The Price a Woman Pays made its first appearance in a weekly series called "Tit-Bit Novels" that George Newnes began publishing in 1911 at the price of one penny per issue. A contemporary newspaper review described the launching of this series as follows:
The first number of the new story paper is out. Its title is The Scandal-Weed, and its author is Beatrice Heron-Maxwell. All the stories to appear are absolutely new, and among the well-known writers whose pens have been engaged to write them are William Le Queux, Arthur Applin, Edgar Wallace, Alicia Ramsay, Elizabeth York Miller, Edwin Pugh, Lillias Campbell Davidson, Vere Campbell, Penelope Yorke, and many more. The enterprise seems likely to be very successful. (The Evening Post, New Zealand, September 2, 1911).
A partial record of the series' publication history is available at the Homeville web site. The Homeville listing begins with Tit-Bits Novel No. 131, dated January 5, 1911, which contained Isobel W. Seymour's novel The Myterious Marriage and Chapters 10 and 11 of Seton Cross's novel The Twelfth Crime. It ends with Tit-Bits Novel No. 156, dated June 29, 1915 and containing Rex Colvile's Love Adrift and Part 7 of Annesly Kenealy's The Grip of the Past.
Apart from The Price a Woman Pays, Edgar Wallace wrote at least one other story for this series—Five Fateful Words, which, according to Google Books, appeared in 1915.
Research undertaken while preparing the PGA/RGL edition of The Price a Woman Pays failed to determine the exact date of publication, but it is assumed to have appeared in the course of 1911.
The following illustration is provided to give the reader an impression of the look and feel of the Tit-Bits Novels series.
The present PGA/RGL edition of The Price a Woman Pays was built from digital images of the syndicated serial version published in The Maitland Daily Mercury in 1913 and archived at Trove, the web site of the National Library of Australia. Obvious typographical errors have been corrected without comment.
So far as could be ascertained, this is the first time the story has appeared in book form since its first publication. —R.G.
ALL that April had promised May was giving. A pair of
pheasants that had strayed from their cover and were solemnly crossing the
path, were startled back by a sound of singing. Such clear young voices! They
rang through the woods and were flung out in an unpremeditated way, a though
their owners were in the habit of singing together.
'It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey and a ho, and a hey nononino,'
they carolled full of exultation and delight.
Presently the singers came into view. The man was a typical Englishman—well-built and almost stalwart—with a clear, brown complexion and clean-cut features. The girl walked with a light step—a slim slip of a creature. Her frock was white, and she carried a broad-brimmed hat and swung it backwards and forwards as she walked. Her golden hair, which was ruffled in the wind, framed an elfish, laughter-loving face. There was mischief in its every line, and yet there was sweetness in the curves of the mouth and a lurking seriousness in the depths of her blue eyes.
'We have done a hard afternoon's work,' she said. 'I am tired now; I am going to rest a while.'
She settled herself comfortably at the foot of a pine, all in among the
bracken. Her companion set the basket of bluebells that he had been carrying
on the ground and flung himself at her feet.
'In the spring time,
The only pretty ring time,'
sang Winifred softly, with her hands clasping her knees and
rocking herself to and fro in time with the refrain.
Frank did not join her. He just gazed up at her with adoring eyes, thinking what a delicious picture she made in her white frock and blue ribbons set in the green of the wood. Her hair was glittering in the light that filtered through the waving branches, and he lay and watched her as she sang, following in idea the spirit of her singing, and exulting in the thought of future ownership.
'Winifred,' he said presently, 'your eyes are exactly the colour of the bluebells, and your hair looks as though it were made of sunbeams combed out of the sun.'
'Now don't begin with compliments,' Winifred said contentedly.
'Very well, then, I will give you some home truths. One—your hair is disgracefully rough.'
'Home truths are truths you don't want to hear. Why they should be called home truths, I can't think, when they are unpleasant. What has anything unpleasant to do with home?'
'They are called home truths because they go right home,' said Frank solemnly. 'Two—you have torn your frock and got it muddy round the hem. Three—your shoes are dusty.'
'I can't help that,' indignantly.
'Four—your hair ribbon is coming untied, and your whole appearance denotes a "careless desolation".'
Winifred's lips curved in a bewitching little smile.
'Oh, well,' she said, complacently, beginning to tie her hair ribbon afresh, 'all these things can be remedied.'
'Oh, but I haven't finished yet. Six—'
'Five,' she put in.
'No,' Frank said firmly, 'five was the "careless desolation." Six—your nose is just a trifle—shall I say—"tip-tilted." Seven—your upper lip is undeniably too short, and eight—I am not sure that I don't prefer raven locks, the colour of my own, to golden curls; and brown eyes, like mine, to blue ones.'
Winifred had covered her ears with her hands.
'You are a horrid boy,' she said, pouting. 'I am going on.'
'No,' Frank said decidedly, putting his arms round her to hold her down. 'You shalln't go until you confess that you prefer compliments to home truths.'
'Oh, you terrible boy! Well! you must confess something first.' She leaned towards him with an air in which coaxing and command were mixed in a bewildering way. 'Say that you like golden hair better than black. Say it!'
'I like golden hair better than black,' repented Frank: 'I am letting myself be entangled by its glittering, silken meshes.'
'Say,' she whispered, leaning a thought closer, 'that you like blues eyes better than brown.'
'I like blue eyes better than brown,' repeated Frank, adoring her: 'I am being drowned, deliciously drowned in their sparkling, blue depths.'
'Winifred broke into a delightful little laugh,
'And now is there any need for me to actually confess in cold words that I like compliments better than home truths.'
'You're a witch!' said her lover. 'I believe you could got the better of anybody.'
'No, I couldn't,' laughed Winifred, 'I only get the better of people who are so foolish as to admire me, and still more so foolish as to show it. No, I don't, like home truths; they do you good, and I don't like being done good to.'
'No more do I,' cried Frank impulsively. 'It's disrespectful treatment.'
'Yes,' Winifred said thoughtfully, 'we are not truly in sympathy with people when we are trying to do them good.'
'Winifred, when you and I are married, we will never try to do one another good.'
A faint flush overspread her face and a look of of delicious consciousness dawned in her eyes: but she looked straight at her lover as she replied, 'I don't think we ever shall, We have had all our lives to learn one another, and as we go on growing we can go on learning, can't we?'
'Dear little comrade,' murmured Frank, as he kissed the slim hand that rested in his.
The rectory at Fallingham was quaint and romantic. The high and trim-cut box hedge shut it away from the outer world and within there was the fragrance of sweet flowers, and the hush and peacefulness that come of ordered seclusion.
On this warm afternoon in May, Dr. Beechington sat in his great cane chair, watching idly and with some amusement the magnificent futilities of Henry, For Henry had a method peculiarly his own of doing small nothings with feverish haste.
The Rector read for a while; then, speaking over his paper, he asked: 'Has Miss Winifred returned yet, Henry?'
'No, sir. She went down to the village a couple of hours ago.'
The Doctor was sitting with his back to the old oaken gate that led into the rectory garden, and neither he nor Henry noticed the entrance of its young mistress. Followed by her lover and holding up a warning finger to him, she ran noiselessly down the steps, crept up behind her father's chair, and put her hands before his eyes.
'Who is it?' she demanded.
'It doesn't want much cleverness to answer that question,' said the Rector, taking hold of her hands and kissing them fondly. 'Where have you been?'
'In the copse and in the woods and in the village. Frank,' she commanded, 'bring forward the spoils!'
But at this, the Rector rose with a troubled face, 'Winifred, my love, I have something to say to Mr. Bennett which will take me some time. Will you leave us together for a while?'
'Why, of course I will,' she said gaily. 'I hope it is nothing very serious, father. I am not in the mood for anything serious. Can you be, on a lovely day like this?'
She broke into the song they had been singing in the woods:
'Hey noni nonino, hey noni nonino,'
and turned towards the house, adding over her shoulder, 'Mr. Morretti says: "Never talk business before meals".'
'Oh, by the way, Winifred,' Bennett said, 'you have forgotten to tell your father that we met the great millionaire in the village, and that he is coming along to see him.'
The old Rector looked at his daughter. She made a very pleasant picture as she stood by the terrace steps, lightly swinging her basket of bluebells. He frowned thoughtfully as though some ugly vision had come between his eyes and the beautiful child who waited on his word.
'Was Mr. Morretti alone?' he asked.
It was Bennett who answered, and the Rector's frown was reflected on his boyish face.
'N—no,' he replied reluctantly, 'that fellow Vascour was with him—he has just returned from the Continent.'
The look of displeasure on the older man's face deepened. 'I do not like the way you speak of Mr. Vascour,' he said shortly. 'Remember, he is a great friend of mine; he himself is a man of some wealth and influence.'
It seemed to Frank that the lovely eyes of the girl were clouded as she rejoined quietly, 'He is not a good man, father. There is something about him that repels me. When he is near me I feel as though I were in the presence of some dreadful, warped creation of Nature's—that—oh, it's a dreadful thing to say—that soils all things and all people it touches.'
The Rector stared at her in amazement. 'Tush, my child,' he said sharply; 'your prejudice against Mr. Vascour is unreasonable, it is embarrassing, the more so since—' he stopped short and bit his lip.
'Yes, father? Since—'
Dr. Beechington waved his hand wearily. 'Never mind, never mind,' he said, 'run along and make the arrangements that are necessary. Perhaps Mr. Morretti will stay to dinner.'
He turned to Frank. 'I presume that even you, Mr. Bennett, have no feeling against our neighbour and my good friend, the African millionaire?'
Frank laughingly shook his head. 'I? None whatever, Doctor,' he said. 'Indeed, It would be churlish to harbour one unkind thought against this man.'
Dr. Beechington was obviously ill at ease. He motioned Bennett to a chair and seated himself in one opposite. For a moment he did not speak. He seemed in some difficulty as to how he should begin.
After a long silence he spoke. 'I have noticed, Mr. Bennett,' he said, slowly, 'that you have paid considerable attention to my daughter. I cannot say that such attention meets entirely with my approval.'
He was not prepared for the consternation his words provoked.
'Dr. Beechington!' Frank gasped, rising, pale as death.
'Pray be seated until I have finished,' the doctor went on hurriedly. 'You know, Mr. Bennett, I am a poor man, and my daughter would come to her husband practically penniless.'
The boy's drawn face punished him, but he determined to go through with the business.
'I know what you would say,' said the Doctor, gently, as Frank tried to speak, 'but I do not forget that you, too, are very poor—and that your prospects, moreover, are so visionary that for me to allow my daughter to marry you would be as great a sin as though I were by my own act to beggar her. If you had been a man in reasonably easy circumstances, there is no one to whose care I would more willingly have confided my daughter. You love her I do not doubt—your ability to keep her in comfort, I greatly fear. Love is a poor meal,' he said, bitterly.
'Love is—something,' said Frank, finding his voice.
'It does not pay rates and taxes,' said the old man, cynically. 'Winifred has a duty to her father.'
'Love is the greatest of all duties,' said the young man, hotly.
Dr. Beechington made a gesture of impatience. Sub-consciously the opposition pleased him, it made his task the easier.
'The greatest of all duties, Mr. Bennett, is obedience,' he said acidly, 'and I am confident that my daughter will give me her obedience in this respect; that she will marry the man I have chosen for her.'
Frank winced at the last words. Into his pale face a flush of anger stole.
'That you have chosen! You have chosen!' he said with dangerous quietness. 'I knew nothing of this: your daughter knows nothing of this. Will you be so kind as, to give me the name of the man!' The quiet contempt of his tone made the Rector change colour.
'I do not like your dictatorial air, Mr. Bennett,' he said, angrily.
Frank was cool now. 'Nor,' said he, 'do I like the callousness with which you dispose of the girl who is to be my wife, with as little compunction as though she were a slave in the market place; a something on offer to the highest bidder.'
'You are insolent,' stormed the Rector, 'because I choose to direct the choice of my daughter, an inexperienced girl, whose childish fancies have been attracted by the plausibility of a ne'er-do-well—'
Of his charity he arrested the sting of the speech, but he had said too much.
'I think. Doctor,' said Frank, holding himself in hand, 'you count too much upon your position. Your daughter loves me. I love her. She is old enough to decide for herself whether she will follow the dictates of her own heart, or be sold to bondage like some eastern slave.'
Neither saw the girl, who had come out onto the terrace and stood, a troubled spectator of the scene.
'She shall choose,' said the Rector, in a low voice, 'between her father—that father whose watchful care has tended her from childhood—that father whose only thought has been for her—she shall choose between her father and her lover.'
For a moment they stood, the old man and the young; one—his mind neatly ordered with the set pieces of his plan, the other—his heart all chaotic with the energy of youth, and full of rage and pain at the sight of his happiness threatened. It was the girl who came between them.
'Father! Frank!' she gasped, her eyes speaking her terror. 'What does it all mean? To choose between you—you, the two whom I love better than all the rest of the world? Oh, father?' She looked at the old man, and some inkling of the truth came to her.
Very tenderly the doctor put his arm about her. 'My daughter,' he said, gently, 'I am a very poor man; I know better than either of you the true meaning of genteel poverty. I have known the horrors, the everlasting misery, of making one shilling do the work of two. All my life I have been poor—all my life I have devoted myself to the task of ensuring you comfort. To see you want—to see you the wife of a poor man would break my heart.'
'But, father,' she faltered, 'I love Frank—'
'And what of your father?' His voice shook a little as he asked.
'Oh, yes, indeed yes, I love you dearly, father. I would do anything in the world to repay your kindnesses; I would make any sacrifice to please you—but—'
The doctor's face clouded. 'There, must be no "buts", Winifred!' he said; and the girl trembled at the sudden harshness in his tone. 'Hitherto your wish has been law. I have asked—now I demand. I have suggested—now I command. You shall marry the man who can bring you comfort. Believe me, dear, Ramon Vascour is a husband worthy of your love.'
This was the Rector's bombshell. He was not unprepared for the effect. The girl's face went white; she slipped from his encircling arms and stepped backward, searching his face all the while as though she sought, and sought vainly, some familiar expression, some hint of the vanished personality.
'Ramon Vascour!' she repeated, mechanically, and shuddered.
