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IN an article entitled "My First Work", written for the February 1942 edition of the British Lilliput magazine, Oppenheim states that he sold Curate and Fiend to The Leicester Chronicle and Leicestershire Mercury when he was only 18 years old. Oppenheim's recollection (he was 76 when the article appeared) seems to have been faulty, for, since he was born on October 22, 1866, he must have been 22 years old when the story was actually published. It is, of course possible, though most unlikely, that the newspaper bought the manuscript from the 18-year-old Oppenheim but delayed publication for four years.
Bibliographic records indicate that Expiation: A Novel of England and Our Canadian Dominion (John & Robert Maxwell, London, 1887) appeared a year before The Leicester Chronicle and Leicestershire Mercury published Curate and Fiend in 13 weekly installments, beginning on December 8, 1988.
This is borne out by the following advertisement published in The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, on January 26, 1887:
Ridgefield. Manchester. A NEW NOVEL. BY A NEW AUTHOR... EXPIATION. By E.P. Oppenheim. A well-written novel, and full of interest. London: J. and B. Maxwell, St. Bride-st., and all Bookstalls.
It is further corroborated by the following notice from The Sheffield Independent of December 14, 1888:
MR. E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM is to publish from his pen a NEW and EXCITING TALE, entitled CURATE AND FIEND. Mr. Oppenheim's tales are well-known to the readers of fiction in the Pictorial World and Whitehall Review. His first novel, "Expiation," received flattering recognition from the Press throughout the United Kingdom.... Mr. Oppenheim's style is clear and fascinating. Curate and Fiend is a high-class tale of intense interest, wherein the Curate acts the Hero.
This RGL edition of Curate and Fiend marks the first appearance of the novel in book form. Thanks and credit for making it available to our readers go to Francis Golding, who donated PDF image files of the issues of The Leicester Chronicle and Leicestershire Mercury in which it appeared.
The poor quality of the original newspaper scans precluded the use of optical character recognition (OCR) software to create editable text, so it was necessary to transcribe the complete novel in order to produce this e-book. On a number of the scans parts of the text were almost or completely illegible. In some cases, the context made it possible to determine which word or words were used, and these have been inserted into the text without comment. In cases of doubt brackets have been used to identify words added by the editor. —Roy Glashan, August 2016
IT was a brilliantly fine Saturday morning just before harvest time, and the spacious market-place and crooked streets of Norwich are streaming with a continuous crowd of farmers, cattle-dealers of horsey appearance, county ladies with their thoughts bent on shopping, and a very fair sprinkling of typical Norfolk squires. Luncheon-time is at hand, and already the restaurant of Mons. Francini in London Street is filling fast: a sight very pleasant to the eyes of the bowing little proprietor, who stands in the top corner of the room directing the operations of his myrmidons, rubbing his hands, and smiling an urbane smile of welcome to each newcomer. It would not require the art of a thought-reader to divine what is passing in his mind, Without doubt he is fervently wishing that market-day came a little oftener than once a week, and that every Saturday were as fine as to-day.
Still again the swing doors are pushed open, and a young man, evidently a stranger to the place, enters. He stands still for a moment, leisurely taking off his gloves, and looking around for a vacant seat. Crowded though the room is, there is still one table at which an elderly grey-haired man sits eating his lunch in solitary silence. Without any hesitation the young man makes his way towards the table, and seats himself opposite its other occupant, resigning his hat and stick to a waiter. The latter [sic] returns his good-morning, but seems disinclined for conversation. The stranger, while he awaits the return of the waiter, to whom he has given his orders, has nothing better to do, therefore, than to lean back in his chair and watch the people thronging in. Presently something strikes him as curious. Notwithstanding the crush and although fresh tables have been dragged out and rapidly arranged, everyone avoids the table at which he is sitting, and at which there is still room for two more. While he is wondering at this strange circumstance, his vis-à-vis calls for his bill, settles it, bows courteously to him, and walks towards the door. Before he has reached the door the young man, who remains at the table, calls a waiter to him.
"Who is that gentleman?" he inquires, curiously.
The waiter appears surprised at the question.
"You're a stranger in the city, I suppose, sir," he remarks. "That gentleman is Sir Basil Gorleston of Gorleston Hall.You've heard of him, no doubt."
The young man shakes his head. The waiter regards him pityingly.
Dear me, sir, you must come from a very long way off, surely, not to have heard of him. They do say," he continued, dropping his voice almost to a whisper, "that in his younger days he was the wickedest young man that ever lived. Anyhow, he's got a fearful bad name, and though it all happened many years ago, there's nobody as'll speak to him even now."
"What did he do?" asks the young man, much interested.
The waiter pulls a longer face than ever, and drops his voice lower still.
"Well, he's been tried for murder once and convicted, and they say as he murdered his wife, too, because she ran away from him. He was a clergyman and all when he was a young man, only he was of course what they call unfrocked when he began those goings on. They say as—coming, sir," and the waiter's interesting narrative was brought to a close.
I am Sir Basil Gorleston, Bart., and it is my own story which I am about to tell.
THERE was nothing in the manner of my birth, my position or my behaviour which pointed to anything extraordinary in connection with my life up to October 2nd, 18—, on which date I reached my 25th year. I was an orphan, but not a destitute one, and was educated and generally looked after by my uncle, Sir Henry Gorleston, Bart., of Gorleston Hall, Norfolk. I did nothing particular at school, but excelled more in the cricket field than in the class-room. At twenty years of age I matriculated, and went up to Oxford, and at the end of my first term I had as yet formed no idea as to what profession I should embrace—if any. From my father I inherited as small property, which would bring me in ´nearly four hundred a year, and, presumably at any rate, I was my uncles's heir, he having neither children nor wife. The Gorleston rent-roll exceeded my slender income by twenty times, and as my uncle had made no secret of his firm intention never to marry, it seemed to me that I could do not better than to keep my terms in a leisurely manner, and then settle down to the life of a country-gentleman. My uncle, however, was of a different mind. During the first long vacation, which I spent at Gorleston Hall, he sounded me as to my views for the future. found that I had formed none, and then, after a long tirade against the follies and evils of idleness, expressed his strong wish that I should enter the Church. At first I combatted his suggestion with vigour, but when I realised that he was in earnest, I paused to think about it. The Gorleston living was a rich one, the rectory and neighbourhood all that could be desired, and moreover my uncle was so eager about the matter that it behoved me to give it my very serious consideration. I was obliged to confess that I had not the slightest spontaneous inclination to enter the Church, but then on the other hand, it was perhaps to be preferred to any other profession. inasmuch as it involved the least amount of study, both in preparation and following-out. I had no desire to thwart his wishes, and eventually I yielded.
After three years of study I went in for my examination and passed fairly well. In August 18— I was ordained, and in September of the same year I went down to Gorleston Hall for a six-months' holiday before I sought a curacy.
Up to this time I suppose my nature must have been in an undeveloped state, for I was somewhat phlegmatic in disposition, of even temperament, and fond of a quiet life in the country. I had no strong affections to restrain, or passions to subdue. If circumstances, or rather a circumstance, had not transpired which completely altered the current of my life, I should no doubt have made a very fair, easy-going country parson. Such, however, was not to be my lot.
My uncle was a man with a hobby. He was an enthusiastic naturalist, a taste which I did not share in the least, and he had the good sense not to force it upon me. He was not fond of my company, and I humoured his whim.
Accordingly, on October 1st my sole companion as I sallied out with my gun under my arm and a couple of setters at my heels was Heggs, the head gamekeeper. Nevertheless, we had capital sport, and I enjoyed the day exceedingly. I remember it even now. It was the last day of my former life. Five miles from home I paused on a hillock to watch the sunset. It had been a magnificent day for out-door exercise, the air sharp and bracing, and the sun not too warm. All around me the sky was as clear as a bell, save in the west, where gorgeous masses of long brilliant streaks of many-coloured clouds seemed piled together in startling but magnificent contrast. I rested my gun and watched until the descending shades of the evening seemed to draw out from the sky its varied tints and replace them with a dull monotonous grey. Then I lit a cigar and turned to follow Heggs, who was plodding along half a mile in front.
I had not gone half a dozen paces before I started, and stopped short. Face to face with me, ascending the hillock, was a girl in a loose open jacket, short skirt, and carrying her hat in her hand as if to let the breeze play havoc with her luxuriant hair. My first glance showed me this—my next that she was by far the most beautiful woman I had ever seen or dreamed of. Beautiful! Bah! The word seems empty and expressionless when I think of her. She was a revelation to me. I had never seen or imagined anything so perfectly lovely. If I were a poet or an artist I might dwell on her divine form, the exquisite grace of her carriage, or the enchanting beauty of her face. But I am not, and I will be silent. My pen could never describe her, far less could in account for the extraordinary influence which from that moment she has always had over men. My life dates from that day.
She confronted me and explained that she had lost her way. Would I be so good an direct to the village of Gorleston. I raised my cap and offered my escort—our ways were the same—and after the merest shadow of hesitation she turned and walked by my side,
I was silent, almost tongue-tied. I walked along, drinking in the fascination of her marvellous beauty, indisposed to talk, and was not doubt an extremely stupid companion. When we were about half a mile from Gorleston she stopped suddenly.
"Ah! There is the footpath. I know my way now."
"That's not the nearest way to Gorleston," I objected. The thought that in a minute or two at the latest we must part chilled me.
"It is the nearest way to where I want to go, though," she answered, smiling. "I am extremely obliged to you for your escort. How I should have got over those dreadful gates if you had not been there to open them for me I cannot imagine. Good-bye," and with a graceful inclination of her head she turned abruptly away, leaving me speechless with my cap in my hand.
When I moved on and resumed my homeward journey a strange depression seemed settling on me. I was not sorry that she was gone—on the contrary, I felt it a relief. It troubled me little that I know neither her name nor her habitation. I had no fear that I should not see her again. On the contrary, I had a strong conviction, a presentiment I suppose it would be called, that henceforth she would become a part of my life.I was glad to be alone for a while, and to breathe freely after those few minutes of vehement but compressed excitement. I walked rapidly, with my cap still in my hand, and my eyes fixed steadily ahead. Every feeling in me was intensified, every dormant passion aroused, and concentrated in a sort of fascinated wonder on the girl with whom I had been walking. Never before had I felt the least attracted by anyone of the opposite sex. Perhaps for that reason the sensations now awakened were the stronger. I suppose the long and the short of it was that I was in love with her. In love! Hateful, hackneyed phrase! It no more describes my feelings towards her than the mere term beautiful can render any adequate idea of her glorious beauty. By the time I had reached the hall I had already commenced to indulge in visions which made me feel as though I were walking on buoyant air straight into heaven.
At our tête-à-tête dinner my uncle unconsciously gave me a piece of information which I greedily devoured. The Hermitage, a cottage residence on the outskirts of the Park, had been suddenly taken by a lady—Mrs. de Carteret, and her daughter.
"I shall want you to go and do the civil to them, Basil," my uncle remarked. "If there's anything wants altering or seeing to, remember that I am inclined to be a lenient landlord if they're likely to stop. I hate to see the place empty."
I poured myself a glass of wine and drank it off.
"Do you know anything about them?" I asked.
My uncle shook his head. His London agent had let them the place, and they had come down almost with the furniture. He knew nothing but their names.
I was silent, and drank more wine than usual. As soon as I could get away after our invariable game of chess, I pleaded fatigue, and retired. I will not say how I spent the night.
On the morrow I called at the Hermitage, and sent in my card to Mrs. de Carteret. Whilst I waited for her in the drawing-room, two things struck me as somewhat remarkable. A footman had admitted me, and the room into which I had been shown was furnished for its size better than any I had ever been in.
In a short time Mrs. de Carteret entered. She was a woman of medium height, of slight but elegant figure, dazzlingly fair complexion, and good feature. I rose, explained my mission, and proceeded to do my utmost to make myself agreeable. With such women as Mrs. de Carteret conversation was not difficult, She was vivacious, sprightly and intellectual. She had apparently travelled in every European country, and although her English was faultless, I was very soon aware that in tastes and mannerisms at least she was a foreigner.
It was so kind of me to call, she declared effusively, but really the house was quite perfect, and nothing could be done to improve it, and I was a neighbour. Ah! how nice! No, they did not intend to settle here. For herself she detested the country, but—then she paused and did not conclude her explanation, much to my disappointment, for I was curious to know why she had come.
She was a trifle passée, perhaps, and doubtless owed her brilliant complexion in some degree to art, but she was nevertheless a most attractive woman, and a thorough woman of the world. Her toilette for the morning was faultless, although perhaps a little elaborate, and her manner was decidedly the manner of one who wishes to please. I began secretly to congratulate myself on the progress I was making, and after half an hour's conversation I ventured to ask the question which had been all the time trembling of my lips.
"Your sister is with you, I believe, Mrs. de Carteret? I had the pleasure of directing her yesterday."
I could not have put my question in a more fortunate manner. I learnt afterwards that Mrs. de Carteret lived in perpetual dread of the young lady in question being taken for her daughter.
"No, Glitka is my daughter," she explained. "I suppose it was her whom you met yesterday."
My surprise could not fail to be natural, for it was unaffected. Mrs. de Carteret broke into delicious little peal of laughter, and corrected herself. She had intended to say step-daughter.
I could see that I had made a good impression, and policy bade me to withdraw while things were so satisfactory. Mrs. de Carteret would not hear of it. She was so very dull! I must positively stop and lunch with them, and be introduced to Glitka. The temptation was too strong. I yielded.
Soon she came into the room, graceful, charming and shy. I was introduced to her in due form, and, putting a great restraint upon myself, I refused to let my eyes rest upon her, and concealed the sensations which her presence had aroused within me. She talked very little, so little that Mrs. de Carteret seemed to think it almost necessary to apologise for her.
"Glitka is silent, but she is young—younger than she looks," she remarked. "Is it not so, ma chérie?"
"Strange that it should be so," I said, bowing to Mrs. de Carteret, "when perfection in the art of conversation is at hand for her to study from."
She laughed merrily, and asked me if I had been to Paris. I told her yes. Of course she had? She answered vaguely that she had been a been a great traveller. After that there was the first awkward pause in our conversation.
Our lunch was perfect, but it was what I had expected. Afterwards we all strolled into the Park, and I took them up to the orchid houses. That afternoon was a long dream of delight to me, but there was one disturbing element. Mrs. de Carteret seemed to be determined that I should talk to her step-daughter as little as possible, for what reason I could not imagine. However, I was wise, and devoted myself to her, appearing almost to forget Glitka's presence. In the grounds we met my uncle, and I begged permission to introduce him. We were just entering one of the orchid houses, and his arrival necessitated a division of our party. With the air of one making a sacrifice I relinquished Mrs. de Carteret to my uncle. Glitka and I lingered behind.
I wonder if my eyes, the tones of my voice in the few comments I made to her, told her anything of the wonderful passion which was struggling within me. There has always seemed something strange to me in our few short interviews at Gorleston. In her stepmother's presence she was reserved, but perfectly composed. Directly we were together she seemed shy, embarrassed, and yet not ill-contented. I think that she must have known.
We were together that afternoon but for a few minutes. Directly Mrs. de Carteret saw that my uncle's arrival would so divide us, she became uneasy, and when we had emerged from the orchid house and I proposed a visit to the lake she remembered the unpacking which she had yet to do, and was so sorry, but it must be a pleasure deferred until another afternoon. I walked to the park gates with them, studiously avoiding even a glance at Glitka, and my self-denial was rewarded. When Mrs. de Carteret held out her perfectly-gloved hand and bade me goodbye, she thanked me in a charming little speech for my great kindness, and if I would take pity upon two lonely women, would I dine with them on the morrow? Or come to lunch and help them to get through the day?
I made the most appropriate speech I could think of, received another gracious smile, and then with a final bow I retreated within my own domains again. I will leave some part of my time unaccounted for. I will not say how I spent the remainder of that afternoon. I was a love-sick fool, perhaps, but I was in paradise!
LOVE makes most men mad, they say. With me it had a contrary effect. During the next fortnight I was constantly at the Hermitage, but even when I was sitting side by side with Glitka and the marvellous fascination of her presence was upon me, I never lost my wits. I remembered always that Mrs. de Carteret's eyes were upon me, and I was very well aware that if I betrayed my secret I should be no longer welcome at the Hermitage. I had seen from the first that Mrs. de Carteret was anxious to keep Glitka and I apart. I was not vain, but, looking at the matter closely, with keenly sharpened faculties, I decided that her desire must spring from one of two reasons. Either she wished to keep me in attendance of herself, or she disapproved of me as a son-in-law. To which of these two motives to assign her action I could not decide. Time would prove. At present I could spare none of my thoughts from Glitka.
Wildly though I loved her, there was much which perplexed me in the sudden variation of her moods. At times she seemed curiously reserved, at others confidential, even affectionate, like the veriest child. Once I came upon her weeping bitterly in the Park, and often I had seen her large violet eyes full of an ineffable sorrow, which had almost brought the tears to my own eyes.
Thanks to my judicious behaviour before her stepmother, I was able to meet her by accident sometimes in the Park, and by degrees I began to realise with a glow of delight that these meetings were pleasant to her. Between us when we were alone there alway seemed to be a certain amount of embarrassment, and yet it was in indefinably sweet embarrassment begotten of a silence which I always found it pained to break. At times she grew confidential, and would talk to me as if I were an old friend. Life had been so delightful when a child, she told me, and I was not surprised to hear that her father had been an Austrian, or that she had been brought up in a convent. Her own mother she scarcely remembered, but she spoke of her with tears in her eyes, and I could easily believe, though she never told me so in words, that her stepmother had won from her very little affection.
Once when I came upon her in one of her most unhappy moods she asked me a sudden question.
"Mr. Gorleston," she said, "do you believe in such a thing as an evil genius?"
I treated it as a joke, laughed, and declared that I had never studied the subject.
She shivered, and I saw that she was in deadly earnest.
"We were happy enough," she went on sadly, "until—until someone came and disturbed our quiet life. We lived in an old country house, something like yours, but it was in Austria, near Vienna, and I liked being there. It was through him that we left and went to Paris. We were there for a while, and then he went to London, and I thought that we had got rid of him, but soon we moved there, too, and it was worse than ever now. I dread going back, dread it," and she shivered, and her hand somehow slipped into mine. "He comes every day, and sees my stepmother alone. They have long talks, I don't know what about, but he brings foreign newspapers, and they write letters together. He is a great man, they say, and what he wants with us I cannot tell. He brings strange people to the house, and they sit up all night talking—and—and—but I must not tell you all this, Mr.—Mr. Basil. It's too dreadful," and she broke off abruptly.
My heart ached with sympathy, but I knew not what to say. While I was hesitating she looked up again.
"I ought not to say, I suppose, but—but I hate him, hate him," and the words came with a passionate vehemence from her girlish lips. "When he comes, and he is always coming, he haunts us. She is changed, he changes everybody, he changes me," and she shivered and looked around half fearfully.
"Who is this man who dares to trouble you so?" I burst out. "Tell me his name."
She drew closer to me.
"I will tell you, but you must not mention it before her. His name is Count Voltkar, and—and if you meet him—kill him!"
I laughed. Of course it was a joke, but there was a look in her face which frightened me. Suddenly it died away, and she broke into a little musical laugh.
"I really believe I've frightened you with my nonsense, Mr. Gorleston," she said lightly. "Did you think that I was earnest? See, there is your uncle coming."
He joined us, and our conversation was at an end.
ONE afternoon, about a week afterwards, I met her in the Park as I came home from shooting, and she seemed in a strange mood. Tears were in her eyes, and stained her cheeks, and she was hurrying along blindly towards the wood. I leapt over the fence and accosted her, and my heart throbbed with a sweet delight, for she seemed pleased to see me.
"Come," she said, holding out her gloveless hand, "come with me," and I caught hold of it and walked rapidly along by her side.
I was silent, for I saw that she wished it. I was full of an ecstatic pleasure, and the touch of her fingers—they were still locked in mine—cold as ice though they were, sent the blood coursing wildly though my veins. Suddenly she paused and leaned against a tree. There was a look in her eyes which I had never seen before. She turned pale, and her hand clenched mine with a desperate strength, and I saw that she was struggling with a deadly faintness. She stumbled, and in a moment my arms were folded around her, and with a passionate cry I clasped her to my heart.
"Glitka! Glitka! you love me?" But her eyes were closed and her lips colourless.
A great dread came upon me, and dropping my gun I caught her up and hurried with her towards the house. Before we were out of the woods she opened her eyes and bade me stop. I set her gently down, still supporting her with my arm, and with a swift rush the colour came back to her lips and dyed her silken cheeks.
"You have been ill—faint!" I cried anxiously. I was taking you to the hall."
She faltered that she was better. She rose, and slowly we retraced out steps towards her home. I was in a delirium of maddening happiness and tremulous fear. I could find no words, and yet I longed to speak.
"Glitka, did you hear what I said to you when you were fainting?"
She blushed. "You called me by my Christian name," she said, looking away from me, "and you must not."
"Glitka! Glitka! I will call you nothing else, my love—"
I paused, frightened. Again that deadly ivory pallor had driven the colour from her cheeks, and again she shivered and stumbled. I threw my arms around her, and for a moment she revived.
"Glitka!" I cried, in a passion of fear and hope. "You love me; tell me!" Her eyes slowly opened, and they needed no words.
"My darling!" I stooped and kissed her, one long lingering kiss, and then I felt her lips grow cold, and I started back in terror. She was fainting again. I caught her in my arms, hers were locked around my neck. She clung to me with a fearful strength, her head upon my shoulder, her full eyes closed. I lifted her from the ground and ran like a madman to the Hermitage.
Mrs. de Carteret had been at the window, and hurried out to meet us with a white face and trembling with anger.
"What have you been doing to her? What have you been saying to her?" she cried in a furious, agitated tone. "You have killed her!"
I carried her into the living-room, and called for water. Mrs. de Carteret pushed me to one side, and snatched a phial from the mantelpiece. She poured some drops into a glass and forced them between Glitka's lips. The effect was wonderful. She never opened here eyes, but a faint tinge of pink stole into her cheeks, and her breathing grew distinct and regular. She was asleep.
"Now go," whispered Mrs. de Carteret. I hesitated and glanced again at Glitka.
"Go!" repeated her stepmother, and I turned and went.
Early on the morrow I called at the Hermitage. Mrs. de Carteret came into the room to me looking as I had never seen her look before—firm and severe.My first eager inquiry was for Glitka.
"Glitka is quite recovered," she told me. "I shall take care that she does not go out alone again."
"I agree with you, Mrs. de Carteret," I answered quickly, "and if you will listen to me, I will promise that she shall not. I love her, and I want her for my wife."
She rose from her chair, and leaned right over me with a scared look.
"You have told her this," she hissed. "You told her this yesterday."
"I have told her that I love her," I acknowledged. "Why not? Surely I am at lib—"
"You should have come first to me," Mrs. de Carteret interrupted, in a quick staccato tone, bristling with suppressed rage. "I could have spared you the trouble. There are two reasons which forbid my consent. For one, Glitka is too delicate. Marriage would be impossible for her. Her constitution is peculiar, and none save myself understands it."
"She may recover, she will recover!" I cried. "I will wait. Tell me the other reason."
"The other reason," said Mrs. de Carteret drily, "is, if possible, more potent still. Glitka is already betrothed."
"Already betrothed!" I started back. The room swam around me. "To whom?"
"Glitka is betrothed to my very dear friend, Count Volktar"
I LEFT the Hermitage that morning without seeing Glitka, but I vowed to myself that before long I would see her. I was agitated and nervous, but I was not without hope. Glitka loved me! What else need I fear after that mute confession? And had she not faltered out to me the tale of her horror and dread of the man whom her mother had told me that she was to marry? Marry him she should not, I swore, as I strode away from the Hermitage, careless whither I went so that I could find relief for my mind and clear my head by physical exhaustion. Count Voltkar! Already I loathed the very name, and I thought with a shudder of the dark hints she had thrown out about him, and the almost hysterical fear with which he had inspired her. But how was I to help her? How even to see her again? I felt assured that after my recent interview with Mrs. de Carteret they would leave the Hermitage. What if they should go suddenly, and leave no trace behind? The idea chilled me, and I turned and walked rapidly back by the cottage. Bah! What a fool I was! How could they go without my hearing of it, and I turned away again with a lingering glance behind at the closed door and drawn blinds.
At lunch that morning my uncle asked me my plans for the afternoon. I was startled into confessing that I had formed none. He was glad. There was a small parcel of specimens to be forwarded to the curator of a London museum. He would not trust a servant. Would I ride over with it to Blackton Station, and see it dispatched? He so seldom asked me to do anything for him that I was forced to consent at once.
I sent round to the stables to have Diana, my own mare, saddled, and went to my room to change my attire. When I descended I found a message awaiting me from Burdett, the head groom. Diana was a trifle lame; would I go and see her? I did so, and the result was that I started off in the dog-cart instead. But for Diana's lameness this story might never have been written.
Blackton was a wayside station, about four miles from Gorleston. In half an hour's time I had despatched my parcel, and was standing in the little booking-office chatting with the station-master. Suddenly I head the click-click of the telegraph in the inner room, and he begged me to excuse him for a moment. He rejoined me almost directly, looking extremely puzzled.
"Sir Henry is not away, is he, sir?" he asked.
I shook my head. I had just left him.
"And isn't Lord Haselton abroad, sir?"
Lord Haselton was at Monaco, and I told him so.
"It's very strange," he remarked. "I've just received a message from King's Cross that the express is going to stop here. I never remember them stopping it for anyone but your uncle and Lord Haselton. Excuse me sir," and he hurried away to give the necessary directions.
I am not of a curious disposition as a rule, but it occurred to me that I should rather like to see for whom the north express was to be stopped at our tiny station. There was always a good deal of grumbling when Lord Haselton or my uncle, both large shareholders, required this privilege, and the station-master assured me that even they had never come down by this train, which carried the morning mails, and was the fastest train of the day. I decided to wait, and, lighting a cigar, lounged about the platform for a minute or two.
By and by the signals went down, and sure enough the express came in sight, slackening speed. It stopped, and exactly opposite to where I was leaning against the wall was the person for whom this breach of custom had taken place. He was alone in a first-class carriage, a tall, slim, but perfectly proportioned man, faultlessly attired, and having with him an unmistakable air of distinction. His moustache was black, tinged with grey, but his hair was almost altogether of the former colour. He wore a fur coat, and a magnificent fur rug was wrapped round his knees. When the train had come to a standstill, he rose and leisurely looked out of the window. The guard came hurrying up and unlocked the door, holding it open with a respectful gesture. Immediately after the guard came a very little man dressed in sober black, whose appearance and bearing easily betrayed the servant. He stepped into the vacated carriage and rapidly collected the travelling impedimenta of his master. Then the guard slammed the door, received from the slender white fingers of the distinguished traveller a "douceur," which glittered remarkably like gold, blew his whistle, and the train moved off.
The stranger—now that he was standing up I could not help admiring the easy elegance of his deportment and his high-bred air—stared around him, and shrugged his shoulders at the desolate appearance of the place. The station-master came hurrying up, and he turned towards him, and made some enquiries about the possibility of obtaining a conveyance. The former looked doubtful, and shook his head. There was a little more conversation, in the course of which I received a sudden shock, and my cigar slipped from my fingers. I heard distinctly the destination of the new-comer. He wished to go to the Hermitage, near Gorleston. Then I knew that this was Count Voltkar.
My mind was made up in a moment. I walked up to the little group, and accosted him.
"Pardon me, but I believe you were enquiring for a conveyance. You will find it difficult to obtain one here, I'm afraid. If you are going Gorleston way, my machine is quite at your service."
He turned towards me, and bowed courteously. I too, raised my hat.
"I am bound for a small house called the Hermitage, close to Gorleston."
"I am going to Gorleston, and shall be happy to drive you there," I told him.
He accepted my offer at once, and we crossed the line, passing through the little booking office to where the groom was soothing my uncle's blood mare, who strongly disapproved of all locomotive traffic.
"This is very kind of you," he said, in slow musical tones, in which for the first time I detected a foreign accent. "But shall we not overload you? My man can walk. Do you hear, Jean?"
The man bowed respectfully, and turned to move away. I happened to be watching him, and saw a look in his face which told me that he did not love his master.
I protested, and called him back. There was room for all, and it was but a short distance. The Count shrugged his shoulders. He was indifferent—it was as I wished. Then he drew a gold cigarette-case from his pocket, and offered it to me. I took one, lit it, and he ascended to the seat by my side.
As we drove off Glitka's passionate words occurred to me—"If you ever meet him, kill him." I glanced at him, and thought that I should like to do so. I hated him already. I hated his suave courtly manner and conversation. I hated his aristocratic face, and finely carved features. The cold glitter of his expressionless eyes chilled me. I had never seen such eyes before. They were literally steel colour, neither blue nor grey, but cold, gleaming steel. He was a man whom women would either hate or love. How glad I was that Glitka hated him.
He talked to me ceaselessly during that short drive, the easy flowing small talk of a man of the world.
I listened, and answered him in monosyllables only. No doubt he considered me a raw country youth. It was just what I wished. I was beginning to scheme already, and purposely in the few remarks I made I strove to figure as such. I have no doubt that I succeded admirably.
At the Hermitage I pulled up, and announced that we had reached our destination. He made another little speech of thanks, and descended.
"If you are stopping here any length of time," I said, as I gathered up the reins, and prepared to dive off, "I shall be happy to give you some shooting. I live at the Hall here, and can promise you plenty of sport if you care about it."
He shook his head in polite regret.
"I should have been charmed," he declared, "but unfortunately I must be in town to-morrow night. Mine is but a flying visit."
I nodded, and drove off.
After dinner that evening I started out for a stroll. Needless to say in what direction my footsteps led me. I did not go the shortest way to the Hermitage, however, through the shrubbery, but walked down to the park gates, and then turned back again along the high road. Directly I turned out of the gate I paused, and stepped back again. A man was striding along in the middle of the road, and I had recognised him at once from his diminutive stature as Count Voltkar's servant. He was gesticulating fiercely to himself, and at first I was inclined to think that he had been drinking. As he drew near, however, I could see that he walked quite steadily, but his face was flushed with anger, and he was muttering incoherent threats. I remembered the look of hatred towards his master which I had observed at the station. Against his master his present fit of rage also was probably directed, and it struck me that I should like a few minutes' conversation with this man.
I slammed the gate to as if I had just issued from it, and walked out into the road.
"I say my man, have you got a light?" I enquired carelessly.
He took off his hat respectfully, and depositing a small black bag he was carrying upon the ground, after a brief search in his pockets produced a box of matches.
I lit a cigar in a very leisurely manner, and offered him one. He took it, with a profusion of thanks.
"Pardon me, Monsieur," he said, "but this road; is it that it will lead me to the village of Gorleston?"
"Yes, it leads to Gorleston," I told him. "But what the deuce do you want in Gorleston at this time of night?"
"I am going to the inn, sir. There is no room for me at the Hermitage."
I looked at him attentively, and affected to recognize him for the first time.
"Ah! you're the servant of the gentleman I drove there this afternoon, aren't you? Well you won't get a bed at Gorleston, that's very certain. There's no inn there."
