise to the occasion? Billy had his doubts. He had been Clark's bond-slave so long that possibly all the steel had been hammered out of him. It began to look like it, and Billy's anger rose accordingly. The snarling voice droned in and then snapped suddenly.
"Enough!" Kenyon cried. "Another word and I will strangle you! For the last ten minutes you have been taking your life in your hands. I have finished, you miserable miser! If I grasped you by that skinny throat of yours and squeezed the life out of you, I should be doing humanity a service. And heaven knows how near I have been to it many a time. But I have finished. When I leave this office I turn my back upon it for ever. I have finished my term of penal servitude, and from this moment I am free."
Clark broke into a cackle of laughter. His evil face, lined and scored with avarice and greed, lighted up in triumph.
"So you begin to feel the lash," he sneered. "I knew I would make you squeal at last. I have been waiting years for this. Waiting to see the galled jade wince. You want to skin me, do you? You want to creep up behind me and batter my brains out? Your fingers itch to be at me, do they? Ah, this is a moment worth living for! I owe you and that rascally brother of yours a heavy debt, which I mean to pay to the last farthing. You have been long in the breaking but I have broken you now. I love my money but I love my vengeance more. Your brother robbed me of all those thousands and as if that was not enough, you come along and take my niece away. But I knew how to strike. I could hit your brother through that invalid wife of his. I could strike a blow at her which would send her to her grave. Every time that man hears the postman at the door, every time a stranger calls, he knows all the agony of exposure and punishment. He knows that I may change my mind at any time and send him to gaol. There's a revenge for you! To save your brother I made a compact with you. So long as you come here to be my slave and tool I hold my hand, and this is the way I punish you because you took that girl away, and so it will go on till I reach the grave. Sit down you rascal, and go on with your work. And let me thank you for your handsome Christmas box. Christmas indeed!"
Billy Higgs drank all this in greedily. As a connoisseur of rascally heroics Clark's effort commanded his entire approval. This was exactly what he had hoped for, and, so far, none of the necessary ingredients of the drama had been wanting.
"I think not," Kenyon said quietly. He had himself perfectly in hand now. "The thing is finished. You cannot harm me; and so far as my brother is concerned, you may do your worst. I have yet to learn that those incriminating documents are still in existence. If they are, I shall be very glad to see them."
"Oh, you doubt me, do you?" Clark cried. "You want me to fetch the papers from the bank and show them to you. And then you can take them from me by force and destroy them."
"You know that I shall do nothing of the sort. You know perfectly well that you could place them in my hands with every confidence."
"Yes, I know that," Clark admitted, grudgingly. "You were always a quixotic fool. So you think those papers do not exist? You are mistaken, for they do. And, what's more, they are in this very room. In that ship's box yonder. I keep nothing else there. When I am alone at night I gloat over them. Oh, I am a cunning villain, Kenyon. You little dreamt that the papers were under your very eyes all this time. By heavens, I will show them to you. And if, after you have seen them, you still defy me——"
Clark's voice trailed off into a hoarse whisper. He took a quaint old key from his waistcoat pocket, and fitted it to the lock of the box. It was something complicated in the way of a lock, and only an expert could have picked it. With the same leering grin upon his face, Clark threw up the lid of the box, and beckoned Kenyon to his side. Then his face changed to a dull red, and from thence to sickly yellow as he saw that the desk was empty. There was nothing inside but a handful of tiny blue shreds, fine as chaff, littered about on the dusty bottom of the box.
"What demon's work is this?" Clark screamed. "How did you manage it? Oh, you infernal thief, you——"
He staggered to a chair, breathless and incapable of speech. In the outer office Billy Higgs rocked to and fro with silent laughter. Amongst all the heroes of his favorites there had never been one who had brought off a coup half so dazzling as this. He waited anxiously for the next movement in the drama. No further sound came from the inner office. Clark sat there utterly beaten, trembling like one in the presence of some nameless danger. There was no more to be said, no more to be done. Then the door of the office shut with a sullen bang, and Kenyon appeared. He held out his hand to Billy without a word, then pressed a sovereign and a visiting-card into Billy's grimy fist.
"You are a wonderful boy," he whispered. "Come to this address on Christmas morning, and tell me all about it. I am not coming back; I have finished here. You had better wait for an hour or so, for I have a strong suspicion that that wretched old man would be all the better for seeing a doctor."
Billy nodded with an air of importance. It was only fair to him that he should be left in charge of the situation. "That's all right, guv'nor," he said. "I told you as 'ow William would pull you through, and 'e's done it. So long."
Billy sat in the seat of honor on Mrs. Kenyon's right hand. Never in his life before had he sat down in a perfectly appointed dining-room, at a table covered with a white cloth, a table gay with flowers, and bright with silver and glass; but, all the same, he regarded this as his due, and he sat there with the smiling air of a conqueror. He had partaken of turkey and plum-pudding, and drank some wonderful stuff, which he knew by instinct to be champagne. There was a gaudy cap from a cracker on the back of his head; but that in no way detracted from the solemnity of the occasion. Billy had learnt several things in the last half-hour. He knew, for instance, that this fascinating old house was Kenyon's own property, and that he was to regard it as his home for the future. And he was not going to Wapping any more—he was going to school.
"I have told you these things because you are more or less one of the family," Kenyon said. "I am not going to dwell upon the moral side of our recent drama, though I suppose it is possible to argue that all is fair in love and war. Two years ago this property was left to me, but I never dared to make the fact known so long as I was under the thumb of that old scoundrel. But he is dead now. If he had known that I had money he would have blackmailed me of the last penny I had. This is why I went on drudging daily at Wapping in the hope that some time fortune would look my way. I never thought that fortune would come disguised as my friend Mr. William Higgs. Who could have possibly dreamt——"
"Oh, do stop Jack," Kitty Kenyon said. "I am dying to hear how the thing was done. Please go on, Billy."
Very slowly, and with much dignity Billy produced a little box from his pocket. As he opened the lid a tiny brown mouse came out and nestled in the hollow of his hand.
"There's the little 'ero," he said. "Found 'im in my bedroom months ago and tamed 'im so 'e'd come and eat aht o' me 'and. Lived in a little box, 'e did, the sime box I kept me books in. You remember the day as I was knocked dahn by that motor-bus? Forty-eight hours in 'orspital that cost me. When I comes aht I recollect little Joe 'ere, and 'im all that toime withaht any grub. And blowed if 'e 'adn't eaten 'arf a novelette and tore the rest to pieces no bigger than a pin's 'ead. And that's wot give me the idea. I knowed all abaht them incriminatin' pipers and 'ow I could save my friend Mr. Kenyon if I could get rid o' them. Then I tikes Joe and shoves 'im through the little 'ole in the box and dabs a bit o' clay over it. That were Saturday. Monday mornin' I gets Joe back again, and—well, bloomm' simple after all, wasn't it!"
COUNT RUPERT GAVANNI rose from the long table where the whole of the day he had been slaving over his clay models and stretched himself wearily. He splashed hot and cold water into the marble basin in the corner of the studio and washed those long, slim hands of his that seemed to drip red blood. They were beautiful hands, nervous and slender, with flexible wrists elastic as those of Paganini, as indeed they should be, for they belonged to the greatest sculptor of his time. And, indeed, Gavanni was something more than that—he was a poet and a painter, the last representative of an old. Italian family and possessor of a great fortune to boot.
For the most part he lived at that mediaeval palace of his at Hampstead, where he worked and dreamt and entertained the celebrities of Europe, from Royalty downwards.
The house was crammed with art treasures gathered from all parts of the world. The great studio, probably the finest building of its kind in Europe, occupied the whole of the north front and had access to the gardens by four long windows. Beyond the gardens again was a thick fringe of woods, and in the centre of these the lake—a large sheet of water where, in the summer time, Gavanni spent a good deal of his spare hours drifting about the lily-strewn waters in his Canadian canoe. When he was at work, as he was now, on an important group in gold bronze, it was his mood to shut himself off from the rest of the world except for an occasional bosom friend who knew him well and was in sympathy with his irregular habits.
He passed into the dining—room now where Scott Ogilvie was awaiting him, the only guest in the house on that glorious summer night early in ]uly.
Ogilvie was home from India on furlough. He was high up in the Indian police; a quiet man with a logical mind and a clear, grey eye, which was supposed to have seen further into the tortuous ramifications of the Indian mind than any other man who had ever been east of Suez.
"Well, have you finished for to-night?" Ogilvie asked.
"I have been modelling since breakfast," Gavanni declared. "But on the whole it has been a wasted day, for the rascally model I expected this morning did not turn up. I am sending him a postcard that ought to bring him to his senses. A good model gets so dreadfully spoilt. You might drop this card in the pillar-box down the road when you go for your stroll presently. And now let's have some supper."
Ogilvie slipped the card into his pocket and followedy his host to the dining-room. And there, for an hour or more, they sat over their supper in the oak-panelled room filled with historic pictures.
"Are you working to-morrow?" Ogilvie asked, when at length the cigarettes and coffee were on the table.
"All this week, I hope," Gavanni said. "If you find it dull you can easily run up to town.
"Not I," Ogilvie smiled. "The peace and quiet of this old house suit my complaint exactly. I came home for a rest, and I am getting it. For five years I have been carrying on a long battle of wits with the Oriental mind, and I am tired out. By the way, what are you working on now? Anything ambitious?"
"Well, yes," the sculptor said. "You know that line of Kipling's, 'East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet'? I'm weaving that into a kind of allegory in bronze, and after infinite trouble I have found the model for the Pathan that I wanted. That's the man who ought to have been here to-day. As a matter of fact, I've had the thing in my mind ever since I stayed with you in Benares two years ago. There's something in the East that has always appealed to me, and Benares fairly set my imagination on fire."
"You left it suddenly enough, anyhow," Ogilvie replied. "I never could quite understand why you turned your back on me there in so abrupt a fashion."
"Ah, then you never guessed?" Gavanni asked.
"Well, I had my suspicions, of course. I suppose that girl Serena Ran had something to do with it?"
Gavanni exhaled a mouthful of cigarette smoke thoughtfully.
"Well, yes," he said. "I had meant to tell you, but I never had the opportunity. Do you know, my dear chap, I came very near to making an everlasting fool of myself over that girl. For three days I was on the point of making her my wife. There was nothing wrong, you understand, merely certain love passages between us; but you are my oldest friend, and I will tell you the truth. I have only been really in love with one girl in my life, and she was Serena Ran. I loved her with a passion that you cold-blooded English know nothing of. She was the one woman only who could play upon my emotions like so many harpstrings. How beautiful she was you know. And we should have been happy enough up to a certain time, but East is East and West is West, and—I packed up my bag and came West instead. I tell you, Ogilvie, I ran away like a coward."
"I suspected something of this," Ogilvie said. "But you could not have married her though her father was an Englishman. Probably the greatest blackguard that was ever in the Indian Civil Service. A fascinating man and fiendishly clever, but a wrong 'un through and through. Anyway, he's dead now, and no doubt his sins lie lightly on his grave. And pretty little Serena is forgotten-——"
"No, by Heaven, she isn't!" Gavanni said, with a quiver in his voice. "She never will be forgotten, though what has become of her I haven't the remotest idea. Probably married to some fat Hindu who ill-treats her. But forgotten, no!"
"This is a strange way for a man to talk who is going to be married in the autumn to Lady Ida Montcrieff. What would the duchess say if she could hear you? And yet Lady Ida is rightly called the most beautiful girl in England."
"She is superb," Gavanni said, with the exact criticism of the artist for the concrete beautiful. "She is a perfect perfume. She carries her own atmosphere with her. She is coldly beautiful, a statue that Praxiteles might have worshipped. She will make a perfect hostess, the most beautiful piece of furniture in my house. And, in a way, I am fond of her. But—"
The speaker paused eloquently and helped himself to a fresh cigarette. It was getting dark by this time, and the dew was beginning to fall like pearly shadows over the gardens. Gavanni rose restlessly and walked towards the window.
"I think I'll take a turn on the lake for an hour," he said. "You won't mind being left alone?"
Ogilvie raised no objection. He never interfered with these moods of his host's. And he knew perfectly well that whenever Gavanni was busy on some important work he usually spent an hour or so most evenings drifting about the lake when the weather was favourable. No doubt the great sculptor did most of his planning out on these excursions.
"All right," Ogilvie said. "You won't be more than an hour or so, I suppose? By the way, I never could quite understand why you erected that bronze statue of Hercules in the centre of your lake. A gem like that unearthed from Pompeii was worthy of a better fate. Why don't you use that statue as a model for the bronze you have in your mind now?"
"There are sculptors who might do so," Gavanni said, contemptuously. "But where would the touch of originality, which is the other word for genius, my friend, come in? I had thought of it only to dismiss the idea at once. No, the Hercules is best where he is. A great work by a great unknown master, standing in splendid isolation in the centre of four hundred acres of water. What more fitting pedestal could you find? But then. of course, you are not an artist."
"No, I am not," Ogilvie said. "I am a mathematician with a practical mind. But go on, don't mind me. Moon about on your lake, and when you have finished you will find me in the smoking—room. Now, off you go."
Gavanni passed down the grass path and through the belt of trees to the lake. The moon was rising behind the belt of trees and throwing silver pencils of light here and there along the face of the water. Between the bands of flame were broad strips of darkness, all the more intense by contrast with the lanes of light. Against the murky background the bronze Hercules loomed up, mystic and ·symbolical, like a thing of life. Gavanni pushed off his canoe and drifted idly hither and thither on the face of the waters. He put the world entirely behind him now, he had one thought only, and that was for the work that filled him to the exclusion of everything else. Almost unconsciously he dipped his paddle in the liquid. moonbeams, and almost as unconsciously pushed on to the centre of the lake. He was close to the statue now, a shadowy form that loomed above him, brown and hard and motionless. Just for a moment the sculptor allowed his eye to roam over those perfect outlines, the play of muscle and sinuousness of form that represented almost a lost art. For great in his line as Gavanni was, he was by no means blind to his limitations. Something like a sigh escaped him.
"If I could only get the spirit of life like that," he murmured. "There is the divine fire in every line and curve, the real afflatus."
It was perhaps an hour or more later, nearly midnight, that Ogilvie became conscious of the flight of time, and woke to the knowledge that he was still alone. It was not Gavanni's way to stay on the lake so late; usually he was back long before now. Not that Ogilvie was in the least anxious. He knew that a Canadian canoe was a frail craft and liable to trouble in the hands of a novice. But then Gavanni was no novice, and in no place was the lake more than five feet deep. At one time the bottom was thick with mud, but a year or two ago it had been cleaned out and the whole basin lined with concrete. So Ogilvie lighted another cigarand waited calmly.
Then the stillness of the night and the serene tranquillity of the smoking-room was broken by a sudden hoarse outcry and the noise of someone hammering on one of the French windows leading to the gardens. Ogilvie jumped to his feet and hastily threw back the long half of the sash.
A man stood there, obviously a gardener in his Sunday clothes. Ogilvie could see that his hands and face were wet; he had lost his hat, and his face was pale and agitated.
"Thank goodness you have not gone to bed, sir," the man gasped. "I saw a light in the window, so I came this way. I am Rogers, the gardener. It is my duty to look after the orchid-houses the other side of the lake. I've got some young plants just coming into bloom, and I generally come along about this time to have a last look at them. About an hour ago I saw the master in his canoe, and when I came away just now the canoe was still in the same place. And when I looked at it again in the moonlight I saw that the boat was empty. At least, I thought so. It seemed strange to see it drifting about there, so I took a punt to fetch it back. And the canoe wasn't empty."
The man shuddered, and his lips quivered.
"The master was lying inside on his face. At first I thought he was asleep. But when I got the canoe to the side and put my hand on his shoulder to wake him up I saw that he wasn't asleep, but that he was dead."
"Good heavens!" Ogilvie cried. "Are you sure, man?"
"Aye, that I am, sir. I'm an old soldier, an' I've seen too many dead bodies not to know. The count's dead, and what's more, it looks as if he had met with foul play. I was too stunned to do anything for a minute or two; but come along, sir, and see for yourself. It's as light as day outside."
Ogilvie waited for nothing more. He raced across the gardens and dashed through the belt of trees until he came to the edge of the lake. There was the canoe anchored. close to the grass path, and in it a dark, sinister object that looked ominously still and rigid in the light of the moon. Gavanni lay there flat upon his face——he had evidently fallen forward from his seat in the stern of the canoe, for he was stretched out on the cushions as if some blow had laid him out, and as if he had never moved afterwards. And there was no hope in Ogilvie's mind; he had looked upon death too often in the dim East yonder not to know it when he saw it, even if the face of the spectre was turned away from him. He knew that Gavanni was dead. And a moment later he knew something else.
"Your master has been murdered," he said, hoarsely. "See that mark at the base of the skull, and that red band below his collar? There has been foul play here beyond a doubt. But come, we are wasting time, and every moment is precious. As an old policeman myself, I know the value of time in cases like this. Now help me to carry the body up to the house, and I will telephone to Scotland Yard and inform the authorities what has happened. Wake up, man; don't stand staring at me in that stupid fashion!"