'Yes, Ramon Vascour,' said the Rector, sternly. 'He has asked my permission to pay his addresses to you. Mr. Vascour, you must remember, is more than confidential secretary to Mr. Morretti; he is his most intimate friend. That speaks for his character.'
'And you?' asked Winifred, as in a dream.
'I have granted that permission,' said the Doctor, and turned to face the furious man at his side.
'Do you dare to stand there Dr. Beechington,' said the boy savagely, 'and look the world in the face, knowing that you have sold your daughter to this man?'
The nicenesses of convention were forgotten now.
'Dare, sir, dare,' cried the other, angrily. 'If I were a younger man you wouldn't talk to me of "daring"!'
'If you were a younger man I'd kill you!' flung the boy in a frenzy of wrath.
'Father! Frank! Are you mad?' cried the girl in terror. 'Oh, what shall I do? What shall I do?'
She covered her face with her hands, and the sight of the weeping girl had the effect of calming the men. The Rector was the first to recover. With an effort he turned to his daughter.
'Winifred, come with me,' he said, hoarsely. 'We will leave this impertinent cub to recover his senses.'
IT was related of Buck Trencher that independence had ever been his undoing. Vascour, that suave, quiet man, in the days previous to his own prosperity, had found uses for Buck Trencher, and he deemed it convenient still to continue the acquaintance.
That is why Buck Trencher went to Fallingham on a memorable Wednesday. His patron, Vascour, was to be there, and an interview might result in another job and more money. So, having stolen into the rectory garden and hidden under the grateful shade of a currant bush, he had unintentionally played eavesdropper in the angry scenes that culminated in Frank Bennett leaving in a white heat of rage.
While he still stood peering at the house through the gaps of the bushes, he heard the blast of a motor-horn and the whirr of wheels, a startled yell, and the squeak of brakes. Then a pandemonium of noises, above which a woman's voice rose, piercingly. With all a Cockney's love of excitement, Buck rose, darted like a hare across the rector's kitchen garden, and leaping a low hedge, came upon the scene of the accident.
A motor car indeed it was, overturned, with oil and pungent-smelling liquids escaping messily. The two occupants of the car—a man and a woman—albeit dusty and awry, were unhurt, and Providence thrust Buck Trencher forward to their aid. Buck, who saw hard work in the job, was a little diffident, and would have withdrawn quietly, but the young man had caught sight of him.
'Here, you,' he said. Buck obeyed, meekly. 'Just help me to get my car in here.'
Buck, perspiring freely, helped to set the the car on its wheels, and the lady, making a hurried toilet, continued to speak her mind, which she had been doing when Buck came up. He caught scraps of her lament.
'Just when I wanted to look nice, too! For weeks we've been trying to get a chance of seeing him, and now we've got the invitation, it's all upset by that—'
'Steady!' grunted her lord.
'Now what are you going to do?' she demanded, when the car had been righted.
'My girl,' said the man, recklessly, 'I've had enough of you for one day. Just go away to some quiet spot and lose yourself for an hour.'
'James Perritt!' she exclaimed, in horror, but he was under the car. 'James Perritt!' she repeated magnificently, 'it's your wife you're speaking to.' Then, 'Jim, Jim!' she called eagerly, 'Quick, come here!'
He crawled out, a grimy figure, They had wheeled the car into a private road that led to the Rectory meadows, and Jim stood in the dusty roadway, watching the approaching figure of the Rector, who, attracted by the noise of the accident, had come to learn the cause.
'This must be Doctor Beechington,' whispered Jim's wife, and Jim stared, for he was unprepared for this kind of 'doctor.'
'A parson!' he muttered. 'I suppose it is Dr. Beechington.' Then aloud, and in his best style, 'I'm afraid were trespassing. My motor has broken down, and as we're on our way to visit Mr. Morretti I thought you might be a neighbour who wouldn't object—'
The Doctor's look of inquiry changed into a smile of welcome. 'My dear sir,' he said, heartily, 'a friend of Mr. Morretti's may count himself a friend of mine.'
Jim looked a little uncomfortable. 'Not exactly a friend,' he explained, hastily, 'although he has been a good friend to me, Perhaps patron's a better word. Polly—Polly—my dear—my wife.'
The doctor swept off his felt hat with old world politeness.
'I'm charmed to meet you, Mrs.—er—'
'Perritt,' said Jim.
'Mrs. Perritt—I've often heard Mr. Morretti speak of your husband.'
'Have you now?' said the delighted Polly; 'well that's very nice of him, I'm sure, I'm simply dying to see him.'
The doctor smiled. 'Your life may yet be saved,' he said with mock earnestness.
He pointed up the road where two figures were walking towards them. The one was tall and broad. Even at that distance there was strength and distinction in the carriage of his shoulders. The other looked mean and small beside him.
'There is Mr. Morretti,' he said, and those who heard him did not need to be told which of the two he indicated.
Buck saw them, but his eyes were for the smaller man, and he slunk back to the cover of the hushes.
The two men came nearer, the tall man talking, using his hands in unceasing gesticulation. At that time Carlos Morretti was a man of forty-seven. He looked sixty. He I had a trick of walking, with his hands clasped behind him and with his head sunk forward on his chest, that did not tend to take from his years. His face was big and broad and massive, and as all men have a suggestion of some animal in their face, his reminded one of a bull dog. It was furrowed with deep lines; the jowl was heavy and almost repulsive. His eyes were cold and at first sight unsympathetic, and he seldom smiled. His hair was snow-white, and covered his head untidily, and he had a deep, gruff voice and an abrupt diction which was disconcerting to those who know him least.
Yet for all the ruggedness of his outward show, the man had the heart of a woman in its tenderness. He showed it in his eyes as he jerked forward his hand to the doctor.
'I'm glad to see my old friend once again' he said gruffly. Then he turned to the new-comers with an inquiring look.
Jim came forward. 'You remember me, Perritt?' he said.
Morretti tossed up his head, a trick of his when something pleased him. 'Why, of course,' he said, 'Jim Perritt, host of good fellows, as brave as a lion—as simple as—'
'As simple as himself. He's very simple, Mr. Morretti,' finished Polly.
'My wife, sir,' Jim said solemnly.
As she chatted to the millionaire, her husband had time to take stock of the great man's companion.
Ramon Vascour was very neat and very smooth. His face was pale and he wore a carefully-trimmed moustache that came to little points. He had beautifully white hands with well-manicured nails, and from the shoes on his feet to the hat on his head, he was all that was correct and regular. Instinctively Jim disliked the man.
The millionaire was speaking. 'Yes, yes, Mr. Vascour has just returned from the Continent, whither he has been on business of mine, and it is such a beautiful afternoon that I could not resist the temptation of walking to the station to meet him. I love to walk these English lanes.'
Jim turned slowly towards his companion. 'You have just come from the Continent, I hear, Mr. Vascour.'
'I crossed to-day,' answered the other quietly.
'Ah,' said Jim. 'Were you, in Germany?'
'I was in Berlin for a short time.'
'I see. Didn't take the opportunity to visit your old home, I suppose?'
'I beg your pardon,' said Vascour a little hurriedly, trying to meet with unconcern Jim's direct gaze.
'I am wondering,' Jim went on. 'I am wondering what. Mr. Morretti would have to say if he knew you as well as I know you, Michael Steinberg.'
'For Heaven's sake!' whispered the other in and agony of apprehension.
'Don't worry,' said Jim coolly. 'When a man tries to turn over a new leaf—it isn't me that'd queer his pitch.'
LEFT alone by themselves, the millionaire and his secretary faced one another over the tiny iron table on the lawn. The whole party were staying to dinner at the invitation of the Doctor, and he had hinted to the Perritts that Mr. Morretti might have some private business to do. He had gladly availed himself of the distraction the visit promised. Not one word had he spoken with his daughter since the scene earlier in the day.
The millionaire had shown a strangely nervous desire for privacy. Now he addressed his secretary brusquely. 'You saw Graff of Berlin?' he asked.
'Yes, sir.' Vascour hesitated.
'Well?' demanded Morretti, with impatience.
'They cannot help you in your scheme,' said the other.
Morretti nodded grimly. 'I made them,' he said, half to himself. 'Three years ago I saved them from ruin, and they cannot help me!'
The pale-faced secretary bent forward and spoke eagerly. 'A word from you, Mr. Morretti, might still ruin them,' he whispered; 'why not show them that what the master hand can make, it can also break. Why not—'
'No!' roared the millionaire; crashing his great fist down on the table. 'Break them? Why? Have you no thought, Vascour, beyond destruction? Can you not see that there are limits to the methods that even ambitious men, with so great an ambition as I, may employ? Who bank with Graff's? Small tradesmen, artisans, the poorest of the middle classes. Could I ruin Graff? Could I bring ruin and destruction into the homes of those poor people against whom I have no feeling, and for whom I have naught but pity?'
'You ruined Michael Steinberg,' said the other sullenly. 'You did not know him—he was only a name to you. Yet you ruined him.'
'He was a danger to society,' Morretti said moodily, 'a walking reproach to humanity; a parasite preying on suffering mankind. You, who see in him only a prosperous merchant who had the misfortune to be under a monetary obligation to me—you do not know of his infamy—the homes he had ruined that he might grow in wealth. I knew all this.'
'You did not know the man.' Vascour said, his face a thought paler.
'How do you know?' Morretti turned on him. 'How do you know? It was before you came to me.'
'I—I heard,' the secretary faltered, bending his head over the papers that lay heaped on the table. 'He went to prison over your exposures.'
'Where is he now?'
The secretary had recovered this calm. He shrugged his shoulders. 'Dead, perhaps,' he said.
It seemed as though the business of the interview were ended, for the secretary advanced no new matter. He still sat on, biting his nails thoughtfully, and stealing furtive glances at the man before him. Vascour was waiting for a question. After a while it came.
The millionaire jerked his head up suddenly, as though with an effort, and asked harshly: 'Did you—did you see—him?'
Vascour dropped his eyes and took on that air of gravity and commiseration which fitted him so well.
'Call him by the name he has assumed,' Morretti said bitterly, 'the name by which he has made himself infamous; the name that stands for all that is vicious, unprincipled, lawless! My son!—my son! Thief, blackleg, outcast!'
His strong face quivered in his passion.
'I saw Philip Denton,' said Vascour softly. 'It was at a low café in Vienna.'
He paused, but the millionaire did not speak, save to repeat, half to himself: 'My son! The child of my wife!'
'I gave him the money he had asked for,' Vascour went on. 'He said he dared not meet me openly: the Austrian police were looking for him.'
'Again, I am sorry to say.'
'And of me?' Morretti hesitated, 'what—what did he say of me?'
Vascour looked pained. 'I would rather you did not ask—it pained me to hear—It would pain you still more deeply.'
'Go on,' said the other doggedly.
'I gave him the money. From what I have since ascertained he left the next morning for France. In Paris, I heard he was in England.'
'In England!' The millionaire rose in his agitation and paced the lawn with long strides. 'In England!' he breathed.
'It may not be true,' Vascour said smoothly; 'the Parisian police may have been misinformed—there is a charge against him in France—a bad charge, I believe.'
'Enough, enough!' Morretti cried, waving him off, 'I want to hear no more. For what you have done for me, accept my thanks, Vascour. You will not regret your zeal. I am sorry I spoke so hardly just now—but I am worried. Think of it, Vascour,' he thrust his face into the other's, and whispered hoarsely, 'think of it! I, the second richest man in the world!—the man whom the whole earth envies—and the father of the greatest criminal in Europe!'
He sank into his seat again with a groan.
'Nobody suspects,' soothed the other.
'Nobody knows but you, and even you have not heard the whole story, Vascour,' Morretti responded. 'When my son was a boy I lavished on him all the affection that had been my dear wife's. His caprices were smiled at; his costly follies condoned. So he grew into manhood: a handsome allowance was settled on him, and reluctantly, I consented to his keeping a separate establishment. I might have restrained him—I, might have saved him, had I but guessed. For stories of wild extravagance, echoes of his wild fantastic doings came to me on the wings of rumour. I doubted them or, if I half believed, I said to myself, "a man must sow his wild oats." One morning—it is now four years ago—he came to me—Vascour, if I live for a thousand years I shall never forgot his face—it was quite early in the morning, and he came to my bedside and shook me. "Father," he said, "I have killed a man!"'
'I gave him a large sum of money,' he went on, 'and he disappeared: there was no evidence to prove his connection with the crime. Then came my meeting with you and almost identically with that—the news of the life he was living—the worst, Vascour, the worst—under the alias of Philip Denton. Then letters came asking for money. In my despair I turned to you, and you have been a faithful friend to me.' He held out his hand and the other took it, lowering his eyes. Then, as suddenly, Morretti turned on his heel and strode through the garden into the gathering gloom that shrouded the road.
Vascour watched him out of sight and smiled. It was a strange little smile, and Morretti might have found some difficulty in understanding it. Vascour never laughed outwardly.
Whilst he mused and chuckled there came noiselessly from the bushes an untidy figure, who stood at his elbow. For some time the secretary was unaware of his presence. Then the man coughed, and, cat-like, Vascour leaped to one side.
'Who are you?' he asked quickly.
'Guv'nor,' said a voice, 'you can put your gun away. Don't ye know me—Trencher?'
'Trencher! Here! What do you want?' Vascour said quickly—he fancied he heard a sound of footsteps in the garden—'speak, man, somebody will be coming; I don't want to be seen talking to you!'
'I've got my feelin's, too,' Trencher said—he had a sense of humour, this man—'but I want what we all want—money.'
Suddenly Vascour gripped his arm.
'Quick,' he whispered, somebody's coming. I want you—you understand. I have work for you to do. We sail on Saturday by the Manchester. Take this, and book your passage to the Cape. You shall hear from me. Now go.'
Buck seized the extended notes with a multitude of thanks, and dived into the gloom of the shrubbery.
Vascour drew a deep sigh of relief at his disappearance. He flashed a nervous look round, but he could see no one; so he trusted the colloquy had been unnoticed. He lighted a cigarette and sat down, and his thoughts turned, as they always turned now when nothing more insistent absorbed them, to Winifred Beechington.
