SOME clever people can be very, very careless.
Sara Hall was clever, uncannily so. Nobody had ever known Sara to make a false move in the great game of Getting On. Except one.
She bought a subscription to Longton's Library, which was a terrible error of judgment. Longton's was the most fashionable of all the libraries and was extensively patronised by people who were so well off that they could afford to boast that they never bought books. And there was really no reason why they should, because Longton's supplied you with the newest copy of the newest novel, so that subscribers could sometimes read a book before the reviews came out and confirmed them in their appreciations.
Sara, who read very little, explained her eccentricity by remarking in her vague way that one ought to do something for dear Beryl, thereby implying that the fees she had paid were directly helpful to Beryl Markham who, despite her youth and her B.A. degree, was Longton's chief librarian.
Beryl, sitting in her little panelled office, used to catch glimpses of her benefactor, helpless in the face of serried literature, and sometimes—rarely—would emerge from her sanctuary to help her choose a novel which called for no especial genius to understand. Mostly they were stories that bristled with revolvers and reeked of mysteries which remained unsolved until the last chapter.
"It's too good of you, dear," Sara once said. "No, dear, I don't think I shall like that book. I hate 'em with yellow bindings. So Aubrey Beardsleyish. Not that I've even read his poems.... Artist, was he? All artists are poets, don't you think? Yes, I'll have that one. It really is too sweet of you, dear. And how horrid to have to work in a snuffy little place like this. With all these books that people take out and bring back. And you never know where they have been, into infectious rooms and all that. I wonder you aren't afraid of catching things. And you're ever so much too pretty to be a shopgirl. What a perfectly awful thing to say! Of course I know you're not a shopgirl, but... you know. Don't people make love to you and ask you out to dinner?"
Beryl used to wonder why the girl ever patronised the library at all. Out of curiosity she gave instructions to an assistant :
"Let me see the books that Miss Hall takes out; when they are returned, put them on my desk."
This was done.
THERE were certain social functions at which the two girls met. There were others where they might have met if they had wished.
One night the Sandersons, who were both rich and pleasant, gave a dance in their big house in Park View, and because Sara was a mechanical guest at all such happenings she received the usual card.
"I don't exactly know why we ask her, she's not a friend of the Lorlings any more," frowned Mrs. Sanderson, her pen poised. "And besides, poor Mrs. Cathcart... I hear that she is suing Sara in the courts for money lent."
"Better ask her," said her good-natured husband. "It will look rather strange if we don't. Besides, the Lorlings aren't in the country now, and you've had her to your dances a dozen times since that affair. Poor little girl! She wasn't to blame if Lorling made a fool of himself over her. And as to poor old Johnny, he lent everybody money."
"Kate Lorling said she lured her husband on, and that he bought her a house in the country and a car. Kate was quite sure——"
"All Women are cats," said Mr. Sanderson generally. "You'd better ask her. There's nothing like a vamp to make a party interesting."
Beryl was asked because she was Beryl. And because she was Beryl, Bertie Pollard was invited.
In many ways it was a memorable evening. A momentous afternoon was to follow when Mr. Bertie Pollard went reluctantly to a rendezvous to which at other times he had moved swiftly, eagerly, and expectantly. At the end of the broad park path that follows faithfully the serpentine wanderings of the lake he paused and rubbed his silk hat nervously with his elbow.
There are delicately balanced instruments which detect the faintest of human emotions, and record them in wiggly lines on a tape of paper. There are less delicate detectors of agitation, and a silk hat rubbed the wrong way is a glaring signal of mental distress.
Bertie Pollard thrust his dishevelled hat on the back of his head, set his teeth, and strode down the path, his brow wrinkled in a frown of terrifying fierceness. She was there! That was a cause of thankfulness... on the other hand, if she had not been there, he would have been a little more grateful to Providence. Then he could have written explaining everything. He would rather write than talk. Beside which, if she had not been waiting (in her customary seat near the pond) he would have been fortified by a grievance, could have begun his letter: "I am surprised that you did not seek an explanation, etc.," and might conceivably have carried the matter off with hauteur.
He was a lawyer and therefore easily astonished. Half the letters he dictated in the course of a day to obdurate debtors began by an expression of his surprise that the poor devils to whom he wrote had not fulfilled their obligations to his clients.
But there she was. A slim figure in grey charmeuse, her blessed legs extended stiffly, a newspaper in her lap, and her face shaded by a broad-brimmed hat. She was feeding the ducks. Bertie Pollard hoped that she would extend a little of her charity to him.
"Hello, Beryl!" he greeted her, with spurious heartiness. "How do you feel after your night's dissipation? I didn't see you go..."
