gleanings, pl.n.— Things that have been gathered bit by bit—the gleanings of patient scholars. The American Heritage Dictionary.
THE clamour of crushing boughs and howling wind sank every now and then into insignificance before the roaring of deep-throated guns, whose red fire flashed out across what seemed to be a bottomless abyss. Below, the army of the Turks decimated in numbers, yet still a host, within the walls of Crersa, the defenders of an oppressed and brave country making their last stand in their ancient stronghold.
Three men stood on the walls, holding to the ramparts for dear life, talking eagerly together. Hohenloff, who spoke, was general of the forces, and in command of the defense.
"Prince," he said, "there is no longer any doubt. Crersa, unconquered for a thousand years, will fall now through treachery."
Prince Maurice of Herania, who saw the kingdom of his forefathers passing away, groaned aloud.
"Hohenloff"," he said, "may God grant that you are mistaken. They are bold, and they have ventured very near the walls, as you know. It may be chance."
"It is no chance," Hohenloff answered, roughly. "On Monday the southern buttress Was hit. Outside we covered the weakness, inside alone it was apparent. Yet all day they poured in a merciless fire upon that one weak spot. On Tuesday we moved the powder magazine. Their guns follow, and Crersa was very nearly blown to atoms. My Prince, there is a traitor here, and unless we find him Crersa is doomed." ?
Then Romakoff spoke, chief minister of Herania, a small man with sallow features, but with the forehead of a lion. ?
"Hohenloff," he said, "our secrets are not the secrets of the whole garrison. "How many have known of these things?"
"Not more than a dozen," Hohenloff answered, "but the traitor is not amongst these."
"Then in the name of God," cried Romakoff, "where shall be find him?" ?
Only the Prince was pale and thoughtful.
"Tonight," he said. "I watch without the gates."
"And I with you," Hohenloff cried. "You may need my sword."
But Prince Maurice shook his head.
"I watch alone," he answered. "It is my command."
As the night drew on the storm increased. Round the northern gate were gathered a company of soldiers, and into the midst of them a muffled figure in military cape pushed his way. At a word from him they fell back with respectful salute. For a while he stood talking to the officer in command. Then came the clanking of bolts and the creaking of bars. Prince Maurice passed out alone.
Outside the city Prince Maurice was making his way, step by step, to the northern boundary, where a few watchers were stationed, and no system of defense attempted, for here, at least, the town was impregnable. The walls overhung a great ravine—there was not a single spot from which an attack could be even attempted. But Prince Maurice took up his station in a sheltered nook facing a high tower, and, crouching back amongst the shadow, waited.
As the hours passed on his brow became less clouded. He even ventured to draw a sigh of relief. His had been a hateful task. He was playing the spy upon a woman, watching her house, and a woman dependent upon his hospitality—a prisoner also in his unhappy city. Not only this, but the woman was the Countess of Merguillon, the wife of the French resident, who was even now seeking in Paris to win aid for him. And she was the woman whom Prince Maurice, although no word of it had ever passed his lips, very dearly loved.
In an hour his vigil would be over, in an hour he would banish forever those vague but horrible suspicions. But before the hour was passed strange things happened Up the topmost window of that tower which he had been watching there flashed for a moment a faint light. It flickered, went out, and reappeared. Someone was there waving a lamp, and from the side of the ravine came the answering signal.
He looked no more at the window, hut watched the dancing light come nearer and nearer. The light in the window was extinguished. Prince Maurice moved slowly along by the side of the wall until he stood immediately in the shadow of the tower.
Soon there came sounds—a man's footsteps muffled in the snow, A torch was thrown hissing forward upon the ground, a man's head and then his body appeared, as, with a final effort, he pulled himself up the side of the ravine.
The newcomer stood upright, and looked impatiently toward the tower. At last he came to a sudden standstill, and a little exclamation of relief broke from his lips. A small nail-studded door at the base of the tower had been opened, and a woman was standing there.
She held the lamp above her head, and from where he stood Prince Maurice could see her plainly. The man stepped forward confidently, as though he would have entered, but she pushed him back.
"Not tonight, my friend," Prince Maurice heard her say. "It is not safe. There are men watching my house from the street. I have written down here what you wanted to know. I have kept my word. Now go."
He bent over her, and the lamp-light fell upon his dark, sallow face, with the black moustache and coal black eyes. Then Prince Maurice recognized him, and ground his teeth with bitter rage.
They whispered together for a moment. Prince Maurice's hand stole beneath his cloak and grasped the hilt of his sword. Then there came the sound of the door being softly closed.
"Tomorrow," the Turk whispered.
Then Prince Maurice stepped out, and threw aside his cloak.
"Tomorrow, Menid Bey," he cried, "you will spend hell Draw and defend yourself. Quick."
The Turk shrugged his shoulders, and drew his sword lightly.
"Prince, Maurice!" he exclaimed. "My friend of the Boulevards. Come, be reasonable. "We are old friends. Why try to kill one another?"
"I have no friends amongst my country's enemies," Prince Maurice cried.
"We cannot see to fight," the Turk cried.
"Then have at you in the darkness," Prince Maurice cried, fiercely, with a lunge forward. But the Turk was prepared, and the sparks flashed from their swords.
Then the little door in the wall swung suddenly open, and the Countess, who had heard their voices, stood there, holding the lamp over her head. A cry broke from her white lips as she recognized the two men—a cry which changed swiftly into a scream of terror.?For the light of her lamp, dim though it was, and flickering with the wind, was sufficient to show them each other's whereabouts. The Turk sprang upon his opponent like a wildcat. Prince Maurice parried his blows with the skill of a practiced swordsman. The result was never for a moment doubtful, even to the woman who stood there still with the lamp in her shaking hand.
Once more the swords clashed, a whirling flame of steel, and then the death yell of Menid Bey rang out above the storm of wind, above the booming of the never-silent guns. Prince Maurice's sword dripped red upon the trampled snow. He turned toward the door, where the woman was still standing transfixed with fear.
"With your permission," he said, "I will return to the city through your house."
She motioned him to pass her, and locked and barred the gate. They passed up a narrow passage into a great square ball. The Countess threw open the door of her own apartment. But Prince Maurice did not enter.
"I have no wish to linger in this house," he said sternly. "Tell your servants to unbolt that door and let me out. What have I or has Crersa done to you that you should plot for our ruin?. Have you been ill-treated—have you found us inhospitable?"
"No, a thousand times no," she moaned. "I have been to blame. I have suffered Menid Bey to come to me as a friend, for I knew him years ago, and he found his way here by stealth a few night ago. I have been weary to death of my life here, Prince Maurice. Day after day I have spent here alone, seeing nothing but grim, famine-stricken faces, and hearing nothing but the roaring of guns and the shrieks of the wounded. Was it for this, do you think, that I left our beautiful Paris, that I strove to get Henri the appointment here, to be left alone with never a soul to speak to—not even?Prince Maurice."
Her eyes forced his to look into them. She knew then that she was safe. Yet he held her coldly at arm's length.
"Sophie," he said, "if I have kept away—you know the reason. Your husband is absent on a mission in our interests—to save us—and I have eaten at his table and he has treated me as his friend. Need I say anything more?"
"And why," she asked, "should my husband receive all your consideration, and I?none?"
"There was no middle course," he answered.
Her eyes leaped to his.
"For the woman I thought you were—yes," he cried. "For the woman you are—no."
She shuddered, and even at that moment there came a great knocking at the front door and a tramping of feet outside. She called aloud, and stopped those who would have answered the summons. Prince Maurice watched her with a heavy heart, for her terror was the terror of a guilty woman.
"Ask what they want, Francis," she cried to a servant outside. "Tell them that it is too late for me, an unprotected woman in a beleaguered city, to open my doors." Even whilst she spoke the shouts from the street told her what she dreaded most to hear. Others besides Prince Maurice had found her out.
She fell upon her-knees and clutched him frantically.
"You will not let them kill me? You will not desert me?" ?
"I will do what I can for,you," he said coldly. "Listen. Is there any place from which I can speak to these people without opening the doors?"
"There is a balcony on the next floor," she gasped. "They will obey you, Maurice, Tell them to go away."
She caught hold of his arm and hurried him upstairs. It was her bedroom from which the balcony projected. Below, the street and courtyard were full of a yelling mob—beyond, pandemonium reigned. Prince Maurice lifted his voice, but not a soul below heeded. They swarmed around the door like madmen. They were drunk, with their lust for vengeance. He stepped back again into the room at last, breathless and heart-broken.
"They will take no heed of me," he said. "We must try and keep them out."
She crouched closer to him. She had been dear to him, but Crersa and his people were dearer.
"Save me," she murmured. "You won't leave me? Promise."
And he remembered that she was a woman, and promised, A storm of bullets beat against the shuttered windows. Splinters of wood flew into the room. He saw that they must gain an entrance before long, and he drew his sword, still wet with the blood of Menid Bey.
"You will not desert me?"
"Will you kiss me—once?"
She raised her pallid lips. He touched them with his, coldly. They made their way into the hall. He stood waiting with a revolver in his left hand and a sword in his right. He had thrown off his cloak, that the people might recognize at once his uniform. So they waited.
Then there came the crash of falling timber, a yell of triumph, and the huge door fell inwards with half a dozen of the foremost sprawling upon it. Others trooped over them, but when they saw their Prince standing there with drawn sword and flashing eyes they hesitated and looked behind. Through their parted ranks came Hohenloff and Romakoff, with a small guard of Palace soldiers. When they saw Prince Maurice too, came to an amazed stop. But Hohenloff stepped forward.
"You, too, sire," he cried. "You have discovered the traitress. Let us away with her to the rampart Arrest her, sergeant." But the Prince held out his hand.
"You are too hasty, Hohenloff," he said. "The Countess is a subject of the country whose friendship we seek. She has demanded my protection, and I have granted it."
But Hohenloff's face grew black as night.
"My Prince," he said, "we have proofs of her guilt sufficient to justify us in hanging her a hundred times over. At any moment we may expect the Turks upon us. We have sworn to have her life first, and have it we will."
The sword of Prince Maurice touched the throat of the man who had sprung forward.
"The blood on my sword," he said, "is the blood of Menid Bey, the Turkish general, whom I have slain Without him they will make no movement. We are safe for tonight, ay and tomorrow. I make myself responsible for the keeping of this woman."
But a roar of discontent and angry mutterings arose from the throng, and Hohenloff grew pale with rage. The soldiers hesitated. From the throng of half-starved men came running two, who sprang upon the Countess. But the woman's shriek of terror was mingled with their death-cry, and once more Prince Maurice's sword dripped with blood. With a cry of rage the rabble closed in. Then, indeed, it seemed as though the end had come. There were hundreds of them armed and athirst for blood. Prince Maurice lowered his sword and held up his hand.
"You want a victim," he cried. "Very well, take the one who deserves death. This woman is innocent, I am the traitor."
There were cries of amazement, of disbelief. Prince Maurice waved them aside.
"It is I who would have bought your safety and my own," he cried. "I meant to give the city over to Turks on favorable terms, for no hope remains of saving it. The Countess was my tool, nothing else. Now you have foiled me. I have broken my word, and there will be no quarter. Do what you will with me, my people, but remember that the Countess is innocent."
Romakoff turned towards them.
"Men of Crersa," lie cried, "we have been betrayed— and by him in whom we trusted most. Let us not soil our hands with his blood. Send them forth to the Turks. Let them live and suffer the eternal torment of a dishonored life. Close the gates of the city upon them and go then to the ramparts. For every Turk that enters Crersa another shall see hell."
So in the twilight of a windy dawn the people of Crersa drove out their Prince, and with him the woman whose life he had saved at such a bitter cost.
A Turkish sentry found them and dragged them into the camp. It was the old father of Menid Bey to whom Prince Maurice, without faltering, told his story, and when he had finished there was silence. The old man rose up, dry-eyed but terrible in his anger.
"The Countess of Merguillon," he said. "Is an honored guest, and we will find means to send her before long to her country. To you, Prince of Herania," he continued, "shall be dealt out such punishment as befits the murderer of my son. Today is a feast day with you Christian dogs—the feast of Christmas. You shall spend it fittingly, I promise you. Away with him, guards."
When morning broke they who stood on the wall the city beheld a strange sight. Not a mile away, between the camp of the enemy and the city, on a slight hillock, a rude cross of pinewood had been built, and upon the cross was stretched the figure of a man bound with cords. The man who was bound there, the victim of a slow and horrible death, was their Prince Maurice of Herania, their Prince whom they had driven forth as a traitor. Would the Turks treat thus a friend? The people of the city grew restless; and many dark faces were turned upon Romakoff. They gathered together at the southern gate, before his house, and there someone found a fainting woman, her delicate hands clasping the iron bars, her clothes sodden, her feet bloodstained. And until she opened her eyes and spoke no one recognized the beautiful Countess of Merguillon.
"Men or Crersa," she cried, "it is your Prince whom they have bound there. He is no traitor. It is I alone who am guilty.
"I made him swear upon his honor to save me, so he took the blame of what he knew nothing of. It is the father of Menid Bey who has planned horrible thing. Listen: Are you men to let your Prince suffer a frightful death and never strike a blow?"
Then came hoarse cries from amongst them.
"What can we do? Their guns sweep the plain."
"Listen," she cried, "and I will tell you why the Turks are so desperate. Their ammunition is spent. Their guns are as useless as old iron. Men of Crersa, strike one great blow for your freedom and for your Prince. I know a side of the Turkish camp where never a scout is posted, and where you can fall upon them without the slightest warning. You will cut them to pieces like sheep. Be men, and live to remember this night as the greatest in your history."
There was a roar of acclamation. They gave her food and wine, and under cover of the darkness the men of Crersa—ay, and many of their women, too—stole out by a roundabout way to the Turkish camp. The story of that night is history—only before daylight a few scattered handfuls of Turks were flying across the mountains, leaving behind them a slaughtered host. When they looked for the woman who had led them out, they found her with a cold, motionless figure wrapped in her arms, lying underneath the cross, striving to keep him alive by the warmth of her body.
Two years later all Paris was crowding to the reception of the Madame La Comtesse, the first since her husband's death. Many guests had passed through her rooms and left. The evening grew late, and the last guest had taken his leave. The Comtesse was alone, when her major-domo, recalled to his duties, threw open once more the door of her apartment.
"His Royal Highness, Prince Maurice of Herania."
A little cry broke from her lips?or was it a sob? He took her outstretched hands and looked down into her startled face.
"Are you surprised?" he asked.
"Very," she answered.
"Crersa is herself again. My ministers tell me that we need only one thing now—a princess. That is why I have come to Paris."
The color flooded her cheeks and left them again almost immediately. She remained silent.
"There is only one. woman, Sophie, whom my people would welcome, and there is only one woman whom their Prince could marry. So I have come to you. You will not send me away?"
She looked up at him, radiant with happiness. Yet for a moment she hesitated.
"You are sure, Maurice, that your people—"
"They have canonized you," he answered, laughing. "They remember only that you are the woman who saved Crersa."
"And you—is that how you also remember me?"
He took her hands into his.
"I remember also," he said, "that you are the woman who saved my life, and the woman whom I have always loved."
FROM Paris to Boulogne the man had seemed inspired with a perfect demon of restlessness. He had secured a comfortable corner seat facing the engine, for he had reached the Gare du Nord at least an hour before the train was due to leave, but instead of occupying it he seemed to spend most of his time wandering aimlessly up and down the corridor—a gaunt, disquieting figure. Fever had set its brand upon his features; something more than fever seemed occasionally to flash from his unnaturally brilliant eyes. A couple of women, travelling alone, shivered as he passed.
"I shouldn't like to be alone in the carriage with that man," one of them remarked.
"He looks ill," the other murmured, sympathetically. "I should think he was an Army officer who has had a touch of sunstroke."
He was almost the first to leave the train and make his way along the gangway on to the steamer, hurrying as though there were not a second to be lost. During the short voyage across the Channel he walked with nervous, ceaseless footsteps backwards and forwards upon the upper deck. The cool night wind seemed to bring him no relief. If indeed he had been abroad for many years, as seemed possible from his luggage, the familiar sights which he was now reaching appeared to afford him but little pleasure. The level line of lights along the Folkestone esplanade moved him to no emotion save a renewed impatience. Arrived in the harbour he was once more almost the first to cross the gangway, almost the first to take his place in the train. There he sat in a corner seat, his arms folded, staring grimly out of the window, till a man who had passed along the platform twice and looked at him curiously on each occasion entered the carriage and touched him on the shoulder.
"Why, Bulwer, old man!" the new-comer exclaimed. "Glad to see you home again. I saw in the Gazette that you were on your way. How goes it?"
Major John Bulwer, for that was indeed the name of the uneasy man, looked into the questioner's face for a moment without recognition. Then he slowly extended a hand.
"It's Murray, isn't it, of the Carbineers?" he said. "How are you?"
"Jolly fit, thanks," the other answered. "I'll travel up with you, if you don't mind. You look as though you wanted a holiday, by Jove!" he added, as he settled himself down.
"I have had a touch of sunstroke," Bulwer admitted, slowly; "rather a bad touch, in its way. My head has been a little queer ever since."
He closed his eyes presently and showed no further disposition to talk. His companion made a few spasmodic efforts at conversation, but met with no encouragement. At Charing Cross they stood together for a moment upon the platform.
"Come round to the club and have one drink," Murray suggested, "before you go to your rooms. I suppose you've nothing here for the Customs?"
Bulwer shook his head.
"My heavy baggage I left on the boat," he said. "Yes, I'll come for a few minutes."
They drove off together. Bulwer drank a couple of whiskies and sodas in the smoking-room of the club whilst he was gloomily receiving the salutations and welcome of some of his old friends. Now that he had actually arrived at his destination, some part of the nervous impatience of the last few hours seemed to have disappeared. His manner, however, was still sufficiently curious to attract remark. Men whispered to one another as they strolled away to join some other group.
"I tell you what: he wants looking after, that fellow," one remarked. "He's got a touch of India. By the by, Carstairs—"
His companion—a tall, fair man—shrugged his shoulders.
"I think I can guess what was in your mind," he said. "You are quite right. Bulwer was engaged to Helen Tremlett. I am not sure whether he knows."
"I'd leave him alone for a bit, anyway, if I were you," his friend remarked.
"Nonsense," Carstairs answered. "I must go and speak to him."
He crossed the room and held out his hand to Bulwer, who took it after just a second's hesitation.
"Welcome back, Bulwer!" he said.
"Thank you," the other man answered.
At close quarters the change in Bulwer, to one who had known him well, was almost tragic. Carstairs' voice, despite himself, took a sympathetic note. "I am afraid you are not very fit, are you?" he remarked.
"I am all right," Bulwer answered. "A little tired, perhaps—nothing more."
They were standing together in the farther corner of the smoking-room—Carstairs, Bulwer, and Murray, and one or two others. Carstairs drew a cigarette-case from his pocket. It was attached to a chain with several other trifles. Among them was a curiously-shaped Yale key, washed in gold.
"Have a cigarette?" he asked Bulwer.
Bulwer made no answer—his eyes were fixed upon the key. The other men looked at one another gravely. Bulwer had seemed queer from the moment of his appearance in the club, but there was something in his face now which spoke of tragedy. They all knew that trouble was ahead, close at hand. Yet the calmness of Bulwer's voice, when he spoke, surprised them.
"Where did you get that key?" he asked.
Carstairs looked at his questioner at first with blank surprise. Then he understood, and cursed himself for a fool; it was not a thing to have shown Bulwer, this.
"The key is mine," he answered, coldly.
"You are a liar," Bulwer told him.
There was a moment's ugly silence; then Murray passed his arm through Bulwer's.
"Look here," he said, "we can't have a row here. You are a bit excited, old man, and not quite up to the mark. Come along with me and I'll see you to your rooms. You can talk to Carstairs in the morning, if you want to."
Bulwer seemed suddenly calmer.
"I do not wish to make a row here, but I have this much to say, and to say now, to Captain Carstairs," he declared, lowering his voice so that no one outside the little group should hear. "He has stated that that key is his, and I repeat that he lies."
Carstairs shrugged his shoulders.
"It would be absurd of me to take offence, Bulwer," he said, calmly, "because you do not know what you are talking about. You have been away from England for some years, and there have been changes. This is the key to a flat which belongs to me, and which I shall use when and as often as I choose. If you will accept a word of advice from me, Bulwer—and I give it to you earnestly and in all friendship—I would beg you to go to your rooms at once and read your letters."
Bulwer preserved his almost unnatural calm.
"I thank you for your advice," he said. "Let me, in return, give you one word of warning. If you make use of that key to-night, or any other night whilst I am in London, it will cost you your life. That is all."
Then those few who were friends of both began to understand things. They remembered that Bulwer, when he had left England, had made over the lease of his flat to Helen Tremlett and her brother. Murray even remembered the day when Bulwer had left the key of his flat at a jeweller's to have it washed in gold before he handed it over to its new tenant. An uncomfortable silence followed. Carstairs' lips were sealed by a promise; the others knew that it was not for them to speak. Then Bulwer went quietly away.
It was a few minutes past midnight when the silence of the darkened and deserted little sitting-room of flat No. 10 of Ellesden Mansions, Mayfair, was suddenly broken by the tinkle of the telephone. The woman who had been asleep in the next room awoke suddenly, sat up in bed, and listened. It was her telephone, without a doubt. She slipped on a dressing-gown and, opening the door which communicated between the two rooms, groped her way to the instrument without waiting to turn on the electric lights. She took the receiver and placed it to her ear.
"Well? Well? Who is it?" she asked, a little impatiently. "Oh, it's you, Maggie, is it?" she went on, in an altered tone. "Why, how are you, dear, and whatever do you want at this time of night?...What do you say?...What?...John Bulwer home?...Yes, I knew he was coming, but I didn't think he was due yet—not till next week...Why, Maggie, I don't understand why you should ask me a question like that over the telephone at this hour of the night!...Well, yes, if you insist upon knowing, there was something between us when he went out to India, but it's all over now, of course...I am sure I don't know whether he guesses or not. I should think he ought to have done from the tone of my last few letters. Anyhow, he will find a letter from me at his rooms when he gets there. Tell me why...What did you say?...Oh, wait a moment please."
The woman stood away from the telephone, her hand pressed to her heart. Her face went whiter than ever. It had come so suddenly—this message through the night. Once again she gripped the receiver in her hand.
"Tell me about it, Maggie. You say that he saw Captain Carstairs at the club. Did they quarrel?...What's that, dear? I can't hear. I think I am nervous. Please speak distinctly...There was something about a key, you said...What an idiot Ronald was to let him see it! He used to live here, you know. He would recognize it, of course...Do you mean that he is mad?...Oh, I am sorry! I knew he'd have a sunstroke; I didn't think it was so bad as that...Oh, I am not afraid of his coming here! He wouldn't think of that, I am sure. My letter was quite clear. And it hasn't been altogether my fault, either. Some of the things he wrote me a month or so ago were simply abominable...No, I think it's sweet of you, dear, and your husband to think of warning me. You are the only people who know the truth about Captain Carstairs and myself... Nervous? Not I!...Good night, Maggie! Good night, dear!...Yes; I'll ring you up in the morning...Good-bye!"
The woman put the receiver down. Notwithstanding her assurance that she was not nervous, she found herself trembling all over. Slowly she made her way to the other end of the room and turned on the electric switch. Then for a moment she stood as though turned to stone, petrified with the horror of what she saw. Within a few feet of her, sitting in a high-backed chair facing the door, his arms folded, his traveling clothes unchanged, with a small revolver upon his knees, sat the man whom three years ago she had been engaged to marry.
"John!" she cried at last. "John! Why, how did you get here? Who let you in?"
"I did not need to be let in," he answered, slowly. "I have the second key. I have kept it as a memento."
"B—but what do you want?" she exclaimed.
He did not reply, although he was looking steadfastly at her. Then she, too, saw that thing in his eyes which had made other people afraid.
"You mustn't stay here," she faltered. "You frighten me."
She crept away toward the telephone. Then he spoke.
"Leave that thing alone," he said, "you can go back into your room, if you like."
"But what are you doing here?" she asked, still white to the lips. "What are you waiting for?"
"To shoot Carstairs," he answered, "if he comes in through that door."
She threw up her arms; the place was going round with her.
"John, are you mad?" she cried.
"I am not sure," he answered. "Perhaps I am. That doesn't matter, does it?"
"Have you been to your rooms?" she asked.
"No," he replied. "I reached Charing Cross at ten forty-five. I called at the club and came straight on here."
She was at heart a brave woman, and the situation began to get clearer to her. She struggled to speak calmly, yet all the time every nerve in her body was strained to an effort of listening.
"John," she said, "did you hear what I was saying on the telephone?"
"Some of it," he answered.
"Madge Murray rang me up. Her husband was at the club. She was telling me about it. You saw—Captain Carstairs."
"Did you quarrel with him?"
"I saw something which belonged to me upon his watch-chain, and I asked him what he was doing with my property," Bulwer replied, grimly. "Come here and kiss me, Helen."
She shrank away.
"I can't, John. That's all over."
The man's lips parted, but there was no smile upon his face.
"I have lost my beauty, haven't I?" he muttered. "You haven't, Helen. You're just the same."
Once more she began to tremble.
"John," she said, "I am sorry. I wish you'd been to your rooms before you went to the club. You would have understood then; you would have found a letter from me."
"A letter," he repeated, "from you! Was it to break off our engagement, Helen?"
She came over again to his side.
"Yes, John," she said. "I am sorry, but it had to be. Your letters lately have been so strange and queer, and I am afraid that I have changed myself. It was a foolish engagement. Don't be too hard upon me, John. Don't think me too fickle. I told you at the time I wasn't sure that I cared, I wasn't sure that I could wait. Soon after you left I met someone else, and then I knew that I hadn't really cared for anyone before in all my life."
"Carstairs is the man, of course?" he asked, hoarsely.
"Yes," she admitted.
"Carstairs!" he muttered. "I whipped him at school. I wish I'd killed him then."
She laid her hand gently upon his shoulder.
"John," she pleaded, "please don't talk like that. Why do you sit there and look so terrible with that—that thing upon your knees? You are not really thinking of shooting anyone, are you? Let me take it away."
His fingers gripped it—a passing sound on the stairs had attracted his attention. He pushed her on one side. The footsteps died away, but she found herself trembling. She came a little nearer still. The fear for her own safety was passing away; the courage of a woman, strong to defend the thing she loves, was stealing into her blood.
"John," she said, softly, "Ronald Carstairs is the man I am really fond of—the man I love better than anything else on earth. There is a story to be told about this. You don't understand."
"I understand this, at any rate," he muttered. "I have challenged him to use that key to-night. If he does, I shall shoot him."
"John, you mustn't talk like this," she pleaded. "Ronald Carstairs is my husband—he is everything in the world to me."
The man heard her with unmoved face.
"If he is your husband," he said, "he's stolen what belongs to me, and you are a false woman. I have been thinking about this all the way, all the time. I have made up my mind. That is why I am here—I am going to shoot him."
She was suddenly rigid, her finger held out, her whole attitude one of concentrated listening. They both heard the tinkle of the hansom bell stopping below, the slamming of the apron, a man's cheery "Good night" to the driver. Bulwer's eyes gleamed, his right hand gripped the revolver, his left hand kept away the woman who tried to fling herself upon him.
"John," she cried, "you won't think of this! Why, it would be murder. Let him come in and help me tell you all about it. It wasn't his fault. He didn't even know that I had been engaged to you until the last few days. John, I love him so much. Put that thing away, for Heaven's sake!"
She ran half-way to the door, screaming, but the man only laughed.
"The more you do that, the quicker he'll come," he muttered.
They heard his step now outside. One last inspiration came to her aid. She sprang across the room and turned out the electric lights. Once more the room was in darkness; then the door was opened.
"Ronald, John Bulwer is here—just opposite. Throw you cigarette down quick. Go away and leave us, please. He swears he is going to shoot you. He won't hurt me; I'm not afraid. Please go."
The little red spot of light went down at her first words. The shot rang out, and there was the crash of a fallen picture. Carstairs, unhurt, stole slowly on tiptoe across the room. They heard Bulwer rise and grope his way toward the wall.
"Turn on the lights," he shouted, "and let me see you. Where are you, Ronald Carstairs? Stand up, like a man!"
Then once more there was a crash of breaking glass. The woman, failing to unfasten the window at her first effort, had thrown a great vase through it and was blowing a whistle furiously. There were two more shots and the sound of a man's groans. An eternity of silence followed; the woman was groping her way about, moaning with fear. Then suddenly the room was once more flooded with light. It was Carstairs who stood with his finger upon the switch and a small revolver gripped in his right hand. Bulwer was lying upon the floor, his limbs twitching convulsively, his revolver smoking by his side. The girl looked from one to the other wildly.
"Ronald," she cried, "you are safe—you are really safe?"
Carstairs was pale as death; it was he now who was afraid.
"I am safe enough," he answered, "but I've shot the fellow. I never thought that he was in earnest at the club. I thought he was mad. I wish to Heaven I hadn't brought this cursed thing!"
He threw it down with a gesture of disgust. They could hear footsteps now upon the stairs. She stooped down and hid the revolver behind the curtains. "Helen!" he cried.
She held out both her hands; her lips framed an injunction to silence. The door was opened. A policeman, followed by an inspector, entered. Behind was a cab-driver and several other street loiterers. The policeman turned the key in the door, shutting them all out.
"What's wrong here?" the inspector asked, quickly. "What's happened to that man?"
Bulwer raised himself a little and looked at them.
"I am shot," he muttered. "I am dying."
The policeman hurried to his side, the inspector took out his note-book from his pocket.
"Will you ring up for a doctor, madam, if you have a telephone?" he asked. "No one must leave the room."
They looked suspiciously at Carstairs. Bulwer, gasping a little for breath, seemed suddenly changed. His eyes once more were human, his expression ghastly but natural. He was like a man from whose blood a fever has passed.
"I am sorry," he faltered. "Mrs. Carstairs!"
She flung down the receiver of the telephone and hurried to his side.
"I am sorry," he repeated. "I meant to shoot myself to-day. The doctor of the regiment—he knew. They will all tell you—I had only a month or so—to live. I thought I'd get back home and stick it out—if I could. But it was too much for me to land here and know I had to die—so soon. But I didn't mean to do it here. I am sorry to give everyone—so much trouble."
Her arm was around his head, her hand was smoothing his. The inspector bent down.
"Are we to understand that you shot yourself, sir?" he asked.
"What else?" Bulwer murmured. "Of course—I shot myself."
He fell back. They brought brandy and forced it between his lips. The doctor arrived within a few minutes, but it was too late. The inspector, as he bade them a respectful "Good night," was inclined to be sympathetic.
"It's just as well, madam," he remarked, "if you'll allow me to say so, that the poor fellow lived long enough to tell the truth. This sort of thing always leaves an awkward feeling behind unless it is cleared up properly at the time."
Then they were left alone in the little room. They heard the heavy tramp of footsteps descending the stairs, the tramp of the men who carried the ambulance with its terrible burden. They heard the footsteps grow fainter and fainter. The man's restless journey was over.
HE stood upon the edge of the lawn at Ascot, looking towards the band, apparently listening to the music, in reality seeing nothing, hearing nothing, realizing only the slow torture of a live and sickly fear. To the casual observer the Honourable Ralph Fausitt looked all that a fashionable young man of good breeding, education, and parentage should look. His clothes were selected with unerring taste, and he wore them with that air of distinction which was presumably an inheritance from a long line of aristocratic forbears, coupled with a devotion to athletics which until lately had been paramount in his life. He was sufficiently well-off; he had already received at least half-a-dozen invitations to luncheon; he had never in his life made a bet which he could not afford to lose; the paddock was full of his friends, and the prettiest girl there, to whom—at any rate, up to a month ago—he had been devoted, was even at that moment sitting anxiously in her box awaiting a visit from him. Yet all these things counted for nothing, and less than nothing. In his eyes was the nameless terror of a man who has never felt a twinge of cowardice, who feels fear now for the first time. The flower-decked lawn was a barren waste.
Life had become, during the last twenty-four hours, an ugly phantasm, a scarlet terror. Before his eyes seemed to float the memory of a tiny room, a luxurious, over-furnished, bijou chamber in a toy palace, and there upon the soft green carpet, with a broken ornament by his side, always the central figure, a dead man, the body of a man lying there white and still, a man killed by his hand. Already outside the gates newspaper boys were probably calling out the "Horrible murder in the flat of a celebrated actress!" He fancied that even where he stood he could hear their voices, the raucous relish of their cry. He was a murderer! It was for him that Scotland Yard in a few hours would be sending out far and wide their greyhounds of the chase, against him the whole wonderful machinery of their elaborate system would be set at work. How could he hope to escape? What chance was there for one so ignorant, so young in crime? Already he was giving himself away every minute. The most harmless of policemen sent a shiver of fear through him. What chance was there when the hunt should begin in earnest? None—absolutely none!
A hand fell upon his shoulder. The voice was the voice of a friend, yet he started as though he had been shot.
"Why, Ralph, old chap, you look as though you'd been backing the wrong 'tins, and no mistake," the new-comer remarked, carelessly. "What's up with you? Why haven't you been up to luncheon?"
Fausitt turned slowly round. He was still shaking, and his friend's casual interest was quickly changed into something like amazement.
"Why, what in thunder's the matter with you, man?" he exclaimed, dropping his voice a little. "You look as though you were seeing ghosts."
"I've a headache," Fausitt stammered; "the sun, I suppose—and you startled me."
His friend—Captain Guy Darnell, of the Argylls—whistled softly under his breath. He was a young man of resource, and he came to a rapid decision. "What you want is a drink," he declared, "and I should say that you wanted it quick. Come along."
Fausitt suffered himself to be led away. Yes, he needed a drink—anything to drown the torture of those grisly memories!
"Netta's been asking for you," Darnell remarked, as they strolled along the gravel path. "She said that you promised to take her into the paddock."
Fausitt almost groaned. He could see Netta sitting in a corner of the box, waiting, a trifle wistful, too proud to complain, but still feeling his neglect. Dear little Netta! He began to wonder drearily if there had ever been a moment in his life when he had not been in love with her. If only he could wipe out his last month of small follies—above all, these last few hours of supreme, consummate idiocy! He had held everything in his hands; he had thrown life itself away to gratify a moment's impulse.
"I am going up presently," he muttered, feverishly. "I hadn't forgotten. There was a man I wanted to speak to."
Darnell said no more for the moment, although his eyebrows rose a little curiously when he saw Fausitt dispose of his tumbler of brandy and soda-water at a single gulp. They made their way outside again. Darnell passed his arm through his friend's.
"Look here, old chap," he said, "I am going to talk like an ass. Just listen to me, though, there's a good fellow."
Fausitt nodded indifferently. They had just passed a policeman, and he was shivering all over.