The lamps were lit at the rectory, and a broad shaft of light streamed out from the hall door and lay across the lawn. As he hesitated, he saw Winifred coming slowly down the terrace steps. He was filled with admiration and with a great desire to win her. He flung his cigarette into the rhododendrons and went forward to greet her. She responded quietly, but refused the chair he offered her.
'No,' she said, 'I would rather stand.'
A silence followed that he did not care to break.
'I have come to see you, Mr. Vascour,' she said at last, with a little catch in her breath, 'on a matter which to me is one of life and death. You have, through my father, honoured me by asking me to become your wife.'
He was unprepared for this, and tried to speak.
'Let me finish,' she said. 'I can only tell you that if I marry you it will be in obedience to my father's wish, because I love him so much that to thwart his greatest wish, the wish on which he has set his heart, is impossible. But, oh, Mr. Vascour—she had dropped her reserve and held out her hands appealingly—'cannot you see that I do not love you?'
'Only too clearly, Miss Beechington. You do not hide it, nor do you even care to hide it, I think.'
She made a deprecating gesture.
'You do not love me, but then you do not know me,' he said in a tone of gentle reproach. 'You have given me no chance to let myself be known. Is that fair? Also, is it wise to reject the love of a man who has had no opportunity of expressing it? I know you do not love me—you even definitely dislike me. It is so, is it not?'
She bent her head in acknowledgment.
'And yet do you know, I think I could teach you not to dislike me and not to be afraid of me.'
'I shall never love you,' she cried desperately. 'I never shall, and if we were to marry we should both of us be miserable.'
She wrung her hands wildly. 'Oh, what have I come to say? You arc driving me mad—I shall forget. Tell me that you release me!'
He dropped his confident manner and took on a tone of bitterness.
'Say I did release you, what then?'
'Then—oh, then—oh, Mr. Vascour,' he stammered in the intensity of her emotion. 'I would be so grateful to you.'
'What is gratitude to a man who is hungering for love?'
Her temples were throbbing wildly, She pressed her hands against them to steady them—to ease the pain.
'Oh, I know the words sound poor, but what can I do for you? What can I say?'
He ground his heel into the grass and turned away from her.
'Mr. Vascour,' she urged passionately, 'you do not love me. I know you do not. It is only that you think you do. You cannot. It is all your mistaken imagination. We often mistake our desires. I know we do. Don't spoil both our lives by a mistake.'
In her agitation she put her hand on his arm; she looked deeply into his eyes for signs of relenting; it was her one hope. And Vascour? With the mystery of the spring darkness silently enshrouding them both, all the artist in the man came surging upward. Before he knew it, he had his arms around her, and was uttering words that had nothing of self in them—words that were too simple and too godlike for him even to guess at their meaning. For the moment, the man's soul had escaped its bonds and was standing forth in its unassailable purity.
But the child could not understand this, and she was conscious of nothing but loathing. In an instant she had fought herself free. She stood before him speechless with indignation and rage; then she turned and fled towards the house. Vascour's moment of exaltation was over, and he dropped back again into his narrow, miserable self.
As he paced the lawn moodily, his head bent in thought, his eyes fell on something lying on the ground that flashed in the light. He picked it up, and instantly remembered having seen it only a few moments before flashing from her breast. He looked at it more carefully. It was an emerald pendant.
'Ach Gott!' he gasped, and stared at it with terror in his eyes.
'Ah, Mr. Vascour, all alone?'
It was the rector's voice as he came to his guest across the lawn.
Vascour recovered himself quickly.
'Not for long, Doctor. Miss Beechington was here only a moment ago, and, it appears she dropped this pendant. I have just picked it up off the grass.'
They had turned towards the house at meeting, and the light that poured from its open windows fell full on the Rector's face. Vascour, who stood with his back to the light, looked searchingly at his host as he put the pendant into his hand.
'Dear me, dear me,' said the Rector, 'it is hers, to be sure, and brings a very sad story to my mind.'
'Ah?' said Vascour.
'It was given to my daughter by a poor lady who died in this house some three years ago. Sit down, Mr. Vascour, sit down. It is a wretched story,' he continued, 'her death was the sequel to a tragedy in which I, all unknowingly, was a participator. When I was Vicar of High Halstead some years ago, it happened that I married a runaway couple. They had a special license, and I did not know they were runaways until afterwards. The girl was the daughter of wealthy parents who did not approve of the match. It had almost passed out of my memory when, one night just as we were going to bed, we heard a noise outside—a moaning, wailing sound. At first we thought it was the wind in the trees—it was a terribly stormy night. Then I went to the door, and almost fell over a woman who had crouched in the doorway for shelter. She was half dead with cold, but we brought her inside, and then it was that I recognised the girl I had married in High Halstead. She was terribly exhausted—'
'Yes?' Vascour bent forward eagerly to catch the Rector's low tones.
'She died the next day,' he said, sadly.
'Before she died, she told us the whole story. The man had married her for her money, but after marriage her parents had disinherited her. From time to time she had appealed to her people for help, but the letters were always returned unanswered. Then, the baby came, and her husband urged her again to write to her parents. She did so, telling them of the birth of the infant, and the answer came, "As you made you bed, so shall you lie." When the man read this letter, he struck her and left her with a curse. She never saw him again. With her young babe she tramped from town to town. The child died, and was buried in a pauper's grave. The woman lies in the old churchyard. Before she died she gave my daughter this pendant, and begged her if ever she should chance to meet her husband to give it to him, and tell him that she forgave him.'
'Ah, I am glad she did not curse him;' Vascour said, and wiped his forehead. 'It might have brought him bad luck. So the child died too—well, well! It is a gloomy story, Doctor. Did she—did she mention the man's name?'
'Yes, I shall always remember it—it was Philip Denton. Do you know, Mr. Vascour. I had no more fear for that poor girl when I married her than I have for my own daughter in giving her to your care.'
Vascour laughed, quietly. 'You need have no fear as to that, Doctor,' and tried to change the subject.
But the old man's mind was fixed upon the tragedy in which he had played an unconscious part.
'A man of about your height,' he ruminated—'with brown eyes, very much like yours. I remember he had a scar running along the back of his left hand.'
Vascour was striking a match to light his cigarette—he changed his mind for some reason. 'It's an unpleasant subject,' he said shortly.
'He had another peculiarity which I noticed as he knelt at the chancel steps— a V-shaped scar on the crown of his head.'
Vascour rose unsteadily. 'Will you forgive me if I say I am tired of this conversation?' he said, roughly. In his agitation he was caressing with quick fingers the back of his left hand.
The truth came to the old man like a flash of light and left him dumb and motionless.
Then some instinct impelled him, and rising, he reached out his hand and caught that of Vascour. For the moment Vascour was numbed, paralysed. He could not withdraw the hand the old man held, and he felt his sensitive fingers following the irregular line of the scar.
Then Vascour heard him groan.
It broke the spell, and he drew his hand away quickly.
'Heavens!' whispered the Rector hoarsely, 'you—you are Philip Denton!'
'It's a lie!' muttered Vascour. 'Let me go!'
'I know your voice,' said the Rector, in a hollow tone. 'I know your name, you scoundrel. And I nearly handed my daughter to your keeping! Oh, fool, fool that I have been! Leave this house!' he said imperatively.
'Silence, you madman!' whispered Vascour. 'Morretti—'
'Morretti shall know you as I know you,' said the old man sternly. 'Go!'
Vascour looked round—the garden was empty, there was no sound of movement. Like some wild beast he suddenly leapt on the Rector, gripping his throat.
'You'll say nothing, d'you hear?' he shook the enfeebled old man like a rat. 'You'll keep your counsel.'
Wrenching himself free, the Rector slipped his opponent.
'Help!' he cried, and Vascour heard the sound of people running.
The doctor had reached the steps when Vascour raised his hand and fired twice. Morretti heard the shots and raced across the darkness of the lawn.
Frank Bennett, on the lonely road outside, leaped the low hedge and came up with Morretti as he reached the fallen man.
It was Morretti who spoke.
'Keep the girl away,' he said. 'Bring a light.'
Somebody brought a lantern.
Frank, on his knees at the old man's side, felt a faint flutter. 'He is still alive.' he whispered.
The old man opened his eyes.
'Speak, speak, old friend. Who has done this?'
Again it was Morretti who asked, and he bent his head to hear the murmured words.
Slowly, painfully, the old man spoke. 'Philip Denton,' he muttered.
Morretti's face was rigid, and his eyes were fixed in an unearthly stare.
'Philip Denton,' he repeated mechanically. 'My son.' he added in the depths of his tortured heart.
'ANY news in your mail, Polly?' asked Jim. They sat in the noble vestibule of the Mount Hotel. The gardens, crowded with those gorgeous blooms that only the Cape Peninsula can produce, sloped gently downward to the thick-set cactus bush. Beyond, in the middle distance, lay the great sweep of Table Bay. Polly answered the question pertly.
'News! Of course there's no news. Everybody seems to want us to supply the news.'
'No news about poor Mr. Beechington's murderer—he hasn't been caught?' He lowered his voice because of the girl in black who sat on the broad verandah, listlessly turning the leaves of a magazine. She was a different Winifred from the Winifred of a month ago. Her face was pale and there were dark rings under her eyes. By her side sat Frank Bennett—a little browner, a little thinner—for he had returned that morning from a trip into the interior on Morretti's behalf.
Polly followed her husband's glance. 'Poor girl,' she said compassionately, 'how ill she looks!'
Jim's brows were wrinkled in thought. 'Somehow,' he said, 'I can't get the old parson out of my head tonight; it was a kindly act of Mr. Morretti to bring Winifred away from the scene or her trouble.
'She's brought her trouble with her,' said Polly with a meaning nod.
Jim looked surprised. 'Why, what do you mean?'
'Can't you see?' she demanded scornfully. 'That man Vascour is bothering her night and day to marry him. If you can't see, Mr. Bennett can. Why, he accepted this engagement with Mr. Morretti especially to be near her.'
'Frank's a devil of a mining engineer,' Jim said with a laugh, 'so there's nothing extraordinary in that. Morretti knew old Bennett, and so did I for the matter of that—and I believe, it was always understood that Frank should join "The Big House." You are a bit inclined,' the sceptical husband went on, 'to put two and two together and make them six.'
'Jim,' you're a fool,' said the exasperated woman.
Jim laughed good-naturedly. 'Now, Polly, 'that's not lady-like,' he said. 'You were saying about Vascour,' he went on.
'That I'm perfectly satisfied she doesn't care for him.
'I'm a little curious about Vascour myself.'
'Sometimes I think she is afraid of him,' said Polly, 'and so am I, Jim. He's got a wicked face. I should not be surprised to find he knows more about the murder of Dr. Beechington—'
Jim's face was a picture of genuine distress.
'Softly, softly, my lass—you'll be getting into trouble, if you're not careful.'
'I don't care!' said the lady defiantly.
'But I do,' said the ex-miner, looking troubled, 'because if Vascour had a hand in it, I should regard myself as morally responsible for the poor doctor's death—and I don't want to do that.'
'Why, Jim,' said Polly, round-eyed with wonderment. 'What on earth do you mean?'
Jim shook his head.
There were some matters he did not confide to his wife, and this was one of them. He was not free from suspecting Vascour, but for his peace of mind's sake he put the suspicion away from him. Even now, had he spoken, had he gone to Morretti and said: 'This man who calls himself Vascour is in reality Michael Steinberg,' much sorrow might have been saved. Not least the heartache of the girl who was fighting over again the old battle with her lover.
In Frank's vehemence he strengthened her purpose.
'Winifred, Winifred,' he cried, despairingly, 'you can never do this thing. Why, you would hate yourself before you had been married a month.'
'It was my father's last wish,' said Winifred, wearily. 'Almost the last time he spoke to me it was to urge me to marry Mr. Vascour.'
'Please, please!' she implored, her eyes filled with tears, 'do not make my task harder than it is. I love you, Frank—ah! do not touch me—let the knowledge of my love and sacrifice be sufficient. Oh! Frank, Frank, when I look back upon that dreadful night, and remember how much he loved me, and how greatly his heart was set upon my doing the thing I loathed—can you wonder that I steel myself to the course that lies before me?'
Strong as she was, she had to encounter a still stronger will in his.
'You are the sweetest, the best woman that ever breathed,' he said, almost reverently, 'but you shall not make this sacrifice that a dead man's wish may be gratified.'
Winifred glanced nervously round. She feared lest their conversation might be overheard.
'Winifred,' said Frank softly, guessing the meaning of the look, 'let us come away to some quiet place where we shall not be disturbed. We must talk this matter out.'
Vascour, an interested spectator, read the attitude of the two aright. Into his pale cheeks crept two patches of red. He flung away the end of the cigarette he had been smoking and walked towards them.
'It is useless,' said the girl; 'let us talk about something else.'
'Not until you have promised that you will not take this final step until you have again consulted me,' said Frank determinedly.
'May I ask,' Vascour's soft, almost effeminate voice broke upon them, 'may I ask by what right you would extract such a promise from the lady who is to become my wife?'
'You forget yourself, Mr. Vascour,' Winifred said haughtily. 'As yet I am a free agent, and you have no right to speak of me as though I were anything else.'
Vascour bowed. 'Forgive me, Miss Beechington,' he said softly, 'forgive me. I was hasty, impetuous. I presumed upon my knowledge of your honour.'
'Yes. I know you will never seek to avoid the fulfilment of the solemn promise,' he paused, and continued slowly, watching the girl's face steadily, '—the solemn promise you gave to your poor father.'
'You have judged me very rightly,' said the girl coldly.
'Winifred, stop!' Frank cried, white with rage. 'You shall not do this!'
'Frank, let me speak.' She put a hand on his arm, and turned to Vascour. 'You have reminded me of my promise to my father. Believe me, Mr. Vascour, I need no reminder. The promise I gave I will fulfil. My word to my poor father is as sacred as the marriage vow itself.'
'Winifred, I will not allow this,' Frank cried passionately. 'I will go to Mr. Morretti. He will not let such a compact stand.'
Vascour 'bit his lip—anything but that. Morretti. If he had an inkling of now matters stood that would spoil all. The secretary had been careful so far to keep the true facts concerning the girl's engagement to him away from his chief's knowledge. If Frank went to Morretti! But the girl's words reassured him.