The man looked blank. An idea occurred to me.
"I tell you what," I said, "they shall put you up at the Hall. There's lots of room in the servants' part of the house, and I shall be happy to oblige Mrs. de Carteret."
He hesitated. "Monsieur is very kind," he said, doubtfully, "but—"
"Oh, it's all right," I interrupted. "You go round to the servants' entrance, first gate around the corner, and tell Groves, the butler, to show you into my room. I shall be back directly."
He bowed and went.
I strolled on until I stood outside the Hermitage, and then paused, gazing at the brilliantly lighted windows. What a passion this was that had come over me! The very knowledge that I stood outside the house where she was seemed to fill me with a great throbbing joy. Then I thought of Count Voltkar, also within those walls, and I shivered with hate and fear. I had never been used to these rapid alternations of feeling, and they alarmed me. My old self seemed to have gone, and in its place I had—Glitka.
I could have remained leaning against that wall for hours, but I remembered the man who would be waiting for me in my room, and I turned to go. I had not moved three steps before I stopped short—petrified, horror-stricken.
A shriek had rang out from the house behind me, the shriek of a woman in an agony of fear; and the voice was Glitka's!
With one bound I cleared the road, and flung open the low wooden gate. I dashed across the lawn, making straight for the room from which the sound had come. The low French windows yielded to my foot, and through the crashing glass and splintering framework I burst into the little drawing room.
The man whom I had driven from the railway station that afternoon was standing on the hearthrug with folded arms. The faint blue smoke from the cigarette which he was smoking hung about him in a little cloud, and he was scrupulously attired in evening dress. On her knees before him, her eyes full of a passionate appeal, was Glitka, and bending over her, seemingly expostulating with her, was Mrs. de Carteret.
My sudden entrance dissolved the situation. Mrs. de Carteret shrieked, and fell back into a chair half-fainting. Count Voltkar never moved a muscle of his face. Glitka turned her head, and seeing me, sprang to her feet with a wild cry. Then—I never knew how it happened exactly—I moved one step forwards, and she was sobbing in my arms.
Count Voltkar arched his dark eyebrows, and then they met in a heavy frown as he turned for explanation to Mrs. de Carteret. She stood aghast for a moment watching us, and then her face grew almost diabolical with fury.
"Mr. Gorleston! Sir, how dare you enter my house in this extraordinary manner? Release my daughter at once. Glitka, come here."
She shivered. I drew her closer to me.
"My presence is easily explained, Mrs. de Carteret," I answered firmly. "I heard your daughter's terrified shriek, and I have come to protect her from the cause of her alarm. I shall not leave her until I am satisfied that it is removed."
Mrs. de Carteret was calm now, but desperately angry.
"Glitka," she said, "come here at once. Mr. Gorleston, I fail to see that any explanation is due to you for whatever proceeds in my house. I command you to leave it at once."
I turned to Glitka, who, heedless of her mother's words, was sobbing in my arms.
"Tell me what has alarmed you, Glitka. Tell me, and I will save you from it," I pleaded.
"I cannot, I cannot," she cried. "Oh! Basil, help me!"
"Glitka, come here at once," ordered her stepmother.
She shuddered, and drew closer to me. Mrs. de Carteret's face as she watched us was the face of a devil.
Count Voltkar had not yet spoken. Now he deliberately knocked the ash off his cigarette and approached us.
"Glitka," he said, quietly.
A shiver ran through her frame, and she relaxed her grasp on me.
"Glitka," he said, "return to your seat."
Slowly she disengaged herself from me, and moved away with a parting look of despair. Mrs. de Carteret watched with a slight smile of triumph parting her thin lips. Then she turned to me.
"Your behaviour has been most impertinent, Mr. Gorleston, and I trust that you will relieve us of you presence at once. Be so good as to understand, too, that your ridiculous conduct to-night ends our acquaintance.
I turned once more to Glitka.
"Must I go?" I cried in despair.
Count Voltkar bent over her and whispered in her ear. When she looked towards me I was startled at her deathlike pallor.
"Yes, you must go," she said, in a dull, emotionless tone.
"Glitka, they are frightening you," I cried passionately. "Come away with me," and I took a quick step forward towards her.
She shook her head—a lifeless, monotonous gesture—and turned away from me.
"You must go," she repeated, "you must go."
Mrs. de Carteret glided up to my side, her lips still parted in that acid, disagreeable smile, and laid her hand upon my shoulder. Glitka had sunk upon an ottoman with her face half averted, and her hand stretched out in a gesture of dismissal. Count Voltkar lounged by her side with his arm upon the mantelpiece, calmly smoking his cigarette, and gazing at me in a perfectly impassive manner. If a look or a wish could have killed him, at that moment I should have been a murderer.
One last appeal I made.
"Glitka," I cried, "Glitka, come with me, and you shall be safe from all harm. Come."
She never answered or looked up. She merely motioned with her hand, as if to hasten my departure. I had no alternative, and I went.
A DULL sickening apprehension dragged me down into a state of utter misery as I retraced my steps toward the hall. When I reached my room Count Voltkar's servant was awaiting me, and summoning Groves, I at once gave orders for his due accommodation. As he followed that portly functionary from the room I called him back, and, in as careless a tone as I could assume, desired him to look in and see me before retiring. He bowed respectfully, and intimated that he would do so. His face was inscrutable. I could not judge whether my request had aroused any feelings of surprise or suspicion.
My uncle was awaiting me impatiently in the library. He was an enthusiastic chess-player, and I believe his chief pleasure in having me so much with him was because I was myself proficient in the game. That evening however, I by no means came off the victor, and at eleven o'clock my uncle rose and swept the pieces into the box with a delighted chuckle.
"Taken it out of you to-night, Basil my boy," he remarked facetiously. "Don't sit up smoking, mind. Bad habit smoking, shocking bad habit! Much better go to bed. Good night."
I retired to my own den, and found the little Frenchman waiting for me. I bade him take a seat, and for the first time had a good look at him. He was short and slight—a very small man, clean- shaven, save for a very small black moustache, and of a singularly pallid complexion. His large black eyes, which he kept half closed, as though to hide the expression in them, were his most prominent and at the same time most disagreeable features. Quiet and respectful as his appearance and demeanor were, my previous impressions concerning him were confirmed by the more leisurely scrutiny to which I now subjected him. I felt convinced that Count Voltkar's servant was a rascal.
I took a seat opposite to the one which I had bidden him to resume, and, lighting a cigar, began to question him. His name he told me was Jean Dupont, and after half-an-hour's conversation, during which I tried my best to pump him, that was all the information I had gained. My questioning was clumsy, and my eagerness to learn what he might have to tell was barely concealed. At last he broke into a furtive and half contemptuous smile as he skilfully parried one of my innumerable questions, and I asked him no more. It was very clear to me that the man was more than my match in cunning, and if I wished to make use of him it must be by other means. I was silent for a while, and presently he took the initiative, and addressed me.
"Monsieur is endeavouring to gain some information from me concerning my master. Is it not so? Pardieu! at this rate we might proceed until to-morrow morning, for—Monsieur will pardon me—he is not the most accomplished of questioners. If there is any way in which I can be of service to Monsieur, also to myself—" and the little Frenchman, in lieu of concluding his sentence, shrugged his pointed shoulders, leaning forward towards me with a mildly inquiring air, but with a suggestive gleam in his half closed eyes which emphasised his concluding words.
I had some hopes of him, but I saw that my previous tactics were useless. There was nothing in common between this man and the gossiping English servant, whose chief delight it is to reveal and expatiate upon his master's habits and mode of life. I had decided to seize the opportunity of having stumbled across Count Voltkar's body-servant to endeavour to find some clue as to his connection with Mrs. de Carteret, and also as to the nature of those other mysteries at which Glitka had hinted. In my first attempt I was foiled. In my second I was more successful. I left off beating about the bush, and told him in plain words what I wanted of him.
"You are quite right," I declared. "I have been trying to pump you, and naturally you decline to give me information for nothing. Listen to me then. I will give you fifty pounds if you will tell me what there is between Count Voltkar and Mrs. de Carteret which gives him such influence over her, and a hundred pounds if you will tell me the whole of your master's history, provided that what you disclose enables me to discover for myself the nature of his connection with Mrs.de Carteret. Is that clear enough?"
"Perfectly clear, Monsieur," was the prompt reply. "So clear that I can answer you at once. I can give Monsieur none of the information which he requires."
I was disappointed, but not quite disheartened. There had been regret in the man's tone, decided though it had been, and I had caught an avaricious gleam in his eyes at the mention of the bribe. I would try him another way.
"Look here, Dupont," I said, knocking the ash off my cigar, and keeping my eyes averted from him, "I will be still more candid with you. I will tell you exactly why I desire this information from you. I have proposed to marry Miss de Carteret. Her mother declines my offer, and informs me that Gli—that her daughter is betrothed to Count Voltkar. I don't understand the reason of this betrothal. Miss de Carteret hates your master, and yet acknowledges that he possesses an extraordinary influence over her step-mother, and she herself seems compelled to obey him. There is a mystery here. I desire to penetrate it. You understand me clearly that my sole interest in your master's affairs is bounded by their connection with Mrs. de Carteret and her daughter. Now if you can show me how to—. Or suppose we put it in this way. Help me to gain my end, and on the day I marry Miss de Carteret you shall have five hundred pounds."
I could see that I had scored. M. Jean Dupont hesitated for a while, but I could read in his face that the bait was very attractive.
"Monsieur is no politician?" he inquired, throwing a keen glance at me.
I laughed; the idea of being taken for a spy amused me.
"Most decidedly not," I answered. "Your master may belong to a hundred secret societies for anything I care, so long as I succeed in my object."
I had gone a little too far here, and my ill-considered words very nearly cost me the services of my prospective ally.
"Secret societies," he repeated suspiciously. "What do you mean? Who has been talking to you of secret societies?"
I hastened to reassure him as well as I was able. My allusion was merely a chance one, and I neither knew nor cared to know anything about his master in connection with such. He seemed satisfied, and I pressed him then for his answer to my proposition. For a while he seemed undecided.
"Monsieur's generosity is magnificent, truly magnificent," he faltered, "but—"
"Oh, hang it all!" I exclaimed impatiently, for I was getting heartily sick of the fellow, with his sly looks and oily politeness, "let's have it settled one way or another. Tell me whether you are inclined to help me or not."
I rose from my chair, and feigned to move towards the door. The fear lest I might withdraw my offer induced Dupont to change his manner.
"Monsieur will be so good as to resume his seat," he pleaded, "I have decided."
"You have decided to accept my offer?" I inquired, without turning round.
"C'est vrai, monsieur," he answered quickly. "I have so decided."
I sat down again, and lit another cigar.
"You have done well," I said, shortly.
"I believe so, Monsieur, and now," he continued, "let me explain my position to Monsieur. I have been valet to Count Voltkar for nearly three years, but I know very little about him, and less about his secrets. I know that he is what you call a diplomatist, and is somehow involved in great schemes. What they are I value my life too highly to inquire. I understand that Monsieur's sole design in inquiring into my master's doings is that he may bring to an end this scheme of marriage between the Count Voltkar and Mrs. de Carteret's stepdaughter?"
I nodded assent, and he continued.
"That is well. Monsieur has then absolutely no curiosity as to Count Voltkar save as the suitor of Miss de Carteret?"
"Your master may be the devil for anything I care, so long as he fails in this design," I said.
"Monsieur might be farther from the mark," the man remarked, calmly. "But to return to the subject, which is then of the chief importance to us. I do not know why my master wishes to marry Miss de Carteret, nor do I know the nature of his extraordinary intimacy with her stepmother, simply because I have never troubled to find out. No doubt I could do so. Doubtless as Monsieur is so interested in this matter, he will be coming soon to London."
"Not while Mrs. de Carteret remains here, "I announced decidedly.
Dupont smiled at my emphasis. "That will be for a very short time longer," he said. "They are returning to London almost immediately."
"In that case, so shall I," I declared.
"That is well. I will give Monsieur here an address where he can see me almost any night, and learn anything which I have been able to discover. It is settled then. Five hundred pounds. That is the amount, is it not?"
He gave me an address—a public-house in a low part of London.
I gave him a five pound note and dismissed him. As the door was closing I called him back.
"I think if I were you, Dupont," I remarked, "I should have slept at the Gorleston Inn last night. You understand?"
He bowed. "And if we should chance to meet again, at the station, or anywhere, Monsieur will not do me the honour of noticing me. It will be best so. I wish Monsieur good night again," and he departed to his room. Very soon I followed his example.
It does not fall to the lot of every man to live two lives. Those only undergo that experience whom some extraordinary turn in the wheel of fortune pitches into a sphere of life utterly unknown to them, and in which the conditions of living, the surroundings, and the associations are diametrically opposite to those to which they have been accustomed. A merchant prince reduced in a single day to beggary and disgrace, and forced to labour at the mills of which he was once the owner, might realise this dual existence. So might one of his fellow toilers if a sudden freak of fortune were to thrust him into the place of the dethroned millionaire. The change must be sudden, for any graduation would serve as a bridge between the two existences, and by assimilating them do away with their duality. With me it had surely been sudden enough. I had gone out to shoot my uncle's partridges a phlegmatic, unimaginative youth, of fair principles, and so little ambition that my future life as county parson and squire had seemed to me a perfectly satisfying one. I had come back a man full of passionate impulses and wild dreams, which subsequent events had blended into a determination and a purpose which caused my whole being to throb by reason of its strength.
I am not writing a love story. I shall not strive to describe my state, neither shall I explode into the lover's hackneyed rhapsodies in praise of my beloved. There are some things in nature which the pen can never describe, and there are also some moments in our lives to attempt to dwell upon which seems bootless sacrilege. Let me pass over my love for Glitka in silence. Let me only remark that my second life, nay, my awakening from stagnation, dates from the day when I paused on that little hillock to watch the sunset. I have been told that my love was but a mad passion, violent rather than sublime, earthly and sensuous rather than ethereal. Maybe so. I have never denied it. I know nothing of the forms of love, but this I do know: that through thirty years that "passion" has remained with me, and that now, grey though my hair is and wrinkled my face, it is still the major part of my existence. The possibilities and capabilities for such affection may have become weakened as year after year has dragged away until now, when I stand almost on the threshold of my second childhood, but such as they are they are still absorbed by the "passion" which nearly half a century ago my uncle derided. I am an old man, but there is still a name and a memory—would to God I could say a presence, which can send the blood bounding through my torpid veins, and can for a moment fill my heart with the warmth and light of life.
I SLEPT very little on the night of my interview with Jean Dupont, and on the following morning my uncle commented upon my ill looks. I hesitated, and then told him my tale, omitting all mention of Count Voltkar and of Glitka's mysterious dread of him. I made it into a very matter-of-fact affair. I had proposed to Miss de Carteret, and had reason to believe that I had been successful in gaining her affections. Her stepmother had for some unexplained reason withheld her consent, but I was by no means disposed to accept her decision as final, and intended to follow them to London in a short time, and to seek to obtain a more favourable answer.
My uncle laughed at me at first, but when he realized how terribly in earnest I was his face clouded over. He argued with me. Did I consider that the young lady would be a suitable wife for a country clergyman? Were her tastes in accord with such a position? Then, too, I had known her for so short a time, and surely if her mother had withheld her consent it would scarcely be dignified on my part to follow them wherever they chose to go. I fancy that my tone and expression had betrayed my fears that the opposition which I dreaded was likely to be more serious than my words indicated. My uncle seemed to have grasped that idea. He continued his arguments; I answered them impetuously. He grew angry; I remained dogged and calm, and finally he washed his hands of the whole matter.
"Do as you like, then," he exclaimed in suddenly altered tones. "I shan't be melodramatic, and turn you out of the house and I shan't cut you off with a shilling. The estates are entailed, and what little money I have will go with the title. I shan't marry either—you needn't be afraid of that. Not going to cut off my nose to spite my face. Not I. If the girl don't marry you she's a fool, and if you marry her you're a fool. Go and see Mr. Waring if you want any money; don't come bothering me; and Basil," he continued, his voice suddenly becoming interested and his manner almost excited, "you are going to London, you say, on this wild-goose chase."
"I shall certainly be going to London," I answered.
"Now I wonder if I could entrust you with a most important commission?" my uncle went on.
I assured him that he would be safe in doing so, and composed myself to listen with the attention which his manner inspired.
"Well then, my boy, you remember that specimen case I had from Brook's, in Bond street. I want another exactly like it, but with one or two additions which I will point out to you. Can I trust you to see to this for me?" he asked, eagerly.
I could not refrain from a smile at this important commission, which had driven the other matter quite out of my poor uncle's head, and which, indeed, quite reconciled him to my departure. I accepted it, and by-the-bye, executed it with such care and success that my uncle came to regard that strange course of events which so altered my life as a most fortunate accident, and though sometimes no doubt he deplored my folly and madness, he forgave me every time he opened his specimen case, which luckily for me, was very many times a day.
During the afternoon I made up my mind to seek one more interview with Mrs. de Carteret. I intended to explain to her more fully my position as heir to one of the oldest and richest baronetcies in the kingdom, and to offer to relinquish my profession and to live anywhere and in any manner according to her wishes. Glitka loved me, and hated Count Voltkar. It was monstrous that she should not be allowed to choose for herself, and I intended, if Mrs. de Carteret declined to listen to me, to defy her, and endeavor to see Glitka and persuade her to marry me in spite of her stepmother.
I reached the Hermitage, and rang the bell. I expected to be denied admission, but to my surprise it was opened at once. No one was at home, I was informed. In fact, the man continued, with a bland smile, "Mrs. de Carteret and Miss Glitka had left for London that morning with a gentleman who had arrived on the previous evening."
I thanked him and withdrew, without change of countenance. The instinct of the conspirator was already appearing. That night I exchanged my semi-clerical attire for a grey travelling suit, and left for London.
I had made a good many acquaintances at college, but few friends. Amongst the former was a man whom I now foresaw might prove useful to me. I wanted to discover what society thought of Count Voltkar and Mrs. de Carteret, and I knew that no man would be more likely to satisfy me than Dick Cunningham—known at Magdalen as Dandy Dick, a nickname by-the-bye which, as college nicknames sometimes do, has stuck to him through life. On the morning after my arrival in London, therefore, I made my way westwards, and called at his club. Mr. Cunningham's chambers were scarcely a stone's throw off, I was informed by the hall porter, and he believed that he was in town. A few minutes later I had ascertained for a fact that such was the case, and was ushered into my friend's room. I found him at breakfast, and received a hearty welcome. The conversation soon turned—or rather was led—by me from personal to general topics, and I found, as I had expected, that Dick was leading the life of a man of fashion. After a while I managed to bring up the subject which was uppermost with me. Did Dick know Count Voltkar? Had he met him in society?
"Of course I've met him, old man. In fact there are very few nights when I don't come across him somewhere. Devilish agreeable fellow he is too."
"Is he—er—exactly good form?" I queried tentatively.
Dick looked at me in astonishment.
"Of course he is," he exclaimed. "Why, for my part, I think him one of the most distinguished men I know, and I've heard lots of fellows say the same. He's an awful favourite with the other sex, too. Why they say that at the Countess of L's garden party there—"
"He goes to the best houses then?" I interrupted.
"Rather. He dined at Marlborough House last week, and is a great favourite there. He goes just wherever he pleases. Why shouldn't he? He's the representative of one of the oldest families in Europe, and he's enormously rich. And that reminds me, Gorleston, you're one of the lucky ones too. Why don't you come and be angled for like the rest of us, eh? I've been asked after you more than once by old women with large families, who've been studying Debrett for the sake of their dear girls."
"Not in my line, thanks," I replied laconically, wondering how to divert the conversation back into the channel which interested me most.
"Ah! you say so, my dear boy, because you've never tried it," remarked Dick, leaning back in his chair and lighting a cigarette. "If you've only got resolution enough to keep out of danger it isn't half unpleasant, I can tell you, to have all these pretty girls thrown at your head. Feel sorry for the girls though, sometimes, I do. There are some beauties in the market this season, and no mistake," he wound up.
"Why don't you relieve the 'market' of one of these beauties, then?" I asked, a little satirically, for I didn't like Dick's tone much. He was heir to a larger property even than mine, and society was evidently spoiling him.
He laughed. "Well, I shall do soon, I suppose," he said, good-humouredly. "Fact is, I'm waiting to see the new debutante whom all the fellows are raving about. Prettiest girl in London, they say. She's going to her first party next week, and I mean to see her trotted out."
"And where is the trotting out to take place?" I enquired, more for the sake of keeping the conversation up than from any curiosity.
"At the Greek Embassy. Old what's his name gives stunning balls, you know. Get you a card, if you like."
I declined with thanks.
"More fool you!" Dick remarked, lightly. "It'll be the best ball this side of the new year, and it isn't every fellow could get you a card. I don't know that I could, only I happen to be pretty well in with the diplomatic set. The Prince will be there for certain."
"That's why you're going, I suppose." Dick was an ardent admirer of royalty, I knew.
"Nothing of the sort," he rejoined. "I told you before, I'm going to see Miss de Carteret."
I dropped my cigarette, and stooped to pick it up.
"Clumsy devil!" murmured Dick, sweetly.
"Miss de Carteret! Is that the name of the fair debutante?" I enquired, calmly.
"It is. She is the victim to be offered up at Mammon's shrine, and if she's half as beautiful as they say she is, I shouldn't wonder if I didn't become the altar."
"Who is she? Not an English name, is it?"
"No, she's a Hungarian. Father was an officer, I think in the Austrian service. Don't know anything about her mother. They're both dead. She lives with her step-mother now."
"And who was Mrs. de Carteret number two?"
"Hanged if I know. She was a Frenchwoman, I believe, but I never heard anything about her family. She's all right, I know that, for she's related somehow or other to Voltkar. Precious thick they are, too."
"Him! And is she received? Does she go into society?"
"Rather! A most fascinating woman she is, too. She goes everywhere."
"What do people say about her 'thickness' with Count Voltkar? Isn't that rather against her?"
Dick shrugged his shoulders.
"What an old scandalmonger you are becoming, Basil," he said, with a laugh. "I have heard a few remarks, but nothing serious. We aren't so moral as we used to be, you know. A woman's allowed a cavalier servente nowadays, so long as she don't commit herself. It's like this, you see. Society says to her children, when she thinks they're beginning to go it a bit, 'Get behind me, and I'll not look round.' Very well, if they're wise they get behind, and they can play what pranks they like. But if they're fools enough to dance out before her face, or if someone sticks a pin into her out of mischief, you know, and she has to turn round, and can't help seeing them, why then she assumes all the airs of virtuous surprise and indignation, and drives the offenders forth. Serves 'em right, too, for being found out! Worst of it is, for one poor devil who's found out, there are fifty who aren't; and the one's generally the least sinner of the lot. Hard lines, isn't it? Pass the seltzer water, old fellow, will you, I'm dry."
I had let Dick rattle on uninterrupted, but I had been paying very scanty attention to his words of wisdom. My mind was full of other things.
"You seem to know everything about everybody," I remarked, when Dick had gulped down a long draught of brandy and seltzer, "tell me some more about Count Voltkar."
He ruminated, with his hands in his pockets and his eyes on the ceiling.
"Don't know that I can tell you much more about him," he declared, thoughtfully. "He's a great diplomatist, you know, though I fancy he's not very high in favour at St. Petersburg just at present. He's been ambassador at Rome, and I believe for a short time at Stockholm, but he's unattached now."
"Has he been suspected of Nihilism, or anything of that sort, that he's in disfavour at St. Petersburg?"
"Good heavens, no," exclaimed Dick. "What on earth put such a preposterous idea into your head? He's one of the stiffest-necked of aristocrats. Not the man to put his head into a noose either, though no doubt he's plucky enough. You seem to be interested in him, old man?"
"Not particularly," I answered, stifling an imaginary yawn as I rose to my feet. "Well, I must be off now. Will you dine with me at the old club one night this week?"
"Can't my boy. Should enjoy it above all things, but I'm engaged every night. Tell you what: I'll lunch with you this morning if you like."
It was scarcely what I desired, but I was anxious to keep friends with Dick for more reasons than one, so I acquiesced. He left me to attire himself in more conventional garb, and I resumed my seat, pondering upon what he had been telling me. A wild desire had seized upon me to accept his offer, and to go to this dance at the Greek Embassy. I knew that it was madness to think of it, and that my best policy was to keep away from Mrs. de Cartaret and Count Voltkar until I had decided upon some definite plan. But it would be sweet to see her, to hold her in my arms, perhaps, and when I thought of it I had hard work to look at the matter from a politic point of view.
Presently Dick appeared, and we sauntered down Piccadilly towards my solitary club—my companion belonged to half-a-dozen at least. We lunched, and afterwards Dick asked me to call somewhere with him in Bond-street. I went, and we stopped outside a celebrated costumier's.
"Going to see about my rig out for the ball next week."
I stared at him in amazement.
"The fancy dress ball at the Greek Embassy, you know. Don't you remember, I told you about it in my rooms. I'm going as a cardinal. What the devil are you laughing at, man?"
For I was laughing, and heartily, too; half at the idea of my florid vivacious little friend, whose person was already open to the imputation of embonpoint, choosing such a character, and half with a wild idiotic mirth at an idea which had just occurred to me.
"Oh, nothing," I explained, weakly, wiping my eyes and following him through the swing doors. "Fact is, I was thinking of the only cardinal I've ever seen—a tall, thin man, with a hatchet face and sallow complexion. Taking him as the type, you'd scarcely look the part, would you?" For Dick was short, as well as somewhat stout.
He was the best-natured fellow in the world, never out of temper with anyone, and he only laughed carelessly. His costume was displayed and tried on, and of course I admired it prodigiously. I was nervously anxious to keep friends with the man, whom I began to see might do me a great service, and I was rejoiced to see that he was not offended at my mirth. Bye and bye, just as we were leaving the place, I motioned him on one side.
"Dick, were you in earnest when you offered to get me a card for this affair? I—I think that I should rather like to go."
"Of course I was, old man. Hurrah! glad you're going. Let's choose your toggery now while we're about it. What shall you go as?"
We explained matters to the bowing proprietor of the establishment. He proposed a long string of costumes to all of which I had some objection to urge. I had long ago decided in my own mind what character I should assume, and was only waiting to see if the man would suggest it. He did not, however, and presently he paused, perplexed.
"I tell you what," I said, calmly, "you look so well in your clerical attire, Dick, that I think I shall go in for something of the same sort—a monk of the inquisition now, with a deep cowl. Have you got anything of that sort?"
There was a murmur of disapprobation from the shopman.
"With your face and figure, sir—a most unbecoming costume, so—"
"Oh, hang it, Gorleston, you can't mean to make a guy of yourself like that!"
I was firm, however, and had my own way. When a few minutes later Dick Cunningham and I left the shop it had been arranged as I wished, and I felt that fortune had commenced to smile upon me already. I was not sorry when Dick remembered a call which he was bound to make, and hurried away. I was glad to be alone for a time. I was not practised in concealing my feelings, and I had found it not a little trying to listen to his idle chatter. It occurred to me that I might have to make a confidant of him, but for the present, at any rate, I desired no other confederate in my enterprise. My enterprise! Yes, my ideas were fast shaping themselves in my mind, and I knew that it was a definite enterprise in which I was engaged. I had come up to London blindly, merely because Glitka had come, scarcely resolved whether or no I should make any attempt to see her, and with only vague ideas of somehow gaining my end by perseverance and persistence. A little reflection had soon convinced me, however, that perseverance and persistence were scarcely the weapons which would serve me best. The more I considered the matter the more I felt convinced that any further appeal to Mrs. de Carteret would be useless, and worse than useless. It would only serve to put her on her guard, and do no possible good. I must resort to other means. The terror which Glitka felt at even the mention of Count Voltkar's name, convinced me that she hated him, but in the same breath she had confessed his mysterious influence over her. That influence, of whatsoever its nature, might be powerful enough to nullify her hatred, but I swore that somehow—I was reckless as to means—I would break through it. I would kill him before he should take her from me. I would drag her from his side at the altar before the very bishop who had ordained me sooner than he should marry her. These were no idle ravings of mine, but calm decisions, which undoubtedly I should have carried out if events had culminated differently. I think that in my earlier days I had the reputation of being somewhat stubborn and strong-willed. No such weak words as these, however, can express the absolute immovableness, the gaugeless depth of the purpose with which my passion had fired me. Every part of my nature, good or evil, was absorbed by it. It mastered me. My ideas of good or evil were distorted. I was prepared to wade through lies, truckle with rascals, deceit, crime, anything so that I might gain my end. I had no longer the control of my senses, so I suppose I must have been mad. The past was like a dim dream; the present was Glitka, the future was Glitka—or chaos. The metamorphosis within was too intense to reveal itself outwardly. I betrayed no excitement or nervousness. I was calm and coolly deliberate, never acting without careful reflection, and laying my plans well. And yet every minute which passed without my seeing her seemed an hour of purgatory, and when Dick Cunningham had talked of her in his careless, scoffing way, he sat in his chair easily unconscious that he was in danger of his life. I suppose if I had murdered him my counsel would have pleaded temporary insanity. That would have been exactly the case. I was temporarily insane; but there was method in my madness. I could plan and plot, and I did plan and plot; I could and did endure failure without changing a muscle of my face, and at the moment of anticipated success, when my foot was on the topmost rung of the ladder which led to happiness, I never lost my head for a second, and yet during the whole time I felt like a man in a dream. I seemed to be a looker on while someone else in my clothes and shape was playing the cards for me in the game of life. I seemed to be in a state of suspended existence driven this way and that as if by another's inexorable will, rather than my own. But why try to describe all this? I might as well seek to find words wherewith to express my love for her. It is a fruitless task. Let me pass on to my second interview with Jean Dupont.