"It's about Netta," her brother continued, pausing to light a cigarette. "Now, we've always been pals, of course, Ralph," he continued, taking his companion's arm again, "and I've always been jolly glad to have you round so much, and so thick with Netta. She's a nice little thing—although she's my sister—and I've something to say about her. Don't think I'm a prig, old chap, but here goes. You'll have to chuck going about with a so much advertised young lady as Mlle. Lafère if you're going to keep on making the running with Netta."
Fausitt nodded in a spiritless fashion.
"Is that all, Guy?" he asked.
"Not quite," Darnell replied. "You know, Ralph, I'm not setting up for being a saint, or anything of that sort, but dash it all, I think that class of people need keeping in their places. I was jolly glad to find you alone just now, and if you think of coming up to see Netta, as I hope you do, why, then, just give Mlle. Nina the go-by to-day."
"What the mischief do you mean?" Fausitt exclaimed.
"Sorry I didn't make myself clear, old fellow," Darnell answered. "I'll have another shot at it. If you're going to be seen about this place with Mlle. Nina Lafère, I'd rather you didn't come up to see Netta—that's all."
Fausitt laughed. It wasn't at all a pleasant-sounding laugh; there was nothing which even suggested mirth about it.
"You needn't have bothered about that, Guy," he replied; "Mlle. Nina won't be here to-day."
Darnell shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, I'm glad to find that you didn't bring her, old chap," he answered; "but as for her not being here—well, I've just passed her in the paddock, not ten minutes ago."
Fausitt was almost past any further display of emotion. Nevertheless, he sat down abruptly upon an empty seat. His cheeks were livid, his eyes were hot and burning. Mlle. Nina here! The thing was terrible.
"You don't mean it, Guy?" he muttered. "You don't mean to tell me that she is here?"
"She's here, right enough," Darnell assured him. "She favoured me with a most gracious bow. I ran into Somerville and her talking together just outside the subway."
There was a short silence. Darnell was watching his friend more curiously than ever. By degrees he had come to understand that this was no ordinary fit of nerves, no ordinary indisposition with which Fausitt was afflicted. The music rose and fell, the breeze rustled pleasantly in the trees, there was a murmur of cheerful voices, and much laughter around them. But tragedy sat by his side upon that seat, and Darnell recognized it. He, too, had grown a little paler. The June sunshine had lost its warmth for both of them.
"What's wrong, Ralph, old man?" he demanded, laying his hand upon the other's shoulder. "There's no one within hearing, and you can trust me—you know that. Out with it."
"I must tell someone," Fausitt answered, thickly, "or go mad. Here goes."
He took off his immaculate silk hat. His forehead was wet with perspiration, yet as he sat there he shivered—shivered though the blazing sun fell upon his uncovered head. When he began to speak the words seemed to tumble from his mouth.
"I have killed a man, Guy—shot him through the heart—last night! He is dead; I murdered him!"
Darnell drew a little away. Incredulity and horror struggled together in his face.
"You are not serious, Ralph?" he gasped.
"Shot him through the heart," Fausitt repeated with dull reiteration. "I saw him fall, saw the blood come through his coat. Guy, don't ever kill a man if you can help it—it's ghastly!"
They stared at one another, speechless for countless seconds, Darnell almost as livid now as his friend. At first he refused to credit his senses; then he saw the horror alive in the other's face, distorting, paralyzing, and he believed.
"Where was it?" he faltered.
"In Mlle. Lafère's rooms," Ralph answered.
"Does anyone know?"
"She does. I suppose others do by now," Fausitt muttered. "She let me out after it was over."
"And the—the man?" Darnell asked.
"I left him lying upon the floor."
"Was there a quarrel?"
"You know, I've been rather a fool about Mille. Nina," he said, slowly. "I didn't care a jot about her, but she was amusing to take round, and the fellows all envied me, and that sort of thing. There's something else I'd like to tell you, Guy, while we are about it, and it seemed to make her more attractive in a way. She was straight—upon my word she was."
"Go on," Darnell insisted. "If you say so, that's good enough for me. Tell me how it happened."
"Last night I fetched her from the theatre," Fausitt continued, "and we had supper together. Afterwards I took her home. In her rooms there was a man waiting—a Portuguese. Directly we entered the row began. You know, I can't understand their beastly language, but I could guess that he was jealous, and that it was about me. He went on talking till I didn't know where I was. At last he snapped his fingers in my face. She tried to get between us, and he pushed her away. Then I lost my temper and punched his head. He was coming for me like a madman—a great bull of a fellow, over six feet high, and as strong as a giant. You know I am only just about again after influenza. Nina knew it too, and she pushed a little revolver into my hand and screamed at the man like a Paris gutter-child. He struck her across the cheek brutally. He was going to do it again—then I fired."
"You hit him?" Darnell whispered, hoarsely.
"Just over the heart," Fausitt groaned. "He simply collapsed upon the floor. I saw—the blood. Nina pushed me out of the room. She locked the door and sent me off."
"You think there is no chance? You are sure that he is dead?" Darnell asked.
Fausitt shook his head with a gesture of despair.
"I shot at him deliberately," he answered. "I was only a few feet away."
A race was just over, and the people were beginning to stream back again down the walks and on to the lawn. The band were remounting to their places. Darnell rose unwillingly to his feet.
"Ralph, old chap," he declared, "I must go and look the people up for a few minutes. I'll come back afterwards and sit with you, unless you'd rather be alone."
"It's very good of you, Guy," Fausitt replied, drearily. "I think, if you don't mind—I won't if you'd rather not—I'd like to come and say good-bye to Netta."
Darnell hesitated, but only for a moment.
"Come along in a few minutes," he said. "I had better get there first and just prepare them for your looking a bit queer."
He patted his friend affectionately on the shoulder and strode off, swinging his field-glasses in his hand, trying to realize this thing, and failing utterly. Fausitt remained upon the seat, starting with glazed eyes at the apparition which confronted him. Darnell had spoken the truth, then. Not a dozen yards away Mlle. Nina herself was sitting at a small table, talking to a man whom he himself had introduced to her not many evenings ago. She was a little paler than usual, perhaps, but otherwise there was nothing remarkable about her appearance. More than once he heard her laugh—the sound maddened him. There was a hollow ring about her mirth, perhaps, but to him it seemed ghastly. He rose to his feet and made his way unsteadily toward the table. Nina looked at him strangely. Her black eyes seemed larger than ever, her cheeks more pallid. She showed no signs of surprise. Probably, he reflected, someone had told her that he was there. The man by her side greeted him casually. Some foolish questions and answers passed between them. Then mademoiselle's escort, who was a man of the world, rose to his feet and bowed.
"Mademoiselle will excuse me," he said, smiling. "We shall meet again, I trust."
He passed away, leaving them alone. Fausitt took his place almost mechanically. Mlle. Nina leaned towards him.
"Why is it that you look at me like that?" she murmured.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded. "How could you come?"
"Or you, then?" she replied. "What about you? It is the same thing, is it not?"
"Does anyone know yet?" he faltered.
She shrugged her shoulders, opened her lips, and closed them again. She seemed to be in two minds as to how to answer his question.
"No," she said at last; "as yet I do not believe that anyone knows."
Her face had lost a little of its brilliant hardness; she was looking at him now more kindly; her eyes were soft, as though the tears were not far away.
"My God!" he muttered, half to himself. "What made me do it? What made you give me that accursed thing, Nina? You could have called for help—anything sooner than that!"
She was looking down toward the point of her parasol.
"Monsieur Ralph," she begged, "please to go now. There is someone here with whom I wish to speak. In ten minutes you will return. You promise? It will perhaps be for the last time."
"For the last time!" Fausitt muttered, as he plunged into the crowd.
He had meant to go at once to the Darnells' box, yet whenever he turned that way his courage failed him. To see Netta for the last time, to say good-bye to her before all these people—the agony of it was inconceivable. Perhaps after the races were over he might meet them coming out, might draw her aside for a single moment in the crush. Anything was better than a formal entry into the box, Lady Darnell's polite inquiries as to his headache, Guy's forced cheerfulness, Netta's serious, remonstrating eyes. She might even be piqued by his neglect, refuse to speak to him. He might have to come away without even a touch of her fingers. For the last time he turned away from the staircase. He would not go up; he came to that decision finally.
For something more than the ten minutes he wandered aimlessly about. Then he remembered his promise to Mlle. Nina, and he turned back toward where he had left her. The lawn was crowded now with people sitting out taking wine and fruit under the trees, and he had forgotten exactly at which table she was. He came upon it quite suddenly. It was, indeed, the sound of her voice which first attracted him. He stood quite still; his feet were rooted to the ground. He was absolutely unable to move another step. Then up went the earth and round the faces of the people, the tents, the pavilion, the whole panorama. Conversation, music, laughter, everything was merged into one dull humming, beating against his ears. For a moment the world was black. And then—he was sitting down at the table. They were both there—mademoiselle and the man, mademoiselle and the man whom he had killed! Mademoiselle was holding a glass of wine to his lips.
"Drink, Monsieur Ralph," she whispered. "Oh, I am sorry!"
He drank—afterwards he knew that it was champagne. Then he set the glass down, but he could not move his eyes from the man's face opposite. There were no such things as ghosts, he told himself. This was the man himself. His pallid skin, his sleepy eyes, his fiercely upturned moustache and unnaturally white teeth; it was the man himself, no other. Mlle. Nina's fingers were gripping his. A few people were looking at them curiously. Could they, too, see the man? he wondered. Was he really a substantial person, a human being, alive like the others?
"Monsieur Ralph," Mlle. Nina continued in his ear, "it is my husband, this. He would speak to you now himself, but you do not understand. Last night we quarrelled together, it is true. He was jealous, and of you. It was absurd. He said cruel things, and I was angry, but there was no wish in my heart to kill. When I pushed the little revolver into your hand I never imagined but that you must recognize it. It is the one I use every night—always—at the music-hall, in my sketch. You remember now? Ah, I can see that you remember! The burglar comes from under the couch, and I shoot. The cartridges are full of that red fluid; there is no bullet They are made for me, these cartridges, in Paris. It was one of these which you used. I put it into your hand that you might frighten Miguel, my husband. We love one another, indeed, very dearly, but if I am alone for one week—oh, he is so jealous!"
She rested her hand upon her husband's. In broken French, and with many expressive gestures, he was doing his best to corroborate her words. Fausitt felt his breath come quickly. Again there was a little uncertainty about the faces, the hurrying waiters, the moving branches of the trees. The man spoke rapidly to mademoiselle in their own language, and she poured out more wine and passed it along the table.
"Please drink this, Monsieur Ralph, and do not be angry with either of us," she begged. "It was cruel of my husband; but he was so jealous, and I promised that I would not tell all at once, because he hoped that you would be frightened, as he was. But it was cruel. Now you understand—it must be that you understand. You have not hurt anyone. My husband, he will shake hands with you for we are all three to be the good friends, is it not so?"
Then Fausitt began to grasp the truth. All of a sudden he realized one of the great dramatic emotions. He came back from the shadows into the full warmth and vigour of splendid life. Again the blood was warm in his veins, the joy of existence a fire in his heart. With every second his understanding of this thing became more intense. He was free; he had killed no one! Mlle. Nina and her husband were two very delightful acquaintances who were passing with smiles and bows from his life—and Netta was waiting for him. He held out his glass, which Nina's husband, with a polite little gesture, filled. They all three drank together.
"Monsieur et madame," Fausitt exclaimed, "I congratulate you upon your reconciliation! I drink to your very good health."
"And Monsieur Ralph forgives?" Mlle. Nina murmured. "It was all so foolish, so cruel."
Fausitt drained his glass and held out his hands.
"I'd forgive anybody anything," he declared.
He was never quite sure of the way he went across the lawn, amongst the chairs, past the band, across the gravel path, and up the wooden staircase. People stared after him and made remarks—he had probably won a great bet; he had heard some wonderful news. There was something, at any rate, quite extraordinary about the joyful haste with which this well-dressed young man pushed his way along, regardless alike of manners and safety. He threw open the door of the box. Opposite was Guy Darnell, pale and worried. Netta's blue eyes, as she half rose from her place, were full of plaintive sympathy. Lady Darnell welcomed him a little coldly, a fact of which he was entirely unconscious.
"I have just been telling them all," Darnell explained, laboriously, "about your head, and that you are obliged to get back home. It seems to me as though you might possibly have another touch of the 'flu' coming."
Fausitt laughed, and his friend stared at him as though he had taken leave of his senses.
"My headache's gone!" he exclaimed. "I never felt better in my life. I have come to make my most humble apologies and to beg Miss Netta, if it isn't too late, to take just one turn in the paddock with me."
She arose at once with alacrity.
"I am not sure that you deserve it," she answered, smiling. "I had nearly given you up. Guy's account was so pathetic, though, that we none of us had anything but sympathy left. According to him you were almost prostrate."
"Worst of your brother, he does exaggerate so," Fausitt remarked, lightly.
Guy, who was feeling a little dazed, followed them out on to the corridor. Fausitt leaned back toward him.
"I was fooled," he whispered. "I shot the fellow with mademoiselle's stage revolver—you know, the beastly thing she uses at the Palace. I have just had a drink with the man and wished Mlle. Nina farewell."
"By Jove, that's splendid!" Darnell exclaimed. "Congratulations, old fellow!"
Fausitt grasped his friend's hand.
"Keep them till I come back, old chap," he replied.
"What were you saying to Guy?" Netta asked him, as they descended the steps.
"He was congratulating me upon something," Fausitt answered, leaning a little towards her. "I told him to wait—until we got back."
She looked up at him and then suddenly away.
"Bother the horses!" he whispered. "Let's go and sit under the trees and listen to the music."
Darnell watched them cross the lawn. Then he whistled softly to himself for several moments, drew a long breath of relief, and, turning back into the box, rang the bell.
"I am sending for some champagne," he explained. "We shall need it when they come back."
THEY were both presumably seeking shelter, only whereas the girl achieved it in a scientific and exceedingly feminine fashion, the man stood half exposed to the driving rain, and with the drops from a chink in the awning falling fast down his neck. There came a time—she was proverbially a soft-hearted little woman—when she could stand it no longer.
"Monsieur will be wet through!" she exclaimed, timidly. "There is plenty of room. Here where I am standing it is quite dry."
He moved his position slightly with some muttered words of thanks, half careless, half sulky. Then he chanced to catch a glimpse of her face by the light of the glittering gas-jet, and he was at once ashamed of his surliness. He raised his hat and did his best to seem grateful.
"Very kind of you to notice," he said. "I will come and stand by you, if I may."
By his side she appeared smaller than ever. He was not only tall, but broad in proportion; good-looking enough in a negative, boyish sort of fashion, though just now the scowl upon his face would have disfigured the countenance of an Adonis. She was quite small, quietly but somewhat shabbily dressed, her cheeks white with the pallid complexion of an unhealthy life, large, soft brown eyes, and a tremulous mouth. The man, as was common with him—his best quality, perhaps—forgot himself. "You seem tired," he remarked.
"Not more than usual," she replied. "I think I am hungry. I was on my way to dinner when the rain came on."
She looked anxiously outside. The young man seemed struck with a sudden idea.
"Do you know," he said, "I believe that's what's the matter with me. Let's go and dine somewhere together."
"Thank you," she answered; "I could not do that."
"Why not?" he urged. "I have just one five-pound note left in the world, and I am longing to spend it. Come with me and we'll get the best dinner Luigi can give us."
She frowned at him a little disapprovingly.
"If you were thinking of spending five pounds upon a dinner," she declared, "I consider that you are very reckless. I should not think," she added, severely, "of going anywhere with anybody who had such ideas."
He looked her over curiously.
"Come, then," he said, "you were going somewhere to dine. Why mayn't I go with you?"
She laughed softly.
"You wouldn't care to," she answered.
"Try me," he begged. "If I am really to take care of my five-pound note, I must go somewhere cheap."
"I generally go to Pierelli's, in Oxford Street," she told him. "One pays eighteen-pence, and there is a glass of wine included."
He hailed a passing taxicab, which drew up before them. Even then she hesitated for a moment.
"I pay for my own dinner," she insisted.
"Just as you like," he answered, laughing at her.
In the restaurant, which was hot and crowded, they were lucky enough to find a retired corner, which a noisy little company of diners were just evacuating. There was no ordering to be done. They just sat still and waited for what was brought to them.
"Macaroni!" he exclaimed. "How good it is, too! I certainly was hungry. Listen, little mortal!"
"I am listening," she assured him.
"I am going to introduce myself," he said. "My name is Clifford Ford. I am twenty-five years old, and I have been a failure at everything I have tried. To tell you the truth, I have been waiting for the last three years for an uncle to die and leave me fifty thousand pounds. He died last month and left me—a hundred pounds."
"And what have you done with the hundred pounds?" his very practical companion demanded.
He leaned back in his seat and roared with laughter. "I have spent it," he declared at last, "all except the five-pound note I told you about. I haven't even been able to pay my bills."
She looked at him for a moment with a little less favour.
"My name," she said, "is Gertrud Huber. I come from Switzerland, as I dare say you could tell from my accent. I am a typist at the Milan Hotel. I earn only thirty-two shillings a week, but I live with a very pleasant family at Denmark Hill, and I take care never to owe anything. I do not think it is right to owe money one cannot pay."
"I don't suppose it is," he admitted, suddenly sobered. "It depends upon one's bringing up, though, doesn't it?"
"Perhaps so," she assented. "My father and my mother were very strict when we were children. I think that it is best so."
The head waiter, in passing, stopped to pay his respects to her. Clifford Ford took the opportunity to watch her for a moment unnoticed. She was very neat, but she wore no ornaments. Her pallor was unnatural. It spoke of bad ventilation, lack of fresh air and exercise. It was a pity. She would have been so pretty.
"You dine here every night, I suppose?" he asked, when the man had passed on.
"Nearly every night," she answered.
She flushed—most becomingly, but she was not pleased.
"I do not think that you should ask me that," she replied.
He apologized humbly. She inclined her head.
"It was foolish of me, perhaps, to mind," she said, slowly. "If it interests you really to know, I have had three invitations to dinner this evening."
"And you did not accept one of them?" he remarked, curiously. "You chose to dine here alone? Why?"
"I will tell you, if you like," she answered, simply. "The invitations came from my clients—the men for whom I do typing in the hotel. I should never dream of accepting favours from any one of them. I have nothing to give in return. I do not care to be under an obligation. I came here with you—but I pay for myself. It is different. You looked lonely and I was lonely. And I thought—I thought," she added, hesitatingly, "that you looked unhappy. I thought, perhaps, that you had lost your situation, or were in trouble of some sort. I do not think that I quite understood."
"Dear Miss Huber," he said, earnestly, "you understood better than you imagined. If I am not quite the sort of person you believed me, it is my misfortune. I was at least lonely enough, and if it had not been for you I should certainly have done very stupid things with myself and my five-pound note."
She frowned at the laughter in his eyes, and regarded his broad shoulders and sun-burnt cheeks a little disparagingly.
"Why do you talk so foolishly?" she exclaimed. "You ought to find some work to do."
"Can't get anything," he answered, promptly.
"You were well educated, I suppose?" she asked.
"Public school and Oxford—only, you see, I was in the eleven and played cricket all the time."
"That was very idle of you," she said, severely.
Clifford Ford, to whom this was a new point of view, looked at her doubtfully.
"I suppose it was idle," he admitted. "No one seemed to think so there, though."
"What are you going to do with yourself, then?" she asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"I have a good many friends and some relations down in the country who are decently well off," he remarked, vaguely. "I suppose I shall have to look some of them up. Perhaps between them they'll be able to find me a job of some sort."
She frowned at him severely.
"You mean that you will have to go to your relations," she said, "and ask favours, or borrow money from them?"
"Can you suggest any alternative?" he asked, feeling suddenly small.
"Certainly," she replied, with a swift look at his shoulders. "I should work."
He was half amused, half bitter. To be lectured by a little Swiss typist in a cheap eating-house was distinctly a new experience for him. Yet there was something in her words which stung.
"Come," he said, "tell me what you think would be a suitable post for me?"
"You are young and strong," she replied. "There are many places you could take."
"You mean work with my hands?"
She seemed surprised.
"'Why not—if you are not clever enough for the other things?"
"Oh, I say!" he exclaimed, flushing up to his temples.
"Is it not what you call false shame," she asked, "to mind what manner of work you do, so long as it is honest and you are paid for it?"
"I suppose it is," he admitted.
"For myself," she continued, "I learned shorthand and typing. That is what I do now. It is not much that I earn, but every week I send five shillings to my mother, who is not well off, and I save something too."
He looked at her and felt his sense of manhood weaken. She was such a small being, her dress, her gloves, her hat, all so very cheap, so very tidy. Even the little white bow at her throat, spotlessly clean, was worn and shrunken. Her boots were thick and ready-made. And withal there was the too great delicacy of her complexion, the hollow cheeks, the tired eyes, the many evidences of an ill-nurtured body. Yet life, and the desire of life, flowed in her veins as in the veins of those others—the whole army of gaily-dressed young women who went blindly through life with their hands open to receive what it might bring; who had their young men, their clothes and cheap jewellery, their theatres, and all the pleasures they could gather in. He suddenly felt very humble.
"You are right," he said. "I have been looking at this matter from a wrong point of view. I would break stones to-morrow if someone would offer me a job." She smiled at him approvingly. It was astonishing how pretty she was.
"Do you really mean that?" she asked.
"I do," he replied.
"You would not mind carrying things about—trunks and luggage?" she persisted. "You look so beautifully strong."
"I shouldn't care a bit," he declared
"Very well, then," she went on, "I am quite friendly with Mr. Dennis, the head porter at the hotel where I am engage, and I will speak to him about you to-morrow morning. I know that he is two men short. He may engage you at once."
Clifford Ford laughed till the tears were in his eyes. Then he saw the perplexed frown gathering upon her forehead, and he stopped abruptly.
"The Milan Hotel," he explained; "that's where my cousin, to whom my uncle left the money instead of me, has taken a suite. Shall I have to wear a uniform, little woman?"
"After you have been there a month, if you suit them, you will have to," she told him. "It is a very nice uniform, and I wish you would not laugh so much. You will get a pound a week and your meals, to start with, and there are the tips."
"The tips," he repeated, wiping the tears from his eyes. "I hope the other tenants are more generous than Ralph, or I am afraid they won't amount to much."
She opened her purse and counted out one and ninepence, which she placed upon the table.
"Please pay the bill," she directed. "Wait one moment, though."
She took it from his fingers, and in fluent French pointed out a mistake of a penny to an apologetic waiter. She watched her companion produce his share of the amount, and frowned severely at the size of the tip which he gave.
"It was too much," she objected, as they passed out into the street. "You should have given him sixpence—no more."
"I am sorry," he answered. "I'm afraid I am a bit careless in those things."
"It is wicked not to think of money," she told him; "wicked to spend or give away more than you can afford. It means that later on in life someone has to help you. Whilst one is young, one should save."
"Don't you ever spend anything on yourself?" he asked.
"Of course I do," she replied. "I bought a pair of gloves last week and a new umbrella. It seemed terribly extravagant," she sighed, "but I had to have an umbrella. Mine was all holes. Would you like to walk home with me, Mr. Ford? You see, it is quite fine now."
Clifford Ford did like. In fact, he felt that at that moment there was nothing else he wanted so much to do. They were creatures of very different worlds, and yet he thoroughly enjoyed that walk and their conversation. She described, with many little bursts of enthusiasm, her home, the village under the mountains, their simple customs, the intimate social and family life of the people, their many innocent gaieties, of which she spoke wistfully, with kindling eyes. Her father was dead, and her mother was hard put to it to bring up a second family. Gertrud had been her only child until she had married again—now it was she who helped in the struggle. Seven children to feed and educate! The little figure who walked by his side was eloquent about their needs and tastes. It was for their sake that she toiled in this ugly London—ill-fed, ill-clothed, and without the simplest of pleasures. And she told it all unconsciously. When they parted before a dreary house in an ugly back street, Clifford Ford shook hands with her, and his bared head meant something more than ordinary courtesy. He felt as he had never done before to any human being toward this strange little mortal, whose cheeks were a trifle flushed now with the walk, and whose eyes were bright with interest.
"To-morrow, then, at twelve o'clock," she told him. "If you can get a character of any sort you had better bring it."
"I will do the best I can," he answered, clasping her fingers; "and I sha'n't forget."
He watched her pass into that gloomy abode, whose rest seemed to be the only thing she had to hope for in life, and walked slowly back. For the first time for years he found himself thinking seriously. He had looked for a minute or two into another person's life!
Clifford Ford had been porter at the Milan Hotel for more than three weeks before he saw his cousin. Then they met face to face in a narrow corridor, and Clifford dropped a heavy trunk within a few inches of his cousin's toes. Mr. Ralph Ford was nervous. He first jumped and then swore heartily.
"You clumsy idiot!" he exclaimed. "What the mischief are you doing?"
"Jolly heavy trunk, this," Clifford answered, wiping his forehead. "You might give me a hand."
Ralph gazed at his cousin in blank amazement. Then he began to laugh contemptuously.
"Clifford!" he cried. "Well, I'm dashed!"
He passed on without further speech, but still laughing, into his apartments. A young man—dressed in the height of fashion, with sleepy, dissipated eyes—was lolling upon a sofa, awaiting him.
"Halloa, Ralph! What's the joke?" he asked.
Ralph grinned again.
"One you'll appreciate, Sidney," he answered. "Whom do you think I just passed outside, carrying a heavy trunk? Seems he's engaged as a porter here."
"My cousin Clifford!"
Ralph began to laugh again, but suddenly stopped. There was no answering gleam of amusement in his companion's face. On the contrary, Mr. Sidney Lenton had the appearance of a young man altogether thunderstruck.
"What the dickens is the matter with you, Sid?" his friend demanded.
The young solicitor was ill at ease.
"You mean that Clifford's here working as a porter?" he asked.
"Got up in the uniform, too. Why, what are you looking like a scared rabbit about it for? Funniest thing I ever knew!"
"Give me a drink, Ralph," his friend said, shortly.
Ralph produced a bottle of brandy, some soda-water, and two glasses from a cupboard. All the time he watched his visitor curiously.
"Well?" he inquired, as the latter set his tumbler down empty.
Sidney Lenton lit a cigarette and leaned toward his friend. "Look here, Ralph," he declared, "we're pals, and it goes without saying that I'm more interested in your affairs than any ordinary client's. I am going to do something which is beastly unprofessional. If the governor knew it, or ever found it out, he'd kick me out of the office."
"Anything about Clifford?" Ralph asked, uneasily.
His friend nodded.
"It's that codicil," he said. "It was to be opened in two months, you know."
Ralph was suddenly serious.
"Go on," he muttered.
"I know what's in it," Lenton continued. "Only the governor and I know, and you can guess what would happen to me if it ever got about that I'd given it away. It provides—Listen, Ralph! It provides that if at anytime before it is opened Clifford has held any post of any sort whatever for one month, and been paid a salary, that he is to share equally with you."
"It can't be true!" Ralph faltered.
"There is no doubt about it," his friend insisted, impatiently. "Tell me, how long has Clifford been here?"
"I have no idea," Ralph replied. "Can't be long, anyhow, or I should have seen him."
"We must get him the sack—or, rather, you must," Sidney Lenton declared "You're a resident here; it ought to be quite easy. Complain about him all the time—anything will do. Bring all the girls he used to know here to see him. Get Lily and that lot to come and laugh at him. Get him to realize what a fool he's making of himself... Who the mischief is this?"
Ralph turned quickly round. With her note-book in hand, Gertrud was standing just inside the door.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Ford," she said. "I knocked twice, and I thought that I heard you say, 'Come in.'"
"That's all right," Ralph answered her. "Please sit down for a moment. I shall be disengaged directly."
He thrust his arm through his friend's and led him out into the passage.
"Come back to luncheon, Sid," he said. "We'll think out some scheme."
"Who's the girl?" the young solicitor asked, suspiciously.
"Oh, she's all right," Ralph declared. "She types my letters for me. Good-looking little thing, too, in her way. I ordered her up for eleven o'clock. Even if she heard anything, she wouldn't understand. So long!"
Ralph re-entered his sitting-room. Gertrud was still standing up. He wheeled an easy-chair toward her.
"Now, then, Miss Gertrud," he began, with a smile which he did his best to make ingratiating, "come and make yourself comfortable while I think out my letter."
She sat down, choosing, however, an ordinary chair.
"I am quite ready, Mr. Ford," she replied, quietly.
The young man frowned; her manner was certainly not encouraging.
"Wonder why you're always so unkind to me, Miss Gertrud?" he remarked, throwing himself on to the sofa and lighting a cigarette.
She looked at him with faintly uplifted eyebrows.
"I don't understand," she replied. "I am here to take down your letters and then to type them. I am always anxious to do my duty properly. Please begin. I have another appointment presently."
"Can't collect my ideas all at once," he declared. "Look at me, please, Miss Gertrud. Why, what have you been doing to yourself? You look quite smart."
She looked at him steadily without any change of countenance, and then glanced away out of the window. Ralph laughed softly. He was of the order of young men who do not recognize snubs.
"Don't be unkind, please, Miss Gertrud," he begged, rising to his feet. "Tell me, when are you corning out to dinner with me?"
"Never," she answered, firmly. "You know that quite well. If you have no letters to give me, I will go."
"But I have some letters," he assured her. "Wait for a moment, please. I want to ask Dennis a few questions."
He went to the telephone in the next room, and returned almost at once.
"I am ready now," he announced. "Please take this down: 'To Sidney Lenton, Esquire, 17, Jermyn Street. Dear Sidney,—I have made all inquiries. C. has been here a month next Saturday. I feel sure we'll be able to get rid of him, though. I have been making complaints already. Come up to lunch. I am asking Flo and some of the girls, and giving them the tip what to do. So long!'"
"Any copy?" she inquired, calmly.
He shook his head.
"Bring it back yourself as soon as you've done it," he directed.
In ten minutes she was back again. Ralph looked through the letter and signed it.
"I said 'no copy,'" he remarked. "This sheet feels quite damp."
"I quite forgot, sir," she answered. "I will destroy the copy."
He laid his hand upon her shoulder.
"Very careless of you, Gertrud," he declared. "You'll have to pay a fine."
She moved contemptuously toward the door. He followed her.
"If you touch me, Mr. Ford," she exclaimed, "I shall cry out!"
Ralph laughed unpleasantly.
"I wouldn't," he said.
He caught her by the wrist and held her. She called loudly for help, and before he could raise her head the door was opened. A moment later Ralph was lying in the carpet, and a porter in the hotel uniform standing over him.
"Your old tricks, eh, Ralph?" Clifford exclaimed, contemptuously. "What an unpleasant brute you are!"
He turned away and joined Gertrud, who was waiting for him in the passage. She clutched at his arm.
"Mr. Clifford," she begged, "promise me something."
He nodded. "All right. What is it?"
"Don't leave here—don't let them send you away, whatever happens—not this week, at any rate. Promise?"
"I haven't the slightest idea of going," he assured her.
She was trembling still. He took her hand in his and found it for a moment passive. Then she drew it away.
"Please don't," she whispered. "I feel just a little foolish."
She ran away down the corridor and he knew that there were tears in her eyes, tears which she hated to show. He looked back and shook his fist in the direction of Ralph's room.
At three o'clock that afternoon he met her in the front hall. He was carrying an immense portmanteau, which he at once swung to the ground. "Miss Gertrud," he said, "I was hoping to see you. You've got to let me off that promise."
She looked at him steadfastly. His cheeks were flushed and his eyes unnaturally bright.
"That brute of a cousin of mine," he explained, "is taking the meanest sort of revenge. He's been asking all the people I used to know here to lunch, and pointing me out."
"Do you mind that?" she asked, coldly.
"Of course I mind it," he answered, impatiently. "I don't think I am a snob, but it isn't exactly pleasant to have a lot of people one used to know, the girls one used to take out to lunch oneself, come and stare at me in this beastly uniform, and have that cad of a Ralph handing me a shilling for taking a note. You'll have to let me off that promise, Miss Gertrud."
"I should not worry about friends who thought the less of you for working in an honest situation," she declared.
"Little girl," he insisted, "you don't understand. I know they're not worth taking notice of. They're the sort who like you when you're up, and haven't a word for you when you're down; but it hurts all the same. And to-night," he continued, "that sweet cousin of mine has asked some people to dinner—a young lady especially whom I used to fancy that I cared for. I'll look for work, honestly—anything I can get; but you'll have to let me off that promise, please."
She shook her head firmly.
"I shall not do that."
"But, Miss Gertrud," he protested, "you don't want to be unreasonable, do you? My uncle's solicitor, or, rather, his son, was here a few minutes ago. He said that it was a great shock to his father to hear what I was doing, and he offered to lend me fifty or a hundred pounds for immediate use, and to find me a place in an estate agent's office, if I cared to stay in England. I don't think I shall accept anything, but it's decent of them to offer it, all the same. And, Miss Gertrud," he went on, "the long and short of it is, I want to clear out quick, before the dinner to-night. Coming, sir. Coming at once."
Clifford hurried off and helped load a bus, with zest. He accepted a half-crown tip from an elderly American lady with complete sang-froid, and stood on the pavement to watch the vehicle out of sight, with a quite professional interested in the piled-up trunks. When he turned back he found Gertrud still in the hall, pretending to study a time-table. She called him to her.
"Mr. Ford," she said, "I have always been told that the promise of an English gentleman is a very sacred thing. Is that not so?"
"Certainly," he answered; "but—"
"Please let that be enough," she interrupted. "I claim the fulfillment of your promise. You must remain here until Saturday."
She left him standing there, swearing softly to himself. Sidney Lenton came up and touched him on the shoulder. Ralph was by his side.
"Do your duties here include a flirtation with the typist?" Lenton inquired, smiling.
"Miss Huber is an old friend of mine," Clifford answered.
"What time are you off?" he asked.
"Not at all to-day," Clifford replied. "I have made up my mind to stay till Saturday."
Ralph came forward, frowning.
"What, you mean that you will let Mrs. Lethbridge and Alice, and all of them, see you in that infernal livery!" he exclaimed, angrily.
Clifford did not even flush.
"I shall keep out of the way if I can," he said. "If not, they can please themselves whether they speak to me or not."
Ralph was very pale. He drew out his pocket-book. Lenton pushed him on one side.
"Look here, Clifford," he said; "can't you see that it's deuced unpleasant for Ralph to have you here? Now, it can't make any real difference to you. Go and have a few days' holiday. I'll slip you a fifty-pound note into your waistcoat-pocket."
Clifford shook his head.
"I am very sorry," he replied. "I tell you frankly I'd like to go, but I've given my word of honour to stay until Saturday, and I can't break it." The two young men exchanged glances. Suddenly Ralph understood.
"To Miss Huber!" he exclaimed.
Clifford turned away.
"It doesn't matter. I have given my word. I shall stop."
Lenton did not at once understand. Ralph took his arm.
"We are done," he muttered. "She typed that letter to you."
Ralph Ford was a young man of mean disposition, and he went straight to the manager's office.
"Mr. Krudlong," he said, "I have a complaint to make."
The manger was very sorry to hear it, and waited, gravely attentive.