It was nearly daylight before Ogilvie stumbled sleepily to bed. They had been pretty crowded hours, but so far the investigations at Scotland Yard had proved futile. It was quite clear that nobody in the house could throw any light upon the mystery. And for the moment, at any rate, Ogilvie could see no motive for the crime. That robbery formed no part of the motive an examination of Gavanni's effects clearly showed. Nothing was missing, for the watch and chain had been found on the body, and the count's cigarette-case was discovered in the canoe.
Tired as he was, Ogilvie turned out his pockets and placed his dress clothes carefully away. On his dressing-table lay two or three letters and the postcard that Gavanni had entrusted to him. Apparently he had forgotten all about it; he had dropped off to sleep in the billiard—room after dinner, having intended to go out later on. Not that it mattered very much now. It was a mere trifle, but to a man of Ogilvie's training there were no such things as trifles. He read the address on the postcard, and just for a moment the tired look faded from his eyes. Then he put the whole thing out of his mind, and slept soundly far into the following morning.
Naturally enough the tragic death of Gavanni caused a profound sensation in London. And as the days went on and no arrest was made, public opinion grew impatient. But meanwhile one man, at any rate, had not been idle; Ogilvie was leaving no stone unturned with a view to getting to the bottom of the mystery. By this time he had formed something like a theory. On his own responsibility, and without consulting the police, he decided to empty the lake—nodifficult matter in view of the fact that it was fed by a small stream, and that the opening of the floodgate by the boat—house would drain away the water in the course of a few hours. Ogilvie stood there watching the slow process, his eyes turned upon the mystic figure in bronze in the centre of the basin. It was the figure of Hercules with his club, doubtless in the act of slaying the Hydra. And as Ogilvie turned his eyes intently on the object the plan took more definite shape in his mind.
"I wonder," he murmured to himself; "the odds are a hundred to one against it, but I wonder."
He came back towards the evening when the work was finished, and walked across the empty basin in the direction of the pedestal.
There was no mud here, nothing but a thin, green slime, little thicker than a coat of varnish, and every inch of this, within a few yards of the base of the statue, Ogilvie examined carefully. There was one thing to reward his search in the shape of a heavy knobbed club loaded with lead at one end. There were lines, too, irregular lines and scratches in the slime, that looked very much as if somebody had been tracing a rude pattern there with the point of a walking stick, which, no doubt, had been done before the lake was empty, for there had been no chance of this since, for Ogilvie had taken good care of that. His had been the first footstep inside the empty basin.
"We're getting warmer," he whispered.
"There is something in my theory after all. At any rate, this discovery goes a long way to prove that my theory is right. And I am the one man hi England who knows how to grapple with it."
Early next morning Ogilvie returned to town and made his way to his lodgings in Dover Street. A little time later he called at a house in Stamford Street, Waterloo Bridge Road, under a pretence of finding a bed- and sitting-room for the next two or three days. He gathered from the apartments-card over the fanlight that there would be no diiiiculty in this respect, and so it proved. The landlady was quite willing to accommodate him—indeed eagerly so.
"I shall be out most of the day," Ogilvie said. "I shall want no meals, not even breakfast. And I shall not need the rooms for more than a week, so I'll pay you in advance. Are there any other lodgers in the house?"
"Only one other party, sir," the landlady said. "A troop of performers who 'ave a month's engagement at the Pantheon Music-hall in Lambeth Road. They are natives of some kind, but they are very quiet, and they won't disturb you."
By a singular coincidence the following night saw Ogilvie seated in the cheap stalls of the Pantheon Music-hall, watching the performance with the air of a man who is simply killing time. It was the usual dreary music-hall show, and not till nearly the end did Ogilvie display any sign of interest.
But a clever performance of an Eastern group of artistes seemed to move him almost to enthusiasm. It was quite an intelligent display in its way, clean and refined, and, Ogilvie would have thought, far over the heads of the audience. Yet there was a section of people there who applauded the tableaux vigorously, but there was no man present who followed the doings of those bronzed Orientals with the vivid interest that Ogilvie was feeling in every nerve of his body.
The next morning he was back at Hampstead again. The house, of course, was in the hands of the police, but he was known by name to the inspector in charge, and consequently he had no difliculty in going over Gavanni's papers. Late that evening—just after midnight, in fact—he made his way back to Stamford Street and lighted the gas in his sitting-room.
"Have those other lodgers of yours come in yet?" he asked the landlady. "Oh, they have. Then would you go upstairs and ask the man who calls himself Ran Seri if he will come down here a moment, as I have a message for him from Ogilvie Sahib? Just tell him that, and ask him to come this way."
A minute or two later and a Eurasian, white-clad from his snowy turban to his flowing skirts, came into the room and made a low obeisance.
"Your Excellency sent for me," he said. "The sahib desires to see me. But they did not tell me that it was Sahib Ogilvie himself."
Ogilvie shut the door discreetly and lighted a cigarette. Ran Seri stood there, erect and motionless, a magnificent specimen of humanity, tall and powerful and muscular. His manner was respectful enough, but obviously his nerves were at high tension, for he seemed to be watching some unseen danger that lurked in the background behind OgiIvie's head.
"You did not expect to see me?" the latter asked.
"It is a happiness beyond my hopes," the man said, humbly enough. "It must be three years now since the sahib deigned to extend his protection to the humblest of his slaves. But Ran Seri has not forgotten. And if there is anything I can do for the all-highest protector of the poor—"
"Only one thing," Ogilvie said, calmly. "Tell me why you murdered Count Gavanni."
The Eurasian quivered from head lo foot as if some unseen hand had struck him a mortal blow. But there was no sign of fight in his dark eyes, no suggestion of violence on his part. He took it with all the fatalism of his race.
"The highest knows what he is speaking of?" he asked.
"The highest most certainly does," Ogilvie said, grimly. "You went over to Hampstead on Sunday night of last week and you killed the count when he was sitting in his canoe. I am not going to say that I saw you do it, but I am as sure of it as if I had been there and saw the blow struck. You may speak if you like, or you may remain silent. But there is no hope for you, no chance of escape. In any case, you will be in the hands of the police. before morning. Now, then!"
Ran Seri made a step forward towards a chair, and hesitated.
"Yes," Ogilvie said. "You have my permission to sit down."
The Eurasian dropped into the chair. He gave no sign; if he was feeling deeply he did not betray his feeling by even so much as the quiver of an eyelid.
"There is nothing hidden from the sahib," he said. "There is nothing he does not know. It was the same in Benares, where the evil-doer trembled before a glance of the sahib's eye. And if I had known that the highest was in England I would have come to him the next day and told him the truth."
"Then you are going to confess?" Ogilvie asked.
"Who is the worm Ran Seri that he should set up the thing he calls his mind against the white gods who sit and whisper in the ear of the sahib? The sahib knows everything. Therefore it is not for me to speak."
"Perhaps not," Ogilvie said. "But I like to know that I am right. Now let me see if I can tell you exactly what happened. You came to England with the intention of finding Count Gavanni and killing him."
"Even so, sahib. That thing I did without malice in my mind, and because my gods so ordained it. I am but as a humble instrument in their hands."
"No doubt. But at the same time you had no intention of risking your skin if you could help it. And it was in your favour that you and the count had never met. It was not for him to know that you are half-brother to the girl that the count made love to two years ago in Benares. He did not know that Serena Ran ever had a brother. It is only I who was aware of that because I was head of the police there, and it was with my connivance that you managed to escape from India. But I am merely wasting your time by telling you this. Let us get on. You came to England as the humble instrument of the gods, as you say. But, unfortunately, that kind of thing is not regarded with any marked favour in this country. Of course I can sympathize, to a certain extent, with your point of view, because I have spent twenty years in India. Anyway, you came to England, you found your man, and you laid your plans for his death. He wanted a model for some figures in bronze he was working on, and when you offered yourself he deemed himself fortunate, little dreaming who you really were.
"Well, you went into his service, you had the run of the studio at Hampstead, and by degrees you learnt all you wanted to know. You learnt, for instance, that most fine nights the count was in the habit of paddling about on the lake in the moonlight or in the darkness, working out his designs. And, because you are an Oriental and have the subtle mind and imagination of your race, you began to see your way to one of those dark and mysterious crimes which are the delight of the Eastern criminal. Possibly you might have killed the count in a commonplace fashion, but he was a powerful man, too, and you might have been killed yourself instead. Night after night you watched your opportunities almost under the shadow of that bronze figure in the centre of the lake, and then the inspiration came to you.
"You saw that the count never passed a night on the water without spending a few moments in close contemplation of that work of art, and here was your opportunity ready to your hand. It was no difficult matter for you to strip off your clothing and hide it in a wood, and then, protected by your dark skin, swim as far as the statue. And it was equally easy for a man of your physique to lift the hollow bronze Hercules from its pedestal and drop it into the water, whilst you assumed the place of the statue with a club in your hand ready to deal the count a mortal blow at the first opportunity. I have no doubt that you posed more than once, waiting for the chanoe to come. Then it was no difiicult matter to replace the statue on its base and assume your clothing, with nobody any the wiser. I am as much convinced that this happened on Sunday week as if I had been in the canoe with the count and had seen the crime happen."
"His Excellency is high in favour with his own gods," Ran Seri said. "The gods that never fail him. Doubtless they came to his mightiness in the darkness of the night and showed him all this in a vision."
"Doubtless they did nothing of the sort," Ogilvie said. "I happen to know you of old, and I knew your sister, too. You were in America then. But the count was staying with I me, and it was I who was mainly responsible for bringing him and your sister together. And there was no one who more bitterly regrets it than myself. I am sure there was nothing wrong, only the old story of a man amusing himself in his idle hours and leaving the trusting girl to suffer afterwards. And these stories are not confined to India, my friend. I suppose your sister wrote to you and told you all about her coming happiness, and doubtless she told you, too, afterwards, that her dream was ended. Is she married yet?"
Ran Seri moved for the first time.
"She is dead," he said. "And now you know. She died of what you call a broken heart."
"I am grieved to hear it," Ogilvie replied. "I might have guessed something of this. But for some hours after the count's death I suspected nothing but a vulgar crime. And then I found a postcard that the count had written to you telling you that if you did not put in appeaance on Monday he would have no further use for your services, and I began to see daylight. You would have been wiser to have changed your name. I knew then that you were an enemy in the house, and I knew that you had come all this way to avenge the slight on your sister. But even then I could not quite see how you had managed it until I tracked you here and found out what you were doing. I have seen your performance, I have seen those living bronzes at the Pantheon Music-hall, and I have seen the statue of Hercules in the middle of the lake at Hampstead. And when I had seen those two things everything became plain before me. But I have seen more than that; I have seen the scratches on the pedestal of the statue, and the marks made in the bottom of the lake where you placed the statue when you were posing on the pedestal in its place. I have even found the weapon with which the crime was committed. And with that I have finished. If there is anything you would like to say—"
"A few words, sahib," the Eurasian said, calmly, as if he were repeating something he had learnt by heart. "It is all just as the sahib says. It is as if he had seen everything in a vision arranged before his eyes by the gods. When that little sister of mine, whom I loved to the tips of my finger-nails, wrote to me and told me all her troubles, the gods whispered in my ear that I must find the man and kill him. They whispered day and night until the voices nearly drove me mad. So I came back to Benares, and, behold! the lovely child was dead—dead as if a hand had slain her. And the gods were at my ear the whole time. I had nothing to guide me but a photograph, but in the end that was enough. It took me a year to find the man, but I did find him—I even entered his service, and he none the wiser. In all my spare time I watched him: watched him in his garden and on the lake till the plan came into my mind. I could do it better than most men, for is not my skin the same colour as the statue, and have I not for two years been posing before the public with my brothers until I could stand for hours without the quiver of an eyelid?
"I knew that sooner or later my chance would come to me, and it came. Four Sundays did I wait—for Sunday is the only day I have free—and at last my chance came. He sat there within a yard of me speaking to the statue as if it had been alive. Then he wished me good night, and drifted away so near that I could have touched him with my hand. It was then that I reached forward and smote him with that heavy club on the back of the head, so that he fell on his face and never moved again. It is the decree of the gods that the sahib should be in England now and that his vast intelligence should see in a flash of an eye all that I would have hidden from the world. And if the sahib asks me if I am sorry or that I regret, then I say, no. For, behold, I am an instrument, a sword in the hand of the avenging deities who have used my unworthy body so that justice might be done. And once there were white men who tried to convert me to your creed, and in a book they gave me I read that there should be an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. And therefore can the sahib bring himself to blame me because I have learnt the lesson written in the Talmud of his own forefathers? Sahib, I have finished."
The Eurasian bent his head upon his breast and folded his hands before him. He sat there, the embodiment of Fate, the incarnation of a creed beyond the grip of Western imagination.
Ogilvie rose to his feet and rang the bell.
THE wits of the Knickerbocker Club said that Clifford Ommanney's summer cigarettes were invariably taken off the ice, and that Sylvia Vandyk inevitably slept upon a couch filled with the down from the wings of tropical butterflies. This, of course, was the Western way of spelling the last word in refined civilisation and luxury. As a matter of fact, in Sylvia, on the one side, and Clifford, on the other, were represented the apogee of their respective parents. Time out of mind Père Vandyk and Père Ommanney had set out together from a "hayseed" village in the Far West fortune-seeking, and, like the Biblical character in pursuit of the traditional asses, lo, they had found it. In the course of time they had both married and settled down, and, in the words of Mr. Weller, Senior, Sylvia and Clifford were the results of the manoeuvre. They were plain, straightforward old men, who had never neglected an opportunity in the pursuit of the almighty dollar, and when they had anything to say in Wall Street, they were listened to with respectful attention. They were the financial grubs from which emanated those brilliant society butterflies respectively the hero and heroine of this veracious story. Sylvia and Clifford typified the apotheosis of commercial success.
In other words, they were two spoilt children of fortune—a young man after the heart of Charles Dana Gibson, and a young woman typical of America's best and most perfect type of beauty. And it is needless to say neither of them had ever done a day's work in their lives; they flitted from New York to Newport, from Paris to London, and from Rome to the Gulf of Florida, just as they pleased. They were immensely rich, immensely popular, and from the first the Four Hundred had received them with open arms. Apparently there was no fly in the amber and no crumpled roseleaf on the couch of down—that is, so far as the public knew. But on one point old Reuben Vandyk and his partner Amos Ommanney were perfectly firm. They had made their money together, and they knew the value of it, and not unnaturally they conceived the idea that, when they had done with it, those two vast estates should become one under the joint direction of the young people—in other words, they had made up their minds that the two must marry. By gradual stages this had become an obsession so great that Roman Fathers had issued their ultimatum. There was no immediate hurry, of course, but unless the young people came to a proper understanding, they were told quite firmly that they would have to look to themselves in the future, and that the vast accumulation of family dollars would pass elsewhere.
Now, had the young people been left to themselves, no doubt the trouble would have smoothed itself out strictly in accordance with the laws of Nature. Sylvia and Clifford had a genuine liking for one another—they had been friends and confidants from their childhood—and Dan Cupid, hiding round the corner, frowned to himself to see all the fine work he was putting in frustrated by two obstinate old men who thought they knew better than the astute son of Venus. As a matter of course, the two young people drifted apart—they were cold and distant to one another, and there were certain flirtations in other quarters which did nothing to fill the breach.
What the parents thought they kept to themselves. But they were none the less obdurate. It was about this time that they retired finally from business, realised their capital, chartered a yacht, and went off on a six months' cruise. Report had it that they contemplated the purchase of several islands in the Pacific, though there were others who said that they intended making a bid for some of the minor Balkan States.
Be that as it may, those two plutocrats sailed away into the sunset and never came back again. Months passed, but nothing was heard of the yacht, and the owners were given up for dead. It became necessary for Clifford Ommanney to look into his affairs, for even the son of a millionaire needs money sometimes, but apparently there was none to be had. To all practical purposes the wealth of the partners had vanished. Before they had set out they appeared to have sold everything and invested the proceeds in negotiable securities. Visits to banks and strong-rooms only tended to confirm the catastrophe. Beyond all doubt many millions of dollars in the way of bank paper lay at the bottom of the Pacific. Then for the first time it began to dawn upon Clifford that he was ruined.
He would have to get his own living. He pondered for a week over the best thing to take up, and then came to the deliberate conclusion that he was about as capable of keeping himself as the ordinary office-boy. It was not a pleasant summer that followed, and early autumn found Clifford fagged and run down—found him living on ten dollars a week and occupying a bed-sitting-room in a Brooklyn boarding-house. Yet he was young and strong; he had passed more than one winter trapping fur game in Alaska, and enduring the hardships of that life with zest and enjoyment, so that it injured his pride to find himself bound by the slavery of commercial New York.
It was about this time that he met Sylvia. She was coming out of the famous Flat Iron Building, carrying a note-book in her hand. She was pale and drooping. Gone were the Paris costumes, gone were the dainty shoes with their bejewelled buckles, and only the charm and sweetness of the girl remained. And Clifford stood before her, blushing and stammering like a school-boy.
"I guess," he said—"I guess that I'm the most selfish brute in New York. I forgot all about you. You were away at the time the trouble began, and somehow or other it got into my head that you were being looked after by friends."
"I have no friends," Sylvia said bitterly.
"Well, you need not put on frills over that," Clifford replied. "Nor have I. Not that I went looking for them with a gun when the crash came. Still, they did not exactly run after me, either. And to think I could not find a spare thought for you! You may not believe me, but it never occurred to me till this moment that we are both in the same boat together. Do you mean, to say yon are in an office?"