EVEN as I write, the memory of my first night in London comes back to me with hideous vividness. Dupont had warned me that the little public-house which was to be our rendezvous was in a "queer part," but I was scarcely prepared for the miserable scenes through which I had to make my way. I had decided to walk, for I had plenty of time, and it suited my mood; in any case I doubt whether a cab would have taken me into such a part. At first I passed through brilliantly lighted streets crowded with carriages on their way to the theatre and westwards, but by and bye these and other signs of wealthy civilisation became scantier, and the streets more dimly illuminated and quieter. I seemed for a while to be leaving the great metropolis of noise and bustle behind. The continuous hum of wheels died away, and the streaming crowds of babbling pleasure-seeking men and women thronged around me no more. Suddenly there was a change. A sharp turn to the left brought me into another region, and it seemed to me like the region of hell. The streets became narrower, and were coated with black filthy mud, relieved by little pools of stagnant, stinking water, into which the insufficient footway and the hulking insolent passers-by often compelled me to step. At every yard my horror of the locality in which I found myself increased, and as I plunged deeper and deeper into this abyss of filth and misery I buttoned my ulster over my ears and pulled my hat over my eyes, for I knew that I was penetrating into the worst and lowest part of London. My God! what a walk that was. Past miserable by-ways leading to abodes which one would have thought the very rats would have turned away from in scorn. Past loathsome courts, in which crawled squalid and half-clothed children, from whose tiny faces the spirituality of youth had been banished by hunger, and dirt, and disease. Some even lifted their tiny, sharpened faces as I passed by and begged for a copper, with oaths, vile oaths, trembling on their lips if I took no notice. The crazy tenements tottering to decay seemed rotted with the filth which hung around them, and the opened doors showed scenes which sent me shuddering, hurrying on my way. At each corner was a flaring, tawdry gin palace, round the doors of which were little groups of brutal, animal-looking men, and unsexed, bold, slatternly women, their voices raised in quarrelsome strife, or scarcely less hideous in shrill shrieks of mirthless merriment. No one took any notice of me. I passed on through this swarm of misery without speaking or being spoken to, until at last I came to a low, dirty-looking public-house, which I recognised as my destination. It differed from the flaming gin palaces with which the whole district was reeking only in the absence from it of any attempt at ostentation, but its appearance was none the less repulsive. The swing doors, from which all the paint and most of the glass had long since disappeared, yielded to my touch, and I stumbled (for the step was steep and unexpected) into a low sanded cellar, reeking with disgusting smells. Behind a wooden counter was the proprietor, a dirty-looking little man, with Hebrew features of the lowest type, and engaged in earnest conversation with him were two villainous-looking foreigners, singularly alike, with black beards and large brass ear-rings in their ears. My entrance broke up the conversation, and apparently created no little uneasiness. I think they feared that I was a detective, but when I explained to the man behind the counter that I had come to see a Mr. Francis (that was the name by which Dupont had told me to ask for him) his suspicious frown cleared away, and his features broke into a smile, intended no doubt to be pleasant, but which seemed to me like the fiendish grin of one of Dante's hell cats. He came from behind the counter, and beckoned me to follow him. We passed through a door at the other end of the place, along a dark unlit passage into a small apartment, where Dupont was sitting awaiting me. Then he left us, and I sank into a chair with an exclamation of disgust.
"A charming place this! Why on earth couldn't you have come to my hotel instead of dragging me into such a hell?" I asked him, angrily.
He lifted his shoulders in polite deprecation.
"Monsieur may well ask that! It is for me to apologise. I brought him here that Count Voltkar might not hear of our meeting."
I stared at him incredulously, and he continued almost at once:
"Monsieur scarcely knows what sort of man my master is. How could he when I am in the dark myself. You will perhaps be surprised to hear," he continued, speaking rapidly, and dropping his ceremonial form of address, "that the count knows you are in London, knows by what train you arrived, and that he does not know at what hotel you are stopping is only owing to the providential fact that he deputed me to find out."
I was not so much surprised after all. I had noticed a strange man hanging about the platform at Blackton station, and the idea had flashed across me that if there really was anything mysterious going on between Count Voltkar and Mrs. de Carteret which concerned Glitka in any way, he might consider it advisable to have me watched, in case I should follow them to London. That idea had been strengthened by a remark of the station-master's as we had stood together chatting on the platform. The man, he said, had just come down from London, and had inquired the way to Gorleston, with the obvious intention of setting out there. Just as my dogcart had arrived, however, he turned back into the station, and had re-booked for London. The station-master thought it was queer. So did I, but I said nothing.
"I think, however, that we have the best of his excellency, this time," Jean went on, his thin lips curling in a slight sardonic smile. "As I mentioned just now, he desired me to discover the hotel at which monsieur was stopping. The hall-porter at the Langham is a friend of mine. I went to him and ascertained, first, that you were not stopping there, and secondly that there was a young gentleman there answering somewhat to your description who had come from somewhere in the country to spend a week or two in town. This was admirable. I returned to his excellency, and informed him that you were stopping at the Langham. He sent then for one of his cursed spies, and told me to point you out to him. I took him to the hotel, and pointed out the other young gentleman. Meinherr the spy—he is a dirty, beer-swilling German—grunted, and I left him there. He will make his reports to his excellency every night. You will have been sight-seeing perhaps in the morning, have lunched at St. James', been to Madame Tussaud's in the afternoon, dined at the Café Royal, been to a theatre or the Pavilion, possibly, in the evening, and when his excellency hears this account of your proceedings he will smile, and will say: This young man is not deeply smitten. He is not in earnest, mon dieu! it is excellent! And that pauvre sausage-eater, too! The young man has long legs! He will lead him a pretty dance! Ah! but it is excellent," and he broke into a long, low laugh, and rubbed his hands together in delighted satisfaction.
He seemed surprised that I did not share his mirth. Seeing that I was not inclined to do so, he checked it, and relapsed at once into his former self.
"And why does your master employ spies?"
A sudden look of malignant fury flashed in the man's face. It was gone in a moment, but it confirmed my previous suspicion. This man hated his master with no common hatred.
"That is what I shall discover some day," he answered slowly. "You may judge that I do not know now when I tell you, monsieur, that I too am frequently watched. The count trusts no one. He commands me to do strange things sometimes, and I do them, but he tells me nothing. I will tell you why I am in his service. There is a secret in my life, and he knows it. He can expose me, and so he took me for his servant. He thought that this would render me his slave. But we shall see, we shall see," he muttered with one of his peculiar smiles.
I waited for a minute, but Jean had nothing more to say on that subject.
"Monsieur would like to be knowing the little I have to tell," he said, with a sudden change of manner. "It is well. We left for London, Mrs. de Carteret, Miss Glitka, and his Excellency, at nine o'clock on the morning after I had enjoyed Monsieur's hospitality. Mrs. de Carteret and Miss Glitka went straight to No. —, Cadogan-square, and my master and I went straight to his rooms in Piccadilly. Since then he has visited the ladies twice, and he will be there again to-night, after he has dined with Lord ——. I have also been to Cadogan-square twice, but my visits have been paid to Miss Glitka's maid—Mademoiselle Hortense has an old admirer in me—and fortunately for us a favoured one. After all, I found out very little from her. She is close for a woman, pardieu! One thing may perhaps please Monsieur. If his Excellency the Count is really a suitor for her hand, he is not a favoured one. She seems to hate even the sound of his name. Hortense tells me that her young mistress is unhappy. Why she does not know, for they appear to treat her kindly. Her health seems precarious, and she is subject to hysteria and prolonged nervous attacks. The idea of a country residence was mooted for the sake of her health. Hortense does not know why they so suddenly came back to town. We do. Now they are going to try society for her. She is going to a great ball next week."
"Is she never out alone, or with her maid?" I asked.
He shook his head. "She used to walk in the gardens, and attend church alone with Hortense, but since their return from Gorleston that is forbidden. To tell the truth to monsieur, a meeting would be difficult. The little that I have found out took me hours of judicious questioning. Hortense is not to be trusted. Nothing can be done through her. She is in the Count's pay and one of his creatures. I may find out little things from her, but for an ally we must not rely upon her."
"There is one thing in particular which you must discover from her," I said, "and that is her costume for the ball next week."
"But Monsieur—Monsieur is not thinking of going?"
"I am though. It's a fancy dress ball, and I have chosen a costume which will completely disguise me. It will be a splendid opportunity to see her, and even to speak to her. I shall go as a monk, with a cowl which I can pull right over my face."
The little Frenchman's eyes sparkled, and his face was full of interested approbation. The sons of Gaul are almost as bad as her daughters in their love of intrigue, especially if there be a spice of romance in it. This affair was much more to Dupont's taste than a hurried meeting in the gardens or the street.
"Brava! Bravissima!" he exclaimed. "C'est magnifique! If you use caution, monsieur, this should be a splendid opportunity for you. If only you had a friend amongst the guests whom you could trust!"
"I shall have one," and I told him briefly of my talk with Dick Cunningham.
"What I shall want from you, to be quite secure, will be a description of Mrs. de Carteret's costume as well as Miss Glitka's, and most particularly I shall want to know about the Count—what he goes as, and at what time he will be likely to arrive. You had better try to find out where he dines, and at what houses he—but what's the matter with you, Dupont?" I asked, for he had suddenly sprung up from his chair as if fired with a sudden idea.
He did not answer my question.
"Let us speak plainly, monsieur. Monsieur intends to endeavour to persuade Miss Glitka to fly with him."
"I shall do more than endeavour. I shall succeed."
"Then why not affect your whole purpose at this ball? When will you have a better opportunity? Everything favours. One of the footmen there happens to be under an obligation to me—a small debt of honour, which I have allowed to stand over. He shall be at your call, and show you the private way out of the house. A carriage and some of the young lady's clothes can be waiting in Wardour-street, and once in that carriage and away, from what I have seen of Monsieur, I think that he would not give her up again," and he paused, waiting in some excitement for my reply.
"Never!" I exclaimed, fiercely. "Let me once get her away from this web of mystery, and I'll engage that no one shall take her away from me. But where should we go to? If only we could get away in time to catch the twelve o'clock train from Charing Cross!"
"By no means impossible," declared Jean. "The ball commences at ten, and Mrs. de Carteret would probably be early. If not, you must have a special train and cross by the early morning boat. You are rich, Monsieur?"
"I have money enough," I answered shortly.
"It is very good. I think that I need keep Monsieur no longer now in this abominable hole, from which Monsieur is anxious doubtless to extricate himself. In a day or two, at latest, I shall be possessed of these little details as to costumes, &c. I will then either write monsieur particulars or ask him to meet me here."
"And Monsieur will not forget how important it is that he should run no risk of meeting his Excellency, my master, or Mrs. de Carteret. It is well that he has chosen the St. Pancras Hotel."
"I shall be cautious, Dupont," I assured him, rising and making for the door.
"Stay, Monsieur need not return through that filthy den," and stepping to the other side of the room he lifted a dingy curtain, and disclosed a door leading into a side street. He opened it with a latch-key which he drew from his pocket, and motioned for me to pass through. I looked at him in surprise.
"You are at home here, then Dupont." He bowed. "I make use of this place occasionally. I wish Monsieur a very good evening."
I nodded, and only stopping to light a cigar, turned to make my escape from that vile region with all possible speed. I had scarcely gone a dozen yards, however, when I felt constrained to stop short. A girl was leaning with her back to the wall, and her face buried in her hands, sobbing not loudly but with a piteous abjection of sorrow which struck me then as the most mournful sound I had ever heard. She was scantily dressed, in rags which seemed falling to pieces around her, and when she looked up with a quick, startled movement, her shoulder blades seemed as though they would start through her dress.
"What do you want?" she asked in a shrill, querulous tone.
My God! how thin she was. Her rags had fallen away in front—she had been keeping them up with her chin—displaying her long, scraggy neck and emaciated bust, and her dark, feverish eyes flashed out at me from cavernous hollows, and with it all a puny, half-naked child was pulling at her skirts.
"You seem in distress," I began. "Perhaps—"
"Distress! distress! and what if I am. Wot's that to gentlefolk like you!" she exclaimed passionately. "I knows yer; yer comes down and sees us all starving 'ere and goes 'ome to yer dinners and sends some 'un down to read the Bible to us. Distress, did yer say? Ay, that's the word they all use. Is it distress, d'ye think, to see your child starve and have ne'er a morsel to give him? D'ye think that's distress? To have a husband who comes to see you 'bout once a fortnight, and kicks yer and beats the child. D'ye think that's distress? I ain't seen 'im sober since the day I was married. Curse 'im, and curse yer for coming prying into other people's affairs; you be one of them sneaking charity organ lot I reckon. Be off!"
I undid my coat and put my hand in my pocket. The girl in front of me gave a wild start.
"Be yer going to give me money, or a tract?" she whispered hoarsely.
"Certainly not a tract!" I answered. "Here take this and get some food for the child. Good night."
I turned away quickly to avoid her thanks. I need not have feared, however, for she said nothing. I heard a sort of gasp, and then she caught up the child and started to cross the road. As she reached the opposite causeway she staggered and sunk down almost on the step of a flaring gin palace. I followed her and helped her up.
"You were going in that place," I said sternly.
She did not deny it. She simply stared at me defiantly.
"And the child?" She hung her head, and I was glad to see that she looked ashamed. I hesitated for a moment, and then caught the bundle of rags up in my arms, and motioned the woman to follow me. She obeyed at once. The people whom we passed laughed—some made brutal jests—but the woman seemed to hear nothing, and I paid no attention. I don't mind confessing that I had never held a child in my arms before, and but that this one went to sleep almost immediately, with its arms round my neck, and its face, thick with dirt, nestled up against mine, no doubt I should have found it a more difficult task. We reached a coffee house on the outskirts of these miserable regions, and setting the child down I pushed open the door and entered. It was a clean, healthy-looking place, and the proprietress—a policeman's widow, she told me in a subsequent conversation—a kind-hearted woman. It was a pitiable, and at the same time a satisfactory sight to see the way that morsel of humanity licked up bread and milk and called for more, nor was its mother far behind in her consumption of ham and coffee. I stood a little on one side chatting to the landlady, and sipping a cup of tea. Presently, when I looked round, the child was asleep, and the mother was crying softly. A few minutes later and she too was asleep.
I left money and my address with the proprietress, who promised to give the pair lodgings for awhile, and to let me know if anything more could be done for them. That half-starved girl paid back her debt with gratitude to me with interest, for I owe her my life. She is a portly pleasant-faced dame now, who wears rustling black silk dresses, and is thought a good deal of at Gorleston Hall. So is her son, the tallest and most stalwart of my gamekeepers, who I caught with his arm around my parlour-maid's waist last Sunday evening in the grounds. I mean to tell his mother on the first opportunity.
WHEN I left the coffee house it was with the intention of returning at once to St. Pancras. A great clock far away to the west was booming out the hour with slow, sullen strokes. I listened—it was midnight. Surely I should be safe from espionage now. I would go and see the house where Glitka lived.
In half an hour's time I was in Cadogan-square. The houses were large and gloomy, but one was brilliantly lighted up, and a linkman* walked slowly up and down outside.
* Linkman, also linkboy: a man/boy who carried a torch for pedestrians on dark streets. —R.G.
Something told me that this was the house I sought, and I paused on the opposite side of the street and gazed at it. There had been a party of some sort, evidently, for a crimson drugget stretched down to the gate, and from the brilliantly-illuminated window came the sound of a woman's voice, singing. It ceased, and I could even catch the faint hum of thanks and congratulations which followed. Then a carriage turned into the square, a small shapely brougham, drawn by a pair of fast high-stepping bays, and instinctively I drew further back into the shade. There was no footman, and as the man who had stepped out of it stood on the broad pavement speaking a few quick words of command to the coachman, the flashing carriage lights showed me distinctly the refined haughty face of the man whom I had driven to the Hermitage. He had thrown open his cloak to look at his watch, and as he glanced upwards to give his orders the sparkling of his diamond solitaire seemed to me scarcely more vivid than the steel-like glitter from his cold, passionless eyes. If a look of hatred or my will could have killed him at that moment, Count Voltkar would not have required his carriage again. He turned away and entered the house, and soon other carriages came, some depositing, some receiving guests. It was evident that Mrs. de Carteret was holding a reception. I could gain no end by waiting longer, and so I went.
The next morning I hired a small brougham, and keeping myself well out of view of pedestrians, drove to Bedford-row to call on Mr. Baring, my uncle's solicitor—also mine. He seemed not altogether unprepared for my visit, and listened with an air of grave attention while I explained my wish to realise a portion of my small property. I might be wanting to draw upon him for considerable sums, almost immediately, so I should be glad if he would use all possible despatch.
When I had finished he drew from his drawer a letter, and handed it over to me.
"I received this letter from your uncle yesterday," he said. "You had better read it."
It was a very characteristic epistle. I can write it down word for word:
Gorleston Hall, Oct. 19th, 18—.
Dear Mr. Baring,
My nephew is about to make a fool of himself. It's a pity, but it can't be helped. I have decided not to interfere. Of course there's a woman in it. There always is in such cases. Basil is now in London, I believe, trying to get over an obdurate stepmother. If he don't succeed, he'll probably run away with the girl. I know I should if I were he. Of course, he'll want money, and of course he'll come to you for it. Let him have it. Let him have anything he wants; and if the old lady caves in, and anything has to be done in settlements, you can sign over the Cropston estates and £20,000 worth of Midland Railway stock. If they want more, Basil can settle his own property upon her. I only impose one condition on Mr. Basil, and that is that he doesn't come bothering me, and on no account must he bring the girl here for a bit. I'm not angry with him, I think he's a fool, that's all. If he marries he shall have four thousand a year while I live. At my death he'll have the lot, of course, and how the devil he'll spend it I don't know. I tried hard to spend five thousand last year, and couldn't. Let my nephew see this letter, and tell him that the new curate licks him into a cocked hat at chess, so he needn't flatter himself that I miss him. The specimen case has this moment come, and I am about to unpack it. It's a wonder he remembered it. If there are any deeds to sign bring them down yourself, and have a pop at the partridges.
Yours truly, George Basil Charles Gorleston.
"You will see," remarked Mr. Baring, as I returned him the letter, "that your uncle is disposed to behave very handsomely to you. You had better let me know what your immediate requirements are."
I made a little calculation.
"I don't think I want anything this morning," I decided, "but I shall be glad if you will have fifteen hundred pounds ready for me on Wednesday morning. I expect to be going abroad after then, and will write you for circular notes.
The lawyer made a note of the amount, and then looked up at me curiously.
"Nothing in the way of settlements yet, then, Mr. Basil?"
I shook my head. "Not just yet."
"I do hope," he continued, "that you are not going to adopt the other course. I think it most undesirable that—"
"That you should meddle with my concerns, Mr. Baring. I agree with you entirely. Good morning."
I drove back to the hotel and lunched. During the afternoon a note was brought in to me. It was without a signature, but I saw at once that it was from Dupont. He had soon obtained his information:
"Mrs. de Carteret goes as a French marquise, Miss Glitka as Lady Jane Grey, and his excellency as a Spanish hidalgo. The ladies leave Cadogan-square at 10:30, but as there is certain to be a crush and a block in the square, they will probably not reach the reception room before half-past eleven. His excellency leaves here at eight o'clock to dine with Mons. the Secretary of State—I forget his name—in Walpole-street. There are five other houses at which he will probably want to show himself, and then he will have to return here for the purpose of attiring himself in his costume. He can scarcely be at the hall before one or two o'clock. Those are his own words to Mrs. de Carteret. All other matters go well, but I must see you before Wednesday. Let us say on Monday evening, same time and place. Burn this as soon as read."
Until Monday I never stirred out of the hotel. I was determined now that the game had begun in earnest not to run the slightest risk, and so, although more than once I felt a strong inclination to pay a midnight visit to Cadogan-square, I resisted it. At seven o'clock on Monday evening I called on Cunningham, and found him addressing an envelope to me. He threw it across the table as I entered.
"How are you, Gorleston, and what have you been doing with yourself? I've had this blessed thing in my pocket for you ever since Wednesday evening. Thought I should have been certain to run against you somewhere."
I opened it and thanked him. It was the card for the fancy dress ball. He little guessed how precious it was to me.
"You're going to dine out, I suppose, aren't you, Dick?" I enquired. "You haven't time for a chat?"
"I have, though. Take that easy -chair, old man, and light a cigarette. I was just going to have a sherry and bitters. You'll have one? That's right. Khoosh or Angostura? They're both there. Help yourself, will you? And now, what have you been doing with yourself since Wednesday? Out with it?"
"Nothing very particular, Dick. You're a good-natured fellow, I know. I'm going to ask you a great favour."
Dick assumed an aspect of becoming gravity, and professed himself ready to do anything in the world.
"You were speaking the other day of Miss de Carteret. I know her. She and her mother have been stopping near us in Norfolk. I am what you would call in love with her."
"The dev—I beg your pardon, old man. Go on."
"I have proposed to Gl—Miss de Carteret, and she has—has accepted me." A strangely prosaic paraphrasing this, of what had passed between Glitka and me!
My dear fellow," Dick exclaimed heartily, "I'm sure I congratulate—"
"You needn't," I interrupted quietly, "at least not just yet. Mrs. de Carteret met my propositions with a point-blank refusal. When I pressed her for her reasons she informed me that her step-daughter was engaged to Count Voltkar."
A long whistle from Dick, but I went on without heeding him.
"Gl—Miss de Carteret has the good taste to detest the Count, and notwithstanding Mrs. de Carteret's prohibition, I remain pledged to her. I have come up to London on purpose to get a word with her somehow, but if either Mrs. de Carteret or the Count know that I am here there will be no chance, for I shan't be able to get near her. Now you know why I'm going to wear that peculiar costume on Wednesday."
"Well, I'm hanged," was Dick's emphatic comment. "If that fellow really wants her, Basil, I'm afraid you'll have a bad time. He's a bad one to beat, I can tell you, at anything he puts his hand to," Dick went on seriously. "Are you sure she doesn't care for him?"
"I'm quite convinced of that. On the other hand, she positively loathes him, and to tell you the truth, I don't believe that he wants to marry her at all. There's a mystery about it which I don't understand. The one thing that I do understand is that Mrs. de Carteret declines to have anything more to say to me on the subject. What should you do under these circumstances?"
Dick did not hesitate for a moment. "I should address myself to the young lady," he said briskly.
"Exactly what I purpose doing on Wednesday night," I explained. "Now I don't suppose I shall know anyone there, and I may find it just a little bit difficult to get Miss de Carteret to myself without attracting observation. You must help me."
"Help you! Of course I will. By Jove, what a lark. I say, Basil my boy, do you mean bolting? I should. What a sensation there'd be!"
I did not answer his question. It was not that I did not trust him, but it occurred to me that it would perhaps be better for him not to know if our plan succeeded, and if he were seen assisting in any way towards my interview with Glitka.
"Well, how can I help you, old man?" he asked after a pause.
"You must contrive to get engaged to her for a dance or something, and bring her to me."
"Does she know that you're going to be there?" Dick asked thoughtfully.
"She hasn't the least idea of it. On the contrary, she doesn't know that I've left Gorleston."
"H'm. I don't think that idea of yours will work very well. It'll look too much like a put up thing you know. Tell you my idea."
"Go on," I said encouragingly.
"You know the Countess of Blessington, don't you?"
I explained that my great uncle had married a cousin of the lady in question, so that we were in a remote degree connections. I had met her several times, and she had been graciously pleased to remember the fact.
"Well I'm rather chummy with the old lady myself. I'm an 'eligible' you know, and she has a whole regiment of unmarried daughters—rare guys they are too. We'll make use of her—without letting her know of course."
"Easily enough. You must make yourself agreeable to the Countess, who will be sitting up amongst the dowagers. I shall wait my opportunity, and confront la belle stepmother. I shall have a favour to ask her. The old Countess of Blessington has been much struck by her step-daughter's appearance, and has commissioned me to present her. Might I be allowed, etc., etc. Of course I shall be allowed, and I shall march off with Miss Glitka. We shall stroll round the room until we come upon you and the old Countess. Of course I shall stop and pay my respects to her, and you can make your bow to Miss Glitka. You will then find that I shall cut you out altogether with Lady Blessington, and in return you will naturally devote your attention to my partner. After then I wash my hands of you. Will it do, do you think?"
"Admirably. My dear fellow, you can't imagine how grateful I—"
"Oh! all right. I really must turn you out now. I'm awfully sorry, but I've only got ten minutes to dress. If I don't see you to-morrow, call for me on Wednesday evening. We must go together you know."
It was eight o'clock when I got into the street and turned eastward to keep my other appointment. On the way I called at the coffee tavern, where I had left my odd protégés. The landlady knew me at once. She was sorry, she said, but she had not been able to keep the young woman and her child there. They had stopped until late in the afternoon of the second day, and then the woman had begun to get uneasy, and had declared that she must go, and go she did, after leaving the money which I had given her in charge of the landlady.
"Which I did all in my power to keep her here," continued the latter, but she was obstinate. She would go. She told me that her name was Anna Smith, and that 'er 'usband was a foreigner, which 'ow she can reconcile with the name of Smith I don't know. A nice sort of 'usband, too; goes to see her about once in three weeks, and leaves 'er to starve the rest of the time. Wish I 'ad 'im 'ere. I'd give him a piece of my mind, foreigner or no foreigner. It's my belief as how she'd a been a dead woman, sir, this very day if you'd not brought her here, which I 'ope it'll be remembered to you, sir, meaning no offence, and if she comes here again, sir, will I let you know?"
I told her that she might do so, and hurried away. A few minutes later I was in the thick of that loathsome swarm of misery, which God forbid I should ever see the like of again. I reached the public-house, and stepped inside. If it was bad in the street, it was worse here. The place was chock full of tipsy clamouring men and women, whose discordant shouts and filthy conversation, and above all their hideous appearance, seemed to convert the stuffy little vault into a veritable pandemonium. At the farther end of the counter the landlord was talking to one of the two men whom I had seen with him before, and as I caught sight of the pair something in the attitude of the clumsy looking foreigner struck me as vaguely familiar. Before I had had time to recall him to mind, however, the landlord had caught sight of me, and leaving off abruptly in his conversation, crept underneath the counter and hurried to my side. I returned his obsequious greeting very abruptly, with my eyes fixed upon his late companion.
"Do you know that man's name?" I asked, "and who he is?"
"I know nuttin ob 'im, but I t'sink his name Smith," replied the landlord, casting his little bear-like eyes up at me in a glance full of suspicion.
"Smith! He doesn't look a Smith," I answered scathingly.
"P'raps not, nor monsieur either. Does monsieur look like a Smith? But zat is ze name vich your vriend did give to you."
What a den of lies and iniquity this was! I said no more, but followed the man into the back room. When we arrived there he produced a latch key, and offered it to me.
"Zis key," he explained, "is ze key of de door into ze street there. All ze shenlemans vich use dis room dey has a key."
"Very well, then, I'll have one," I said, putting it into my pocket. "Much obliged."
"Ze price," he continued, with a cat-like wriggle, and an anxious uplifting of his little eyes, "is vive zevereigns."
"The devil it is," I exclaimed. "Here, take it and be gone," I went on, anxious to get rid of him. "Send my friend here directly he comes."
"I vill do so. I vill do so," and with another wriggling bow he shuffled out of the room.
I sat there for more than an hour before the door opened and Dupont entered. He apologised profusely for keeping me waiting so long. I cut him short, being anxious to get out of the place as soon as possible.
"I had your letter, Dupont, and I have already made a plan for an interview with Miss Carteret. The next thing is about the carriage. Of course we must have someone on whom we can rely."
"Monsieur will leave that to me. The carriage will be at the side entrance in Wardour-street at eleven o'clock, and will wait. There is a little plan here which will show you how to reach the stairs. Once clear of corridor A, which as you see skirts the ball-room, the footman in whom I have confided will meet you, and the rest will be easy. The horses will be shod with felt, [so that in the event of pursuit some dodging] will be possible. And now let me explain this plan to monsieur. It is very simple. His excellency the Ambassador and the Ambassadress will receive until half-past 11 at the head of the stairs, which monsieur will discover to be fitted up as an anteroom. The guests will then turn to the left, and pass through four ante-rooms to the main ball-room and other apartments. After half-past eleven monsieur must come back to the head of the staircase, and turn to the right instead of the left. He will lift a curtain, and he will then be in another corridor running along the side of the ball-room. On the right hand side about a dozen yards up there is a door. Monsieur opens that door, and he will find someone waiting there who will conduct him to the carriage."
"That's all simple enough," I said, "but where are we to go to?"
"I should suggest Paris, Monsieur. There would be no delay then about the marriage."
"And you will get your five hundred pounds all the sooner, eh! Well, I'll see about a special to Dover tomorrow. Our arrangements will be perfect then. You want some money, of course?"
"If Monsieur would be so good."
I gave him a note, and he bowed his thanks. Then I buttoned up my ulster, and prepared to depart.
"If all goes well, Dupont," I said, "I will send an order to Mr. Baring, solicitor, 37, Bedford-row, to hand you over five hundred pounds on Saturday morning. If anything goes wrong, well, then we must meet again, and form fresh plans. Good night."
Dupont hastened to open the side door.
"Monsieur will accept from me a thousand thanks for his generosity, and wishes for his happiness with Mademoiselle Glitka. Good fortune, Monsieur, and good night."
I thanked him, and passed out, but I had not seen the last of Jean Dupont.
AT ten o'clock on Wednesday evening, I called for Dick Cunningham, and a few minutes later we were on our way to the Greek Embassy. I could never hope, nor should I ever try, to describe the state of my mind, or the nature of my anticipations on that night. My excitement was too profound for nervousness, or to show itself outwardly in any form. The hand which held a match to Dick's cigarette was as firm and free from trembling as it had ever been, and the laugh which greeted one of my companion's trivial jokes was, I believe, a perfectly natural one. Nevertheless, the minor events of that evening have left but a hazy impress upon my memory. I can remember passing slowly with a throng of others in grotesque and picturesque attire up a broad flight of stairs, carpeted with some rich soft material, into which the feet sank noiselessly. I can remember, too, the faint sweet smell of the exotics with which the staircase was lined, and the peculiar effect of the grave bowing servants moving noiselessly about in Greek attire. All the rest comes back to me but indistinctly. A block at the head of the stairs, and a slower progress through what seemed to be a lofty apartment, but was really a part of the spacious corridor; more flowers, a stronger perfume, increased brilliancy of light, a small dark man, his breast glittering with orders, and his face convulsed with a stereotyped smile; a pleasant looking woman by his side, whose head and arms and bosom seemed ablaze with diamonds, a bow, a smile, these all come back to me but vaguely, and in an unconnected manner. Everything after then, though, I recollect perfectly.
Dick and I were standing apart in the second ante-room, which was laid out with card tables, when a few words of his released me from the mental numbness which had stolen upon me.
"I know you'll excuse me, old man. I don't know how far this affair's gone, of course, but don't you think I'd better prepare Miss Glitka for the joy that awaits her. You look rather sepulchral and creepy, you know, under that cowl arrangement, and it might give her a turn. Eh?"
His words seemed to bring me back to actual realisation of my whereabouts and purpose. I was myself again when I answered, and from that moment I have a distinct recollection of everything that happened.
"I think you're quite right Dick," I concluded, after a moment's thought. "Perhaps you'd better just mention that I'm with Lady Blessington. Don't blurt it out too abruptly, you know."
"Trust me," said Dick with a chuckle. Dick had a great idea of his own diplomacy in all social matters, and I believe he thoroughly enjoyed his share in this little scheme. I felt just a momentary compunction when I reflected how little he knew what he was doing in arranging this interview for me, but I feared to tell him the whole truth. He was an excellent fellow, but there was just a suspicion of conventionality in his ideas with regard to all social observances, and I was not quite sure whether the idea of an elopement would appeal to his imagination sufficiently to overcome his prejudices, and so, as I dared run no risks, I behaved rather shabbily, and merely made use of him as a tool, instead of disclosing my scheme to him, and begging for his alliance.
He was a useful tool. I should never have known where to have looked for Lady Blessington but for him. We passed through the third ante-room and into the main ball-room. Exactly opposite to us was a sort of raised dais, on which were about a dozen chairs for the use of the dowagers, and others of the more distinguished guests, who were too old or had no inclination to mingle in the gay throng of maskers. Sitting on the end chair, by herself, was Lady Blessington. At first she did not know me, but when I lifted my cowl, she recognised me at once, and seemed really pleased.