'No, Frank, no,' she said firmly. 'My word is my word. I have promised—and I must keep my word to the dead. Oh, help me to be brave,' she wailed. 'Help me to do what is right.'
Then she rose suddenly and left them alone together. They eyed each other in silence—the smooth, polished Continental with his effeminate grace and delicate skin and the bronzed young Englishman, with strength and power in every line of his figure.
Vascour broke the silence. 'You are strangely interested in my love affairs,' he sneered.
'I am interested in all your affairs, Mr. Vascour,' said the other quietly.
Vascour stared at him Insolently. 'I like your cheek,' he said, lighting a cigarette.
'In this matter,' said Frank, controlling himself with an effort, 'I am interested because you are trying to steal from me the woman I love.'
'Very interesting,' said the other drily, 'but "steal" is not a word for a gentleman.'
'Are you a gentleman?' asked Frank, with an assumption of innocence. And he turned and walked away.
Winifred sat at her writing desk by the window in her private sitting-room, which overlooked the hotel grounds. Her late contest with Frank, together with Vascour's reminder of her promise to her father, had shaken her. She had no doubt as to what she felt to be her duty, but to follow duty was to give up all there was of joy in life. And she felt herself being drawn closer to her fate. Vascour's daily importunities made her feel that she could not delay much longer. She was, as yet, bound only by a promise to her beloved father. She must now bind herself by a promise to a man whose mere presence filled her with terror.
Then there was Frank. He had not said his last word, she was sure of that. Besides, he loved her; and, with the rising of this delicious thought, she felt herself thrilled through and through.
A knock at the door was repeated before the sound reached her. She draw herself together. 'Come in,' she said, mechanically.
A waiter entered with a note on a salver. Her heart seemed to stand still when she saw Frank's handwriting, but she took it calmly.
'Let me see you once more, Winifred, if only to say good- bye.'
And then underneath as an afterthought—
'Winifred, don't refuse your old playmate.'
'Will you ask Mr. Bennett if he will kindly come up?' she said. Then she sat and waited.
Her heart beat heavily and she noticed herself heaving deep sighs to relieve its oppression. She felt she would have done almost anything to have escaped this interview. It was to be a conflict of will against will—hers against his; and, dreading treachery in her own camp, she feared the issue.
The horror of her father's sad end had told upon her, and she felt herself unable to cope with an opposing will. She rose and paced the room. She must do something to relieve the mental tension. Then she heard her lover's step on the stair and the next moment he was standing before her.
'Thank you for seeing me, Winifred,' he said gently; 'it was very good of you.'
She smiled faintly but did not reply. She saw with relief that his manner was calm and collected. Perhaps the fight was not going to be so fierce a one after all. She motioned him to a seat, and, taking one herself at a little distance waited for him to begin.
'Winifred, can you be reasonable?' and the whimsical smile so familiar to her dawned on his face.
'I hope so, Frank.'
'Because,' earnestly, 'I want you to be very reasonable. I have been thinking matters out carefully, and I want to know what arguments you can bring forward to pit against mine. In the first place, I am quite willing to admit that your father wished you to marry Mr. Vascour—that he urged you and even commanded you to do so; also, that you promised to follow his wish, and that that promise is a far more binding thing than the mere command. But, Winifred,' he went on more deliberately, 'if you frame your conduct in accordance with his command and your own promise, then you are obeying the letter that kills rather than the spirit that gives life. And for this reason your father's objection to my suit was not a personal one. He said so distinctly. The words were burnt into my mind—I can never forget them: "If you had been a man in reasonably easy circumstances, there is no one to whose care I would not more willingly have confided my daughter." Winifred, since Morretti has taken me up, my prospects, which your father called, and rightly called, visionary, are no longer so. Winifred, you said you could be reasonable; what have you to say against all this?'
'Only one thing, Frank,' she answered in low voice; 'I cannot break my promise to the dead.'
Frank sprang up and began pacing the room.
'Darling,' he said, 'there is another thing. I do not ask you to consider me. I want you simply to think of yourself. Do you think your father, if he had understood Vascour's true character, would have wished you to marry him? He did not know that he was a bad man, but I know it and you know it—you have said so.'
'I have said all I have to say, Frank.'
He turned and looked down at her. What a child she appeared in the pathetic black frock, with her head drooping and her golden curls half-hiding her lovely face. Seemingly so easy to conquer and yet be difficult.
He knelt beside her. 'Little playfellow,' he said softly, and there was an infinite tenderness in his voice. 'Look at me—you must look at me.'
He drew her face down towards him, but the long lashes swept her cheeks. He could get no sight of her eyes. 'You are the one woman in the world to me,' and his voice sounded to her as though far away, 'and all I seem to want to say is,—that I love you.'
His hands caressed her hair. She felt herself weakening, and, making a supreme effort, she broke away from the enchantment of his voice, his touch, his presence.
She rose. Frank sprang to his feet and seized her hands.
'Winifred,' he cried, speaking rapidly and hoarsely, 'We are young—we have our lives before us. Are you going to sacrifice them to a fetish of honour, for it is nothing more than that? Beloved, I cannot think of life without you. I must have you—every day—every hour. No, don't repulse me, don't send me away, for I love you, I love you. I am pleading for my life and yours.'
She wrenched her hands from his grasp and moved away from him. He followed her.
'Winifred, do you think it is for nothing that you and I have been thrown together? We were made for one another, and we cannot live apart from one another. We can live our lives but once; shall we ruin them both?'
She found her voice again.
'No, Frank, no; we must part now. Frank, help me,' she said, with a sob, 'help me to keep my word. I am so weak.'
She sank on to a low chair, and hid her face with her hands, trembling all over.
He paced the room—irresolutely. It was useless prolonging the interview, and yet he could not bring himself to go.
'Frank,' Winifred spoke his name quietly.
He came and stood beside her, waiting for her to speak, but he did not attempt to touch her. Love can bring to the most impetuous souls a wonderful patience.
'Will you leave me now, please?' she said. 'And, Frank, I think we ought to see as little of one another as possible.'
'Very well, dear.'
'Frank, I want you to go straight out of the room and not look at me again.'
Almost mechanically he turned to obey.
'And, Frank,' as he paused at the door, 'thank you for—loving—me—so.'
He was back again. How could he help it after those heart-broken words? But it was only for a moment. Reverently he kissed the cold little hand that lay on her lap and left her. She heard him open the door. Then it was shut quietly, and he was gone. For a while she sat stunned. Presently, she lifted her head, and' gazed wildly round the empty room.
FRANK had come in somewhat weary from a long tramp on the mountain. After his interview with Winifred, he had felt he must do something to give vent to his feelings.
On his return to the hotel he fell in with Jim Perritt. Frank liked him. He admired the honest simplicity of the man's nature, and since he was denied Winifred's society, he was grateful for any diversion that would deliver him from his own thoughts.
They settled themselves in the vestibule, and Jim began explaining to Frank that his and Mrs. Perritt's presence in Cape Town was something more than a coincidence.
'Polly's been seized with a love for travel,' he said. 'Trouville wouldn't do for her, nor Monte Carlo. She must go a bit further off. So here we are, and though it's stale enough to me, it is all new to Polly.'
At that moment the subject of their conversation came fluttering into the hall from the verandah.
'Mr. Bennett,' she whispered, eagerly, 'who is that lady?'
She indicated a tall woman who stood at the further end of the vestibule, the centre of a group of men. Frank had seen her before—she had once been pointed out to him at Maxim's in Paris. He knew her slightly. Somebody had introduced them, and they had exchanged a few words.
'The tall lady? That is the Princess—Princess Pauline de Ravsky—she has only just arrived from Europe.'
'A real princess?' said Polly, wistfully. 'How lovely!'
'Yes, a real princess—a Russian princess, that is—and the most dangerous, woman in Europe,' he said, tersely. 'I have seen her before, once in Paris, just before the fall of the Morant ministry; I saw her once in Berlin, just before the assassination of the Italian Ambassador; I saw her in London the night the attempt was made on the life of Lord Minstring. She is a stormy petrel of underground diplomacy—the harbinger of national disaster.'
Seeing the woman coming towards them, Jim would have stayed, but his better half, her wifely prudence overcoming her womanly curiosity, made some excuse to drag the reluctant man into the garden.
Princess Pauline de Ravsky had taken in the occupants of the hall with one glance. She saw Frank, and came to him with outstretched hands and a frank, friendly smile. She had just the suspicion of an accent.
'Cape Town again,' she said. 'I did hope I should never see this city any more. Dust and sun and wind, and the scandals of Kenilworth. Ah! my engineer—you see I remember you—younger.'
'You have the advantage, Princess,' Frank said, with a laugh. 'I've never seen you younger.'
Her face changed suddenly, for there had come into her range of vision a man she knew. He stopped dead at the sound of her voice.
'Pauline!' he gasped, and as he saw Frank's look of astonishment, Vascour, realised his mistake.
'Philip!' thought Frank, 'Mr. Vascour has other names.'
Mr. Vascour bent over the extended hand, and Frank, with a bow, gladly made his escape.
'My name is Vascour—Ramon Vascour,' he said in a low voice, so that none could hear but she. Then aloud, 'My dear Princess, how long have you been here?'
'My good friend, Vascour,' she mimicked. Then a little maliciously, and dropping her voice; 'not Philip Denton any more?'
'No, no,' said Vascour agitated, 'for Heaven's sake don't use that name. I thought you were in Europe. Who sent you here?'
'My august master,' the woman said, mockingly.
'And your business is with?'
'Your august master,' she replied with a smile.
'Morretti?' He stared.
'The same.' She was smoothing the folds of her dress.
'What do you want?' he asked suspiciously.
'Yes, let us play at truth—for once. It will pay.'
'It will always pay between you and me, dear friend,' she said, sweetly. 'I could hang you. Your master is negotiating for the purchase of Mandegesland— yes?' she asked suddenly.
Vascour nodded. He began to understand.
'He has a concession from the paramount chief,' he said.
'Exactly. He has what you call Utopian ideas; he would found a new colony—a new Elysium for the lawless. Is it not so?'
'I believe—' Vascour said, but she interrupted.
'You know,' she said, calmly, 'that that written concession is the basis of the scheme. I want that paper.'
Even Vascour looked aghast at the audacity of the demand.
'Impossible!' he said, angrily. 'My dear Pauline, you are mad!'
She shook her head. 'I am not mad—in fact I am perfectly sane. It is not the wish of our government that this scheme should succeed. We have got hold of the chief; we want the paper that the concession may be repudiated.'
He read the determination in her voice and bit his nails thoughtfully. 'How do you expect to get it?' he asked at last.
'By perseverance,' she said, virtuously. 'It is not in his strong room.'
'You know?' He need not have asked the question.
'Yes, an agent has searched it. It is not at his lawyer's; we have searched there.'
'That explains,' Vascour said, with a smile.
'Oh, nothing much,' he said. 'A month or so ago there was a mysterious burglary at Messrs. Kerritt and Blank's. I remember that nothing of value was stolen, and the police had a clue—'
'The police always have clues—they are served out with their uniforms,' said the Princess. 'The deed was not there,' she explained shortly.
This conversation was enlightening to Vascour.
'I presume, too, that the strict examination of our baggage by Custom House officials was also part of your little game?' he asked.
'Yes—clever, wasn't it?' said the woman. 'Why do you sigh? It was like a sigh of relief. What mischief have you been doing?'
'Nothing,' he hastened to say. 'Yes, it was a clever move—the Custom House.'
The Princess nodded. 'My idea,' she exclaimed, 'but the concession was not there. Vascour, your master carries it about in his pocket.'
'I might have saved you all that trouble—he does.'
Can you get it?' She was no longer flippant. He knew that to her it was a matter of deadly earnest.
'No!' he said emphatically.
'You will, not?' she challenged.
He raised a deprecating hand. 'I cannot,' he said, seriously. 'My dear Pauline, do you think that I am a fool—do you think I do not know the value. of that document?'
She scrutinised his face.
'You have tried it for yourself?'
'Twice,' he confessed. 'Once I nearly had it. For reasons I do not care to explain, he has confidence in me. It is the weakness of great men to put their faith in rogues.'
'This humility is beautiful!' she said, steadily; 'but I must have it. Is he susceptible?'
He, shook his head. 'No—he is beyond charms. He honours women.'
She lifted her pretty eyebrows; it was a trick of hers when she was amused.
'If,' Vascour said, with a sneer, 'if by any chance you doubt my word—try.'
He pointed through the French windows to a man walking quickly along the broad path that led to the hotel. It was Morretti. Oblivious of the curious eyes that were fixed on him, he came lumbering through the crowded vestibule.
Vascour's voice reached him. 'Mr. Morretti—this is Princess Pauline de Ravsky.'
'Madame, I am pleased to meet you,' he said, slowly; 'I have heard of you.'
Vascour seized an excuse for withdrawing. He wished to give Pauline an opportunity of seeing the millionaire alone. When he returned, the conversation had taken a personal turn.
'And do you take these mountain rambles often?' Pauline was asking.
'Very often,' he said, simply.
'And alone?' she said.
'Why, yes!' he replied, in surprise.
'Is that safe?' she said, falteringly.
'Safe?' Morretti repeated, as though that aspect of his rambles had been presented in a novel light. 'Well, I have never given the matter a thought. I have many friends and few enemies.'
'Every successful man has enemies,' she said, watching him narrowly.
'I have faith in—'
'Your star?' she laughingly interrupted.
'No; in the mercy of God,' he said soberly, 'and in His omnipotent protection.'
The simplicity of the reply left her without a rejoinder.
'I am afraid religious matters do not interest me,' she said, after a while. 'Religion is to me the most pessimistic of the occult sciences.'
'To me it is something far different, Princess,' Morretti said, 'for everywhere in my life I see His hand—in the budding flower, in the cloud, in the restless sea, in the day that bathes the world in golden light. Why, to-morrow morning, when I stand on the loftiest point of the mountain, and watch the wonderful dawn, I shall be nearer, Madame, to perfect, happiness than I have ever been brought by all my wealth or power.'
The coming of a messenger boy with a cablegram for the millionaire gave her the time to regain her balance. She shot a swift glance at Vascour, and he read her thoughts.
'To-morrow at dawn,' her eyes said, and he wondered which would pay him most— to let the woman work her will or to betray her. If he betrayed her—
Morretti looked up from the cablegram.