She folded the newspaper deliberately. Her grave eyes searched his face with a steady scrutiny.
"Bertie, who was that girl you kissed?" she asked directly. "I only caught a glimpse of her.... Mrs. Sanderson asked me to go up to see her sleeping babies—she shares the common illusion that her children are more beautiful than other children when they are asleep—but I saw you."
Bertie licked his dry lips.
"I am going to tell you a little story——" he was beginning.
"Will you please remember," she interrupted him carefully, "that I am by profession a librarian? It is my unfortunate task to read almost every new book, and fifty per cent of the plots turn on a man being suspected because he is caught kissing a strange female, who turns out to be his long-lost sister or the youthful aunt he hasn't seen for years."
"It wasn't my aunt"—Bertie wiped his hot forehead with an air of nonchalance—"and it wasn't my sister. I can't in honour tell you the lady's name, and the kissing episode was really not my fault."
"A vampire?" she nodded. "They have gone out of literature lately, and have restricted their activities to the motion-picture business. How fascinating!"
"Look here, Beryl," said the young man hotly, "I haven't come here to be ragged by you. There is a perfectly natural explanation as to why I kissed her."
"That is what I am afraid of," said the girl, with a sigh, and looked wistfully across the water; "an unnatural explanation would have worked wonders with me."
"She is in trouble—great trouble," blurted Bertie. "I feel so awfully sorry for her...."
"That you kissed her? And did that help her very much? I don't know how these things affect one. When I am feeling bad, I take a brisk walk and avoid starchy foods. The next time I feel that way, I will ask a policeman to kiss me! Sara Hall hasn't any very great trouble, Bertie. Don't start like a stage villain; of course I knew that it was Sara. And I know what the trouble is. She has spent her allowance and expects to be arrested by her dressmaker, and she hasn't a friend in the world, ow, ow!"
"That is very vulgar, Beryl"—sternly—"extremely vulgar to mock—er—people's sorrow. And it is heartless, too, fearfully heartless. I'm very sorry for the girl. Naturally, I being a lawyer, she came to me for whatever assistance I could give her, and I'm doing what I can."
Beryl Markham smiled. "What is it you can do—kiss the dressmaker?"
Bertie made a movement as if he were about to rise, but she laid her neatly gloved hand on his knee.
"I knew you were going to get up. All misunderstood men do that. 'He rose with an expression of pain,' or, 'He rose with a dignified expression'—every author uses one or the other. The point is, Bertie, are these kisses and sympathetic hugs to be part of the legal assistance you give her? I know nothing about law, and I've never seen a lawyer giving advice to a pretty woman. If she is deaf, I can understand his putting his lips to her shell-like ear; I can even understand his embracing her for that purpose——"
Now he actually rose.
"Beryl," he said stiffly, "you don't realise what you are saying. Do you know that that awful woman Cathcart is threatening this poor girl with imprisonment for obtaining money by fraud? You'd think a widow would have more—more religion."
"Perhaps she doesn't feel religious when she thinks of Sara," suggested the girl. "Personally, Sara is a penance to me. She may make you feel holy——"
"I shall continue to serve my friends," he said more stiffly than ever, "and no amount of sarcasm will turn me from—er——"
"The path of duty," she murmured helpfully. "I admire your zeal, only—I do not want legal advice, Bertie. I will not return your engagement ring, because that would be so very ordinary, and it would only lead to your returning the trouser-stretchers and the smoker's cabinet I gave you on your birthday. They would be embarrassing to dispose of. Good afternoon."
He had turned on his heel and had stalked majestically away before she had finished talking. She looked after him for a moment, and then, opening her newspaper, began to read the serial. It was a story (or the description was misleading) of Love and Passion.
She sat for a long time with the neglected story of Love and Passion on her lap, wondering. She wondered whether, if she poisoned Sara Hall, any kind of fuss would be made about the happening. Or perhaps if she shot her—bad women always came to an untimely end. It was one of the rules of the literary game. Not that Sara was bad. She was one of those skinny, mouse-haired women with dark, sad eyes that seem to hold a whole eternity of sorrow. In reality, if you could read the mystery of those sombre deeps, you would find a long procession of ?£?£?£'s.
Many of her friends were under the impression that Sara had a soul. When they talked about her, as they did at very frequent intervals, they spoke of her as "poor Sara," and it was a conventional belief that she had "suffered." Nobody could very definitely specify in what respect she had suffered, or could recall any occasion when she was unable to dawdle through a six-course dinner without assistance. She was not averse to sympathy. In an atmosphere which would have been hatefully shocking to many who admired her most, she thrived apace. She had entered the ranks of Poor Brave Things and was, if anything proud of her unique position.