After a while Dick excused himself, and as I saw him making his way down the room for one moment my head swam, and my heart gave a great throb; then I turned my head, and listened again to Lady Blessington's babbling conversation about her daughters, my uncle, the brilliant début of her youngest girl Mabel at the drawing-room last week, and many other kindred matters. I listened, heard, and understood—occasionally making a remark myself, and in a manner, I believe, made myself agreeable. And yet, all the time, every nerve of my body was tingling with a wild impatience, and every sense was absorbed in anticipation at one moment sickening, at another rapturous. I lost all count of time, but I know now that it must have been about an hour before Dick returned in triumph. I heard his voice from some time before he reached us, but I dared not look round. Nearer and nearer it came; at last it stopped, and then I turned my head, and my eyes looked into Glitka's. With a great, glad joy which had nothing in it of passion I read in them an answering greeting. From that moment, every atom of nervousness and the whole sense of unreality left me. Her presence neither oppressed nor rendered me unduly elated. I was filled with a great calm; every thought, energy and sensation was concentrated upon and intensified by my purpose.
I had turned away from Lady Blessington, but Dick had thrown himself into the breach and was absorbing all her attention. I watched my opportunity, and then, drawing Glitka's little hand through my arm, slipped away into the midst of the throng. In the third of the ante-rooms on the entrance side of the ballroom were several recesses shut off into comparative seclusion by thick lace curtains. Into one of these I led Glitka.
"You are glad to see me?" I asked, for she was trembling, and her hand was cold.
"Ah! yes. I am glad, and yet in a few minutes you will be gone, and I shall not see you again. Oh, if he were to see us here together," and she shuddered.
"Glitka," I said quietly, "let me ask you one question. Are you sure that you love me?"
No words; only a look, but I was content.
"Then I have the right to protect you against him and everyone else, Glitka," and I caught her unresisting hand. "Come away with me, and you shall be safe. We can be married in Paris to-morrow, and no one will dare lay a finger upon my wife."
A sudden flash of hope and joy had shone in her face.
"Basil, oh, Basil! But it is impossible. It is impossible."
"It is nothing of the sort," I said eagerly, yet almost in a whisper, for there were many people moving about in the ante-room. "Listen! I have followed you to London, I have come here to-night for the sole purpose of taking you away from these people, who are [poisoning] your life. I will do it, I tell you. You shall come with me. There is a carriage waiting for us outside, and we can be in Paris to-morrow. Come, Glitka, we love one another. You owe nothing to your stepmother. No one has any right to come between us."
She had risen to her feet, and her eyes were sparkling with a feverish excitement.
"He would follow us," she whispered with a shiver.
"Follow us! Let him! You will be my wife, and the man who seeks to harm you shall answer for it with his life. You forget that, Glitka, you forget that when you belong to me you will be safe."
"Safe!" she repeated to herself half-doubtingly, and then put her hand on mine with a sudden impulsive movement. It was her consent.
We stepped out of the recess and moved across the room. Then our adventure began. We were scarcely in the second chamber before we nearly ran into Count Voltkar's arms. I felt Glitka's whole weight upon my arm, and for a moment I feared that she was going to faint. I would not even look at her, however.
"Count Voltkar, I believe," I said, courteously and without any apparent uneasiness.
He bowed a little stiffly, with his eyes fixed upon my companion.
"We have been looking for you. Mrs. de Carteret commissioned us to find you [and entreat you] to hurry into the ball-room. The Prince [has asked for] you several times, and is on the point of leaving.
"I am extremely obliged to you, sir," replied the Count. "[As I am about to see your mother then], Miss de Carteret, may I have the honour [of escorting you] to her," and he stepped forward and [was about] to draw her hand through his arm.
I could have knocked him down, but I did nothing of the sort. I laughed, and drew her a little away.
"Most certainly not, Count Voltkar. I am responsible to Mrs. de Carteret for this young lady, and I mean to keep her till the next dance [commences]. I shall then myself have the unhappiness to deliver her up to Mrs. de Carteret."
Count Voltkar looked as black as thunder, but he could scarcely insist.
"You will pardon me, I am sure," he said, "Your voice seems somehow familiar to me, but I scarcely seem to recognise—"
"Ah! that speaks well for my disguise, doesn't it, Miss de Carteret," I said, with a laugh. "When I bring this young lady back, Count, I will reveal myself. Au revoir," and we moved away. The Count turned abruptly away and entered the ball-room. The moment he was out of sight we quickened our pace.
"Courage, Glitka," I whispered, for her face was as pale as ivory. "We have won our first victory." For answer she drew a little closer to me, but never spoke a word. Once she glanced nervously behind and shuddered. We stood in the corridor. It was deserted. As Dupont had pointed out, a curtain hung [exactly] opposite to us, and in a moment or two we were behind its sheltering folds. A man was waiting there for us and beckoned us to follow. We [passed through a door down] another passage, and then [down a flight of steep] steps. As we [stood on] the last one our guide stopped and listened.
"There is some commotion in the ball-room," he said. "Quick!" He flung open a door, and we were in the street. The carriage was waiting. He whispered a word to the coachman as we sprang in and we drew rapidly off. Before we had gone many yards we heard a shout from the great front entrance of the Embassy.
"Count Voltkar's carriage! Count Voltkar's carriage!" I pressed Glitka's hand.
"Courage, dearest. He shall never take you from me now. In a few minutes we shall be safe."
She returned my smile but her hand was cold and trembling. Her cloak was in the carriage, and I wrapped it closely around her. Then I slipped off my monk's loose robe and put on my ulster, which Dupont had also smuggled into the carriage. I put my head out of the window and listened. We were passing through the streets like a phantom coach], for our wheels, as well as the horses' feet, were bound up in felt, and very distinctly I could hear in the distance the sounds of galloping horses. They were gaining upon us, no doubt, but we were already at the top of Oxford-street. In a moment or two, Charing Cross loomed in sight, and we were at the principal entrance. We sprang out, Glitka never waiting for me to help her. We had barely touched the ground before the coachman laid the lash across his horses, and drove rapidly away down the Strand. I divined his intention at once, but I feared that our pursuers would never see him unless they came up at once. There was a single porter lounging about as we jumped out. I caught him by the sleeve and pulled him inside the building.
"If anyone drives up here, and enquires if there is any train going out, say no, and if they ask about a carriage, say it's gone up the Strand."
The man nodded. As I concluded my sentence, Count Voltkar's brougham came thundering into the station yard, and pulled up close to us, the magnificent bays foaming at the mouth and quivering in every limb. I pulled Glitka further back in the shadow, but we were so near that we could hear every word that passed.
"Is there any train leaving here directly? Have you seen a carriage with the horses shod with felt?" It was Count Voltkar's voice.
The porter, who had hurried obsequiously up to the carriage door, drew back again as if disappointed.
"There ain't no train goes from here till the 4:30 Greenwich. There's a carriage with the wheels wrapped up in sum sort o' stuff gone down the Strand like mad. Maybe that's the one you want. You'll catch 'em if you go a'ead?," he added encouragingly, as with something which sounded very much like an oath a quick agitated voice called out of the carriage to the driver. We heard a sharp cut of the whip, a plunge forward of the horses, and they were gone. That was a black night for Count Voltkar, a "diplomatist of European fame," befooled first by me and then by a porter. I broke into a laugh—it might not have been a very natural one, but it was a laugh—as we listened to the carriage wheels flying away in the distance. But Glitka did not laugh. She had ceased to tremble, but she was still nervous.
The porter returned touching his hat and chuckling. I could have hugged him, dirty though he was, in my gratitude, but I didn't. I shook hands with him, however, and left a piece of paper in his palm which he no doubt preferred to the hugging. Then I checked him in his torrent of thanks, and we hurried off into the station to see about the special which I had engaged for. It was waiting except for the engine, a single saloon and the guard's brake, and in ten minutes we were off. Oh! the look on her face, the cry that broke from her lips as she stood up in the carriage, and realized that we were moving. She leaned right out of the window to assure herself of it, and then drew back with her incredulity only half banished.
"Basil, Basil," she cried, "is this true? We are safe from him?"
"Quite," I answered joyously, taking her hands, and myself scarcely realising this great happiness. "Glitka, you are mine; I have won you, my love, my love!"
She threw herself into my arms without [a word] but with a great deep sob which seemed to quiver through her whole frame. Soon the tears came, and I made no effort to check them, for it seemed to me that they were good for her. I was right. They were not tears of sorrow or regret. I felt this intuitively, and I was careful not to break the silence. When the fit was over and she lifted her head I had my reward. A great joy was shining in her eyes, and there was a change in her face. I can scarcely describe it save by saying that she looked more human, less like a Grecian statue and more like a living woman. Beforetimes I had occasionally thought that she might be cold—would never be able to love as I did. Now I feared it no longer. It was as if life had been breathed into a beautiful picture. I was triumphant. I should have been stupidly exultant but that my happiness was too recent to be fully realised. Glitka was mine! I had won her, and above all I had won her love with her.
IT was dawn when we reached Dover. We drove at once to an hotel, and Glitka changed her strange attire, while I ordered breakfast and made inquiries about the boats. Then for the first time a flaw in our arrangements occurred to me. There was no boat to Calais or any other French port before the arrival of the ordinary train from Charing Cross at ten o'clock.
We breakfasted together, she and I, and though I have some faint recollections of the coffee being weak and the table being carelessly laid (it was barely five o'clock, and the great hotel was as silent as the grave), I don't think we either of us felt inclined to grumble. Then I told her of the discovery I had made about the boats, and I was pained to see the old frightened look come back to her face.
"Basil," she cried, breathlessly, "they will follow us. I am sure they will. Oh, let us go away. Where can we go to?"
I soothed her, and pretended to laugh at her fears.
"Do you suppose I should ever give you up now, darling, to all the stepmothers and Russian counts in the world," I exclaimed passionately. "Glitka, my love, you are safe with me."
Her eyes answered me; and the look of apprehension became less painful.
"But is there no way of getting across?" she asked a little wistfully still.
I proposed going down to the landing stage and making inquiries. There might be a large fishing smack or tug which would undertake the journey, and so we went together.
For some time we were unsuccessful. One after another of the fishermen to whom I applied shook their heads, and pointed out the dull grey sky and leaden-coloured sea, on which the white breakers were dancing, as signs of approaching dirty weather.
"Better try Jack Wilson," said one of the men. "He'd sell his bloomin' soul, 'e would, for fifty pun'."
I did try Jack Wilson, and found him very susceptible to the influence of some crisp bank-notes. He didn't decide all at once, however. He gazed first at the notes, then out at the sea, and then back at the notes again.
"I've seen the sea like this 'ere many a November mornin' and it ain't come to now't," he muttered, as if arguing with himself. "I'll do 't, sir," he exclaimed, suddenly, "but you just remember this 'ere. If it comes on to blow it'll be awful for the young leddy. I've now't but a bit of a cabin, not fit—"
"Please don't say any more about it," begged Glitka. "I'm a good sailor, and I'm not a bit frightened."
I glanced round with a smile, and wondered very little at the old man's admiring gaze. She had taken her hat off, and the breeze was playing strange pranks with her long golden hair. Her lips were half parted, and her eyes, fixed on the sturdy fisherman's weatherbeaten face, were full of eagerness. She looked like a sailor, too, in her dark serge dress, which hung in simple folds around her supple figure. No wonder that even this rough fisherman should stop to admire her fresh glorious beauty.
"Well, miss, yer seem bent on going, so I'll do my best for yer. There's just this 'ere about it, though. There's all the looks of a spell o' dirty weather, and if anything should happen, you'll understand as I warned yer. 'Taint me as is persuading yer that it's perfectly safe, 'cos it aren't, though I ain't a'going to say as we shan't get there safe enough. Now, if yer like, I'll go and fetch my mate."
Glitka's decision was already taken, and I was well content. In a quarter of an hour we were on board the Sarah Ann, a large, rough-looking fishing smack, and in another few minutes we were clear of the harbour.
Outside, the sea certainly did not look inviting. It was of a dull, dirty colour, and as far as we could see the high waves were crested with white foam; and yet we were happy. The sense of freedom, the strong salt breeze, and the consciousness that we were doing a daring thing, exhilarated us, and our spirits grew wilder and wilder as the Dover cliffs grew less distinct. We walked up and down the deck arm in arm, laughing at our erratic career, and chaffing our captain on the danger which he had predicted. Presently we had lunch (I had brought some biscuits and sherry), and then we went to interview our captain again, and learn how we were getting on. He was too busy to speak to us. Looking around it was easy to see the reason. The land breeze which had carried us on with such an impetus was exhausted, and we were tacking about in a short choppy sea in a manner by no means suggestive of rapid progress. There was no steady wind, only a rapid succession of gusts, which carried us first one way, then another, with sudden shocks. At last our captain came up to us, looking very anxious. He would have drawn me on one side, but Glitka divined his purpose, and clung the closer to my arm.
"We're not going ahead very fast, captain," I remarked cheerfully. "You'll make us both sea-sick if this tacking goes on much longer. Dropped the breeze, haven't we?"
"I'm afeared we shall be 'aving too much of it in 'arf an hour's time, sir. There's a reglar gale a'blowing up from the nor'-east, and I thought it right to let yer know that I can't undertake that you'll ever see Calais in this 'ere boat o' mine. I dursn't tack about no longer in a sea like this. I'm going to shorten sail and run a'fore the wind. Lord knows where it'll take us to."
"Not back to Dover?" Glitka said fearfully.
"There ain't no fear on that, young lady." I expect he wished that there was. "It'll be a downright hard nor'-easter when it do come, and it'll mayhap take us somewhere on the French or Spanish coast, and—Lord a'mercy 'ere it comes. Down with the mainsul, yer lubbers. Port your helm, quick! quick!"
A sudden gust seemed almost to lift the boat out of the water, and a mighty wave broke over our heads, drenching us through and through. At first it seemed to me that we must assuredly capsize, and while with one hand I clasped the framework of the hatchway, with the other I drew Glitka closer to me. But the Sarah Ann, clumsy looking craft though she was, was well built, and slowly she righted herself, though every timber in her seemed quivering with the shock. The mainsail was furled, and with only the jib flying, her head was turned to the wind, which at every moment seemed to increase in force. Night came on, but Glitka resisted all my entreaties to go down to the little cabin.
"There is danger, Basil. Let us meet it together. I am not afraid with you. Down there I should be horribly nervous," and so we stopped on deck, crouching down behind the raised cabin top, and covered with oil skins. As the darkness grew more intense I could scarcely see her face, but the little hand which had remained in mine all the while was warm, and the pulses were beating steadily. She had spoken the truth when she had said that she was not afraid. It seemed almost strange to me that the hysterical girl whom I had seen tremble at even the sound of a hated name should remain calm and composed at such a time as this. But Glitka was never like other women.
That night of terror was not without its fascinations for both of us. There was even a sort of wild enjoyment in the thought that we were flying away together towards the open ocean, to land we knew not where, but in any case a very long way from those whom we wished to elude. I have been tossed about in the Bay of Biscay half a dozen times, but I have never seen such a sea as raged around us that night. It seemed a wonder that such a craft as ours could live in it for a moment, but our pace gave us a momentum, and we dashed along through the waves, which sometimes broke right over our heads. During some parts of the night the darkness increased so that the sky and water seemed one indistinguishable chaos, and the waves rose and fell around us like a towering black wall, threatening every moment to descend and bury us amidst its ruins. If I had been alone I might have been afraid, but her presence was an influence stronger than the fear of death. Together we sat, or rather crouched, through all the hours of the night, and to me it did not seem a long one. Speech was impossible, as also was sleep; but I believe that I had sunk into a sort of stupor when I was aroused by our captain shouting in my ear.
"Where have we got to?" I bawled.
"Lord only knows! I'm out of my bearings. We ought ter make the French coast to—"
A violent, sickening crash, which baffles all description! A jerk, a lurch, and the rushing sound of water beneath us.
"We've struck, by God," cried the captain. "Here, here," and he tossed me two life preservers, and seized one himself. Glitka was in my arms, but she never even shrieked. I fastened one of the belts around her waist, and the other round my own. The boat was going to pieces around us like matchwood, but--blessed sight!--not a hundred yards in front was a dim rocky coast line. I tore off my coat and boots, and then folded my arms closely round her.
"Oh, my darling, if it is for the last time, kiss me," I cried. Brave heart! There was no fear in the face which for a moment lay upon my shoulder, and her calm smile as I stepped back once more to gaze upon that long coast line thrilled me. Her face was as the face of an angel, for whom a mortal death has no terrors. It lent me hope and a desperate strength.
"We will not die, Glitka," I cried passionately. "We will live to tremble at the thought of this night. Come!" and I drew her to the side. In a moment we were in the water together.
I have never been able to piece together in my mind, with any continuity, the events which followed. I remember catching a piece of the mast as it was being carried past me, and in some manner supporting Glitka upon it, while with my right arm I battled with the waters. I remember being dashed against rocks again and again, and feeling weaker and weaker. Then like phantoms I remember catching sight of dim forms running about on the beach in front, and the thought that they might be devising some means to help me lent me fresh strength. Something was thrown from the land, and splashed in the water by my side. It was a log of wood, with the end of a rope attached. Eagerly I seized it, and with trembling fingers bound it around Glitka and her frail raft. Then blackness, dense blackness. I remember nothing more.
A LONG low room, quaintly but comfortably furnished after the fashion of an old farmhouse. A motherly-looking old lady reclining in a high-backed chair, with her eyes closed. A bright fire blazing in a spotless grate, myself lying stiff and sore amongst snowy sheets and a quilted counterpane. These are my awakening recollections. I rubbed my eyes, and endeavoured to sit up in bed. I couldn't. Then I coughed, with a view of attracting the old lady's attention; she was by my side in a minute.
"Where am I?" was naturally my first bewildered question.
"Never mind that for a while," said the old lady, in a soft purring voice. "Never mind where you are, my dear. You're to lie quite quiet, and to ask no questions."
I am afraid my next remark was rather ungracious.
"Oh, that's all rubbish; you don't suppose I'm going to lie here quietly and not know where I am or where she is, or what's happened to me, do you? Please to tell me where I am, and all about it."
The old lady shook her head, and went on purring.
"You must go to sleep again, dear, and ask no questions. Those are the doctor's strict orders."
I am sorry to say that I made a remark about the doctor which savoured distinctly of the irreverent. The old lady was very much shocked, and jumped away from me as if I had shot her.
"I beg your pardon, I'm sure," I said, "but it's really too bad of you not to tell me. I must know where she is, and where I am, and what's happened. Please tell me, or I'll get out of bed."
This fearful threat had the desired effect. Upon my solemn promise that I would not carry it out, and would not be in the least agitated, she proceeded to tell me what had happened. We had been shipwrecked off the coast of Sark, where I now was. The young lady had not been hurt at all, scarcely scratched, and as for me, by a miracle I had escaped any broken bones, although she assured me I was one mass of bruises. I immediately verified this fact by touching the places where I felt most sore with the end of my fingers, and endeavouring to stretch myself. It was quite sufficient proof.
Both the men and the boy were saved, she continued, and neither of them hurt much, except the boy, who had a bruise on his left arm and another on—
"Where is the young lady now?"
The old lady would have evaded the question if she could, but it was useless for her to attempt it. She told me very reluctantly though.
"Her friends came for her yesterday in a special steamer from St. Malo, and she went away with them."
It seems strange that this news should have been no shock to me whatever, but so it was. My first thought on recovering consciousness was that I had lost Glitka. I was certain of it from the moment when I had opened my eyes and knew that she was not in the room.
"How long have I been here then?" I asked, calmly.
"A week and a day, but you'll be right again very soon now," replied the old lady cheerfully. She was evidently much relieved to find that her news had not upset me, and began fumbling in her pockets. Presently, after bringing out and laying upon the table a prayer-book, a spectacle case, a piece of hard wax, a bunch of keys, and various other articles, the advent of each one of which I awaited eagerly, and was proportionally disgusted when it arrived, she produced a letter sealed and addressed to me, and also a little scrap of paper twisted carelessly up. I opened the former first and read it.
"Dear Mr. Gorleston,—If you care for me at all you will show your regard by never coming near me again. I thank you for saving my life, but it was foolish of me to come with you, and I repent it. I appeal to you as a gentleman not to come near me again. Glitka De Carteret."
I tore it into pieces without the least uneasiness. Glitka never wrote it, of that I was certain, or if she did it was under some extraordinary compulsion. I unfolded the other scrap of paper. Ah! this was different.
"Basil, my love, they are taking me away from you. I cannot help it. I must go. I shall die unless you come to me. We are going to London. Oh Basil, do not forsake me. Glitka."
I did not tear this note up. I put it under my pillow. Presently the old lady re-appeared with a tray. To tell the truth I was becoming conscious of an intense hunger, and I was desperately disappointed to find that a little beef tea and dry toast was all she had deemed it expedient to bring me. She set the tray down by the bedside and came purring up to me.
"Now I know you're going to say that you can't take anything, and don't want anything, but you must try and take a spoonful or two. Now do'ee try."
"I will," I said, calmly.
She spread a napkin over the clean sheets, and leaned over me, cup in hand. I believe she thought that she was going to feed me out of the spoon. At any rate, she seemed very considerably surprised when I quietly took the cup out of her hand and drank its contents off in half a dozen gulps.
"You don't happen to have anything just a leetle more satisfying about, do you? I said, suggestively. "Fact is, I'm rather hungry."
Have you ever seen a very old lady laugh? It's a strange sight. This particular old lady in question, after adjusting her spectacles and staring at me for a moment or two in bewilderment, relapsed into her high backed chair and commenced silently to shake from head to foot. Her cap quivered as though it were suffering from a violent ague, and presently several shrill gulps, I can call them nothing else, escaped her, and the tears commenced to trickle down her withered but apple-red cheeks. I was getting quite alarmed, and was beginning to wonder whether I had not better try to get out of bed and pat her on the back, for it seemed to me that she was going to tumble to pieces.
However, just as I was about to attempt it she got up, and tottered out of the room, muttering something about it's being "a oner for somebody," which somebody I found afterwards was the doctor. She was gone for nearly an hour, but when she re-appeared with a chicken and a bottle of wine I quite forgave her her little eccentricities. The doctor, it seemed, was no friend of her's and as he had predicted with a cheerful complacency, based upon his satisfaction at the acquisition of a new patient, that I should certainly not be able to be moved for two months, and that when I recovered consciousness it would be found an extremely difficult matter to induce me to take any form of nourishment—as these were his predictions, it was as the old lady put it somewhat of a "oner" for him when he arrived towards evening to find me sitting in the high-backed chair in a many-coloured dressing gown, polishing off the remainder of the cold chicken for tea, with a reserve of new-laid eggs, potted meats, marmalade, and other edibles.
They were all very kind and hospitable to me at Sark, especially my old lady hostess and her son. The doctor, too, who used to come over in the vegetable boat from Guernsey, although he rather resented my rapid recovery, proved a pleasant companion during the short time I spent on the island. I was quite alone there, for Mr. Jack Wilson and his little crew, after an interview with me, which I think he found fairly satisfactory, had departed. There must be just a grain or two of philosophy in my nature I think, for although my wild, overpowering love for Glitka held me as firmly now as ever it had done, I refused to give way to the impulse which would have carried me to London as soon as I could walk the length of my room. I knew that, save in my usual health, I could do nothing towards the furtherance of my designs, and the sea breezes and pure fresh air of Sark were certainly more health-restoring than the atmosphere of St. Pancras. And so for ten days I lingered, until even my doctor acknowledged that my recovery was complete. Then I turned my back on Sark, after quite an affectionate leave-taking with my old lady nurse (whose grandson will find himself the richer by five hundred pounds at my death), and crossed to St. Heliers. In two days I was at Southhampton, and on the morning of the third day I sat in my sitting room at the St. Pancras Hotel (where by-the-bye the bookkeeper was uncommonly pleased to see me, for I had left without paying my bill) considering what my next move should be. It was decided for me. A servant brought me a letter in Mr. Baring's writing, addressed to Sir Basil Gorleston, Bart. The superscription told its own tale. My uncle had died suddenly two days ago.
I was in time for the funeral, and afterwards Mr. Baring read the will to me. As we had expected it was altogether in my favour. I cannot pretend to have felt any overpowering sorrow at my uncle's death, for although we had always been very good friends, we had never been on anything like affectionate terms. I had generally acceded to his wishes more from a sense of owning something to the man who was going to leave me a magnificent estate than from any genuine disposition to gain his approval, and now that he was dead, though it be much to my discredit, the sense of his loss was altogether eclipsed in my mind by considerations as to how I should now proceed towards the accomplishment of my purpose. During my journey back to town I came to a decision as to my first step. My recovery and return from Sark must certainly be known to both Count Voltkar and Mrs. de Carteret, for by some unknown means the society papers had become possessed of all information as to our flight and its disastrous ending, and my return was duly chronicled. There was, therefore, no necessity to conceal the fact of my presence in London, and I determined to call on Mrs. de Carteret. I would demand to see her step-daughter, and if she refused me I would threaten to go to Hungary, and see if I could not find some other of Glitka's relations, who should release her from her step-mother's charge, and from Count Voltkar's devilries. It was a plan which pleased me the more I thought of it. To win Glitka I was quite content to intrigue with a servant at a low public-house, to lie, to stoop to any form of deceit. My moral self was completely obliterated. Heart and mind, body and soul, the impulses of the one and the promptings of the other, were all concentrated on one purpose. I would have welcomed the devil as an ally, and would have turned my back on an angel who bade me desist, but yet an open attempt to win her pleased me most, and I began to look forward eagerly to the coming interview.
THE meeting with Mrs. de Carteret soon came. At four o'clock on the following afternoon I presented myself at Cadogan-square. It had seemed to me very likely that I should be denied admittance, but such was not the case. A footman conducted me up the broad stairs into a tiny little room on the first floor, hung with light blue satin, and furnished in the French style. This I concluded was Mrs. de Carteret's boudoir, and, as I stood by the mantelpiece examining curiously one of the gilt ornaments, she herself entered.
I had told myself that I would be prepared for any manner of reception, but I found myself after all taken by surprise. Mrs. de Carteret received me as in the old days at the Hermitage. Her face wore its most attractive smile, and her dainty little figure looked to its utmost advantage in a long sea-green tea gown, bordered with rich old lace.
She advanced toward me, holding out her tiny little hand, and left it in mine a second longer than was absolutely necessary.
"You are a very naughty boy," she said playfully, "très méchant to give me all this trouble."
She sank into a low fauteuil, and motioned me to take a seat by her side. I looked round the room, and decided that there was not a chair there to which I dare trust my weight. So I remained standing.
"I was so sorry to hear of your loss," she said, glancing compassionately at my mourning attire. "It makes a great difference to you, of course. You are Sir Basil now, aren't you?"
I acknowledged the fact with a bow. This cordiality had taken me altogether by surprise, but I was determined to be on my guard.
"It certainly does make a good deal of difference to me," I said gravely. "I am hoping, Mrs. de Carteret, that it may induce you to rescind a certain decision of yours. Surely I am not an ineligible suitor for your step-daughter. I am an exceedingly rich man now, and my baronetcy could at any time be converted into a peerage. Though I myself wish it to remain as it is, I would do anything to win your consent to my marriage with Glitka."
"You have tried to do without it," she remarked quietly.
"I have. I know that. Perhaps I shall again if you don't give it me."
She left off toying with her little satin slipper, which had slipped from her foot, and looked up at me with an air of comical distress.
"Monsieur Basil, if you were not so big I would ask you to put my slipper on for me. See, it is quite out of my reach, and I am so comfortable."
I hesitated, but only for a moment. Then I stooped down, and did as she desired. As I rose to my feet again her eyes, full of a mirthful coquetry, met mine, and I wondered more and more. Was she really laughing at my clumsiness;—I had been unsuccessful at first in adjusting the shoe. Or was she playing a part? At that moment I could not tell.
"And now let us imagine ourselves back at the Hermitage again, and have one of our old chats—only—only you will only like to hear me talk now about Glitka. Is it not so?" and she looked up with a faint smile and a reproachful light in her clear blue eyes.
Her small shapely hand, glittering with rings, rested as if by accident on the arm of the chair in which, at her command, I had carefully deposited myself. Was it by accident? I wondered. I would soon know.
"How can you say so, Mrs. de Carteret? Ah! how delightful those few weeks were when I had the good fortune to be with you. I—I would—I mean"—I broke off in confusion.
"What do you mean?" she asked softly.
"That all subjects were alike to me then."
Her eyes drooped, and a faint tinge of pink stole into her face. My hand, too, was resting on the arm of the chair. It touched hers; she did not withdraw it. I pressed it gently, and raised it to my lips. She looked up and blushed.
"You silly boy," she said, looking down again, and making a very faint attempt at drawing her hand away.
I bent closer still over her.
"Those were very pleasant days," I said. "Sometimes I could almost wish that—that—"
"That my imprudence and Count Voltkar's arrival had not terminated them, Mrs. de Carteret," I said.
"Don't mention that man's name, please," she begged, with a beseeching glance and a dainty little shudder.
"Not mention him! I thought he was an intimate friend of yours."
"Friend of mine! By no means. I think I was wrong, Monsieur Basil, not to tell you everything when you came to me first. I was annoyed and surprised, or else I—I should have done," she added slowly.
"Annoyed at the prospect of having me for a son-in-law? That wasn't very kind of you, Mrs. de Carteret."
She looked up at me with a peculiar light in her eyes.
"Monsieur Basil," she said softly, "my name is Marie—and—and can't you guess why I didn't want you for a son-in-law?" she added, looking up at me with a faint blush.
Her eyes certainly looked very inviting. They met mine for a moment only, and then drooped. She sighed gently, and held a little piece of lace up to them.
I leaned right over her, and taking possession of both her hands, drew them gently away from her face.
"Marie," I said tenderly, "it was not because you disliked me then, that you were annoyed because I wanted Glitka?"
"You know that it was not so. Basil, why do you want to make me tell you?" she said, half petulantly, half affectionately.
I bent forward again, and at the same moment she sat upright, so that our heads nearly touched. One of my hands held her's; the other I passed round her waist. She made no resistance; I drew her gently a little closer to me, and God forgive me! my lips touched her's.
For a moment she let her head rest upon my shoulder. I believe she returned my kiss; then with a deep blush she disengaged herself and leaned back in her chair. "That was very wrong of you, Monsieur Basil," she said. A reproof which her eyes were all the while contradicting.
"You must never do it again. Promise!"
In her earnestness she had again raised herself, and laid her hand upon my shoulder. In a moment her small shapely head, with its coronet of golden hair, was resting there instead, and her lips had met mine again.
"Ah! But it is wrong of you, Monsieur Basil, to make me forget myself so," she said, without drawing herself away. I passed my hand along her smooth cheek caressingly.
"It is you, Marie, who make me forget myself, and everything else in the world," I said in a low tone.
"Even Glitka." God forgive me for the lie.
"And yet," she continued, still making no attempt at disengaging herself from my arms, "I intend you to marry her."
She watched me with an intensity of interest which I can in no way describe. My face exhibited, perhaps, some surprise, but no joy.