"This morning," Ralph continued, "I engaged a young lady typist from your office—Miss Gertrud Huber. She took down an important letter for me, and has since divulged its contents to a person in this hotel."
"This is a very serious charge, Mr. Ford," the manager answered, ringing the bell.
"The young lady will not be able to deny it," Ralph replied.
In a moment or two she appeared. Her lips trembled when she saw who it was, and, if possible, she was paler than ever. This was the one thing which she feared in life—dismissal.
"Miss Huber," the manger said, "this gentleman believes that you have divulged the contents of a letter, which he dictated to you, to a person in this hotel."
"That is not true," Gertrud answered.
"Put it another way," Ralph broke in, unpleasantly. "She has given advice to a person, founded upon her knowledge of that letter, in a way very prejudicial to my interests."
"Is that a fact?" the manager asked. "Please be careful, Miss Huber. We have been so satisfied with your services."
"It is true," she admitted, "that I did advise someone because of what I had seen in that letter, but—"
The manager interrupted. He was holding the door open.
"You need not continue, Miss Huber."
"It was an injustice," she exclaimed. "A conspiracy."
The manager shook his head.
"Even if that were so," he said, "there is no excuse. A week's salary shall be sent to your address, Miss Huber. Kindly leave within ten minutes."
She walked out of the office with her head in the air and a little flush in her cheeks. She pinned on her hat and drew the cheap veil down over her eyes with trembling fingers. It was not until she was out in the Strand and on the way to her lodgings that the tears came.
Ralph Ford's first attempt at making himself disagreeable was a success; his second a failure. The manager absolutely declined his request to send Clifford away. The head porter spoke well of him; there was no authentic complaint which could be made. Ralph played his last card in despair. He made a personal appeal to the manager. "The fact of it is, Mr. Krudlong," he explained, "he's a distant connection of mine, and we can't both remain here. There you have it straight. Which is it to be?"
"As a matter of principle, Mr. Ford," the manager answered, gravely, "I cannot send away a servant who is doing his duty, even to oblige a client."
"You prefer to lose me, then?" Ralph declared, furiously.
The manager bowed.
"We shall hear of your departure with much regret, Mr. Ford," he said. "You will excuse me now."
Ralph's dinner guests fell in with his wishes more readily. They certainly made themselves as disagreeable as a little company of ill-bred people could do. Only one—an American chorus-girl whom Clifford knew slightly—listened to his cousin's story and took her own course. She went up to where Clifford was standing by the lift and held out her hand.
"Mr. Ford," she exclaimed, "I want to tell you that I am very glad to see you!"
Clifford had stood everything else, but this almost upset him. As soon as she was gone, however, he knew that her words had done him good. For the rest of the evening he thought of nothing but his work. There was only one really sore feeling in his heart. For the first time he was angry with Gertrud for holding him to his promise. He did not even, after he had changed his clothes, wait for her in the Strand as he usually did when he was not on night duty.
Three weeks later Clifford Ford, who had resumed his accustomed appearance, drove up in a taxi to the Milan Hotel, and, to the head porter's great embarrassment, insisted upon shaking him by the hand.
"Seen anything of my amiable cousin lately?" he asked.
"Not lately, sir," Dennis replied. "Mr. Ford left here very soon after you."
"The poor beggar's fifty thousand pounds worse off than he expected," he remarked. "Is Miss Gertrud about anywhere, do you know?"
Dennis looked a little surprised.
"Miss Gertrud Huber, sir? Why, she left on the Thursday before you left on Saturday."
"Left?" Clifford exclaimed, thunderstruck.
Dennis leaned toward him confidentially.
"I understand, sir, that there was some complains made by Mr. Ford," the man told him. "She was accused of divulging the contents of a letter Mr. Ford had written to his solicitor."
The place swam round for a moment with Clifford. Then his heart began to ache. If only he had understood!
"The hound!" he muttered. "Get me a taxicab at once, please, Dennis—a good one."
He drove down to Denmark Hill and found out her rooms. The lady of the family with whom Gertrud had boarded was there, but Gertrud herself was gone. "This very day, monsieur," the woman announced—"this very day she left me. It is most unfortunate."
"Left you!" Clifford repeated. "But where has she gone? Where can I find her?"
"For the last three weeks," madame declared, "she has tried for a situation every day, in vain. It was the fault of the hotel, who refused her a character. Behaviour the most extraordinary! Never, monsieur," the woman continued, energetically, "had I a young lady in this house so regular, so careful, so thoroughly respectable. Yet from that hotel they sent her away without a character. It was infamous!"
"But I must find her," Clifford persisted. "It was my fault that she was turned away."
Madame was much interested.
"Only last night," she continued, "Miss Gertrud decided to give it up and return home. Indeed, it was the best thing, for the poor girl was half starved, and she would accept nothing from anyone without payment. Only the day before she was sent away she received a letter from her mother with some bad news, and she sent all her savings to Switzerland. To-day she had even to sell some of her clothes to buy her ticket. She has gone by the two-twenty."
"Does she owe anything?" Clifford asked, with his hands in his pockets.
"Not one penny, sir," the woman replies, vigorously. "There never was such a young lady for refusing to get into debt. She was one in a thousand was Mlle. Gertrud."
Clifford reached Charing Cross at a quarter-past two, and hurried on to the platform. He found her wedged in a third-class carriage, looking very white and miserable, with a German commercial traveller on one side, a waiter on the other, and four other people of various nationalities in the compartment. She gave a little cry as she saw him and half jumped up, eagerly. The guard blew the whistle.
"Good-bye!" she faltered. "Oh, Mr. Clifford, you are just in time to say good-bye!"
"Good-bye be hanged!" he answered, lifting her bodily out of the carriage.
The guard called out angrily.
"The young lady is not going on," Clifford remarked.
She was quite speechless. The train was now moving out of the station. She looked after it with a helpless air.
"My luggage!" she cried. "And my bag is in the carriage."
"Let it go," he laughed. "We'll buy your trousseau this afternoon, after we are married."
The colour streamed again into her cheeks.
"Mr. Clifford!" she exclaimed.
"I've got the license in my pocket," he declared. "Now kiss me and say you are glad."
She had never looked more charming, though her eyes were misty and her cheeks hollower than ever. He had kissed her for the first time in his life, boldly, here upon the platform! She had to keep on telling herself that it was not a dream.
"You can't mean it," she faltered.
He almost carried her out to a taxicab.
"We'll be married in half an hour," he said, "buy clothes till five, come to the hotel here, dine quietly, do a theatre, and start for Switzerland to see your people tomorrow. How does that sound?"
The taxi was moving now. It was real! She crept into his arms. Such happiness for her was incomprehensible, a thing undreamed of, a thing to be read about and wondered about, but to happen—never!
"I am quite poor," she whispered. "I ought not to marry you."
"I owe you fifty thousand pounds," he declared "We'll divide it and call it quits."
PETER MAYES made his way homeward from the office in a depressed frame of mind. He was a small man, with slight, sandy whiskers, and hair brushed back over his ears in two little tufts. He had weak eyes, a mouth excellent in shape but a trifle too humorous for his position, and a general appearance wholesomely and completely insignificant. He sat on the extreme edge of his seat in a non-smoking compartment of the Golder's Green Tube, and as his arms were full of parcels and the evening paper was tucked away in his pocket he busied himself trying to imagine what sort of homes the remainder of the passengers were returning to. The season of the year failed altogether to enliven his spirits. He found a great bunch of holly which a woman was carrying on his left a disagreeable and painful nuisance, and the air of slightly bibulous hilarity which seemed common amongst his fellow-passengers was scarcely likely to prove attractive to a man who had tasted nothing stronger than ginger-ale for six years.
Arrived at his destination, he walked for some distance along a broad street lined with very new houses and equally new shops. Most of the shops were still to let, and nearly all of them had notices displayed in the windows overhead, announcing almost hysterically that flats, apartments, or offices were to be procured there. At the end of the shops was a building estate in the course of development. Peter Mayes, with a little sigh, took the first turning to the left and came presently to a long row of model dwelling-houses. He opened the gate of No. 7, which, so far as outward appearance went, might just as well have been No. 17 or No. 70, let himself in with a latchkey, and went softly into the sitting-room on the left-hand side of the passage.
Now, it was part of the arrangement of these model dwelling-houses that the sitting-room and the dining-room should be connected—that is to say, that they should be separated only with curtains of such design as the householder might chance to fancy. Peter Mayes was accordingly made aware, from the moment of his entrance, that in the farther room were gathered not only all the members of his family, but a visitor. Some indication of Peter Mayes's position in the household might be gathered from the fact that, having softly deposited his parcels, instead of boldly entering the inner room he set himself down to watch and listen.
Evidently this was no ordinary visitor. Mrs. Peter Mayes, large, expansive, with flushed face and raiment a trifle disarranged, possibly from the pursuit of some household avocation, sat—from reasons of safety as well as comfort—in the largest chair the room afforded. Standing by her side was Belinda—Miss Belinda Mayes, that is to say—eldest daughter of the household. She was nineteen years old, and her dress, arrangement of the hair, and deportment were exactly what Golder's Green might have been expected to have borrowed from Piccadilly. There was a younger daughter, Amy, negligible, because she was a youthful replica of Belinda. There was also a young man, from sixteen to seventeen years old, budding clerk in a City warehouse, who distinctly took after his mother. He had a coarse, thick-looking face, he was untidily but flashily dressed, and he was puffing a cigarette furiously. The little gentleman seated at the table was so obviously a lawyer that he might have had it written all over him. It was also immediately apparent to Peter Mayes that the occasion was a great one.
"I do not think," the lawyer said, "that there are any further details I can give you at present. Your sister, madam," he went on, addressing Mrs. Mayes, "wished specially that you should be acquainted immediately after her decease with the fact that she had left her entire property to you to pass on to your children. The funeral, as I said before, will take place on Thursday% If I can be of any service—you will forgive my mentioning it, but an advance of money on account of mourning expenses is sometimes acceptable—you can command me."
Mrs. Mayes was sitting with her mouth very wide open and a very high colour. Her expansive bosom showed signs of emotion.
"Well, to think of this!" she exclaimed, not for the first time. "And poor Jane would never promise anything. To think she should have left the whole of it to us!"
"How much is it?" the boy asked.
"The amount of my deceased client's property is somewhat vaguely stated," the lawyer replied; "nor am I exactly aware in what manner it is invested. I have reason to believe, however, that it is between twenty-five and thirty-five thousand pounds."
Mrs. Mayes was stupefied. The younger girl began to dance. Her sister Belinda, whose own eyes were sparkling, restrained her.
"It's a tidy sum," young Mr. Mayes vouchsafed, his own voice none too steady.
"Whatever shall we do with it?" Mrs. Mayes gasped, looking helplessly around her.
"Do with it, mother!" Belinda cried, almost reproachfully. "Do with it, indeed! What a thing to say, when you consider what a pinched, semi-genteel sort of life we've had to live. Why, we can take Laburnum Lodge, the house with the gates to it and the drive. We can move in there at once, and all those people who go to the tennis club will be sure to call on us. Just think of the new clothes!"
"Hooray! Perhaps I'll go to boarding-school instead of that horrid shop!" Amy exclaimed.
Her sister frowned.
"There no necessity to mention the shop," she said, sharply. "That's the worst of you, Amy."
"I shall chuck old Bunderby the moment after the holidays," Mr. Mayes, junior, declared, with enthusiasm. "Just stroll into the office, you know, and say, 'Sorry, I'm taking a few months' holiday. Probably run over to Paris or somewhere, eh?' Jove, won't the other fellows be surprised! I shall just look about me for a bit. Sha'n't be driven into any-thing. Phew! Sounds like a fairy tale."
Mrs. Mayes patted her daughter on the arm.
"What about Mr. Hargreaves now, Belinda?" she whispered, archly.
"I hope he will get to hear of it soon," she replied.
"We shall all," Mrs. Mayes declared, "be able to live in an altogether different fashion. I shall keep two servants and we shall dine late. I think, too, that it would be a very fitting compliment to my departed sister if we took her name along with the fortune. Mayes—plain Mrs. Mayes—never did appeal to me much. What do you say, girls, to Mrs. Horrington-Mayes?"
Mr. Mayes, junior, whistled. Belinda nodded her head approvingly.
"The only trouble that I can see in front of us," Mrs. Mayes continued, leaning forward and taking the lawyer into her confidence, "is Mr. Mayes." She sighed. Belinda nodded. Mr. Mayes, junior, looked blank.
"You know what your father is, my dears," Mrs. Mayes went on. "You know how he will insist on sitting without a coat when he wants to. It's the only thing I've ever had trouble with him about. He's easy enough in most ways," she continued, nodding her head toward her visitor, who was showing signs of uneasiness; "but as regards his dress and little habits, I've had trouble with him ever since we were married, and there's no denying it. It took me two years to get him off his pipe, and another two to stop his beer and whisky. When it comes to getting him to drink claret and leave off his carpet slippers, and wear even a black coat for dinner—well, I can see there's going to be trouble for us. He'll be a stumbling-block, children. Mark my words, he'll be a stumbling-block."
"He must be spoken to," Belinda declared, sharply. "It's bad enough as it is to see the shabby way he goes about and the people he talks to."
"Does us no good, anyway," Mr. Mayes, junior, grumbled. "He went out fishing only three Sundays ago with old man Seddon, the fishmonger. I was up at the Dewhirsts' in the afternoon and they told me. They'd seen them start off together."
Mrs. Mayes nodded sympathetically.
"We must all be firm," she declared, her face and manner alike becoming portentous.
"Firm," Belinda echoed, looking for a moment rather like her mother.
Mr. Peter Mayes picked up his parcels, tiptoed his way out of the room into the street, and walked briskly back in the direction from which he had come.
THE actions of Mr. Peter Mayes on leaving his model abode were, in the first instance, somewhat peculiar. The brown-paper parcel from under his arm, consisting of two pounds of bacon—it was already making its presence felt by means of a greasy stain—he surreptitiously dropped down an area. Another package which had considerably impaired the set of his coat, from the space it occupied in his pocket, and which, from its odour, appeared to be a portion of some highly-seasoned cheese, he gaily threw over the palings amongst the rubbish and building materials collecting around a proposed dwelling-house. Similarly he dealt with a half-pound of tea which he had to bring from a certain shop in the City because it carried with it a coupon, three mutton-chops which were intended for the evening meal of the family, and a few slices of cold ham which he had purchased on his own, having had some experience of the appetites of his family with reference to mutton-chops. Having disposed of the last of these packages with great adroitness in an empty basket outside a greengrocer's shop, he stretched himself for a moment as though glad to be rid of his burden, and calmly crossing the street, entered, for the first time in four years, the doors of a public-house.
He ordered a tankard of bitter and a mild cigar. The appearance of Mr. Peter Mayes as he sipped his beer and lit that cigar would certainly have disgusted the little company who were even at that moment engaged in framing rules to be submitted to him presently for the purpose of aiding him in the acquisition of a more genteel deportment. He had picked up a newspaper and was leaning back upon the cushioned seat. The cigar had reached a somewhat rakish angle at the corner of his mouth, his feet were supported upon an empty stool. He read his paper, smoked his cigar, and drank his beer with an air of great relish. He even contemplated renewing the dissipation, but on second thoughts changed his mind. He left the place, purchased a stick for ninepence at the shop next door, and walking jauntily to the Tube Station shook the dust of Golder's Green off his feet for ever. Only, instead of returning on his daily track to the City, he changed and went out to Piccadilly. Here he emerged into the crowded streets, found a hairdressing saloon, where he had his hair cut and a shave, washed his hands, bought a new collar and a lavender tie, which he arranged with great care, and had a complete brush. Still in high good spirits, he made his way to a small restaurant, where he dined, having two mutton-chops all to himself, and a pint of beer. Afterwards he lit a cigar, and pushed his way good-humouredly amongst the throng waiting outside the doors of a music-hall. He managed, with considerable ingenuity, to get almost into the front row of the cheaper seats, and made himself so agreeable to several of his neighbours that drinks were freely exchanged during the evening. At twelve o'clock he presented himself at the door of a small commercial hotel and, regretting the loss of his luggage, paid for a room, where he turned in and slept like a top till morning.
The next day was Christmas Eve. He awoke a little after his usual time with a curious sense of lightness which he had not felt since he was a boy. Quickly realizing the position, he stayed in bed an hour longer than his usual time for the sheer pleasure of being able to do so, ordered a cup of tea in his room because he had never been allowed such a thing since he had been married, and, descending just when he chose, ate a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs. A visit to a neighbouring tobacconist's provided him with a half-a-dozen cigars, yellow in colour and dotted with faint spots, which, however, he secured, with a paper case, for the moderate sum of one and fourpence. He then set out for the offices of the nearest steamship company and booked a steerage berth to New York on a steamer sailing in three days' time. His next proceeding was one upon which he only entered with considerable deliberation. The issue was between his claims and the claims of his family. He decided in his own favour.
"They have got," he reasoned to himself, "between twenty-five and thirty-five thousand pounds, and a lawyer who is willing to advance them what they like. I have got forty. Maria's welcome to her little lot. I think I have a right to mine."
So he formed one of a string withdrawing deposits at a well-known savings bank, and came out with forty pounds in his pocket. With the money safely concealed about his person, he hesitated for a moment as to how to spend Christmas Day. The vastness of his fortune decided him against remaining in so dangerous a spot as the Metropolis. He strolled about, looking in the shops and enjoying himself thoroughly, until one o'clock, when he dined, again with great heartiness. Afterwards he took the three o'clock train down to a village in Oxfordshire of which he had never heard before, and found a small country inn, where they received him with much surprise but open arms. Here, before the shops closed, he bought himself a few very humble necessities and a brown bag. He ate a hearty tea and supper combined, and walked about the small town with great interest during the evening, finally dropping in and spending a pleasant hour in the bar-parlour, where he was looked upon with some respect as a commercial gentleman without family ties, uncertain how to spend the festive season.
On the next day he tramped fifteen miles, leaving the road when he could, and climbing every hill he saw. He lingered about in the country till it was almost dusk, breathing the air as though it were one of the rarest of luxuries, watching the colouring of the woods as though indeed it meant something to him, strolling many times backwards and forwards through a thick plantation of firs on top of a hill, wondering at the silence, delighting in the leaf-framed peeps of the country he could see now and then through low-hanging branches. At night he dined alone but plentifully. For a few minutes before he accepted his host's invitation to join the little party in the private room he sat and looked into the fire.
He looked back through the years; he saw himself a young man, born of working folk, not more than ordinarily ambitious, not more than ordinarily intelligent, yet starting out in life blithely and with every desire to do well for himself and for others. His heart quickened a little as he thought of Maria and their wedding-day, the coming of Belinda, their first Christmas together; but the throb of sentiment soon passed. He saw the slow strangulation of all his hopes. From the first he had been dominated by the coarser, stronger nature of his wife. Perhaps, he thought with a sigh, she had not known what she was doing, but she had certainly driven him along the narrowest of narrow roads with a grip of iron. If he would have wandered ever so little, if he would have tried to gather in even the most human of pleasures into his life, her voice was in his ears, her grip upon his shoulders; the thing which he coveted was spoilt already by her shrill tongue, her torrent of remonstrance. The natural niceness of the man had saved him from the ways of dissipation, and left him nothing but silent endurance. As he sat there he wondered, not at his flight, but at the years of misery which he had suffered. In a way they were dear to him—his ungainly son, his hard-voiced, narrow-minded wife, who had never thought it worth while to keep alight a single flicker of sentiment between them; his daughter, with her prim ways and false ambitions; Amy, growing up in the same path—all with a certain measure of contempt for the shabby little man who was the slave of every one of them, whose use it was to bring the money and the parcels on Saturday night, and to bear the rough edge of their mother's tongue. It was over! He had almost given up hope, but the way of escape had been shown to him in that great moment of inspiration.
He rose, and with the smile upon his face of one who has thrown away the old burdens and commenced a new life he made his way into the landlord's sitting-room, where he was welcomed with much cordiality.
"To absent friends!" someone proposed towards the end of the evening, and Peter Mayes lifted his tumbler high.
"To absent friends!" he murmured.
He wished them well, he wished them the detached house, the membership of the lawn-tennis club. He wished Belinda the young man whom she secretly coveted, he wished for Amy her boarding-school, and for his son that he might play the young man of fashion in the local bars and even in the West-end, after the manner dear to his heart. Let them have their hearts' desire, let him have his! A year or so of freedom before the turning of the wheel!
PETER MAYES went out to America, steerage, where he suffered many discomforts which he thoroughly enjoyed. He was popular amongst his fellow-passengers and made many friends. He discovered that he could still sing a song, and some humorous recitations which had been forbidden in No. 7 of the model dwellings on account of their possible vulgarity came back into his memory and were much appreciated. He landed in New York not a bit abashed by the size of the place, and carrying his bag in his hand walked about the city for two days, perfectly happy. He lived soberly, but well. His appetite for mutton-chops seemed unappeasable. He always ordered two and always left the tails, thinking with a little gleam in his eyes of the time when they had constituted the major portion of his diet.
At the end of the third day he decided that it was time to work. He had been employed all his life in a land-agent's office, and he knew that he was a good man. He walked into an office in Broadway and offered his services. They laughed at him at first, but he managed to impress them.
"I've got enough to live on for a fortnight," he said. "Let me come here for nothing for a few days. You watch me. If I'm worth anything, give me a job. If I'm not, you can soon tell me so, and I'll try and find someone who knows a good thing when they see it."
He got his chance, and at the end of the first day he had secured a post. The methods of the firm rather staggered him at first, but he did his work thoroughly and well. At the end of the week he ventured to advise. At the end of a month his advice was often sought. Peter Mayes was a man in whom shrewdness, when he chose to make use of it, was a natural gift. In his London office the principals were pompous and unapproachable people, who played golf every other day and held no converse with their employés. Peter Mayes, therefore, had been repressed. Here, however, he found things very different. Everyone in the office seemed to talk together on a basis of equality. Very soon his position in the firm was unassailable. They were making money fast.
The whole of this period of his life was a joy to him. He first rented an attic, terrified at the prices asked for apartments, but very soon discovered the principle of the American boarding-house. He was fortunate in stumbling across a fairly good one, and before he had been established there a week he was very nearly the most popular inmate. He had had quite enough of the repressed life, and his sociability made him popular from the first. He sat at the largest table because there were more people there to talk to. He addressed everyone, and there was something about his manner, without being familiar, so friendly, so unsuspicious of any possibility that his acquaintance was not desired, that in turn everyone spoke to him. He made friends right and left. Some of them provided him with free entertainment at the theatres, some of them were useful to him in his business, some of them would have lent him money if he had wanted it, some of them did succeed in borrowing such small sums as he could afford. And all the time he prospered. His salary was doubled before he had been with his firm a month. It was quadrupled at the end of the year, and he began to have a nice little sum laid by. He grew somewhat stouter, he was chaffed into shaving off his side-whiskers, and an American barber treated his hair in a new and becoming fashion. He bought the sort of clothes he liked and he looked well in them. He was always agreeable and pleasant to ladies, but it was obvious that he preferred men's society. He was never drunk, he never even had too much to drink, yet he never seemed to refuse a sociable invitation. He smoked a good deal, but it seemed to agree with him. It was very seldom that anyone saw him without a smile on his face.
At the end of two years he was made a junior partner. Within a fortnight he had suggested a speculation into which the firm entered, and which realized within a week a profit larger than any they had made for many years. His partner stood him a dinner at Delmonico's and introduced him to his wife and daughters.
"Say, you ought to marry, old chap," his partner declared more than once, "you're spoilt as a bachelor, and I tell you our American women are all right."
Peter Mayes laughed and turned the conversation. Once a week he got the Morning Post from a news-vendor in Fifth Avenue and read carefully through the Fashionable Intelligence. Never was there any mention of the doings of Mrs. Horrington-Mayes. Each time when he folded it up he was just a little disappointed. He would have liked to have heard that they were doing well and fulfilling their ambitions. Sometimes he would have liked to have known whether they believed him dead, whether they ever thought of him. More than once he half made up his mind to write. In the end, however, he never did. After all, he had always been a stranger to his wife and family. They hadn't understood him, and he had understood them so well as to perceive the futility of attempting to improve their relations. Besides, there had always been the guiding hand of Mrs. Peter Mayes upon his shoulder. There was no escaping from that. In his earlier days in America he had more than once awakened as though from a nightmare and sat up in his bed, vaguely terrified In his dream he had heard the commanding voice of the lady who had ruled his life!
The years slipped easily away. Peter Mayes was a rich man. He was also almost a good-looking one. His partner died suddenly, and a few months afterwards his partner's widow invited him to lunch. The lady in question was an American woman of business.
"You see, Mr. Mayes, it's this way," she said, after she had fed him exceedingly well. "You and I are, as it were, equal partners in the business, and it's too good for me to give up. I need money for myself and the girls. We've always been used to having it, and we've got to have it. Now, I don't want to come down to the office every day, but I want to stay a partner in this business. Is there anything that occurs to you."
The first thing that occurred to Peter Mayes was to go, which he did, with perfect courtesy but much dispatch. In a week he had sold his share of the business, and found himself worth one hundred and sixty thousand dollars. He did then what most successful American business men do immediately they retired. He booked a passage—saloon this time—and came over to England.
On the whole, it was a thrilling trip. They made much of him in the smoking-room and even in the saloon, for his manners were delightful, his humour inexhaustible, his name as a successful man of business well known to some of them. As usual, he made friends and received half-a-dozen invitations, most of which, however, contrary to his custom, he evaded. He stayed at a very fine hotel on the Embankment, and walked about the City and the West-end on the night of his arrival with the keenest interest and pleasure.
Early on the next morning he took a ticket and went down to Golder's Green by the Tube.
The place was changed indeed. The shops had lost their newness, others had sprung up, the streets now were crowded, and a general air of prosperity abounded. Peter Mayes walked along, swinging his cane, smoking a cigar, looking at his well-dressed irreproachable figure now and then in the plate-glass windows, and laughing softly at the thoughts of that moment when, depositing his parcels right and left in obscure hiding-places, he had fled from the tyrannies of the domestic hearth.
He walked first to Laburnum Lodge, which was still standing and much improved in appearance. There was a gardener in the drive whom he addressed by name, knowing him well. The gardener was surprised, but he certainly did not recognize Mr. Peter Mayes.
"Can you tell me who lives here, Jackson?" he asked.
"Parties of the name of Hammerton," the man replied, pausing from his task. "Six children there are, and I wish they'd keep off the flower-beds."
"Hammerton," Peter Mayes repeated, as though surprised. "I had a sort of an idea that a Mrs. Horrington-Mayes lived here."
Jackson shook his head.
"There ain't no person of that name round here," he decided. "There's a Mrs. Mayes, a poor sort of widow-woman as lives in Crescent Row—pretty bad way she's in, too, I understand."
"In Crescent Row!" Peter Mayes gasped. "Why that's where she used to live seven years ago."
"Been living there ever since," the man replied, curiously.
"But I thought she'd been left a fortune!" Peter Mayes exclaimed.
"It worn't much of a one, I don't think," the man remarked. "I never heered the rights of it; but I think it was a lot of money in some shares that burst. Anyway, she's still there, and the daughters. And the son too, for that matter. And they owe me two-and-ninepence which I can't get, and I did hear as cow there was an execution going in directly after Christmas, if not before."
Peter Mayes turned away and walked a little unsteadily toward Crescent Row. This was a view of things which had never presented itself to him. A sudden sense of guilt was in his heart. He saw himself under different colours. He was a deserter! Perhaps—He drew a quick breath and walked more rapidly.
When he came to No. 7 of the model dwelling-houses he found the door ajar, and he walked softly in. He entered the sitting-room. Again he heard voices in the farther apartment. It reminded him very much of a day seven years ago, only there was a difference. There wasn't a picture and not much furniture left in the room, and the voices—they were all very changed. He looked past the faded curtain. Surely that was not Maria! She was thinner, her hair was grey, there was a queer look of suffering about her mouth. And Belinda—Belinda to his mind was better-looking than ever, but she wore no fringe and she was pale; and she, too, had that look about the mouth. Maria was working a sewing-machine, and Belinda was bending over some work. Amy was sitting huddled up before the fire, so that he could not see her face, but it was obvious that she was crying.
"I wonder how much Jim will get for it?" Mrs.. Mayes remarked, in a tired voice.
"Not more than five shillings, I shouldn't think," Belinda answered. "A lot of good, isn't it, when we owe three pounds for rent, and it's Christmas Day to-morrow and not a thing in the house!"
"We shall have to do the best we can," Mrs. Mayes said, and her voice no longer had a strident note in it. It was almost soft, almost the voice of a girl. "Jim may get work directly after Christmas."
The girl who had been crying looked around; her mother had leaned over and patted her on the shoulder.
"I can't help it mother," she said. "It's seven years ago to-day since that beastly lawyer came here and told us about Aunt Jane's property. Aunt Jane's property, indeed."
"We had two thousand pounds," he mother reminded her, bending over her work.
"And what good was that," the girl exclaimed, "when we expected a fortune? Why, it was all spent before we knew where we were!"
Mrs. Mayes sighed.
"I am afraid we were all a little extravagant," she admitted, "and Jim's trip to Paris cost a good deal of money."
"I only wish father would come back," Amy declared, looking into the fire. "We always had plenty to eat, anyhow, then, and you and Belinda were different."
"I'm here," Peter Mayes announced, stepping into the room.
Mrs. Mayes laid down her spectacles and looked at him. Then her fingers began to twitch, she caught at the tablecloth with one hand and held the back of her chair with the other. Belinda frankly opened her mouth as well as he eyes. Amy began to scream.
"It is father!" she cried. "I know him, although he's shaved off his whiskers."
She was the first to come to his arms. No one else seemed able to speak at all Peter Mayes came forward and laid his hand upon his wife's shoulder.
"I'm knocked all of a heap," he said, quietly. "Seven years ago to-day I was in that room and heard the lawyer tell you about your sister Jane's fortune. I heard all the things you were going to do with me and yourselves, and I—well, I flanked it," he declared, with his irresistible little laugh. "I went out to America thinking all the time that you were living in the lap of luxury and didn't want me."
"We only got—two thousand pounds," Mrs. Mayes faltered. "Peter, is that really you—you—my husband?"
"It's the American accent and the clothes, I suppose," he remarked. "You'll recognize me presently."
"I should have known you anywhere," Belinda insisted; "but you have improved, you know."
"Great country, America," Peter Mayes declared, cheerfully. "I am sorry about these seven years, but you can have Laburnum Lodge now and call yourselves Horrington-Mayes, and if your young man hasn't gone you can have him too, Belinda. I am afraid Amy's a bit too old for boarding-school, but perhaps she'd like to go abroad for a year. I've made plenty of money."
Mrs. Mayes began to sob. Then there was a heavy footstep and Jim came in.
"Three-and-sixpence was all I could get," he called out, bitterly, before he entered the room. "Never mind," he added, "we'll do the best we can with it. It's better than nothing."
His father smote him on the back.
"It's sound philosophy, Jim," he declared "You can stand me a drink with that three-and-sixpence when we get up West. Now then, all of you put your things on. I'm staying at the Milan, and I think we'll move in there for a day or two. As for shopping, we shall just have time to see to it, if you look alive."
He was overwhelmed. Only Mrs. Mayes sat still. She was sobbing quietly.
"I drove you away from me once," she said. "I've thought of it often since. I don't know that I wonder at it."
He kissed her again, and patted her on the shoulder consolingly.
"Been the making of all of us," he declared. "You've had the worst of it, I'm afraid, these seven years; but perhaps I had a bit of the worst of it the seven years before. My own fault, and let's call it quits. Hurry up."
They walked down Crescent Row, feeling somehow as though their feet fell upon the air. One or two of the neighbors looked out of the window and wondered.
"Had another fortune left her, perhaps," No. 5 suggested, ironically.
"Her scamp of a husband come back, perhaps," No. 4 echoed.
Mr. Peter Mayes, who was always sharp of hearing, turned quickly round and waved his hat.
"Right first time!" he declared
THE girl was, as usual, the centre of a little group of admirers gathered together in front of the hotel. The man, as usual, was alone. He was standing with his hands behind him, leaning against the trunk of a fir tree, looking down upon the vineyard-covered plain which stretched to the Mediterranean. The girl was watching him. He had been for several moments the topic of their conversation.
"You all seem trying to put me off," she remarked, "but you are really not succeeding a bit. If I were a man, I think I should be a gambler myself. And as for the rest, how can the poor fellow be sociable if none of you speak to him?"
"He divides his time," one of them said, "between the smoke-room and the hills. When he goes into the smoke-room, he plays bridge diabolically well for the highest stakes he can get. When he goes to the hills, he walks out of the hotel with his head in the air, and doesn't even say good morning to anyone. What can you do with a man like that?"
"I don't know," Pamela replied, rising to her feet. "I'll tell you presently."
She walked across to him and stood by his side.
"It is a beautiful view, isn't it?" she remarked, following the direction of his gaze.
He recognized her nationality and corrected his speech. It was the American girl, this, with whom he had travelled in the motor-omnibus from the station a few days ago. She was no longer wearing her trim blue-serge travelling costume. She was even more attractive in golf clothes and without a hat. She had exactly the coloured hair and eyes he most admired, a fact which he had realized vaguely during those few moments they had spent together, and since done his best to forget. He was a little taken aback by her unexpected presence.
"It is, indeed," he assented.
"I do not seem to have found an opportunity to thank you for your kindness at the station the other day," she said. "I got my trunk all right during the morning. It was very good of you."
"I am delighted to have been of any service," he declared. "It was a very slight matter."
"Not so slight to me, I can assure you," she replied, laughing. "Six evening frocks to a travelling young woman are of some consequence. If it hadn't been for you, I should have had to dine that first night in a shirt waist.
"Instead of which," he remarked, "you wore some marvellous arrangement of white muslin with blue underneath, which made you look like—" "Like what?"
He shrugged his shoulders and turned a little away.
"I am glad to have been of any service to you," he repeated, relapsing into his former moodiness.
Miss Pamela Wilcox almost gasped. The man was positively indicating that he had had enough of their conversation! Her first impulse was to leave him at once. Then she remembered that there were others who were watching her enterprise, and she swallowed her resentment.
"I should like to know what I looked like, please?" she asked, meekly.
"Too charming for the peace of mind of a susceptible person like myself," he answered, with faint irony.
"So you are susceptible, are you?" she remarked. "Is that the reason you avoid everyone in the hotel?"
"Your sex has always been fatal to my peace of mind," he assured her, solemnly; "hence my seclusion."
"A matter of cowardice?"
"Of infinite discretion," he retorted.
Her eyes followed the flight of a bird for a moment across the plain.
"Will you dance with me this evening?" she asked.
He turned deliberately and looked at her. She smiled into his face with unflinching good-humour. The abrupt negative seemed to crumble away from his lips. "I have been here for a fortnight," he said, "and I have not been near the ballroom."