"That's what they call it," Sylvia said.
"And I'm in a dry-goods store. Dear kid, it's beastly!"
"So's the office, for that matter," Sylvia said, with a catch in her voice. "I ought to have tried for an outdoor job. I can ride and row and play golf; I can skate, and know all about ski-ing. There are lots of girls in America who would be glad to have me as a companion."
"Oh, hit me!" Clifford cried. "Now, why didn't I think of the same thing myself? I'm a perfect jay as far as business is concerned, but an outdoor life is a different matter. Now I've got an inspiration. You just come along with me and have some lunch, and we'll talk the matter over. We are up against it, Sylvia—this sort of life will kill us sooner or later—so I'm going to make a suggestion. You may think it a foolish one, but something's got to be done."
Sylvia made no objection. Clifford was not blind to the fact that Sylvia had not enjoyed a lunch like that for a long time. He saw the tinge of health come back into that exquisitely-cut face of hers; he saw the sparkle once more in the blue eyes, and the smile playing about the corners of her mouth. Of course, he had always known that Sylvia was a pretty girl, but for the first time he recognised that she was beautiful. The knowledge came to him with something of a shock. He wanted to take her in his arms and comfort her; he had an insane desire to kiss the drooping red lips and look into those downcast eyes. Strange that he never felt like that before. However
"Now, listen to me," he said. "I've got about five hundred dollars—saved it out of the wreck—and I've got a little shanty up yonder in Alaska that I bought and fitted out three years ago, when I had a fancy for trapping. Heaven knows how much money I wasted on that place! You see, I got keen on the game. You remember I spent a whole winter up there. And when I'd finished, old Sol Punnett, my guide, told me that I knew as much about the game as he did. Of course, I was going back next winter, but I never did. Sol keeps an eye on the place, and writes to me occasionally. But there it is—a jolly old shanty, furnished with all sorts of luxuries in the way of patent stoves and cooking utensils. Why, there's an oil engine to run the electric light! Goodness knows how much in the way of stores, either. If I had that place in the Adirondacks, or on the Gulf of Florida, I could sell it for my own price. But fashion has not yet reached to Alaska, and there it is. And I am going back very soon."
"How perfectly splendid!" Sylvia cried. "If I were a man, how I should love to go with you!"
"You are going with me," Clifford said coolly.
"My dear boy, don't be ridiculous!" "It ain't ridiculous," Clifford said. "Now, listen to me, kid. If I stay here, I shall blow my brains out. If you stay here, you'll just fade away and die. Now, why should you do anything so foolish? Why not marry me? There need be no sentimental nonsense, or anything of that sort. We can regard it as a matter of business, just as you regard your office. You don't care for me in that way, and I don't care "
Clifford paused just there. It was rather difficult to swallow a piece of bread and that lie simultaneously.
"Very well, then," he went on briskly. "You want to get out of this, and so do I. By nature we were intended for the simple outdoor life, and as long as there are such things as social conventions, you can only come with me in the way I speak of. We always got on very well together—always good pals, and so forth. Now, what do you say?"
For a minute or two Sylvia said nothing. Then she stole a glance at her companion. How handsome he was, in spite of his drawn appearance and that shabby serge suit! And then Sylvia made a discovery that caused her to drop her eyes, and brought the blood flaming into her cheeks. But the tender mood lasted but a moment, and the joy of adventure gripped her.
"It's a bargain," she said. "I think that's the proper word to use—what the dramatist would love to call a marriage of convenience. I suppose you and I must have watched a score of such comedies in the Madison Square theatre. Only they generally lead to the gilt cage of splendour, worked out in the best manner of Sir Arthur Pinero. All right, Clifford. I beg to accept your offer of partnership, and the sooner we start, the better. I dare say we shall be quite as comfortable and get on quite as well as the typical happy pair in a conventional novel. To be quite frank, I should love it. And now you'd better get back to your work, and I'll return to mine. If I think much more about the open air, I shall grow sentimental."
The papers got hold of it, of course; there is nothing that escapes the eagle eye of the American journalist. And, really, it made quite a good story. It was a typically human document, full of dramatic possibilities, quite a little novel in its way. The special writers briefly sketched the careers of the dead-and-gone millionaires, and ended up with the hope that the plucky young couple would be as happy as they deserved. Sylvia read all this with cynical amusement, and her sense of humour responded to the quite large number of wedding presents, inspired, no doubt, by the story, and for which she was not in the least grateful. All she wanted now was to get away from New York, to feel the crisp, dry air on her forehead, and work. She told herself that she was happy enough, but with it all there was a certain gnawing little pain at her heart that never left her night or day. She was frank to admit to herself that she liked Clifford well enough—he was a husband to be proud of, with the trifling exception that he did not love her. And Clifford was in wild spirits. His eye dwelt with the pride of possession on that exquisite face and figure opposite him, but he had never kissed her, and the fact troubled him. He was aching to do so, but it did not seem to be like playing the game. Perhaps, later on—
The first snows of winter had already fallen before the hut was reached. There was a long journey across the wild and desolate track of country and through the gloomy pine forests before the itinerary was finished. And it was all new and delightful. Even the broad silence of it appealed to Sylvia. It was a pure joy to lie back in the sledge in a mist of furs, and watch those big dogs flying through the snow. And it was strangely fascinating to encamp at night under the lee of a rock, and watch the firelight flickering as the dogs lay round waiting for something unseen—wolves, perhaps, or the danger of the snows. And so by easy stages they made their way along until the hut was reached.
Here a big man with a face like leather— a man with a huge hooked nose and scarred face—awaited them. He was a taciturn, typical son of the woods, who never used two words when one would do, and yet a man who knew every inch of the country, and in whose ears every snowflake whispered a message. He had his own hut a mile or so away; he had merely come over to light the stove and give the new-comers a welcome.
From the first moment Sol Punnett was Sylvia's abject slave. He surrendered at discretion; he rejoiced in his servitude. There was practically nothing that Sylvia had to do except cook the food and wash up the plates and dishes. Sol would have even made the very beds if she had allowed him to do so. He was hewer of wood and drawer of water; he showed signs of rebellion when Sylvia objected to his coming along in the mornings, with the thermometer below zero, to light the big stove.
Outside it was grim and forbidding enough; outside lay danger stark and black as the throat of a wolf for any luckless trapper who failed to read the warnings of the skies, or who wandered too far from the trail. There was plenty of game to be had. It was exciting work doing the circuit of the traps on the snow-shoes, and dragging the furs of the mink and the skunk and the black fox and the ermine back to the camp. For it was a good winter, and, from a business point of view, a long way the best in Sol Punnett's recollection.
But never did he cease in his taciturn way to impress upon Sylvia the danger of the life. There were times at night when he sat by the stove, pulling at his pipe and telling stories of dire perils and imminent escapes. And they were always stories of one or two men up against the forces of Nature in her wildest and most cruel moods. He told of bright and sunny mornings suddenly changing to a whirling hell of white battalions raging down the valleys and carrying all before them. These things to hear, like Desdemona, did Sylvia seriously incline. And she learnt the lesson, too. She revelled in the life; her cheeks held the glow of health, and her beauty glistened like a star. But, in spite of it all, that queer little pain was still at her heart, though she could trap a fox with the best of them, though she could manipulate a team of huskies, and once, when Clifford had had a nasty fall, she had gone back alone to the hut, a distance of ten miles, for assistance.
And she had all that she wanted there— she had all the comforts and luxuries of life. The hut was lighted by electricity, they boasted a baby-grand piano and a huge gramophone with hundreds of records. And Sylvia turned up her nose in scorn as she thought of the women she knew, cooped up there in New York. But the pain was still at her heart, and there it stayed.
The winter was drawing nearly to an end; it seemed as if Nature was turning in her sleep, and before long there would be no further trapping to do. Then the adventurers could go further south and live on the proceeds of the season's work. There would be no more snow, probably, but old Sol shook his head.
"One more flurry, I guess," he said. "Always wind up with a display of fireworks. Then we can round up them outlying traps and take it easy for a spell, maybe."
It was a true prophet who spoke, for morning brought a blizzard from the north, waited on by a piercing cold, and for two days it was only possible to sit over the stove and eat and sleep. Then the frost shut down again, and sunset brought the steel blue into the vault overhead, with the promise of more snow behind it.
"We'll clear up those outlying traps in the morning," Clifford said. "No, you are not coming along, Sylvia. Just a bit too risky this time. And if we don't come back again, then you can take the other team of dogs and meet us."
It seemed a long morning to Sylvia and a still longer afternoon. The sullen sun had vanished, a thin powder of snow began to fall, and there was an ominous moaning in the pines on the shoulder of the hill behind the house. Then, with the force of a thunderbolt, the blizzard broke, and it seemed to Sylvia as if she were alone in the universe.
She bustled about the hut, scarcely daring to think; she wanted occupation to distract her thoughts. It was beginning to get dusk when something seemed to strike against the door; a hollow voice spoke from outside, With her heart in her mouth, Sylvia threw back the heavy timbers and dragged the limp form of Sol Punnett to the stove. As the grateful heat struck him, he opened his eyes and looked stupidly round him. There was a cut on his face, his left hand dangled uselessly.
"Accident with a sledge," he gasped— "'bout four mile away, just off the track by Three Pines. Dogs got out of hand when they was cut loose, and there you are. I've got a nasty jar, but your old man, 'is left ankle give out, and there he is. Can't move a yard without another sledge, and here am I 'bout as useless as a log! If you dare—"
"Oh, I dare," Sylvia said quietly—"I dare!"
She fought her way in the teeth of the gale to the shed at the back of the hut. There she wrapped herself in her furs and whipped the dogs into the traces. It was touch and go for a minute, but she was reckless and full of courage, and the huskies seemed to know it. The pain was gone from her heart now, and she could see the truth. The thing that she had tried to hide from herself was like a hand pointing from the falling skies. And then for an hour or more she battled along the headlong track of her great adventure, fought fiercely till her eyes were blind with tears and the breath seemed to be frozen in her body. But somehow she knew that she was fighting to win. She knew that the light would hold good for a good hour or more, and that with the wind on the backs of the dogs, and their eager noses turned homewards, the victory would be hers.
And presently she found what she sought —an overturned sledge and a man sitting by the side of it, doggedly shaking the snow from his furs. He looked up in a dazed fashion and wiped the freezing snow from his eyes.
"Good Heavens, is it you, Sylvia?" Clifford gasped. "My dearest girl, my ever dearest girl, do you mean to say It isn't even as if you cared for me—I mean, not in the way that I care."
He was so dazed and numb that he seemed hardly to know what he was saying, and yet the words rang sweet and true, and the light that cannot be counterfeited was in his eyes. Then Sylvia forgot the peril of the moment, forgot everything as she stumbled out of the sledge and threw her arms about Clifford's neck and drew his head down on her shoulder.
"It was worth it," she whispered—" worth all the danger, because now I know! And do you mean to say that all the time you have really, really cared?"
"Always, I think," Clifford said, "only I didn't know. You see, if we had not been brought up together, if we had met casually, as people who get to love one another do—"
He broke off abruptly, and Sylvia laughed. Then she stooped and lifted Clifford in her arms as if he had been a child and placed him tenderly in the sledge. There was not another word spoken as they made their way back again, with the grey wolves of the gale howling for their lost prey—indeed, there was nothing more to say. They were back again presently, back in the warm shelter of the hut, safe and sound and happy.
ABOUT a fortnight later, when the snows were melting on the hillside, and Sol Punnett was away clearing out the traps, two elderly travellers might have been seen wending their way in the direction of the hut. Then one of them looked in through the window and signed to his companion to approach cautiously.
"Looks as if it had come off all right, pard," he said. "Seems as if our little scheme had planned out all right. Now, if you take my advice, you will just wait?"
But the other man was taking no advice. Without ceremony he opened the door of the hut and walked in. There was a shout of surprise and welcome, and a moment later the trapper and his bride and the two long-lost mariners were all talking at once.
It was the strident voice of Reuben Vandyk that presently dominated the rest.
"It was all a put-up job," he said. "I got it out of a book. So we just put our money away quietly and hopped off on the yacht way down South. We changed its name— because why? We wanted to give you young people a chance to learn a few things, and then find yourselves, and now you 'ave! You can't get over the old people; you see, they always know best."
"No doubt," Sylvia laughed. "But if you knew everything, you'd realise there was some danger in it, after all."
THE GREAT DOORS clanged behind Inchcliffe, he heard the quick flick of the lock for the last time. His watch was in his pocket, and the little pile of gold sovereigns in the gold box; here was his cigarette-case half-filled, and matches in the little receptacle Hilda had given him the day before they were married.
Considering the time the cigarettes had been in the case they were not bad. He looked all right, of course; neat grey suit, symmetrical crease ending in a patent leather boot, clean linen and snowy collar and a beautiful bow in front of it. He would have passed in the Park all right—but he was not going there.
With his sentence—a just and proper sentence, too—social life was ended. But there can be no romance of this kind without a woman in the case. And the woman was lacking. Inchcliffe had emerged from the prison gates absolutely certain of seeing her—and, behold! she had not come. It was all the more amazing because the woman he had expected was his wife.
She had got off more lightly than he. Her sentence had been merely one of six months in the second division.
Of course, society was properly shocked when Hilda Inchcliffe stole the famous Lashmar necklace. It was such an impudent theft, brazened out till the last minute. It had been a cowardly thing, after Hilda Inchcliffe's arrest, for her husband to fly off to Paris and there hide himself for six months until his ready money had given out, and he had to give himself and the necklace up to the police.
Nor did Hilda Inchcliffe's line of defence tend to improve matters. She stoutly protested that Alice Lashmar, her cousin, had made her a present of the necklace. She had gone round to Miss Lashmar's house in Wilton-avenue, and asked for assistance.
And Miss Lashmar had given her the jewels. She swore to the day and the hour when this had taken place. And Miss Lashmar had had no difficulty in proving that at the hour in question she was somewhere else. Beyond all question Hilda Inchcliffe had called in the absence of her cousin, and had deliberately stolen the necklace.
Why had not Hilda met him as he had written and asked her? There were many things in connection with the story that she did not know. From the moment of his arrest until the day of their sentence he had not had a single hour with his wife. And now she had failed to keep his appointment.
He was more deeply hurt and disappointed than he cared to admit. He had been passionately in love with his wife; he had married her with little means and no prospects, and her extravagance had ruined him. The story that the necklace had been given to Hilda he had not at the time believed. It had been a terrible shock to him. For her sake he lost his head—lost his head and behaved like an idiot, or so people said. But, later on, during the weeks of seclusion in Paris, he began to see things. He saw more in the course of the trial, so that in time in the prison yonder he smiled to himself as if something did not displease him. He had kissed his wife as she disappeared from the dock. Then, like the man that he really was, stiffened his lip for his punishment.
Hilda was not coming, evidently. He would go and find out what had become of her. It was not a pleasant task, that ringing of bells outside West End houses and asking questions of smug, supercilious footmen, who recognised him for the most part. There were others who recognised him also—women with noses uptilted and men with a steely gleam in their eyes.
He found a man at last with the desired information. The man was coming down the steps of his own house.
"Your wife's with Miss Lashmar," he said, throatily. "Good-day."
Inchcliffe reeled down the steps into the road. "Poor little soul!" he muttered. "Poor little girl! The refined cruelty of it! But not for long."
He turned his steps towards Wilton-avenue. The footman who came to the door recognised him; his, eyes half-closed as he sang nasally that Miss Lashmar was not at home.
"Very well, then, so much the better. Where is my wife? Upstairs in the drawing-room? I'll announce myself."
Up the marble stairs, on the thick pile of the carpet, Inchcliffe made his way. The luxury and splendour of it oppressed him. He could still hear the clicking of the keys and the rattle of the locks. All this, more besides, belonged to Alice Lashmar. As a matter of fact, it should all have been Hilda's. That doddering old uncle of hers had always told her that he intended everything for her. She had lived with him as his daughter, and he had told her that he had made a will in her favour, and that will could not be found, and the brother's daughter had taken everything. If Inchcliffe had any suspicion, he kept it to himself. He had not married Hilda for her money. He had married her without a penny, and without heed for the future.
She was sitting all alone in the window with a book in her hand. But she was not reading. She was gazing out of the window sorrowfully and tearfully. She turned as the door opened, and a little cry escaped her. She staggered across the room into Inchcliffe's arms. He could feel her slender frame shaking from head to foot with sobs, her heart was beating to suffocation. She seemed to be struggling for her breath as Inchcliffe held her and soothed her tenderly.
"You are glad to see me again, darling?" he asked.
"Oh, Hughie, If you only knew how much!"
"You did not feel up to coming to meet me, then? You got my letter?"
"I have had no letter lately, Hugh. I have been expecting to hear from you for a week."
Inchcliffe's face grew a little more hard and stern. He dropped down on a sofa and drew the pretty little woman on his knee. "We'll get out of the tangle presently," he said. "Will Alice be away long?"
"All the afternoon, I expect. She is lunching at the Russian Embassy. When I came here a month ago—"
"But, my dearest girl, how did you get here at all? With Alice Lashmar, of all people, after your protesting that she gave you the necklace! Why, it's an admission of guilt."