"Basil," she said, abruptly, with a sudden passion in her tone which puzzled me, "I do believe that you care for me a little. Is it not so, mon ami? Tell me?"
"There is no one in the world whom I care for as I care for you," I answered.
She was satisfied. A strange softness stole into her face, and dimmed for a moment her blue eyes. She was no longer the dazzling woman of the world, whose brilliancy was made up of artificial graces. She was a very beautiful woman, and of her own choice she was in my arms. I yielded to the mute invitation of her lips, and to the fascination of her sudden change of manner. I drew her even closer to me, and kissed her again. Then for fully five minutes we remained perfectly silent. I was deep in thought, and so apparently was Mrs. de Carteret. Then she moved back into her chair with the air of one who has come to an unalterable decision.
"Basil, I want you to listen carefully to me for a few minutes," she said.
I nodded, and she at once proceeded.
"No doubt you think that I am very cruel to Glitka in trying to persuade her to marry Count Voltkar. Perhaps you will be surprised to hear that it has nothing to do with me at all. Her real guardian is Count Frederick de Carteret. He betrothed her to his friend Count Voltkar before I took charge of her, and as he is a very stern self-willed old man, you can understand how frightened and upset I was when you asked me for her. Besides, there was another reason, Basil," she added, her voice softening.
I took her hand without speaking, and she proceeded.
"I will do the best I can for you now," she went on. "You have in a measure compromised Glitka by your rashness, and I think that you ought to marry her. Therefore, I will write a letter to her guardian, the Count de Carteret, which you must yourself take to Vienna. I shall speak well of you, and you must plead your own cause. He is rather a formidable old man, but I think that you will succeed. Tell me, shall I write this letter?"
I hesitated. "You—you wish this thing to be, Marie?" I asked.
"It will be for the best, Basil. Yes, yes, I will write the letter."
She moved away to the other end of the room, and commenced writing. It was a task by no means rapidly accomplished. Sometimes I could hear her quill dashing along the surface of the thick cream paper, at others it was silent, and then I knew that she was watching me. At last the letter was finished, addressed, and sealed, and she brought it to me.
"There, mon cher Basil, I have done for you what I would have done for no other man. I have pleaded for you to that grim old Count. Tell me, mon ami, don't you think this is very self-denying of me?"
She had come close up to my side, and had laid her little jewelled hand upon my shoulder. I looked from her to the letter which she had put into my hands, and back again into her face, without immediately answering. I was puzzled. I had never considered Mrs. de Carteret to be a woman of strong emotions, and yet she seemed very nervous—almost agitated—now.
She did not wait long for my answer.
"You will take this letter, mon cher Basil, at once," she proceeded. "If you succeed, the less I see of you in the future the better for me. And if you fail, why then—then—"
Her eyes were lifted pleadingly to mine, as if asking me to conclude the sentence. I affected to be unconscious of their meaning, and remained silent.
"We can then be friends, Basil, can we not?" she continued softly.
I looked down upon her smiling. She seemed about to throw herself into my arms, but suddenly stopped and shrunk back apprehensively. I suppose something in my face warned her of what was coming.
"No, Mrs. de Carteret," I said quietly, but intensely, for I was struggling with a very tempest of furies, "we can never be friends. We can never be anything else than enemies. You would like to know why? Very well, then, I will tell you. Because you are a false, deceitful, lying woman! Because you are a willing tool of a blackguardly conspirator. Because you have forfeited your modesty, your self-respect, your very right to the name of a woman in a treacherous attempt to beguile and deceive one who, I am thankful to say, is proof against your lying arts. You would send me to Austria on a fool's errand to get me out of the way. Bah!" I tore open the letter, and held out towards her its sole contents—a sheet of blank writing paper.
"And you really thought that a little sham affection, a few sugary falsehoods, and a stupid plot like this would get rid of me! Why, your master, Count Voltkar, must be a fool! I wish you good morning, Madame de Carteret."
At my first words she had shrank back with a sort of hysterical gasp, and had remained turned away from me with her head hidden between her hands. When I had finished, and she looked up, I was surprised to see neither anger nor vindictiveness in her tear-stained face. As she spoke to me her eyes were still swimming with tears.
"You are very cruel to me, Monsieur Basil," she said gently. "It is just, though! I deserve it all, and yet I don't know. I have been trying to deceive you, it is true, but not altogether as you think."
She paused and looked at me appealingly, as though hoping that I would question her. I stood quite still, indifferently toying with a paper knife, and waiting for her to proceed.
"Basil, you think very hardly of me now; but listen. You believe that I was trying to deceive you when I let you kiss me, when I—but no; I am not quite so bad as that. Let me tell you the truth. I do love you, Basil—there, I will own it. I don't know why. As a rule I hate Englishmen! I have loved you ever since those first few days when you came to the Hermitage. I was angry with you when you asked me for Glitka, for that reason. You can never have Glitka. It is impossible; and while you remain in London, near her, you are in danger! It was to get you to go away that I pretended to write that letter. It was for your own sake and because I love you, Basil, that I did it. You will have a little pity on me! You will forgive me?"
I drew back from her outstretched arms and gazed fixedly at her.
"I have no pity for you," I said coldly. "I don't know whether you are acting now, and I don't care. I can love but one woman at a time, and I love Glitka. You I despise."
The warm colour died out of her cheeks, and was replaced by a deathly pallor, and the beseeching light which had softened her clear blue eyes left them cold and piercing. A moment before she had been a beautiful and fascinating woman. Now she looked like a she-devil.
"It is enough," she said in sharp, staccato tones, with a little gasp between each sentence, as though she found it difficult to get the words out. "It is enough! I was not acting. I did love you. You might have made of me what you liked! You have chosen to make me an enemy. Good! Go," and she pointed to the door.
"Certainly! I will go, Mrs. de Carteret, but I give you warning that I intend to see Glitka before I leave this house."
She started forward, her whole frame trembling with passion, and her eyes full of an angry fire.
"You shall not," she hissed out. "Never again if I can help it. I will kill her first."
She pushed the knob of an electric bell, and almost immediately it was answered by a tall footman.
"You will show this—this person out at once," she exclaimed, in sharp, authoritative tones. "He has insulted me."
The footman, seeing that I did not move, laid his hand upon my shoulder, and with an insolent gesture attempted to push me towards the door. A sudden idea flashed into my head. I caught him by the back of the neck, and threw him down amongst Mrs. de Carteret's dainty tables and spindle-legged chairs. Then with one stride I crossed the room, and taking out the key as I passed, locked them both in. I hurried down the stairs. In the hall there was a servant.
"Where shall I find Miss Glitka?" I asked. "I have a message for her from Mrs. de Carteret."
The man pointed to a door on the right.
"In the morning room, sir."
The electric bell from Mrs. de Carteret's room was pealing through the house, and I knew that I had no time to lose. Glitka was sitting in an easy chair apparently doing nothing when I burst into the room. She looked up in amazement, and in a moment she was in my arms.
"Darling, my darling Glitka, I have not a second to be with you. Keep a good heart, and somehow or other I swear I will contrive to get you away from here. You will trust me?"
"Always, Basil, always, but how—"
I stopped her question with a last kiss, and left her. When I reached the hall Mrs. de Carteret was standing at the head of the stairs, and several of the servants were hurrying down. I bowed to her politely, indifferent to her stony stare, and, opening the door for myself, departed.
I HAD left Cadogan-square with a keen sense of self-satisfaction, which however, did not remain with me long. Before I had traversed half the distance to my hotel I began to doubt whether after all I had not done a very foolish thing in making such a dangerous enemy of Mrs. de Carteret. With a very little more temporizing, although in that case I should not have seen Glitka, I might have escaped her positive animosity, and by accepting her letter in good faith, might have led her to believe that I intended to go at once to Austria. No doubt, if I had done this, and remained concealed in London, I should have found much better opportunities of gaining access to Glitka. As it was, I had exposed my hand by my rashness, and had excited all Mrs. de Carteret's vigilance.
However, I had seen Glitka, and the remembrance of that consoled me for a good deal. To see her again would be an undertaking which would require all my ingenuity. My first thought when I commenced to consider means was naturally of Jean Dupont. Had he been to see Mr. Baring, I wondered. I called a hansom, and drove to Bedford-row.
Mr. Baring was in, and disengaged. He was in the act of writing me, he remarked, as we shook hands.
"I quite forgot to mention rather a curious circumstance which occurred while you were—'er—'er—away. A man called here, gave the name of Dupont, I believe, twice, inquiring whether we had not received some message or letter from you for him. Of course I told him no, and he want away, apparently very much mystified. On the day, however, when the particulars of your—'er—shipwreck appeared in the paper, he turned up again, and left simply this message—that in the event of your wanting to see him you must go to the usual place, and you must not attempt to communicate with him in any other way. The latter part of the message sounds somewhat mysterious."
The lawyer looked at me curiously, as if he expected to be enlightened.
I affected to regard the man's visit as of no importance, and after a brief talk on matters connected with the estate, rose to take my leave. He begged me to spare him a few minutes longer.
"There is a matter," he said slowly, "on which I feel it to be my bounden duty to say a few words to you, Sir Basil, and I can only beg of you that you will not take offence. I think I may call myself a family lawyer, Mr. Basil—I beg pardon, Sir Basil. Four generations of Gorlestons have honoured this firm with the conduct of their legal affairs. Yes, four generations," he repeated, "though not all in my time, of course. I mention this, Sir Basil, because I want you to understand that I can't help feeling a little more interest in you as the representative of the Gorleston family than I should in an ordinary client. You will admit this, I hope."
I nodded, and waited for him to proceed. I knew perfectly well what was coming, of course, but I thought it best not to interrupt him.
"You will then, I hope, look upon it as proceeding from a genuine interest in your affairs, and from no impertinent curiosity, if I touch upon a somewhat delicate subject. I understood from your uncle that you were paying your addresses to a young lady whose step-mother disapproved of your suit. They left Gorleston on account of this, and you followed them to London. Not long afterwards every paper in London is full of your extraordinary elopement with the young lady, and its disastrous results. They tell me that in society nothing else is talked about. Now you are in London again, and these wretched society journals," he tossed one over to me, "are already speculating as to what your next move will be. Sir Basil, I am an old man, and you are a young man. Will you listen to my advice? The guardians of this young lady seem determined that you shall not have her. It is commonly reported that she is already engaged. To hang about after her under these circumstances is surely not dignified. You will only create more scandal if you attempt to take her away again, and it is gall and wormwood to me, Sir Basil, to see your grand old name bandied about from one to another of these dammed—yes, sir, I don't swear more than once a year, and often not that, but I swear now—these dammed society papers. Give her up, Sir Basil, and go abroad for a while. People will soon forget all about it, and there isn't so much difference between women, surely, but what you'll come across another one fit to be Lady Gorleston. Take my advice, now, Sir Basil, do," he wound up energetically.
I rose and took up my hat.
"Mr. Baring, what is the dominating trait in the character of the Gorlestons?" I asked. "You've often told me yourself."
"Obstinacy, Sir Basil, no doubt about that. But—"
"Just so," I interrupted. "Well, I have that trait developed in me very strongly, and just now it's backed up by passion and judgement allied. You might as well try to talk a stone wall down—you might indeed, Mr. Baring. I'm not in the least offended, I assure you, and good morning."
He shook my hand with a sigh.
"Have you heard from the Bishop yet, Sir Basil?" he asked, significantly.
"Not yet. I expect to, though. Good morning, Mr. Baring," and I pleaded an engagement as an excuse for hurrying off.
At eight o'clock on that evening I left my hotel—I had gone back to the St. Pancras—and started off to revisit that labyrinth of vice and horror where I hoped to find Dupont. On the outskirts of the horrid region I passed the coffee-house to which I had taken the woman and child, and remembering my promise, I turned back and entered it. I do not lay claim to any particular benevolence or good nature in so doing. On the contrary, I had forgotten all about the woman until the sight of the coffee-house brought her into my mind again. I was before my time, and so I turned in, as much out of curiosity as anything, to inquire for her. The landlady recognized me at once, and anticipated my questions. The woman whom I had befriended had been there most days with her child, but the money which I had left was not yet exhausted.
"And it's only this very day as she was 'ere and left this bit o' a note for you," she went on, producing an exceedingly dirty envelope.
I opened it, expecting to find a few words of gratitude, coupled possibly with an appeal for further help. Instead, I found the following:—
"'Onered sir,—was you ever at a place called Blankton or Gorleston, 'cos if you was my 'usband he wur there too, a looking arter you. I'm sorry to say as he's nobbut a nasty mean spy for some foreigner, which if I'd known afore I'd never 'ave married 'im. I fear as 'ow you're in some danger somehow, though I don't rightly understand how. If I find out anythink I'll let you know, and if that good-for-nothing 'usband o' mine does yer any 'urt, I'll blab, though he swings for it. Which is 'oping yer honour 'll keep away from these parts, as isn't nohow safe for them as isn't known, and thanking yer a many times for your kindness, which won't never be forgot, I remains, Yer honour's respectfully, Hannah Smith."
I folded the letter up, and put it carefully away in my waistcoat pocket. To tell the truth, I was very considerably puzzled. I had no difficulty in identifying Smith, this woman's husband, as the man whom I had seen at Blankton railway station, and also as the man who had been talking to the landlord of the Golden Crescent on the occasion of my first visit there. Without doubt he was one of the Count's spies, but what struck me as being most extraordinary was that Count Voltkar should have known of my meetings with his servant, and yet have done nothing to put an end to them. I sipped a cup of coffee for a minute or two, and thought the matter over quietly. I could make neither head nor tail of it. It was perfectly inexplicable. I must leave it for Dupont to solve. Meanwhile, this woman had undoubtedly done me a good turn by putting me on my guard, and I must try to repay it. I turned round to the landlady, who had been watching me rather curiously.
"I should like to assist this poor woman," I remarked, "but I scarcely know how. She seems to be married to a regular brute of a fellow. Her only chance would be to get away from him, and earn a decent livelihood in a better part. Do you know of any way in which a little money would help her to do this?"
She looked rather dubious. She would make enquiries, she said, but she was afraid needlework would be the only thing for her to take to, and that was poorly paid, and no mistake. However, she would do her best to find out something if I would leave the matter in her hands.
I thanked her, and promised to call again shortly. Then I turned away, and in ten minutes I had reached the Golden Crescent. As on my previous visit, the vault-like chamber was swarming with a debauched crowd of human parasites—a sickening spectacle—and I was glad enough when the little landlord hurried to my side, and reminded me of the key which he had given me to the other door. I hurried out of the filthy den at once, and entered the little back apartment from the side street.
To my great satisfaction Dupont was sitting there alone, smoking a long cigarette and reading the paper. He rose at once, and greeted me with a respectful bow.
"Permit me to offer my commiserations to monsieur, on his ill fortune," he said. "It was the devil's own luck, that shipwreck was. Monsieur will possibly have abandoned his enterprise now?" he added, in a questioning tone.
I was pleased to detect some little anxiety in the man's tone and manner. Evidently he hoped that I was not going to abandon it, and he was still at my service.
I assured him at once that if possible I was more determined than ever.
"I have come here to see you that we may plan another campaign," I said, taking a chair opposite to his. "I'm afraid I've made rather a clumsy start," and I told him of my interview with Mrs. de Carteret, or rather some part of it. He looked serious when I had finished, but did not show so much concern as I had feared he might.
"It is a pity," he remarked, slowly, "a great pity. Mrs. de Carteret is a dangerous woman, but she has been an enemy all along, so I don't see that we are very much worse off than we were before. Monsieur will be pleased to hear that I bring him good news in exchange for his bad. Mademoiselle Hortense is on our side," he declared triumphantly.
It was news worth hearing this. I felt very much inclined to shake Dupont's bony white hand, but I restrained myself and waited.
"Yes," he went on, "his excellency has played a false card, and it avails us admirably. Hortense is really an old mistress of his, whom he persuaded to enter service under Mrs. de Carteret—I don't know with what ostensible reason, but in reality that he might have someone near Miss Glitka whom he could trust. It was a very dangerous game to play with a jealous woman—a very dangerous game. I found out their intimacy by the merest chance, and took care to pay my respects to Mademoiselle Hortense as soon as possible. A chance remark of mine about the approaching marriage of my master and her mistress fired the train. For a while she would not believe that his excellency meditated anything of the sort, but I was able to convince her," said Dupont, with a slight sardonic smile, which was little more than a twitching of his thin lips. "I was provided with evidence to prove my words. At first she was like a wild cat, but she cooled down presently, and I found her quite ready to listen to my proposals. With her aid, this matter ought to become more easy."
"What arrangements have you made with her? When are you to see her again?" I asked.
"Not just yet. I don't want to be seen talking to her too much. Monsieur will see the wisdom of that. But I have devised a scheme of communication with her, and should any good opportunity occur for you to obtain access to Mademoiselle Glitka, she will let me know, and I shall pass it on at once."
I could find nothing to say against such a scheme, so signified my assent. Then I remembered the letter which I had just received, and handing it over to Dupont, briefly explained the circumstance. As he listened and read the note a more intense shade of pallor crept into his face, and the fingers which gripped the paper shook.
"Monsieur scarcely appears to have grasped the full significance of this," he said, anxiously. "The man who calls himself Smith is one of the keenest of the Count's spies. He has seen you here. The Count must know of it, and probably of our meetings. Mon Dieu," he exclaimed, starting up, "let us escape while we may. I will write Monsieur."
He moved hastily to the side door and unlocked it. At any other time I could have laughed at his terror. Just now, however, I was too full of concern at this check to our schemes. The fellow, for all his bravado, was an arrant coward. Would he be frightened to meet me again? I almost regretted having shown him the letter.
"Where are you off to, Dupont?" I asked, but my question remained unanswered, for he was already hurrying down the street. There was nothing left for me to do but to follow his example.
WALKING back to my hotel on that evening I almost ran against Dick Cunningham, who was standing in the middle of the pavement lighting a cigarette before stepping into his night cab. I would have avoided him if possible, for I was quite aware that I had treated him rather shabbily, but he would permit nothing of the sort.
"My dear fellow," he exclaimed, seizing me by the arm, "whoever thought of seeing you! Where on earth have you sprung from?"
I muttered something about having lost my way, and made a pretence of being in a hurry, but Dick would have none of it. He insisted upon my entering his cab with him, and bade the man drive slowly to Lansdowne-square.
"A nice fool you made of me on our last meeting," he growled, as we drove off. "I had hard work to make peace with Lady Blessington, I can tell you. But hang it all, I forgive you my boy," he added, more amiably. "Your little escapade won me more invitations to dinner than I ever had in my life."
"I really was sorry, Dick," I assured him, "to risk getting you into a scrape, but—but—"
"Oh, it's all right," he interrupted, "I forgive you. I'm not sure that I'm not a bit proud of having been mixed up in such a sensational affair. If you'll believe me, there was nothing else talked of in London for more than a week, and when the news of your shipwreck came, and the young lady was brought home—you were reported to be dead by-the-bye—there was a positive fury to know everything about you. I was a popular character, I can tell you, and am now, simply because it was known that you had made a fool of me. Do it again, my boy, if you like. I'm willing."
"Where have you been dining?" I asked, for the dull semi-genteel street in which I had run against him was certainly not a region given up to the dissipation of dinner parties. He laughed, and looked knowing.
"Not in the 'beau monde' by any means, although your friend, Count Voltkar, was of the party. He went on to the Princess Metzlerkoff's reception about an hour ago, though. Wouldn't wait for me."
I was silent for a few minutes, revolving in my mind an idea which had just occurred to me. Presently I appealed to Dick.
"Supposing I were to insult Count Voltkar in public," I said, "do you think that he would call me out?"
"Certainly not—in England," Dick answered promptly. "If it were on the Continent it would be different. Here the affair would probably be settled through the police court, and you would be looked upon as a vulgar brawler. In any other city in Europe or in the world he would have to fight you."
"He is a foreigner; he is used to foreign customs," I objected.
Dick shrugged his shoulders.
"True, but when one is at Rome you know one must do as Rome does. Count Voltkar is for the present a Londoner, and he would be careful not to transgress the customs of our dingy old metropolis, which, by the way, he is always praising up to the skies. I don't know why, I'm sure. Most Russians detest London. By the way, I'm bound for the Russian Embassy. Let me present you to the Princess."
I hesitated. "Will Voltkar be there?" I asked.
"Of course he will. He's always hanging about there, but I daresay you'd be able to avoid him if you wanted to."
I had very little inclination to go, but somehow there seemed to me at that period a sort of fascinated satisfaction in being near to and in watching Count Voltkar. By the merest chance I had dressed for the evening, and so I decided to accept Dick's offer.
We reached the Russian embassy, and after a slow progress through suites of heated, crowded rooms I found myself bowing before a fair-haired, elegant woman, who greeted me kindly, and kept her eyes, full of a half-amused curiosity, fixed upon me during a momentary interchange of commonplacisms. Then I passed on, and mingled with a throng of people, over whose heads, thanks to my superior stature, I was able to prosecute my search for the man whom I desired to meet. For a long time I was unsuccessful, and I was about to vary the form of my search, when a light hand was laid upon my coat sleeve. I turned round, and found myself accosted by Mrs. de Carteret, who was leaning on the arm of a tall slim man in the uniform of the Prussian guards.
"It is really you, then, Sir Basil! I thought that I could scarcely be mistaken." She turned round, and whispered something to her companion. He released her at once, with a stiff, formal bow, and darting an unfriendly look towards me, turned away.
Beyond the slightest possible bow when she had mentioned my name, I had responded in no way to her greeting, and now that we were alone I remained unbending and silent. This woman could be no other than an enemy, for all her gracious smiles and welcoming glances, and as such she were better avoided. I endeavoured to make my feelings apparent in my looks, but she would not translate them. She stood for a moment silent, with her eyes soft and pleading fixed upon my face. Then she spoke.
"Sir Basil, you were rude to me yesterday, and I—I lost my temper. I am sorry."
Still I held my tongue, for it seemed to me that there was safety in silence—a safety of which I was not otherwise assured. She looked down at her fan for a moment, and seemed embarrassed.
"You are still so angry with me," she said softly. "You will not give me your arm even, and—and I have sent the Baron away."
Would she never understand? In a sudden fit of desperation I turned and offered it to her.
"We will go and sit down," she said, resting her little white fingers flashing with diamonds upon my coat sleeve. "I am tired."
We moved to the lower and less densely thronged part of the room, and entered one of the ante-rooms curtained off from the main apartment. She sank down with a sigh of satisfaction amongst the velvet cushions of a low ottoman, and drew on one side her rustling skirts that I might sit beside her. I affected not to notice this, and remained standing.
"This is delicious," she said languidly. "Won't you sit down? There is plenty of room. No? Strange how you Englishmen all prefer standing—and strange, too, that I should see you here to-night. I was never more surprised."
"Nor I, Madame de Carteret," I said firmly, "by your recognition. I had not imagined, after our explanation yesterday, that our acquaintance would continue."
"Did you wish it to cease?" she asked, in a low, tremulous tone.
I looked straight into her eyes, and answered her steadily.
"I see no object in its continuance. You refuse the one request which I have ever made to you. Why—"
"Is there no other request which you would make—Basil," she whispered, laying her hand upon my sleeve, as though she would draw me to her.
I shook it off without an instant's hesitation. A shiver seemed to convulse for a moment her dainty, shapely form, and I half expected a torrent of angry words. Instead there came tears, which I liked less.
"Madame de Carteret," I exclaimed, a sudden desperation nerving me to utter words which policy would have bidden me restrain, "I don't think you quite understand Englishmen. You don't understand me, at any rate. I don't want to be ungracious, but you force me to be explicit. Every word which I uttered to you on our last interview I meant in honest and sober truth. I know that you are beautiful, but you are nothing more to me than any other handsome and well-dressed woman here, except that you are Glitka's stepmother. I love Glitka. If you care about my regard, give her to me. No other woman shall ever have one word of love from me.
She did not answer me. For fully ten minutes she sat motionless as a statue, with her face hidden by her hands. When at last she looked up it was firm and rigid as polished marble, and the soft, appealing light in her eyes was replaced by a cold, steel-like glitter. My manner had assured her that my words were irrevocable, and that her beauty had no power over me. I knew now that it would be a duel a l'outrance between us.
"You are quite right, Sir Basil Gorleston," she said, in a hard and low voice, "I do not understand Englishmen. You will be so good as to leave me for a short time, for ten minutes say. You will return to me then."
"I shall not return, Madame de Carteret," I said, preparing to depart. "You and I can have nothing more to say to one another."
"As you like, of course," she said, shrugging her white shoulders, and watching me curiously. "I was going to bring Glitka here."
"Glitka!" I stopped short, and turned round. "Glitka is not here, surely."
She rose and swept past me. As she pushed aside the curtains, she turned her head.
"Wait here and I will bring her to you," she said; then dropping the curtains she stepped out into the main apartment, and disappeared amongst the throng.
I did not believe her, but nevertheless I waited. In a short time the curtains were again raised, and Glitka slowly followed her stepmother into the ante-room—Glitka, her face as white and colourless as hewn ivory, and her dull eyes fringed with dark rims, but still my Glitka.
I sprang up, but Mrs. de Carteret's outstretched hand kept me back.
"Sir Basil," she said, in sharp, uneven tones, with a peculiar smile playing upon her lips, "I have brought you Glitka that you may say good-bye to her. You will not see her again."
"That is a falsehood, Mrs. de Carteret," I exclaimed scornfully. "Glitka, come to me."
I moved a step forward, but I could not pass Mrs. de Carteret. Glitka stood motionless, with a sorrowful love shining out of her large eyes, which it maddened me to see.
"I cannot, Basil. I have promised not to, and—and look at the people," she added touching the transparent folds of creamy lace which alone separated us from the ball-room. I was helpless, and I knew it; Mrs. de Carteret had the upper hand this time.
"Do not let anyone persuade you that this is good-bye, Glitka," I said earnestly. "Wherever they take you I will follow. Wherever you are, there I shall be too. I will die before I will give you up."
I spoke passionately, though still in a low tone, and my words seemed to awaken her from the inertness of despair. Her eyes answered mine, and I was satisfied. Mrs. de Carteret's face seemed to deepen in its malignity, and her lips twitched convulsively.
"Nevertheless, Sir Basil Gorleston, you had better take the opportunity I give you, and say good-bye," she said. "You may repent it if you do not."
A look of positive terror appeared in Glitka's face, and I could have struck Mrs. de Carteret to the ground, and have felt no compunction. I kept back my anger, however, and laughed reassuringly.
"I will meet you half way, Mrs. de Carteret," I said, mockingly. "I will say au revoir, and leave you now. Glitka," I said, suddenly, passing Mrs. de Carteret on my way out, "never believe anything that woman says to you. She is a false, lying creature. Soon we will meet again, and we will not say good-bye."
I raised her hand to my lips, and kissed it. Her lips parted in a happy smile at my confident words, and for a moment our triumph was complete. Then like a wise general, lest we might lose it, I turned and went.
ON my way to the upper end of the room I saw Count Voltkar detach himself from a small circle, and move away by himself. It was an opportunity which I had coveted, and approaching him I intercepted his progress. He looked at me, his eyes full of a calm supercilious surprise, which at any other time I should have found intensely irritating.
"I believe I have the honour of addressing Count Voltkar," I said, quietly.
He bowed slightly. "You are quite correct," he answered, stiffly, "but I must confess that—"
"My name is Gorleston," I interrupted. "Sir Basil Gorleston—a fact of which you and your spies are perfectly well aware. I expected to have heard from you. Have you nothing to say to me?"
"Nothing," he answered.
"From which I may conclude, I suppose, that Count Voltkar is a coward," I remarked, tauntingly.
He seemed absolutely insensible to the insult contained in my words.
"From which you may conclude—anything that your thick head chooses to imagine," he returned, suavely.
A savage retort rose to my lips, but at that moment two gentlemen approached, and accosted Count Voltkar. There was nothing for me to do but to turn away.
I made my way, slowly, for the throng was great, towards the chief exit, and was within a few yards of it when I came suddenly upon the Princess. She was leaning on the arm of a stately grey haired old man, whose breast glittered with orders and foreign diplomas, but as she drew near, and I was passing with a low bow, to my surprise she stopped short, and whispering a word or two in her companion's ear, quitted his arm, and beckoned me to approach. I did so, wondering.
"Sir Basil Gorleston," she said with a gracious smile, which struck me, however, as being somewhat uneasy, "I want you to answer me a question."
I waited in silence for a moment or two; then she continued,
"I passed close to you when you were talking to Count Voltkar just now. I heard, you must forgive me, but my hearing is remarkably sensitive, I heard you call him a coward."
"I have nothing to forgive, Princess," I answered. "I should have been so much the better pleased if the whole world had heard what I said to Count Voltkar."
"Of course you are going to meet? You need not mind telling me. I shall not interfere."
"Unfortunately, no," I answered bitterly. "The Count values a whole skin more than his honour. He passes over the affront."
The Princess looked astonished, also I thought disappointed.
"That is very strange," she murmured, thoughtfully.
"It struck me as being so," I assented.
"Perhaps he will change his mind," she said, thoughtfully. "If he does, Sir Basil, will you take my advice? Will you do me a favour?"
Her tone was almost agitated, and I merely bowed my assent, lest my tone should betray the surprise which I felt.
"Your wishes shall be my commands, Princess," I ventured to say, after a moment or two's silence.
"You are a steadfast lover they tell me," she said, looking at me thoughtfully. "I wish I could help you. Glitka is in bad hands, I am afraid. I don't like that stepmother of hers. I wish I wasn't obliged to receive her."
"Might one ask your opinion of my rival, Princess?" I said hesitatingly.
I was watching her when I asked this question, and I could detect the slight shudder which caused her to droop her clear hazel eyes, and turn a little away from me. A moment afterwards, however, she returned my gaze frankly.
"There are no words in your dull English language, mon cher Sir Basil, which could express my feelings toward him. Hate, loathe, despise, these are all weak."
"I am glad that such is your opinion," I said simply, "and the advice—the favour which you were going to ask me?"
"Ah! It was this. If you meet him, kill him. That is all. Ah, Albert, mon frère, you here! Sir Basil, allow me to present you to my brother, the Duke of Medina. This is Sir Basil Gorleston, Albert, and I have been giving him a little advice."
He turned a good-humoured, soldier-like face to me, and laughed, as he placed his sister's hand upon his coat sleeve.
"You can't do better than follow it, Sir Basil Gorleston, whatever it is. I know from experience how good it generally turns out."
"If I ever succeed in gaining the opportunity," I said, slowly, "I shall not be slow in following the counsel of the Princess."
She seemed to me to turn a shade paler at my words. Then with a kind smile, she turned away on her brother's arm, and left me. What could she have to fear from Count Voltkar, I wondered, this stately-looking woman, with the sad sweet face, and clear good eyes. Some day I knew, and when my time came I sent her a message far away across the snowy steppes of Central Russia to her frost-bound palace, near the Caucasian slopes, that her few words, spoken so long ago in an English reception-room, had won her an avenger, and that I had struck the harder for her sake. Nearly a year afterwards there came to me in return, on a chance slip of paper, a few hasty lines, written by stealth from the fortress which was her prison. And I have preserved and zealously guarded them, for those few passionate words contain the fervent blessing of a dying woman.