"Quite time you became more sociable," she declared "We'll have the first two."
"How do you know I can dance?" he asked.
"I don't, but I'll risk it," she replied.
"Or that I am a respectable person for you to dance with?"
"I'll risk that too," she decided, laughing. "Mind you don't go sneaking off to that wretched card-room. I shall be waiting for you in the lounge."
"But, Miss Wilcox—"
She only turned and waved her hand. Already she was on her way to rejoin her friends. Calveley slowly resumed his former position. His expression, in fact, was if possible, even more morose and discontented. He would have strenuously denied that the few words which he had exchanged with one of his fellow-creatures had altered in the slightest his outlook upon life. Yet it was certain that there was something more attractive about the prospect at which he was gazing. Some miraculous weaver of colours seemed to have been there during the last few moments, working with strange flashes of colour, little touches of light and shade. The dull earth of the ploughed vineyards gleamed with a rich and comely brown. Delicate patches of green seemed to have sprung up from invisible places. The plain white farmhouse set in the valley was, after all, no such ugly place—its red roof and bright green shutters had their own peculiar picturesqueness. The distant hills were grey no longer. A faint mauve halo rose like mist from their summit. The Mediterranean was gleaming like molten silver. Down in the garden hollows a bird was singing. Calveley felt the change, and for a moment he revelled in it. His pulses were warm with life. The girl's voice seemed to live in the air around him, a music to which his heart kept tune. He had always been a dreamer, and he told himself that this was not the effect of her personality; it was simply that she stood for things which seemed for a time to have slipped past him. He revelled in those few moments of her imagined presence. He saw her as clearly as though she were actually by his side. Fair brown hair and plenty of it, complexion a little freckled, mouth very sweet, but not too small. She was scarcely more than average height, slim, and yet by no means thin. Her voice was delightful; there was the slightest possible suspicion of a transatlantic accent, just enough to redeem it from monotony, and there was a thrill in it, some nameless quality, which had already set it far apart from any other sound in the world.
Calveley came suddenly to his senses and laughed at himself shortly. He looked out upon his folly and he was amazed. These were the sentimental vapourings of a boy!...
She was surrounded by her friends in the lounge after dinner, but she left them directly Calveley approached. He told himself that he was over his folly now, but he wished that she had not worn white, that her eyes had not met his so kindly. He addressed her with much formality.
"May I speak to you for a moment, Miss Wilcox?" he asked.
"Why, certainly," she replied, drawing a little apart with him. "Shall we sit down? The music has not begun yet."
"I am sorry to say I cannot dance with you," he said.
She looked at him for a moment without any attempt at speech. Then she looked down at the tips of her shoes.
"That seems a pity," she remarked. "I have been rather looking forward to it."
"I am sorry," he muttered.
She said no more, but she made no attempt to get up and go away. He saw something in her face which suddenly upset all his resolutions. He had meant to be purposely and finally brutal. Instead, he threw all his resolutions to the wind.
"Miss Wilcox," he said, "you know everyone in the hotel. Haven't people told you anything about me?"
"I really forget," she replied, calmly. "Gossip never interested me."
"But gossip is sometimes true," he reminded her.
"Very likely. Now you mention it, I believe that I have heard a few things about you. You can tell me if they are true, if you like."
"I will," he promised.
"They say that you are quite nice-looking—I suppose we must start with that."
His eyes flashed, and she hurried on.
"That you are exceedingly morose, that your only form of recreation consists of long and solitary walks, that you are very rude to anyone who tries to be agreeable to you, and that you spend most of your time in the smoking-room, playing cards for high stakes with some very horrid men."
"Opinions, on the whole, are a little divided about you," she went on. "Your name is familiar to no one. Your appearance is—shall I say somewhat distinguished?—for a nobody. And you play cards and billiards remarkably well. Consequently—"
"Now we are coming to it," he murmured.
"Consequently," she continued, smoothly, "there are people who whisper the mysterious word 'Adventurer'! I have been solemnly warned against you by a dozen kind friends."
"Your friends are right," he said, hardly. "'Adventurer' is a fairly accurate and somewhat kindly description of me."
She smiled at him sweetly.
"I knew you were going to turn out interesting," she declared.
He set his teeth.
"Miss Wilcox," he said, leaning towards her, "I am here under a false name. I left Monte Carlo because of a gambling scandal—I was asked to leave. I am not a proper person for you to associate with."
She sat up in her chair.
"The music!" she exclaimed. "I believe it is The Chocolate Soldier' waltz."
Her eyes flashed into his; her body was swaying a little.
"Don't you understand?" he asked, harshly. "I am here under a false name—a confessed gambler, suspected of cheating. If people knew—"
"I was right," she interrupted suddenly. "It is 'The Chocolate Soldier.' Come."
She leaned towards him as she rose. Calveley laughed at Fate then, as she slipped into his arms.
There followed days which the gossips of the hotel, and perhaps a few others, considered a scandal. Pamela and her new friend were inseparable. She made a few efforts to draw him into the little circle of her immediate friends, but, though his manners were always perfect, he met their advances with so much restraint, and was so obviously uncomfortable, that she finally desisted. They took long walks together and played golf. His first appearance on the golf links with borrowed clubs was the occasion of a little episode which, if possible, increased the gossip. He had been persuaded to play in a mixed foursome, with Pamela for his partner, and on the tee, which was somewhat crowded, the question of handicaps came up.
"I am afraid," he admitted, apologetically, "that my handicap will sound ridiculous nowadays. I haven't played for a long time, but I used to owe four."
"Plus four!" his opponents gasped. "Horrors!"
"It was when I used to play golf regularly," he explained. "I played for the 'Varsity and stuck to it for a bit. I don't think that you need worry. I shall probably be quite useless now."
One of Pamela's disappointed admirers spoke up from amongst the little crowd.
"I don't remember anyone of your name playing for the 'Varsity in recent years," he remarked.
Calveley ignored him. It was his turn to drive, and he gave his caddie brief instructions as to the building of his tee. The young man was persistent. "Did you play for Cambridge or Oxford?" he asked, pointedly.
Calveley hesitated. Then he remembered that his own careless statement had provoked the question.
"I played for Oxford," he said, and mentioned the year.
"There was no one of your name in the team," the young man declared, bluntly.
"I not only played for Oxford, but I captained the team," he said, quietly.
"Then you did so under another name," the young man asserted.
"Is that your business or mine?" Calveley asked, quietly.
There was a tense silence. The young man shrugged his shoulders and turned away. Calveley smote his ball far down the course, provoking a little cry of delight from his partner. His opponent followed suit according to his capacity, and they all strolled off together.
"You are really a delightful person to play golf with," Pamela declared, cheerfully. "Remember, please, that you are not to think of anything but the game until we have finished. We have to give them half a stroke, and I want to win."
"We'll win," Calveley asserted, grimly; "but I must have my walk this afternoon."
"It shall be your reward," Pamela promised.
They won five up and four. In the afternoon Calveley had his walk. They started out to climb the pine-wooded hill at the back of the hotel. Near the summit they paused. For some time they had not spoken. It was a silence which became more and more emotional.
"Sit down," he begged.
She obeyed him. The air was fragrant with the perfume of the pine trees, the land below sleepy and beautiful after the heat of the day.
"Do you know that you have been very kind to me these last few days, Miss Pamela?" he asked, abruptly.
"Yes, I know it," she admitted.
"Why?" he demanded.
"Because I like you," she replied.
He leaned towards her. He had the appearance of a man placing himself under restraint.
"You have been very good," he said, "you see what I am—nearly forty years old, a tired, worthless person, with no aim in life, no purpose save to drift on ignobly down the stream. I had forgotten all the beautiful things; I did not even think that I had any emotions left. Then you came."
She half looked up and then away.
"Do you mind, I wonder, if I talk to you like this?" he went on, gravely. "It is hard for me to keep silence altogether. I think that you came when my very soul was poisoned with bitterness and loathing of the whole world. I hated even my life; and there were moments—"
Her fingers held his. He smiled.
"They will never come again," he promised. "Dear, it is more wonderful to make a weary man feel than anything else in life. I caught a glimpse of you that first day; I watched you with your friends; I didn't understand why the sight of you seemed to fill me with vague regrets. I found myself thinking of you. Do you know what it means to a morbid man when he finds his thoughts engrossed by someone else besides himself?"
She raised her eyes and looked at him steadfastly. There was a new softness in her face, something wonderful.
"I think that you are far too morbid," she declared. "You speak and think only of the present and the past. There is the future."
"That is what I dare not think of," he answered, softly. "A man who has misused his past as I have done has no right to count upon the future." "You are foolish," she whispered.
"Heaven knows, I soon shall be if I stay here much longer!" he replied, a little wildly. "Pamela, can't you see—don't you understand—that my heart is full of things I must not dream of saying to you? Come!"
She held her place obstinately.
"What sort of things?" she whispered.
He flung himself away from her, but returned almost at once.
"Little lady," he pleaded, "don't spoil my wonderful dream. You have made a little corner of fairyland in my heart, a little treasure-chamber into which I can creep sometimes when the black days come. Don't force me to destroy it."
"But what about me?" she whispered, with a tremble in her voice. "God forgive me!" he answered, and took her in his arms.
Through an unreal world they walked down the winding path to the hotel. Theirs was the golden silence, the one tense period when the finger of the gods is laid upon the wheel of time. But the awakening had come. A huge touring motor-car was discharging its load in front of the hotel—a funny little man with a huge fur coat, a loud voice, and many diamonds, a wife and children to match; an unpleasant crowd to look upon, but notable patrons of the hotel. Calveley half paused as he saw the man, then he walked firmly on with Pamela by his side.
"The Goldbergs," she whispered. "Horrid people. They come every year and pay a fabulous price for their rooms. Whatever is the matter with the little man?" Mr. Goldberg was suddenly excited. He caught hold of the hotel proprietor's shoulder and pointed to Calveley.
"Is that person staying in the hotel?" he demanded.
His raucous voice was audible to everyone around. Calveley came to a standstill before him. The contrast between the two men as they faced one another was absurd.
"If you are alluding to me, sir," he said, "I certainly am staying here. Have you any objections?"
Mr. Goldberg turned to the porters.
"Stop unloading my trunks," he ordered. "Huber," he went on, excitedly, "either that person leaves the hotel or I do not enter it. Which is it to be? Now, then!" The proprietor turned a bewildered face towards his angry patron.
"I do not understand, sir!" he protested. "What is the objection to Mr. Calveley, sir?"
The new-comer turned back towards Calveley with an ugly sneer upon his face.
"So it's Calveley here, is it?" he demanded. "It was the Honourable Ronald Calveley Trent at Monte Carlo. The fellow is a sharper and adventurer," he continued, raising his voice so that those who were standing around could hear. "With two others of his own kidney he robbed me of four thousand pounds last month at baccarat." The listeners all drew a little nearer. There was a breathless silence. Only Pamela laughed aloud, quite naturally, but a little scornfully.
"Robbed you, indeed!" she exclaimed. "No one is likely to believe that, NIL Goldberg."
"It's the solemn truth," Goldberg declared, "and, what's more, he can't deny it."
There was one awful moment of silence, during which Pamela's heart stood still. Then Calveley replied, and though he did not raise his voice in the slightest, every word he said was distinctly audible to all of them.
"I do deny it absolutely and completely," he asserted. "I regret having to admit that I was in company with men who have been pronounced card-sharpers, but I was ignorant of the fact, and directly I knew it I returned the whole of my winnings to the directors of the club where the affair took place."
"Rubbish!" Mr. Goldberg cried, excitedly. "It was seven hundred pounds out of four thousand. You were one of the gang, Calveley, or whatever you call yourself; and if you're the sort of person they admit here—well, I don't set foot in the hotel, that's all It's in your hands, Mr. Huber, entirely in your hands."
The hotel proprietor shrugged his shoulders. He gesticulated with the palms of his hands, turning as though in appeal for their sympathies to the little crowd of bystanders. How was it possible for him to arrive at any decision save one? Mr. Calveley occupied a single room, for which he paid a moderate price. He had no friends in the hotel, nor any following. Nit-. Goldberg, on the other hand, occupied, with his wife and family and servants, the greater part of one floor, for which accommodations he paid a sum befitting his means. The rooms had been kept waiting for him, there was no one else likely to engage them. Mr. Huber turned regretfully towards Calveley. There could be little doubt as to what his decision would have been if he had ever been called upon to make it. At that moment, however, Fate intervened. Almost unnoticed during the progress of the little scene, another large touring-car had drawn up behind Mr. Goldberg. Its solitary occupant—a tall, dark man, good-looking, and obviously English, came strolling up towards the group. He looked around him for a moment with a slightly bewildered expression. Then he came up and laid his hand familiarly upon Calveley's shoulder.
"Halloa, Ronny!" he exclaimed. "What's going on here? Who's the funny little man who can't keep still?"
Calveley started. He looked at the new-comer in amazement.
"Morchester!" he exclaimed. "Dicky! Why, what on earth are you doing here?"
"First of all, tell me what's the trouble," the new-comer insisted. "It may be my fancy, but you seem to be mixed up in it somehow."
"This is the person who lost his money that night at baccarat," he explained. "He has just arrived here and recognized me. Now he refuses to stay unless I am turned out, that's all."
Calveley's new friend whistled softly. Mr. Goldberg elbowed his way to their side.
"I don't know who you may be, sir," he declared, loudly, "and I don't much care; but my charge against that young man is that he was one of a gang of sharpers who robbed me of four thousand pounds at baccarat last month."
The new-comer nodded.
"So you're Mr. Goldberg, are you?" he said. "Well, sir, I am very pleased to be able to tell you that, under the presidency of the Grand Duke and one of the Governors, a small committee to whom my cousin here appealed has pronounced him innocent of any complicity in the matter. His membership of the club and his entrance to the Rooms have been restored, and I have an autograph letter in my pocket here from his Serene Highness congratulating him on the result."
Mr. Goldberg stared at the speaker, open-mouthed. He made one more attempt at bluster.
"That's all very well," he declared "But I don't know who you are from Adam."
"I don't suppose you do," the new-comer remarked, dryly. "There are several people in the hotel, however, who do, including, I think, Mr. Huber."
"Certainly, your Grace," the latter replied, with a low bow. "The Duke of Morchester," he added, in an awed whisper, to Mr. Goldberg.
Mr. Goldberg was plainly nonplussed. The characteristic of his race, however, saved him from wholly abandoning his position.
"But what about my money?" he cried—"my four thousand pounds?"
The Duke looked at him for a moment through his eyeglass, as one might look at some interesting specimen of the insect world.
"Confound you and your money, sir!" he said, turning on his heel. "Come on, Ronny, and show me where we can get a drink," he added, passing his arm through his cousin's. "It's a dusty ride from Monte Carlo."
"You're sure it's all right?" Calveley gasped.
"Right as rain," Morchester declared. "Who's the pretty, fair-haired girl slipping away there? She was standing by your side when the row was on."
"The dearest little woman in the world!" Calveley exclaimed, fervently.
"Glad you've found her at last," his cousin remarked, dryly. "It was about time."
Pamela the next morning was elusive. It was not until within a few minutes of the time fixed for his departure that Calveley found her. She was sitting on the trunk of a fallen pine tree near one of the paths at the back of the hotel. Something about her discomposure at the sight of him seemed to suggest that she was hiding. Calveley looked at her reproachfully.
"Since ten o'clock," he declared, seating himself by her side, "I have been looking for you."
"That's too bad," she replied, with a touch of her old lightness, "especially as I must go directly. My aunt is waiting for me to take her for a walk."
"Then your aunt must wait," he said, firmly. "I am going away in a few minutes with Morchester. There is something I want to say to you first—something I must say."
"Going away!" she repeated, a little blankly.
"My cousin wants me to stay with him for a few days at Monte Carlo," he explained. "I think perhaps it would be best for me to do so. Please don't look so nervous," he went on, a shade of bitterness creeping into his tone. "I only want to tell you that I haven't misunderstood anything. I am not quite such an idiot as that."
She looked at him wonderingly, and almost immediately dropped her eyes.
"I have come," he continued, "to thank you from the very bottom of my heart for your kindness to a poor outcast. I am glad that Morchester turned up, and that you know that I am not entirely a wrong 'Ian. But I am bad enough, Heaven knows!"
"Are you?" she murmured.
He looked at her with a curious wistfulness.
"I don't think," he went on, "that I have ever regretted it quite so much as I do now. You see, I have lived in the darkness so long that it never seemed possible to me that my day too might come; that you, Pamela dear, were anywhere alive in the world to touch the clouds with your fairy fingers and let the sunlight through. If I had known—"
"If you had known?" she whispered.
"I should have lived a different life," he declared, with quiet passion. "I should not be sitting here by your side, a tired, pleasure-sated man of forty, with no profession nor any useful place in the world, with simply a taste for athletics and a weakness for gambling. To my dying day there is nothing else in life I shall regret like this."
"Is this what you wanted to tell me?" she asked.
"This, and to thank you," he replied. "Those are poor words, aren't they? They mean a good deal to me, though. And I want you above all to know," he went on, earnestly, "that I haven't really misunderstood, and that it was your dear, kind little heart which made you come and talk to me because you saw I was miserable. You needn't have hidden away from me this morning. I understood."
"Did you?" she murmured.
His fingers closed upon hers.
"So much so," he continued, "that I nearly went away without seeing you at all, only I thought that you might like to know this. I have finished with my present life. Morchester and I talked it out last night. It's late to make a start, but he's going to get me a job out in Africa somewhere. That's one reason why we're hurrying off. There's a man at Mentone who's in the Government, and Dicky hopes to have it all fixed up by the end of this week. And it's all you," he added, with a curious little break in his voice.
She leaned towards him, so close that her breath fell upon his cheek, her lips almost touched his.
"After all, you are a very stupid person," she declared. "I should like to come to Africa, too."
MR. HENRY MIDGLEY glanced a little apprehensively over the top of the letter which he was reading toward his wife. Mrs. Midgley, however, was busy boiling eggs.
She went on talking with her eyes rigidly fixed upon the minute-glass and a spoon clutched determinedly in her hand.
"If it's a matter of a hundred pounds or so," she declared, "why, what I should say is, take no notice of it at all Put it into the Post Office Savings Bank, and let it be for a rainy day. If it's more—well, there's heaps of ways of having a good time, and the sooner we know about it the better. You'd better trot along and see those people, Henry, in your dinner-hour."
Mr. Midgley was slight and sandy, with a fair moustache and a mass of obstreperous hair. At present the repose of his features was somewhat marred by an expression of nervous anxiety. He looked first at the letter which he was holding and then at his wife. More than once he seemed on the point of saying something, but at the last moment changed his mind. He was evidently in a state of indecision. Mrs. Midgley, however, had just then only two objects in life—to see that those eggs were perfectly boiled and to start her husband off by the eight-forty train to the City with a satisfied inner man and a well-brushed exterior.
"Suppose it was more, now," Mr. Midgley began at last "Just for the sake of argument, say it was enough to launch out a bit, eh—for me to join the golf club and for you to go up town for a matinée now and then. How does that strike you, Rose? What do you want to do about it, eh?"
Mrs. Midgley, with a sigh of relief, pounced upon the two eggs and set them up in their cups. She placed both before her husband and glanced at the clock. Then she poured out the tea.
"First of all," she declared, "I should buy the Fernery."
Mr. Midgley's face fell. It was clear that the acquisition of the Fernery, which was an ugly red-brick structure with a stucco front at the corner of the street, did not appeal to him at all He thought of the broken-down arbor in a corner of the untidy garden, the decapitated statue, and the stone bay-window, with a little shiver.
"Buy the Fernery!" he repeated, a little despondent. "It isn't a pretty house, Rose."
"It has an appearance," Mrs. Midgley declared. "Besides, it's to be bought cheap."
"You wouldn't care about leaving this neighborhood, then?" Mr. Midgley ventured.
"Certainly not," his wife replied. "I like it, and because one gets on a bit in the world, I see no reason for shaking off one's old friends and trying to buy new ones. Besides, an earthquake wouldn't move mother; and, so long as she's here, I hope I know my duty too well to think of moving. Keep one eye on the clock, Henry."
Mr. Midgley, who had often wished that an earthquake or some less violent eruption of Nature would remove his mother-in-law from the next house but one in the row, scratched his chin thoughtfully.
"Very well, then," he said. "We'll take it that you'd like to buy the Fernery to start with. What else?"
"I should insist upon it," she declared firmly, "that you never left home in the morning with a nasty pipe in your mouth. I like to see a gentleman smoking a cigar." Mr. Midgley, who loved his briar and hated all manner of cigars, groaned under his breath.
"Go on," he begged. "Go on, Rose."
Mrs. Midgley continued promptly.
"I should take two front sittings in St. Paul's Church," she announced; "and, as you probably wouldn't have to work so hard in the week, there would be no excuse for your not occupying them with me twice a day on Sundays."
Mr. Midgley wiped his forehead. His tone seemed to become fainter.
"Go on," he murmured. "Please go on, Rose."
Mrs. Midgley began to warm to the subject. She was a pretty little woman, but she had an exceedingly determined mouth.
"I should have a parlor-maid with strings to her cap, and late dinners," she declared. ".Also I should be 'at home' one afternoon a week and give tea with two sorts of cake. You would have to come home early from the office and hand things round."
"It might be inconvenient," Mr. Midgley protested, weakly.
"You would have to make it convenient," his wife insisted. "No good starting on that piece of toast, Henry. You have to leave in three minutes, and I must brush you first."
Mr. Midgley gulped down his tea hurriedly.
"While we are on this subject," he remarked, in a tone which had sunk almost to a whisper, "is there anything else you'd be particular about?"
"A good many more," Mrs. Midgley replied. "But I can't think of them all on the spur of the moment. Besides, I never did hold with this fancying business. There's just a little matter, however, I should make a point of. With good claret like they have at the grocers' at the corner of the street at a shilling and three-ha'pence a bottle I'd take care that there wasn't a drop of beer in the house. I can't bear the sight or smell of the stuff—reminds me always of public-houses and the weakness of poor pa who's gone."
Mr. Midgley waited for his opportunity, thrust the letter which he had been reading in his pocket, and buttoned up his coat. This had been the last straw. He was a temperate man, but he liked his glass of beer and he loathed claret.
"Well, well," he said, as he stood up in the passage and submitted himself to vigorous flagellations with the clothes-brush, "it's a pity things ain't likely to turn out our way. A hundred pounds, with ten of it for a mourning-ring, is about my guess."
"And a very nice sum, too, let me tell you, Mr. Midgley," his wife declared, standing back for a moment and surveying her handiwork.
"Not a penny of it do we spend, mind. Gracious goodness, give me your hat. You don't mean to tell me that you were going out like that? Why, there's a perfect rim of dust round it. Where you get it all from I can't imagine. There, now, put it on straight. Never mind lighting your pipe; you've only four and a half minutes for the train. Bring home the bacon and the tea for mother, and be sure that you go to the lawyers in the dinner-hour, and don't say a word about any legacy at the office. If they think you've come into money they may keep back your next rise. Hurry off, stupid—no time for nonsense."
Mr. Midgley started for the City without his pipe or a farewell kiss from his wife. That is to say, he started as though he were going to the City, but as soon as he turned the corner of the street he apparently changed his mind. From that moment his subsequent proceedings became more or less mysterious. He first of all entered a tobacconist's shop, where he purchased an expensive pipe and two ounces of tobacco. On emerging once more into the street, he lingered upon the pavement for a moment, glancing up and down with a casual expression which was distinctly overdone. Satisfied at last that there was no one in sight whom he knew, he summoned a four-wheeled cab from the other side of the road, and threw himself into a corner of the vehicle with a lordly air.
"Station, sir?" the man inquired.
"Drive me to the golf club," Mr. Midgley directed.
The man, who knew him by sight, stared.
"To the golf club," Mr. Midgley repeated sharply. "I'm not going to the City this morning."
Arrived at his destination, Mr. Midgley sought out the professional.
"I am going to join the golf club here," he announced. "I have a spare morning and should like a lesson."
The professional, who found the week-day mornings dull, accepted the suggestion with enthusiasm.
"Have you any clubs, sir?" he asked.
"Not at present," Mr. Midgley admitted.
"I waited to buy them from you. Make me up a bagful. The best, mind. I like the look of the shiny ones there. See that I have plenty of them." "How many balls, sir?"
"I shall want a great many balls," Mr. Midgley replied, firmly. "Several boxes full, at least. Where can we go for our lesson?"
For more than two hours, with his well-brushed silk hat reposing on the turf a few feet away, Mr. Midgley suffered the alternate joys and pangs of the novice. At the end of that time, streaming with perspiration and stiff in every joint, he settled his account with the professional, fee'd him handsomely, and retired to the club-house. Regardless of the fact that his membership was as yet incomplete, he ordered and consumed with much enjoyment a large-size bottle of the beverage against which his wife had just issued her dictum. Afterwards he telephoned for a cab, stretched himself out upon the cushions with a pipe in his mouth, caught the eleven-thirty-eight train to town, and strolled into the office, where he was due at five minutes past nine, at precisely a quarter past twelve.
The manner of his entrance upon the scene of his neglected labours was by no means apologetic. It was, in fact, almost jaunty. The newly-purchased pipe was still in his mouth, his shoes were caked with mud, his collar was broken down with the warmth of the exercise, and his ready-made tie was on its way to the back of his ear. From the office-boy to the head clerk they all stared at him speechless. The principal of the firm, who happened to be passing through the office, surveyed him with strong disapproval.
"Is this your first appearance this morning, may I ask?" he inquired.
Mr. Midgley nodded amiably, and glanced at the clock.
"I am a bit late, aren't I?" he remarked, in a friendly fashion.
"Have you any excuse to offer?" his employer demanded.
Mr. Midgley shook his head.
"Can't think of one," he admitted. "The fact is, it was such a fine morning that I stopped to have a golf lesson."
Mr. Welby, the head of the firm, was a fat man, with red cheeks and beady eyes. Somehow the fact of these physical deficiencies had never seemed more apparent than at the present moment. The longer he gazed at his clerk the fatter and redder he seemed to become. He was positively bristling with rage.
"Are you drunk, Mr. Midgley?" he demanded. "How dare you come to business over three hours late and talk about golf lessons? Have you taken leave of your senses, may I ask, sir?"
"The fact is," Mr. Midgley explained, genially, "I've only come to get my office coat. I've decided to leave. It's a rotten sort of shop, this, anyway. Hours too long and screw too short. I'm fed up with it. Hand over my coat, there's a good fellow, Matthew."
Mr. Welby was threatened with apoplexy. Mr. Midgley listened to his flow of language with an interest which speedily merged into something like admiration. He backed slowly out and stood with the open door in his hand for the last few seconds.
"Steady, sir, steady!" he interposed at last "Don't overdo it, Mr. Welby, sir. It's as good as anything I ever listened to of its sort, but go steady, sir, or you'll do yourself an injury. Is that all?"
Mr. Midgley dodged a letter-book and thrust his head through the door again a moment later.
"About that trifle of salary you were speaking of depriving me of, sir," he said; "put it in your own pocket and stand yourself a drink from me. I'm feeling a bit independent this morning about the ha'pence. I dare say it's the spring coming on. Ta-ta, Welby! So long, you fellows!"
Hot, but triumphant, Mr. Midgley stepped into the street with his office coat on his arm. Every now and then, as he made his leisurely progress toward a restaurant which up till today had been only a name to him, he stopped to chuckle. Then a sudden thought send a cold shiver through him. He snatched out the letter from his pocket and hurried to the address of the lawyers from whom it had come. His reception there should have itself been sufficient reassurance. He put it into plain words, however.
"There's no possibility of any mistake about this letter of yours?" he demanded.
The lawyer shook his head.
"It is an absolute fact, then," Mr. Midgley persisted, "that I, Henry Midgley, of St. Clement Villas, Golder's Green, am entitled by the will of the late Charles Midgley, of Huddersfield, to the sum of thirty-five thousand pounds?"
"Quite correct," the lawyer agreed. "If you are still feeling any doubt about it we shall be able to advance you any reasonable sum that you may require. Your banking account will be in order for you tomorrow."
Mr. Midgley accepted fifty pounds and went on his way to the restaurant for which he had been bound when assailed by that sudden wave of doubt. Undeterred by its splendors, he ordered a hearty lunch, his enjoyment of which was greatly enhanced by the near presence of his late employer, whose stony stare he met with a genial nod and an upraised glass. Mr. Welby changed his seat, breathing heavily.
"Surly old gentleman," Mr. Midgley declared, pleasantly, to the head waiter, with whom he was talking. "I sha'n't ask him to play me a game of billiards afterwards." In due course he finished his lunch, paid his bill, and went out. He drank coffee at a Mecca close at hand, played dominoes, and afterwards billiards, with a lordly disregard of time. He caught the proper train home, however, and sat down to his evening meal at the appointed hour.
"Fifty pounds, I guess, and half of it to go for a mourning-ring," Mrs. Midgley declared, as she bustled in with the sardines and cold mutton. "I hate those mourning-rings anyway."
"Wrong," Mr. Midgley declared, cheerfully. "It's a hundred."
Mrs. Midgley looked intently into the teapot. Her husband looked at her and sighed. In her way she was distinctly pretty, but her devotion to her household duties was almost an obsession. Mr. Midgley sometimes wished she would remember that he too was one of them. It was a regrettable fact that she devoted much more pains toward keeping his house spotless and himself well-clothed and fed than to anything else in life.
"One hundred pounds is a real nest-egg," she declared, swaying the teapot to and fro. "You'll remember what I decided, Henry. It's to be the Post Office Savings Bank, mind."
Midgley sighed and told a falsehood. He was beginning to find this sort of thing quite easy.
"It's there already, my dear," he murmured.
Henceforth, Mr. Midgley embarked upon a course of deceit, in the meshes of which he became more completely involved day by day. He left home always at the usual time, but never, alas, for the City. The mornings he spent at the golf club, to the great enrichment of the fortunate professional there, who was speedily coming to regard this eccentric visitor as his chief source of income. In a suit of clothes sent by stealth from the establishment of a sporting tailor directly to the golf club, Mr. Midgley, who changed there every morning, pursued his new avocation with relentless and amazing industry. At midday he traveled first-class to London and lunched at a popular restaurant, generally standing treat to one of his late fellow-clerks or acquaintances. Every evening he returned by his usual train to his usual meal. And every evening he felt the same twinges of conscience as he entered his neat little home and received the methodical and conscientious caress of his managing little wife. He dared not bring her presents for fear of being rebuked for extravagance, and their visits to the theatre were laid down by law as enterprises to be taken three times in the year only. With a sort of morbid desire for relief at any price, he led her on to talk of the Fernery, the greenhouse she would have built from the drawing-room, her scheme of linoleum for the hall. He probed her base worship of a mirror-tainted suite of plush-covered furniture in a neighboring emporium. He encouraged her to dilate upon gentility with special reference to silk hats in the day-time, visits from the vicar's wife, regular attendance at church, and the supreme advantages of red wine over malt liquors. After such times he felt stronger.
Nevertheless, Nemesis was inevitable, and Nemesis came. Mrs. Midgley's cousin, who was on the stage—quite respectably—and engaged to a clerk in a wholesale drapery firm, made a special visit to Golder's Green, and brought with her the full account of Mr. Midgley's misdeeds, so far as regards the City part of them, at any rate. It being the morning sacred to the offices of the local charwoman, the two ladies proceeded out into the country to indulge in their confidential talk. And their way lay across the golf-links.
"Fore!" cried Mr. Midgley, who, with only two strokes a hole, was one up on the professional and wanted to approach the green.
The two ladies never moved. Miss Ellen Darcy—which was the stage name of the cousin—was gripping Mrs. Midgley by the arm.
"What he's doing, my dear, is plain enough," she exclaimed, with vigour. "He never banked that hundred pounds, not he! He's having the time of his life, that's what he's having! Half-crown tips to porters and warehousemen; free lunches and wine to all his friends; and travelling first-class, if you please, just as bold as anything! Why, it makes one's blood boil! And you mean to tell me, my dear, that he hasn't given you so much as a pair of gloves?"
"Fore!" cried Mr. Midgley, who was getting impatient.
"He's been home to supper at the usual time every evening," Mrs. Midgley declared, with a little catch in her voice. "Not once has he even missed the train."
"There's plenty of mischief to be got into in the afternoons, my dear," Miss Darcy reminded her cousin. "Besides, he wants to keep it all dark until the money's gone, so that he can have his fling properly. What on earth does that funny little man want?"
Mr. Midgely, who stood now upon the edge of the green, was brandishing his putter and shaking with virtuous indignation.
"Get out of the way, there!" he cried. "Can't you see you're stopping my ball? How dare—Rose!"
Mr. Midgley, notwithstanding the disguise of his tweed knickerbockers suit, was discovered. He broke off in the middle of his sentence; but, unfortunately for the dignity of his appearance, he forgot to close his mouth. His wife, who, save once or twice on Bank Holidays, had never seen him except in a black coat and silk hat, looked him up and down in an amazement which was at first pitiful. Then she took one step toward him.
"Mind my ball!" he cried, weakly.
Mrs. Midgley, who, for reasons of economy, wore thick boots, kicked his ball, and kicked it more fairly in the middle than her disconsolate husband often hit it with his drive. She gathered up her skirts and turned her back upon him.
"You and your ball!" she cried, furiously. "You and your ball, indeed!"
The two ladies, with their heads in the air, walked off together. Mr. Midgley, who was something of a philosopher, discussed the fate of the hole with the professional, yielded it to him with a sigh, and finished his round. Afterwards he went manfully to St. Clement Villas, and found the house locked up.
"Gone away with all her luggage," the next-door neighbor declared, with gusto. "Such a to-do as never was, sending for cabs and that, and a man to help with the boxes. Went off with a young lady, too, who might be all she should be, but didn't look it. Such goings on! Come and sit down a bit, Mr. Midgley, and have a chat."
Mr. Midgley went instead to the station, and saw the back of the train. He then solaced himself with half a pint of beer and filed his pipe while he waited for the next. "I'll have to take on the Fernery and the red wine," he admitted to himself, cheerlessly.
"Never mind. It's been all right this last month, and it's the little woman's turn, anyway."
Mrs. Midgley was a young woman of resources and determination, and, having made up her mind to disappear, she did so most completely and effectually. Mr. Midgley visited one after another of her relations without the slightest result, except the provocation of a stream of curious questions. Last of all, he tackled Miss Darcy. "Now, it's no use your telling me you don't know where Rose is, because you do," he declared, having finally cornered her.
"Of course I know," she admitted; "but wild horses will never drag her address from me, you deceitful, faithless spendthrift. Why, to look at you makes me boil. You and your smart clothes, indeed! Have you paid for them yet?"
Mr. Midgley took no offence. He was far too much in earnest.
"I've paid for them all right, and I'll pay for a diamond ring for you if you'll tell me where to find Rose," he declared.
Miss Darcy laughed scornfully.
"Diamond ring, indeed!" she exclaimed. "Haven't you come to the end of that hundred pounds yet?"