Hilda's lips trembled again, and tears came into her eyes. "I am past thinking of that," she said. "Nobody seemed to want me. I was not asked to stay anywhere more than a week. And then as a favour. Then Alice Lashmar took pity on me. Alice is supposed to have behaved very kindly and generously to me. And I hate her, hate her, hate her!"
Inchcliffe smoothed the pretty fair hair, and kissed the pretty trembling lips.
"We will come to all that presently," he said. "You still stick to the story of the necklace? You still protest that Alice Lashmar made you a present of it? It is a pretty thin story, Hilda."
"Oh, I know it, Hugh. And Alice did not have the least difficulty in proving that she was somewhere else at the same time. But it's true, Hugh, it's true. I don't know how she managed it, but it's as true as Heaven. But why did she play this trick on me?"
"As well ask why you behaved so foolishly in the pawnshop, dear?"
"I lost my head there, Hugh—as you lost yours afterwards."
Inchcliffe made no attempt to refute the charge. There was a grim smile on his face.
"We will get to all that presently," he said. "It's no use kicking against the pricks, little woman."
"If I had not been so terribly extravagant, Hugh—"
"No use to talk about that either. You were shockingly extravagant, and there's an end of it. You went to Alice, who had all the money that should have been yours, and asked for assistance. It was the opportunity she had been waiting for, and she took it with both hands."
"But, Hugh, there was no occasion for her to hurt me."
"Well, we shall come to that in good time," Inchcliffe went on. "I began to see things in Paris, and pieced the whole puzzle together till it was plain as a picture. We are the sport of circumstances, sweetheart. We shall never convince the world that we are innocent. We are guilty to them, and we must make the best of it. But life is not over for us, and we are not going down and under. And we are not grovelling on our knees to beg money from our relatives. We are about to start again in the Gulf of Florida, and we are leaving with a fortune in our pockets. No one will know where that fortune came from, and that will be our little comedy."
"But where is the money coming from, Hughie? Are you sure that we are not likely to be disappointed at the last moment?"
"We are victims," he said. "Outcasts. It's all very well for the smug armchair religionists to preach platitudes. We can be happy and comfortable if we like, or we can take the martyr's crown and crust thereof. And the martyr's crown would be grudged because society would say that we have no right to the part. When Alice Lashmar comes back—"
"Oh, she will not be back yet. She is dining to-night at the Railton with Oldban—"
"Oldban, so he is the man! Dear, old, solemn, good-natured Oldban! The one man who wrote to me yonder and offered me assistance. Hilda, we will go and dine at the Railton also."
"My dear boy! I haven't been seen in public; and, besides, consider what people will say."
"My dear girl, can they say anything fresh? Hilda, I have set my heart on this thing. You are going to see another act in the drama. You are about to learn what I discovered in prison, and Alice Lashmar must know the truth. Now pack up your belongings and send them to my old rooms in Graham-place. I am returning there to-night, and you will accompany me."
"But, Hugh," Hilda protested, "you said just now that I had better stay here a little bit longer—"
"I know I did. But I have changed my mind. The knowledge that Alice is dining at the Railton to-night has given me an idea. The Railton is never crowded at this time of year. And I should not be surprised to find that we are at the next table to Alice and her companion. Get out some evening things and a wrap, and meet me is the vestibule of the hotel at eight o'clock. Here's a sovereign; it will last you for the moment. Tell Alice that I have been here, and that you are coming back to me at once. Now, don't ask any questions, and you will see what you will see."
"Very well," Hilda answered. "I will be there to meet you. But I know that I shall die of shame. I shall sink through the floor, Hughie. Everybody will be looking at us."
"Not they! You will be glad afterwards. And before a week has passed we shall be on our way out of England. Everything is arranged, the house taken and furnished. We shall be free and happy and have money to spend. And I shall have a genial occupation. It's well worth an effort, as you will see presently."
"I'll make it," Hilda smiled. "Hugh, what will Alice say?"
Inchcliffe shrugged his shoulders. Really it mattered nothing what Alice Lashmar thought. He walked along presently with his head in the air. He was seeking no favour of any man; he was going out to an ideal life with his dear little wife by his side. He turned into the dining-room of the Railton and interviewed the head waiter. He was not known here, and consequently not identified. He would like to see a plan of the tables, and wanted seats for two. He ran his eye swiftly over the card, and a look of satisfaction appeared on his face. Here was the corner where the Marquess of Oldban was dining, and in the same angle another table was vacant. Inchcliffe scribbled his initials on the card, and strolled out well satisfied.
"Is it quite fair?" he asked himself. "She's but a woman after all. Still, my wife is another. And I don't think many men could resist such a glorious revenge as this."
The dining-room contained no more than a sprinkling of guests as Inchcliffe and his wife made their way across the dining room to their table. Nobody appeared to recognise them as they took their seats. A waiter buzzed about them fussily. They settled down to the soup, Hilda looking about her nervously. She gave a start presently, and a wave of colour swept over her face.
"They are coming," she whispered. "What is going to happen? What is it that you want me to do?"
"Nothing," Inchcliffe responded. "Yours is the policy of masterly inactivity. Leave the talking to me, and rest at your ease. Ah, Oldban has spotted us. I hope he won't want to speak."
A young man with a dull, good-natured face and an inevitable eye-glass, started and half stopped. He appeared as if about to hold out his hand, but Inchcliffe bowed coldly and turned away. Hilda watched timidly from under the fringe of her lashes. She saw Oldban colour awkwardly, she saw the haughty disdain on Alice Lashmar's face. Yet that face was very white, and the woman's lips quivered strangely for a moment.
"Hugh," Hilda whispered, breathlessly. "How blind I have been! I have discovered something that I never dreamt of—"
"Really! Ah, you will find out something else before long. Now go on with your dinner. Let us have 40 min. of the commonplace before the curtain goes up on the drama."
The meal drew to an end at length, coffee and liqueur and cigarettes had appeared. The people at the next table were very silent; but then Oldban was always silent.
"The victims of circumstance, no doubt," Inchcliffe said, as if continuing a conversation. Every word could be heard at the next table. "But what could any one do in such a case? It was very hard upon your girl friend, because she could not know how much her cousin hated her. Did you never guess the reason for all this hatred? Did you—I mean, your girl friend—ever ask herself that question?"
"I don't think she imagined that there was any hatred," Hilda said, in a bewildered way. "I don't think—"
"Oh, yes, there was. You—I mean your girl friend—had everything—the prospect of a large fortune, a man who loves you—I mean her. And the other woman was in love with the other man."
"You!" Hilda cried. "Is it possible that—"
"My dear, you are attracting attention," Hugh went on, coldly. "No use getting excited over a mere story. I say that the other woman loved the man and let him see it. I don't think he was more conceited than most men, and therefore he couldn't help understanding. There was one rather painful scene—but no matter. Anyhow, she knew that the man wouldn't tell tales out of school, and he didn't. Then there came a time when you—I mean the girl friend—lost all her money, and it went to the other girl, every penny of it. And the other girl wanted to know if the man still wished to marry the first girl, because—well, it's like a story in a book, isn't it? And the man said he would marry you—I mean your girl friend—if she hadn't a copper. And, as a matter of fact, he did."
"I think," came a clear, hard voice from the other table, "that we had better be moving on, Lord Oldban."
"And I think," Oldban said, in a curiously-strained voice, "that I should like to remain a bit longer. Put you in a cab and all that, if you like, Miss Lashmar."
A glass tinkled on the adjoining table, rolled over, and dropped in a thousand fragments upon the floor.
"It's a very interesting story, Hugh," Hilda said, her cheeks flooded with crimson. "Very interesting."
"Yes isn't it? Well, the man married the girl, and that appeared to be the end of it. But the man and the girl were terribly extravagant, and there came a time when they were in dire straits for the need of money. It was only natural that the young wife should go to the other girl who had deprived her of a great fortune and ask for assistance. And there was nothing marvellous in the fact that the assistance was forthcoming. The second girl had no ready money, but she had jewels—gems which by right really belonged to the young wife—and these were passed on to her. This was the first step in the scheme of vengeance."
"But why was it necessary, Hugh?"
"Because, my dear, we have it on the word of the poet that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. She knew that your friend would try and raise money on the necklace, and she did. The little girl was not used to that sort of thing, and she made rather a hash of things. Questions were asked, and subsequently the second girl swore that her young friend had stolen the necklace. The young wife declared how on a certain date she had visited the house of the other girl—by the way, shall we call her Alice?"
Hilda nodded. She was dying to steal a glance at the adjoining table, but she dared not for the moment.
"Alice proved that she could not have been present when the alleged interview took place, for she was somewhere else at the time, and, moreover, was suffering from a sprained ankle. Despite that, she was at a garden party, where scores of people saw her. But this was just the very occasion when she was able to slip out and get home with no one any the wiser. The sprained ankle was a sham. And that is how the thing was done."
There was a rustle and a movement at the next table. Alice Lashmar moved slowly towards the door. Her face was white and set, and her eyes gleamed wrathfully.
"You will see me home, Lord Oldban?" she asked.
"I will see you as far as your cab, Miss Lashmar," Oldban said, in the same curiously wooden voice. "There are some old friends of mine that I should very much like to speak to."
Inchcliffe jumped to his feet as the other two vanished. "Here, pay the bill out of that, waiter," he said. "Keep the change. Let's get out of this by the Stannard-street entrance, Hilda. I don't want Oldban back here just now. We've had a pretty innings, and I've spoilt Alice's little game so far as his Lordship is concerned. But nothing can be gained by stirring up the old scandal. Any way, you know now why Alice behaved in that vile way over the necklace."
Hilda was very silent and thoughtful as the cab proceeded in the direction of Inchcliffe's old lodgings. They were plain enough in their way, but they suggested home, and, at any rate, she and Hugh were together. There were tears of happiness in her eyes as she removed her wraps and deposited then in her bedroom. Here were all her belongings, the brushes and trinkets and silver articles, set out on the toilet table. She came back to the sitting-room presently, and smiled as Hugh took her in his arms and kissed her.
"You haven't quite finished your story yet?" she asked.
"Not quite, sweetheart. You see, when you said that that necklace had been given to you, I naturally believed every word that you said. And when Alice behaved so shamefully I knew exactly what was her motive. But for that vile trick of hers I should never have told you that she tried to get me away from you. And we were both helpless. We were bound to suffer. No one would have believed us, and we should have been left to face the world without resource, save what our relatives flung at us as contemptuous charity. When the police were after you I took the necklace, and tried to raise money on it. Or, rather, I pretended to try. I knew that we were both done, and that we were bound to suffer. You see, appearances were too terribly against us. And yet, in common equity and common honesty, that necklace belonged to you.
"I made up my mind what to do. I saw Ashley, and he let me have a thousand pounds. I bolted off to Paris with the necklace, and hid myself there; but I was hiding with a purpose all those months, and I was not wasting my time. When I was ready I came back to England, and surrendered myself to the police."
"And returned the necklace. Hugh?"
Inchcliffe smiled as he turned back a corner of the carpet and pulled up a board. From a little cavity there he produced a shabby leather case, and asked Hilda to open it. As she did so a cry escaped her, and she staggered back in amazement.
"The necklace!" she gasped. "And yet only a day or two ago Alice wore it at the Opera."
"No; merely a clever imitation. I had it copied in Paris, and paid a thousand pounds for it. I felt sure that no questions would be asked when the counterfeit was handed over, and I have been quite justified by events. Now, look here, Hilda, I am not going into the morality of the thing. The necklace was given to you, and there is no reason to inquire why. Besides, no one would believe the story, though you could see for yourself how it impressed Oldban. I worked out the thing cynically and coldly, with the full intention of providing for our future. I did not see my way to cadging on my knees for a few hundred pounds to take us abroad. I daresay I shall get the bitter taste out of my mouth in time, and I know I can sell those stones for thirty thousand pounds if I am careful. Perhaps later on, when we have made our fortune in Florida, I may possibly see my way. But even then—"
Note: A small part of the text in the copy of "The Strand Magazine" used to prepare this story is missing. The lacunae are indicated with square brackets.
IT wanted but ten days to August Bank Holiday, and already the great watering-place of Sandmouth was packed with visitors. Within the next few days the numbers would be augmented by perhaps another two hundred thousand, but Sandmouth made nothing of that, for they boasted that there was ample provision for half a million immigrants, and the boast was justified.
The Empire Palace of Varieties, that huge and luxurious theatre attached to the Winter Gardens, was packed with people from the stalls to the gallery. Not one popular favourite, but a dozen came forward one after the other and did their best, and, indeed, only the best was good enough for Sandmouth.
In the third row of the stalls Gilbert Lockhart sat with his eyes on the stage. He was by way of being an artiste himself, but for the moment, at any rate, he was free to indulge in a little well-earned leisure. He had come down to Sandmouth for a brief rest before appearing in the Winter Gardens on the evening of August Bank Holiday. He would be the star on that occasion in the character of Señor Romano, the world's greatest exponent on the high wire. At ten o'clock on the Monday night he would go through his marvellous performance on a single strand of copper wire running from one lofty water-tower surmounting the huge glass dome of the Winter Gardens to the twin tower at the other end. Others have done this sort of thing before—the great Blondin, for instance—but then Blondin's performance took place on a rope, and Señor Romano traversed a taut strand of wire two hundred and fifty feet above the ground and absolutely invisible to the great audience down below.
There was not much in the performance, perhaps, as such, but it was a fine exhibition of cool courage and daring. Moreover, it took place in the dark, save for the fact that the performer for the most part was surrounded by a blaze of fireworks, and at any rate the management held the entertainment cheap at the fee of five hundred guineas which they cheerfully paid for it. They got their money back twice over, for of all the draws at that moment attracting huge audiences, Señor Romano was the greatest. It was positively his last performance, too, on any stage, and the Palace people were making the most of it.
Lockhart had not gone into this business from any love of it, for, as a means of making a living, he hated it from the bottom of his soul. But what can a young man do who finds himself at twenty-three utterly penniless, without any profession or business training and face to face with poverty after a public school education and a successful career in the world of athletics at Oxford? The sudden collapse of his father's huge business and his subsequent death had brought about this catastrophe. How Lockhart had drifted into it he hardly knew himself; probably his passion for Alpine climbing had been the main incentive. He had discovered that he had the art of balancing himself on a rope at dizzy altitudes, and thus, little by little, he had found his way into the business. And now, under an assumed name, and unknown to his friends, he had become the greatest wireman of his time. And in the last eight years he had amassed the nucleus of a fortune. His appearance at Sandmouth would be his last, for he had purchased a ranch in Canada, and his intention was to go out to it in the spring.
But he had not met Mlle. de Lara, the famous French dancer, at that time. And this was largely the cause of his sitting there in that packed audience with a moody frown on his forehead and a certain anxiety gnawing at his heart. He was watching the lady in question going through that graceful performance of hers in a little sketch founded on the Mexican rebellion which had been written round her and the other star performer in the shape of Leon Diaz, who claimed, not without justice, to be the champion rifle and revolver shot of the world. In it she had to meet first one and then two fencers armed with rapiers and overcome them in a hand-to-hand combat, holding the position till the hero turned up with his revolvers and his world-famed rifles.
Lockhart was watching the slim, graceful, girlish figure in the white shirt and black silk knee-breeches with something like a dog-like devotion in his eyes. He was fascinated by the wonderful swiftness and dexterity and moved by the exquisite beauty of that fair face. And when it seemed to him that Diaz as the lover was carrying his privileges a little too far something like a smothered groan escaped him.
Sitting by his side was a little man in loud checks, with "low, comedian" written all over him. But Billy Jenks was a kind-hearted soul in spite of his native vulgarity, and Lockhart had a genuine liking for him. Jenks was not performing this evening; like all the rest of his profession, he found it impossible to keep away from the atmosphere of the theatre. And the look on Lockhart's face and that smothered exclamation were not lost upon him.
"Diaz is a beast," he said. "But there is no denying that he is easily first in his own particular line. But she don't care anything about him, laddie."
"I wish I could think so," Lockhart groaned.
"Well, I know I'm right. He's fascinated her, and you are a bit slow, ain't you, old man? No business of mine, of course, but there isn't one of us behind who can't see how the land lies. And he is clever. You've never seen what he can do with a rifle, have you? Of course, there isn't much scope for a gun inside a theatre. But I was in a big circus with Diaz three years ago in California, where we gave evening shows in the moonlight, and, by Gad, that chap can make a gun actually talk as long as there's any light at all. And there's no fake about it either. He can judge the range up to a thousand yards as easy as a man judges the points of a horse. But don't you worry about that. You just go in and win, old man. I'm not a gentleman like you, but I know a lady when I see one, and the girl we call Mlle. de Lara was never brought up to this sort of thing."
Lockhart was silent. He knew that perfectly well. He knew that Mlle. de Lara had been born Lucille Dare, that she was the daughter of a man who had at one time had a high commission in the British Army, and that the art she had learnt as a child for her amusement and the state* of her physical training had become later on her one means of obtaining a livelihood. And Lockhart knew, too, that she hated and loathed all this publicity as much as he did himself. He had met her more than once during the last eighteen months, and all had looked like going well until Lucille had been persuaded to accept one of the leading parts in the sketch which had originally been written for Diaz alone.