All the next day I remained at the hotel, hoping to have some message from Dupont. Towards evening a note was brought to me in his crabbed, disguised hand. It was not a very long one.
"Monsieur will pardon this hasty note, but I have good news, and must see him to-night at ten o'clock at the same place, without fail."
More good news! What could it be! I wondered. Somehow I immediately connected it with Mrs. de Carteret's mocking advice that I should bid Glitka goodbye. Perhaps they were going to travel. Certainly my purpose would be easier effected upon the continent, and through our new ally Dupont would doubtless have been informed of any such plans. But what surprised me most was that Dupont should have summoned me to meet him at the same place as formerly. I remembered how terrified he had been at the mere suspicion of our meeting place being known to Count Voltkar, and it seemed strange that his fears had been so suddenly allayed. These were but passing thoughts, however, for I was not of a speculative nature. I was confronted with a puzzle, but I was quite content to leave its solution to time. Perhaps it might have been better for me in this case if I had been a little less so.
At half-past nine I left the hotel, and started off to keep my appointment. As I commenced to penetrate into the foul region of which my destination was the centre, I quickened my pace, and looked steadily ahead that my eyes might not dwell upon the miserable mortals who swarmed around me, and the filthy dens which sheltered them. Familiarity had not won for me any indifference to these loathsome surroundings—nay, their horror more than ever impressed itself upon me that night, and I determined as I neared the end of my journey that even if for some reason or other Dupont had lost his dread of Count Voltkar's surveillance, I would still endeavour to persuade him to appoint a different meeting place. I had just come within sight of my goal, and was already fingering the latch-key in my pocket, when a woman darted out of one of the alleys, with which the place was honeycombed, and stood in my way. I was about to push her aside, when the flaring gas jets from an adjacent gin palace revealed her features to me. It was the woman Hannah Smith, whose strange letter was still in my pocket-book.
She did not give me time to address her, but, laying her hand upon my sleeve, she motioned me to step back into the shadow, and glanced fearfully around.
"You must not go to that place to-night," she burst out, in a hoarse, excited whisper. "There is some evil afoot there. Go back, go back, I say, and get out o' these parts as quick as your legs 'll carry yer. There's them about as 'u'd do yer a mischief."
"Nonsense," I said, reassuringly. "I have an appointment there. What harm do you think can come to me in the back room of a public-house, with a houseful of people within call? Run away back to the coffee-house, and wait for me there. I—"
"Look 'ere, Mister," she interrupted, vehemently. "I knows wot I'm talking about. You ain't no idea what goes on in these parts, but I 'ave. I've lived 'ere many a year now, and I can tell yer it's a bad part for gentlefolk like you to trust yerself in, and that there place as you goes to, it's the worst crib o' the 'ole lot. There's that goes on there as is kept dark which no coppers can't stop, for it's as much as they dare do to show their faces round 'ere. And there's sommut dark on there to-night! I know there is. If yer values yer life, Mister, you'll not go there. They think no more o' knocking a man on the 'ead there than I should a chicken."
For a moment I hesitated, but only for a moment. No doubt, with the best of intentions, this woman was surely exaggerating. It might be a low disreputable neighbourhood, but the idea of danger such as she hinted at in the heart of the most law abiding city in the world was preposterous. Even if Count Voltkar had discovered my meetings with Dupont, he would not be likely to attempt any deed of violence. Dismissal of the later, with a month's wages, would probably be the most terrible result of his discovery.
"Nothing of that sort will happen to me," I said, a little impatiently, for ten o'clock had chimed out from a distant clock whilst we had been talking, and I was eager to be gone.
She only tightened her grasp upon my arm.
"How do you know that?" she said quickly. "There's him as my beast of a husband works for, he's got a grudge against yer ain't he? 'Ow d'ye know as he ain't drawing yer into a sort o' trap there? My Smith ee's took his pistols out to-night wi' 'im, though, thank God, I was able to take out the charge while he warn't looking. I don't like it, I don't like it. Just you turn back an' go 'ome again, mister. This ain't no place for you, and I could'na bear for harm to come to yer. You saved my life and the child's—"
"Yes, yes, I know all about that," I interrupted, "but once for all I must leave you now. Good night," and heedless of her detaining gesture I turned away and hurried across the road.
Although I had not chosen to acknowledge it, and indeed felt inclined to laugh at my own fears, the woman's earnest manner and speech had nevertheless made some impression upon me. I stood outside the private door which led into the public-house for nearly ten minutes, undecided whether or no to enter. Then the thought that if there was any dark scheme on foot Dupont would already be in its toils decided me. I turned my key in the latch and entered.
The room was in darkness, and at first it seemed to me that it was empty. I felt in my pockets for some matches, and was about to strike one when the sound of heavy breathing behind the screen startled me, and the box slipped from my fingers. Before I could recover it or my self-possession my arms were seized from behind, and held in a vice-like grasp, and while I was thus helpless the thick rough hand of another assailant closed over my mouth, and stifled the shout which I had been about to utter.
I knew in a moment that I was caught in a trap of Count Voltkar's setting. My first impulse was to endeavour at all risks to free myself and escape, but the cold pressure of a pistol at my forehead, and the consciousness that I was in the hands of men almost my equals in strength, caused me to change my mind. I stood motionless, and without speaking, for fully a minute. Then a familiar voice from the other end of the room broke the silence.
"Sir Basil Gorleston, you are very welcome. Let me congratulate you upon your discretion in yielding quietly. I had anticipated something different."
There was the sound of a match being struck, and immediately afterwards a candle was lit. I looked around and took in the situation at once. The two men in whose grasp I had up till now remained passive were, as I had already surmised, Smith and the companion with whom he had been drinking on my first visit to this room. At the other end of the room Count Voltkar sat before a small table in evening attire, with all his stars and ribbons glittering upon his breast. A long black cloak hung over the back of his chair, and before him was an open cigarette case, an opera hat, and a pistol. Around the handle of the latter his long, slender fingers slowly entwined themselves.
He spoke a few short words in a language which I believe was Russian, and instantly I stood released. Again my first impulse was to rush for the door, and again second thoughts ruled otherwise. With their backs to the door stood the two men, one covering me with his pistol, and the other grasping his life-preserver. In front I gazed into the dark muzzle of Count Voltkar's pistol. The woman might have told the truth when she assured me that she had withdrawn the charge from her husband's pistols; on the other hand the mistake might have been discovered and rectified. In any case my life might pay the penalty of any rash move on my part, and it seemed to me that I could lose nothing by delay. Accordingly, I seated myself in the only other chair which the apartment contained, and turned calmly towards Count Voltkar.
"LET us come to the point at once, if you please," I said to Count Voltkar as we faced each other in the back room of the Golden Crescent. "Do you mean murder, or what?"
His thin lips parted in a grim unpleasing smile, and he quietly selected a cigarette from the case.
"I am glad to see that you are something of a philosopher, Sir Basil Gorleston," he said, striking a light. "I will imitate your plain spokenness. You are here that I may put a stop to certain designs of yours, which interfere with my plans."
"And the means?" I enquired.
"Ah! You ask too much. All that I can tell you now is that if you attempt to escape, or if we are interrupted, we shall have to settle the matter rather clumsily perhaps, but safely," and he patted the barrel of his pistol. "On the other hand if you continue to behave like a sensible man, you will probably have nearly a week longer to live, and your death will be a pleasant one—drowning."
He spoke slowly, and kept his steel-coloured eyes fixed upon me, as if to mark the effect of his words. He seemed disappointed that I showed no signs of fear, or disposition to entreat his forbearance.
Strange to say I was not in the least afraid. The situation was alarming enough, but somehow it failed to inspire me with any fear, and I was able to sit there quite quietly, and consider what was the best to be done. Perhaps I scarcely realised that I was altogether at the mercy of an unscrupulous enemy and his two desperate myrmidons; it seemed difficult for me to do so when I remembered that scarcely five minutes ago I had been in the open streets elbowing my way through a throng of men and women. Into the room where I was now the sound of their hurrying footsteps and discordant conversation did not penetrate, nor did the sickening clamour from the liquor vaults at the other end of the passage reach us, save in a low indistinct hum. It was doubtful whether any shout of mine would be heard—in any case it would be madness to attempt it. I do not know whether the calmness and presence of mind which never deserted me was the calmness of desperation, or whether it sprang from a strongly developed conviction that this was not the final scene of the struggle between Count Voltkar and myself. At any rate I sat there without flinching or turning pale, and glanced unconcernedly around at the threatening pistols.
"What have you done with Dupont?" I asked of Count Voltkar.
He smiled—a grim satirical smile.
"Dupont! Surely Sir Basil Gorleston is not so dense as to imagine that Dupont wrote the note which obtained for us the pleasure of seeing you. I, myself, wrote and despatched it."
"I might have guessed it," I answered. "The man who bullies women and prefers assassination to a fair fight is likely to be a forger. I congratulate you on your versatility, Count Voltkar."
A faint tinge of colour stole into his sallow cheeks, and his eyes flashed with a cold repulsive glitter.
"You are a brave man," he said slowly, in a tone full of compressed passion, "a very brave man to speak such words as those to one who holds your life in his hands."
It must have been the calmness of desperation which was upon me, for I leaned back in my chair, and laughed mockingly.
"Ha! ha! My life in the hands of a coward, a miserable hound like you!" I exclaimed. "Not quite. Let me tell you this, Count Voltkar," I added, rising to my feet, and standing with my back to the wall, "I fear neither your pistols nor your blackguardly accomplices. Do your worst."
Slowly he raised one of the pistols, which lay on the table before him, and held it so that I looked straight down into its black muzzle. He seemed surprised that I did not flinch.
"Answer me one question," he said, in a subdued tone, which shook with passion, "and I spare your life—at any rate for the present."
I laughed recklessly.
"As for my life, it isn't yours yet, and—"
He interrupted me.
"Will you tell me what the Princess Metzlerkoff said to you last night?"
"No, I will not," I answered firmly. "I'll tell you this, though," I added with a sneer. "It was about you, and it wasn't complimentary. You are not in favour there, at any rate, Count Voltkar. Some women can see what a blackguard you really are, and the Princess is, I am glad to say, one of them."
He rose to his feet, livid with rage.
"It's a lie," he exclaimed furiously. "The Princess is my—"
I would not let him finish this last sentence, for there was something in the cold, cruel emphasis of his tone which maddened me. With a shout for help which caused all three of the men to start, I hurled my chair at Smith, hoping to confuse him for a moment, and then sprang forward towards Count Voltkar. There was the almost simultaneous report of two pistols, but the starving woman whom I had befriended had saved my life. The charge had been withdrawn, and I was unhurt.
Count Voltkar staggered back with amazement as he saw me spring through the smoke towards the door, erect, and not even wounded, and for a moment it seemed as though I must escape. The door had been bolted, however, and before I could withdraw the lower staple my assailants had recovered from their surprise. Voltkar dashed his pistol to the ground with a savage imprecation, and leaped over the table towards me, whilst almost at the same time I felt a heavy pair of restraining arms folded around my neck.
The struggle which followed I cannot describe. I believe that I have somewhere previously remarked upon my great strength and powerful stature, and had I been otherwise framed that little room would have witnessed my murder. For a while, with my back to the wall, I warded off all blows—and murderous blows they were—but the balance of strength was too much on one side for such a contest to be of long duration. I was tempted to move out for a moment from my corner, and before I could regain it I was tripped violently up from behind. I staggered, and failed to regain my balance, but as I fell I struck Count Voltkar violently across the face, and hurled him to the ground. For the next few seconds, resting on one knee only, I struggled desperately with Smith for the life-preserver, while the other man with his hands around my neck was choking me fast. Gradually I was relaxing my grasp, for I felt my strength going, when of a sudden an electric alarm bell in the wall by our side commenced ringing violently. The effect was instantaneous. Count Voltkar, his face smeared with blood, and his right arm hanging useless by his side, staggered to his feet, and with a fearful oath seized his cloak and made for the door. He was followed by the two men who, from the moment of the sounding of the alarm, never bestowed even another glance upon me. They vanished, and I, who a moment before had despaired of ever doing so again, stood up dizzy, but nowhere seriously injured.
Scarcely was I on my feet before the door leading into the room was thrown open, and Hannah Smith entered, followed by two policemen. She gave a cry of joy when she saw me.
"Thank God! I thought as them shots had done for 'ee. Thank God as we wasn't too late!"
One of the policemen turned to me, and asked me a few rapid questions. I was in the neighbourhood, I told him, out of curiosity, and had been attacked by three roughs with the obvious intention of robbery—a single second's reflection had been sufficient to convince me that I could do no good by attempting to implicate Count Voltkar. One of the policemen immediately started in pursuit, and to the other one who remained with us I gave my name and address, and a few additional particulars.
My first thought now that the danger was over was naturally of the woman to whom I owed my rescue. That she could go home again was quite out of the question, for it was more than probable that her rascally husband would have discovered the part which she had played in my opportune rescue. The best thing to do seemed to send her for the present to the coffee tavern, where she had already sent her little boy, and to this course she readily consented.
After a while the policeman who had started off in pursuit of the fugitives returned unsuccessful and ill-tempered. His idea seemed to be that the whole affair had been exaggerated, and that the pistol shots which the woman declared that she had heard had been altogether imaginary. On appeal to me I declined to enter into any further details about the matter, but promised to call and report it myself on the morrow at Scotland Yard. One of the policemen returned to his beat, and the other accompanied Hannah Smith and myself to the coffee house, where I left her, under the especial care of the landlady.
Later on, when I reached my hotel, and sat thinking over the night's adventure and my wonderful escape, there flashed suddenly into my mind the recollection of Mrs. de Carteret's strange behaviour on the preceding evening, when with that evil smile on her face she had bidden me wish Glitka good-bye forever. She, too, had known of—perhaps had herself suggested—this attack upon my life. Perhaps by this time she had told Glitka! What a fool I had been that I had not met duplicity with duplicity, and affected to return the passion which she had affected to entertain for me. A loathsome task it might have been, but what was there to which I would not have stooped in order to win my end? Nothing; absolutely nothing!
THERE are very many proverbs and sayings, some handed down from the ancients, others of more recent birth, specially framed for the consolation of those whom an unkind fate, leagued with malign fortune, seems to have buffeted and pursued into the last stage of despair and weariness. "'Tis a long lane that has no turning," and "There's a silver lining to every cloud," are respectable and oft-quoted adages, whilst a famous modern song composer has feelingly assured us that the storm clouds gather and loom most threateningly just before breaking.
So it proved with me. I went to my room that night disheartened and dispirited, conscious that I was surrounded by enemies, whose fiendish ingenuity and malice had very nearly compassed my death, and conscious also that at no time had the goal of my efforts and hopes been further removed from me. And yet in less than twenty-four hours doubt and weariness and depression had gone for ever. Fate, which had played me so many unkind tricks, suddenly turned round, and threw success into my hands. Mrs. de Carteret's bewildering machinations and Count Voltkar's open villany were rendered impotent. Glitka was mine.
This is how it happened. I was passing down the Strand in a hansom on my way to Scotland Yard, when Mrs. de Carteret's carriage passed me, and almost immediately pulled up outside Ellicot and Sons, the photographers. I stopped, and watched Mrs. de Carteret herself descend, and after a few words with someone in the carriage enter the shop alone. I alighted, and leaving my hansom in the middle of the street cautiously approached it. Inside was Glitka, and her only companion was a dark plainly dressed woman, whose appearance readily suggested the lady's maid. The footman had alighted from the box to open the carriage door for his mistress, and was now engaged in the contemplation of some photographs in the shop window. The coachman was gazing stolidly between his horse's ears, and did not see me approach.
Everything favoured the bold design which had suddenly suggested itself to me. Without hesitation I crossed the street, and, standing by the side of the carriage remote from the pavement, softly whispered Glitka's name. She turned quickly round, and gave a hysterical little cry as she recognised me. I laid a warning hand upon her arm, and turned quickly round to the maid.
"My name is Sir Basil Gorleston," I explained rapidly. "You have heard of me from Jean Dupont. You know what I want. Help me now, and I will ensure you an independence for your life."
She was a strange looking woman, this Mademoiselle Hortense, with her thin pointed features and magnificent black eyes. Her lips parted in a queer little smile as she glanced me over, and instantly replied—
"Certainment. I am on monsieur's side. What is it that he wishes me to do?"
"Get out and go to the footman there. Talk to him, and don't let him look round. If Mademoiselle Glitka has disappeared when your mistress returns, you know nothing of it. She must have left the carriage during your momentary absence. Nothing about me mind. You will be dismissed. I will send you money through Dupont. Quick."
She never answered a word, but did as I bade her. Then I turned to Glitka, who had become deadly pale.
"My darling, be brave," I whispered. "We shall succeed this time, I know we shall. Come."
Softly I opened the carriage door, and she stepped out. A few of the passers-by stared at so unusual a proceeding, but no one lingered about or interfered with us. For about a dozen yards we threaded our way amongst the string of vehicles, and then we reached my cab. I lifted her in. She had been almost a dead weight upon my arm, and was trembling from head to foot. I called out "Waterloo" to the driver, and sprang in after her. I could have sobbed in a paroxysm of hope and wild excitement as I sat by her side, watch in hand, but with a mighty effort I gulped it down. We reached Waterloo ten minutes before the departure of the tidal train. Ah, those ten minutes! Even now I can remember how I watched the long hand of that gloomy clock, with riveted eyes, and in a very agony of impatience. How slowly it seemed to move! And when at last the hour struck, with what a feverish eagerness I listened for the whistle. I could have hugged the guard when he drew it from his inside pocket and, after dangling it for a moment or two by its long silver chain, raised it to his lips. It seemed like the shrill blast which proclaimed our safety, and never had a sound been more welcome to me than that hoarse, sharp whistle. Then we glided along the platform's edge out from underneath the smoke-encrusted roof of the station into the open air, and strong man though I was, a great sob of relief shook my whole frame, and I leaned back in my seat trembling and unnerved. In less than a minute I was myself again, however, and turned to Glitka. A faint tinge of pink had stolen into her cheeks, and relieved them of their former deadly pallor, and her glistening eyes were fixed upon me full of tenderness and joy.
"Basil," she whispered, "say that nothing shall come to part us now. You will not let them take me away."
"Never," I answered, taking her into my arms, "never. Nothing but death shall come between us now. I will never give you up." And she was satisfied.
EVERY trifling event of our journey to Paris I could still faithfully recount, for though my bones are growing old my memory is still fresh and vigorous. Well-nigh every word she spoke, and every loving glance she gave me, I have treasured up, and have with me still. To me they are precious food for my memory to revel in, consolation for my strangely spent life, pregnant with joyous recollections and heart-stirring longings—but to the reader what would they be? The tiresome musings of a prosy old misanthrope, dull, devoid of interest, wearisome, and so I keep them back for my own especial edification, and will speak rather of events than unduly dilate upon the overpowering joy which my sudden victory had brought me.
In less than twenty-four hours after our arrival in Paris we stood side by side in an ante-room at the British Embassy, and were made man and wife. I begged Glitka to tell me whither we should go, but she was placidly indifferent, caring nothing so long as we did not return to England, and so we turned our backs on Paris, and wandered slowly eastwards.
Now had I reached the very zenith of my joy. For a while I was rapturously, wildly happy—a happiness which knew no surfeit—indescribable, incomparable, and also mutual. Lazily we crossed the Alps, and set our faces towards Rome, lingering long amongst the lakes, and flitting leisurely from one to another of the picturesque sleepy old towns of northern Italy. We stayed at Florence, but not even here did I find anything to distract my thoughts for one moment from my fair young wife. We roamed about amongst the vineyards and under the sunny skies of this fairest country in the world for many months, and then at last we found ourselves in Rome. I stood within the charmed circle of the Colosseum, but even here the glories of past ages were to me as nothing compared with the intense vibrating joy with which the present was steeped. Little cared I for memories of Caesar and Cicero, of Virgil or of Dante, or for all the immortal traditions of the city wherein we dwelt. The ground whereon we stood was holy to me where Glitka's feet had passed over it; all other thoughts seemed dim and unsubstantial. As the season drew on, and the people of fashion came flocking to Rome, we left it, and turned our faces eastwards again.
From the deck of a hired yacht we saw the sun sink down over Corfu and hide itself amongst the islands of the Greek seas, and later on we clambered hand in hand up the turf-covered slopes of the Acropolis, and from the loftiest battlement of the Parthenon gazed down upon Athens sleeping in the moonlight—gazed down upon its silent squares, its white houses, its mosque-like edifices, and at the sea, like a sheet of glistening silver filling up the background, and even then, when our hearts were throbbing together at this idyllic vision of perfect loveliness, my eyes sought hers, and seeing there tears, I took her into my arms, and scarcely cared to glance again at the panorama below. She was my life. She absorbed all my senses, all my perceptions, all my thoughts, and I was happy.
All that is fairest in the cities and solitary places of Europe we saw. We sailed up the Golden Horn in a caique, and saw together the morning sun rise over the minarets and mosques of Constantinople. We wandered amongst the orange groves of Sorrengo, and many happy hours we spent on a barge gliding slowly down the Danube. We visited in turn Milan and Naples, Vienna and Venice, and we lingered long on the outskirts of the Black Forest, yet nowhere did I find any sight so wonderful that it could teach me to forget for a single moment the great love which leaped and burned within me in satisfied revelry.
Such happiness as this could not be a lasting happiness; nor was it. It was at Venice that the first cloud arose. I became aware that we were followed about, and that my life was the desired object. Twice in the city of waters, within a stone's throw of my hotel, I was attacked by desperadoes, but each time, thanks to the arrival of opportune assistance and a strong arm, I escaped without serious injury. We moved to Turin. On the first night of our arrival, in the hotel grounds, I was fired at by an unseen hand, and my hat was pierced by the shot. After that I was left in peace for nearly three weeks, until journeying northwards, we stayed at Como for a day or two. Here, again, an attempt on my life was made. Late on the night before our departure I strolled down to the side of the lake, and tempted by the warm balmy air and the gloriously beautiful night rejected all thoughts of retiring to rest, and unfastening one of the hotel boats lit a cigar, and pulled myself leisurely about for an hour or two across the glistening waters. Just as I had made up my mind to return, another boat shot out from the landing stage, and drew rapidly up to mine. A vague instinct, founded upon my recent narrow escapes, prompted me to pull vigorously to the left, so as to place a few yards between us at passing, and my doing so probably saved my life. As I passed, bending over my oars, and sending the lightly build skiff quivering through the water, the man in the other boat shipped his oars and leaned over towards me. I glanced round at him, shrinking down as low as possible, and with my arm half uplifted in an instinctive gesture of defence. I knew him at once, notwithstanding his garb and slouched hat, and involuntarily his name escaped my lips. It was Count Voltkar.
Something glistened in his hand for a moment, and then a sharp report rang out, breaking the solemn stillness of the night, and echoing away over the water and amongst the hills until it sounded like a little cannonade. I felt a sharp pain in my right arm, and had presence of mind enough to let go the oars and fall back in the boat. There was a moment's intense silence, and then to my joy came the sound of voices from the hotel, and hurrying footsteps on the landing stage. My would-be assassin heard them too, apparently, for with an oath he seized his oars, and with long powerful strokes rowed rapidly away. Then I stood up in my boat and shouted for help.
It speedily came, but though the whole lake was soon dotted with boats searching for my assailant, no trace of him was discovered. His boat bottom upwards was found near the east side, but he himself seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth. Had I revealed my knowledge of his identity it might have aided the search, but then on the other hand it might have reached Glitka's ears, and have awakened in her all the horrible memories of the past. And so, perhaps foolishly, I held my peace, and in all that I said about the attempted outrage strove to encourage the general idea that robbery was the motive of the attack.
For ten days we lingered at Como, waiting for the wound in my arm to heal. When it had done so, and we were preparing to depart, I ventured for the first time to suggest to Glitka that we should return to England. To my surprise she made no objection whatever. She was quite ready to go wherever I wished. So, to my great joy, for I found little pleasure in travelling, we set out for London.
I had made up my mind soon after our marriage that Glitka's past should remain a sealed book to me, and that neither her stepmother's nor Count Voltkar's name should ever pass my lips. It was enough for me that I had won her; she would best forget the horrible mysteries which had once enshrouded her by never having them recalled to her mind, and so during the twelve months which had passed since she and I had stood side by side in that little chamber of the British Embassy at Paris I had avoided all mention of those whom she had once so greatly dreaded, and in a silence which I had felt to be a grateful one she had followed my suit. But now that my life was in imminent danger it seemed to me that for her sake as well as my own the subject should be broached between us. It would be well for me to know why Count Voltkar and Mrs. de Carteret had striven so hard to prevent me from taking Glitka away from them, and whether jealousy alone was the motive which induced the former to strive to compass my life. All traces of that weird, distracted look in my darling's face had vanished now, and her glorious beauty shone in her fair girlish face, unclouded, and enhanced by the light of perfect happiness. Wherever we went I was known only as the husband of the beautiful Hungarian girl—for by some means or other her nationality was always surmised—but she seemed unconscious of the admiration bestowed upon her, and cared only for my praises. Should I be wise if I risked her happiness by reopening a painful subject? For a long while I hesitated, and then, on the eve of our departure from Como, I decided to speak.
I approached the subject as tenderly and carefully as possible, but the opening words had scarcely left my lips before I would have given much to have been able to recall them. Again I saw before the Glitka of the past, shrinking back as though cowering from an overwhelming dread, with vacant eyes full of dumb agony, and nervously twitching fingers. I broke off abruptly in my sentence, and strove by all means in my power to rectify the mischief which I had done. I took her in my arms, whispering words of love, and vows of everlasting silence respecting that dreaded past. I laughed, told her stories, and strove to divert her attention to the scenery through which we were passing, but I could not unsay my words, nor could I win her back altogether to her former joyous self. She seemed depressed and nervous, now and then feverishly excited, at other times dazed and silent, but altogether changed. So alarmed was I at the strange effect produced by my few gentle words, that directly we arrived in London I took her to a celebrated physician, begging him privately to let me know if he considered my wife's reason in any degree affected or endangered. He seemed very much interested in the case, and gave me his opinion confidently.
"Your wife," he declared, "is possessed of an abnormally acute nervous system, and very keen sensibility. These, of course, are just the flaws in disposition which lead up to madness, but with care this consummation can easily be avoided. I should imagine that in your wife's case they have been intensified by some great shock or series of shocks early in life. You have told me that there is a certain period of her existence which to allude to now agitates her painfully. Very good! What you have to do is to divert her thoughts from that period by every means in your power. Don't mention it. Don't let her think of it, and above all, don't let her be again subject to the same influences. You have no idea what they were?"
"H'm, that's rather unfortunate. At all events they were sufficiently powerful to have completely unhinged her nervous system, and if she had not been constitutionally strong, they would have sent her clean out of her mind. As it is, you have only to remember what I have told you, and there can be no danger."
I left him completely re-assured, and hurried back to Glitka. Never again, I determined, should any mention of the past escape me, nor would I seek to encourage the confidence which sometimes I could perceive trembling on her cold ashen lips, and yearning from her dumb, terror-stricken face. Curiosity was never one of my failings, and save for her own sake I had never had any wish to penetrate the secrets of Glitka's early life. The shadows of it would never reach me or her in our quiet country home. So that I could teach her to forget, so also would I forget what I knew of her unhappy girlhood. Let it suffice that against stratagem and falsehood, lying protestations and attempted murder, I had won her; won her in spite of them all. Let the past go for what it was worth; he is a fool who wonders and speculates when present delight is within his grasp. Glitka was mine, my own, and rare event, the reality mocked all my feeble but bewildering anticipations. What cared I whence she came! Less than her momentary absence from my side—less than the slightest frown which pencilled her divine brow. Had an evil spirit invoked her to me from the shades of purgatory, my arms would still have been open to receive her; she would have been none the less welcome!
IF an outsider were to take a birds-eye view of my life he would probably pity me a great deal more than I deserve. It would seem to him that the long periods of struggling and blank despair, the terrible shocks of sudden grief, and the long autumn of my life spent alone and in sorrow, were out of all proportion to the one brief period of unalloyed happiness. Perhaps he would be right in the share of compassion which he allotted to me; perhaps not. It depends whether happiness be reckoned by its duration only, as a period of time during which there is a comparative cessation of malefic influences, or whether it can be taken as a specific quantum, distended or compressed according to its intensity. If the latter view be admitted, then am I no whit worse off than my fellows, for in my two years was crowded as much happiness as would last most men twenty. Even now, though many more than a score of years have passed, the memory of that period causes my heart to glow with an ever-vibrating fervour, and feeds me with the crumbs of a happiness so great, so bewildering, that even this reflected realisation is sufficient to prevent my esteeming myself what others freely style me—a miserable man.
It was of necessity as well as by our own choice that Glitka and I, when we settled down at Gorleston, lived our lives very nearly to ourselves. It would have been so in any case, but it was so of necessity, by reason of the many exaggerated accounts which had reached Norfolk of my doings in London. It was commonly reported that I had torn my wife from the unwilling arms of a loving and devoted mother, and had half killed an elderly relative who had ventured to interfere. To all such tales I was indifferent, caring only that they might not reach Glitka's ears. I, myself, declared war against my neighbours by declining to return their frigid and tardy calls, and a grave admonitory letter from the Bishop I neglected even to answer. What were all the bishops and the country gentlemen in the world to me, now? What cared I for their approval or their disapproval? Social ostracism was what I most desired, and I got it. I was neither magistrate nor politician. My steward took the entire management of the estates, as though I were still absent, and Mr. Baring transacted all other business. As a local magnate and great landowner, I was merely a parasite—in reality I was reveling in a joy so great and absorbing that it filled and held my whole life. I had no room for other thoughts. The duties and responsibilities of my position troubled me not one whit—they never even occurred to me. I feel no shame in declaring what is certainly the sober truth, that during the two years following our settling down at Gorleston I lost every scrap of interest in the outside world. Even the interviews which I was occasionally bound to endure with the steward and Mr. Baring, I looked upon as wearisome and tiresome interruptions. I took in no papers—I read no books. My whole nature lay basking in the wonderful joy which had come to me. Every impulse, every energy, and every thought were needed to help me realise it. I closed my eyes to the world, and lived in one of my own creation, of which she and I were the sole inhabitants.
And Glitka, she too was happy. The intense seclusion in which we dwelt was the state of all others best suited to her strange nature. She loved solitude for its own sake and me, I know not why she loved me, but she did. I shall not linger upon the strange idyllic life which we spent together. What is holy to me might seem tedious to others, and I am as loth to speak of it as I am ever willing to let my thoughts revel in the recollection of it. Suffice it to say that we drew apart from the world, and founded one of our own, peopling it with our two selves only; and we were very happy.