"It was more than a hundred pounds," Mr. Midgely said, firmly. "It was a great deal more."
"The greater pig you, then," Miss Darcy declared. "Although, mind you, I don't believe a word of it. Now be off with you. If you follow me about I'll speak to the police straight away."
"But I want my wife," Mr. Midgely protested.
"Find her, then," Miss Darcy retorted. "You don't deserve a wife. Makes a respectable girl feel like a Suffragette to think of such as you!"
Mr. Midgely did his best. He bought the Fernery, installed his mother-in-law there in splendour which seemed to her positively regal, ordered in two dozen of claret, and began to smoke cigars. Then he took a suite of rooms in Duke Street, replenished his wardrobe, and plunged into life. Being handicapped, however, by a weak stomach, an indifferent digestion, and an unquenchable fidelity to his wife, he found the process alike painful and unsatisfying. At the end of a month he was sick of it. He sought out Miss Darcy again, but this time he was wise. He took the ring with him. Miss Darcy was swept off her feet.
"Well, I never did!" she gasped, turning it over in her hand. "So you're really rich, are you, Mr. Midgely?"
"I've got thirty-five thousand pounds," Mr. Midgley declared, sadly; "and it's no use to me without my wife."
Miss Darcy relented.
"Well, I will say you are one to persevere," she admitted; "I've got Rose a shop at the Hilarity with me. She's in the third row of the chorus. Her stage name is Miss Morris."
Mr. Midgley, with evidence before him of the power of diamonds, paid another visit to the jewelers. Long before the curtain went up that evening he was in his place in the stalls, fidgeting restlessly about. When the first act did begin he was almost demented because Rose was certainly not there. With the second scene, however, he felt a wave of relief. A mist was before his eyes. His heart pounded against his ribs. Rose was sitting upon an upturned milking-tub, wearing the abbreviated costume of a shepherdess in some presumably tropical country. He almost blushed when he realized what she must have been through before she had consented to don that costume. On the whole, he was bound to admit it was becoming.
He never took his eyes off her until the curtain went down. Then he made his way boldly back and handed the little note which he had prepared to the box-keeper, together with a liberal offering.
Miss Morris was requested to take supper with an unknown admirer. When the answer came back in the affirmative he boiled with rage. The box-keeper stared at him as he strode out. He could not even console himself with the hope that she might have recognized his handwriting, for he had carefully printed his few words of invitation. It was disgraceful of her! Supper with an unknown admirer, indeed!
It was a wet night, and long before the last act was over Mr. Midgley was making a nuisance of himself, crushed up against the stage-door with an umbrella in his hand and a taxicab waiting. He received at least half-a-dozen snubs from young ladies who were perfect strangers to him, reverses which he bore with the utmost equanimity as soon as he discovered his mistake. When at last Rose came out, she was so heavily veiled that if she had not been wearing the jacket in which she had gone away he might almost have failed to recognize her.
"Miss Morris?" he said, timidly, holding the umbrella over her with one hand and raising his hat with the other. She looked at him in the face, and he quailed.
"Were you my unknown admirer?" she asked.
"I am," he admitted, humbly.
"If you'd been another day without letting me know about it," she declared, "I'd never have spoken to you again. This your taxi?"
She gave him her hand, and let him squeeze it as he handed her in.
"Savoy!" he called out, boldly, and immediately pulled both windows up.
"Do wait until I loosen my veil!" she begged.
In our May number we published an article entitled "A Follow-My-Leader Picture," and in the following pages the same method is applied to the writing of a story, with an extremely interesting result. The story was opened by Mr. E. Phillips Oppenheim, who alone of the contributors was not required to have a complete story outlined in his mind. This opening was then sent to Mr. Pett Ridge, who wrote the next chapter, and also sent a brief statement of the manner in which he thought the whole story might have been completed. These two chapters were then sent on to Mr. Arthur Morrison, who, in the fame manner, added his instalment and his idea of the whole story: and so on, chapter by chapter, till the whole was completed. lt should, of course, be remembered that each writer had before him merely the preceding chapters of the story, and knew nothing whatever of his predecessors' proposed methods of ending it. These explanations are given as footnotes to each chapter, and will be found most interesting as throwing light upon the methods of work of the various eminent fiction-writers, and the way in which a story evolves itself in such widely divergent manners in different minds.
By E. Phillips Oppenheim
THE two young men, complete strangers to one another, exchanged during those few moments a gaze whose intentness seemed to possess some hidden and mysterious quality. Spencer, in flannels and canvas shoes, bare-headed, his sunburnt face streaming with perspiration, paused for a moment, still gripping the pole with which he was propelling his somewhat clumsy craft. The man, a few yards away, who had attracted his attention seemed to have very different ideas of pleasure. Dressed in a spotless suit of white flannels, he was lounging in a wicker chair on the smooth-shaven lawn of a bungalow hung with flowers, whose garden, with its little stone terrace, fronted the stream. He, too, was young and good-looking, but of another type. His lips parted in a faint, good-humoured smile, as Spencer once more raised his pole.
"Hot work, isn't it?" he remarked, lazily.
"Beastly," Spencer replied.
The young man on the lawn touched a glass jug by his side, a jug whose frozen sides suggested ice, and in which green leaves were floating about.
"Care for a drink?" he asked.
Spencer shook his head. "We've sworn off, my pal and I, till we get her into the broad," he answered. "You haven't a cigarette to spare, I suppose?"
The young man rose from his seat and strolled gracefully down the lawn to the river's edge.
"Catch," he said, and threw the box which had been standing by his side into Spencer's outstretched hands.
"Awfully good of you," the latter declared. "Sure you can spare them?"
The young man nodded.
"Plenty more here," he said. "Good day."
Spencer sighed a little enviously as he settled down once more to his task.
"I never, in the whole of my existence," he exclaimed, "saw a fellow who seemed so jolly well satisfied with life!"
Across the cowslip and buttercup-starred meadows, now knee-deep in the mowing grass, now forcing his reckless way through a clump of bushes, a man was running as one might run behind whom came hot-footed all the strange and terrible shapes begotten of a Dantesque nightmare. Terror, livid and appalling, was in his face. Not all the burning heat could bring a spot of colour to his cheeks. Even his parted lips, through which his breath came in gasps and groans, were white. Once he fell, but rose without pausing, heedless of the blood which dripped from his hand and knee. Spencer paused once more with the pole in his hand.
"What, in Heaven's name, is this coming across the coming across the meadow?" he exclaimed.
"It's a madman!" his companion cried. "Look! look!"
The man who approached was running now in circles. His hands were raised to the skies, his head thrust forward. Once more he fell, but picked himself up without a moment's hesitation. Nearer and nearer he came to the river bank.
"My God!" Spencer faltered. "It's the man from the bungalow—the man who gave us our cigarettes!"
The yawl was on the far side of the stream. Between it and the opposite bank the stream, which had widened considerably, was now about fifteen yards wide. The man who had been running paused for the first time as he reached the brink, but only for a second. Without any attempt at diving he simply threw himself in, face downwards. With a dull splash he disappeared under the green weeds. Spencer, who had been stupefied with amazement, hauled up his pole and stepped on to the side of the boat, prepared to dive. His companion stopped him.
"It's all right, Spencer!" he cried. "He's here."
They dragged him on board—a dripping, wild-looking object. They thrust him into their only seat. He cowered there, gripping its sides, and in his face were the unutterable things. Spencer and his companion, who stood staring at him, felt suddenly that the sun had left the heavens. The pleasant warmth was gone, the humming of insects and the singing of birds had ceased. It was another world from which this creature had come. They both shivered.
"What, in Heaven's name, has happened?" Spencer demanded. "What is the matter with you, man?" There was no answer. Spencer caught up his pole.
"Let`s have her round," he cried. "We'll get back to the bungalow."
Then the stranger broke his silence. He shrank back in his place like some stricken animal. In his eyes the terror blazed forth, a live and awful thing.
By W. Pette Ridge
"VERY well, then; we'll take you in to the bank."
"Not there!" he screamed, piteously. "Anywhere else, but not there." He seemed to make a determined effort to pull himself together."Give me something to smoke. It will compose what I call my brain."
"One of your own cigarettes?"
He seized the box eagerly, and, turning aside, made a scoop through the contents.
They lound a clumsy suit of overalls and, landing farther down, he changed rapidly, throwing the damp suit of flannels into the hollow of an old tree.
"Fix up here," he urged, "and let's stroll across to the town, and you give me an opportunity of repaying your kindness by standing you both tea. My story is in many respects a strange one."
They exchanged a perplexed look as he washed his hands in the stream. The three strolled along the path, that went by the side of a field.
"You think I'm a gentleman, he went on, volubly, and, of course, I want people to think so. I dress well, and I aspirate my aitches to such an extent that I deceive a lot of people. As a matter of fact, before I came into my fortune I was a clerk. That was why,"— he beamed, excusingly,"—why I was so upset when you talked about taking me in to bank."
"How did you come by your money?" inquired Spencer, interestedly.
"It was at Folkestone I met her," he went on, mopping his forehead, "whilst I was on my holidays."
"House property she'd got, so far as I could gather, Brondesbury way. The agent was making up to her, but she said she believed in love at first sight, or else not at all. The next morning I had the letter from the lawyers, and, believe me or believe me not—" he raised his bandaged hand impressively—"but since that time she'd gone clean out of my head, until a chance remark of yours brought her back again. 'Awfully good of you,' you said to me, and those were the very words she passed when I paid for her to go down the lift. And now," he shouldered open a gate for them," now I'd give every shilling of my twenty thousand pounds to see her again. Every penny."
"Braddell," remarked Spencer, excitedly, to his friend, "this is something in your line."
"Tell me," said Braddell, "do you know her name and address?"
"Do you know the agent's name and address?"
"Very warm," he commented, approvingly. "I made a note of that at the time, and placed it in the cigarette-box I gave you. Having secured possession of it, our task now is an easy one."
"Your task, you mean.""You can understand my excitement, at any rate. If I'd lost sight of you, my last chance of finding her would have gone. And if you've suffered, as I have, from mothers with daughters who only want a chap because he's come in for a bit of cash, you'll realize, first, why I came down here for quiet; second, why I'm so anxious to find her. If she did love me, undoubtedly she loved me for myself alone. I'll make it worth your while to assist me," he promised. "I sha'n't begrudge a thousand or two."
The two gave a gasp in duet.
"Here we are!" as a lane took them into the main street. "You go on to the Unicorn and order tea and toast for three, whilst I pop in here and buy a hat."
Spencer and Braddell obeyed, consulting eagerly as they went. Coming a few minutes later from the outf1tter's shop in a sou'-wester that went well with his suit, the tenant of the bungalow crossed to the clematis-covered house which bore the words: "POLICE-STATION." He spoke sharply.
"We've met before, perhaps. I am Inspector Wilmerson, of the C.I.D. Very well, then!" without waiting for an answer. "Two sunburnt young men in flannels and canvas shoes are wanted for the Moorgate Street bank robbery. They're about here somewhere. Keep a sharp look-out for them. Good day ! "
"Why," cried the young constable, "dang my eyes if I ain't just seen two answering to that yer description making their way 'long to the hotel. And ain't yours a clever disguise too, sir? I reckon I sh'd do pretty well at the Yard myself."
"Go and arrest them," he ordered, "and bring them here. Take handcuffs!"*
* The man of the bungalow kept a small map in the cigarete-case, giving the exact place of the buried money belonging to the Moorgate Street bank. The local police lock up the two young men, and their efforts, when released. to secure the vanished bungalow man are alded by a renewed acquaintance, in strange surroundings, with the cigarette-case.—W. Pette Ridge.
By Arthur Morrison
MEANTIME, left together, Braddell stared at Spencer, and Spencer lifted his eyebrows and laughed.
"What have we found now?" Spencer remarked. "A madman, an actor, or what? First, on the lawn by his bungalow, a particularly easy-going man of good manners— a gentleman, in two words; then a wild, dancing dervish; and now a very common sort of bounder, who talks about 'repaying' us for hauling him out of the water and putting him into dry clothes by 'standing' us tea—like a beanfeaster!"
"Odd enough," replied Braddell; "but, actor or lunatic, I should say he was a pretty genuinely frightened man when he came bolting across the field. Why, he might have been bitten by the what d'ye call—the Italian spider."
"Yes. It?s a nuisance to be stuck here like this, but I'm rather interested, and there may be fun in seeing it through. We must, in fact, if we want those overalls back—he?s pitched his flannels away!"
The coffee-room of the Unicorn had a small window looking over a corner of garden, and a bagatelle-table stood in the light of this window. Spencer took a cue and drove a ball or two idly up the board, while Braddell watched him.
"He?s slow in his choice of a hat," said Braddell, presently. "I'll stroll out and look for him."
By the door of the tap-room the landlord stood in whispered consultation with a policeman. Braddell unsuspectingly sought to pass between them, and instantly felt himself seized from both sides—and handcuffed!
"What's the meaning of this?" he demanded, with some difficulty, in his blank astonishment.
"All right, all right," replied the young policeman, grinning and winking; "sort of thing they allus say. You ain't obliged to say nothin', but what you do say'll be took down an' used in evidence. Come along!"
By the time that Braddell had gathered his faculties he was alone in a converted scullery of the little clematis-covered police-station, with bars across the window and a locked door. But in five minutes more the door opened before him and revealed his friend Spencer, handcuffed as he had been and accompanied by the Unicorn landlord and the same constable, reinforced now by a flustered sergeant, with crumbs on his whiskers, relics of a rudely-disturbed meal. It took a full half-hour or vehement protest ere the sergeant was persuaded to seek confirmation of the prisoners' bona fides in the search of the yawl; and it took a little longer still, and it needed telegrams, before the sergeant grew possessed of a suspicion that his subordinate had made the biggest blunder of a somewhat blundersome career. The official information as to the Moorgate Street bank robbery, too, could not, however stretched, be made wholly to agree with the appearance of the young men in custody; while the utter disappearance of the alleged Inspector Wilmerson lent a certain weight to one angry protest of Braddell.
"If there's a man wanted about here," Braddell had repeated again and again, "it is that man in the overalls. Go and get his flannels out of the hollow tree half-way along to the bungalow; and, above all, go to the bungalow itself, man, and don't waste more time. It may be the Moorgate Street robbery, or it may be something else; but, whatever it is, get there quick and find out!"
The sergeant was something less of a fool than his man. He hedged and made apologies. Of course, if his man had been misled, it was only from an excess of zeal; and in any case the gentlemen would understand that he, the sergeant, must keep them in sight till the matter had been cleared up. Had they any objection to going with him and the constable as far as the bungalow they spoke of?
"Objection? Certainly not! We want to go. Let's get along at once. There's an hour gone, and nobody can tell what you've missed. Come along at once. You've seen our letters and card-cases and the things in the yawl—you know we sha'n't run away. Come along, and we'll see it through with you."
A few minutes later the two friends, with the sergeant, his helmet in place and the crumbs gone from his whiskers, and the young constable, his hopes of promotion gone by the board, were hurrying across the meadows toward the bungalow that had seemed so peaceful and innocent a retreat when they had last seen it. They came in view of the place from the back, and they spread wide as they approached, the better to intercept any retreat. Not a sound came from the bungalow, and nobody was in sight. They drew nearer, passed the flower-beds, and emerged on the sloping lawn. There stood the small garden-table, with the glass jug still on it, the wicker chair overturned by its side. The white-painted door of the bungalow was open wide, and as they approached the porch something on that white-painted door caused Spencer, who was ahead, to stop and point, turning with wide eyes to the others, There, in the middle of the upper panel, was the print of a human hand—in blood!*
* The two perpetrators of the bank robbery have been lying in retreat at the bungalow. The chase is hot, and the cleverer thief, never yet convicted and wholly unsuspected, fears detection through his companion, an old convict. He resolves to murder him, and thus to get rid of an inconvenient and dangerous partner and monopolize the plunder. Having attacked him from behind in the bungalow and left him for dead, he is disturbed by the approach of the boat. Fearing someone may land, he stations himself on the lawn and behaves as calmly as is described in the opening. The boat passes on. The man in the house revives, seizes a poker, and, covered with blood, staggers out, leaving the print of his hand on the door as he passes. He strikes the cool thief on the head, and the latter, suddenly confronted with the ghastly figure of his associate—a bigger man and a far more desperate character than himself—runs wildly and erratically (because of the blow on the head). The other fellow, badly hurt and seeing strangers, fears to follow far. The thief given refuge in the boat invents a muddled yarn, and realizing that it is muddled plays up to the character of a Crazy Cockney, and gets the two witneeses in the boat held up by the police while he bolts. After this, the story may take any one of a dozen courses, or more.—Arthur Morrison.
By Horace Annesley Vachell
SPENCER exclaimed loudly: "I can swear that wasn't there when he gave me the cigarettes."
"My dear fellow, the door was open. The hand is painted on it, excellently painted too, and recognizable from the river."
"Things seem quiet enough here," growled the sergeant, as he entered the bungalow. Braddell glanced for a moment at the iced drink on the wicker table, the overturned chair, and a newspaper lying upon the grass. He picked up the newspaper and followed the others into the bungalow. Two rooms in perfect order met his eyes. Behind these was a cooking-shed containing a gasolene stove. Everything inside the bungalow and the shed indicated exquisite neatness and cleanliness, not merely the neatness of the bachelor accustomed to camping-out, but the meticulous daintiness which expresses subtly a woman's love of her habitat.
"Nothing here," said the sergeant.
"Nobody," amended Braddell. "Did you expect to find somebody, sergeant?"
"I thought it possible."
"Consider the facts. Hardly had my friend and I come to the conclusion that the tenant of this bungalow was seemingly the happiest and most contented of mortals, when we see him tearing across that field like a dervish."
"Genuinely frightened, too." added Spencer.
"He'd turned from a pretty shade of pink to the colour of skilly!"
"Exactly. What could have frightened him so badly? He was not acting then, although he acted afterwards, and badly, too. His cock-and-bull story about heing a clerk and in love with a nameless woman was quite unconvincing. We left him sitting in front of an iced drink, which I notice to be untouched—odd that!—and reading this paper."
"Ah!" said the sergeant. "You mean, sir, that something he read in the paper must have scared him."
"I have found the item, I think." said Braddell, as he handed the paper to the professional.
Spencer said with pride:—
"My friend, Mr. Braddell, is not altogether an amateur. He belongs to the Criminologists, a dining-club made up of men interested in crime. Several K.C.'s are members."
"There's a Column about the Moorgate Street bank robbery," said thc sergeant.
"Which accounts for his mentioning it later. Look through the 'Agony' column, sergeant."
"I have it, sir." He read aloud: "'Red Hand. Your hiding-place is discovered. Bolt at once.'"
"By Jove, he did!" exclaimed Spencer.
"We are wasting our time here," said the sergeant, irritably.
"Not altogether," replied Braddell. "May I suggest that you leave your man here to see if anybody comes, rather thirsty, to enjoy that drink?"
"Remain here," said the sergeant, addressing the constable.
"Before we leave," murmured Braddell, suavely, "I should like to open that trunk, which I perceive to be locked. No doubt, sergeant, it has not escaped your eye that there is neither shaving-brush nor shaving-soap on the washing-stand."
The sergeant coloured.
"I don't mention all I see." he remarked, in an injured tone. He bent down and wrenched open the trunk. Spencer, peeping over his shoulder, whistled. The trunk was full of a woman's clothing.
"I thought there was a woman in this," said the sergeant. "The sooner we lay hands on the man the better."
"A bungalow built for two," murmured Braddell, absently.
Leaving the constable in charge, the three men hastened back to the town, taking the tow-path as being the shortest way. At the first bend in the river Braddell halted and laughed.
"We now know," he affirmed, with conviction, "where the young gentleman really is." He smiled genially at the sergeant and pointed down the long reach ahead.
"Where?" asked the sergeant.
"On board our yawl."
Spencer laughed also.
"I don't see the joke," said the sergeant.
"I don't see the yawl," added Spencer.
"The yawl," replied Braddell, " is running down the estuary on an ebb tide, and the joke is on—us."
"The beggar got us arrested so as to commandeer our boat," said Spencer. "Clever chap, eh, sergeant?"
"Tub like that can't have gone far," said the sergeant, hopefully. Obviously, the young gentleman was no ordinary criminal.
"Tub yourself!" thought Spencer, with a scornful glance at the sergeant's rotundities. Then he heard Braddell's pleasant voice saying:—
"I suggest, sergeant, that we examine the young gentleman's flannels. They may be marked."
"He changed behind those willows," said Spencer, "and stuffed the wet clothes into that old pollard."
A moment later Braddell was thrusting his hand into the hollow of the tree. He flung upon the grass the sodden fiannels and a bundle of wet linen. With a smile he held up an unmistakable garment.
"I am sure, sergeant, that this is no surprise for you. The young gentleman who was too modest to change before us is a young—lady!" *
* The young woman is not a criminal of sanguine hue, but a modern miss who has bolted from an irascible guardian to escape a marriage of convenience, and has donned trousers so as to avoid attracting attention as a pretty girl alone in a bungalow. Upon the morning when the story opens she is expecting her lover, who will recognize the bungalow as he punts down the river by the red hand painted on the door, a happy symbol, inasmuch as the lover is a bnronet, albeit rather impecunious. They have corresponded—since the young lady left hom—-by means of the Agony column in the Daily Mail. The young lady, not quite of age, is a ward in Chancery, and the moment she is of age she hopes to marry her baronet, enjoying the while a quiet life in the bungalow, punctuated by visits from her beloved. The constable left in charge arrests the guardian and complications follow, including the capture of the runaway, who finds herself at the mercy of wind and tide. Braddell plays the familiar part of Deus ex machina, and true love triumphs.—H. A. Vachell.
By Barry Pain.
"THIS," said the sergeant, frankly, "is getting a bit beyond me."
"What do you mean to do?" asked Spencer.
"Get back to the station and get on the 'phone. I can have our men on the look-out for that yawl all the way along. By the time we get the yawl we get the young lady, don?t we, sir?"
"I presume so," said Spencer.
"I don't," said Braddell. "Well, get on to the station, sergeant, and we'll go back to the bungalow. What about your man there?"
The sergeant caressed his whiskers thoughtfully. "Well," he said, "we're short-handed."
"Very well," said Braddell. "We'll send him back and remain there ourselves until this evening. Did you say that you meant to have a constable sleeping at the bungalow to-night?"
"If I did not, it was in my mind."
"Good. You might engage bedrooms for us to-night at the Unicorn. It will be all on your way."
They went back to the bungalow and dimissed the constable, who was rapidly developing into a young man with a grievance. Spencer stretched himself at full length on the lawn. "And what do we do now?" he asked.
"l`m going to feed the dicky-birds," said Braddell.
Spencer sat up. "Have you gone mad?" he said.
"Wait and see, as they say in another place."
Braddell went laughing into the house. and returned with a piece of bread in his hand. He picked up the glass jug.
"Smell that," he said to Spencer, "and tell me what you make of it."
Spencer smelt it diligently.
"Cup of sorts, I suppose, and the young lady's rather overdone the Kirschwasser. The thing reeks of it. I'll just taste it and—"
Braddell took the jug out of his hand.
"Half a minute," he said. He poured some of the contents of the jug on to the piece of bread and then broke it up and scattered it at the far end of the lawn.
"Bet you the birds don't touch it," said Spencer. "They've plenty of better grub this weather."
"Oh, you can depend on the sparrows," said Braddell.
And presently a couple of sparrows fluttered down on to the lawn and tackled the crumbs vigorouslyn. In a few seconds they rolled over dead.
"Great Scot!" said Spencer. "And that was the stuff the young lady wanted me to drink!"
"Quite so," said Braddell. "Prussic acid smells very much like Kirschwasser. The addition of the borage and ice was quite a happy thought. I don`t think our friend is a very moral young lady. but I`m absolutely convinced she's a very clever young lady."
"Well, now, Braddell," said Spencer, "what do you make of it so far?"
"I can only see what is perfectly obvious. She was in hiding—from whom I do not know. She wanted her hiding-place to be easily distinguished by someone coming up the water. For whom she was waiting I do not know. There you have it. There was some person from whom she wished to hide, and there was some person by whom she wished to be found—hence the red hand painted on the door. But there is a further complication that I have not yet reached. When we saw her running across the meadow she was mad with terror. There is no doubt about it. Why? And what was it she took out from that box of cigarettes she had given us? The game of hide-and-seek is obvious, but there must be a second complication. It is quite possible, by the way. that when she offered you that drink she mistook you for somebody else."
"But what's the key to the second complication?"
"Can't say. But this is the key to the bureau in the drawing-room. At any rate, it fits it. Quite a common lock. I tried it when I went in for the bread. Come and investigate."
"I say," said Spencer, "what business have we got with her bureau?"
"Hang it all " said Braddell. What business has she got with our boat?
"By the way," went on Braddell, as they walked back into the house together, "she did not fling herself into the water because she was terrified nor because she wished to commit suicide. People who want to drown themselves don't do it where there are two lusty young men waiting to fish them out again. She wanted to be fished out. You can bet on that,at any rate. I wish I had her lightning rapidity in plan and execution. I should be a great man, Spencer." *
* The lady on the lawn was the head and brains of a gang of thieves. The bungalow in which she was taking refuge was haunted. Her terror was in consequence of this and genuine. Others of her gang were to have joined her at the bungalow, and she was waiting for them when she received the warning that the detectives were on her track. The poisoned drink was intended for the detectives.—Barry Pain.
By Charles Garvice
WITH not unreasonable nervousness Braddell unlocked the bureau, Spencer looking over his shoulder with feverish curiosity. The thing unlocked quite easily. Braddell threw up the lid, and Spencer exclaimed with amazement, for, quite, uncovered, were a number of bags such as are used by banks for gold. There could be no doubt about the contents, for one of the bags was open, revealing a mass of sovereigns. Beside the bags was a quantity of bank-notes, and tucked away in the corner was an old stable cap, with one end of a crèpe mask still attached to it.
The two men fell back and stared at each other.
"Great heavens!" gasped Spencer. "There must be thousands of pounds there! We've come upon the loot of a gang of thieves."
He looked round the neatly-furnished room, through the door at the beautiful and peaceful scene. The whole place in its loveliness and serenity was absolutely incongruous with so mean and sordid a crime as bank-cribbing.
"It's—it's a mystery!" exclaimed Spencer, dropping on to a chair and wiping his brow.
"Nothing of the kind," said Braddell, quietly. "It's all perfectly plain and simple. Some of the gang, two of them, perhaps— the clever young lady and a man, probably —have been using this bungalow as a kind of screen and blind. No doubt they've been living here for months, leading the kind of simple life which would mislead anyone. For who would suspect a young girl—and her husband, probably—dawdling through existence in such circumstances as these, of being concerned in a conspiracy to rob a bank? And, still more, who would think of searching for the stolen money in such a place as this? It was a very pretty plant, and I can't for the life of me understand why it failed. One would have thought it would have been the easiest thing in the world to have got the loot away by boat. I think I could have done it."
"Something must have disturbed them," said Spencer. "Something evidently did upset her, for she was mad with terror when we saw her tearing down the lawn. What was it?"
"Something she saw, something she heard," said Braddell. "It may have been the red hand on the door. It may have been a warning signal, the imitated note of a bird, a faint cooee, which we didn't notice, but which she heard immediately after we had gone."
"What's to be done?" asked Spencer, staring at the precious contents of the bureau.
"I'll go and fetch the police to take this stuff away. You stay here and mount guard over it," said Braddell.
"No; I'll go," said Spencer, a little paler than he had been before, "and you mount guard. No; you sha'n't run any risk, old man. We'll both go. No one is likely to interfere with this stuff for the short time we shall be absent. To be quite frank, I couldn't leave you alone here. This place, the whole thing, is getting on my nerves."
Braddell re-locked the bureau, and they set out at a sharp trot for the station.
"What I can't understand," said Spencer, "is that poisoned cup. Whom was it meant for, and why did she offer it to us? No object in killing a couple of chaps she'd never seen before."
"I don't know," said Braddell, musingly. "If she'd done for both of us it would have been easy to have pushed us overboard, seized the yawl, and escaped."
"Ingenious, but a trifle risky," commented Spencer, with a shake of the head. "One may go in for bank-cribbing, but draw the line at murder. Here we are. They seem in a state of excitement. I'll bet they'll lose their heads altogether when we show them what we've found."
The sergeant stared when Braddell curtly requested him to accompany them back to the bungalow and to bring a small sack; but Braddell refused any explanation, and the sergeant and a constable—the latter with the sack over his arm—returned with the two young men to the bungalow. With a gesture that was instinctively dramatic Braddell unlocked the bureau, threw up the lid, and, with his eyes fixed on the sergeant, said:—
"Put it in the sack."
"Put what, sir?" demanded the sergeant, staring amazedly.
Braddell tumed his eyes swiftly to the open bureau and saw that it was empty. He was too thunderstruck to utter a word, and it was Spencer who gasped out:—
"That thing was full of notes and gold when we left a quarter of an hour ago."
The sergeant looked from Braddell to Spencer with a surprise which gradually gave place to a mixture of suspicion and pity.
"There's nothing there now, sir," he said, as he swept his hand round the inside of the bureau. "It's quite empty; not even a scrap of paper or a—hairpin. Sure you saw it, sir?"
"Sure!" exclaimed Spencer, indignantly. "Do you think we've taken leave of our senses?"
"Well, sir, you've 'ad an upsetting time," responded the sergeant, apologetically.
"Someone has been here," said Braddell, suddenly; "someone strong enough to carry off the money. They can't have gone far; there must be some traces."
He sprang to the door and, bending down, examined the gravel path; but it had been closely rolled and neatly swept, and there were no traces of footsteps. But a little farther on he found, on the edge of the grass, the impress of a man's shoe, a boating shoe which had been recently whitened, for there was a speck or two of pipeclay on the edge of the footprint.
"Come along." he cried, in a voice trembling with excitement.
They followed him as he tracked the footprints. They went straight for the shrubbery at a little distance from the bungalow. Braddell stopped here and pointed to the bush in front of him. Some of the twigs had been broken, as if a person had rushed through the bush, heedless of where he was going.
"Better go round," he said. "We won't disturb this."
They found an opening a little lower down in the shrubbery, and Braddell cautiously entered, signing to the others to keep back. They waited almost breathlessly; then suddenly they heard a sharp, low cry from Braddell, and the next moment he came out, clutching the branches on each side of him as if for support. His face was deathly white, and he gazed over their heads as if he were obsessed by some horrible sight.*
* The girl, a member of a good family, had fallen into the hands of a professional thief, at handsome, fascinating scoundrel. The two had been concerned in the bank robbery, the proceeds of which the had secreted in the bungalow, where they had been living for some time. They had arranged to meet at the bungalow, whence they were to escape in disguise. The girl had put on a man's flannel boating suit and was awaiting her accomplice when Spencer and Braddell's yawl came up. After they had gone she went to the house, and saw the red hand, a warning sign, on the door. She was about to take flight when she came upon the body of her accomplice lying in the shrubbery behind the bungalow. He had committed suicide by drinking the cup, which she did not know contained poison when she offered it to Spencer. A third accomplice who had been watching had made off with the contents of the bureau while Spencer and Braddell had gone for the police. The girl and the rest of the gang were captured and sent to penal servitude.—Charles Garvice.
By Richard Marsh
"PARDON me." A man had stepped out from among the bushes who was regarding them with a smile. "Excuse me, gentlemen, this is all right as far as it goes, but the point is how far does it go? That's the point."
"There's a dead body lying on the ground where that man?s just come from," Braddell stammered to the sergeant. "I saw it with my own eyes."
"Of course you did, and a very nice one it is."
"What fiend in human shape," cried Braddell, facing the grinning stranger, "have we got here?"
"That's the point, as I was about to remark. "How far have we got? I killed him—"
"You killed him? You killed the man who is lying there? You admit it?"
"Certainly I killed him; that's the idea. I gave him five blows with a hatchet. While he was struggling for life he caught hold of whatever he could, and that's his bloody hand which you see upon the door-post. She saw it, the young lady who was dressed as a gent, and she did a bunk. Half-mad with tenor she was: we'd got her just right—we wanted to get her like that, you know; into the water she goes, then you come on the scene, and that's as far as we've got."
"It seems to me that you've got some distance." Spencer was surveying the stranger with a glance which, perhaps, insufticiently showed, his bewilderment.
"Are you a murderer, or merely a criminal lunatic, or what are you, sir?"
"Yes, what am I? That's another point. We haven't got so far as that."
Taking off his straw hat, the stranger passed a hlue silk handkerchief across his brow. "Of course, the idea was that I was to cut her throat, drag her out of the water by the hair of her head, and, as she lay gasping for breath on the bank, slit it from ear to ear; but, as I was about to remark, 1hat's what we haven't quite got to."
"Haven't you? You may thank your lucky stars that your carnival of crime was not played out." Spencer`s tones were portentous. "Sergeant, do you happen to have a pair of handcuffs in your pocket? If ever there was an occasion on which they were required, surely this is one."
"I'm thinking l've met this chap before," the sergeant remarked.
"You have, sergeant, when I gave you half a crown to smash my friend's head open with your truncheon; then we had a hand-to-hand fight, after I'd thrown my wife out of the window."
"I remember," agreed the constable; "I remember very well. You made that half a crown five shillings."
"It was worth it; you put up something like a iight; you'd have killed me if my friend hadn't thrown you out of the window after my wife. Excuse me, gentlemen, but it occurs to me"—the stranger turned to Braddell and Spencer with the friendliest possible gesture—"that this may require a little explanation; something in your attitude suggests it. Perhaps you will find it here."
From a letter-case he took two cards, presenting one to each gentleman. They were inscribed:-
The finest world produces!!
More Terror, Tears and Laughter to the Square Inch
Than Those of Any Other Firm in the Universe!
The Very Latest Cinematograph Company
3, 5 & 7, Corkcutter Alley, St. Martin's Lane.
Reprsentative, Jack Thompson.
"That's me, gentlemen. I'm Jack Thompson, very much at your service. We were rehearsing a little idea in which the intention was to cram more varieties of bloodshed and crime than have ever been crammed into twelve hundred feet before—a film full of human interest, with a heart-to-heart ending. And when you came upon the scene that was as far as we`d got."
"And why," exclaimed a voice behind them, "you wish to waste good Kirschwasser on making two sparrows dead drunk is beyond me altogether."
The speaker picked up two sparrows which were making some rather singular attempts to walk across the lawn.
"Drunk?" murmured spencer. "I thougnt they were dead."
"Of course you did; you'd think anything—you're such a nice young man." The speaker plunged a pair of hands into his two trouser pockets. "You thought I was a man. Well, I'm not, I'm a girl; and that's as far as I've got."
THE senior member of the firm had himself left the mysterious privacy of his inner office to offer a. few stereotyped but honeyed remarks to the young lady from the highly-esteemed Manchester firm of Messrs. Harrison and Peters, Limited. The salesman, the assistant-salesman, and Mr. Henry Podmore, manager of the department in which the young lady's purchases had been made, stood by during the process ready to smile at the slightest provocation, eager to pounce once more upon their customer the moment their chief should think fit to retire. But the chief was in no hurry. The young lady was trim and smart and bright. She was also remarkably good-looking.