All this Beryl Markham knew. She was not worried at all about Bertie kissing her. Other men in similar circumstances had kissed Sara Hall and had smoothed her hair and had gazed how-can-I-helpfully into her tragic eyes. And Sara had twiddled the top button of their waistcoats with modestly downcast eyes (raised for momentary and devastating flashes at the victim) and had sighed and pouted and told the man gently, but not offensively, that they must not do that sort of thing, and that she was so fond of their wives that it hurt her to feel that she was being the tiniest bit disloyal to those absent and less attractive women, and in the end——
"My dear Sara, don't worry your pretty little head any more about that silly bill. I'll send you a cheque to-morrow... No, no, no, pay me whenever you like——"
And so forth.
Beryl frowned at the ducks. They did not remind her of Sara. There were other habitants of a farmyard that did remind her, but not the ducks.
And then she got up briskly, walked to the Mall, and, finding a crawling taxi, drove to Spargott Mansions. As she came to the broad entrance hall, a man came out carrying a trunk. He put it down to rest, and something said to Beryl: "Read the label." She walked deliberately to where the trunk rested and read. Then she spoke to the man and asked him a question. Then she went up to the flat.
Sara wore a fluffy clinging dress, very simple and very expensive. Her welcome was warm, both her thin white hands met about Beryl's.
"This is lovely of you—you've promised to come so often. Really you are a dear!"
There was an air of emptiness about the room. The little etceteras she expected to see, the photographs, the precious little ornamentations, were not there. It had the defiant atmosphere of a flat that had been let furnished. And yet the furniture was Sara's—Beryl knew who bought it. Sara thrust away a book which she had in her hand and jumped up, and she seemed a trifle embarrassed.
"I never dreamt you'd call—after all my invitations."
"I thought I'd come along and see you," said Beryl. "You were at the Sandersons' dance last night—Of course you were. I spoke to you. I wanted to see you about Bertie."
The melancholy eyes neither flinched nor changed their expression.
"Bertie—Bertie Pollard? Aren't you and he——"
"We are engaged, yes."
Sara shook her head.
"He is a dear boy," she said, a little sadly, "and I almost envy you, Beryl. I don't really, because marriage and love and all that sort of stuff is not for me."
She sighed again, and her long lashes swept her pale cheek. A man would have imagined a tear concealed. Beryl was not a man.
"I had one man—he went out of my life," she said, with a little choke.
"Poor dear!" said Beryl sympathetically. "I like Charlie Lorling too——"
"I don't mean Mr. Lorling," said Sara, with the faintest tinge of acid in her voice. "He was married——"
"I'm so sorry! How stupid of me! You mean poor Johnny Cathcart. He was nice—but wasn't he married too?"
"Of course he was." The sadness had gone from her voice. Sara was almost tart. "I don't mean any of those people. How absurd you are, Beryl! I was very fond of his wife, but Johnny was a perfect fool!"
Here Beryl found herself in complete agreement, for poor Johnny, as she knew, had spent hundreds he could not afford to send this plaintive lady to Florida one winter. He had spent them surreptitiously and Sara, faltering, had accepted his help and had coughed pitiably. The doctors had told her she must spend the winter in Florida or they would not be responsible. And however was she going to afford it? Her income was x and the cost of a winter in Florida was y. Johnny had performed the mathematical feat of reconciling x with y. It cost him the best part of a year's work and the curtailment of his own holiday, for Johnny was a fool, an altruistic, kindly fool.
"Yes, I knew you were engaged." Sara turned to a less embarrassing subject. "Bertie will make a splendid husband, and he is well off, too."
"To be exact, he isn't," said Beryl carefully. "That is why I wanted to see you, Sara. Bertie has very small private means and an excellent income from his practice. But he isn't rich."
Sara shrugged her thin shoulders, undisguisedly incredulous.
"Sara, do you know South America?"
The question was unexpected and, innocent though it was, alarming. Sara's face went pink and then a deeper red and then suddenly white.
"I—I don't—Why? You are thinking of the books I had on South America?" She laughed and was obviously relieved. "No, it is a strange country and a very fascinating one. Are you thinking of going there?" She looked at the tiny clock above the mantelshelf and stifled a yawn. "My dear, I have to leave you. I must change for dinner. Will you do me a favour—do you mind taking this book back to the library? I know it is lazy of me, but the library is so out of the way."
She picked up a tome from the settee. Beryl read the title: The Argentine: Its People and History.
Going down the long, narrow stairway, Beryl was very thoughtful. It was six o'clock when she reached her own little house.