There was a good deal in my wife's disposition which seemed at times strange to me, and which recalled to my mind her wild talk and swoon in the park soon after Mrs. de Carteret had come to the Hermitage. Her nerves were so sensitively strung that the very slightest incident, such as a thunderstorm or some sudden noise, would send them quivering, and often result in hysteria. As time passed on, however, and she grew physically stronger, the signs of this weakness grew less frequent and pronounced, and my anxiety, which at one time had been great, decreased in proportion as I saw her more light-hearted and less morbid. The acute tension on her nerves seemed to grow less intense every month, and the dread of the past which had now and then, especially at the slightest reference to it, overshadowed her whole mind, rolled away. Still I was mindful of the physician's advice, and took care never by direct or indirect reference to awaken her slumbering memory, and I think, although she never alluded to it in words, that she was very grateful to me for my silence.
So two years passed away almost like a dream, until suddenly, and without warning, there came a rude awakening. One summer night I had lingered in the library until long after my usual time for retiring. Everyone else had retired for the night, and I was alone and in semi-darkness, for the lamp by my side had burned out, and I had been too deep in pleasant thoughts to care to replenish it. At last the stable clock chiming the hour of midnight startled me, and I rose to leave the room. Out of the merest curiosity I paused for a moment at the high French windows to look out at the night. The heavy curtains slid easily back along the polished rail, and I stood with them in my hand for a moment gazing nonchalantly out. The sky was covered with great masses of black clouds, one of which was at this moment obscuring the full moon, but while I watched, it rolled away, and I could see as clearly as though it were daylight the lawns dotted and fringed with flower beds, the winding paths through the shrubbery, and beyond the ring fence the dark belts of trees in the park, beneath which the deer were sleeping. It was a strangely beautiful sight, all the more so because I had seen it slowly disclosed by the passing away of the dense black clouds from the moon's face, and being in a meditative mood I stood at the window for a while enjoying it. Then just as I was turning away something occurred which struck me as being curious. From underneath one of the giant oaks a stag had suddenly sprung up, and with his nostrils in the air appeared to be listening. Almost simultaneously others of the herd followed his example, and after a moment's pause they all wheeled round and trotted quickly up the sward toward the house. About a hundred yards from the shrubbery which skirted the north end of the park they paused again and listened. Apparently the cause of their alarm was still to be heard, for after scarcely a second's hesitation they turned sharp round to the left and cantered away out of sight. I strained my eyes gazing down the glade, but just as I had fancied that I could distinguish something dark moving through the bracken, another cloud sailed in front of the moon and blotted out the whole view.
An apprehension of evil seemed to have laid hold of me, and the hand which held the curtain trembled like a girl's. I was prompt to act, however. I remembered that one of the footmen slept in a little room on the ground floor, and stepping softly across the hall I aroused him.
"Do the keepers ever cross the park at night, Burdett?" I inquired, as he scrambled into his clothes.
"Not now, sir," he answered. "Since Mr. Heggs has put on another hand there ain't no need for—"
"Then there are poachers there, or burglars making their way up to the house," I interrupted. "I don't want Lady Gorleston alarmed. Come quietly into the library."
He followed me across the hall, and opening the drawer of my cabinet I took out a revolver and gave it to him, slipping a life-preserver into my own pocket. The French windows opened easily, and we stood for a moment on the balcony outside listening. There was not a sound to be heard except the gentle rustling of the laurel leaves stirred by the night breeze. The moon was still obscured, and to us just emerged from the light everything seemed wrapped in the most profound darkness. I motioned Burdett to follow me down the steps, and we took up our stand behind a thick shrub on the lawn beneath.
Scarcely a minute had passed before we heard the sound of low whispering almost at our elbows. I leaned cautiously forward, and could see the dark shapes of four men moving noiselessly across the velvety lawn, in and out of the shrubs. They were coming towards us; they would pass behind the very shrub which sheltered us. For a moment I regretted that I had not alarmed the household, and even at that last moment I should have taken some steps to do so but for the thought that the sound of Burdett's revolver would be sure to bring us aid.
They were approaching in single file, the last man carrying something in a sack. When they were about half-a-dozen paces away from us the leader suddenly stopped and listened. To my horror I suddenly discovered that Burdett was trembling violently, and just at this moment he gave vent to a low groan of fear. Further concealment was of course useless, so I straightened myself and stood up.
"What do you—"
I never finished my sentence. Without a second's hesitation the foremost of the intruders sprang at me, and I found myself engaged in a desperate struggle. Backwards and forwards, over the flower beds and amongst the shrubs, we grappled and fought. In vain I listened for the report of Burdett's revolver, which must have brought us help from the house. I knew afterwards that before his trembling fingers could press the trigger the weapon had been dashed from his hand, and he himself, a senseless heap, was lying stretched across the path.
My assailant was a powerful man, but he was no match for me. In less than half a minute I had him by the throat, and he was at my mercy. As I stood over him, my life preserver raised and my mouth open to shout, the clouds again rolled away from the face of the moon, and showed me the grim ghastly face of Count Voltkar's myrmidon, Smith. That recognition saved his life, for assuredly I should have killed him, and very nearly cost me mine. My arm was arrested for a second while I scanned his features, and then, before it could descend, I felt my senses reel and lightning playing before my eyes. I had been struck on the head from behind, and notwithstanding a frantic effort to recover myself, my knees gave way from beneath me, and I sunk to the ground.
Unable to speak or move, yet never altogether unconscious, I lay stretched upon a bed of geraniums gasping for breath and battling with a deadly faintness. Like evil phantoms those four figures glided up to the wall of the house, and two of them clambered onto the balcony. They had a rope ladder with them, and the cold sweat bathed my face as I saw them with devilish ingenuity attach it to the sill of Glitka's chamber. With the frantic but impotent eagerness of a dying man I strove to raise my voice and to stagger to my feet, but in vain. Already I was lying in a pool of blood, and a deadly numbness was stealing over my limbs. I could do nothing. I was helpless. I lay there moaning faintly, with my half-closed eyes riveted upon her window.
One of the men had already almost reached it, and another had commenced the ascent. Then something so strange happened that at first I thought that I must be dreaming. With a sudden harsh clang there rang out upon the stillness of the night a peal from the great alarm bell in the tower which, save once, I had never heard before in my life. The effect was magical. In a moment the four men were flying across the park in different directions, leaving the ladder to tell its own tale, and almost immediately afterwards lights were kindled in the house, windows were opened, and servants came hurrying out. I looked up to the tower, and, leaning over the frail balcony, desperately tugging at the thick rope, her face grim and livid in the moonlight, was Hannah Smith. Then, with a mighty effort, I staggered to my feet, and, calling to the little crowd who were grouped around the ladder, I pointed to the park and struggled in vain for speech. A great giddiness came over me, and I sunk back again swooning, but as my eyes closed I saw Hannah Smith lean over the rail, and with her finger pointing eastwards I heard her cry out—
"They are making for the Blankton-road through Beecham Spinneys. After them, men, after them."
Blank darkness before my eyes, and a singing in my ears. I yielded up consciousness and sank again to the ground. But Glitka was safe.
FOR a fortnight I lay between life and death. Then quite suddenly I recovered consciousness, and, finding Glitka by my side, commenced to mend rapidly.
Naturally my first questions were concerning the events of that terrible night. At first they feared to satisfy me, but finding me anxious and determined they at last reluctantly admitted that my assailants had not yet been captured. The papers were full of loud complaints and sarcastic allusions to the miserable stupidity of the local police, who were proving themselves so utterly outwitted, but, though galled beyond measure by the opprobrium and contempt poured out upon them, neither the county constabulary nor the detectives sent down from Scotland-yard had yet discovered even the ghost of a clue. Another apparently aimless question elicited a fact which I was well pleased to hear. The affair was everywhere regarded as an attempted burglary. Glitka herself had no suspicion that it was anything else, and as soon as I was sure of this I was glad that no capture had been made. Every morning we searched the papers eagerly—she longing for news of an arrest, and treasuring up hopes from the usual hackneyed assurances that the police were actively engaged in following up a clue which it was trusted would lead to the apprehension of the offenders; I on the other hand dreading to hear anything of the sort, and wishing only for the whole episode to be forgotten.
It was my wish which was gratified, for Count Voltkar's cunning had ensured the safety of his tools. The weeks grew into months, and the culprits were still undiscovered. Even the police began to acknowledge that the scent had grown cold, and to hint that chance alone would throw light upon the mysterious attempted burglary at Gorleston Park. Most devoutedly I hoped that chance would do nothing of the sort.
As soon as I could get about a little I sent for Hannah Smith. She came to me trembling and anxious, and before I could speak commenced her explanation.
"You'll be wanting to know, sir, how it happened that I was on the look out that night. I had seen—him, and knew that there was danger about."
"Him! Do you mean your husband?" I inquired.
She turned paler still as she assented.
"Yes. Him and—and the other!"
"Other! What other?" I broke in impatiently.
"The foreign nobleman as employs him," she faltered out. "Count Voltkar."
Weak though I was, I sprung up from my couch full of anger against the woman whose very life I had saved, and painfully excited at the mention of that name.
"You have seen him!" I exclaimed. "He has been here, and you have told me nothing of it? Hannah Smith, have I deserved this of you?"
She fell upon her knees by the side of my couch, clutching its side convulsively, her face full of penitence and remorse.
"God forgive me, Sir Basil," she sobbed out. "God forgive me. They threatened to take my boy away from me, and—"
"Tell me all about it," I interrupted. "When did you see them, and where?"
She dried her eyes, and fixed them upon me appealingly.
"It was one evening, sir, when I was down at the village that I met Smith. I tried to run away, but it was no use. He made me stop and listen to him, and before I could get away I had to promise to meet him on the next evening. He said that if I told you of his being in the village he would take Freddy away from me, and send him to sea, and—and I was afraid he would, so I promised not to tell you, at any rate until after the next evening. I couldn't live without him," she burst out piteously. "I ought to have come straight to you and told you, I know, but—"
"I understand. Tell me about the next evening."
She went on again at once.
"The other one was there, too, on the next evening. He asked me a lot of questions about my lady, sir, and about you; whether you were ever away from home, whether my lady seemed happy, and such like. Then he said that he had come here specially to have a word or two with Lady Gorleston, and he offered me money, heaps of money, if I would arrange for him to see her without your knowing, and without telling her beforehand. I wouldn't listen to him, sir, indeed, I wouldn't, although Smith—the brute—shook me, and swore that he would take Freddy away unless I did as his master wished me. When they saw that it was no use pressing me they left off, and then Smith began about not telling you that I'd seen them. I wouldn't promise for a long time—indeed, I declared that I should tell you for all Smith's ugly looks. Then he began about the boy again, and that made me feel bad. They both of them swore that he should be taken away from me if I breathed a word about having seen them. They were going straight away, the Count declared, and would never hurt either of you, and so at last I promised. I determined to do all I could, though, in case they should try to get at my lady, I got my room changed for one right away in the east wing, and I got the key leading into the tower where the bell hangs. I've sat up every night watching and listening, and I've never let my lady out of my sight in the daytime, except when I knew for certain that you were with her. I've done wrong though, sir, and I know it. You'll be quite right to send me and Freddy away. I've deserved it," and she burst out sobbing again.
I hastened to assure her that I should do nothing of the sort. She had only done what was perfectly natural under the circumstances, and undoubtedly the defeat of their scheme was owing to her vigilance. I had rather reason to be grateful to her than otherwise.
As soon as I was able to get about again my first thought was to render a repetition of Count Voltkar's daring scheme as hazardous as possible. I increased the number of indoor men-servants, and had bedrooms fitted up on the ground floor for two of the gamekeepers. I had bars put to the windows, and served out small arms amongst those of the servants who knew how to use them. I then procured several bloodhounds, who roamed about at will during the night, greatly to the destruction of our flower beds, and to the great anger of Scoles, our head gardener. I was scoffed at freely for my extraordinary precautions, and even Glitka laughed at me a little, but I was indifferent. Electric bells were fitted to all the exposed doors and windows, and I myself often got up in the middle of the night to see that all was as I had bidden it. There were some who called me a coward, and if to be afraid is to be a coward, then they were right, for fear was seldom absent from me. I dreaded what Count Voltkar might do. Why he was so anxious to possess himself of my wife I could not tell, and with the physician's words before me, I shrank from risking Glitka's reason by bringing again to her mind the hated secrets of her earlier life. And yet, though I made Gorleston Hall impregnable, and scarcely passed an hour away from my darling, a great uneasiness came over me after that midnight attack. I was none the less happy, but my happiness was more of fits and starts, interfered with at times by violent fits of nervousness, which I could not altogether conceal from Glitka, although I kept from her zealously their cause. Sometimes, in the middle of the night I would spring up, trembling and alarmed, and revolver in hand, would hasten to the window. Then I would see that no one was stirring, and that the great dogs were dozing on the balcony undisturbed, and I would return to rest, but never to sleep after such an awakening. To Glitka my behaviour must have seemed strange at such times, but she made no protest, save a laughing one. She herself had no fear. Since our life together had commenced in our quiet country home she had been a changed woman. How gladly had I watched the half vacant, frightened light leave her eyes, and the glow of love and happiness shine there instead. How careful I had been lest any chance word or reference of mine should awaken those slumbering memories which soon I trusted would sleep themselves to death. Alas! I was over careful.
Often in later years I have called myself a mad unthinking fool that I did not, at all hazards, warn Glitka of the peril against which I was guarding. If I had done so all might have been very different, and this story would never have been written, and yet I am not so sure that it would have made any difference. I was never a fatalist, nor was there at any time anything of the morbid in my disposition. Neither was I in the least degree imaginative or superstitious, or liable to be impressed by ideas not founded upon any tangible train of circumstances. But not withstanding all this, from the moment when I had seen Smith's pale desperate face as he rushed past me in the garden startled by the hoarse clanging of the alarm bell, the chilling conviction had seized and held me that sooner or later his master would succeed in his object, whatever it might be. He was a cunning man, and I was not. He had instruments and influence at his command which I did not possess. There was an air of mysterious power about him which had always impressed itself upon me, none the less because of its strange contrast with an age of policemen and magistrates' courts. Had anyone told me of such a man, living in the heart of London society, having at his command a little army of spies and ruffians, and carrying on unknown to the world in which he lived a series of dark, unfathomable intrigues, I should have done as some who read this will do—scoffed at the idea of such "romantic clap-trap" existing in this nineteenth century of Scotland-yard and lynx-eyed detectives. The whole thing would have sounded to me like an anachronism borrowed from the middle ages, woefully out of date, and absurd when viewed in connection with the London of to-day. So it would have seemed to me had I not been the witness, and well-nigh the victim, of Count Voltkar's devilish schemes.
Five months after the night attack upon Gorleston Hall the thing which above all others I dreaded came to pass. Amongst my letters one morning was one in a familiar hand. It was signed Jean Dupont. I tore it open and read.
Brampton Priory, Norfolk.
To Sir Basil Gorleston,
Sir,—You behaved like a prince to me once in a certain matter, and now that I have the chance I am anxious to requite your goodness. My old master, Count Voltkar, is staying in a country house not far from here incognito, and his presence in this part of the country means no good to you. He has some dark scheme on hand. I discovered that last night, and I also discovered that it has some reference to your wife. You had better take care. We know that his excellency can bite. I have seen that man Smith, too, prowling about in the neighbourhood, and I think I have some inkling of what they are going to attempt. I dare not write and tell you all. If you will come over to Brampton to-morrow morning and meet me at the Bull's Head, I can tell you something that it will be worth your while to know.
With every assurance of my devoted service,
I am, your obedient servant,
Of course, I fell into the trap and went, only too eager at the chance of being able to discover something of Count Voltkar's plans. At the Brampton inn, where I arrived about noon, after a two hours' ride, nothing was known of Jean Dupont. I waited for an hour, but still he did not come. Then a sudden uneasiness came over me. I remembered that once before I had received a letter which appeared to be in this man's hand-writing, but which had very nearly cost me my life.
Supposing this one, too, should be a forgery! What if Count Voltkar had himself written it in order to ensure my temporary absence from Gorleston! Before the idea was well matured in my mind I was on my feet and in the saddle, leaving behind a hasty message, which, needless to say, no one ever called for. People turned and gazed after me, some shouting warnings, some threats, as I sent my great strong mare thundering along the highroad at a furious gallop, deaf to all shouts and execrations, caring only that I might reach home and find Glitka there to welcome me. Vain hope! As I bent forward in the saddle lashing Janette's sides, and heedless of her signs of distress, I seemed always to see before me Count Voltkar's aristocratic face, his thin lips parted in the same sneering triumphant smile as that with which he had welcomed me when I had stepped into the little back room of the Golden Crescent. A great despair, against which I struggled in vain, settled upon me. I felt that I had been outwitted, and when the turrets of Gorleston Hall showed up above the trees, and I urged Janette up the last hill, it was with a sinking heart and a dire foreboding of evil that I viewed my journey's termination. As I turned in at the lodge gates I saw that the fine gravel of the drive was cut up and trampled down, as though by the feet of galloping horses. Alas, I knew whom they had borne away.
At the hall door I met Hannah Smith, and when she saw me she gave a great cry, and staggered backwards. I leapt off Janette and hurried to her.
"She had gone, Sir Basil," the frightened woman exclaimed. "It was a lie then!"
She held out a telegram to me. I snatched it out of her hands and read:—
"TO LADY GORLESTON, GORLESTON HALL. COME TO ME AT THE NORFOLK HOTEL, NORWICH. I HAVE MET WITH A SLIGHT ACCIDENT. BASIL."
"How long has she been gone?" I asked quietly, for other of the servants came hurrying up.
"About an hour and a half, Sir Basil."
I looked at my watch, and ordered another horse to be saddled for me at once. The man to whom I gave the order withdrew wondering, leading poor Janette by the bridle.
"They can't take her away, Sir Basil," Hannah Smith exclaimed in a low eager tone. "What harm can come to her in the middle of Norwich in broad daylight. She will never leave you willingly. She worships the very ground you tread upon, and they can't force her. Come and have some lunch, do. Just a mouthful."
I shook my head, and waited eagerly for the other horse to come round. I knew better than she the man who was playing this bold game against me. By what means he hoped to induce Glitka to leave me I could not tell, but I did not doubt that he had means.
The other horse was brought round, and in a few minutes I was on the road to Norwich. Half way there I met the carriage returning, and I knew without glancing inside that it was empty. Holmes pulled his horses up directly he saw me, and handing the reins to the footman hurried to my side.
"I'm afraid as all ain't right, sir," he exclaimed anxiously scanning my features. "I—"
"Where have you left Lady Gorleston?" I broke in.
"At the station, Sir Basil. She has gone to Lunnon with the foreign gentleman and lady as came out of the Norfolk with her. And fine and dazed she seemed, too."
Then I knew that I had lost Glitka.
SIX hours later I too was in London, and knocking at the door of Count Voltkar's town residence. I was not surprised to be told by the grave-looking servant who answered my summons that his master was away, on the continent, and would not be returning for a fortnight. It was exactly what I had expected, and overcoming a strong inclination to call the man a liar, I thanked him and turned away. It was not from him, certainly, that I had expected any information as to his master's whereabouts, but, nevertheless, his answer opened my eyes a good deal to the difficulties of the task before me. I had made up my mind to track Count Voltkar down, and to demand from him what had become of Glitka, my wife. By what means I should wring the knowledge from him I had scarcely paused to think, but I felt that if we once stood face to face, I was assured of gaining it. On sea or land, in crowded reception or club, in the busiest thoroughfare or the most distant of countries, I cared not where that meeting should be, so that it came quickly. There is a little of the bloodhound in my nature, I think, and it was all on the surface now. Of Glitka I scarcely dared to think, lest my fury against the man who had taken her from me should deprive me even of my reason. But never for one moment did I feel the least suspicion or anger towards her. She had gone from me, but I would have staked my soul on it that she had not gone willingly. By what arguments or means she had been forced away I knew nothing, could surmise nothing. It was part of the mystery which had bewildered me during the time when I was striving to win her, and into which, since our marriage, I had never sought to penetrate. But I would break into it now! By the strength of my arm if other means failed I would prevail against this man, who had been the evil shadow of her young life. He should yield her back to me, or my fingers should close upon his throat, and I would watch the breath die out of his body without hesitation or compunction. If only I knew where to find him at that moment.
I had walked about halfway to my hotel from Piccadilly, when I became aware that I was being followed. A tall, slim man, of somewhat horsey appearance, though soberly dressed, was keeping resolutely in my wake—not a very easy task, for I was walking rapidly, and was making use of the least frequented streets. At first I took no notice, for the fact troubled me little. Presently, however, curiosity prompted me to turn suddenly round, and look at my pursuer. He could not escape my gaze, so he returned it as nonchalantly as possible. I stood aside to let him pass, and saw at once that this was no foreigner. He was an Englishman, and an Englishman of a very ordinary type, tall, pale, smooth shaven, with sleepy looking eyes, out of which I fancied he could look if he chose with a little more intelligence than he was doing as he passed me. It struck me at once that this was an English detective.
I put out my hand as he passed, and touched him on the shoulder. He looked at me as though surprised.
"You're following me," I said.
He opened his mouth to deny it, but I stopped him.
"What's the use of telling a lie about it? I know perfectly well you're following me. What do you want to know?"
He remained silent, thrusting his hands into his pockets, and assuming an air of enquiring bewilderment. I began to feel rather annoyed.
"Look here," I said, "here's my card, and I'm going to the St. Pancras Hotel. Now as you know who I am, and where I'm going, perhaps you'll be so very good as to allow me to proceed alone."
He carefully pocketed the card, and shrugged his shoulders in a deprecating manner.
"I'm very sorry to have annoyed you, sir," he said quietly, "I can assure you that you are completely mistaken."
"Will you go back, then, and leave me alone?" I asked.
He hesitated. "I'm very sorry, sir," he said, slowly, "but I happen to be going to the St. Pancras Hotel myself."
"Suppose we take a hansom, then," I suggested. "The sound of your footsteps behind irritates me."
He looked rather puzzled.
"I shall be very pleased to share a hansom with you, sir, as we happen to be going the same way," he answered, cautiously. "I am rather tired, and—"
"And I've brought you a long way round and walked pretty sharp for you, haven't I?" I interrupted. "A pity we didn't think of a cab before."
I stopped a passing hansom, and we entered it together. As we neared the hotel I asked him a question.
"Have you any objection to tell me who has employed you to watch me?"
He shook his head slowly.
"I can assure you, sir," he began, but I interrupted him.
"Was it Count Voltkar?"
He shook his head a little more decidedly.
"I am not going to admit that it's anyone," he said, "but supposing it was—well, it wouldn't be the gentlemen you mention."
He followed me into the hotel, and listened whilst one of the clerks addressed me by name. Then he made some inquiry at the office, and scarcely waiting for the reply bade me good night and turned away. I enquired whether anyone knew him, but they all shook their heads. He was a perfect stranger.
About an hour later there was a knock at my door, and in answer to my "come in" one of the hotel porters entered.
"I beg pardon, sir," he said civilly, "but I believe I heard you ask who that person was who came in with you this evening."
I nodded. "I did enquire," I said, "but no one seemed to know him. Do you?"
"Well, sir, I can't say that I know him, but I heard one of the cabbies outside make a remark about him, and he's just told me who he is. His name is Andrews, commonly called "tanky Andrews," sir, and he's a—"
"A detective," I interrupted.
"Right, sir. A detective from Scotland Yard. Thank you, sir, and good night."
XXI.—ST. PANCRAS AGAIN.
ALL that night I sat without going to bed, alternately framing and rejecting various schemes for the prosecution of my search. I had brought all the society papers, and scanned them through one after another, hoping to gather from them in what quarter of the globe Count Voltkar was supposed to be. Three of them mentioned the fact of his having been suddenly summoned to St. Petersburg about three weeks ago, and were full of conjectures as to the connection of this summons with the startlingly sudden recall of the Russian ambassador from London, but not one of them mentioned the fact of his having left St. Petersburg, or hinted in any way at his arrival in England. I looked for some mention of Mrs. de Carteret, and found that she was in Paris. Another paper, however, only announced that she was expected to arrive at her hotel during the week, and a third had quite a long paragraph full of exclamations of wonder at the purchase by Mrs. de Carteret of a vast gloomy dwelling-house in a neighbourhood far removed from the "faubourg," which domicile, the paper went on to say, Mrs. de Carteret was expected to occupy very shortly.
As the result of my reading, I determined to go to Paris. If I failed there to obtain any news of the man I sought, or of Glitka, then I must employ the services of a detective to track him down. It was a course which I shrank from taking in England. Only too well I knew in what light my wife's flight would be regarded if I told the story of her disappearance to anyone, and the sort of advice which I should certainly receive, and as certainly reward by turning my back upon the man who offered it to me. The world would judge Glitka by their own standard, a very low one, and would sympathise with me in a half-scornful, half-pitying manner. Let them think what they would. In my heart I knew that Glitka had never left me save under some strange compulsion, which some day would be made clear to me. I knew that she loved me and loathed this man, and if she had come back to me at that moment and had bidden me ask her nothing of what had happened, I would have taken her to my arms without question or complaint.
I sat there with my head buried in my hands, and the papers strewn all over the table before me, until the morning light stole in through the blinds, and the early morning sounds of an awakening city began to penetrate into the room. I had not slept, but I had been dozing, lulled into momentary forgetfulness of my great misery by the happy recollections which had been flooding in upon me. But now that I stood upright, gazing around at the strange room, and listening to the rattling of vehicles into the station below, a sudden keen realisation of what had happened came flashing in upon me, and my heart and spirits fell as though dragged down by a leaden weight. I was alone. Glitka had gone from me. Life was no longer one long sunny dream of perfect happiness. The summer of my days had passed away, and the cold desolation of utter despair had wound its icy coils around me. Life was no longer worth living, save for one purpose. One purpose! I lifted my head, and the fire and throb of life leaped again within me as the shadowy thoughts of that purpose focused themselves into a dark, grim reality. I walked to the window, and throwing it open, gazed over the great city which lay stretched away before me. The morning sunlight was playing around its grimy chimney pots, and gleaming amongst its distant church spires, mocking with its gentle brilliancy the fury which was burning at my heart. But I stood there at the open window with my arms outstretched, and the red fire of a boundless passion blazing out of my eyes, and I swore an oath, the words of which I will tell to no man, but which, day by day, I pray may be blotted out from my shuddering memory. Then, with the staggering gait of a drunken man, I closed the window, and reeling back into the room threw myself upon the bed.
I MUST have slept for nearly three hours before a knock at my door disturbed me. I was told that a man below desired to see me as soon as possible. In less than ten minutes I was in the lift on my way to the ground floor, and almost immediately afterwards I stood face to face with Jean Dupont in the dingy little waiting-room.
It was three years since I had seen him, but there he stood the same as ever, and greeted me with the same respectful bow. Of all men in the world save one I had most desired during the last twenty-four hours that chance would throw this man in my way—and there he was, with a keen, eager light in his big black eyes, and an air of decision in his sallow face which told me that his visit was no purposeless one.
"Monsieur is doubtless surprised to see me," he began, in his old rapid manner of speech.
"How did you know that I was in London?" I asked.
He fidgeted about uneasily for a moment or two as if he could scarcely make up his mind how to reply.
"Will monsieur pardon my asking him a question first?" he said, watching me closely in a stealthy, furtive manner. "When I last had the honour of being of service to monsieur we were working together in a certain matter against"—here he lowered his voice—"against Count Voltkar."
I assented silently.
"Monsieur was not then, if I remember rightly, favourably disposed toward his excellency. Would it appear to monsieur unpardonable presumption if I were to ask him whether his feelings have undergone any change?"
"Then monsieur's visit to Count Voltkar's residence last night was not one of friendship?"
"If I had found him there I should have killed him" I answered calmly.
Dupont's whole frame seemed to tremble with delight.
"The Count then has—"
"He has robbed me of my wife," I interrupted. "Three times in foreign towns and once down at my own home he has tried to kill me. Yesterday I received this letter in your handwriting." I handed it to him, and he stared at it blankly. "I went to the place you see mentioned there, Brampton, and when I got back, by means of a forged telegram he had succeeded in getting my wife to go to Norwich. She was met at the hotel by a foreign lady and gentlemen, the Count and Mrs. de Carteret of course. By some means or other they persuaded her to go to London with them. I followed, and as you appear to know called at Count Voltkar's house last night. He was not there. If you can help me to find him—"
Dupont interrupted me with an excited gesture.
"Monsieur need offer me no reward. So he has been in Norfolk has he? In Norfolk! What fools we were not to think of it. Pardieu!" and the little fellow commenced vigorously walking up and down the room, gesticulating and muttering to himself as though he had suddenly gone mad. Then his eyes fell upon me, and he was himself again.
"Monsieur will pardon this excitement," he said in his ordinary tones. "If monsieur will do me the honour to become my confidant in a certain matter he will be the better able to understand it."
He took my silence as consent, and proceeded—
"It will not be necessary to trouble monsieur with any of my private history, or to relate to him the insults and the indignities which that man who called himself my master has heaped upon me," he said, his voice, and indeed his whole frame, trembling with suppressed anger. "It will be sufficient for me to say that I hate him—hate him," he hissed out again between his white clenched teeth. "In that respect we are one. Is it not so?"
"It is true, Jean Dupont," I answered. "I hate Count Voltkar."
"Hate him! Hate him!" Dupont was quivering in every limb with passion, and his voice, intense and shrill, yet low, seemed charged with it. "What do you Englishmen do when you hate? You prosecute in your law courts, or you hit one another with the fists. You talk of killing, but you dare not do it. Ah! it is a different way we Frenchmen have. Hate means something with us. It has meant something with me. Listen."
I drew closer to him, and he dropped his voice a little.
"For eight years, eight long, tedious years, have I watched and waited, and now the end has come. It is time for me to strike, and I am ready. In a week's time his Excellency Count Voltkar will find his career closed for ever."
"You are going to kill him, then," I remarked, quietly.
"Kill him! No!" Dupont answered, contemptuously. "I am going to witness his arrest by the Russian police. I invite you to be there with me. Will you come?" he exclaimed, with a melodramatic gesture.
A joy which was full of misgivings held me for a moment speechless. Dupont stood before me, a triumphant smile playing about his thin lips, and his arm still upraised in a theatrical gesture.
"Is this thing true?" I exclaimed, breathlessly. "Do you indeed hold him in your power? But how have you done this, Dupont? How is it that you have outwitted a man like Voltkar?"
I looked down at the puny little French valet, and the thing seemed hard to believe. He did not resent my incredulity. On the other hand, it seemed to amuse him, for he indulged in a long, low chuckle.
"Monsieur makes the same mistake as he made. He despised me. He seemed to think that because I was small of stature that therefore I was insignificant in every way. He let me pry into his secrets, he took no pains to conceal anything from me, and when he found out that I had been meeting you, he just threw me out of doors and dared me ever to show my face—my sneak's face, he called it—before him again. Ha, ha, ha. He will find out that small things can sting, presently."
He laughed again, a shrill sardonic laugh, and I found myself sharing his strange mirth. His whole appearance, with that look of venomous hatred upon his face, was like that of a reptile, but I felt no repulsion. On the contrary, it pleased me to gloat upon his evil words and malicious countenance. I felt that at that moment he was the man to whom I owed most on earth.
"Tell me more," I begged, "Tell me all about it Dupont my brave fellow."
His diabolical laugh died away, and he looked thoughtful for a moment or two. Then he began.