[* "sake" in the original; probably a typographical error. ]
The entertainment came to an end presently, and the huge audience filed slowly out. Lockhart found himself presently waiting outside the stage door for a chance of a few words with Lucille. He had not yet shaken 0H Billy Jenks, who was hanging about as if waiting for someone himself.
"All right, old man," he said, "I'1l be off. I can see that you don't want me. But I am your friend, as you know, and if you take my advice you won't quarrel with Diaz. There used to be some nasty stories told about him in California; as a matter of fact, he dared not show his face there. I don't believe the beast would stick at anything. And don't forget that a man like yourself who risks his life on a bit of copper wire might form a tempting object for a bit of treachery on the part of a reckless devil like Diaz. Well, so long, old man, and remember my advice is well meant."
Lockhart drew a deep breath as he saw Lucille coming towards him. There was cold surprise in her eyes as she saw him standing there. It was his own fault, perhaps—he had been somewhat shy and laggard in his rôle of a lover—but he did not stop to think of that at the moment. He felt the blood rising to his temples and tingling to his finger-tips as Diaz emerged from the shadows and laid his hand familiarly on Lucille's arm.
"Don't forget," he said, with an insolent glance at Lockhart, "that you are engaged to me for to-morrow afternoon."
Lockhart kept his temper with an effort.
"I—I was going to ask you to come as far as St. Everards in the side—car," he stammered.
"But if I am too late, why, then, I must go over there alone."
It seemed to him that Lucille yielded for a moment, and then the cold look came back into her eyes again.
"I'm very sorry," she said. "But as you did not mention it this morning I thought you had forgotten. Besides, Señor Diaz is going to drive me over to tea at St. Everards in his dogcart. He has promised to let me drive a little way myself. It isn't often nowadays I get a chance of driving a good horse, and I should be foolish to lose such a chance."
Lockhart turned away without another word; he was hurt and sore, and none the less so because he knew he had largely himself to blame. But he would go to St. Everards and have tea at that charming little seaside village alone. And he had, too, an uneasy feeling that perhaps Lucille would need him.
Accordingly, the next afternoon he set out on his motor—cycle about half an hour after he had seen the dog-cart depart and Lucille driving the fine thoroughhred horse of which Diaz was exceedingly proud. Presently he saw them before him on the lonely road over the sand dunes. And then it seemed to him that something was wrong, Evidently the big black horse had got out of hand, for he could see that Diaz had snatched the reins from Lucille's hand and was urging the horse forward. Then, when the danger was past, Diaz began to thrash the high-spirited animal unmercifully. So far as Lockhart could judge, the Mexican was blind with rage and fury, for he suddenly stood up in the cart and, reversing the whip, began heating the terrified animal over the head with the loaded end of it. It was as if some lunatic had suddenly flared out into one of his cyclones of passion.
On and on the helpless horse dashed until, absolutely exhausted, he sank between the shafts and lay in the road. As Lockhart quickened his pace, he saw Diaz jump from the cart and approach the prostrate animal with something in his hand. But it was something that shone and gleamed in the sunlight, and then the full horror of the situation burst on Lockhart. He quickened his pace and threw himself off his motorcycle by the side of the cart. He was just in time to see Diaz, with a face distorted with fury and eyes blazing with rage, stoop down in the road and deliberately cut the throat of the exhausted animal from ear to ear. In the cart Lucille sat like a frozen statue. She was evidently petrified and stricken dumb by this exhibition of raging fury. As Lockhart put out his hands to her she placed her cold fingers in his and he lifted her to the ground. Had he not placed his arms about her she would have fallen. Then she found her speech.
"Oh, take me away, take me away!" she said. "I—I am frightened. Did you over see anything so horrible?"
Diaz rose from his knees and came forward. But not a word did Lockhart say as he fairly lifted Lucille in his arms and placed her in the side-car, which he had not detached from his cycle. There had been just the chance that he might bring Lucille home with him, and he congratulated himself now upon his prudence.
"Don't say anything," he cried to Diaz. "And don't come a yard nearer me, or I'll strangle the life out of you."
A few minutes later and Lockhart, with his precious burden by his side, was racing along the road in the direction of St. Everards.
He [found a] little empty alcove in the tea-[room] and placed Lucille in a seat. [...] dumb, though now she shook [....]ness. Then the blessed tears came—and for a long time she sobbed un[res]trainedly.
"I don't know how to thank you," she said at length. "Oh, why did I come out with that dreadful man? From the very first I have hated and loathed him, and I have been warned against him more than once. I was told that he was dreadfully cruel to his animals. Now, if you—"
"Oh, I know, I know," Lockhart said.
"It was all my fault, Lucille. Only I thought you didn't want to come with me, and I was jealous. I dare say you will say that I have no right to he jealous." She smiled at him gloriously through her tears.
"And I thought you didn't eare," she whispered. "I thought that you were only amusing yourself. Are you quite sure even now, or is it only that you are sorry for me?"
Lockhart acted on the impulse of the moment. They were all alone in the arbour and no one was in sight. And, besides, she was looking at him with those tear-wet eyes of hers in a way there was no mistaking, and her soul was shining in them. He drew her to his side and kissed her passionately.
"There are going to be no more misunderstandings," he said. "Lucille, I never cared for anyone till I met you, and there will never he anybody else. And we are made for one another. You drifted into this the same as I did; you suddenly found yourself without your comfortable home and facing the world as I had to face it. But that is all over now. After Monday I turn my back on this life for ever, and I am going to take you to Canada with me. We both hate the life."
"I've done with it," Lucille said. "At any rate, when I have finished here. And nothing will induce me to appear with that man again. I couldn't do it, Gilbert. I shall tell the management exactly what happened."
The scandal was too great to be concealed; the management was sympathetic; and during the rest of the week the sketch was abandoned. But Diaz brooded, and the expression in his eyes when he looked at Lockhart was bad to see.
"Look to yourself," he threatened, the first time they met. "That is a great performance of yours on the wire, but see that it does not prove a barbed wire for you. I will make that girl my wife yet, in spite of everything."
"Do your worst," Lockhart said. "I'm not afraid of you."
Nevertheless, Lockhart was far from easy in his mind, a fact that he confided to the sympathetic Jenks later in the day.
"It isn't that I'm afraid," he said. "But I'm fearful of my own happiness. Now, just consider, Billy. I've made a good deal of money, I am going to marry the sweetest and dearest girl in the world, and it looks as if a glorious future lay before us. And for the last time on Monday night I am going to risk my life. And it is a risk—a dozen times I have been within an ace of death. The mere thought that it is the last time makes me uneasy. There's more than a chance, too, that Diaz will do me a mischief. I heard just now from one of those Japanese jugglers that the fellow was actually in a lunatic asylum in Nevada three years ago. I tell you I don't like it a bit, Billy."
Billy Jenks was duly sympathetic.
"Look here, laddie," he said. "I believe you are in danger, and the best thing to do is to realize it. I'm all with you, I am. I am only a red-nosed comedian, but I have had my dreams, and I want to help you if I can. You can't go to the police and get them to arrest Diaz, because he has never really threatened you. You can't get that chap locked up till after Monday, anyhow. But you can take precautions, and these are all the more necessary because I know that Diaz will do you a mischief if he can. I found out this morning that he has changed his bedroom to the back of the house where he has his lodgings in Vernon Terrace."
"I don't quite understand," Lockhart said.
"Let me explain. I also, as you know, lodge in the same house; in fact, there are a whole lot of us there. The top back bedrooms in Vernon Terrace overlook the Winter Gardens right between the two water-towers. Anybody up there would have a grand view of your performance on Monday. They could see the fireworks, too, and, of course, there will be a deuce of a noise going on whilst you are on that high wire. Now, our performance will be over at nine, so that we shall be free for your big show. I don't propose to be there at all. I am going to stay at home and keep an eye on Diaz. And I can get one or two of the other chaps to help."
"You think Diaz made that change designedly." ·
"Of course he did. And he's got some deep-laid scheme, too. If he gets you then, nothing matters afterwards, so far as you are concerned. And he won't lose any time about it either. I was thinking about it all last night. And I think I can see a way to get the better of that ruffian and lay him by the heels for many a year to come. Now, listen to me."
As Jenks proceeded to unfold his scheme the frown on Lockhart's face gradually gave way to a smile. He was looking quite himself by the time the comedian had finished.
"That's a good idea," he said. "There's plenty of time to carry it out, too. If nothing happens nobody will he any the wiser, and if, by any chance, Diaz gets to know, then you will be able to prevent him doing anything dangerous."
"I'll see to that," Jenks said, grimly. "I'll use violence if necessary. But if you do get through Monday night all right, then he'll he pretty sure to have another go at you. But if we give him a certain amount of rope, then we shall be able to prove an attempted crime against him and hand him over to the police. You needn't worry, old chap. You must see that everything should come out all right."
It was nearly ten o'clock on the night August Bank Holiday, and something like two hundred thousand people had gathered there in the grounds to watch the most sensational performance before the public that England perhaps had ever seen. The two big water-towers loomed out high into the sky, and between them, as the spectators knew, was a slender copper wire on which Señor Romano, as they knew him, was to perform the marvellous feat which many of them had come miles to see. He would appear presently through one of the windows of the right-hand tower and cross on that spider web to the far side, a matter of some six hundred feet, and should anything happen to him, he would be dashed to pieces on the glass dome beneath him. In itself the performance was not, perhaps, particularly clever, but it was the peril and danger and the superb exhibition of human nerve and courage that the holiday-makers had come to see.
There was no noise now—no word was spoken. It was as if all the people there were aware how necessary it was that there should be no outburst of feeling and no clamour or hurricane of applause to disturb the performer on his terrible joumey. And so they waited moment after moment, tense and silent and strung up to a pitch that had something of pain in it. Then a rocket soared high into the sky and burst like a bombshell high overhead into a cascade of falling stars. It lit up that white ring of faces for a moment as if they had been so many corpses staring up out of a sea of blackness. There followed another rocket and yet another, and after that a blaze of flares picked out the two great water-towers as if they had been cameos cut out against a background of solid bronze. And then, high up overhead, something seemed to drift away from the edge of the tower and move slowly along the unseen wire. Its outline was blurred and dim, but it was a human figure plainly enough, a human figure with hands outstretched swaying gently from side to side.
A sort of murmur rose from the audience, dull and subdued like the sigh of the incoming tide on a midnight beach. And after that there was a silence more tense and painful than before. From the street outside the walls came the hoot of a motor and the clang of an electric tramcar as it swung along. It seemed like an unseemly interruption, something that was vaguely resented by the packed mass of humanity down there below.
Then silence again, a silence like the darkness of Egypt, inasmuch as it could be felt. Strong men were there, not given to emotion, who swallowed down something in the back of their throats. A woman tittered hysterically and then bit her lip as someone gripped her arm with a force that filled her with pain. The mere fact that this grip came from a stranger mattered nothing. And gradually and carefully the figure on the wire slipped on until it paused half-way between one tower and the other, as if looking down on the pallid faces there—and at the same moment hundreds of fireworks, rockets, and Roman candles and squibs began to play all about the human spider on his copper web up there so far over their heads. Presently came a little whip-like crack faintly audible about the reverberating din and unnoticed by the ears of everyone there. A fraction of a second later the figure on the copper wire swayed backwards and forwards, then before the horrified eyes of the overwrought audience pitched headlong downwards and crashed through the dome of glass into the Winter Gardens below.
It was all done in a flash, a minute fragment of time so short as to be infinitesimal, and yet in that pinch from the duration of a second a people's holiday was turned into a tragedy of mourning. It was petrifaction for a breath, paralysis for a second, and then a letting loose of the simple emotions that broke like a fiood and carried that vast human tide with it. Men groaned and shuddered and women cried aloud as they covered their eyes. And down there on the bandstand amidst the fireworks somebody in authority jumped to his feet and began to roar authoritative words through a megaphone. For a second or two it was as if the man down there was raising his voice against the tumult of a nation. Then first one and another caught the gist of what he was saying and whispered it to his neighbour. The tale fiew from ear to ear quickly as a flash of summer lightning. There was silence again, deep and impressive, then the megaphone spoke once more.
Billy Jenks stood in the darkness of a bedroom in Vernon Terrace looking out anxiously on to the packed gardens below. Behind him in his sitting-room with the door closed two men were waiting for him to give the signal. They knew exactly what they had to do, and they knew, moreover, that when the time came not a moment must be lost. And so Jenks stood there straining his eyes into the darkness, waiting one tense minute after another until he saw that diminutive figure beginning to slide its way from one tower to the other opposite. Jenks was holding his breath now, every nerve in his body thrilling and every sense in him at its highest tension. He saw the first rocket soar high into the sky, he watched the play of the gathering sheets of flame down below. And then from somewhere close by him, almost in his own ear it seemed, he heard a sharp crack like the lash of a whip, and before the sound had died away he moistened his dry lips and whistled. He had just time to see the figure on the wire sway and fall before he realized that two men were behind him.
"It's done," he said, hoarsely. "Now, come on, there's no time to be lost."
As Jenks said this he opened the bedroom door next to his own. He fumbled inside for the switch of the electric light, and flooded the room with a warm glow. The bedroom window was wide open, and leaning by the sash with a riflc in his hand was Diaz, It had all been done so quickly that even yet a thin vapour of smoke was trickling from the barrel of the Winchester rifle. Before Diaz could rise to his feet the three men were upon him and he was disarmed. He had been caught absolutely in the act, caught within twenty seconds of firing that fatal shot, and he knew plainer than words could tell him that his fate was sealed.
"You murderous scoundrel!" Jenks cried. "Now, what have you got to say for yourself? I saw everything from my bedroom window, and now we have caught you with the weapon in your hand. Anything to say?"
"Not a word,” Diaz replied between his teeth. "I planned it well and carefully, but fate has been too strong for me. And if you want to know if I'm sorry—well, I'm not. If it had not been to-night, it would have been another time."
"We are wasting time here," Jenks said. "Bring the scoundrel downstairs, and I'll telephone for the police."
The man with the megaphone had his audience well in hand now, and every word that he said carried true and clear to the farthest part of the grounds.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he yelled. "There is no cause for alarm, and the tragedy you have been witnessing is no tragedy at all. It is only a little idea on the part of Señor Romano which he has adopted of late to test the safety of his wire. Sometimes the atmosphere makes a difference, as it generally does to high tension wire, so by means of a slender steel cord a dummy figure, the weight of a big man, is worked along the main cable merely to see that it is absolutely safe. By some means or another the dummy must have become detached from the steel cable and, as it swung downwards, tore itself free from the copper wire. We deeply regret that we should have caused you all this distress, but it has been an accident, as you see, and Señor Romano is up there now waiting to begin. If you look up, you will see him for yourselves."
A great hurricane of cheers broke from two hundred thousand throats, cheers of relief and enthusiasm as Lockhart slid along the wire and started his daring perfomance. He had waited up there watching eagerly until he had seen the flash of an electric light three times repeated from a certain house in Vernon Terrace, which told him that the danger was past and that now he could satisfy the demands of his audience without any further fear. He had finished at length in a last blaze of rockets, he was drawing nearer and nearer to safety, and then he took one deep, shuddering breath as his foot left the wire and he stepped through the window on to the upper stage of the tower, a free man, sound in life and limb, a man who saw the long years of happiness and prosperity looming before him from behind the violet darkness of the warm August night.
"We owe everything to the ingenuity of Jenks," Lockhart told Lucille, as the three of them sat at supper an hour later. "I told you that I should be quite safe, but Billy swore me to secrecy, and so I couldn't tell you exactly how it would be done. All the same, I'm glad you kept away from the gardens, for it must have been at painful scene; in fact, I hardly liked to face it myself. Still, thats all over and done with now. Diaz is out of the way and he will never threaten our happiness again. They will probably certify him as a lunatic, which the man undoubtedly is, and he will very likely never be free again. But I don't want to talk about him. I want to talk about our friend Billy here. It was he who guessed what Diaz was going to do, especially when he found out that the Mexican had changed his bedroom, and it was he who hit upon the happy idea of that dummy. It was any odds that Diaz would take it for me, and hehave exactly as he did."
"But suppose he had found out?" Lucille shuddered.
"Oh, I'd arranged for all that," Billy Jenks said, modestly. "If he had tumbled to our little scheme we were going to enter his bedroom by force and keep him a prisoner till the performance was over. We might have done that in any case, but that wouldn't have helped us. We had to prove that Diaz had murderous intentions or we should never have been abe to have kept him out of mischief for the future. Otherwise, he would certainly have had another try. Neat little dodge, wasn't it? And some day, when I have got time, I think I shall turn it into a play. It ought to make a good one."
"Make it a comedy," Lucille smiled. "We have been too near the edge of tragedy to-night."
A PAIR of exquisite blue eyes, tearfully despairing, looked into Gertrude Stanmore's scornful brown ones.
"Oh, so that it what that Ponting woman was hinting at last night?" she asked. "Gladys, do you mean to say?—oh, I am almost ashamed to ask you the question. Am I to understand that you deliberately stole a diamond bangle belonging to Lady Oxted and handed it over to that Ponting creature as security for a bridge debt of fifty pounds? Now, don't prevaricate; tell me the truth. Mrs. Jim Ponting didn't say so in as many words, but she inferred it. Oh, you must have been mad, mad."