"I should like," Mr. Bedells said—Mr. Bedells was the senior partner in the firm of Messrs. Bedells, Clumber, and Company— "to glance through Miss-Miss Gray's order, just to see if anything occurs to me."
Mr. Podmore dexterously whipped an order-book from under his arm and laid it open before his chief.
"This is as far as we have gone at present, sir," he pronounced, with some emphasis upon the last phrase. "We still have hopes of interesting Miss Gray in our more expensive jet ornaments"
Miss Gray, who was lithe and supple, raised herself lightly on to the mahogany counter and swung her feet backwards and forwards. She wore grey stockings and grey suede shoes, and her ankles were irreproachable. Mr. Podmore caught her eye and glanced away hurriedly. For a partially-engaged young man he was a little ashamed of himself. Miss Gray continued to swing her feet. Her right fingers were clasped now around her right knee, and her left—well, there was more than her ankle to be seen in her new position. Mr. Podmore distinctly blushed. Miss Gray stared at him curiously. This was in London, and Miss Gray came from Manchester. She had been warned against London young men. Besides, she knew Mr. Jenkins, who was traveller to the firm and who came to Manchester. She know him quite well, and she had never seen him blush.
"Very satisfactory, I am sure," Mr. Bedells remarked, having completed his perusal of this most interesting order. "Some of the prices are just a little fine—those bugles, Mr. Podmore."
"Quite so, sir," Mr. Podmore admitted, "but I can assure you that we found Miss Gray most difficult on the subject of bugles. I explained that the price upon which she insisted left us barely a living profit."
"Same price as I can get them at within a hundred yards from here,"the young lady informed him.
"Really!" Mr. Bedells sighed. He hated the mention of rivals. "Profits, as we used to understand them in the old days," he continued, sorrowfully, "no longer exist. Disappeared entirely, I can assure you."
"You seem to do pretty well, "Miss Gray remarked, consolingly. "Nice motor-car you got out of as I came in."
Mr. Bedells coughed. Was it his fancy, he wondered, or was this young lady inclined to be a trifle familiar?
Miss Gray prepared to depart.
Mr. Bedells again coughed. It was an old-fashioned firm and it had old-fashioned methods, especially with country customers.
"Mr. Jenkins's absence is indeed regrettable," he said. "He was compelled to go to Leeds quite unexpectedly, or I know he would have been delighted to offer you the hospitality which it is the custom of the employees of our firm to tender to our friends from a distance."
"Told me he'd be here all the week," the young lady remarked, with the slightest possible toss of her head.
"If you would allow one of my other young gentlemen to take his place," Mr. Bedells continued, soothingly; "Mr. Podmore—the manager of the department—would, I am sure, be delighted to offer you the usual hospitalities. London, Miss Gray, is no place for a young lady alone."
"Quite so,"Miss Gray agreed. "I've found that out already. A girl can't even go to a decent restaurant without being stared at, much more the Exhibition, or anywhere like that. If Mr. Podmore is free, then?" she added, glancing questioningly toward that young gentleman.
Mr. Podmore was tall and fair and inclined to be thin. He had a pink and white complexion, and, although when in business his zeal made him oblivious of it, he was really exceedingly and painfully nervous. He met Miss Gray's confident little glance with something akin to positive apprehension. He said absolutely nothing at all. His mouth was slightly open, his ears seemed suddenly protuberant. He was glib enough in the discussion of business details, all of which he had at his fingers' ends, but the prospect of spending an evening alone with this attractive young woman reduced him to a state of speechlessness. Besides, there was Millicent!
"Of course, if you have any engagement," Miss Gray began.
"Mr. Podmore, I am sure, has no engagement that he cannot easily break," Mr. Bedells said, a little severely.
"Quite easily. No engagement at all," Mr. Podmore protested, suddenly conscious of his failure to meet the situation. "Delighted, Miss Gray! Anything I can do, I am sure! Great pleasure!"
"Very well, then," the young lady remarked," that's settled. You can take me downstairs now, please, and get me a taxicab."
Miss Gray made her adieux. Mr. Podmore, a trifle awkwardly, escorted her to the ground floor in the lift, and more awkwardly still piloted her across the warehouse and past the offices. He sent a porter for a taxicab, and they stood together upon the step until it arrived.
"No. 8, Eden Street, Bloomsbury, my address is," the young lady declared. "Not a minute later than a quarter-past seven, mind, and I should like to see the new piece at the Gaiety. You needn't bother about stalls; dress circle will do quite well."
Mr. Podmore, who did not, as a rule, visit the theatre, and who had certainly never visited any part of it except the pit, looked a little vague.
"You'll dress, of course?" she added, as the cab arrived. "Good-bye!"
The cab drove off. Miss Gray, leaning out of the window, waved a daintily-gloved hand at him. Mr. Podmore slowly withdrew into the warehouse. He felt that he had a lot to think about.
First of all there was, as he had remembered once before, Miss Millicent Woodward. As he passed the glass-enclosed offices on the ground floor his attention was attracted by a sharp tapping. He obeyed the summons without hesitation. Miss Woodward, who was the senior typist, and sat at a small table alone, wished to ask him a question.
"Whatever were you doing with that strange-looking young woman, Henry?" she inquired, with some curiosity, not unmixed with acidity.
Mr. Podmore straightened his tie.
"Important customer of the firm," he answered in a stage whisper—"Miss Gray, a buyer from Harrison's, of Manchester. We've just booked a capital order from her."
Miss Woodward arched her eyebrows.
She was rather an insignificant-looking person, undersized and with sallow complexion. Her eyebrows were, perhaps, her best feature.
"What an extraordinary idea to send out a young woman like that to buy things!" she exclaimed.
Mr. Podmore smiled.
"Come," he said, "I don't quite see why you should be the one to object. You're always on about women being able to undertake any work a man can do. How about your paper the other night on 'Careers Open to a Woman'? It's trimmings and bows she buys, and that sort of thing—just what you suggest a woman ought to be able to buy better than a man."
Miss Woodward tossed her head.
"Certain women," she declared, "are, without a doubt, suited for a great many posts at present given to men. The young lady whom you are speaking of was a different type. For one thing, I should say that she was much too stylishly dressed for the part."
"Well, I don't know about that," Mr. Podmore replied. "When we send a man on the road he wears a silk hat and black coat-dresses a jolly sight better than we stay-at-homes."
Miss Woodward reflected—and Mr. Podmore looked at her with new eyes. Certainly she was plain, according to his new standard. Her face was rather long and thin and entirely colourless. Her eyes and eyebrows were moderately good, but the former were spoilt by a pair of spectacles, which she confessed that she wore from preservative reasons rather than from any actual necessity. Her attire was unfashionable and unbecoming, though neat. Her smooth hair was brushed back from her forehead in uncompromising stiffness. Mr. Podmore was compelled to remind himself vigorously of her intellectual gifts.
"The matter," she remarked, drawing her notebook towards her, "is not worth arguing. Don't forget the Mutual to-night, if I get away first. I hear that Mr. Smith's paper will be most interesting."
The thing had to be done. Mr. Podmore plunged.
"I sha'n't be able to come to the Mutual to-night," he said. "The governor's ordered me to entertain the young lady who has just gone out-Miss Gray. She's up from Manchester on business, and has no friends in London."
There was a moment's silence.
"Do you mean the young lady who was with you just now?" Miss Woodward asked. Mr. Podmore signified that such was the case.
"Jenkins should have looked after her," he explained, "but he's away—gone to Leeds on a special trip. You know, the governor always insists upon having customers of the firm entertained. I didn't volunteer. He simply pitched upon me because she'd been buying in my department."
"Couldn't you have told Mr. Bedells that you had an engagement for this evening?" Miss Woodward asked, severely.
"It would have been most unwise," he replied. "The governor doesn't like anyone even to hesitate when he suggests anything. There is the question of my salary pending, too."
Miss Woodward struck a key of her typewriter vigorously and recommenced her work. Mr. Podmore departed to enter up his order. To all outward appearance, the establishment of Messrs. Bedells, Clumber, and Company remained otherwise unaffected by the visit of the young lady buyer from Manchester.
Shortly after seven Podmore, who had walked from the nearest tube, and who was a little splashed about the feet, presented himself at No. 8, Eden Street, Bloomsbury. He was admitted by a neat little maid-servant, and confronted in the narrow passage by a spectacle at once alarming, miraculous, and beautiful. It was Miss Gray, in an evening dress of blue chiffon, with a broad band of blue satin around her waist, the end of which hung down almost to her feet. She was carrying a grey silk theatre coat, also lined with blue satin. Her neck and shoulders were bare, her hair was ornamented with a band of blue ribbon. She was wearing shoes and silk stockings of the same colour. Mr. Podmore had read of such costumes; he had even seen them in the lobbies of the theatres. But it had never occurred to him as a reasonable possibility that he might be brought into actual and personal association with the wearer of one. The rain ran from his umbrella into a little pool upon the floor while he stood and gaped at this unexpected vision. Miss Gray, in the meantime, from her position underneath the swinging hall-lamp, was eyeing his costume with considerable surprise, not to say disfavour.
"I thought we agreed to dress?" she remarked, a little tartly. The significance of her speech dawned tardily upon him.
"l am sorry," he answered, humbly; "I haven't got a dress-coat. I didn't think you meant that."
Miss Gray was not only a good-natured girl, but she possessed a sense of humour. The dismay in the face of this fresh-coloured, gawky young man, so painfully conscious of his ill-cut frock-coat, grey trousers, and thick boots, appeased her irritation. Perhaps his obvious and almost worshipful admiration helped. She gave him her cloak to put on, which he did very clumsily. His eyes all the time were fixed upon her shoulders. There was an odd little perfume from her hair and clothes which disturbed him.
"I suppose you kept your cab?" she asked.
"I walked from the tube," he replied. "I have an umbrella."
"Whistle for a taxi," she ordered the maid-servant. "My dear young man," she continued, a little irritably, raising her skirt a few inches, "you don't suppose I could walk to the tube in these shoes, do you?"
Mr. Podmore might with justice have reminded her that he had not, previous to his coming, seen her shoes, or any others like them; but he imagined silence to be more discreet. A taxicab was brought, and he held his umbrella over her whilst she crossed the pavement. She manipulated her skirts in such fashion that there was not the slightest chance of their getting wet—and Mr. Podmore got a little pinker in the face.
"Where to, sir?" the chauffeur asked him.
"Trocadero," Podmore replied, with more confidence. Here, at least, he felt that he was on sure ground. He had sought advice upon the subject. Nevertheless, Miss Gray made a little grimace.
"Regular rendezvous for us poor people from the country," she remarked.
"Is there anywhere else—?"
"I prefer the Savoy," she interrupted; "but perhaps the Trocadero to-night is more suitable."
Podmore was once more conscious of his attire, but from that moment her good-nature returned. She only laughed at him when he discovered, to his dismay, that he was the only one in the restaurant not in evening clothes. She helped him tactfully out of all the embarrassments of ordering the dinner. These, however, were scarcely over when a gorgeous person with a chain around his neck produced a volume bound in calf, which he tendered to Podmore.
"We've ordered," the latter apprised him.
"The wine, sir!" the man whispered, reproachfully.
Wine! Podmore took the volume and fingered it doubtfully. The man had deftly opened it at champagnes.
"Something quite dry, please," Miss Gray murmured.
But her request only left Podmore in a worse plight than ever. The man took pity upon him.
"Number seventy-eight is an excellent wine, sir," he whispered, confidentially. "Quite a lady's wine, too. You couldn't do better, I am sure."
"Bring that, then," Podmore ordered, closing the book with a sigh of relief.
"On ice, sir?"
"Just the same to me," Podmore declared, waving him away.
"On ice, certainly," the young lady directed.
Podmore looked around him with an expression almost of awe. Miss Gray, who was drawing off her gloves and who looked very superior, was more puzzled at her escort than ever.
"Do you mind my asking you a few questions?" she began, leaning a little forward.
"Not a bit," he replied.
"Sure you won't mind?"
"Go ahead and try," he begged.
"Have you ever taken a girl out to dine before? "
"Never," he answered, promptly. "I've taken Miss Woodward to tea at Lyons's once or twice."
"And who is Miss Woodward? "
"Senior typist at Bedells's."
"A great friend?" Miss Gray asked, insinuatingly.
"I'm sort of half-engaged to her," he admitted, with a curious reluctance—only half."
Miss Gray was thoughtful for a moment.
"How do you manage when you're half-engaged?" she inquired.
He looked a little vague.
"Well, we go about together," he explained.
"We go to the Mutual Benefit Society two evenings a week, and generally sit together at church."
Miss Gray bit her lip.
"Nothing, except that I suppose we should spend holiday times together," he went on, doubtfully. "You see, I haven't known her very long. We are both interested in the Mutual Benefit."
"Is she pretty?" she asked presently. Mr. Podmore shook his head.
"Oh, no! She isn't a bit like you," he added, and his eyes and tone were very expressive indeed.
Miss Gray was pleased.
"So you think I'm nice-looking?"
"I think you're—you're wonderful!" he declared, marvelling for the first time at the poverty of the English language.
She changed the subject.
"You don't mind my going on asking questions? I'm afraid I am rather inquisitive."
"Not a bit," he assured her.
"How much do you get a week?"
"Two pounds eighteen," he replied, promptly. He was rather proud of it, and watched her a little anxiously to note the result of his admission. Miss Gray, however, turned up her nose.
"Two pounds eighteen, and manager of your department!" she exclaimed. "It isn't enough. Any commission?" .
"No! I've been there since I was fourteen; started with three-and-sixpence," he wound up.
To him it seemed, as it always had done, a thrilling example of a brilliant and meteoric rise. Miss Gray, however, shook her head.
?Your firm is not given to generosity," she remarked. "Do you save anything?"
"Half my salary," he declared. "I haven't spent more than half for over ten years."
"Thinking of getting married soon?"
Mr. Podmore blushed. She was certainly a bold young lady. Neither Miss Woodward nor he, in their frequent conversations, had ever so much as mentioned the word.
"No!" he assured her, fervently.
The dinner which was presently served to them was like a dream of fairyland to him. A band played voluptuous music, he tasted champagne for the first time in his life, and it amused his companion to be kind. They went afterwards to a music-hall instead of the theatre, again on account of his costume, and Mr. Podmore saw things upon the stage which took his breath away. He had been brought up by a maiden aunt only recently deceased, and his surroundings since then had been such that it had never occurred to him to take advantage of his liberty. Hence his three hundred and forty-two pounds in the bank; hence, too, that tolerant interest which Miss Gray certainly took in him. After the performance she insisted upon supper—more fairy-like tables, illuminated only with rose-shaded lights, more music, more visions of other beautiful women with white necks and bare shoulders. He felt the influence of all these things, but his eyes seldom left his companion's face. After all, she found it quite an amusing evening.
"Remember," she enjoined him, as they entered the taxi-cab to drive homeward, "you're to charge up every penny you've spent to the firm. I'm their guest, you understand? Mr. Jenkins always did."
He suddenly hated Jenkins with a fierce and determined hatred. He was in a very bad way indeed.
"Very well," he said. "If I—if I buy a dress suit, will you come out with me next time you are in London?"
She laughed at the suppressed eagerness in his tone. "What would Miss Woodward say?" she murmured.
?I don't care," he answered. "I want you to come with me. Will you?"
"I think perhaps I may," she promised.
"You really are quite nice, and it is such a relief to meet a young man who doesn't know everything."
They were side by side in the cab. Outside it was raining and the window-panes were blurred. She leaned a little towards him. His heart was beating like a, sledge-hammer.
"If you like," she whispered softly, "you may give me just one kiss—here!"
She indicated the spot on her cheek with her forefinger. He sat quite still. Only his eyes glowed. She laughed mockingly.
"I shall have to show you how, I suppose. Give me your hand—no, the right hand. You put your arm gently around my waist like that, you take off your hat—that's right, throw it on the opposite seat. Now you lean over and you may kiss me once, quite gently, where I told you."
She turned her cheek towards him. Suddenly Mr. Podmore discovered himself. She felt herself held as though she were in a vice by a pair of exceedingly strong arms. Mr. Podmore kissed her not once but at least half-a-dozen times—and not at all on the spot to which he had been directed. When at last he let her go, she was breathless.
"Oh!" she gasped, and looked out of the window. She was also, for the first time during the evening, speechless.
Mr. Podmore was triumphant.
"I'd like to do it again!" he declared, daringly.
She turned slowly towards him. Her face was flushed and her eyes were twinkling.
"I wonder what Miss Woodward would say to that!" she murmured.
Mr. Podmore found out, for on the next evening he told her. She listened to his faithful narration of the whole evening's proceedings with grim disapproval. When, however, it came to the ride home—and she cross-examined him with such skill that there was very little which remained untold—her sallow cheeks were almost pink. Mr. Podmore, notwithstanding the remnants of his partiality, was forced to admit to himself that she looked spiteful.
"After that, Henry Podmore," she decided, tossing her head, "I prefer to go to the Mutual alone."
"I was afraid you'd feel like that," he confessed, with an immense sense of relief, "but I had to tell you."
"A common, over-dressed creature!" Miss Woodward continued. "Coming to London alone to buy things, indeed! A woman commercial traveller! Henry Podmore, I'm ashamed of you!"
"I won't listen to a word against her," he declared, hotly.
"Then you'd better go away or stop your ears," Miss Woodward retorted.
Mr. Podmore obeyed, and that episode of his life was closed.
Mr. Podmore bought his dress suit and made other additions to his wardrobe. He discontinued his subscription to the Mutual Benefit Society and visited several of the theatres mentioned by Miss Gray as being deserving of his notice. He sat in the gallery and strove conscientiously to cultivate a liking for what he saw. Sometimes he succeeded, at other times he failed. He really had a very correct taste, distorted a little by the cramped culture of his ill-directed self-education, undertaken for the most part hand in hand with Miss Woodward. He also read certain books recommended by Miss Gray, and in this direction he was even more successful. Novels up till now he had deliberately avoided, especially modem ones, and he was amazed at the quality and interest of what he read. He quickly went through her list and commenced on others. All the time he counted the days as they dragged by. Business was reported good in the north, and no orders by post had come in from the firm of Harrison and Peters, Limited. At any day she might appear.
One morning Jenkins came in. He had just returned from a journey, and he was a very important man indeed. He spent an hour or so with Podmore, looking out his orders and bustling about generally. The latter waited as long as he could, and then asked the question which had been trembling upon his lips for so long.
"Anything for Harrison and Peters?"
"Buyer's coming up this week," Jenkins replied, consulting his notebook-? Thursday or Friday morning, most likely. Remind me to be in the way. Likes plenty of attention that young woman does."
"We managed to do fairly well with her when she was here the time you were in Leeds," Podmore remarked, contriving somehow or other to keep his voice steady. Mr. Jenkins nodded.
"They were wanting the stuff badly. By the by, did anyone take her out from here?"
"I did," Podmore replied. Jenkins stared at him for a moment. Then he burst out laughing.
"Lord, what a joke!" he exclaimed. "Excuse me, Podmore, old chap, but it is funny, you know. Where did you take her? Did you try the Mutual Benefit, or was there a conversazione at the Y.M.C.A.?"
"If there had been," Podmore answered, "I should not have taken her there."
Mr. Jenkins once more gave himself up to a hearty appreciation of the joke. He was a big, dark man, with sallow cheeks, black eyes, of which he was particularly proud, a carefully-waxed moustache, and a bustling manner.
"By jove, that`s funny, though!" he repeated. "Where did you take her to dine anyhow, Podmore, eh? To one of the select tea-rooms? I wonder she didn't tell me about it. It must have been dashed amusing!"
"Why?" Podmore asked, quietly.
Mr. Jenkins wiped his eyes.
"Don't ask silly questions," he replied, patting Podmore upon the shoulder in a patronizing fashion. "I must get her to tell me all about it when I take her out this time."
Podmore was silent because he had no words. A new terror oppressed his life. For four days Mr. Jenkins would be at home, and on any one of those four days Miss Gray might come. He was shaken with jealousy. Perhaps they had arranged it so! He found himself watching the door every time it opened. Friday was the last day. Mr. Jenkins strolled in about eleven o'clock, with a flower in his buttonhole and smoking a cigarette. It wasn't allowed, but when he was at home these odd days he gave himself the airs of a visitor. He looked about the warehouse with a slightly disappointed expression.
"Thought Miss Gray might have been here this morning," he said. "She knows I'll be away next week."
And Miss Gray walked in! She looked very neat and smart indeed in her blue serge suit and trim little toque ornamented with a single quill. She shook hands with Podmore very sweetly, but Jenkins seemed to have expanded. He seemed, indeed, to grow visibly larger and larger. He gave himself the airs of a principal, and while things were being fetched at his instigation for Miss Gray's approval he whispered to her aside.
Miss Gray, however, proved herself to be at least kind-hearted. More than once she went out of her way to appeal to Mr. Podmore, asking his advice, consulting him as to the suitability of a certain article, and all the time, whenever she addressed him, laying a slight emphasis upon the "Mr." which Jenkins somewhat patronizingly and ostentatiously omitted.
"Now about this evening," the latter remarked, amiably, when at last the business was finished. "Lucky I'm free. What do you say to a little dinner at Romands and a couple of stalls at the Gaiety, eh?"
"Very kind of you," Miss Gray replied, promptly. "I think Mr. Podmore is going to take me out, though."
Podmore's heart gave a great leap. His agony was at an end. The long, stuffy room expanded to the dimensions of a palace, the fog outside was pierced by the glorious sunshine. Miss Gray was smiling towards him with gently upraised eyebrows, and Mr. Jenkins was looking from one to the other, half furious, half stupefied with amazement.
"It's very nice of you, indeed, to remember," Podmore declared, gratefully.
It wasn't much to say, but he looked the rest. Jenkins, however, like all big and conceited men, was slow of apprehension. After his first gasp he only laughed with confident scorn.
"Podmore!" he exclaimed. "Oh, I'll fix that up for you, Miss Gray! Don't you bother. I can quite understand. You gave him a sort of half-promise last time, I suppose. Look here, my dear fellow," he went on, turning to Podmore and laying his hand upon his shoulder, "Miss Gray and I are old friends, and, you'll forgive my saying it, but I'm more used to these little jaunts than you are. You won't mind standing down, I'm sure?"
"Mr. Podmore might not mind, but I certainly should," Miss Gray asserted, briskly. "I shall expect you at a quarter-past seven, same address, Mr. Podmore. Are you going to see me off the premises? Good-bye, Mr. Jenkins! See you in Manchester again soon, I suppose?"
Mr. Podmore did see her off the premises, although he scarcely knew how he walked down the stairs, and he was very punctual indeed at a quarter-past seven that evening. Miss Gray, who was a vision of loveliness in black net, with a black band of velvet in her hair, appeared to him more distinguished than any Princess Royal of England or fairyland or any other country. She welcomed him with a little exclamation of pleased surprise. Barber and general outfitter had laboured their best for him, and the dress suit most certainly did fit well.
"Well, I never!" she exclaimed, squeezing his fingers as he handed her into the taxi. "I always did say that there was nothing like evening dress for a gentleman. Such a compliment, too! You'll turn my head, Mr. Podmore."
"You've turned mine already," that young gentleman declared, with absolute sincerity.
An evening so auspiciously begun could scarcely fail to be successful. They dined remarkably well, and Podmore, inspired by the confidence given him by his new clothes, proved himself to be an attentive host and an excellent listener. After the theatre they went into a great restaurant and had a light supper whilst they listened to the music. Mr. Podmore was beatifically happy, and Miss Gray looked perfectly satisfied with her companion. They became very confidential.
"Do you know," she told him, firmly, "that you ought to be getting more salary? Two pounds eighteen isn't enough for anyone in your position."
"I've applied for a rise," Podmore told her. "It's under consideration. I think myself I ought to have more, but it's jolly slow work getting a rise indoors at our place. The governor always asks the same stereotyped question—'What results can you point to, Mr. Podmore, to justify me in this increase?' Of course, if you're on the road, you can point to a larger turnover, and then you're all right. In my position it's more difficult."
"I see," she remarked, understandingly. "You want to do something out of the way. Not sure that I couldn't help you. Would you trust me?"
He smiled at the futility of her question and squeezed her hand under the table.
"You buy all your trimmings at Offenbach, don't you?" she asked.
He was a little startled, but he answered her promptly.
"All of them."
"Bring me a list of the houses you are doing business with, and the prices you are paying, to-morrow, at one o'clock sharp, to Brown's, in Cludwell Alley. You can have lunch with me there, if you like. And listen— about that money of yours; don't you ever try to make a little more of it?"
"I never have tried," Podmore admitted.
She smiled at him just a trifle patronizingly. He really was very simple!
"Would you trust me with it for a few weeks?"
"With every halfpenny, ten times over," he assured her, emphatically.
"How much did you say there was?" she inquired.
?Three hundred and forty-two pounds," he replied.
"Draw out three hundred and forty pounds, and bring it with you to-morrow in bank-notes," she directed. "If what I'm thinking of doesn't come off, you must put it back again and wait for another opportunity. It can't do any harm, anyway."
"It's awfully good of you," he declared. "I'll bring it."
"And now," she concluded, rising regretfully to her feet, "we must really go home. I've never been out so late from my rooms before, and I've a reputation to keep up. Come along."
"You haven't missed Mr. Jenkins?" he asked,as soon as they were in the cab. "Please say you haven't."
She drew off her glove and gave him her hand—such a tiny, soft, warm little hand. Very timidly he put his other arm around her waist.
"I'm afraid of you," she declared, smiling at him. "Can't help thinking of last time! You were bold, you know! Supposing anyone were to see! Stupid! Do mind my hair!" ` Mr. Podmore walked home up the staircase which leads into Paradise.
Miss Woodward looked at the list doubtfully.
"You want me to copy this?" she asked, in surprise.
"If you please," Mr. Podmore replied. "I want it for a special purpose."
Miss Woodward studied the list for a few moments, and then glanced up at her late admirer covertly. He was looking very spruce and unusually masculine. Something had certainly changed him. Besides, she was very sure that he was not wearing that bunch of violets for nothing.
"What have you done to Mr. Jenkins?" she inquired.
"Nothing particular," he answered, airily.
"Is it true that you took that young woman from Manchester out to dinner and the theatre last night?"
"Quite true," Podmore assented. "Enjoyed myself immensely."
Miss Woodward turned her left shoulder upon him. Her expression was not at all amicable.
"I suppose," she said, acidly, "that you are beginning to prefer the theatre to the Mutual?"
"I am quite sure I do," he admitted.
"The Mutual's all very well in its way, but it's a terrible grind going there all the time. The theatre's much more amusing, and there's no harm in any of the plays I've seen."
"That depends!" Miss Woodward snapped, and surreptitiously slipped a carbon and sheet of paper into the machine.
Mr. Podmore was busy for the next hour or so. Miss Woodward handed him his list a few minutes before one, and immediately his back was turned sent for the under-manager of his department. After a good deal of whispering they entered, with some trepidation, the private office of Mr. Bedells.
When Podmore returned from luncheon, flushed but happy, he was at once summoned to that sanctum. On the table before Mr. Bedells was a copy of the Offenbach list. Mr. Bedells greeted him solemnly.
"I sent for you, Mr. Podmore," he began, "to ask you to clear up a little matter which, on the face of it, certainly seems-er-er-to require some explanation. This list!"
He handed it to Podmore, and Podmore knew at once that he was in deep waters.
"That is a carbon copy of a list which I asked Miss Woodward to type for me this morning, sir," be said.
"Precisely! With what object?" Mr. Bedells asked, dryly.
"It was for the good of the firm, sir," Podmore replied, feeling unexpectedly calm.
Mr. Bedells looked at him over his spectacles.
"There must be no misunderstanding about this matter," he declared. "With whom have you been lunching to-day, Podmore?"
"With Miss Gray, sir."
"Precisely! May I ask if you are aware, Podmore, that there is a persistent rumour in trade circles that Miss Gray's firm— Harrison and Peters, Limited—are going to open a branch for the purchase of trimmings and findings generally, instead of procuring those articles from us?"
Podmore felt suddenly cold. He stared at his employer in blank despair. It was too terrible, this! It was unbelievable!
"I had not heard the rumour, sir," he replied, "and I do not believe it."
Mr. Bedells sat down at his table and wrote out a cheque.
"I shall ask you to leave these premises at once, Mr. Podmore," he said, handing it to him. "You have betrayed the confidence which the firm has reposed in you. After all these years, I am sorry. You have probably been made a tool of by a designing and dishonest young woman—"
"It's a lie, sir!" Podmore interrupted. Mr. Bedells shrugged his shoulders and pointed to the door.
"After that, Mr. Podmore," he declared, "our discussion is at an end."
Podmore took up his hat.
"I repeat, sir, that it is a lie!" he said, firmly, and left the room.
Mr. Podmore entered upon an exceedingly hard time. He had drawn out his money to the last penny, and when he had paid his bills he had only a few shillings left. He started out, however, in search of employment confidently. There seemed very little trouble about getting a berth until the question of references cropped up. There, however, Bedells, Clumber, and Company were adamant. Mr. Podmore had been dismissed for divulging trade secrets to a competitor. That was all they had to say about Mr. Podmore, but it was quite enough. In three weeks the dress suit was in the pawnshop. In six weeks its late owner had known what it was to sleep out of doors, and had felt a sensation at his stomach which was unlike anything he had ever experienced before.
Then he wrote to Miss Gray, as casually as possible, and added a postscript that if it was possible to get at twenty pounds of his money he could make very good use of it in a little scheme he had on. He said nothing about his dismissal, nor did he happen to mention that he paid for the stamp on the letter out of a threepenny bit earned by carrying a bag from Cannon Street Station to Moorgate. He had given up his lodgings, after getting three weeks into debt, but he was on friendly terms with his late landlady and he was able to have his letters sent there.
No reply came from Miss Gray, and for the first time in his moments of hunger and despair some faint doubts assailed him. One day he met Jenkins outside Cannon Street Station.
"Halloa, Podmore!" he exclaimed, looking him up and down.
" Halloa, Jenkins!" Podmore replied, thrusting his hands into his trousers pockets and pretending to whistle.
"Bad job about that young woman you were sweet upon," Jenkins remarked, with an unpleasant grin.
"About what young woman?" Podmore asked, fiercely.
Jenkins shrugged his shoulders brutally.
"Hit as hard as that, were you?" he jeered. "Well, I'm sorry for you. She's run away with someone. Gone on to the Continent and left no address."
"If Miss Gray is on the Continent," Podmore declared, "she probably had excellent reasons for going. In any case, I do not care to discuss her with you, Jenkins."
"Just as you like," the other replied. "What the dickens are you up to, hanging about here, Podmore?" he went on. "You look as though you were touting for a job."
"I am waiting for a friend."
Mr. Jenkins thrust his hand into his trousers pocket. "If it bob or two—" he began.
But Podmore had walked away.
The days passed, but no word came from Miss Gray, His letter remained unanswered. Podmore had the most aggressive ill-luck. If he could have given a clear explanation of his dismissal there were several who would have given him a job out of pity, but on this point he remained obstinate. The pawnshop now held all his effects except the one suit he stood up in, and that, for all his care, showed signs of his desperate straits. He was thinner, too, and weaker, so much so that when he set down a bag which he had carried for twopence from Ludgate Circus to St. Paul's Churchyard he leaned against the wall, gasping. There was a small restaurant opposite, if only he could reach it.
He made an effort and ran into Miss Gray. She stopped short and her pretty mouth remained for a moment wide open. Her eyes grew larger and larger.
"Mr. Podmore!" she gasped.
He suddenly remembered and half turned away. His collar he had discarded when it was no longer clean, and there was an awful hole in his boot. Miss Gray looked around her and spotted the restaurant.
"Come along," she ordered sharply, though the tears were in her eyes. "Don't stand there staring at me. I'm just up from Manchester and I want my lunch."
It was only eleven o'clock, but he was too far gone to notice. The restaurant was deserted, but Miss Gray had a manner as well as a tongue, and they were eating something within a few minutes. She poured out the burgundy herself and watched him drink it in doses. She would have cut up his food for him, too, but he laughed off his momentary weakness. She waited until she saw the colour in his cheeks before she let him say a word.
"Got your letter last night," she began. "Sent you a telegram. You haven't had it, of course?"
He shook his head.
"Never mind," she went on. "Meeting you was a stroke of luck. Our little spec is over—paid out last week. I've got an account here. Three hundred and forty pounds you handed over—four hundred and fifteen pounds here."
She opened her satchel and counted out the notes upon the table.
"Might have been more if we'd had a bit of kick," she declared. "I hadn't time to explain it all to you, but we advanced the money on some machinery. Fellow paid us back the last day or we'd have cleared another hundred. Put the notes in your pocket."
She watched him stuff them away. Then she poured out another half-glass of burgundy and made him drink it.
"Now, then," she said, in a matter-of-fact tone, "out with your story. No good saying you haven't got one ,because you must have. What's happened? I've got to know. I shall sit here until you've told me every word."
There was crisp and unalterable decision in her tone. Podmore hesitated only for a moment. Then he told her the truth— every word of it. When he had finished she was holding his hand. She was also suffering from a violent fit of coughing, which seemed to require the frequent use of her handkerchief.
"Very good," she said. "I understand everything. Now, then, do you feel half a man?"
"I feel a lion."
"Come along, then," she ordered. "I've paid the bill. This way."
He looked down at his clothes.
"Idiot!" she declared. "As if they mattered! You wait a bit."
She marched him straight into the private office of Mr. Bedells. Mr. Bedells was unfeignedly pleased to see Miss Gray, but he stared in astonishment at Podmore, whom at first he scarcely recognized.
"Mr. Podmore it is," Miss Gray admitted, "but he's under a promise not to open his lips till I give him permission, so don't you speak to him, if you please. I want a few words with you, Mr. Bedells."
"The more the better, my dear young lady," Mr. Bedells assured her.
"You dismissed Mr. Podmore for disclosing the firm's secrets?"
"A course in which I was perfectly justified," Mr. Bedells pointed out. "We were credibly informed that your firm thought of opening out a branch in our own line."
"Who told you that?" Miss Gray snapped.
"Mr. Jenkins, for one."
"Then Mr. Jenkins lied," the young lady answered, promptly.
Mr. Bedells began to look a little troubled.
"In any case," he insisted, "Mr. Podmore had no right to supply the information he did to anyone on earth."
Miss Gray nodded.