'Pardon me, Madame,' he began.
'Affairs of the State,' laughed the Princess. 'Mr. Morretti, I will excuse you.'
'Thank you,' Morretti, said cautiously, 'it is a matter that wants my immediate attention.'
'Vascour,' he said, in troubled tones when the Princess had left them, 'I have just received a cable from the Colonial Office informing me that Chief Lo Mogundi, of Mandegesland, may repudiate his concession. He has been tampered with by some other power.'
'There seems to be no doubt about it,' the millionaire said. 'There is not a moment to lose; somebody must go immediately to the north, interview the chief, and tell him that I will hold him to his concession.'
He paced the hall, now almost empty, his head sunk on his chest.
'The man, the man,' he muttered. 'It must be somebody who can be trusted—somebody who is without fear; for if Lo Mogundi is hostile he will carry his life in his hands.'
An inspiration came to Vascour—Frank Bennett. The very thing; it would play in into his hands splendidly. It would give him his chance with Winifred, and perhaps rid him forever of a dangerous enemy.
'Why not send your new engineer?', he asked.
Frank, impatiently waiting an opportunity to speak to the millionaire, heard his name. 'Did you call me, sir?'
Morretti looked at him thoughtfully.
'I want a man to carry a message into Central Africa—an important message, and the answer of which is a matter of life or death to me.'
'Then I am the man,' Frank said, eagerly.
'It is a dangerous mission, my boy,' Morretti warned, 'and one which may cost you your life: you had better take time to think over it.'
'I want no time,' Frank said.
He spoke with decision. A mission of some danger was just what he wanted. It seemed to have come to him at the right moment. He must have something more than his ordinary work on which to expend his excited and pent-up feelings.
Morretti thought another moment, then sat at a table and wrote.
'Here is a cheque that will cover your expenses,' he said, handing Frank a slip of paper. 'I will order a special train for you as far as railhead. There you will find carriers and waggons waiting. Strike across country. You will be on the march for ten days; on the eleventh day you will be in Mandegesland, Take this message to the Chief: "Thus says Morretti, the white man:—I send you a messenger with peace in his hand, and good wishes in his heart, that he may bring back to me the news that Lo Mogundi is true to his word and faithful to his bond. If he brings not back this message"'—they saw his face change, the look of weariness fell away as if it were a mask, and in its place a strength and fire dreadful to look upon. Frank saw it and wondered. Vascour saw it and shuddered.
'Tell him,' the millionaire went on, and his harsh voice filled the room, 'that Morretti will come himself for an answer and when he does, Mandegesland shall remember it.'
NOBODY has the right to call into question the shrewdness of Mrs. Jim Perritt. Perhaps 'right' is hardly the word to use in the circumstances, because Jim Perritt, at least, had the right and exercised it. But it was an exceedingly rash course to pursue, since the sober-minded might well argue that a lady of Mrs. Perritt's practical temperament does not rise from her bed at midnight and set about so hazardous and laborious a task as the ascent of Table Mountain without some very good cause. Certainly, it was from no innate love of nature, nor for the feast of colour that comes all suddenly on the world when the sun peeks up over the Blaauwberg Mountains. Her tastes were less aesthetic than emphatic.
You may picture them then, with the dawn breaking, breasting the final rise; dishevelled, hot and short of temper. They reached the summit and Jim sank exhausted onto a great boulder.
'This,' he gasped, 'is your silly idea.' He stopped to regain his breath, 'The idea of getting up in the middle of the night to climb up about ten thousand miles of mountain to see the sun rise—bah!'
'If I could only get my breath,' panted his partner ominously, 'I'd make you sorry you spoke.'
Jim made no reply. With a pair of field glasses he was scanning the winding track they had followed. 'There's one of 'em!' he muttered at last.
From which remark may be gathered that beneath the witchery of the dawn there were other factors in the early rising of Mr. James Perritt. What he saw evidently satisfied him, for he whispered to his companion:
'Keep down out of sight—yes, it is her. She's got up in a black cloak and she's looking from side to side as though she was expecting somebody.'
Polly turned pale as the tremendous aspects of the adventure became apparent.
'She mustn't see us,' she fluttered in her alarm; 'where shall we go?'
'If we go this way we'll meet Mr. Morretti; if we go that way we'll meet her. If we stay where we are we shall meet 'em both.'
Reflection did not afford a solution. But Jim, looking round for a hiding place, saw a little kloof with its entrance half-hidden by bracken. He drew his wife towards the opening, and had just found her a foothold on the uneven bed of a little dried-up river, when the woman he had been watching came slowly round the bend.
Pauline de Ravsky looked round suspiciously. From far down the mountain-side she thought she had seen a figure.
'Bah! my nerves are going.'
She sat down on a boulder to await Morretti's coming. Neither fear nor any feeling of admiration should come between her and her design. What she had come to perform that she would perform. And yet, why was she so full of uncertainty? Why was she so divided in her own mind? What made her hesitate to thwart his purposes?
What was there different about this man? She could not forget his voice. His face was for ever in her mind. When she gazed inward, there she saw him only.
'Oh, I am mad, mad, mad to think of it—to dream of it. I was not made for love.'
She sprang up full of anger at her own weakness. 'There must be an end to this,' she said to herself, sternly, and called her will to her aid. It had never failed her before—it would not fail her now. With a great effort she drew herself together and dispelled her dream.
When, a few moments later, she saw Morretti coming towards her up the rugged path, she was calm and herself again. He walked quickly, his soft felt hat on the back of his head and a silk handkerchief about his throat. He did not seem as surprised to see her as she had imagined he would be.
'Why, Mr. Morretti, this is unexpected,' she said, and Morretti took her proffered hand.
'No less for you than for me,' he said, quietly. 'You rise early, madame.'
'Is not this worth all the early rising in the world?'
She threw out her hands to the wakening world below. Then she smiled into his face. 'I mean, to see the great millionaire looking over his kingdom, monarch of all he surveys,' she said, but she provoked no smile in response.
'You mean the sun?'
'You are pleased to jest,' he said, earnestly. 'In so much as the air and the dawn and the flowers are mine, why, you are right, but they are yours, too.'
'But this kingdom of yours in the north,' she said, daringly, 'that, at least, is yours.'
She held her breath—had she said too much? But his reply gave no indication of aroused suspicion.
'It will be—I hope,' he said, simply.
She came closer to him, and they stood side, by side, facing the void.
'I picture you sometimes,' she said, lowering her voice, 'standing here with your eyes shaded by your hand, looking northward, northward, northward, like some ancient leader of the Israelites viewing his promised land.'
'A poetical conceit, madame.'
'I shall always remember you thus,' she said, softly, 'standing in the red light of morning—solitary.'
There was a strange yearning in the eyes that met hers.
'Somehow, princess, you have hit upon a truth,' he said, sadly. 'Of late I am feeling more than I should like to confess my great solitude. For I am alone, quite alone. Those who are about me scarcely touch the fringe of my true self; those who know my mind best scarcely guess at the mind within the mind. They know Morretti the man, but the real Morretti they know not.'
'I think,' she murmured, 'that I know.'
'Yes, I,' she said defiantly. 'Do you not think, Mr. Morretti that for every man in the world there is some woman designed to complete his nature, to understand him, to appreciate the intricacies of his mind, to penetrate into his very soul, to read his every thought?'
He nodded. 'That is nature's way,' he said.
'So I think I understand you,' she went on, speaking rapidly. 'Had circumstances been different you and I might have ruled a world.'
The turn the conversation had taken bewildered him a little. 'How strangely you talk, Princess,' he said, frowning. 'You and I?`
'Yes, yes' she breathed, 'you and I.'
He had no doubt as to her meaning. He was a little taken aback—not because of the unconventionality of this strange remark, but at the bare thought of another woman filling the place of the sad-faced girl, the mother of his son— who lived in his heart always.
He spoke his thoughts. 'I shall never marry again,' he said.
'Mr. Morretti!' she cried.
He could not mistake the agony of her lament.
'I wish I could have spared you this humiliation,' he said pityingly.
'What do I care?' she flamed. 'What do I care? What humiliation is there in the world that I have not suffered, what is there in the world I would not have suffered to gain the love of a man like you. Humiliation! It is no humiliation. To be scorned, to be rejected by you, is not to be humiliated.'
'This is madness,' he said and turned to leave her.
She fell on her knees at his side, clutching at his arm in her abandon. He did not attempt to take his arm away.
'Pauline,' he said slowly, 'I know you for what you are.'
She held herself in control and waited in painful suspense.
'I have a son,' he said quietly. 'Somewhere in this world I have a son.'
He swallowed something in his throat.
'You know him,' he said with deadly calm.
'I—I know your son—impossible!' she whispered.
Instinctively, he saw the horror in his mind, and dropped before the calm scorn of his voice.
'You know him too well,' Morretti said, and his voice fell on her ear like the knell of doom.
Three witnesses there were to the scene. Two unwilling, one a little more than eager. For Vascour, who had followed his his chief stealthily, the whole episode had its amusing side. But he had reckoned too much upon Morretti's faith in himself. Morretti had been making independent inquiries about Philip Denton and his doings. He had found out, then, his connection with Pauline. That was bad. He bent forward from the sheltering rock that hid his presence and listened.
Pauline was on her feet, facing her accuser. She was the colour of chalk, and she trembled in every limb. This much the attentive Vascour could see.
'Go on,' she said. Her voice was hard.
'You knew him in Russia,' Morretti said, coldly. 'He and you were more than friends.'
'It is a lie,' she said, doggedly.
'It is true.'
'It is false—false—false!' Her voice rose almost to a scream.
Morretti shook his head. 'Do, not let us speak more of it,' he said, and would have passed on his way.
'Stop!' she said, fiercely. 'Tell me the name of this son of yours.'
'It is useless.'
'His name!' she demanded. Her mood had changed now.
'Why do you insist?' he asked, wearily.
'That I may prove to you your informant was a slanderer,' she cried.
Morretti bent his head in thought. There could be no harm—and it was an act of justice he owed this woman—and himself. 'His name—' he began. But before he could complete the sentence Vascour was before them—Vascour with terror in his eyes.
'Stop!' he cried, hoarsely.
'You!' Pauline looked at him. 'You dare!'
'I will dare anything that will save Mr. Morretti sorrow,' he said, and the break, in his voice was genuine enough, though the cause may have been less evident. He spoke to Morretti: 'What guarantee have you that this woman will not betray your son to the police and his identity to the world?'
'Let that be as it will,' interrupted Pauline, furiously. 'I want the name of your son.'
For a moment it seemed that Morretti's sense of justice would prevail, and Vascour's fate hung in the balance. Then the millionaire said:
'I cannot, give it to you.' And she knew that Carlos Morretti was lost to her.
'I am not well,' she gasped, and swayed a little. Morretti's hand steadied her. Unconscious of the fact that Vascour had been a witness of the scene, he lowered his voice when he said:
'Believe me, I am truly sorry that this should have happened. Rest a while.' He walked a little way from her.
'Princess, I should never have thought you so foolish.' It was Vascour's soft voice.
'I have a small account to settle with you, Mr. Vascour.' Her voice was level now.
'First, settle your score with Morretti,' he replied, coolly.
She bent her head, one finger of her hand caressing her lower lip. 'Tell me,' he said, after a while, 'have you ever been to Siberia?'
He glanced at her suspiciously. 'Once, yes,' he said, shortly, and she smiled.
'You may have to go there once again,' she said, with a strange look. Then she went on: 'Do you remember the murder of of Johan Lamoff—Petersburg, '86 I think it was?'
'Yes, perfectly,' he said, but did not, meet her eyes.
'An Extradition Treaty exists between Russia and Great Britain, I believe,' she went on, quietly. 'It operates inadequately for political offenders, but for men who murder—even though the murdered man were the veriest Shylock of a money-lender—the arrangements are all-sufficient.'
He raised his haggard face. 'Pauline, you will not—' he began, and she saw that he was terribly afraid.
'I will do anything,' she said calmly, 'if by to-night you do not explain to my satisfaction your reason for stopping Carlos Morretti speaking—to- morrow you will be arrested—yes even in Cape Town.'
'I will 'explain, I will explain,' he said with feverish haste, 'to-night, without fail, Princess.'
He walked quickly to Morretti. 'I am going down the mountain a little way, sir,' he said, licking his dry lips. He must give Pauline her opportunity.
'I will come with you,' said Morretti, waking with a start from his dream.
'Mr. Morretti,' Pauline called softly, 'I—I have something to say to you.'
Morretti shook his bead. 'It is useless to talk any more,' he said.
'I know that,' she replied, 'but it is upon other matters, matters important to you and to me. I must see you alone.'
Vascour was already out of earshot. Morretti hesitated. 'Well, Princess?' he asked.
Knowing, the man she had to deal with, she came immediately to the point. 'It is about a certain concession,' she began.
The cloud lifted from his brow. He was on surer ground here. 'Ah, the Mandegesland concession,' he said quickly.
'Yes,' she nodded, 'do you not think that you are running a great risk?'
Had Morretti been accustomed to the practice he would have laughed. 'I have run risks before' he said, 'and I am willing to run them again in so good a cause.'
'What is your good cause?' she asked with a show of curiosity. 'I thought there were no ideals in business.'
'You will think I am preaching when say the cause of humanity.'
She knew this dream of his. It was common knowledge that in the fertile valleys of Mandegesland, the millionaire had built dream cities, created of the large material of his mind a wonderful nation that was to be the genesis of a White Africa.
'What do you gain?' she asked. He shrugged his broad shoulders. 'I gain nothing,' he said simply; 'at the most the thanks of unborn generations.'
Pauline laughed. 'I would prefer not to wait so long for my reward,' she said. She took a little jewelled cigarette-case from her pocket and opened it. Mechanically, she selected a cigarette and offered the case to Morretti.
'Thank you, I do not smoke so early,' he said. He was less shocked than amused.
'Then must I smoke alone?' she said. 'Oh, Mr. Morretti,'—pleadingly—'if only as a sign of your forgiveness—I have been very stupid—break your rule and smoke.
For the first time she saw him smile.
'With all the pleasure in the world,' he said, and took the proffered case. With childlike curiosity he noticed the Imperial crest set in diamonds.