Well, Gladys always had been a little fool, Gertrude told herself bitterly, but that had not prevented her spoiling her younger sister ever since Colonel Stanmore's death, and the day when they had been turned out of a comfortable home to fight the world together. But it had been Gertrude who had done all the fighting. It was she who had laid out their little income to the best advantage, and had made a place for herself in the field of journalism. It had been hard and trying work, and there were times when she grew tired and weary and dreamt of the day—well, the kind of dream that all women have who are face to face with the battle of life, and the deadly fear of defeat.
And nobody knew better than Gertrude what it meant. And now the man had come, two of them in fact. There was Lord Falmer to begin with. That somewhat serious-minded young man had fallen head over ears in love with Gladys' exquisite colouring and dainty porcelain beauty, and was ready to give up a promising political career for her sake. And Gladys herself was ready to go down on her knees and ask Heaven what she had done to deserve all this happiness. And on the top of this the other man had come along, and made the world into a bower of roses for Gertrude.
And now it looked as if Gladys had wrecked it all by one stupendous folly. Far better if Gladys had confessed her fault, and admitted that she had been foolish enough to play Royal Auction for a pound a hundred under Mrs. Remington's roof. That the good lady in question knew nothing of these midnight gambles made no difference. And because Gladys had nothing to gamble with the inevitable had happened.
"Mrs. Ponting is such a horrible creature," she said tearfully.
"Of course she is," Gertrude cried. "She is absolutely out of place in a house like this. But Mrs. Remington is a kind-hearted creature, and Jim Ponting has always been a second son to her. But what is the use of discussing that point? You lost money you cannot pay to Mrs. Ponting, and you stole a diamond bangle from Lady Oxted's dressing-room, and offered it as a security. And Lady Oxted will be back here to-morrow, and, of course, she will miss it. What are you going to do then? Oh, it's no use looking at me in that pathetic way; I can't help you. I suppose you don't know what's in the back of that woman's mind. I suppose you don't realise that it is her intention to levy blackmail on you. Mrs. Jim Ponting is no fool. She is to have the entree of your country house, to come and go when she likes, and speak of you as her dear little pal, Gladdie Falmer. Far, far better go to Falmer and tell him the truth."
"I couldn't do it," Gladys whispered. "I really couldn't."
"Well, I will do what I can," Gertrude said wearily. "You had better go downstairs to the others, or they will wonder if there is anything wrong. I told Mrs. Remington I had letters to write after dinner, so she won't expect to see me again to-night. I asked Mrs. Ponting to come and see me about eleven o'clock, so she may be here any moment now. I will do what I can for you, but it looks absolutely hopeless."
Gladys faded out of the room, glad to get away so easily. For a long time Gertrude sat before the fire thinking wearily. From time to time she caught the sound of mirth and laughter downstairs. She could hear a ripple of voices in the corridor outside as the women of the house party came to bed. It was getting late now, and it looked as if Ida Ponting had forgotten her promise. Then there came a tap upon the door and the woman entered.
At first glance there was nothing very wrong about her except a slight suggestion of exaggeration in the brightness of her hair and the pronounced pink and white of her complexion. There was, too, a little too much decolletage, an accentuation of ornaments, an exaggeration of ease and assumption of one born to this sort of thing. The brown eyes were bright and bold, the red lips a trifle too thin and greedy. Yet the average animal man would have called Ida Ponting a pretty woman, and he would have been justified in doing so. At any rate simple-hearted Jim Ponting was her absolute slave, and regarded himself as the most fortunate of men. But Gertrude drew back as if she had been some loathsome reptile, and cold contempt stood confessed in her eyes.
"You had better sit down," she suggested. "And I think it would be just as well if we understood one another. I have been talking over matters with my sister, and she has told me everything. Of course, you see that you cannot keep Lady's Oxted's bangle."
"Why not?" the other asked. "Don't mind if I smoke, do you? Thanks. But why make a fuss about it? I don't want to keep the thing. And I am quite prepared to play the game if you will do the same. Now, look here, I am not on the make. When your sister lost that money I shouldn't have pressed her for it, only I happened to be a bit short myself. Of course, I didn't mind taking the security, though I was a bit staggered when I recognised the bangle. But you can have it back if you like, and nobody will be the wiser."
"Do you mean unconditionally?" Gertrude asked.
"Oh, well, that's what it comes to. Your sister is a dear little thing, and I have taken a fancy to her. My Jim and Lord Falmer were at school together, and they've always been pals. Mind you, I owe Falmer one for trying to come between Jim and myself. It isn't due to him that I'm Mrs. Jim to-day. He's a bit of a prig, but all the same I ain't blind to the advantage of writing my letters from Falmer Castle occasionally, and that's just what I'm after. It isn't much to ask after all. I may have started life in the Gaiety chorus, but I'm no thief, Gertrude Stanmore, and don't you forget it."
"So that is your price?" Gertrude asked coldly. "Lord Falmer will not tolerate it for a moment. He would forbid anything like intimacy, and there the matter would end."
"Oh, I don't think so," Mrs. Ponting said. "Falmer is ridiculously in love with your sister, and he would do anything she asked. The question is, are you going to try?"
Mrs. Ponting put the question plainly; no longer was there a smile upon her lips, no suggestion of amiability in the harsh tone of her voice. She seemed suddenly to have lost something, to have taken one step back towards the primitive.
"I tell you it is impossible," Gertrude said. "You must do your worst. The truth must come out to-morrow, in a day or two everybody will be discussing this scandal, and you won't come out of it altogether as easily as you imagine. You will be asked many awkward questions. Oh, you may smile and think how easy it will be to answer them. But there is more than one kind of blackmail, Mrs. Ponting, and your type is not the least objectionable. They will discuss you in drawing-rooms, they will hold post-mortems in clubs. And everybody whose opinions you value to-day will smile contemptuously at the woman who thought that she could get into the best houses by blackmailing a silly little donkey like Gladys Stanmore. I can hear them saying it, I can see them smiling over it at this present moment. And your social pretensions will be done for. You smile to hear me say that. But you see I have mixed with these people all my life, despite the fact that I am only a working journalist, and you are a comparatively newcomer. We have our traditions and our customs, and we hang together as the wild animals do; indeed, we are all animals after all. And you will find that, like the stray dogs in the streets of Constantinople, we keep to our own quarters, and fiercely resent an intrusion from the alien next door."
"I don't know what you are talking about," Mrs. Ponting said sullenly. "It's all Greek to me."
"Very probably. But if you persist you will find out what I am talking about, and you will understand through a mist of humiliation and tears. If you are wise you will return——"
"Never," the other woman cried back. "Never, unless you drag it out of me. And I believe you are capable of that."
"I am," Gertrude said. "Yes, I would go as far as that. You are not playing the game fairly, and I hold that I should be justified in any step to save my sister's happiness—and my own. And then I would defy you, Mrs. Ponting. I would stigmatise your story as an impudent lie; I would show my friends what you are aiming at. And if you think that your word would be taken against mine you will find yourself bitterly mistaken. But it is useless to discuss the matter further; go to bed and sleep on it, and think of what I have said. You may take a different view to-morrow. Lady Oxted will not be back till the afternoon, and if you wish to discuss the matter further, I will meet you here after luncheon. And now allow me to wish you good-night."
Mrs. Ponting rose sullenly from her chair.
She was smiling confidently enough, but there was about her none of the easy self-assurance with which she had come into the room. With a toss of her head she closed the door noisily behind her.
She came out of her hideous waking dream presently to the knowledge of a world in which things were moving. It was as if a door had been opened somewhere, and the wheels of life were closed. Someone was screaming loudly, at the far end of the corridor; there was a tinkling crash of glass, and the thud of footsteps outside. As Gertrude started to her feet the door of her room burst open and a man entered.
As she focussed her eyes upon him she saw a slim, athletic figure, a thin, sensitive face with a mouth drawn hard and combative, like the lips of a cat when she turns upon a dog in a tight corner. In the ordinary way the intruder would have been harmless enough, the typical worker one meets in a tram or train, but Gertrude's journalistic training showed her more than this. She could see humour in the blue eyes, and something more—humour turned to the courage of despair by the proximity of danger.
The easy smile faded from Gertrude's lips, her face took a tinge of grey. At that moment she looked curiously old and worn, as if the weight of the world were on her shoulders, and she found the burden too much for her.
"Ever seen this before, lady?" he whispered hoarsely. "Now, steady, miss, steady, play the game by me and——"
The speaker paused significantly.
Gertrude stood there, her eyes fixed with flickering fascination upon the flashing trinket that her visitor held in his hand. She knew it well enough, she did not want to be told what it was. Beyond the shadow of a doubt those winking, tantalising stones formed Lady Oxted's bangle, the same ornament which had caused all the trouble. How it had fallen into the hands of this audacious thief mattered nothing. It was enough to know that it was no longer in Mrs. Ponting's custody, and that this man was here prepared to bargain over it. Slowly and surely the situation was unfolding itself to Gertrude. This man was a burglar, he had been caught practically red-handed, and had bolted headlong like a rabbit, looking for some avenue of escape, and by the merest luck he had found his way here.
But how could he possibly know that Gertrude would be interested in that particular trinket? Evidently he did know, for there was a grin on his face and the light of humour was dawning in his cunning blue eyes. He advanced a step or two tentatively.
"You tumble?" he whispered. "You're fly, miss. And if so be as you like to make a bit of a bargain wiv me——"
He broke off short, his eyes dilating and his nostrils flicked like those of a dog scenting danger. A murmur of voices came from the corridor outside, there were impatient knockings on the door, and the tones of a man calling on Gertrude by name. As the man's voice fell upon her ears, she stiffened. The knocking grew louder and more insistent, someone was suggesting that the lock should be forced. Gertrude stood there swayed this way and that by the violence of her emotions. In a dim way she began to see the path of safety, but she would have to act quickly, for there was not a moment to be lost. The burglar clutched her arm.
"See this," he whispered. "Don't you want it? Wouldn't you give one of your eyes for it? And it's yours if you'll only play the game right. Now come!"
It was exactly what Gertrude would have suggested herself. The dim and narrow track of safety had now resolved itself into a broad and luminous path.
"I think I understand," said Gertrude. "I think I know what you want me to do. And I shall know how to deal with you if you play me false. Go into my dressing-room. Close the door behind you, and leave the rest to me."
The burglar vanished without another word. Hardly had the dressing-room door closed behind him before the other door burst open, and half a dozen men in evening dress entered. There was one man in front of them, evidently a late comer, for he was still in travelling kit, and his brown, clean-shaven face was quivering with anxiety. At sight of him Gertrude uttered a little cry.
"Jack," she said. "When did you arrive? I had not the slightest idea that you were coming this week-end."
"Half a minute, if you don't mind," another of the intruders exclaimed.
"We are most awfully sorry to behave like this, don't you know, but there's a burglar in the house. He was disturbed by one of the maids in Mrs. Jim Ponting's dressing-room, and she swears that he came in here."
"Really, Captain Clinton," Gertrude protested. "Oh, this is too ridiculous. I was sitting over my fire half asleep, and if anybody had come in I must—oh, it's too laughable. I hope the thief gained nothing in the way of plunder."
"Took the lot, I understand," Clinton said. "But of course if he hasn't been there, we are jolly well wasting our time, you chaps. Miss Stanmore, I cannot make sufficient apologies."
"There is no occasion for apologies at all," Gertrude said sweetly. "Of course you are acting for the best. And now——"
There was no more to be said or done, nothing but to withdraw with a sort of shamed confusion, and leave Gertrude to the privacy of her room. She stood there a moment holding herself in with an effort. She had seen her way a moment of two before, but Jack Seymour's unexpected appearance had been something in the nature of a shock. In the ordinary course of things she would have been glad enough to see the man that she was going to marry, but not just now. She wondered half-guiltily how much he had guessed of the truth, for there had been no smile on his lips, and no love in his eyes as they met hers. Well, it was no time to discuss that point. What she had to do now was to complete her shameful bargain with the burglar and see that he made his escape good. She opened the door of the dressing-room, and bade the thief come forth.
"That was very smart of you, miss," he said. "And here is your bracelet. It's worth a goodish bit, and I don't grudge it you; and now I daresay you would like to know all about it."
"I should indeed," Gertrude said coldly.
"Well, it's like this, miss. My name is John Heggs—leastways for the present. I ain't always been on this lay. I was a gentleman's servant once, and so you see I know a good deal about country houses. Matter of fact I've been layin' about for Mrs. Ponting's jewels for the best part of the week. You would 'ardly believe it, but I 'ave been sleeping in the 'ouse for these three nights. And I was actually 'idin' on the balcony outside yonder window when you was 'avin' that bit of an argument along o' Mrs. Jim, as they calls 'er. And a nice lot she is. Lor, I remember 'er when she was getting a quid a week in a little hall down 'Oxton way. Now, look 'ere, miss, it ain't for me to preach, but there are some things that I can't stand, and that little game wat Mrs. Ponting put up on your sister is one of 'em. And, mind you, there was a time once when your father was very good to me. And so I says to myself, 'John, my boy, when you gets off with that stuff you're just going ter send that there bracelet anonymously to Miss Stanmore, and leave her to do the rest.' An' that's way I puts it separately in my pocket when I pulls off the little deal to-night. And when that maid comes in an' interrupts me, I makes a bolt of it, and 'ere I am. It was just blind luck as brought me in 'ere. An' now I 'ope as you're satisfied."
With something quite graceful in the way of a bow, Heggs tendered the precious bracelet to Gertrude, who dropped it in the pocket of her wrap. She was seeing her way clearly now.
"They say that some women are never satisfied, Mr. Heggs," she said. "And I am afraid you will find that I am one of them. Please turn out your pockets. I have no great affection for Mrs. Ponting, but all the same I cannot stand by and permit your old acquaintance to be robbed. Am I quite clear?"
"You don't mean that, miss?" Heggs said forlornly.
"I do, indeed, Heggs. I daresay it seems a pity, but don't forget that you owe your liberty to me. I've no doubt you value that more highly than all the diamonds in the world. Yes, that's right. Are you quite sure? But I'll take your word for it. Now if you open the dressing-room window quietly you will be able to drop on the flower-bed below, and the rest I can leave to your discretion."
Without protest Heggs turned out his pockets. A heartfelt sigh broke from his lips as he let himself gently down from the window and struck out vigorously across the lawn. He knew his ground to well to fear anything in the way of an ambush, and his sigh of regret was echoed by one of relief from Gertrude, as she closed the window behind him and switched on the light.
"I suppose I ought to be satisfied," she told herself dubiously. But sleep was not for her that night. She was glad when the morning came, if only to walk about the gardens, and gather a handful of late flowers. And there amongst the lingering roses she came face to face with the man whom she was anxious to see, and whom she dreaded to meet at the same time.
"You are early, Jack," she said with a faint smile.
"Like you, I couldn't sleep," Seymour replied.
"Oh, and how do you know that I could not sleep?"
"Have you looked at yourself in the glass this morning?" Seymour asked. "Haven't you got something to tell me, Gertrude? Of course, I have no right to pry into your secrets, but it seemed to me last night there were several blind fools about——"
"Enough," Gertrude cried. "I saw you were not satisfied. And I am bound to tell you everything. At first I did not mean to. But I see now that your happiness and mine are at stake. I see that going out of my way to shield another——"
"By which you mean your sister, of course? My dear girl, are you going to live entirely for that selfish little fool? Don't you know that the way in which you have given up everything for her sake was one of your attractions in my eyes? Look here, Gertrude; you and I will be poor enough by comparison with Gladys and Falmer, and that is why we have need to be more jealous of our good name. And now I want you to tell me why you were hiding that thief in your room last night. Mind you, I am not insisting upon it, and, if you refuse I shall never mention the subject again. And I shall never treat you with less respect or admiration."
"You are making it very easy for me, Jack," Gertrude said with tears in her eyes. "Half an hour ago I did not believe that I should ever be happy again. Let us sit down here on this old seat, and I will tell you everything."
She told the story from end to end without one word in the way of extenuation. And as she proceeded she found her hands in those of Seymour, then his arm went about her waist as he bent down ad pressed his lips warmly on hers.
"And that is all," he said. "What a story! What a comedy! And what a pity we have got to keep it all to ourselves. Anything that Gladys has to say to Falmer is no business of ours. Of course, she won't tell him. And I think you can leave Mrs. Jim Ponting to me. She will me glad enough to get her jewels back, and she will probably realise that there is no chance of dating her letters from Falmer Castle. In her own vernacular, there's nothing doing! And now do you feel easy in your mind?"
"Oh, yes, yes," Gertrude whispered. "I believe that this is the happiest moment of my life."
A PLUME of smoke drifted under the great glass dome of Slagborough Station as the Northern Express came slowly to a standstill. It was getting late now, and station was almost deserted. The blue flare of the big arc lamps picked out the lettering on the posters so that they seemed to dance in an eddy of colour, as seen through the half opaque curtain of fog which for the last two or three nights had lain over England like a pall. It was an unusual time, of year for a visitation of that kind, being nearly the end of March, in the last quarter of the moon, so that the nights had been very dark.