"Mr. Bedells," she said, "I am not an unreasonable person. There I am not at all sure that you are not right. Where you are all at sea is as regards the reason for my seeking that information. Mr. Jenkins told you a lie, and knows it. You'll kindly see that he never enters the doorways of Messrs. Harrison and Peters again. My uncle's firm has no idea whatever of interfering with your business. It's too small a thing to be worth our while. We'd sooner pay you your profit. Mr. Podmore's salary wasn't half what it ought to have been, and he explained that the difficulty was in doing something out of the way so as to force a rise upon you. Well, I thought I saw a chance of doing you people a good turn through him. I have a cousin in one of the factories at Offenbach. I sent your list out to him to have it brought right up to date. Here it is. Lots of information for you—new firms, new offers, keener prices. Make what use of it you like."
Mr. Bedells picked up the paper with some eagerness. He was quick enough to see that she had spoken the truth.
"The firm, my dear Miss Gray," he declared, "is very much your debtor. I have been for some time considering the question of sending a representative out to Offenbach."
"Mr. Podmore's debtor—not mine," the girl replied, sharply. "Now, if you're the man I think you are, shake hands with him and beg his pardon."
Mr. Bedells extended his hand without hesitation.
"Mr. Podmore," he said, "I think you will admit that from the point of view of commercial morality I was entirely justified in dismissing you. On the other hand, I am bound to confess that after your many years of faithful service I ought to have had more confidence in you."
"Entirely my fault, sir," Podmore admitted, "entirely."
Mr. Bedells coughed.
"As regards the future—" he began.
"No need to talk about that," Miss Gray interrupted, briskly. "Mr. Podmore is taking my place—buyer for Harrison and Peters, Limited. I came up to London to arrange it specially. I am thankful to say that we can give him two pounds a week more than you did."
"And what about you, then, young lady?"
Mr. Bedells inquired.
She held out her hand to Podmore. She spoke firmly enough, but her voice had suddenly lost its businesslike ring. A very delicate flush of colour stole into her cheeks. Her eyes were quite soft. "I," she replied, "am going to marry Mr, Podmore!"
MR. AUSTEN MALCOLM was sitting in the middle of the public seat, his legs crossed, his attentinn entirely engrossed by thc small volume of poems which he held between his shapely and well-manicured fingers. He had the air, perhaps justifiable, of being perfectly satisfied with himself and his surroundings. He was dressed in all respects as a country gentleman of studious tastes should he. From the tips of his polished brown shoes to the slightly rakish angle of his Homburg hat, he was entirely satisfactory. His air of patronizing the seat upon which he had ensconced himself was also, perhaps, in order, as it was he who had presented it to the town.
At his feet—he was sitting on the summit of a considerable hill, crowned by a plantation of fir trees—was an old-world market town, a picturesque medley of greystone buildings, red-tiled, melodious, without a single modern discordancy. Beyond, yellow cornfields and green meadows rolled away in billowy undulations to a line of low hills fading into a blue mist. It was not a landscape, perhaps, to excite rapture, but it was typical English country, serene, well-ordered, peaceful.
Up the hill, a little breathless, climbed Stephen Glask, a young man of somewhat pleasant appearance, humbly dressed, as fitted his station, but carrying himself with a certain not unbecoming ease. After a moment's survey of the view, he sank with a brief exclamation of content upon one end of the seat occupied by Sir Austen Malcolm. There were other vacant seats not far away—and the baronet was obliged to uncross his knees. He turned and glanced at the new-comer. Sir Austen was, without doubt, as his appearance indicated, the great man of the neighbourhood; but he was a reasonable person, and his glance was not one of annoyance. It was not, however, altogether free from a certain mild surprise; he was accustomed to a great deal of respect from the townspeople. He was perhaps satisfied to observe that this intruder was a stranger to him.
"Quite a climb up here, isn't it?" the new-comer began, affably.
The voice was pleasant enough, but its affability seemed to Sir Austen Malcolm a little uncalled-for. He answered, without removing his eyes from the pages of his book:—
"It is certainly a considerable ascent."
The young man very properly remained silent. The affair might reasonably have ended there. A slight liberty had been taken and a slight rebuke administered. Sir Austen should have gone on with his reading and the young man, after a few moments' uncomfortable reflection, should have passed on his way. As a matter of fact, however, things turned out differently. Sir Austen Malcolm, after a vain effort to return to his former train of thought, glanced a little irritably towards his interrupter. Entirely unabashed, the young man smiled blandly at him.
"Awfully good of you to give these seats," he remarked, in a conversational manner.
"You know who I am, then?" Sir Austen inquired, dryly.
The young man's eyes twinkled.
"Doesn't everyone in Faringdon know Sir Austen Malcolm by sight?" he answered.
"You have the advantage of me, sir," Sir Austen declared, with some slight emphasis on the last word.
"Naturally," the young man admitted, briskly. "I have only been here a week or so, and you have been up at Oxford most of that time, haven't you? My name is Stephen Glask. I bought old ]ohnson's ironmongery business, you know. Bad egg, I am afraid, unless things alter."
Sir Austen dropped his eyeglass and polished it for a moment. It was quite absurd, of course, but he was conscious of a feeling of positive toleration towards this young man, for which he was entirely unable to account.
"Johnson, I am afraid, neglected his business sadly," he said. "He unfortunately developed bad habits towards the close of his career."
"Drank a bit, you mean?" Stephen Glask remarked. "Poor old chap! I don't wonder at it. You all of you bought your things from the Stores, sent to London for your cartridges, and got your petrol from Swindon. Glad I've met. you, Sir Austen. I am a local man now, and I want some of your trade, please."
Sir Austen stifiened a little.
"My chauffeur buys his own petrol," he said, "and my cartridges are specially filled for me by my gunmaker. As to domestic articles, my sister keeps house for me."
"I'll call in and sec her," Stephen Glask declared, promptly.
Sir Austen opened his lips—and closed them again. Why should Eve he deprived of an encounter with this extraordinary young man? It would certainly amuse her. It might also he good for the young man! Sir Austen resumed his reading without remark. Mr. Stephen Glask, however, had not finished with him.
"Poor stuff, that, he pronounced, nodding his head towards the volume which his companion was perusing. The latter stared at the young man, this time in real surprise.
"A poetaster," he remarked, with faint satire, "as well as a specialist in hardware?"
Mr. Stephen Glask was unabashed.
"I've read those verses, if that's what you mean," he answered; "and you'll think the same as I do of them when you've finished. There are a few pretty thoughts—the snowstorm in the cherry orchard, for instance; but most of the things are too florid, and the fellow hasn't a single original metre. It's the music of Swinburne and Keats to an inferior and uninspired setting—vide the Athenaeum."
"You find time to read the Athenaeum?" Sir Austen inquired, slowly.
"And the Ironmonger's Weekly Record," Stephen Glask admitted, cheerfully. "I have a catholic taste in literature. Good afternoon, Sir Austen. I wish you'd speak to your chauffeur about the petrol. I'll call in and see your sister myself about the other things."
Mr. Stephen Glask strolled off, not by any means an unpleasant figure to watch, although his blue serge suit was ready-made, his boots thick, and this cap shabby. He was certainly a most original young man, and an exceedingly difficult one to put in his place. As he disappeared Sir Austen suddenly smiled; his eyes positively twinkled.
"I would give," he murmured to himself, "a great deal to be at home when he calls on Eve."
Sir Austen returned to his very delightful home about an hour later. He passed up the beautifully kept avenue, lined with handsome shrubs, and adorned with a wonderful border of scarlet geraniums, entered the long, white-stone house through some open French windows, looked in vain into one or two of the charmingly furnished rooms, and finally made his way out again into the gardens.
Attracted by the sound of voioes, he crossed the tennis-lawn and turned into the paddock. Here he came to a sudden and stupefied standstill. Eve, with her sleeves rolled up and a mashie in her hand, was obviously receiving a golf lesson from—Mr. Stephen Glask!
"Look out, Sir Austen!" the latter exclaimed, pleasantly. "We're approaching on to the lawn there, and you're just in the line."
Sir Austen stepped mechanically out of the way. He was too surprised to make any remark.
"Lucky thing I happened to call in just now," the young man continued, with satisfaction, "I chanced upon Miss Malcolm just as she was developing the very worst possible fault in golf. Now, a little more over the ball, please," he went on, devoting his attention to his pupil. "Wrists quite stiff, and the heel of the club well on the ground. Learn this stroke and shorten your swing a little, and you'll be a scratch player in a month. Now, then."
The young lady—she was exceedingly good-looking, and much younger than her brother, of whom as yet she had scarcely taken any notice at all—gave herself up once more to her task. Her instructor, who greeted her efforts with only a moderate amount od approval, finally took the club from her hand and himself played a few masterly shots. Sir Austen, who was beginning to recover himself, joined them.
"Apparently," he said, dryly, "you are a young man of many accomplishments."
"Oh, I like to understand something about the things I sell," Mr. Stephen Glask answered, carelessly. "We used to get through a lot of golf clubs at my last place. I am so glad to find there's some sort of a course here. I can get the agency for Merton's clubs—best irons in the world—and 1 shall order a mashie down purposely for Miss Malcolm, if she'll allow me."
"I should love you to!" the young lady exclaimed, eagerly. "You seem to know exactly what I want, Mr.—Mr.—"
"Glask—G-l-a-s-k," her visitor interrupted. "The name's being painted up to-day. And you won't forget the other things you've promised to buy from me, Miss Malcolm?"
The girl smiled at him in a somewhat puzzled manner.
"Certainly not, Mr. Glask," she assured him, stiiiening slightly. "I will speak to the housekeeper. I am sure—we are always most anxious to procure things locally when possible."
The butler opened the paddock gate and walked towards them. Like everything else associated with the Malcolms, he was a most correct and dignified appendage.
"Tea is served, miss," he announced.
They all turned together towards the house. The young man, who had lingered for a moment to pick up the golf-balls, walked between them. His ready-made clothes and many other slight evidences of his station were there, but never in this world did any young man seem so unconscious of them. On their way out they had to pass the tea-table. Stephen Glask was obviously hot with his exertions. Sir Austen glanced stealthily at his sister and found his sister stealthily watching him. Sir Austen coughed. The slight smile which had flickered for a moment at the corners of his lips vanished, He spoke with perfect gravity.
"You must let my sister give you a cup of tea after your exertions, Mr. Glask," he said.
"Yes, please do stop," she begged. "It is so hot this afternoon."
The young man accepted the suggestion without hesitation. Further, he accepted it quite naturally and as a matter of course. He sat in a wicker chair between the brother and sister, and consumed bread and butter with an appetite which he took no pains to conceal.
"Rather scamped my luncheon to-day," he remarked. "I was busy opening some cases—a new sort of lamp, Miss Malcolm. I hope you'll let me show you when you come in, Do you mind if I have some more tea?"
Then, without an warning, the vicar's wife descended upon them. Mrs. Randale was stout and middle-aged. Her complexion was florid, and she wore a pince-nez which seemed always balanced on the extreme tip of a rubicund nose. She greeted Austen Malcolm and his sister with the easy familiarity of old acquaintance. It was just about this time that a long-dormant sense of humour in the former leaped permanently into life.
"And who," the new-comer asked, smiling graciously, "is our young visitor? We see so few strangers in Faringdon."
"This is Mr. Glask—Mrs. Randale, our vicar's wife," Eve hastened to explain. "Mr. Glask cannot properly be termed a stranger. He has come to live in Faringdon."
Mrs. Randale's features exhibited the liveliest interest. She also seemed a trifle puzzled.
"To live here!" she repeated. "How delightful! But whose house have you taken, Mr. Glask? Curiously enough, the name seems familiar."
"Have you been in the town this morning, Mrs. Randale?" the young man asked.
"I—yes, I have been in the town," Mrs, Randale admitted.
"That's it, then," Stephen Glask declared, helping himself once more to bread and butter. "I bought old Johnson's ironmongery business, you know. You very likely saw them painting the name up."
Mrs. Randale was not used to shocks; neither had she any idea how to deal with situations. Consequently she stared at this cheerful young man with her mouth open, and she looked neither agreeable nor a lady.
"Why, you're the new ironmonger!" she exclaimed.
The young man smiled genially.
"And I do hope," he begged, "that you are going to be kinder to me than you were to poor old Johnson. I may as well tell you at once that I shall expect your custom, Mrs. Randale. Miss Malcolm has promised me hers."
At this precise moment Sir Austen strolled away, with a muttered excuse about fetching some matches. Eve always insisted, however, that she heard his chuckle as he went, and loved him for it. Mrs. Randale was still unable to cope with thc situation.
"I leave such matters with my husband, Mr.—er—Glask," she said. "By the by," she added, as the thought struck her, "you are, of course, a member of the Church ol England? I do not remember to have seen you in church."
"To tell you the truth," Stephen Glask explained, agreeably, "I haven't been anywhere yet. I've scarcely been in the place three weeks, you know. Mr. Wills, the Wesleyan minister, has just ordered a cooking-range from me, so I did think of looking in there next Sunday night. I've got that order, though, so I don't know that I need bother. Call me Church of England, if it makes any difference, Mrs. Randale. I am all for business."
Eve's face had temporarily disappeared behind the shelter of an illustrated paper which she had picked up from the lawn. She had met the young ironmonger's eye, and there was something there which was certainly most out of place.
"I am afraid that I can make no promises, Mr. Glask," Mrs. Randale said, stiffly. "We deal with the members of our congregation so far as possible, but we prefer to believe that it is their religious impulses, and not their sell-interest, which brings them to worship."
"Capital!" Stephen Glask declared. "Good sentence, that. You're quite right, Mrs. Randale. We'll leave my church-going alone for a time. It will pay you to patronize me apart from that. I want you just to notice my prices, and the way I'm going to cut oil—especially kitchen oil. l'll guarantee to save you two shillings a week before you know where you are. You'll excuse me now, Miss Malcolm, won't you? I must hurry along, or there will be no one to close the shop. Good afternoon. ladies!"
The young man took an easy and not ungraceful leave. Mrs. Randale stared alter him blankly.
"Eve!" she exclaimed. "Why on earth—what on earth—your brother, too ! Sir Austen—the most exclusive man I ever met! For goodness' sake explain! Has Austen turned Socialist?"
Eve was wiping her eyes.
"I don't know," she murmured weakly. "Austen found him on a seat on the hill. He tried to sell him petrol and cartridges and household things. Austen told him I kept house, so he called in here and stayed to give me a golf lesson."
Mrs. Randale became very severe indeed.
"My dear Eve," she said, firmly, "Austen ought to be ashamed of himself! No wonder the lower orders forget themselves. Austen, too, of all men; the most punctilious, the most aristocratic person. He ought to be ashamed of himself!"
"He is good-looking, though, isn't he?" Eve faltered, still wiping her eyes.
"No, the ironmonger!"
Stephen Glask pushed his assistant out of the way. He had seen the pony-cart stop outside, and he was behind the counter, ready to greet Eve, when she entered.
"Good morning, Miss Malcolm!" he exclaimed, heartily. "I am glad to see you. I thought you'd be coming in one morning."
Eve looked at him steadfastly. She wore a fresh white linen dress, a charming straw hat wreathed with flowers, and white buckskin driving-gloves. Her shoes and stockings were, as usual, perfection. She looked exactly what she was—a thoroughbred young Englishwoman with an unusual knack for wearing her clothes; a trifle spoilt, a trifle supercilious. The young man behind the counter was wearing the same ready-made suit of clothes, his hair was tumbled, for he had been in the cellars, and there was a smut upon his cheek. She fully meant, when she came in, that he should be abashed, and she was a young woman of resolution. Nevertheless, although she looked at him for several seconds with uplifted eyebrows, she failed. He returned her gaze with bland and pleasant interest. She turned away, biting her lip.
"I want some kitchen lamps," she said; "a saucepan, if you have the sort we use; and a few other oddments. I should like, too, to compare your prices for oil."
For a quarter of an hour Eve was overwhelmed with a sheer flood of eloquence. At last the young man paused for lack of breath. His assistant, a son of his predecessor, was listening, rapt in admiration.
"I seem to have bought a lot of things," Eve remarked.
"You have bought just what you wanted, and you have given no more for anything than you would have done at the Stores," the young man replied, with conviction. "Don't you bother any further. I'll see that you get the things all right. And you shall have the full cash discount if I get the money within a month."
"I pay all the household bills on Monday mornings," Eve explained.
"Quite satisfactory," Stephen Glask declared. "Going to the cricket match tomorrow, Miss Malcolm?"
She looked at him in precisely the manner in which she was accustomed to look at Simpkins the grocer—only it didn't seem to produce in the least the same effect.
"I always go to the cricket matches," she answered, coldly.
The young man nodded.
"They've asked me to play," he remarked.
"Are you any good?" she inquired, a little eagerly.
He smiled at her confidently.
"I am fairly useful," he replied. "I very nearly went in for being a pro."
She abandoned for a moment the attitude which she had thought well to assume.
"Then do play!" she begged. "We want to beat Fairford. They are horribly stuck-up about their cricket, and the two Sinclairs always play for them."
"What, Charlie Sinclair? The one who played for Hampshire?"
Eve stiffened again.
"It is Lord Riverstone's second son," she answered, "who always gets the runs."
"We'll see about that," Stephen Glask declared. "Supposing I promise you that for every run he gets I get a dozen?"
He looked steadily into her eyes. Eve felt her cheeks burn, and snatched up her gloves from the counter. "Good moming, Mr. Glask," she said. "Please see that the things are delivered to-day."
"And thanks ever so much lor the order, Miss Malcolm," the young man replied, briskly. "Hope to see you again soon. If I play in the cricket match I promise you I'll do my best."
Eve and her brother exchanged stealthy glances, then they laughed. Sir Austen seldom laughed. Just now he was laughing long and heartily. The young ironmonger had bowled Sinclair with the last ball of his first over, and, though he had asked to be taken off almost immediately afterwards, he had gone in first for Faringdon and had carried his bat lor a faultless century. He was now walking round the ground with Evelyn Randale, the vicar's daughter, and it was evidently no fault of hers that they were on their way towards the pavilion.
"I don't know what we shall do with your young ironmonger," Sir Austen declared. "I expect we shall end by asking him to dinner."
"My young ironmonger, indeed!" Eve retorted, indignantly. "I like that! Who found him first, I wonder, and sent him to the house?"
"I never told him to give you golf lessons," Sir Austen protested. "I simply sent him to acquaint you with the price of oil."
"He's sold me more than we can use for three months," Eve murmured, weakly; "told me the price was certain to go up."
Once more their eyes met, and once more they laughed. Then Stephen Glask strolled up to them.
"I kept my word, you see, Miss Malcolm," he remarked.
"I noticed it," she admitted. "Why didn't you go on bowling?"
"All rabbits except Sinclair," he explained, easily. " You see, as I told you, I nearly became a cricket pro instead of an ironmonger. By the by, there's a matter about one of those safety lamps, Miss Malcolm, I should like to explain to you. It's a question of wick."
Sir Austen turned away. His sister hesitated for a moment, but finally remained.
"A question of wick?" she repeated, demurely.
He looked at her with a smile which she was beginning to find delightful.
"After all, need we bother about that?" he begged. "I am a privileged person for this one afternoon. Even Mrs. Randale has shaken hands with me! Couldn't we sit down for a little time over there?"
She glanced toward the seat. It was in a shady spot and had an air ot seclusion about it. Really, the whole thing was too absurd ! Lady Riverstone was watching, and Austen, and—
"Oh, I suppose so," she answered, "if you want to. I don't know that anything much matters."
Austen Malcolm and his sister dined tête à tête that night. Dinner was a meal served at Faringdon House with some formality. The round table, small though it was, glittered with fruit and flowers and glass. Eve wore always a low-necked dress, and her brother seldom descended to the informality of a dinner-jacket. The butler was assisted by a footman and the trimmest of parlour-maids. Nothing was scamped or done hurriedly. The Malcolms, a county family of real antiquity, believed in themselves and in the things which they represented. Even Austen, with his Fellowship at Oxford, his long and leisurely travels across the world, believed in Faringdon House and the things which it represented. No Malcolm had ever committed a real indiscretion.
Dinner was concluded with the service of coffee. The servants left the room. Through the open windows brother and sister looked out over a grey-terraced front, across f1ower-bordered lawns, to a lake and wood beyond. The night was warm, and the moon was shining from behind the trees. Austen lit a cigarette and broke the silence, which had been a little unduly prolonged.
"With reference, my dear Eve," he began, looking fixedly at the end of his cigarette, "to this young ironmonger. You will not mind discussing him with me for a moment or two?"
Sir Austen carefully avoided looking at his sister, but for all that he was somehow conscious of the deep flush which had stolen into her cheeks. She bent over her finger-bowl. Her eyes were very bright. She was perhaps angry.
"The fault, of course," he continued, "was entirely mine. I have been sometimes accused by my critics of being deficient in a sense of humour. The coming of this young man has justified me to myself. He really was irresistible. He criticized the volume of poems which I was reading, and tried to secure my custom for petrol in the same breath. He put me in such a position that I was compelled to offer him hospitality here, and a few moments later he was trying to sell crockery to Mrs. Randale—Mrs. Randale, of all persons! In all my life, Eve, I have never known anything so completely and absolutely humorous."
She suddenly looked up at him.
"But is it funny, alter all?" she demanded. "Why is it funny Why should we conclude, because he is a tradesman, that—that there is humour in being forced into recognizing him—for a time—as an equal? He talks as though his education were equal to ours?"
"And he has a price-list of saucepans in his pocket," Sir Austen interrupted, "which he is perfectly willing to discuss with anyone likely to become a customer, at any moment."
Eve sighed. Her own lips were beginning to quiver.
"He certainly does seem interested in his business," she admitted.
"He is one of the over-developed products of our modern system of education," Sir Austen remarked, didactically. "He represents just a foretaste of the difficulties with which the next generation will have to grapple. I really think, for his own sake, it would be kinder—you understand me, I am sure, Eve—if we were to abandon, both of us, that—shall I say?—spirit of latitudinarianism with which we have regarded this young man. To put the matter plainly, I think it would be better if he were kept in his place."
Eve was looking out of the window. Her face was expressionless.
"I have no doubt that you are right," she said, calmly.
"By the by," Sir Austen continued, "Hensham is coming down to-morrow for the week-end. You will be glad to see him?"
"Of course," she answered.
She flitted away into the gardens, a few minutes later, and Sir Austen went to his study. She passed through the rose-gardens to the laurelled walk bordering the path which led to the hill, and at the end of it Stephen Glask was waiting.
She hesitated when she saw him, and glanced half-fearfully towards the house. He vaulted lightly over the iron railing, however, and she had no time to retreat. She looked at him for a moment. She was half-fluttered, half-frightened. She was frightened because she had come, frightened because she had wanted so much to come.
"Mr. Glask," she protested, "you mustn't come in here— you mustn't, really. If my brother were to see you he would be terriblly angry."
Stephen Glask looked puzzled.
"But why?" he asked. "I have been to your house before as his guest. Why should I not be here now? I want to talk to you. I have something to say— indeed I have something to say."
Once more she looked nervously behind. The figure of the young man stood out so boldly in the soft, clear twilight. He seemed to have no idea of concealment—he did not even lower his voice.
There were two alternatives before her. One was to pick up her skirt, turn towards the house, and run; the other to take that little turning to the left and walk with this rash intruder along the laurel-bordered walk. She hesitated; so once did her great namesake.
"Please come!" he begged, suddenly lowering his voice. "Won't you?"
She forgot altogether that she was a Malcolm. She felt curiously weak—and she went. They passed down the sheltered walk, between the rose-bushes and the drooping lilac-blossom. She was ashamed and frightened and happy. His attitude was not in the least correct. He was leaning over so that his lips almost touched her hair.
"I think," he said. softly, "that you are the sweetest thing that ever breathed."
His fingers clasped hers.
"You mustn't!" she murmured. "Oh, please don't! I—I trusted you."
He released her at once.
"But I love you," he whispered. "Don't you know that?"
For a moment she was angry—angry with Fate, herself, and him.
"You must not talk like that," she declared. "You ought to know that you must not. It is wrong of you."
"Because I am an ironmonger?" he asked, with a slight twitching at the corner of his lips.
"Yes!" she answered, fiercely. "Because—oh! how dare you be an ironmonger!"
He laughed outright. This time she was really angry. She slipped along a dark path, and before he could pursue her she was on the lawn, the centre of a little halo of light streaming out from the house. For more than an hour Stephen Glask remained lingering in the shadows.
But Eve did not return.
Hensham arrived on the following evening, and at dinnertime they talked about books. ln his way he was a very important person— editor of a well-known review and reader to a great firm of publishers.
"Enderby's the man my people are going for just now," he remarked, as the little party of three lingered over their fruit and wine. "Of course, theirs is the commercial point of view, but I must say that for once I am with them. I find his novels the most interesting fiction of the day."
Sir Austen nodded approvingly.
"Enderby writes excellent English," he pronounced, "His stories, too, are wonderfully lifelike."
"That's because he's so thorough," Hensham continued, cracking a walnut. "A month or so ago we had a tremendous discussion on the effect of a sense of humour upon instinctive and hereditary snobbery. Enderby had a theory of his own, and he was so keen upon it that he has buried himself somewhere in a small country town, turned himself into a tradesman—an ironmonger, I believe—to make experiments. That's going into the thing thoroughly, isn't it?"
There was a brief but very intense silence. The brother and sister sat looking at one another.
"Does Mr. Enderby—play cricket?" Eve asked, calmly.
"Rather!" Hensham replied. "He played for the 'Varsity and for Middlesex. I really wonder in what part of the world he's hidden himself. We sha'n't hear a line from him till he turns up with his new novel."
Eve rose slowly from the table and made her way through the French windows and across the shadowed lawn to the laurel walk. At the end of it Stephen Glask was waiting. He stepped forward to meet her eagerly.
"So you've come, after all!" he exclaimed. "I am to be forgiven, then?"
She gave him her fingers and smiled sweetly into his face.
"I have come to the conclusion," she said, "that it is snobbish to keep you out of sight. because you are an ironmongcr. You can come and sit down with my brother and his guest and drink port with them. Then if you have anything to say, later on—well, he can listen."
Stephen Glask moved forward readily enough, but he was puzzled.
"I hope Sir Austen won't be rude to me," he ventured, with obviously affected uneasiness.
Eve drew a little closer to him.
"It depends," she said, demurely, "upon the effect which his sense of humour may have upon his inherited and instinctive snobbery."
THE house was set in a cleft of the pine-covered hills, fashioned of mouldering white stone painted pink, struggling against its inborn ugliness and succeeding only because of the beauty of its setting—the orchard, pink and white with masses of cherry-blossom, in the background, the brown earth with its neatly-trained vines. Félice's window faced east, and as usual, when the sun came from behind the hill and lay across the faded carpet of her room, she rose with a yawn, sat up in bed for a moment or two, slipped softly out, and stood before the window.
It was always the same, what followed. She stood and looked for a while at that towering wall of stony, pine-hung mountain, at the blue-smocked men and women crouching in the vineyard, at the white church upon the hill, the orchard touched with snow, and the corner of a field of violets, bending a little with the morning breeze. And then she sighed. It was always the same.
Félice bathed and dressed, daintily and carefully, herself like some exquisite pink and white flower slowly opening her petals. She left her room—as bare almost it was as a nun's cell—spotlessly neat, with the breeze sweeping in through the wide-flung window, a breeze which brought a perfume of mimosa to mingle with the fainter odour of lavender which hung about the linen and the plain white muslin curtains of the little chamber.
She took her moming coffee, served by an apple-cheeked, sour-faced domestic, in a corner of the wooden balcony which had been built out from the one habitable living-room. The petals from a climbing rose-tree fell upon the coarse but spotless cloth, bees hummed around the drooping jasmine, the soft sunshine every moment grew warmer. Félice finished her breakfast, yawned, and dreamed for a time with her eyes lifted to the hills. Then she rose, shook out her neat white skirt, fetched a pink parasol, wandered for a little time in the garden and orchard, and then, turning her face southwards, went out to meet the adventure of her life.
She walked down the straight, cypress-bordered path—a mere cart-track across the brown-soiled vineyard—down a narrow lane until she reached the one spot which she never neared without some quickening of the blood. For Félice was nineteen years old, and beautiful, though no one but the glass had ever told her so. And this was the road to liberty, the main road to Toulon and Marseilles on one side, to Cannes and Monte Carlo on the other. She had told herself repeatedly that if ever freedom came to her it would come along this road. And because her worn-out invalid father had been a little more peevish and trying than ever on the night before, and because of other things, freedom seemed to her just now so specially desirable.
Her adventure came to her in a cloud of dust—a long, grey motor-car, with luggage strapped on behind, and two men. Unrecognizable though they were, she caught the flash of their curious eyes as they passed. Then she stepped back with a little gesture of dismay. A cloud of dust enveloped her. She bent her pink sunshade to protect herself; she was disposed to be a little irritable. Then her heart suddenly commenced to beat fast. She had heard the grinding of brakes; quick footsteps were approaching along the road. Was this, perhaps, the adventure at last?
She moved the pnrasol from before her face. She had self-control, and there was nothing in her gravely-inquiring eyes— beautiful, soft brown eyes they were— to indicate the turmoil within. Her first instinct was one of reassurance. It was a boy who addressed her, a boy of little more than her own age, bare-headed, not altogether at his ease. He spoke in halting French.
"Would mademoiselle be so good as to inform st traveller whether this is indeed the road to Cannes?"
Félice answered him with perfect gravity—in excellent English.
"There is but one road, monsieur, as you see, and it leads, without doubt, to Cannes," she told him.
The boy remained embarrassed, but he was very resolute.
"We thought it might be the right road," he admitted; "but, to tell you the truth, you looked so awfully jolly and all that sort of thing, you know, I couldn't help stopping. Don't be angry; please," he begged.
She lowered her parasol momentarily— he stooped anxiously to see if indeed it were to hide a smile. She said nothing.
"You speak English awfully well," he continued, "but you are French, aren't you ?"
"I am French," she assented. "I have just returned from what you call a boarding-school in Brussels. We always spoke English there."
"And now ?"
She motioned with her parasol.
"I live in the valley there," she told him. "It is—a little dull. That is why, I suppose, I permit myself to talk with you. My father is an invalid, who rises only for two hours a day, and there is no one else. But your automobile returns. You know the way to Cannes, and you must go."
The car had slipped slowly back in the reverse until it had stopped almost by their side. An older man was leaning back amongst the cushions, a man whose hair was turning grey at the temples and whose eyes were tired. He looked out upon the two with a faintly sardonic smile. The girl returned his gaze with frank curiosity, and his expression gradually changed. For all his cynicism, Maurice Londe had a soul for beauty. The girl, with her neatly-braided hair, her exquisitely undeveloped figure, her clear complexion, her large, soft eyes, her general air of sweet and spotless childhood, was immensely and irresistibly attractive.
"This is my friend—Londe," the boy said, with a wave of the hand. "My name's Arthur Maddison. I say, couldn't we persuade you to come just a little way with us? You don't seem to have much to do with yourself, and we'll bring you safely back."
Félice looked longingly along the road. She pointed to where it disappeared in the distance around a vineyard-covered hillside. To her that disappearance was allegorical.
"Farther than that," she sighed, "I have never been."
"Come with us to Cannes for lunch," the boy begged. "We'll bring you back. Do! It's only an hour's run."
She looked wistfully at the cushioned seats. The boy was already taking off his motor-coat.
"But-I have no hat," she protested.
"We'll buy you one," he laughed.
"I have no money!"
"It shall be our joint present," he persisted, holding out the coat. "Come. We'll take great care of you, and we'll have a splendid time. You shall hang the hat in your wardrobe to remind you of this little excursion."
She sat between them and the car started. To her it was like an enchanted journey. When they began to climb she held her breath with the wonder of it—the road winding its way to dizzy heights above; the vineyards like patchwork in the valley below; the mountains in the background, gigantic, snow-capped; Cannes, white and glistening with its mimosa-embosomed villas, in the far distance.
"Oh, but it is wonderful to travel like this!" she murmured. "What beautiful places you must see! . . . If you please!"
She withdrew her fingers quickly from beneath the rug. She seemed scarcely to notice the boy's clumsy attempts at flirtation. The light of worship was in her eyes as she looked towards the mountains. The boy felt the presence of something which he did not understand, and he began to sulk. Maurice Londe frowned slightly, and for the first time made some efforts at polite conversation. And so they reached Cannes.
They bought the hat, for which she let the boy pay, although the fact obviously discomposed her. She carefully chose the least expensive, although one of the prettiest in the shop. At the Casino the boy, whose further efforts at primitive flirtation had been gravely, almost wonderingly, repulsed, began to tire a little of his adventure. He spent much of his time paying visits to neighbouring tables, and made the acquaintance of a dazzling young person in yellow, from Paris, who kept him a good deal by her side. It was Maurice Londe, after all, who had to entertain their little guest.
Afterwards, when they had walked outside for some time upon the little quay and the boy failed to re-join them, Londe made some sort of apologies for his companion, to which she listened with a little shrug of the shoulders.
"So long as it does not weary you, monsieur," she said, softly, "I am content. I think that Mr. Arthur Maddison is rather a spoilt boy, is it not so?"
"Perhaps," his older friend admitted.
"Tell me some more, please, about the countries you have visited," she begged. "But one moment. Let us watch the people land from this little steamer."
"Trippers," Londe murmured, with a glance towards them. "An excursion from somewhere, I should think."
She clutched at his arm. A short, fat man, with bristling black hair and moustache, descended suddenly upon them. He addressed Félice with an avalanche of questions. Londe fell a few paces behind. When she re-joined him she was very pale, and there was something in her frightened eyes which touched him strangely.
"It is Monsieur Arleman," she faltered. "He is a rentier—a friend of my father's. It is he whom my father wishes me to marry."
Londe, a tired man of the world, thirty-eight years old, was suddenly conscious of a feeling of unexpected anger.
"Impossible!" he exclaimed. "Why, the little beast must be sixty at least."
She clung to his arm. He could feel the trembling of her fingers through his coat-sleeve.
"It is of him that I am afraid," she half whispered, half sobbed. "Oh, I am so afraid! Sometimes the thought-drives me mad. I cry to myself, I wring my hands. I felt like that this morning. That is what drove me down to the road. That is why I came when your friend asked me. That is why I would do anything in the world never to go back—never."
Londe drew a little breath. Her words seemed to ring in the sunlit air.
"But the thing is preposterous!" he exclaimed, indignantly.
"We are very, very poor," she continued, under her breath, "and Monsieur Arleman is rich. He has an hotel and much land. He has promised my father an annuity, and my father says that one must live."
Once more they drew close to the front of the Casino. In the distance they saw the boy with the young lady in yellow, on their way towards the shops. He was bending over her, and his air of devotion was unmistakable.
"He has forgotten all about me," Félice sighed. "I hope—there won't be any trouble, will there, about my getting back? Not that I mind much, after all."
She looked at Londe a little timidly. It seemed to him that he had grown younger, had passed somehow into a different world, with different standpoints, a different code. The things which had half automatically presented themselves to his brain were strangled before they were fully conceived.
"There shall be no trouble at all," he assured her. "I shall take you back myself now. Perhaps it is better."
They got into the waiting car and Londe gave the man his orders. Soon they were rushing back once more towards the hills, on the other side of which was her home.