'Your master appreciates you highly, Princess,' he said, drily.
'Very,' she admitted.
They smoked in silence. Morretti was sensible of a feeling of embarrassment. The situation was grotesque; indeed it bordered on the ridiculous.
As they smoked the woman talked gently, soothingly, on matters of trivial interest, of people they knew and of passing events—just the small talk of their world.
He was grateful to her in a way. He was so accustomed to self-absorption, to be lulled by his thoughts into a condition wherein he was oblivious of all that surrounded him, that he found himself sliding down the familiar groove that led to Mandegesland and the great project. Would Bennett get through in time? Would the chief confirm the concession? Would—?
She caught him, and eased the violence of his fall, lowering him to the ground a little heavily, yet employing all her strength. The cigarette, falling from his nerveless fingers, lay smoking on the ground. She put her foot on it—it had done its work.
She did not see Vascour behind her. He came with a cat-like tread and bent over her as she stooped to slip her deft fingers into the pocket of the unconscious man.
She found what she sought.
A sealed envelope lay in her hand. She tore it open, and sprang to her feet with a little cry of triumph.
'At last!' she exclaimed;
But a hand shot swiftly from behind her and snatched away the prize. She swung round to meet the mocking face of Vascour. He sprang at her, and his arms encircled her so that she could not move.
'Let me go!' she panted.
'Let you go?' Vascour was obviously amused. 'Am I a fool? You threatened me not long since with Siberia.'
'It was a jest.' She struggled a little, but he was stronger than he appeared.
'It was in bad taste,' he said, with a grin. He was edging her nearer to a clump of mountain bush that veiled a sheer fall of a thousand feet. 'Pauline, it was bad policy to talk to me like that.'
'I am not afraid of your threats,' she said, scornfully. They were nearer the bushes now.
'You dare not, you dare not!' she cried. She saw his object. She struggled, trying to loosen his arms.
'I dare most things. You know a great deal too much,' he grated between his teeth. She sent a piercing scream echoing through the clear air.
Fear lent her strength, and she flung herself backward. 'You coward!' she screamed. 'Let me go! Help!'
He caught a firmer grip on her, and lifted her bodily.
He was so startled by the unexpected voice that he dropped her.
Morretti! He had struggled to his feet, and stood swaying from side to side.
'Stop!'' he repeated huskily.
'She has stolen your papers—she tried to kill you!'
It was his wild justification. He could not think of another.
'She shall not die!' muttered Morretti; then the drug claimed him again, and his knees gave way under him.
It was Vascour's last chance—he must risk everything. Two strides took him to the woman, but before his hands could touch her he heard the noise of running feet, and looked up with a curse.
Mr. Perritt was broad, and Mr. Perritt's hands were big and sinewy, and there was a look in Jim's eye that sent him cowering backward. And there was yet another witness, for, alternately red and white, a trembling little woman stood behind him, silent for once from the very complexity of her emotions.
'This woman tried to poison Mr. Morretti,' stammered Vascour.
'There is a law in this country,' said Jim, sternly; 'she must answer to that. Take your hands off her.'
Vascour saw his plans crumbling before his eyes?, saw his position jeopardised; saw, too, the grey waste of land that lies east of Tomsk.
'You are saving the life of a murderess,' he said, slowly.
'Yes,' Jim nodded. 'From the hands off her accomplice,' he said, quietly.
THERE were indications that Vascour's reign was coming to an end. Undoubtedly, Perritt had roused the millionaire's suspicions. His attempt on Pauline had made Morretti doubt the absolute purity of his secretary's motives, As Vascour sat at his desk in Morretti's office, there came to him a clerk bearing a card. He looked up.
'The Princess de Ravsky, sir,' said the man. Vascour sprang up. 'Tell her I cannot, see her,' he said angrily, 'tell her I have left, tell her—'
So far he got when she walked in, a junior clerk behind her protesting.
'Tell her yourself, Mr. Vascour,' she interrupted, 'or shall I say—?'
'You may go,' growled Vascour to the wondering clerk. 'Pauline, this is the rankest folly. Why have you come here?'
'I have come to beg his forgiveness,' she said steadily.
'My dear girl, he has forgiven you,' he said impatiently.
'And to ask him the name of his son,' she went on.
Vascour threw his cigarette into the fireplace.
'He will not tell you,' he said briefly.
'He shall tell me!' she cried.
He laughed again. 'Upon my word, I believe you love this millionaire of mine,' he said, admiringly.
She shook her head. 'I thought I did—I'm not so sure now. But even if my love were imaginary, it is not to be sneered at. You laugh because you have never known what love is—because your soul is so black that you cannot appreciate the depth to which love can strike. I am learning that there is something wonderful about an affection that is mistaken.'
'Apart from your uncomplimentary turn of speech,' he said. 'I hate your sentimentality—and let me tell you, Pauline, that your efforts to reach Morretti are vain.'
He saw the smouldering fire in her eyes. 'You have not forgotten my warning?' she threatened.
'I have forgotten it,' he said sullenly. 'You cannot frighten me.'
'My love for your master has not drawn my claws,' she said, 'nor made me harmless to such men as you. Hah!' she said, as his hand went down to the drawer of the desk. 'You pitiable coward! But a few moments since you wore an Ajax defying, the lightning of the Czars. Now you. go fumbling for pistols in dread of a woman.'
He laughed awkwardly and placed the revolver he had drawn. 'I was joking,' he said uneasily.
There was a knock at the door, and the clerk came in.
'A man to see you, sir,' he said.
'I can see nobody,' Vascour snapped. It was imperative that he should settle with Pauline before Morretti returned.
'He wants to see you very particularly,' persisted the clerk; 'he says he is a friend of yours.'
Mr Buck Trencher, standing outside in the little ante-room, heard Vascour's voice. He pushed the clerk who attempted to stop his progress with less ceremony than had the princess a few minutes before, and staggered into the room, where the secretary stood pale with rage. For Buck Trencher, despite the early hour, was drunk.
So Vascour saw. What do you want?' he asked.
'What d'yer think?' Buck answered truculently. 'I'm tired of staying down in Cape Town doing nothing. You promised me work in Africa, and it's my belief,' he added profoundly, 'you only brought me out to keep your eye on me.'
'You're drunk,' said the disgusted Vascour.
'And why shouldn't I be?' demanded the man aggressively. 'Free country, ain't it? I've as much right to get drunk as you have. Or as Mr. Morretti's son has. Ah, I know your little game, my boy.' He wagged his head with a wise leer.
'What do you mean by Mr. Morretti's son? Who is Mr. Morretti's son?'
It was Pauline who spoke, and Trencher looked at her with the surprised air of one who had just discovered her presence. 'Why?' he asked. 'Why—.'
Vascour caught him by the throat. 'Silence, you drunken dog,' he fumed, 'or I shall take the life out of you!'
Buck Trencher stumbled hack, feeling his throat.
'Who is Mr. Morretti's son?' the woman asked again.
Trencher pointed sullenly at the secretary.
'Oh, tell me, tell me, Philip,' she begged. She was a suppliant and it pleased him. 'I may convince Morretti that he is wrong. Tell me, and I will forgive you all—I will take back everything that I have said—only tell me.'
'I will tell you nothing!' said Vascour with an oath. 'And you, Trencher! Keep your mouth closed, or it will be the worse for you.'
She drew herself up. 'I have tried entreaty.' she said in a low voice; 'beware that you do not force me to use some other method.'
'I am not afraid of your threats. Go and do your worst,' defied Vascour.
She stared at him and through him, and he shivered. 'I will go,' she said presently. 'Some day you will be sorry.'
And she left him facing his servant.
'You fool, you blackguard!' he stormed. 'You have spoilt everything with your drunken tongue. I've a good mind to hand you over to the police.'
Buck laughed rancorously.
'Police!' he guffawed, 'that's a good joke—police! You know better than that, guv'nor. Why, if I was to hand you over to the police it would be nearer the mark. Look here. I'm tired of all this. I want to go back to England and settle down; give me some money and let me go.
Vascour sat down at his desk, his head in his hands.
'That's it—think, think!' encouraged Buck gravely. 'Think of a nice public house somewhere in a rural spot, and your faithful servant servin' beer to the thirsty multitude.'
Vascour looked up. 'How much do you want?' he asked.
Buck had not fixed any sum. 'A thousand pounds,' he said at hazard.
He watched Vascour as he rose and walked to the telephone. He did not like the sly smile with which the secretary favoured him.
'Yes,' said Vascour speaking into the 'phone, 'is that the Club?—yes—I want Mr. Morretti.
Whilst he waited with the receiver at his ear, he spoke again to the bewildered man who regarded him with drunken gravity.
'Now I am going to give you the chance of your lifetime,' he said. 'Morretti will be here in a few minutes. He will motor down and you must do as I tell you.'
'More dirty work?' asked the other offensively.
'You have done dirty work before,' said Vascour, and spoke into the telephone. 'Is that you, sir—will you come at once?—good.' He hung up the receiver.
'This is not murder, guv'nor?' asked Buck with suspicion. 'I'll have no more murder.'
'If you mean Mr. Morretti's murder—no.' said Vascour. 'Look here,' he said, when Morretti comes you must say you know the whereabouts of his son.'
'Which I do,' said the man eagerly.
'You must threaten him that unless he pays you two thousand pounds, you will betray his son to the police.'
Buck was not so drunk that he could not get the man's meaning.
'Blackmail?' he said.
'Call it what you like. Are you armed?'
Trencher showed the outline of the revolver in his hip-pocket. 'I'm not going to use it, understand that,' he warned.
'I don't want you to use it,' said Vascour, 'but if he threatens you, produce it. I will be present and I will persuade him to pay you.'
Had Trencher been a reasoning man he would have wondered how Vascour would afterwards explain the part he played in decoying the millionaire to the office. But he was incapable of thinking. They sat for five minutes in silence.
'Listen!' said Vascour, 'that is his step, Here he comes; quick, you must start talking loudly—you must be quarreling with me when he arrives, now—'
Buck raised his voice. 'I tell you guv'nor, I know all about young Morretti— I know where I can lay my hands on him this minute—the young scoundrel—'
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Morretti enter the room.
'Millionaire's son or no millionaire's son,' he stormed. 'I know enough to hang him!'
'Gently, friend, gently!' He heard Morretti's voice. 'Whom are you going to hang?'
'Who?' repeated the man brutally. 'Why, your son!'
'My son!' said Morretti.
'Ah! You thought nobody knew your secret but yourself, and this secretary of yours, but I tell you this, that I could lay my hands on him, aye, and will, unless I am paid.'
'Ah!' said Morretti. 'Blackmailer, eh?'
'Call me what you like,' said Trencher defiantly. 'Hard words break no bones, guv'nor. And supposing I am a blackmailer—supposing I am a thief, supposing I am a murderer, I should be no worse than your fine gentleman of a son.
'My son must answer for his own crimes,' said the millionaire, with a calm mien. 'As he has earned, so shall he be rewarded; but as for you—'
Vascour, a silent spectator, started. Had the end of Morretti's patience come?
'Give me enough money to leave the country,' demanded Trencher. 'I don't want to do you any harm.'
'You will get no money from me,' said Morretti firmly. Trencher was more sober now. Why did not Vascour speak?
'I am a desperate man—' he began.
'And I, too, am a desperate man,' cried Morretti, turning on him fiercely. 'My son has brought shame and misery upon my head. Let him fight his battles without my help. Go to the police if you like. I will not make one move to save him. Do your worst!'
Trencher looked at his tempter, but he gave no sign. He saw Morretti move towards the door and covered him with his revolver.
'Shoot!' cried Morretti, and threw out his arms. 'I will give you nothing. Shoot!'
'Give me an open cheque for two thousand and your word of honour that you will not betray me, or—I'll kill you!'
He glanced at Vascour again. This time the secretary spoke.
'You scoundrel!' he cried loudly. 'Put down that pistol!'
Trencher was trapped—he saw it in his dull way.
'What, what do you mean?' he gasped.
Vascour picked up a chair.
'This man cannot escape, Mr. Morretti,' he said, 'the doors are automatically closed.'
He swung the chair and sent it crashing through the window, shouting for help.
Trencher knew he was betrayed, and made a dart for the door, but Morretti caught his throat in a grip of steel.
'Let me go!' he roared. 'Vascour, you shall pay for this!'
With a serpentine wriggle, he slipped from the millionaire's grasp and sprang over the desk.
He was at bay in a corner of the room. With the back of one hand he wiped his forehead, with the other he held the revolver that covered Vascour.
'You think this man is your son's friend,' he said breathlessly; 'you think he is yours? Listen to me, and if I lie, may I be punished. You want news of your son.' He put the revolver down for a moment and leant over the desk, hoarse in his excitement. 'I will tell you where your son is and then I will deal with this man. Your son is—'
A revolver cracked and Trencher pitched forward and fell sprawling over the desk—dead.
'What have you done?' cried Morretti. The smoke curled slowly from the revolver in Vascour's hand.
'I shot him to save your life,' he panted.
'Vascour, you lie!' thundered, the other passionately. 'You shot him to sllence his tongue!'
ACROSS the camp fire Frank Bennett took stock of his guide. The camp had been settled for the night, fires twinkled around him, and the noisy chatter of natives preparing their evening meal broke the stillness of the woods. The man who claimed Frank's attention looked older by some years than Bennett himself. He wore a short, pointed beard, and smoked deliberately and silently, like a man who is accustomed to solitude.
Frank was consulting his map. 'We are still eighty miles from railhead, if I can rely on this map,' he said, a little puzzled, for he had thought he was at least twenty miles nearer.
'You can never rely on maps in Africa,' said the other quietly.
'I know that to my cost,' said Frank, with a rueful smile. Had it not been for your good services, Mr. Hammond, we should have never found our way to Lo Mogundi's. It was a fortunate accident.'
'Hardly an accident,' said Hammond. 'I know the country, and hearing your party were on the move, I was seriously debating whether I should trek across and offer my services when you saved me the trouble by taking the wrong road, and striking my camp. If you had not come to me, I should have come to you.'
'Have you been in the country long?' asked Frank, curiously.
'Many years,' was the laconic reply.
'And yet few people know you?' persisted Frank.