The express crept along the platform like a green-and-gold snake that is full of fire, for the electric lights were turned on, and here and there the blinds had not been lowered. Along the platform, almost alone, came the ticket collector, for this was the first stop since the express had left London, and no further examination of tickets would be made that side of Newcastle. The express in question was not a corridor train, but consisted of three Pullman cars and a number of first-class carriages. As the collector passed along from the engine downwards, he came at length to a compartment the blinds of which were drawn, so that it might have been assumed that the compartment in question was empty. But it was no business of the man on duty to assume anything of the sort, so he opened the door and mechanically uttered his parrot cry. The compartment was empty, except that one passenger was huddled up in a far corner, with his head upon his breast, as if he had lapsed into slumber. He was an elderly man, clean-shaven, and dressed in a suit of black—a business man, obviously, probably a merchant or something of that kind. Three times did the collector repeat the request, then he crossed the carriage and laid his hand on the sleeper's shoulder.
A moment later, white and shaken, he was racing down the platform in the direction of the guard's van. That individual, important in his blue and silver, was only waiting for the signal to start.
"Well, Joe," he said impatiently, "what is it?"
"I dunno," the ticket collector stammered. "But there's a passenger all by 'imself in a first-class carriage dahn there, and 'e's dead. Looks to me as if 'e'd bin murdered. There's blood all over 'is shirt-front an' on the floor. I goes in to ask 'im for 'is ticket, an' there I finds 'im as I'm telling you. Anyway, the pore chap's dead."
"Murdered be hanged!" the startled guard exclaimed. "That's impossible. Why, the train 'asn't stopped since we left London, an' there wasn't no murdered man in the train then, I'll take my oath. Besides which, if anybody'd murdered 'im, 'ow could 'e possibly 'ave left the train?"
"Well, then, 'e's murdered 'isself!" the ticket collector said hoarsely. "You come along an' see."
Now, time and express trains wait for no man, and it was only a few minutes before the compound engine was on its way again. The dead man had been removed, and, pending an inquest, the body had been locked up in one of the waiting-rooms. It was some days before any clue to the identity of the deceased was made public, and then it transpired that he was a certain Jabez Thornton, a comparatively well-known business man, who had an office in London, and who resided practically alone in a small house on the borders of Essex. A few more details came out at the inquest, but not many. To begin with, the dead man Thornton was travelling to Newcastle, as the ticket found in his pocket showed, and there was nothing with him in the way of luggage, not even so much as a hand-bag. He had joined the train in London, of course, and his ticket had been examined and clipped on the platform, previous to the departure of the train, in the ordinary way. There was nothing on the body besides a watch and chain and purse and a pocket-book containing a few letters addressed to Thornton in the ordinary way of business.
At the adjourned inquiry the only witness called was the dead man's housekeeper, Maria Flinn. According to her evidence, her master was an exceedingly reticent man, who never spoke to her except when absolutely necessary. He was in the habit of going to London most days, and invariably returned to his cottage by tea-time. He seemed to care nothing what he ate or drank, he had no friends and no weaknesses, and it was his invariable custom, whatever the weather was like, to go for a walk after tea and return to supper at nine o'clock. Mrs. Flinn never knew whether her master had come back or not. Occasionally he would go off after breakfast, and remain away for two or three days without saying a word to her about it. It was her duty to get the meals just the same, and if they were wasted, it was no business of hers.
On the night of the tragedy Thornton had gone out as usual, and when ten o'clock came and he had not returned, the housekeeper locked up and went to bed as usual. She was not in the least alarmed, because the same thing had happened before. No doubt her master had gone to London by one of the numerous suburban trains, with a view to catching the Northern Express, and presumably, when he did that sort of thing, he picked up his portmanteau, or whatever he took with him, at his office. Certainly he had left the cottage in plenty of time to get up to London and catch the Northern Express, which left the terminus shortly before seven o'clock.
For the present, this was all the public were likely to learn. It was not a particularly interesting case, and made no definite appeal to popular imagination. To begin with, it transpired that Thornton was a money-lender as well as an ordinary business man. He had a dingy office in the City, where he was practically unknown; he only employed one clerk, and that a mere drudge, who really knew nothing about his master's affairs. For some reason or another, he had taken his own life, and there was an end to the mystery so far as the general public was concerned.
But Inspector Thomas Fadden, of Scotland Yard, who had the case in hand, was by no means of the same opinion. To begin with, his investigations snowed him no reason whatever why that hard, grasping old man should put an end to his own life. There was nothing about him to indicate any tendency of the kind. He was a man who lived by line and rule, with one object in life, and that the piling up of money. His business as a money-lender appeared to be somewhat extensive, but that branch of the concern had been carried on entirely by the dead man at his cottage, through the medium of the post office. Apparently it had been the one enjoyment of his life.
Obviously this was not the type of man who committed suicide. And if he had stabbed himself in the left breast, as people seemed to imagine, then what had become of the weapon? Thornton had been killed by one clean stroke that must have taken instantaneous effect, and, this being so, it was certain that he would have been in no condition to struggle to his feet and throw the knife out of the window. Moreover, the window was fastened and the blinds down, when the body was found, and there was no evidence whatever of a struggle. Thornton had lain back in the corner of the carriage as peacefully as if he had been asleep. There was nothing whatever in this evidence even to suggest suicide.
But, on the contrary, Thornton was alone in the carriage, the blinds were down, and the door opposite the platform was locked, and, moreover, there was evidence to the effect that the train had not stopped between London and Slagborough. How, then, had the crime been committed? Obviously, not in London. On a crowded platform, with brilliant lights, it would be impossible for anybody to commit an offence like this and escape detection. Fadden was clearly puzzled, but at the same time he clung obstinately to his theory that the man in the corner of the first-class carriage had been murdered. But how—why—when? Fadden would have given a good deal to know.
As yet he had not carried out his intention of going down into Essex to examine the dead man's effects, with the intention of finding some clue there. Instead, he haunted the railway stations, and made the lives of the officials there a burden to them. The best part of a week had elapsed before he stumbled, more or less by accident, on a piece of information which he ought to have had days before. It came through a platform inspector, and dropped from his lips as if it had no value whatever.
"What's that you're saying?" Fadden asked.
"Oh, it's nothing," the official said carelessly. "I was only sayin' to the superintendent here that after to-night there'll be no occasion to stop the Northern Express outside Foxhill Tunnel any longer."
Fadden forced himself to smile.
"Isn't Foxhill in Essex?" he asked. "Isn't it just this side of Withington?"
"Oh, yes, that's right. We've bin makin' some repairs in the tunnel, which have been delayed by all the fog we had last week. You see, we've got a big gang of men working there, and as one of them was seriously injured a little time ago, we had to pull up the trains this side of the tunnel for two or three minutes, and whistle so that those chaps could get out of the way. It often happens in foggy weather."
Fadden said nothing; he was too busy with his own thoughts. Then he turned to the man on the platform and asked a question.
"Look here," he said, "I have got an idea that might help me. Where is the carriage now in which the body of Jabez Thornton was found? If it doesn't happen to be running, I should very much like to have a look at it."
"Oh, of course we know which it is, but I don't suppose it's in the yard at present. Come in here to-morrow evening about tea-time, and I'll have it slipped for you."
"I will," Fadden said emphatically, "I will."
To the ordinary eye the carriage conveyed nothing. Fadden, however, examined it with the greatest care, especially the woodwork on the inside frame of the windows, and, when he had finished, he smiled with the air of a man who feels that he has not been wasting his time. And yet, outwardly, what he had discovered did not appear to amount to much. It was merely that some time, more or less recently, someone had apparently pasted a sheet of paper over the window of the carriage door—a sheet of white paper—which had subsequently been torn away, leaving nothing but just the corners of the paper where they had been pasted. But this discovery kept Inspector Fadden very busy thinking for the next hour or two, during which time he was on his way to Withington, with a view to spending an evening, if necessary, inside Thornton's cottage.
So far, nothing had been disturbed. The police had the key of Thornton's safe—which they had taken possession of directly his identity had been established—and the same key was at that moment in Fadden's pocket. He had not told anybody, and Scotland Yard had been equally reticent, that a large sum of money in notes, which Thornton had drawn on the morning of his death, and had taken with him down to Withington, was missing. So far, no close examination had been made of the mass of papers which were still lying on Thornton's desk. But it was quite another matter now, and it was more than possible that an inspection of those papers would lead Fadden a long way down the road which he had begun to travel since he had heard that for several nights during the past week the Northern Express had been pulled up at the entrance to Foxhill Tunnel. That the authorities had not informed Fadden of this, the latter regarded as a piece of incredible stupidity; but, on the other hand, the average railway official is not exactly a good judge of the value of criminal evidence.
At any rate, Fadden plunged into his task with fresh zest and interest. At the end of an hour he had thrown most of the papers aside as quite useless for his purpose, and had concentrated his attention on a letter which he had found lying on the blotting-pad. It was quite a clean blotting-pad, with no mark upon it except the figures 18975, jotted down on one corner of the grey pad in pencil, evidently a memorandum of some kind made by Thornton just before his death. In his methodical way Fadden took down the figures in his pocket-book. Then he proceeded to read the letter. It was headed "19, Queen Street, Gray's Inn Road," and, in a neat, feminine hand , ran as follows:—
I enclose you a five-pound note herewith, which, I regret to say, is all I can do for the moment. I know it is only half the amount I should have sent as promised, but I have been disappointed to-day with regard to some money I expected for my last lot of designs, and you shall have the other five pounds on Sunday. I pray you not to be hard upon me, because, if I lose my little home here, my child and myself will be turned out in the street to starve. I know my husband treated you badly; I know that he robbed you of money by giving you a forged cheque, and that you cashed it for him. But he is not entirely bad, and there was a time when he was as good a husband as any woman might wish. He has been very unfortunate lately, and for a long time has been unable to procure an engagement on the music-hall stage. You know how clever a lightning artist he is, and he cannot be out of work for long. He hopes to get an engagement in Newcastle next week, when he has promised to send me some money. As soon as he does, I will forward you the whole of it. I implore you not to be hard upon ine, for the sake of the child.
There was a memorandum scribbled across the letter, just the words "take proceedings to-morrow." Fadden smiled grimly as he read the note.
"A hard man," he murmured, "a cruelly hard man. And that letter speaks for itself. It's a whole human tragedy in a few lines. Now, let me see. Here is a man whom Thornton could have prosecuted at any moment, a man who owed him money, and whose wife was doing her best to pay it off. Inside this letter was a five-pound note, and the letter reached Thornton, according to the postmark, a few minutes before he set out on that journey from which he never returned. I wonder what became of that five-pound note? It isn't in the safe, because there was no money found there at all, so that the fiver in question was probably stolen with the other notes, or possibly all that money was on Thornton at the time he was killed! Here, stop a minute. Now, I wouldn't mind making a small bet that these pencilled figures on the blotting-pad represent the number of that five-pound note. It's just what a careful man in a hurry would do. It's no clue, of course, but one never knows when these things are likely to prove useful. There are no trivial details in our business."
It was an hour later before Fadden turned into Queen Street and asked for Mrs. Gaylord, at No. 19. He found himself presently talking to a little, faded woman with a very white and pathetic face, that must have been pretty and attractive before care and trouble had aged it so terribly. The woman's eyes had a suggestion of fear in them as she stood before Fadden in a neat little sitting-room, waiting for him to speak. There were signs of the grimmest poverty all round him—signs which were more or less contradicted by the somewhat substantial cold meal that stood on the table.
"What can I do for you?" the woman asked fearfully.
"Well, I don't know that you can do anything," Fadden smiled. "At any rate, you've nothing to be afraid of, though I have told you who I am. Now, I am inquiring into the death of a man named Thornton, and it is my business not to leave anything undone. You know the man I am speaking of, of course—in fact, you and your husband owe him money. I know that because I have seen a letter from you to him, enclosing a five-pound note. It may save a good deal of trouble if you tell me where you got that money from."
"From Barker's, of St. Paul's Churchyard," the woman said simply. "I work for them— at least, I do designs for them in colour. On the day I sent that money to Mr. Thornton the firm paid me five pounds in gold, and I got Mr. Gange, the grocer at the corner of the road, to exchange it for a note. You see, I am so poor that every penny is important to me, and that is why I did not send a postal order."
Fadden nodded thoughtfully. So far, he was quite satisfied that the woman was telling the truth—at any rate, it would be an easy matter to verify it—and, of course, he was aware of the fact that that piece of precious paper had reached Thornton previous to his death.
"I don't want to hurt your feelings," Fadden went on, "but I gather from that letter of yours that your husband has obtained money from Thornton by false pretences, and I take it you have been paying it off by instalments."
The woman's sensitive face quivered.
"That's quite true," she said. "I have been paying it off for two years, and cruel hard work it has been, with my husband out of employment most of the time. And that man made me promise to pay double the money. Ah, he was a hard man, was Jabez Thornton!"
"So it seems," Fadden said dryly. "And is your husband out of work now? Has he sent you anything lately? Your supper-table rather suggests that he has."
"Well, he did. He wrote to me from Newcastle, where he is now employed at a music-hall, and he actually forwarded me a five-pound note. It's in the letter there on the mantelpiece at the present moment. In the ordinary way, I should have forwarded it to Mr. Thornton, but, now that he is dead, there is no such great hurry, and whoever comes into his money will never be as cruelly hard as he was."
"We'll hope not," Fadden said. "Now, I am a police officer, and whatever you say to me is in confidence. It may save you a good deal of unpleasantness, and me one or two journeys, if you allow me to see that letter. I am not suggesting that I have any charge against your husband, but, you understand, I like to clear up things as I go along."
The letter was handed over without the slightest hesitation. It was a careless, heartless epistle, written in an unsteady hand that told its own tale, and enclosing a five-pound note, with an intimation that there was plenty more to come, and that the writer had struck some mysterious vein of extraordinary good luck. There were no regrets and no inquiries—in fact, there were not more than a dozen carelessly written lines altogether. Still, Fadden turned it over in his hand thoughtfully before he replaced the note inside. Then, just, as he was doing so, the number in the corner struck him.
Now, Fadden was a man with a good memory, he was trained to observe trifles, and, above all, he understood the necessity of keeping himself well in hand on all occasions; but, hardened as he was, he had to bite his lips to keep back the cry that struggled in the back of his throat. For here, beyond the shadow of a doubt, was a real tangible clue. The numbers on the note exactly coincided with those that Thornton had pencilled on the corner of his blotting-pad. It was one of those coincidences that the police so often meet with, and which have been the means of sending more than one scoundrel to the scaffold. For beyond question the bank-note which Mrs. Gaylord had earned by the sweat of her brow, and had sent on to her hard taskmaster on the day of his death, had found its way back to her husband within a few hours of the tragedy, and in return he had sent it on to the woman who, all unconsciously, was handing him over to justice. Without another word Fadden passed over the letter and walked out of the house.
He knew exactly what to do now. He had the address of Richard Gaylord in Newcastle, and there he proceeded on the following day. Quite as he expected, the man he was in search of was unknown in any of the music-halls on Tyneside. He found him presently at a small public-house, breakfasting in a little sitting-room. The man was bloodshot as to his eyes, and unshaven, and obviously had not yet recovered from what he himself would term "a thick night." He looked up uneasily as Fadden entered the room.
"What's your business here?" he muttered.
"My name is Fadden, and I am an inspector from Scotland Yard," the detective said crisply. "I have a warrant for your arrest for the murder of Jabez Thornton at Withington, in Essex, on the night of Tuesday last week. You can make any statement you like, but it will be used in evidence against you. When I have handed you over to the police here, I am going round to Wharf Street to arrest your accomplice, Venner."
The man sitting at the table fell forward with a cry. He collapsed into his chair, a pitiful picture of fear and terror. There was no sign of a light left in him.
"It's all up," he groaned, " and I thought we had worked it so cleverly, too! That devil has had me under his thumb for years. And Venner was in his grip as well. We paid him for what we did twice over already. But how did you know that Venner was in it with me?"
Fadden smiled mysteriously. As a matter of fact, he was going to arrest the man called Venner purely on suspicion. He knew that these men were never to be found far apart, and that they had been under the eye of the police for years.
"Oh, all right," Gaylord said sullenly. "You needn't say, unless you like, but how did you find it out?"
"It wasn't as difficult as it looked," Fadden said. "Now, you knew all about Mr. Thornton's habits—you knew that he was fond of walking about in the dark along the country lanes, and that one of his favourite strolls was over Foxhill. You probably waited for foggy weather, and hung about near the tunnel, so that you could waylay your victim in a lonely spot and murder him. I suppose your idea was to get hold of his keys and rob his safe when he was out of the way. But you were saved that trouble, because Mr. Thornton had a large sum of money in his pocket when you killed him. But it really was a brilliant idea to take advantage of the foggy weather, and your knowledge that just then the Northern Express was stopped outside the tunnel. Now, one of you hung about and committed the murder, whilst the other one went to London and took a first-class ticket to Newcastle. Whoever that was secured a carriage to himself by a judicious half-crown to a railway porter. Then over the carriage window on the proper side was pasted a piece of tissue-paper with holes made in it for identification purposes. When the train pulled up in the fog, it was an easy matter for the man in the first-class carriage to get out, knowing that his accomplice was waiting for him, and manage to get the dead man's body into the compartment. The clipped railway ticket was placed in his pocket, and the door carefully closed. It really was a fine idea, and, but for an accident, the truth might never have come out. But, unfortunately, on the day of Mr. Thornton's death, he received from your wife a five-pound note on account of your debt, and this the recipient recorded. That five-pound note was in his pocket with the other notes when he was killed. The big block of notes you and your comrade have not dared to get rid of yet, but you sent that fatal fiver to your wife, and then I knew beyond question that you had a hand in that crime. You can correct me if I am wrong, but I don't think I am. And now, if you have anything to say—"
"It's all up!" Gaylord muttered hoarsely. "I did it, right enough, and I don't know that I regret it, either."