"I will tell Monsieur as much as it would interest him to know. The first thing I discovered about my master was that he belonged to some secret society, and the next was that he was in constant communication with a prominent member of the Russian Government."
"Nihilists I suppose?" Dupont shook his head impatiently.
"Bah! No. You Englishmen think that every foreigner is a Nihilist if he conspires. These men were no Nihilists. I never found out much about them except that their object seemed to be to get rid of the Czar by forcing him to depose himself and also one or two of the Ministers. I don't know why they desired this, or what they wanted for themselves. I believe they wanted a war with England for one thing. They never remained in one town long, but were continually shifting their quarters so as to escape detection I suppose. Mrs. de Carteret was the only woman admitted to their councils, and yet I have sometimes fancied that Mademoiselle Gli—I beg Monsieur's pardon, Lady Gorleston before her marriage was somehow mixed up with them."
He paused as though expecting me to make some remark. I merely motioned him to proceed.
"Well, I soon found out that my master was a prominent spirit amongst these men, whomsoever they were, and yet all the time he seemed on good terms with the very persons in the Czar's Ministry, who were most obnoxious to them. For a while I was puzzled. Then an accident, a letter in cipher left for five minutes on his table told me everything, and I hated and despised my master more than ever. He was playing a deep game indeed. He was a spy in the service of the Russian Government at the same time as he was supposed to be plotting against them. Every report of their meetings he sent to the very persons whom they affected, and the name of every man connected with this society is known to the Czar."
"Let me proceed," Dupont went on excitedly, "You would ask why did the Russian Government not come down upon these men at once. That would not have suited his Excellency at all. He persuaded them to wait until some definite plot was formulated. They agreed to abide by his counsels. Now comes one of the most devilish parts of the whole scheme. The reward promised to Count Voltkar by the Government was one of the most important of the embassies, either London or Paris, as soon as a reasonable excuse could be found for ousting the present ambassadors. It was London which Count Voltkar determined to have, so what does he do? He seeks to draw Mons. Poltsikoff into this secret society. Mons. Poltsikoff is firm. He will have nothing to do with it. They say that this traitor, this reptile Count Voltkar, can do what he likes with women. Any how, by some means or other, we are men of the world, Sir Basil Gorleston, and we will not ask one another how he attains a great influence over Madame Poltsikoff."
Dupont paused for a moment to draw breath, and there floated before my memory the look of anguish which I had seen on Madame Poltsikoff's face, and her strange words.
"Through her he succeeds at last with Monsieur the ambassador. Reluctantly he accompanies Count Voltkar to one of these secret meetings. That was ten days ago. This morning he received a peremptory letter of recall from the Government at St. Petersburg. When he reaches there he will be passed on to Siberia, and the Russian Embassy in London will be vacant. A pretty scheme, isn't it?"
I did not answer. I was full of the bitter reflection that Glitka, my wife, was in the hands of this man.
"Yes, it will be vacant," Dupont continued, his wan face lit up with exultation, and his tones ringing with triumph, "but his Excellency, Count Voltkar, will never occupy it. A fortnight ago his doom was sealed. A fortnight ago to-day I was closeted with the Minister of the Police at St. Petersburg. I had all my evidence there which I had been eight long years collecting, and I proved my case. I proved that Count Voltkar was playing them false as he has done everyone else. There is a great plot now on hand amongst a handful of men who make up this secret society. Count Voltkar knows of it, was its principal instigator, but he has sent no information to St. Petersburg. He thought to bide the hour of its success or failure. Pardieu, what a fool he was! With all his cunning he has over-reached himself. Nothing can save him now."
"You are sure," I cried eagerly. "You have him safe."
"As safe as though he were even now on the road to Siberia," Dupont answered grimly.
"But you did not know that he had been to Norfolk. You let him escape you there. He may do so again."
Dupont shook his head.
"Impossible. It is true he got down into Norfolk without my knowledge, but I was fearful of arousing his suspicion. I withdrew the spies for a while. But he could not have got far. Every port in England is held by Russian and English detectives. He is to be allowed to go to Paris, but once there he will be in a trap. There will be a cordon of Russian spies around the city, and he could no more escape them than fly."
"And the end?"
"Is to be a week to-day. On that date three of their number, who are now in St. Petersburg, will attempt the execution of their plot. At the same time there will be a meeting of the others, including, of course, Count Voltkar, somewhere in Paris. The purpose of their meeting we have not yet been able to discover, but we shall find out, for we shall be there."
I drew a long breath. Was the end indeed so near?
"How was it that a detective followed me here from Count Voltkar's house?" I asked.
Dupont smiled. "Everyone who even looks at that house is followed until their name and address are known. The Home Secretary himself has been down to Scotland-yard to confer with the Chief Constable, and the minister of the police at St. Petersburg has telegraphic reports every day in cipher. His Excellency Count Voltkar might almost as soon hope to wriggle himself into heaven as to escape from this dilemma. And it is I who have brought all this upon him," Dupont concluded, with a fierce exultation.
I remained silent for a while. I was wondering how I should be able to wait a week. Dupont sat opposite to me with folded arms.
"Dupont," I said at last, breaking the silence, "You are a poor man?"
Dupont assented vigorously.
"The largest sum of money I ever handled monsieur was the five hundred pounds which you gave me, and I have spent that and more in attaining my object."
I looked at my watch.
"Come back in an hour," I said, "and we will go to my lawyer's together."
He bowed and left me. I had a cold bath and some breakfast, and was ready for him when he came again.
At Mr. Waring's I did two things. I made my will, and I settled five hundred a year on Dupont. If I had died in Paris Dupont would have been the richer by ten thousand pounds, but this he knew nothing of. Perhaps it was as well that he did not, for he was an unscrupulous rascal.
At the lawyer's office we parted. I was to meet him at ten o'clock on that day week at a small hotel of which he gave me the address in Paris. That night I crossed the Channel alone.
I HAD an idea of my own as to the probable scene of the tragedy which I had come to witness. I remembered the paragraph in one of the society papers which commented on Mrs. de Carteret's strange taste in renting for her Parisian abode so gloomy a house in such an out of the way neighbourhood. According to Dupont, she was a party to all Count Voltkar's vile plots. What more natural than that her house should be the chosen rendezvous of the conspirators. If this were so, it would explain her preference for such a secluded region. I decided that it was so, and felt very much obliged to the Paris correspondent of Vanity Fair for his chance remark.
On the morning after my arrival in Paris I made my way to the Rue de Port Henri, and without any difficulty discovered the house which I sought. It certainly had not the look of a gay Parisian "hôtel," for a more gloomy-looking structure I never remember to have seen. Tall and massive, built of a dark grey stone, which age had done little to beautify, it stood alone in its deserted-looking grounds, the very picture of utter desolation. While I was gazing upon it, a party of ouvriers made their appearance, laughing and shouting gaily to one another. Happy fellows! How I envied them their careless light-heartedness and their buoyant laugh. 'Tis a happy thing to be a French workman! Care seems to pass them over or only play about their heads, and everything they touch seems to yield them pleasure. There wasn't one of that ill-clad, ragged mob with whom I wouldn't have changed places.
They paused at the gate and entered. Presently some trucks appeared with paint pots, rolls of paper, and another little body of workpeople. They too entered after a little jesting at the grim appearance of the scene of their labours, and seeing nothing to prevent me, I followed them.
I did not enter the house at first, but strolled down into the grounds behind. The impulse which prompted me to do so I have since blessed a thousand times. Perhaps if I looked at the matter from a moral point of view I should regret it, but I don't, and never did. I am no hypocrite in this matter, and however wrongly I may have acted in the eyes of others, I have never yet taught myself to say that there has been an inkling of repentance in my heart for what I did.
Near the bottom of the garden, and close to the outside wall, a man was standing with a spade over his shoulder, and a puzzled look on his face. I followed his gaze, and saw that he was apparently examining the interior of a small summer house, which was built out from the wall, and the door of which stood open. So absorbed was he that he was not aware of my presence until I stood close by his side. Then he started, and at once took off his hat politely.
"Monsieur thinks me idle, no doubt," he remarked, bringing his spade to the ground. "I was attempting to solve a problem."
I nodded as pleasantly as I could, and assumed an inquiring air.
"Connected with the summer house, I suppose?"
"Monsieur is right," he acknowledged. "I was wondering why it was there at all, for one thing. Monsieur sees that it is a queer place to have put it in."
I acknowledged that a better place might easily have been found. Built out from the wall, it looked cramped, and was an inconvenient shape.
"And for another thing, monsieur," continued the garrulous little Frenchman, "I was wondering whether there was any truth in what old Père Michael down at the wine shop yonder says—that there is an underground passage from the house connected with it."
My languid curiosity was fanned in an instant into a strong, keen interest. I checked the exclamation which had risen to my lips, however, and tried to appear as unconcerned as possible.
"It doesn't seem very likely," I remarked, glancing up at the house and then at the little arbour. "Who is Père Michael, and what does he know about it?"
"Monsieur did not know Père Michael!" My new friend was astonished. He had thought that Père Michael was known to all the world! Why, Père Michael was the son of the man who had built this house. He kept the wine shop now round the corner, and very good wines he kept too. Monsieur should certainly pay him a visit.
It was exactly what Monsieur had already proposed to himself to do, but not in company with the pleasant little Frenchman who had already thrown down his spade, and intimated his strong desire to lead the way. I produced a five franc piece, and hoped that my new acquaintance would make use of it to drink my health at the close of the day. At present I had no desire to go to Père Michael's, as I never drank wine in the morning.
His gratitude was quite overpowering. Monsieur might rest assured that his health would be drunk very many times before the sun set. There was a young woman, he told me her name and the colour of her eyes, who had honoured him by her preference. She, too, should drink my health. The princely mark of Monsieur's generosity (he referred to the five franc piece) would give them both a treat that evening. Monsieur was truly too good.
I received this torrent of thanks as graciously as possible, and retreated as soon as I was able without rudeness. Needless to say I was at the wine shop of which Père Michael (I never discovered his other name) was the proprietor in a very few minutes. A stout white-haired old man put down his paper and welcomed me. Him I immediately surmised to be the man whose acquaintence I desired to make.
It was not a difficult task. Fortunately French had always been a favourite study with me, and I sopke it with as much ease as my own language. A few general remarks courteously replied to, and the ice was broken. Then my host took the lead in the conversation, and for a while it was as much as I could do to get in a word edgeways. At last, however, my opportunity came. He began talking about the immediate neighbourhood. I made an allusion to the dreary-looking house round the corner. He seemed proud to inform me that his father had built it, and commenced at once to tell me the number of rooms it contained, and all about its interior arrangements. I listened duly impresssed, and took care not to interrupt him until he had finished.
"I wonder if this house is the one which Mrs. de Carteret has taken," I remarked, as if the idea had just occurred to me. "I know its somewhere in this neighbourhood."
"Mon Dieu, but that is so truly," Père Michael exclaimed. "And does Monsieur know Mrs. de Carteret? A charming lady. Doubtless Monsieur is a friend of hers?"
I replied as carelessly as possible that I certainly knew the lady in question.
"By-the-bye," I added, leisurely pouring myself out another glass of wine, "didn't she tell me something of a mysterious underground passage leading into a greenhouse or summer house, or something of the sort? Was that your father's work too?"
Père Michael set down his glass which he had just raised to his lips untasted, and looked at me steadily for a moment or two. Apparently the examination was satisfactory.
"Ah! these ladies," he exclaimed, leaning back in his chair, and patting gently his capacious stomach. "One never knows how to take them. Now madame, who came to look at the house yonder, when I told her of that secret passage—wonderfully interested she was about it to be sure—said to me, 'Now Monsieur Michael, you tell me that save yourself no one knows of that passage.' I assure her that it is so. Then she takes the house, and when all is finished and she is going away she calls me on one side. 'Monsieur Michael,' she says, 'one word about that secret passage. I want that kept between you and me, you understand. I don't care to have people talking about such a thing in connection with my house. Scandal you know—scandal, Monsieur Michael. Paris is such a fearful place.' Of course I promise that I will never breathe a word of it to a soul, and here, pardieu, she goes straight to England and tells you all about it."
"Not quite all," I answered, laughing. "She didn't explain how one lets himself into the summer-house."
Père Michael fell into the trap at once.
"That's a very easy matter," he explained. "You see the passage leads out of a back room on the second floor of the house. From there one descends by an iron ladder placed between the outside wall and the wall of the room till one gets right under-ground. Then the passage leads in a straight line to the summer-house. The centre piece of the floor in the summer-house is false, and by touching a spring from underneath it lifts up. Then there is a door in the wall, which I defy anyone to detect, which leads into the street, and there you are."
"And how do you get from the room into this passage?" I enquired.
Père Michael hesitated. Evidently he thought that he had told me quite enough, and would have liked to have evaded this last query, had he been able to do so without discourtesy. I repeated my enquiry, however, though without any special show of eagerness, and he reluctantly answered—
"There is a dado in the room, on which the life-size figure of a woman is represented. If the left eye is pressed the secret door opens; if the right it is so closed that no one can enter the room from the secret passage. And again in the summer-house there is a small knob high up on the left-hand wall, which if pressed will prevent the spring in the floor from working. But monsieur will pardon me, I should not thus have gossiped about what Madame de Carteret so earnestly desired me to keep secret. Monsieur will—"
"Probably have forgotten all about it by to-morrow," I remarked lightly, as I rose to go. "Make your mind quite easy on that score, Monsieur Michael. I shall never tell your new tenant that I know all about her secret passage. Neither should I advise you to. I wish you a very good morning, Monsieur Michael. I shall return some day to taste again your excellent wine."
Père Michael dragged his capacious body with me to the door, profuse of bows, and pouring out civil speeches, which I fear I received with but scant attention. Then, after watching me out of sight, and performing another little valedictory salute as I turned the corner, he waddled back to his seat behind the counter and his newspaper. I wonder whether he would have blinked and dozed through the rest of the day with equal serenity if he could have foreseen the result of his disobedience to his new tenant's injunctions.
THAT week which I spent alone in Paris seemed to me the longest which I had ever known. All day long I tramped about in the vain hope of seeing something of those whom I sought, and at night I changed my clothes with a heavy heart, and joined in the gay throng of Parisian pleasure-seekers with the same object. The days dragged away, leaving me always unsuccessful, until at last the morning dawned which I had waited and longed for. There was a letter from Dupont, the first he had written me, bidding me be prepared to see him about six o'clock in the evening, and imploring me not to anticipate the event which would certainly take place that night if chance should throw in my way a certain person. By this I knew that Count Voltkar was now in Paris, and although I had made up my mind to remain within the hotel all day, a strange disquiet came over me. For a while I fought against it, but in the end it conquered me. I could remain within doors no longer, and at last I yielded to it, and catching up my hat wandered out into the street. Chance or destiny guided my footsteps along the broad boulevard until I stood opposite the Hôtel Bristol, and there I paused suddenly, for I was face to face with the man whom I scarcely knew whether I dreaded or longed most to meet.
He had just stepped out of a brougham, and was chatting on the pavement with a distinguished-looking old gentleman of military bearing. I stood on the steps of the hotel, and waited. Presently both of them turned towards me together, and then Count Voltkar recognized me. He gave the slightest possible start, but made no other sign of recognition, and he would have passed me without a word but that I stood in his way.
"Count Voltkar, I should be glad of a few minutes' private conversation with you," I said quietly enough, though there was a singing in my ears, and a strange sense of unreality creeping over me.
He halted, and eyed me deliberately from head to foot.
"My time is scarcely my own," he said, coldly, "and I have none to spare for strangers. Come, Hadzen," and he would have passed on, but that I never moved from in front of him.
"You will be so good as to reconsider your words," I said firmly. "Willingly or unwillingly, you shall speak to me, and you shall hear what I have to say."
Count Voltkar withdrew his cigarette from his mouth, and turned aside to his companion with a short laugh.
"Some lunatic!" he said, lightly. "I don't know the fellow."
"You are a liar, Count Voltkar."
He started, and tried to brush me aside, but I stood firm.
"Sir," I said, turning to his companion, "I have called your friend here a liar, and I repeat it. Perhaps you will be so good as to remind him of the proper course to pursue."
The gentleman whom I had addressed turned to Count Voltkar, and whispered something in his ear. To all appearance his remark was not favourably received.
"I can't meet the fellow," I heard him reply. "He must be some madman or other. I don't even know him."
I took out my card, and handed it to Count Voltkar's friend, who was looking considerably puzzled.
"I am Count Voltkar's equal in rank, sir," I said, "and I have called him a liar. I will wait in the café opposite for half-an-hour."
"But Count Voltkar declines to meet you—"
"Yes, certainly, I decline," Count Voltkar broke in with a sneer. "I don't want to have to meet every English cad whose wife—"
He never finished the sentence, for with the back of my hand I struck him across the face such a blow that the blood gushed out from his mouth and nostrils.
"At the Hôtel de Pont Neuf," I cried out to his friend, and then I hurried away, for many of the passers-by had seen the fracas, and were hurrying up. There were some faint cries of "gendarmes" from those who had witnessed the blow which I had dealt Count Voltkar, but none attempted to stop me, and in a very few minutes I was beyond all pursuit.
No message from Count Voltkar reached me during the afternoon, but I was very little disturbed at this, for was I not to be brought face to face with him before many hours could pass? Was I not to witness the ignominious close of his career, to be present and see him confronted with the downfall of his schemes and the prospect of a dreary banishment for the rest of his days? My heart beat fast with joy as I thought of it, but underlying it all there was a wild harrowing anxiety. What had he done with Glitka, my wife? His would be the triumph after all if in the moment of his ruin he could defy me to find her. And what more likely! I imagined to myself all manner of hideous possibilities—thought of her as suffering, as dead, even as false, until my feelings gained the mastery over me, and I rushed to the door with the half-formed intention of seeking Count Voltkar again, and of tearing from him by threatened force the knowledge of what had come to her. I had scarcely turned the handle, however, when it opened from the outside, and a man whom at first I took to be an utter stranger was ushered in. As soon as the waiter's back was turned, however, he half removed the beard from his face, and I recognised Jean Dupont.
"All is well?" I inquired, eagerly. "It will be to-night?"
The white teeth parted in the cruel snake-like smile which I had learned to look upon without a shudder. Nay, I could have blessed him for that smile, for it told me that the sum of my desires was at hand.
"All is well," he answered. "It will be to-night, at any rate, before to-morrow's sun has risen."
A savage joy crept through my heart, and I could have taken that traitor's cold fishy hand in mine and have kissed it. Even now I do not despise myself for the exultation with which his words filled me.
"Tell me more," I said. "Tell me whether you have heard anything of my wife?"
He threw off his long overcoat, and locking the door, first divested himself of his wig and glasses.
"Madame de Carteret and Lady Gorleston arrived in Paris this afternoon," he declared in a quick staccato tone. "They were escorted by his Excellency Count Voltkar, the future Russian Ambassador," he added, with a grim smile.
"Monsieur will doubtless be pleased to hear that until this morning, when he was awaiting the arrival of the ladies at Calais, his Excellency has not seen Lady Gorleston since he brought her to London."
"You have formed no idea as to why he has been so eager to carry away my wife from me?"
Dupont produced a pocket book and rapidly turned over a few pages.
"I have formed an idea," he answered, "but there is still much that is mysterious. I find that each of the attempts upon your life were made just before an important meeting of—of this secret society. This last successful attempt to obtain possession of Lady Gorleston has also, as you see, been made just before one. The inference of this is, of course, that your wife's presence was desired, but why it seems hard to imagine."
"She must have left Norwich willingly," I remarked with a heavy heart.
"Precisely. The explanation of that might be that she feared to break some terrible oath to which they made her subscribe when they induced her to join this society, or Count Voltkar might have threatened harm to you, and have frightened her. Let us hope that to-night's work will make all clear. To conjecture is useless when we know so little."
I was willing to quit the subject, for every thought concerning it stirred me almost to madness, and I wished to keep cool for a short while longer. I asked to be informed as to the arrangements made. Dupont's little eyes twinkled, and he leaned back in his seat with an air of placid enjoyment. He suggested the spider to me, but it was no hapless fly which he had drawn within the meshes of his net.
"Our plans are simply infallible," he declared slowly. "Everything has gone well. Failure, even comparative failure, is impossible. Around the city is a cordon of Paris detectives. There are others who report to me his every movement, and never let him out of their sight. One of these handed me half an hour ago full particulars of your encounter with his excellency. Two officers of the Russian police are in this very hotel with warrants for his arrest, and an extradition warrant, signed this afternoon by the Premier of France. It is our desire to catch him red-handed to-night, but even should it fail, which it will not, the evidence against him is still complete."
He paused, and glanced at me as if for approval. I had drunk in his words with a feverish eagerness, and could do no more than impatiently motion him to proceed.
"The meeting to-night is at a house in the quietest part of Paris, recently taken by Madame de Carteret. There will be four others there besides Count Voltkar. They are expected at eleven o'clock. A few minutes after that you and I, with one or two gendarmes in plain clothes, will be admitted by the back entrance. Other gendarmes will surround the house to prevent any possibility of escape. We shall be conducted to the chamber where this meeting is being held—et après cela!"—and Dupont looked at me with the full blaze of venomous triumph aglow in his sharpened features and shining out of his coal black eyes.
I was silent. There were feelings within me which forbade speech. But Dupont was satisfied.
AT a quarter past eleven that night four men, two Russian police officers, Dupont, and I, crouched behind a thick curtain, which alone separated us from the ante-room in which the servant who had conducted us there had silently signified that we should find the man we sought. For a few moments we feared to move or breathe lest our presence should be detected. Then the faint hum of subdued voices came to my sharpened ears, and through a chink in the curtain I looked out into the room.
With all the vivid accuracy of an instantaneous photograph there is burned in upon my mind the never fading recollection of the scene upon which I gazed. Four men and one lady were grouped together in various attitudes of listening eagerness around an easy chair, in which half sat, half reclined, the figure of another—a younger woman. Directly in front of her, leaning forward, with his hands moving slowly through the air in a strange rhythmical motion, and his steel-coloured eyes riveted upon the face of the girl opposite to him, was a tall majestic-looking man in the uniform of a staff officer, on whose breast hung many orders and decorations, which glittered and sparkled in the semi-darkness of the room. There was a murmur from someone about the light, and while I knelt behind the curtain with riveted eyes, the lamp was slowly turned up. Then with a great throb of my heart, which it amazed me they did not hear, I knew that the principal persons in the tableau which was being played before my eyes were the man whom I hated and the woman whom I loved more than any other in the world.
The spell of a nerveless apathy crept upon me, sealing my lips and holding my limbs motionless. Like a man in a dream I watched and listened.
He had ceased to move his hands, but his eyes were still fastened upon hers, which as if obeying some magnetic instinct, returned his gaze with equal steadfastness. Then he spoke in a distinct musical voice, which seemed to thrill every nerve in her body.
"Tell me Glitka, what do you see?"
Slowly she shook her head, and answered him with a sort of gasp.
A look of disappointment stole into everyone's face.
He said nothing, but silently resumed the strange movement of his hands. Then he stopped suddenly, and leaning forward repeated his query in a sharper and more commanding tone.
A shudder seemed to pass through her whole frame; then she sat up a little in her chair, and with her eyes full of a half vacant half frightened look, still fixed upon his, she spoke.
"I see a room—a great room, it seems to be the hall of a palace. There are many people in it moving backwards and forwards. The men are nearly all in uniform, some have sashes, and some ribbons and medals. The women are all beautiful and stately. There are flowers, tall palms and ferns, soft music, glittering lights, sweet scents. Ah!"
Her voice sank to a whisper, and then died away all together. Save that her eyes were still open, she seemed to be asleep.
Again he moved his hands backwards and forwards before her face. Then he leaned forward.
"Do you notice anyone in particular?"
"There is a little group near the head of the room," she went on in the same dreamy unnatural voice. "They are gathered around one man. He is tall, and has a pleasant face, but he looks like a king, and they all bow before they speak to him."
A murmur of excitement agitated the little group who pressed around, but it was checked in an instant by a gesture from the Count.
"Do you notice anyone else particularly?"
She shook her head wearily. In a moment he repeated the question.
"There is a young man standing alone outside the circle. He looks pale and agitated, and, he keeps feeling in his pocket. Ah!"
She gave a little short cry. Breathless with wild excitement, everyone pressed around her chair.
"He has stepped forward suddenly, and has pointed a pistol at the man who stands in the centre of the group. There is a report, two reports, smoke, great confusion!"
Her voice died away, and her head sank upon her bosom with a tired-out gesture. Again he moved his hands before her, while the others leaned forward with blanched faces.
"Tell me what has happened?" he said quickly. "Is he hurt?"
She lifted her head, and after an effort continued.
"There is great confusion. The man who fired the shot is held by many hands. Ah! they will tear him to pieces."
She shuddered, and paused.
Count Voltkar leant close over her.
"Tell me," he commanded, in a quick anxious voice. "The man at whom he fired, the man in the centre of the group. Is he hurt?"
She shook her head slowly.
"No. The bullet has taken a silk knot from his shoulder. He is showing it to the others. He is a brave man. He is not even pale, like the others. Ah! it is all growing dim now. It is fading away."
She ceased. A great terror seemed to have fallen upon the little party. Count Voltkar alone was unmoved.
"Gentlemen," he said quickly, "we must separate at once. There is little fear of Petsinkoff playing the traitor, but we must not be seen or heard of together. I am for London."
I threw aside the curtain and stepped into the room.
"Siberia would be a little nearer the mark I think, Count Voltkar," I thundered out.
The scene which followed was a wild one, but I took no part in it. At the sound of my voice Glitka had leaped from her chair and had made a groping movement towards me. Her eyes were wide open, but they seemed to reveal nothing to her.
I clutched her in my arms with a passionate cry. At that moment the sound of a revolver and a heavy fall within a few feet of her seemed to awaken her from some sort of a trance. She started, and gave such a cry as I had never heard nor ever again shall hear from mortal lips. It broke off suddenly with a horrid gurgling sound, and as she fell into my arms the purple blood flowed from between her ashen lips and streamed down the front of her dress.
"Basil, my husband, save me," she shuddered, "from him, from him."
I folded my arms around her and cried out passionately that she should never look upon his living face again. In vain I tried to stanch the blood which flowed down onto her white satin dress, and on my coat. I chafed her hands, they were growing cold; I kissed her eyes, they were dimmed and half closed; I implored her to look at me, but my voice was choked with sobs, and the tears were raining down my face. Then I caught her up in my arms, and rushed through the din into the other part of the house, where the servants were gathered together in terrified wonder at the gendarmes who were streaming in. They fetched me a doctor, but he came too late. With her arms around my neck, and with a faint loving smile upon her discoloured lips, Glitka died.
For more than an hour I held her in my arms, rubbing her cold hands and caressing her, making desperate efforts to disbelieve the awful truth. When at last it broke in upon me it brought with it a calm which was too sudden to be natural.
I laid her softly down, and turned round to the little group of servants and gendarmes who had been silently witnessing my grief.
"What has happened there?" I asked, pointing to the door by which I had entered.
One of the officers of the police stepped forward and saluted.
"All have been arrested, Monsieur, save one—Count Voltkar. He must be concealed somewhere on the premises, but at present he has not been captured."
"Show me in which room he last was?"
I followed the man into an ante-room leading off from the scene of the surprise. Facing the door was the figure on the dado for which I instantly looked. While my guide was elaborately explaining the details of the recent struggle, and with affected modesty was dwelling on his own share in it, I pressed the right eye of the figure with my thumb. There was a sharp click, and my heart throbbed with a savage joy, for I knew that my wife's murderer was caught like a rat in a trap. But I said nothing to this officer of the police.
"There is no exit from here, Monsieur perceives. Where then can Count Voltkar have concealed himself?"
I opened the window and gazed down below.
"Let us search the gardens," I said gloomily, and together we left the room, and descended the stairs.
Others joined us below, and while they searched I managed to slip into the summer-house and press the knob in the wall.
Then I looked out into the street, and found it held by a continuous line of gendarmes. Escape me now he could not.
When we were in the house again, I asked for Dupont, and learned what they had told me before when my ears had been deaf. He had been shot through the heart by Count Voltkar.
The next day I attended two funerals—his and hers. Each had left me a legacy of revenge, and over the grave of each I, Basil Gorleston, a Norfolk squire and ex-clergyman, took a murderer's oath.
FOR a whole day Paris was busy wondering what had happened at the hôtel of Mrs. de Carteret. It was a week before they had even the faintest idea as to the nature of the events which had transpired there, for, acting upon instructions from the Government, the police did everything they could to keep the whole affair a profound secret. Owing to the high position, however, of the four conspirators who had been arrested and handed over to the Russian authorities, they found it impossible to do so. Rumours began to creep about, and soon all Paris was ablaze with excited curiousity. But before that came to pass Count Voltkar and I had left the city together.
On the night following the arrest of his confederates and his (supposed) marvellous escape I stole down to the summer-house and released him for a while from his prison. As I had always half suspected, he proved to be a coward. Faint and weak with his long captivity, he fawned at my feet and implored me to save him. I—I will not say how I answered him. I brought him food and a disguise, and on the third night I took him away with me. I refused to tell him whither.
We left Paris by night, and before morning broke we were at a little village on the coast not far from Boulogne. I bade him eat and rest, and all through the day I watched by his side. When evening came again he rose refreshed and strengthened. I myself had neither eaten nor drank nor slept for twenty-four hours.
I bade him follow me down to the sands, and he obeyed. Then when we were alone, and in a sheltered place, with the sun sinking into the channel before us, and nothing behind but a dreary waste of sand, I told him to prepare for death. He looked around and across the water in vain for help. He begged for mercy, he fell on his knees before me, and poured out a torrent of wild entreaties and passionate prayers. I answered him then as I would answer him now,—I mocked him and struck him across the mouth. Then he sprang at me fiercely, and locked in one another's arms, we struggled backwards and forwards, desperate men both. When at last I relaxed my grasp from his throat he was dead.
Ten minutes later I was arrested by detectives, who had followed us from Paris, and soon afterwards I was tried for the murder of Count Ivan Voltkar. The verdict was such as only a French jury could have given—I was sentenced to three months imprisonment, and in less than half that time my sentence was commuted, and I was told that I was free. For a week I stayed in Paris, spending most of my time at Glitka's grave. Then the notoriety which was attached to my name made my existence unbearable, and I returned to England and to Gorleston.
Twenty-nine years have passed away since my return to England, and I am still Sir Basil Gorleston, of Gorleston Hall, shunned by my neighbours as a murderer, and everywhere regarded as a man of evil repute. Needless to say, there is none to whom I have cared to draw aside the curtain which has hung over a certain period of my life. I am well pleased to have no friends, for I desire none. There are some men who live in the present alone, some in the future, and a few in the past. I am one of the latter of these. I lived my life in less than three years, and I am satisfied that it should have been so. I seek no pleasures, and I obtain none. I have pursuits, but no interests; I exist, but I do not live. My life is a purely automatic one, save when I wrap myself up in memories of the past. I do not court death, nor do I fear it. And when it comes, and something tells me that the day is not far distant, hers will be the last name my lips will utter, and that we may meet again will be my last fervent prayer.