'They know of me,' said Hammond, knocking ashes out of his pipe.
'But they do not know you. To them you are a mysterious hermit, living in the wilds, and never visiting town or encampment.'
Hammond yawned. 'I am tired of men and their follies,' he said, shortly.
'I'm a man with a past,' the other went on, smiling faintly, 'and that past is dead and burled. What do you want, Curtiss?' he spoke to a man who had come into the firelight—a typical pioneer, grizzled, rugged, and burnt black with the sun.
'A messenger from Lo Mogundi,' said Curtiss, grumpily; 'shall I let him come in to the camp?'
'Wait:' He turned to Frank. 'You have not told me the result of your interview with the Chief.'
'I am afraid it was not satisfactory,' said Frank, somewhat depressed. 'The man was insolent, and repudiated the concession. What shall we do?'
'See his messenger,' advised Hammond, 'find out his business, and, if the worst comes to the worst'—he lit his pipe with a glowing cinder—'we shall fight our way south. Have you informed your principal of the failure of your mission?'
'I sent a despatch rider to railhead an hour ago.'
'Good. And now the messenger.'
Some warning had run through the forest that had silenced the chatter of the carriers about the fires. They stood anxiously whispering together, as there came striding from the forest a tall, handsome native, bearing in a cleft stick the message of his master.
'A letter!' said Frank, in surprise. He held the writing to the fire and read:
'Thus says Lo Mogundi, the king:—You shall not leave my country till the moon is full.'
'Three days,' interjected the other.
'Lest my enemies say the hospitality of Lo Mogundi is a poor thing. So, therefore, white man, remain with me, for I cannot let you go.'
'Mischief, thou are afoot!' quoted Hammond. 'You hear, Bennett? He calls you "White Man." It is the native's insult.'
Before Frank could question him, Hammond was on his feet, his eyes narrowed.
'By the Great Fetish!' he muttered, 'the King himself!'
Frank followed the direction of his eyes, and saw the sundry column of the imperial guard defile from the wood. He recognised the white feathers in their head-dress, but easiest of all to recognise was Lo Mogundi himself. The King was head and shoulders above his fellows; a leopard skin was flung over his shoulder, and in his right hand he carried the silver assegai of his rank.
'Where is he who comes from the great white man?' he asked imperiously.
'I am here,' said 'Frank.
'To-day you saw me,' said the King. 'To-day I spoke of the paper I signed; I have told you that the thing that is written therein I would not do.'
He spoke in the Kaffir tongue, and Hammond translated.
'Tell him that he has signed, and that he must keep to his bargain,' said Frank.
'It is not good to say "must" in a strange land,' said Lo Mogundi, haughtily. 'My head-man and the white men with beards and spectacles—'
Hammond whistled softly. This then, was the 'other power.'
'These have said,' the King continued, 'that so surely as the English come, so surely will our young men become weak and their strength pass into water; our kraals shall be ploughed up by the fire-carriage; and I, the King, will become as a slave and a vassal to the spoilers of our land.'
'They lied!' said Frank. 'And I am here to tell you that, unless you carry out the promise made, the great chief will come with countless impis and lay your land to waste.'
The King raised his hand. 'I say peace, and you say war? My messengers bring me word that the great chief himself is but two days' march away.'
This was news indeed.
'But he brings with him a great army,' frowned Lo Mogundi, 'with guns and big cannon and horses. He comes with hate in his heart to destroy his friend. He comes to make my land a wilderness, and my young men slaves. Am I a dog that I should lick his feet?'
He raised his voice to a shout, and there came from every part of the forest the weird war chant of the Mandeges men. It began scarcely above a whisper, and swelled in volume as the song went on. The King bent his head, his eyes aflame.
'Hark!' he cried, 'hark to my young men, my young oxen! Their blood is hot within them! Your chief will come with his impis, but he shall find no kraal. I will take my people into the mountains, and then let Morretti do his worst!'
'Ah-h!' The cry was wrung from Hammond's lips. 'Speak, Bennett,' he cried; 'is your chief Morretti?'
'Yes. Why, what ails you?' demanded Frank. 'You look like a ghost.'
'Nothing, nothing,' muttered the other.
'As for you—' the King beckoned to a party of his warriors.
'We will wait his coming, Chief,' said Frank.
'You shall wait his coming,' said the King, 'but not here. You must come back with us. If you stay you shall be as meat for the jackal and the aasvogel; for you shall die like the dogs you are, and not even the great white chief shall save you.'
'You lie,' said a voice.
Frank heard it, and saw the stolid figure on the outskirts of the group.
'Morretti!' he said, with a yell of joy. The Chief cowered before the calm eyes of the white man; 'You are a bold man to enter into my country alone, baas,' he said. 'You are bolder still to give me the lie.'
Morretti laughed merrily. 'Why should I fear you, Lo Mogundi the Chief?' he asked, with quiet contempt. 'Lo Mogundi, whom I saved from the hanging tree in the days of the Big Rebellion; Lo Mogundi, whom I took from prison to place on a throne. Have you forgotten?' he asked.
The King moved uneasily. 'I do not wish you harm,' he said, sullenly.
'You have said you would not do the thing you have sworn to do,' said Morretti sternly. 'That you would not keep your written word. Gather together your head men and let me speak with them.'
The King stood for a moment, uncertain, hesitating. Then he turned back the way he had come. 'I go,' he said. 'On their word let it be peace or war.'
'We shall do it yet.' Morretti watched the King disappear. 'I got your note, Bennett. I was in Johannesburg when I heard from a reliable source that you were likely to meet with opposition, so as quickly as I could I organised a small force, and followed you up. Who is your companion?'
'He is a recluse of sorts,' said Frank, 'never visits towns, lives in the wilds. He known this country perfectly. Indeed, had it not been for him, I should have been lost. But, you were talking about Johannesburg. Did you leave Miss—'
He felt himself blushing.
'Winifred,' said Morretti, smiling, 'yes, she was very well. Do you know, I think, Bennett, you have an excellent chance there.'
'No, sir, but I thought—' began Frank, his heart beating rapidly.
A shadow crossed Morretti's face. 'Yes, but my plans have changed,' he said simply. 'Things have happened, and my eyes have been opened.'
'By Winifred?' asked Frank, eagerly.
'No, no! Something else! It was to escape my thoughts that I came north earlier than I intended.' He lapsed into silence. When he broke it, it was with an extraordinary question. 'Bennett, have you ever seen a man murdered?'
'Murdered?' said Frank in amazement.
'Yes, foully murdered,' said the millionaire, 'and yet murdered in such a way as to make the murderer free from blame. Vascour killed a man before my eyes.'
'And killed him in such a manner that I—I, who saw through the ruse, was obliged by circumstances to swear that the man was shot in self-defence.'
'And what was the truth?' asked Frank.
'The man was killed,' said the millionaire, 'because he was on the point of revealing some secret of Vascour's and—of mine,' he added, bitterly.
The elder man frowned. 'He is at Johannesburg, conducting my affairs during my absence,' he said, shortly.
'Does he know you suspect him?'
'I think he does. But, Bennett, bad though believe Vascour to be, yet he and I share one secret between us—and in my service he has been faithful.' It was the nearest to a confession of weakness that any man had ever heard Morretti make.
'He will play upon that,' warned Frank. 'And Winifred?'
'I am determined that she shall marry the man she loves,' said the millionaire, and he silenced the young man's thanks with a gesture.
'Whether that is good or bad news,' he said, grimly, 'we shall know soon.'
Frank bent his head, listening. He heard the patter of bare feet in the forest. The King was leading back the headmen of his people for the great indaba. They came from the forest, the venerable fighters, each with his bodyguard, and sat about the King in his place opposite Morretti, and Frank could feel the nervous thumping of his heart.
Morretti spoke. 'Greetings, Chiefs!' he said, sternly, 'How say you, shall it be peace, or shall it be war? Shall it be fat men and fields of maize or shall it be bleached bones and burning granaries?'
The Chief took counsel with an old man at his side. 'My people fear this peace of yours,' he said, at length. 'They have been told—'
'What have they been told?' demanded Morretti.
'That we shall give ourselves bound into your hands, if we keep our word to you.'
'They spoke falsely. Who told you this?' he asked.
Again the Chief conferred.
'It was written and sent by a messenger to me not two days since.' he said. 'But,' he rose and, groping at his feet, lifted a twig. He held it before the people and snapped it. 'We are for peace,' he said.
'Thank God,' said Morretti, beneath his breath.
'We are for peace, because we believe the spoken word of our father, Morretti, who loves us, and not the written word of the man who sent us gold.'
'What man sent this?' Morretti leant I forward as the Chief clapped his hand on the leather pouch that hung at his waist. He drew forth a paper.
'The are his writings,' he said. And Morretti took the paper and read it. Twice he read it, and his head fell forward with a groan.
'I send you guns and cartridges because I am your friend. Trust not to the word of Morretti, for he speaks with a lying tongue. If he comes he will destroy your people, and will eat up your land. Therefore beware of him. Your true friend, Philip Denton.'
'Philip Denton!' said Frank, slowly, 'who is—'
Morretti sprang to his feet.
'Again, again!' he cried, hoarsely. 'Murderer, thief and slanderer—who is he? Why, all the world may know—Philip Denton, the man who murdered the Rector, the man who has robbed me and slandered me—is Hammond Morretti. And he is my son!'
'That is not true!' The voice of the bearded guide cut the silence that followed the outburst. 'Your son is neither thief nor slanderer.'
Morretti swung round. 'What do you mean?' he asked, harshly. 'Who are you that you should speak with authority?'
'I am Hammond Morretti,' was the quiet reply.
'ALL'S well that ends well, Mr. Bennett,' Polly was pouring out the coffee.
Frank, sitting in the big window recess that overlooked Morretti's fine park in Johannesburg, was engrossed in his mail—or rather, in one of his letters, for the rest did not seem to receive their share of attention. Immediately on his return from Mandegesland he had written an urgent letter to Winifred, who was visiting some friends up country, begging to see her.
This was her reply, and it told Frank that she expected to be in Johannesburg in a week or two, and hoped to see him then.
'All's well that ends well, I say, Mr. Bennett,' repeated Polly, when she fancied she had left him in peace long enough.
'I beg your pardon,' said Frank hastily
Polly laughed. No one could expect a man in love to be an entertaining companion.
'All's well that ends well,' she said good-naturedly for the third time.
'Well, yes,' said Frank, smiling, too; 'up to a point I agree with you, but it hasn't ended quite as well as I could wish.'
'You mean, they haven't caught Vascour?'
Frank nodded. 'Yes, when he got news—from Heaven knows where—that his little game was up, he disappeared with everything he could lay his hand upon.'
'Which Jim says wasn't much,' added Polly.
'No, luckily. There was little or no ready cash in the safe, but that didn't matter. The scoundrel had feathered his nest pretty well.'
'Where were the police?'
'Acting on Mr. Morretti's instructions, they arrived at the office a few minutes after Mr. Vascour had left,' said Frank, and looked round as Jim came in.
'We were talking about Vascour,' he said.
'I've just been talking about him, too,' said Jim, 'to the Chief of the Police. He says the railway stations and docks have been watched, and the police are pretty sure that he has not left Johannesburg.'
'Not left Johannesburg?' said. Bennett in amazement, 'surely they are wrong.'
Bennett, who had come straight down country after the memorable meeting with Lo Mogundi, had had no opportunity of gratifying his curiosity regarding the strange reunion. Now Jim told them the story.
'It appears that the youngster ran away from home thinking he had killed a man. As a matter of fact, the man wasn't dead at all. Anyhow, he went abroad, taking passage in an old tramp steamer sailing for Valparaiso. The ship was lost with all hands off Cape Horn.'
'Then how was Hammond Morretti saved?'
'He didn't sail on that boat. In the confusion of sailing he went on board the wrong steamer—The City of Saltly—bound for Beira. He went ashore at Beira and struck up country. However, news of the disaster was sent to Morretti by the friend who, in helping the lad to escape, had booked his passage, and the letter fell into the hands of Vascour, who had just entered Mr. Morretti's service as his confidential secretary. Vascour, whose real name is Michael Steinberg, was then in hiding from the police for several crimes committed under the name of Philip Denton.'
'But the letter?' said Frank.
'Why, Vascour determined to use his fancied knowledge of young Morretti's death in his own interests, so he suppressed the letter and forged another which informed Mr. Morretti that his son Hammond was living a dissolute life under the alias of Philip Denton.'
'Had Vascour ever met young Morretti?'
'Well, that I cannot say. Anyway, when Philip Denton wrote begging letters now and again asking for a cool thousand or so, Morretti would pay it over to Vascour to be delivered to his son, little dreaming that he was paying it to Philip Denton direct.'
'And nicely that wretch Vascour, or Philip Denton, or Steinberg, or whatever his name was, has feathered his own nest at his patron's expense,' put in Polly.
'A remarkable story indeed,' said Frank thoughtfully. 'But here is Mr. Morretti.'
It was difficult to recognise the smiling man who came into the breakfast-room—his hand resting on the arm of the young fellow by his side—a grave young man, clean-shaven now, but with Morretti's eyes, and the Morretti trick of jerking up his head whenever he was addressed.
'Good morning, good morning, everybody!' said the millionaire gaily. 'No thank you, Mrs. Perritt; Hammond and I breakfasted some time ago and have since been in the park. What, a beautiful morning! Why, I never knew, we had such glorious mornings in Johannesburg.'
'Ah, father,' laughed the son, 'we haven't seen them before through so rosy glasses.'
With one consent the rest of the party had risen and moved out of the room on one pretext, or another. It had been tacitly agreed that these two—so strangely united after many years—should be free from interruption.
The two walked to the window that overlooked the road, and stood watching in silence the procession of motor cars and carriages that carried the early-rising Johannesburgers to their offices. A servant bringing the card of a visitor found them so, the older man's' arm about the shoulders of his son.
Morretti took the card, and read:—'Pauline Princess de Ravsky.' He bent his head in thought.
'I wonder, had I better see her?' he considered. 'Yes, yes—perhaps she should know the truth. Besides, I owe her an apology. Thank heaven, I know now that there has never been, anything between her and my son.' Then aloud: 'Show the lady in, Perkins.'
'Hammond, I have to see somebody,' he said to his son. 'Will you excuse me?'