ANGELA of the sea-grey eyes lay in her little white bed, dreaming in elusive golden and purple patches. That is to say, she was not asleep; she could see the moon shining in through the parted dimity blinds of the cottage window, and she was not in the least afraid, though she was quite alone in the house. She was used to that now, accustomed to do most of the housework for herself, with the aid of an occasional help from the village down there at the foot of the moorland. She ought to have been desperately unhappy, but she was not, because she was young, and it was the spring of the year, with the daffodils blooming down there in the garden, and the wallflowers filling the air with their fragrance. And, besides, she had just sold her last lot of drawings, and she had commissions enough to last her well into the autumn. And therefore—
She was swaying gently backwards now; she was getting the dreams into focus. There was the old home, the crazy, tumble-down old vicarage with its walled-in garden, and then the lych-gate of the church, and a grave under the shadow of the big yew tree: "Sacred to the memory of James Dysart, twenty-seven years vicar of this parish." Then a solicitor, dry of manner, keen of face, who had suggested things. Ronald must go on at Cambridge, of course. It would be rather a pinch, but, if Angela thought she could live on her art work, it might be managed. And then the tiny cottage amongst the heather that she had learnt to love so well. After that, again, Ronald, self-reliant, brilliantly successful, and boyish and innocent as ever, was back again. He had carried everything before him. Everybody said that his scientific research showed marked originality; that wireless telephone of his was going to mark an epoch. It would bring him not only fame, but wealth as well. And all this at the end of only two years at Cambridge.
And, after that, the advent of Philip Service, and, behold, a new and dazzling world opened itself up at Angela's feet. For the Greek god had come, the prince had touched her on the lips, and a woman stood where, the day before, a child had walked delicately. It seemed too good to be true, too good to believe, that this Olympian should have stooped to take her by the hand.
He was so handsome, so marvellously, brilliantly clever. Already he was spoken of as the coming surgeon; already he had mastered the secret of Ronald's wireless telephone. But he was poor; he wanted a thousand pounds. With that, then all the world would lie in the hollow of his hand.
How had it all come about? Dreaming there, Angela was striving to place the threads together. By some hypnotic process her little capital had found its way into his hands; indeed, it seemed to her that she had forced it on him. And then there had been some terrible scandal in connection with a series of vivisection experiments, researches so cold-blooded that even Service's fellow-surgeons had been aghast. The man was diabolically clever, they said, but absolutely inhuman. There was a scandal, of course, followed by a prosecution, which Service did not wait for, but took himself off disdainfully to America. He would come back, he said, when the British public returned to their senses. He had merely written this to Angela; he had gone without seeing her, saying that he would be back in the autumn.
It hurt Angela, pained and outraged as she was, to hear people say that Service was a brilliant blackguard. But she found it out later, when Ronald foamed into the cottage one night and cursed Service homerically. The marvellous new wireless telephone had never been properly protected, and that scoundrel had actually taken out a provisional patent in his own name.
Angela could see the white, wet face of her brother as he stormed up and down the stone-flagged floor of the little sitting-room. He would follow that rascal to the ends of the earth; he would not be content until he had taken the thief by the throat and wrested the spoil from him. He did not care what happened to himself—he was reckless of the future. And so he went on the hot adventure, and Angela was alone.
In the little room next to hers, where Ronald had worked, the delicate little instrument still stood. It was little more than an ordinary receiver hedged about with concentric rings and a multitude of little steel points, a kind of miniature generating-station of aether and eon and other strange forces of which Angela knew nothing. But she did know that many a time she had conversed with Ronald from that little room to a point on the moor some ten miles away. She had listened in some confusion to his learned dissertation on air waves and dynamic forces which, when properly tuned one to the other, would make this service a practical proposition all over the world. There was one other man who knew something about it, but Angela never learnt his name.
She was getting over it now; the light had come back into her eyes, and the elasticity into her step, and there was only one terror that haunted the purple and gold flashes of these moonlit dreams—Service was coming back again in the autumn. She feared and disliked him now, but, if he did come back, then assuredly he would exercise the old hypnotic power over her again. He had loved her in his own peculiar way—loved her as if she had been a specimen in some collector's case possessed by no other student of entomology. It was hateful to be loved like that.
Then the dreams became more personal and tender. It was a glorious moonlight night, with the scent of the daffodils faintly sweet through the open window, and the knowledge that the world was very far away. And then—then the wireless telephone began to ring.
Angela was not in the least frightened. In her fancy, it was as if the fairies were calling. Someone in a world far away was speaking to her; and, so far as she knew, the secret working of that telephone was known only to Ronald and the man who was now thrashing his way to San Francisco in a tramp steamer round Cape Horn. She rose from her bed and took a dressing-gown from her wardrobe. For here was something like an adventure, and curiosity gripped her firmly by the arm. She unhooked the receiver and placed it to her ear. Then she spoke.
"Hello!" she said. "Hello! Who is speaking?"
"One moment," a voice said at the other end. "This—this is rather unexpected. Then it is true. Really, I beg your pardon. Would you mind telling me where you are?"
"This is Minehead, in Surrey," Angela said. "And you?"
"Does it really matter?" the voice asked. "Oh, well, I am somewhere on the West Coast. Wireless. You see, I have been making experiments with telephones. I did hear a legend, a few months ago, that a bright particular star up at Cambridge had got in front of me. I have not the least idea what his name is, but it occurred to me that you might be able to tell me."
"I can tell you nothing," Angela said coolly.
"Oh, quite right, quite right. I ought not to have asked. Still, you can see what a thrilling episode it is. Between you and me, we ought to shake the world. It is high time, too, that woman came into her own."
"You are sure you are talking to a woman?"
"Of course. A young woman with a voice like silver."
"Do you want me to end the conversation?"
"Oh, don't go—please, don't go! It was abominably rude of me, but I feel so tremendously—well, bucked! There is no other word for it. And you must be young and beautiful—you could not be anything else with a voice like that. There, I can't help it. I have fused all the elements of science in a crucible to-night, and out of it I have evolved a shining pearl. I suppose you did not know that scientists could talk like that. Ah, if you'd only tell me your name!"
"I should much prefer to have yours."
"Oh, don't let's spoil it. This is the original romance—this is science harnessed to fiction. And between the two of them they have produced the tenderest story in the world. No, I don't usually talk like this. Perhaps to-morrow night—"
"Oh!" Angela exclaimed. "Really, sir!"
"But don't you see we must," the other voice urged—"in the cause of humanity, progress, civilisation. I cast my bread upon the aether, and it comes back to me like this. We are like two children wandering in a verdant forest—we are on the eve of great discoveries. Oh, I must go on! And I know you will help me. You see, there is no one else in the world that knows what you and I do. It is our secret—yours and mine. I won't ever ask who you are; I won't try and find out where you live—that is, until you give me permission. Now, do forgive me and say that I can speak to you again."
Then the voice trailed away into nothingness. For some time Angela waited in vain. She was just a little excited, a little amused, and not in the least displeased. And it was a pleasant, manly voice that had been ringing in her ears. Perhaps to-morrow night, perhaps And then she fell asleep.
* * * * *
"Are you there, Electra? Are you there?"
"Even so, Ariel." Angela smiled. "Even so."
"Ah, we are getting on," the voice at the other end said. "Let me see, now. Correct me if I am wrong. This is the fourteenth night since the spirits of the air first brought us together. Is that not so, Electra?"
"I suppose I ought to feel flattered," Angela said.
"No, don't. I am in deadly earnest. Every day that goes by brings with it some fresh and startling discovery. I know now that the wireless telephone is a practical proposition. My dear Electra, we shall be rich beyond the dreams of avarice."
"We! " Angela cried. "We! Well—"
She regretted the impulse a moment later. It would have been far better to have ignored that word.
"Well, why not?" the other voice said coolly. "There will be money enough in it for all of us. To your brother the larger share, of course, as the original inventor. And yet here am I, five hundred miles away from you, without even knowing your name, or exactly where you live, or even what you look like. But stop. I do know what you look like. You are young and slender, and you have the true artistic mind. You have the most glorious red-brown hair and a pair of eyes blue or grey, as your mood changes. You have a heavenly smile and a little tiny dimple in your left cheek."
"You have dared to come and spy here!" Angela cried.
"Not so, Electra. I really did deduce all this from that beautiful voice of yours. Anyway, you have answered my question. I wonder if you would send me a photograph? Stop—half a moment! I have to attend to my wireless... Are you there?... Oh, yes, that's all right. Now, if I were a mercenary man, I could make a good deal of money. There are times when I have priceless information hours before it reaches the markets of the world. For instance, I have just heard—No, perhaps I'd better not tell you that, because it is a Government secret. But nearly every night I have done my best to spoil to-morrow's paper for you. Don't go away yet. If ever I come down to Surrey—"
Angela put down the receiver and went to bed.
The golden days were drifting on, the daffodils were faded, and the roses in the cottage garden were in full bloom. From time to time Angela had certain fragments of information from her brother. From one port it was a letter, and from another a postcard. He was hot on the track of Service now; he hoped to catch him up at San Francisco within the next few weeks. Then he would take the rascal by the throat and drag those papers out of him. He would have a lawful assignment if he had to force it at the point of a revolver, and then he would come back home and take his proper place again. Service was on board the Danube, and Ronald was only a few days behind him.
This was interesting and exciting enough, but there were also brief letters from Service to the effect that he was coming back in the autumn—indeed, he mentioned the actual ship by which he intended to return. And as Angela read these messages, her heart sank lower and lower, and the blossoming of the roses in the garden ceased to interest her. She thought of the fall of the autumn leaves and the golden crimson of the bracken. She felt cold and miserable. Her eyes were open now; she wanted to be free and unfettered, and she knew only too well that, once Service was back in England, he would exercise all the old hypnotic influence over her. The man was utterly unscrupulous, but so long as he lived he would still keep that sway, and sooner or later the prison doors would close, unless—unless— She smiled as the thought occurred to her. It was all utterly illogical and absurd, no doubt, but a man with a voice and cheery optimism like that of the mysterious Ariel must be capable of big things. Now, supposing that Angela told him a little more—supposing that she told him the whole truth! And she would do it—she would do it that very night.
And that was why she never mentioned it. The roses were finished, and July was dead and gone, and the scarlet dahlias flamed in the garden, with the story yet untold. It was a little dank and cheerless outside, and a fine rain was falling on the red tiles of the cottage.
* * * * *
"Hello! Hello! Oh, yes. It's you? But why so sad? Is something troubling that dear mind of yours?"
"How do you know that I am sad?" Angela asked.
"I know it because every inflexion of your voice to me is a study in emotions. I know it because I love you, dear Electra, and the time has come when I cannot be happy without you. And you know it, too. It is three months now since I heard you speak out of the darkness, and if you do not care for me—"
"Well, sir, go on. Why this modesty?"
"Oh, I was going on all right. If you had not got to care, then we should never have had all these intimate conversations. I have told you everything, as I believe also that you have told me—well, as much as a woman ever tells."
"I ought to be angry," Angela said, "but—but I'm not. I ought to have told you long ago that there was somebody else."
"Oh, I guessed that," the other voice said cheerfully. "But you don't love him. If you do, I will put my transmitter down and not say another word."
"Please don't go away," Angela said faintly. "I—"
"Darling, I knew it! And we are going to be the happiest couple alive. Now tell me all about it."
"Oh, you really are!" Angela laughed unsteadily. "And I have never even seen you; but even if I had— Oh, it's impossible! I promised another man—"
"Yes, but you don't love him. I'll go further, and say that you very much dislike him. You are afraid of him, that's what it is. Sweetheart, a girl with a dimple like that in your left cheek must not be sacrificed in this cold-blooded fashion. Now, let me see. Let me send him about his business."
"But you can't—he is on the sea."
"But not a sailor. He could not be. No sailor would make love to a girl who disliked him. Now, let me come and see you. We'll talk it over, and then you shall write him a letter. If you like, I'll put another one in the same envelope. And I'm a dreadfully hefty chap, and I can box a bit, too. If you don't believe it, ask any old Oxford man if Cyri—But I very nearly gave myself away then. Do let me come and see you."
"No," Angela said firmly—"at least, not yet. Oh, you don't know what you are saying; you don't know what forces you are up against. And I can't talk to you any more to-night."
Angela dropped the receiver and crept miserably back to bed. There was a way out here, perhaps a desperately foolish one, but a way out, all the same. Was there ever anything in the shape of comedy more illogical and absurd than this? To give her heart and her confidence to a man she had never seen! And yet she must escape; she must follow the line of the least resistance. And with this she fell asleep.
* * * * *
"Well, I'm waiting for you to speak."
"How dreadfully hard your voice seems! Anyone would think that you were angry with me. If you only knew how lonely I am, and how unhappy, I am sure—"
"Dearest, forgive me. I am getting so beastly restless. I have been working very hard, too. In a few days I am going to take my holiday, and I can't return here until that letter is written. It must be done, and the sooner the better. Now, do tell me where I can find you. I feel like a restless bird that has migrated in the spring in search of his mate. You can imagine the condition I'm in when I am reduced to poetical similes like these. Now, I'll give you just one week to make up your mind. At the end of that time I shall come down and decide, and bring my wireless telephone with me. Then I shall call like a bird from every hill until the voice of my mate responds to me. If you don't respond, then I shall know you don't care. My dearest girl, was ever science yet mortgaged for so sweet a purpose?"
"Have you ceased to be quite practical?" Angela asked.
"My own Electra, why mock me? But you're quite right. One must be practical sometimes—which reminds me. I am afraid I have got some bad news for you. Did not you tell me that your brother had sailed in the Danube?"
"Oh, no!" Angela cried. "His boat was the Dniester—"
"That's all right, then, because I heard half an hour ago that the Danube had gone down off the coast of Chile in a storm, and that only one man had been saved—one of the crew. Here, hello, hello! Where have you got to?"
But the receiver had fallen from Angela's hands, and the tears were wet upon her cheeks. It had come, then—the freedom that she had longed for—and come, too, in a way that made her more than half ashamed of her gratitude. Strange, indeed, that this information had reached her from such a source. It seemed to her as if she were in two moods—a queer blending of misery and unhappiness. But be that as it might, she could not speak to the man at the other end any more to-night. She could not speak to him at all. She tried to more than once on the following evening, but her courage failed her; and for three nights those mysterious, long-reaching, ariel fingers set the sound waves in motion, but the bell in the little room spoke in vain. Then, as the days went on, Angela's balance and common-sense came back to her. It was absurd to go on in this way; she must speak to Ariel again, and tell him exactly what had happened. But how much easier it would be for her to do this when they sat side by side in the shadow of the pine forest, and he could hear the story of her life from her own lips.
And yet she could not do it. Another day or two passed by, beautiful August days, with the heather in bloom like a purple sheet upon the moorland, and down below the cornlands turning gold and mellow in the sunshine. It seemed to Angela that she could only sit at the door of the cottage and dream. For the last week she had done no work. She was hardly conscious of the fact that she had just lunched, and—
And then the telephone bell began to ring.
She flew up the stairs, eager, anxious, and trembling. Something strange must have happened—something dreadful and unexpected. Her lips shook as she spoke.
"What is it?" she whispered. "What is it?"
"The bird looking for his mate," the other voice said. "Did I not tell you what would happen? For three days I have been seeking, seeking; but something was wrong with one of the concentrics, and I could not call you."
"Where—where are you now?" Angela stammered,
"Well, to keep up the bird simile, I am fluttering over Surrey. Darling, I must be within a few miles of you. At the present moment I am seated on the top of a high piece of moorland that seems to be far away from the rest of the world. I can see the Channel on one side, or what looks like it, and the glorious woods on the other, and apparently there is no human being within miles. Ah, if you were only with me now!"
"Do you know the name of that place?" Angela asked, in a small voice. "Is—is it far from here?"
"Dearest, how should I know? But, as a matter of fact, the place where I am seated is known by name to me. I got it from an honest shepherd who passed just now with a flock of sheep. He says the place is called Ledge Point."
A queer little laugh broke from Angela's lips. Her heart was beating wildly, the grey eyes gleamed like stars.
"There is no evading you," she whispered. "Now, if you will turn your eyes towards the west, down at the foot of a great clump of pines you will see a tiny red-roofed cottage. And if you could see like the bird can, then you would also make out a figure in a cotton dress and a cotton sun-bonnet, and that figure is me. You are not more than half a mile away, Ariel, and I can't quite realise it yet."
"Sweetheart, don't waste another moment of this glorious day. Shall I come to you, or will you come to me? I can see the path lying plain across the moor."
"I think," Angela said demurely, with a suspicion of a lilt in her voice, "I think that, in the circumstances, it will be far better for us to meet half-way."
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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