"You are very silent," she murmured once.
He turned towards her.
"I was thinking about you," he replied; "you and your little pink and white house amongst the hills, and your father, and Monsieur Arleman. It is a queer little chapter of life, you know."
"To you," she sighed, "it must seem so very, very trivial. And yet, when I wake in the mornings and the thought comes to me of Monsieur Arleman, then life seems suddenly big and awful. I feel as though I must go all round, stretching out my hands, seeking some place in which to hide. I feel," she added, as her fingers sought his half fearfully and her voice dropped almost to a whisper," that there isn't any way of escape in the Whole world which I would not take."
Londe made no response. The appeal of her lowered voice, her wonderful eyes, seemed in vain. He was an adventurer, a hardened man of the world, whose life, when men spoke of it, they called evil; but his weak spot was discovered. He sat and thought steadily for the girl's sake. and at the end of it all he saw nothing.
"Perhaps," he suggested, "this Monsieur Arleman is not so bad when one knows him. If one is kind and generous—"
She looked at him reproachfully.
"Monsieur," she replied, "he is bourgeois, he drinks, he is old. His presence disgusts me."
Once more Londe was silent. The sheer futility of words oppressed him. They were climbing the hills now. The patchwork land was unwinding itself below. Only a few more turns, and they would be within sight of her home. Then, because he was a man who throughout his life had had his own way, and because there were limits to his endurance, he changed, for a moment, his tone.
"Little girl," he said, "if I were free I think that I should take you away, just as you are, in this car, on and on to some place at the end of the road. Would you rather have me for a husband than Monsieur Arleman?"
She said nothing, but she had begun to tremble. He felt the instinctive swaying of her body towards him. He laid his hand upon hers.
"It was wrong of me to ask you the question," he continued, "because, you see, I am not free. I have not seen my wife for years. I am not a reputable person. If you met with those who understood, they would pity that boy for his companion, and they would be right. They would tremble for you, and they would be right. So, Mlle. Félice, I cannot help you."
"You have helped me, and you will help me always," she whispered, her eyes filled with tears. "You will help me with what you have said—with the memory of to-day."
Then again there was silence. They were at the top of the hill now, and below them the sun-bathed landscape stretched like a carpet of many colours to the foot of those other hills. Her fingers tightened a little upon his.
"When you asked me that question—when you said that you would have married me yourself," she continued, hesitatingly, "does that mean that you could care just a little?"
Londe was only human. He leaned over, and she stole very quietly into his arms. She lay there for a moment quite passive. Then he kissed her lips once.
"I always prayed," she whispered, as he set her down at the corner of the lane, "that love might come like this."
Londe and his youthful companion went on to Monte Carlo, where for a week or so they had the usual reckless time. Then suddenly the former pulled up. He strode into the boy's sitting-room one morning, to find him red-eyed and weary, looking distastefully at his breakfast.
"Look, young fellow," he said, "I have had enough. So have you. Do you understand? I am going to take you back to England."
The boy stared at him.
"Are you mad?" he asked. "What's the use of going back to England in March, just when we are getting into the swing of things here, too?"
"The good of it for you is that you'll get back to your work," Londe answered, curtly. "How do you suppose you're going to pass your exams if you waste your time like this? What do you suppose you're going to do with your life if you commence at twenty years old to live the life of a profligate?"
Arthur Maddison set down the cup of coffee which he had been trying to drink and gazed at the speaker blankly.
"Well, I'm hanged!" he exclaimed. "What's come to you, Londe? Why, it was you who first of all suggested coming out here!"
"And I was a fool to do it," Londe retorted, coldly. "They were right, all of them, when they advised you not to come with me—right when they called me an adventurer. I don`t get much out of it. I have lived free and done you for a lew hundreds. I've had enough of it. It's a disgusting life, anyway. Back we go to England to-day."
"You're mad!" the boy declared. "I am not going. I've got a dinner-party to-night."
"We go to-day," Londe repeated, firmly, "and don't you lorget it."
" Do you think you're going to bully me?" the boy began.
"I don`t know what you call bullying," Londe replied, "but I shall wring your neck if you don't come. Your man has begun to pack already, I've got seats on the Luxe for three o'clock, and I've wired your mother."
The boy collapsed.
Londe left him at his mother's house in Grosvenor Square two days later, and drove the next day into the City. He called upon a firm of old-fashioned lawyers, and was at once received by the principal of the firm. The greeting, however, between the two men was mutually cold. The lawyer looked questioningly at his visitor's grey twecd suit and Homburg hat.
"We wrote you four days ago, Mr. Londe," he said, "to acquaint you with the news we had just received from America."
"She has been dangerously ill," the lawyer replied. "The habits of her life, I regret to say, are unchanged. It is necessary that she remains under restraint."
"Is there any money left at all besides the four hundred pounds a year that goes to her?" Londe asked.
The lawyer sighed.
"It is always money," he said, grimly. "There is the Priory still."
"I won't sell it," Londe declared.
"Then there is nothing else worth mentioning."
"If you were to sell everything else that belongs to me," Londe inquired, "how should I stand?"
" ou might have a thousand pounds."
"Then I'll take it," Londe declared. "I am going to emigrate."
For a moment the grim lines in the lawyer's face relaxed.
"As an old friend of your father, Mr. Londe," he said, " it would give me great pleasure if I thought you were tired of the life you are reputed to live."
"I am heartily sick of it," Londe assured him.
"Then I will do my best to straighten out your affairs," the lawyer promised. "It will take a month. Shall you remain in town?"
"I expect so," Londe answered. "You know my address. I will call here a month to-day."
Londe spent three restless weeks. The sight of the City was hateful to him. The clubs, where he was received coldly, the shadier resorts which he had been wont to patronize, were like nightmares to him, He turned his back suddenly upon them all, left London at two-twenty, and late in the afternoon of the following day arrived at Hyères. He took a room at the hotel and wandered restlessly into the Casino- There was a variety entertainment going on in the theatre, which he watched for half an hour with ever-increasing weariness. Then a juggler came on and began the tricks of his profession. Londe leaned forward. The girl who stood at the table, assisting him, had turned her face to the house. He watched her with a little start. Something in the shy grace of her movements, the queer, half-frightened smile, seemed to have let loose memories which were tugging at his heart-strings. He got up with a little exclamation and left the place. To divert himself he strolled down to the gambling saloon and threw his francs recklessly away at boule.
Presently the audience streamed out for the interval. He made his way back again to the promenade and came to a sudden stand-still. Before him on a chair the girl was seated, looking a little wistfully at the people who passed. There were traces of make-up still about her face; her clothes were very simple. Then she saw Londe and gave a low cry. He came to a standstill before her, dumbfounded.
"It is you!" she murmured.
A hot flush stole over her face. As though instinctively, she glanced down at her skirt.
"You saw me just now?" she murmured.
He took a seat by her side. He was a little dazed.
"My child," he exclaimed, "what does it mean? It wasn't really you?"
She nodded. She was over her first fit of shyness now.
"The night I got home," she explained, "Monsieur Arleman came to the house. He had had too much to drink. He tried to kiss me. I—I think that I went mad. I ran out into the fields and I hid. That night I walked miles and miles and miles. I came to Hyères in the moming. There was an old servant here. I found her house. She was very poor, but she took me in. She lets lodgings to the people who come here to perform. This man was staying there, and the girl who travels with him was ill. On Monday I—I took her place. I earn a little. I have no money. I cannot be dependent upon Aline."
She looked at him with trembling lips. He patted her hand.
"My dear child," he said, "it—you did right,of course; but it is not a fit life for you."
She was suddenly graver and older.
"Will you tell me how in this world I am to live, then?" she asked.
He led her away to a table and ordered some coffee. The performance was over. She was sitting there only to listen to the music. He talked to her seriously for a time. There were no other relatives, not a friend in the world.
"Monsieur Arleman," she explained, "has been ill ever since that night, but he has sworn that he will find me, My father doesn't care. He has his coffee, his brandy, his déjeuner; he dines and reads—nothing else. He never cared. But, oh, I am terrified of Monsieur Arleman! Why do you look so gravely, Monsieur Londe?" she whispered, leaning across the table towards him. "Say that you are glad to see me, please!"
"I cannot quite tell you how glad," he said. He was on the point of telling her that he had come back to Hyères only to catch a glimpse of her, but he held his peace.
"I only regret," he added, "that you should have had to take up work like this. There are other things."
"There is one thing only I can do," she cried. "Jean!"
She called to the violinist. He came across, bowing and smiling. She took the violin from his hand and commenced to play. Her eyes were half closed.
"They let me do this," she murmured. "Listen. I will play to you."
When she had finished many of the people had gathered around. Londe slipped a five-franc piece into the hand of the violinist.
"I see now, little girl," he said, "the way out. I am going back with you to your lodgings. I am going to talk to Aline. Afterwards we shall see."
She left him on the platform at the Gare du Nord three weeks later. She was placed with a highly respectable French family. She was a pupil at the Conservatoire, with her fees paid for two years and the remainder of Londe's thousand pounds in the bank. She took his hand and the tears came into her eyes.
"If only you had not to go!" she whispered, clinging to him. "You have been so good, so dear, and you won't even let me love you; you won't let me tell you that there isn't anything else in the world like even my thoughts of you."
He kissed her lightly on both cheeks.
"Little girl," he said, "it is well that you should love your guardian. Remember that I am old, and married, and a very impossible person. The little I have done for you is absolutely nothing compared with the many things I have done wrong or have left undone. Mind, I shall return some day soon to hear you play."
The train bore him back to London. He sat in his rooms that night and reviewed his position. His little income, such as it was, was gone now for good. He had twenty-four pounds left in the world. He went to see his lawyer the next moming.
"And when," the old gentleman asked, kindly, "do you start for Australia?"
Londe, when he had signed all the papers which were laid before him, held out his hand to the lawyer.
"Mr. Ronald," he said, "shake hands with me for the last time. When you have heard my news I am afraid you will have finished with me. I am not going to emigrate at all."
The lawyer`s face fell.
"The fact is," Londe continued, "I have spent that thousand pounds you sent me to Paris."
"Spent it?" the lawyer gasped.
"I have either gambled with it or invested it," Londe sighed. "I can't tell which. That is on the knees of the gods. I have twenty pounds left, and I am off to the States —steerage—on Saturday. I am going to see my wife and find work out there, if I can."
"Gambled with it or invested it?" the lawyer repeated, puzzled.
Londe nodded. "Very likely," he said, "I shall never know which myself."
When, two years later, Londe found himself once more in Paris, a strange servant opened the door of the little French pension in the Rue de Castelmaine. She shook her head at Londe's inquiry. Mlle. Félice was certainly not amongst the inmates of the pension.
Londe, hronzed with travel and hard though he was, felt a sudden pain at his heart. He pushed through into the little hall to meet Mme. Regnier, the proprierress. She held out her hands.
"But it is Monsieur Londe at last, then!" she cried. "Welcome back once more to Paris."
"Mlle. Félice?" he asked, eagerly.
Mme. Regnier became suddenly grave.
"Ah, that poor child!" she exclaimed. "She has gone. It is eleven months ago since she came into my little sitting-room one morning. 'Madame,' she said, 'I have finished with music. 1 have finished with Paris. It is of no use. Never will they make a musician of me. Herr Sveingeld has told me so himself. There are other things.' She left the next day."
"But do you know where she went?" Londe demanded.
Madame shook her head. "She left no word."
"But why on earth was that?"
Madame shrugged her shoulders.
"Mlle. Félice," she said, "was discreet always, and careful, if one can judge by appearances; but she was far, far too beautiful for Paris and to be alone. The men I have thrown almost from the doorsteps, monsieur, the men who would wait till she came out! For a week there was a motor-car always at the corner!"
Londe set his teeth firmly.
"Do you think," he asked, "that Mlle. Félice has found a lover, then?"
Mme. Regnier once more shrugged her shoulders.
"All I can say is," she pronounced, "that whilst she was here mademoiselle was, of all the young ladies I have ever known, the most discreet. Whether she has stolen away to escape, or the other thing, who can tell?"
Londe went to Herr Sveingeld. The old musician did not recognize him at first. Then he gripped him by the hand.
"I remember you perfectly, monsieur," he declared. " The little lady—she gave it up. She was clever enough, talented in a way, perhaps, but without genius. She worked hard, but there was little to be made of her. Unless they are of the best, there is no call for girls who play the violin, especially with her appearance. A public début would only have been a nuisance to her."
"Do you know where she has gone?" Londe demanded.
"I have no idea," Herr Sveingeld replied. Londe braced himself for the question he hated.
"Do you know anything of any admirers she may have had?"
Herr Sveingcld shook his head.
"Why should I?" he asked. "It is not my business. I think only of music. As for my pupils, they are free to come and go. They can do what they like. I am not the keeper of their morals. I am here to teach them music."
So Londe wandered back to his hotel. He spent three days in aimless inquiries leading nowhere. Then he took the train to the South. He stayed at an hotel in Hyères,and the next morning he hired a motor-car and drove over the mountains and along the straight, white road which led once more to the hills. He leaned over and touched the chauffeur's shoulder as they came nearer to the place where he had first caught a glimpse of the little pink sunshade. The car slackened speed. He looked around him. It was all very much the same. Then the car came almost to a standstill at a corner. They met a market-cart filled with huge baskets of violets, and on a seat by the side of the driver—Felice!
Londe left the car whilst it was still crawling along. He stood out in the road, and Félice looked down at him and gave a little cry. She set her feet upon the shafts and sprang lightly into the road. The only word that passed between them was a monosyllable, and yet a hope that was almost dead sprang up again in the man's heart. Félice was very plainly dressed in trim, white clothes, a large straw hat, and over her dress she wore a blue smock such as the peasants wore in the field. In her eyes was still the light of heaven.
"But tell me," he begged, "what does it mean? I went to Paris. No one could tell me what had become of you."
She laughed, the laughter of sheer happiness.
"Listen," she explained. "What was I to do? All of the money was gone. There was no hope for me. I can play the violin like others—no better, no worse. And— don't laugh—but Paris was a terrible place for me. There were so many foolish people. They gave me so little peace, and it would always have been like that. And then one day I read an article in one of our reviews, and I had a sudden idea. There was three hundred pounds of your money left. I came back. My father had died. The little house and an acre or so of vineyard belonged to me. Well, I hired more. I am a market gardener. Behold!"
She pointed to the fields. Londe followed the sweep of her fingers. Everywhere was an air of cultivation. The vineyards were closely pruned. A wonderful field of violets stretched almost to the village. In the distance was the glitter of grass, rows of artichokes and peas, an orchard of peach trees in blossom.
"It is our business," she laughed; "yours and mine. See, I have no head for figures, but since I returned I have added four times to our capital. We keep books. I have a manager, very clever. I was going to look at a little piece of land which is for sale and leave these violets at the station. It is nothing. Walk with me here up home, and while they get déjeuner ready I will show you. Come this way. You must see the almond trees."
They passed across the field, where twenty or thirty blue-smocked peasants were at work. Félice stopped once or twice to speak to them. Finally they entered another gate and passed through an orchard, pink and white with blossom. The air seemed faint and sweet with a perfume almost exotic. The sunshine lay all around them. When they came out, she turned a little to her right and pointed to the road, straight and dazzlingly white-painted to where it disappeared over the hills.
"After all," she said, "it meant something to me—the road to liberty."
They were at the edge of the orchard. He took her hands firmly in his.
"Felice," he murmured, "it may mean so much to you, if you will, for I have come back —I am free—I am no longer a wanderer. I, too, have worked, and I have been fortunate. And the day when I commenced my new life—and the whole reason of it—was the day we travelled over that road together."
She came closer and closer to him, and her eyes were softer, and she seemed to him like the fairest thing on earth.
"I have prayed," she whispered, "oh, I have prayed all my days that you might return and bring back love with you—like this!"
AT twenty minutes past eight on a dark but pleasantly warm autumn evening, Lionel Cutts sallied out into the streets of the ancient city of Norwich in search of adventures. His mind was agreeably free from all sense of responsibility. He had made sure that his sample cases were in order, and that a porter would be ready to help him with them on the following morning. He had sent his employers a full account of his doings in a neighboring town. He had inclosed a very creditable sheet of orders and the usual grumble as to the immoral competition indulged in by a rival firm—which competition, he managed to hint delicately, might have resulted in a serious loss of business but for his own personal popularity with his customers.
Mr. Cutts was fortified by the recent consumption of a substantial dinner, and he was conscious more than ever of that curious and most unaccountable thrill which nearly always stirred his pulses when he sallied out, after his day's work, into the lighted streets of some unfamiliar town. For Lionel Cutts, although an excellent commercial traveler and a young man of regular habits and blameless life, was an exceedingly romantic person.
The direction which his wanderings took was ill itself a proof of his eccentricity. He deliberately avoided the crowded main street. In vain, so far as he was concerned, did the cinema palaces display their flamboyant signs. The huge advertisements of a worldfamed circus left him unmoved. He wandered, instead, around the Cathedral Close, gazed up at the gloomy, ivy-covered houses, listened to the rustling of the wind in the elm trees, and then pursued for some distance the path which skirted the turgid river.
He could never explain, even to himself, the satisfaction that he derived from such peregrinations. He only knew that he was carried away from his everyday self. He felt a vague sense of superiority, and was dimly conscious of the existence of many things in life which had nothing whatever to do with the humdrum career of "our Mr. Lionel Cutts," of the firm of Merryweather, Jones & Co.
All the time, too, there was the unexpressed and perhaps unrealized hope of an adventure—a hope utterly vague, but sufficiently inspiring to lead him to the silent places when the din of crowded streets, the hum of many voices, and the lilt of popular music called loudly to most of his kind. A light in the window of a silent house, the trim figure of a little maidservant suitably disguised, even the strains of a violin from the suddenly opened door of some remote public house, had all possessed their allurements for him. He had had many disappointments, some laughable, some almost humiliating, all commonplace. To-night was to be different!
It started, of course, with a girl. She passed him at the end of an empty street leading out from the Close—a slender, graceful girl with pale, impressive face and large dark eyes, which swept him over modestly, yet not without some interest, as she paused at the edge of the sidewalk. It was a lonely spot—there was scarcely another soul in sight—and, notwithstanding her undoubtedly refined appearance, her eyes had not been immediately withdrawn from his eager gaze.
Lionel Cutts took his courage in both hands. He removed the cigarette from his mouth and lifted his tweed cap. These things were done in the best possible air.
"Can I be of any assistance, miss?" he inquired.
She looked at him, not angrily, but with some surprise.
"Assistance?" she repeated, and from the first sound of her voice Lionel felt that his adventure had arrived.
"Thought you'd lost your way or something of that sort," he continued.
She actually smiled at him—a curious, apologetic little smile in which her eyes seemed to take part.
"To tell you the truth," she confessed, moving a little nearer to him, "I have."
"May I try to put you right?" he begged. "I'm a stranger here myself, just strolling about for a bit, but I know some of the streets."
"You don't live in the city, then?"
He shook his head. By this time, owing to his skillful maneuvers, they were walking side by side.
"Just passing through," he explained airily. " I'm taking a little motor tour through the eastern counties—looking for a shoot for next year, if I can find one."
"How lovely!" she murmured, glancing up at him shyly.
"What about yourself?" he inquired.
"Oh, I'm staying down there for a night or two with my father," she repHed, motioning back toward the Close. "My father is a clergyman on the other side of the county, and we are staying with the dean."
Lionel Cutts didn't know exactly what a dean was, but he felt that it was something exceedingly superior. There was no doubt about the adventure now. His tone, however, became a little more humble.
"Would you honor me by taking a little walk?" he asked.
She seemed dubious. The shadow of her ecclesiastical relatives seemed to lean down over her.
"I don't think I dare," she murmured. "You see, I don't know you. Which way?"
"First turn to the left, around here," he replied promptly. "It leads right out into the country. Let's pretend we're old friends—been introduced by the bishop, and all that sort of thing. My name's Montressor—Lionel Montressor."
"I can see that you are used to having your own way," she observed resignedly. "Mine is Hardcastle—Nancy Hardcastle. I came out for a few minutes because all the rooms were so hot. Now you must tell me about your motor tour and your shooting. How lovely to have a shoot of your own!"
He smiled in a superior sort of way.
"I'd rather hear about your father's parish," he replied.
They had a very pleasant walk and exchanged many confidences of an interesting and personal nature. When they parted at the corner of the Close, the young lady became almost solemn.
"Mr. Montressor," she pleaded earnestly, "I want you to promise me, upon your word of honor, that you will forget this evening—that, if we should ever meet again in society, you will treat me as a stranger. I have never in my life done such a dreadful thing as this, but I won't regret it, if you will give me that promise."
He gave it, much impressed, and although she seemed at first terribly distressed by the condition that he imposed, she eventually paid—well away from the gas lamp.
Lionel Cutts walked back to his hotel with his feet upon the air. He enjoyed his whisky and soda, and watched the finish of a game of pool in the billiard room in high good humor. He had spent a thoroughly satisfactory evening.
THEIR next meeting was not in society. It took place at about five minutes past nine on the following morning, when Lionel Cutts was personally assisting in the unloading of his sample cases and their disposal inside the premises of Messrs. Hyde Brothers, drapers and haberdashers. Miss Hardcastle was standing behind the counter upon which, with some effort, he had just deposited his heaviest case. He looked at her, breathless, his mouth a little open, his healthy color deepening, large drops of perspiration, not wholly born of his exertions, standing out upon his forehead.
As usual in such a situation, the woman triumphed. She smiled at him very sweetly.
"Out early, aren't you, Mr. Montressor?" she remarked. "Are you motoring far to-day?"
"How's the dean?" he managed to stammer.
She leaned across the counter.
"Don't let's be silly any longer," she said earnestly. "If you want to see Mr. Orton, the new buyer, he's just over there, through that door. Mr. Greatrex, of Brown & Horris, is in the next department, waiting to get hold of him, with about four truckloads of samples. If you slip through that door, you'll get in first."
Mr. Cutts, notwithstanding his romantic disposition, was all for business. He was off like a shot, and he beat the enterprising representative of Messrs. Brown & Horris by a head. An hour later, on his way out, after a most successful interview, he approached the counter behind which Miss Hardcastle was standing.
"Will you please?" he began with some timidity.
"Same time and place to-night," she interrupted, glancing over her shoulder. "My name is Nancy Grey. Don't let them see you talking to me. It won't do you any good."
Lionel Cutts lifted his hat and left the shop, somewhat cheered. He kept his appointment that night with a certain amount of trepidation, but he found Miss Grey a most delightful young woman.
"Idiotic, wasn't it?" she laughed, as they shook hands. "But I can't help it. Being in business all day, a girl does sort of get fed up with commonplace things, and I'm confessing right away that I like to make believe. I was making believe all last evening. It came just as natural as anything."
"Same here," he acknowledged heartily. "I can't keep away from it. I don't care for the ordinary sort of amusements after my work's done. I like to wander off and make believe, too."
"Now isn't that queer?" she exclaimed, stopping short for a moment. "I never met any one else like that before. It's exactly what I do myself. Last night I was pretending that I had been dining with the bishop, and my car had broken down. I was looking for help when I met you; but I had to change things just a little, because I suddenly remembered that I wasn't in evening dress."
"Seems to me we ought to hit it off together," he declared confidently.
"What shall it be to-night—a cinema or the theater?"
She shook her head disparagingly.
"That's just what ordinary people would do," she objected.
"Anything you like to suggest," he said gallantly.
She reflected for a moment. Then her face lit up.
"I know what!" she suddenly decided.
"I'll take you where I went this morning before breakfast. I saw something which has made me imagine things all day. I've made up nearly a dozen stories about it. You shall come, too, and have a try. We'll have to go by tram. Do you mind?"
"Not I!" he answered. " I don't care how far it is. The farther the better!"
THEY traveled out of the city on an electric car, and during the journey Nancy never mentioned their destination. Arrived at the terminus, she led the way down what seemed to be a country lane in process of transition into a suburban street. On either side Were recently built cottages of a boxlike architectural style, each standing in a little plot of garden. The sidewalks had only just been put down, and the road itself was imperfectly made.
The whole neighborhood—in the gloom of the evening, at any rate— looked commonplace and uninspiring. Many of the houses were empty, some were still unfinished.. The street lamps were feeble and insufficient, and once Lionel stumbled against a tub of mortar and a pile of bricks. He relieved himself by an expression to which his companion remained chivalrously deaf.
"You don't live down here, do you?" he asked doubtfully.
"Not I," she replied; "but my father's a builder, and this last house belongs to him. I came down on my bike early this morning with a note, and—well, wait just a moment."
They had reached the end of the street—a street which terminated in the open fields—and Nancy pushed open the gate of the house in front of which they had paused. They groped their way up a narrow gravel path to the stuccoed front of the little villa. There was no light shining from any of the windows. Only the outline of the building was dimly visible, rising out of a desert of immature garden. Beyond was the untouched country, a dark, uneven chaos, with a few trees close at hand standing up like black sentinels.
"Any one living here?" the young man whispered.
"A retired colonel. He is father's tenant. I came down with a note this morning about some alterations, but no one answered the bell, so I strolled around and just glanced in at this window—this side one here. Step softly on the grass border. Now, have you any matches? Don't say you haven't, for goodness' sake! I quite forgot that it would be dark."
"I've plenty of matches, all right," Lionel Cutts assured her, drawing a box from his pocket. "Supposing any one sees us hanging around here, though?"
"That's all right," she answered briskly. "I left the note in the letter box this morning, and I've come for an answer. Just strike a match and look in through the window. I want you to see it just as I did."
It was a dark night, but windless, and the match, when once kindled, burned steadily. The young man held it close to the window and peered into a plainly furnished but comfortable little dining room. At first he could distinguish nothing except a white cloth upon the table; but by degrees he saw other things.
The cloth was laid for a meal, which had apparently been hastily abandoned. An empty decanter lay upon its side, and across the tablecloth was a dark stream of red wine. A glass by the side of the vacant place was still half filled. There was a barely touched cutlet upon the plate, and a napkin thrown in a heap upon a vegetable dish. On the floor, beside the table, lay an overturned chair on which the diner had evidently been sitting. The cloth had been dragged a little askew, and, staring at the two visitors with eyes like points of fire and tail lifted straight into the air, was a tortoiseshell cat. It was mewing loudly and scratching the floor with its paws.
"What do you make of that?" the girl whispered. "It's just as it was this morning."
"Some one's done a skidoo in a hurry," Mr. Cutts observed, lighting another match. "I wonder," he added, his practical mind for the moment triumphing, "why the cat hasn't eaten the cutlet?"
The cat's red tongue shot out as it moved slowly toward them.
It was at this precise moment that fear entered into the souls of both Lionel Cutts and Nancy Grey. It came from some hidden source and for some unexplained reason, but it took an irresistible hold upon them. The scene upon which the young man had glanced with the idlest curiosity became suddenly invested with a dim and creeping horror. There was something around them, something near, which was terrifying. He struggled against it bravely, but his throat became dry and his knees began to shake.
Then his companion spoke, and he knew that the same feeling of terror had come to her, too. Her voice sounded faint and tremulous.
"Looks odd, doesn't it?" she faltered. "It was just like that this morning. I've been making believe about it all day. One might fancy—almost anything."
"Almost anything!" he echoed, lighting another match and trying to believe that his fingers were trembling because of the cold. "Isn't there a servant or any one in the house?"
"One was to come to-morrow, he told father," she replied. "He seemed proud of being able to do everything for himself just for a day or two—said he was an old campaigner. He must have gone away in a hurry. Don't let's stay here any longer!"
An immense relief seized upon the soul of Lionel Cutts at his companion's suggestion; yet he remained for a moment motionless. Just inside the room the blazing eyes of the cat seemed to grow larger and larger. With arched back and wide open mouth, she stood as close to the window as she could get, marking time with her paws and mewing more loudly than ever. Lionel Cutts forgot his surroundings.
"Hang that cat!" he muttered, more than ever conscious of the moisture upon his forehead.
"Let's go!" the girl begged, tugging at his arm and urging him to leave the uncanny spot. "We'll make up stories about this on the way home."
Although his knees shook, and although the thought of a rapid flight toward the lights and sounds of the electric car was like a dream of happiness, Lionel knew quite well that the moment for it had passed.
"There may be—a real story," -he answered. "That cat is crying for help. Let's look in the other downstairs room."
She caught him convulsively by the arm.
"It's silly," she faltered, "but I don't want to. I'm afraid! I want to get away, back to the lights. I want to run as fast as I can!"
"So do I, like the devil," he groaned; " but we can't do it. Come along!"
LIONEL led the way, shaking a little, but moving steadily forward. On the other side of the front door was another room, corresponding in size with the one into which they had been looking. They stole up to it on tiptoe. It, too, was uncurtained and blank. Cutts struck a match, held it down for a moment until the flame burned clearly, and then turned it up. Its light was sufficient. They saw into the room. The girl tried to shriek, but her voice broke piteously, and the sound that came was no more than a cracked and discordant whisper.
As for her companion, a curious thing happened. The terror of a few seconds ago fell away from him. He found his brain working, his muscles tingling for action. How best could he help?—for help seemed sorely needed.
On the floor, near the middle of the room, bound hand and foot with cruel cords, lay an elderly gentleman. His face was ghastly white, the veins were standing out upon his forehead, there were specks of blood upon his lips. His eyes were protruding, and their stare was almost like the stare of the dead. A few feet away from him another man was kneeling before a small safe. This individual's hands were clasped on the top of his head, he was swaying backward and forward, muttering to himself—and he was as black as jet.
"It's the elephant rider from the circus!" Miss Grey faltered.
Lionel's plan of campaign was already settled. Having tried the window and found it fastened, he rained a hurricane of blows upon the panes with his ash stick. Then, finding a place free of broken glass, he placed his hand firmly upon the sash, and, with a skill acquired from practicing over counters in his spare moments, he vaulted into the room of tragedy.
"What the devil's going on here?" he cried.
There was no reply. The man who lay upon the floor made weak but ineffectual efforts to expel the clumsily fashioned gag from his mouth. The elephant rider rose to his feet, without undue haste, and came slowly across the room. He walked with a curious noiselessness. The veneer of civilization acquired with his European clothes seemed to have fallen away from him. There was a ferocity in his eyes, a threat in his very silence, alike terrifying. Lionel Cutts was miserably conscious of an immense inferiority of size and muscle. He gripped his ash stick firmly, but he felt like a pygmy defying a giant.
"What's the meaning of this?" he demanded, his voice weakening.
There was no answer. The elephant rider leaned forward. Cutts struck at him fiercely, but, though the blow fell upon his head, the African never winced. With a sudden movement he seized Lionel in his arms, and the two swayed backward and forward in an uneven struggle.
Peering at them through the dim light, the girl, who had followed her escort into the room, began to scream. The African's long fingers had closed upon the young man's throat, and very slowly he commenced to strangle his victim. Cutts, almost from the first, was in desperate straits. He was in the hands of a man of twice his physical strength—a man, too, who seemed fired with a homicidal fury. He felt the cruel fingers burning at his throat, the hideous choking, the beginning of the black darkness.
The girl rushed toward them, but suddenly she paused. The bound man upon the floor was trying to make her understand something. He was looking toward his pockets. She dropped on her knees by his side. When she stood up, for the first time in her life she held a little revolver. She looked at it and felt for the trigger. The colonel nodded eagerly.
Once more she hastened across the room. Cutts was helpless. The African lifted his limp body and seemed about to dash it upon the floor. Nancy's hand shook, and red fire danced before her eyes. She dared not aim, but suddenly she pressed the revolver against the body of the African and pulled the trigger desperately—once, twice, three times. Then she ran away, shrieking and wringing her hands.
The room was full of smoke and hideous with the cries of the wounded man. Cutts sat on the floor, leaning against the wall, slowly recovering his breath. His face was black and his eyes staring.
"My God!" he sobbed. "My God!"
It was the girl's turn now, and her courage, too, arrived in this moment of trial. First of all she lit a candle, and then, with a knife, which she fetched from the dining room, she cut the cords from the bound man. She held wine to his lips, and passed it on to Lionel Cutts.
All the time the elephant rider lay groaning upon the floor, his breathing becoming fainter and fainter. At first he had rolled from side to side, but now he was almost still. The girl scarcely once glanced in his direction, but she was deeply concerned.
"Do you think I have killed him?" she moaned.
"Thundering good job if you have!" the colonel exclaimed. "Thank Heaven for your pluck, little girl! That brute kept me here for nearly twenty-four hours, waiting for me to give him the combination to unlock my safe!"
"What is it? Jewels?" Lionel Cutts asked, as he staggered to his feet.
The colonel drew a long breath. Then he groped his way across the room, adjusted the lock with shaking fingers, and opened the door of the safe. Upon the iron shelf within was a small black image, and around its neck, hanging from a thread of gold wire, a single pearl.
"I brought it back from a temple in Central Africa," he explained. "They told me there'd be trouble, but I never dreamed they'd reach me here."
They all looked at the image, which seemed to be fashioned of some jetblack metal. The body was the body of a woman, the face hideous, yet fascinating.
"Some day I'll tell you the story," the colonel promised. "Just at present I've had enough of the thing."
He closed up the safe.
"I think," Cutts remarked, picking up his hat, "that we'll be going."
The colonel nodded.
"Can't talk to you to-night," he groaned. "Call at the police station, will you, and tell them about this carcass? I'm going to lie down."
They stole out of the house. They held each other tightly all the way down the half lit road. The horror of the night seemed to have afflicted them with a sort of mental paralysis. They scarcely spoke.
"Where is the police station?" Lionel asked hoarsely.
"I'll stop the tram," she faltered.
They came out into the lights. He drew a great breath of relief. The rattle of an electric car sounded like music.
"We don't need to make believe about to-night!" he muttered.
A month later, on the occasion of Lionel Cutts's next journey to Norwich, Miss Nancy Grey and he dined with Colonel Ransome at the Grand Hotel. They had all become normal again, though the horror of that memorable night had left behind it a certain effect. It was a very pleasant dinner, and the colonel talked for some time of his wanderings in Africa and his many remarkable adventures there. Finally, toward the close of the evening, he touched upon the one subject which, until then, they had managed to avoid.
"I've presented that idol to the British Museum," he said, "and I've sold the pearl. Pretty valuable it was, too! The first jeweler I showed it to gave me a thousand pounds for it. And now, you two young people," he went on, " I'd like to tell you both what I am going to do with that thousand pounds."
Miss Grey, who was really an exceedingly practical young woman, nodded with an air of keen interest.
"I've invested it for the present," the colonel continued, "and it's going to be handed over as a dowry to the first young lady of my acquaintance of whose matrimonial plans I approve. Don't happen to know of any one, do you. Miss Nancy?"
For a moment she sat quite still. There was a shade of pink in her cheeks. Lionel Cutts coughed.
"We thought some time next autumn, sir," he remarked. "I am to have a small share in the business then."
"Congratulate you both!" the colonel declared heartily. " It's just the answer I was hoping for. The money's ready any time!"