With the card in his hand, and his mind occupied with the part this woman had played in his life, Morretti waited.
He heard the swish of her skirts, and raised his head to meet her. He noted with a start that some quality had come into her face which was not there before; something that had intensified her strange beauty—that in some wonderful way had altered its character.
'Pauline—Princess!' he said, gently; 'You wished to see me?'
She took the chair he offered her. 'Yes, for the last time. You know the name of the man who—who—'
'I am sorry,' he said, in low tones, 'I am truly sorry I hurt you. That is why I am glad you have come. I wanted to offer you an apology. I thought it was my son who had once loved you, I know now that it was not.'
She appeared a little startled. She looked at him earnestly, She seemed about to speak, but checked herself, and there was a pause.
'One reason for my visit,' she said, at length, 'was to ask your forgiveness for my treatment of you. I mean my attempted theft of your deed of concession.'
'Forgiven long ago, Princess, if I ever bore you any grudge on that score,'
'Did you not think it strange that I should act in such a way after—after all I had said to you before?'
She looked at him inquiringly.
'Perhaps,' said Morretti, slowly and thoughtfully.
'I want to tell you something about myself that will explain it, if you will listen,' she said, timidly.
He took a seat by her side, and looked at her kindly with grave question in his eyes.
'On the mountain that morning, I told you that I loved you. I thought I did. There was no guile in that,' she said, anxiously. 'You understand that I was sincere in what I said, and that at the moment I had given up all intention of robbing you of the deed of concession.'
He bowed his head.
'I am glad of that,' she said. 'I wanted you to understand that. But what I wanted to say was that, though I was sincere, I was mistaken. I thought I loved: you but I did not.'
'I am happy to hear you say this, very happy. I thought you could not mean it, and I have always thought so.'
She, smiled, faintly.
'Yes, I found it out as soon as the glamour of your personality had worn off, and I began to think collectedly, When I met you for the first time, you personified truth to me. I could not forgot you. All the rest of that day and that night I thought of nothing else. Up on the mountain, in the dawn, I felt myself close to the truth—almost in touch with it. I had forgotten the world and its entanglements. When you repulsed me, my evil angel returned and I fell back again into myself, and set myself to accomplish my purpose, the purpose for which I had come to Cape Town—the obtaining of your deed of concession.'
'Never mind, we need not think about that now.'
'No, but I have something else to say, and I am afraid it is something that will grieve you.'
He waited quietly, and when she was calmer she spoke again, though it was with an obvious effort.
'You said just now that you knew it was not your son who loved me once. I have come to tell you that it was.'
Morretti rose and moved back from her.
'I do not understand, you when you speak of my son,', he said, slowly.
She was tearless, but he saw the hand trembling that plucked aimlessly at the pleat of her dress.
'You wonder,' she said, keeping her voice steady with difficulty, 'why I speak of your son. Listen, you shall hear the story.
'When I was a young girl of twenty, my aunt took me to London. There I met a man, who became my husband. He was much older than I, but I thought I loved him and we were married. From the first he was a brute. He neglected me, he insulted me. Soon afterwards I made the acquaintance of another man. My husband was jealous, and one day there was a fearful scene. The man, drawing a pistol, shot my husband down, but he did not kill him.'
'Thank heaven!' said Morretti, deeply moved. And she saw that he understood.
'Yes,' she said, 'the man was your son. We thought at the moment that he had killed my husband, and he yielded to my entreaties, and made his escape. I have never seen him nor heard of him since.'
'But,' he said, in bewilderment, 'you denied this, and yet you have known my son's name.'
'No, no,' she cried, 'I did not; believe me, I did not. I knew him as Hammond. I wrote no letters to him. I called him always Hammond. I think it must have been that strange fascination in him that drew me to you. That is all I wanted to tell you, except'—the entreaty, the pathetic entreaty in the beautiful dark eyes, filled him with compassion—'don't tell him that you have met me. Perhaps he loves and honours the memory of me yet. Oh, if he does, let him do so—still. It will not hurt him, and what it will be to me—'
Her voice failed her.
'Do not fear,' he said, gently, 'I will say nothing to him.'
'Thank you.' She held out her hand as she rose, and he bent and kissed the cold fingers.
No other word was spoken.
In silence she left the room; in silence he watched her go. He was still standing as she left him when Hammond returned. Somehow, his son's cheerful voice jarred on him.
'If it is not asking too much, father, who was your lady visitor?' said the young man, smiling. 'I. caught a glimpse of her as I came across the lawn.'
'Someone in trouble, Hammond, someone in trouble,' he said thoughtfully.
Hammond stooped. 'Why, she has dropped her handkerchief,' he said, and examined the gossamery thing with curiosity.
'Shall I go after her with it?'
'No, no,' said his father, hastily. 'Stay! I will send a messenger. Give it to me.'
Hammond was looking at the name in the corner. 'Pauline!' he read. He looked up, and his father saw that his smile was gone. 'How strange!'
'What is strange, my boy?' asked Morretti, watching him narrowly.
Hammond threw out his hand. 'Oh, it is only an old memory, father,' he he said, bitterly—'the memory of a great folly.'
'One you regret?' asked the other.
'As I regret no other thing in my life,' said the boy, and Morretti's hand fell on his shoulder.
'Suppose,' he said, 'only suppose—you had done this Pauline,' he touched the handkerchief, 'some ill service, and you had the power to repair the injury—would you do it?'
'Yes, a thousand times yes,' Hammond said.
'But suppose,' the millionaire went on, 'suppose your act had resulted in—say—making her an unhappy woman. Would she still interest you?'
Hammond met his father's eye unwavering. 'Yes.' he replied, without hesitation. Then his face paled. 'You know her—tell me, do you know her, father?' he cried. 'Where is she?'
Morretti caught his arm. 'You shall see her in good time,' he said. 'To-morrow you shall see her.'
IT was a custom of Morretti's to receive his workmen at all hours. But the millionaire hesitated when he learnt of the urgent messenger below.
'He says he has come straight from the Golden Reef Mine and must see you privately,' said Bennett.
'From the Golden Reef! Why, whatever can he want? Mr. Bennett, tell the man to go to the offices of the company or to inform you what his business is. I cannot see him to-day. Some little grievance, I expect,' said the millionaire with a smile. 'The men always come to me direct—but to-day I cannot be bothered.'
Bennett was back in a minute. 'The man says he must see you alone,' he said. 'He has a letter which he says is from Mr. Pensimmons, the manager.'
Morretti was troubled by the news. 'Mr. Pensimmons,' he said anxiously; 'can anything be wrong? Will you send the man here?'
Bennett came back ushering in an unkempt individual whose shaggy beard and general air of untidiness was in striking contrast to his present surroundings.
'Here's a letter for you, sir,' he said gruffly.
Morretti looked at him. 'What is your name?' he asked. 'I do not recognise you.'
'Brown,' said the other brusquely, 'I'm a new man.'
Morretti smiled faintly. He was not the man to resent anything that savoured of independence. He broke the seal of the letter and read:
'Dear Mr. Morretti.—Whilst making an inspection of the mine this morning, I have made an extraordinary discovery—a new and richer leader than has yet been struck and so far I have kept the discovery to myself. I want you to see it, but you must come alone. I do not want the market to hear of this. The bearer will guide you to the spot. There is an old shaft a thousand feet west of the mill; come down by that. It is not very steep. If you come by the main shaft, people might begin to wonder and then the secret would be out. Please come without delay.—Yours faithfully, George Pensimmons.'
The millionaire acted quickly. The news might leak out at any moment. It was imperative he should be first. The idealist was also a financier, and the prosperity of a hundred thousand shareholders depended upon is activity.
Morretti swung the lantern from side to side as he stepped cautiously in the wake of his guide. The floors of the old workings were plentifully strewn with debris.
'How much further is it?' he asked. He was hot and a little tired.
'Not far now, guv'nor,' growled the man.
Morretti frowned. 'I do not like your tone, my friend,' he said quietly.
The man spat on the ground. 'It's the best I've got,' he said quietly.
'It could be improved—with practice,' said the millionaire. The other growled impudently.
'Come along, guv'nor,' he urged, 'we can't stand growling here.'
Morretti was on his feet. 'Stop!' he commanded. 'It is strange, but I could swear that I had heard your voice before.'
'Maybe you have, maybe you haven't,' said the guide gruffly.
'Not that voice,' said Morretti, 'but the voice you employed before—where it could have been—let me think.'
The man shrugged his shoulders. 'Here! I haven't time to stand arguing,' he complained. 'Are you coming along, or shall I leave you here?'
'I am coming,' said Morretti slowly, 'it is very dark. May I take your arm?'
'Yes, if you want to—you ain't afraid, are you?' he sneered.
'No,' said the other, 'I am not afraid but when I cannot see danger, I like to feel it.' And his arm was crooked in that of the guide.
'What do you mean?' demanded the man.
For answer, Morretti, throwing his weight on the man's arm, swung him into the light of the shaft.
'This,' he said, and plucked at the man's beard.
'Curse you, Morretti!' said a voice he knew well.
Morretti had his hands about the other's throat. 'I know you,' he said exultantly. All the misery this man had caused came to him. 'I know you for a murderer, Ramon Vascour, and I am going to hand to the hangman.'
Vascour put forth his mightiest effort, but the hands about his throat were like bands of steel. Over the uneven floor they swayed, now in the centre, now writhing and twisting against the rugged walls of the underground chamber. Once Morretti shifted his grip and the man, at the risk of strangulation, bent his head and fastened his teeth in the hand that held him. With an involuntary cry of pain, Morretti released him and Vascour, with a yell of triumph went staggering back, flourishing a revolver in his hand.
It was like the sound of some wild beast, that roar of pain. He dashed the sweat from his eyes and looked round. The millionaire had disappeared.
'Come out into the light,' he snarled, 'come out, you dog!'
In the darkness he thought he saw something move and fired, and in the confines of the little chamber the report was deafening.
Again he fired, and again. Save for the beam of light that struck the floor from the vertical shaft above, the place was pitch dark. There were a score of little nooks and recesses where the millionaire might be hiding. Vascour groped a cautious way round the wall. His first intention had been blackmail; now he was hot for murder.
Behind him he heard a stealthy footfall, and in the opening that led to the main shaft he saw something white, and fired wildly. The figure did not move. Then he saw the millionaire, and wheeled round on him, his pistol raised. Silently they faced each other.
Morretti was unarmed—that much Vascour knew. He was helpless.
'Come into the light,' commanded the secretary.
Morretti did not move. 'Shoot me here,' he said calmly, 'as well in the dark as in the light, since you can see me.'
Vascour drew back the hammer of the revolver.
'What is your life worth?' he asked.
Morretti thought of his son and his new-found happiness. 'It is worth very much,' he said simply.
The other chuckled. 'In hard cash?' he demanded.
'It is not worth dealing with that, if you mean ransom.'
'I do,' said Vascour.
Morretti shook his head. 'Ransom implies your escape from justice,' he said, coolly. 'I will not be a party to that, even at the cost of my life.'
'Then,' screamed Vascour, casting aside all restraints, 'you shall—'
The report of a single shot rang through the apartment.
Vascour stood for a moment motionless; then his head shook like that of a man in a delirium, and he fell forward on his face.
In the opening of the working Pauline, Princess de Ravsky, mechanically fingered her little silver revolver, and realised vaguely that she had made herself a widow.
SIX months had passed away. It was the early spring of the year, and the early morning of the day. Winifred and Frank sat in an arbour of Mr. Morretti's park at Johannesburg, talking of their approaching marriage, and weaving and unravelling bright plans for the future. It was a future full of promise and full of charm, and yet for a moment Frank's thought turned to the past.
'Winifred, we have never yet spoken of our last meeting in Cape Town.'
'No, Frank, I know. I never want to think of that time—it was so unhappy.'
He drew her head down upon his shoulder and caressed her hair.
'Winifred,' said Frank, eventually, 'Tell me how you think Pauline, the ultra-civilised, will be able to endure life in the wilds.'
'Pauline will be happy in it, I feel sure. She is weary of diplomacy and civilisation. To go back to something primitive is what she longs for.'
'There is a strain of poetry in Pauline's nature,' Frank said, 'and she will find poetry among those black fellows. I was struck with it. They think in poetry and speak in poetry.'
'Besides,' said Winifred, 'she will be a queen there, and Pauline loves being a queen. I know her now,' she went on; 'I didn't like her at first. I couldn't be glad when Hammond came to tell us that she had promised to marry him and go with him to Mandegeseland.'
'Oh, Winifred,' reproached Frank, 'I shall never forget the light in Hammond's eyes, nor the look of quiet content on his face. Anyone could see that he was happy, and that he had no fears for the future.'
'One morning,' said Winifred, 'I went to her room to ask her for a book she had promised to lend me. She told me to come in, and she found the book for me, and spoke quite cheerfully, and I left her. But I could see that she had been crying, and I don't know why I did so, but I went back again. She was sitting in the window seat. I could not see her face, but Frank, I have never seen such utter sadness as the lines of her form expressed. There was a look of despair in her attitude. I went to her, put my arms round her, and asked if she were not happy. And she suddenly turned to me, hid her face in my shoulder, and broke down completely, and cried and cried like a child.'
'Was this after her marriage, or before?'
'It was a short time before,' said Winifred, recovering herself. 'She told me she was unworthy of Hammond, and talked of a convent. But I laughed the idea away, and comforted her. I don't know how I did it, but in some way I comforted her, and I have loved her ever since. I have never been afraid of her again; I understand her now. Neither am I afraid for Hammond.'
'Nor I,' said Frank.
Winifred had risen and was standing in the entrance to the arbor.
'Frank, quick, come and look,' she whispered, 'there they are.'
He was by her side in a moment, and they peered through the arches of the trees which were already splashed with the young green of the spring, to watch two figures on the other side of the park, walking slowly hand in hand.
'Frank,' Winifred said softly, 'there is something beautiful in their looks.' And in the tone of her voice there was a note approaching awe. 'They are walking towards the dawn, and it is indeed a new dawn for both of them.'
'And for us, too, little comrade,' said her lover, with a rush of tenderness, as her drew her into his arms. 'We too, have had our dark night, but the day has dawned at last.'