She threw the book she was carrying on to the hail table, and it fell. Stooping to pick it up, a slip of paper fell out. She examined the inscription for a long time and then folded and put it away in her bag, and sat down without attempting to remove her hat or gloves. She sat perfectly still for a quarter of an hour and then she got up and went to the telephone.
There was a note of hauteur in Bertie's voice, but she did not smile.
"Bertie, I'm in great trouble."
"What is wrong?" His voice changed instantly, and she loved him for it.
"Will you come to me at Homelands? I have to tell you—I knew I should sooner or later."
She sensed his agitation.
"But, my dear—Homelands? Is anything wrong?"
"Desperately wrong," she said hollowly. "I am going there now by taxi. Will you follow me as quickly as you can?"
"But what in thunder is wrong, Beryl?" be asked frenziedly.
"I can't tell you. it concerns—my brother."
"But you haven't a brother," he almost shouted.
"I have a brother—he has just come out of prison. He has been there for twenty-five years—I have never told you before—Yes, my younger brother—No, he is older than me—Will you come, Bertie?"
She only waited for his answer before she dashed into the bedroom, and found the keys of the old house. Then she flew down the stairs to the street and called the first taxi she saw.
HOMELANDS was ten miles from the centre of the City—it might have been a hundred, for it stood on the edge of a wood, a desolate, shabby little house, that had been her father's. She had found successive tenants for the place, and indeed the rent from this property had seen her through college. Now she could afford to retain it for a summer residence—an inexpensive luxury which her salary, plus a small income, permitted. She was quick, but Bertie was close on her heels. His car drew up at the gate as she was unlocking the door.
"What is the matter, Beryl?" he asked anxiously. "Is your brother here?"
"Will you follow me?" she asked and led the way up the stairs. On the first landing was a stout door, and after a second's hesitation she opened this.
"He is there," she said.
Unsuspectingly he walked through the doorway. He was in a large bathroom, lit by one small window, which, he observed, was heavily barred. But there was no sign of anything that bore the remotest resemblance to Beryl Markham's brother.
"Where——" he began, when he heard the door slam and the sound of shooting bolts.
"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded angrily, and tugged at the door.
"Bertie, you must stay there until I let you out. It is all for your good—No, I have no brother. I borrowed the convict brother from Tangled Lives. It isn't new. There are on an average three returned convict brothers a year."
He stormed and raved, but Beryl did not wait to hear. She went downstairs, lit a spirit stove, and began to prepare a meal. Later she brought him coffee and biscuits and handed them to him through the barred transom.
"Daddy had the locks and the door specially strengthened because we had burglars once. They broke in through the bathroom."
"Beryl, I insist that you let me out! This is disgraceful—and it is illegal, too. I never dreamt you would play me such a trick. I have an engagement to-night of the greatest importance."
"It's broken," she said calmly. "You are held, captive of my bow until, eleven o'clock to-morrow."
"But why—what does it mean? Beryl, be reasonable. It is vitally necessary that I should keep an appointment to-night."
"It is even more vitally important to me that you shouldn't," she said.
He spoke to her earnestly. He begged of her, for the sake of the love he bore her, for her own good name's sake, to release him. After he had been talking for ten minutes without interruption he found that she had gone. She was garaging his car and did not come up again until it was dark.
"I may as well tell you that I am seeing Sara tonight," he said, hoping to pique her.
"And it is unnecessary for me to tell you that you're not," said she. "Of course I knew you were seeing Sara," she added scornfully, "and I will add this little piece of information: at this precise moment Sara is searching the town for you! How do I know? I know Sara. She's calling you frantically on the 'phone, at your club, at every place you are likely to be. And she'll be up all night looking for you. Did you realise that you were so important in her young life? Well, you are, Bertie."
"Horribly so! No, our engagement is through, but if at some future date you should marry a nice girl, I don't want you to go to her with a bad financial past."
A long pause.
"You know that you are everything to me, Beryl," he said huskily, "in spite of this fool trick you are playing. I wish you didn't feel like this to Sara. She is a greatly misunderstood woman."
"You've lent her money?"
"Yes. I don't know that it is fair to her to tell you—not really lent. She has a very heavy bill to meet, and her dividends aren't due until the day after to-morrow."
"I hate that sardonic laugh of yours, Beryl! You'll be surprised to learn that she gave me her post-dated cheque for the money."
"Ten thousand—it is a lot of money, and I don't think I should have lent it if she hadn't given me her cheque. But you can't let a girl get into serious trouble—it was that money Mrs. Cathcart was claiming—without helping, can you?"
"I could," said Beryl's voice, "especially if that girl were Sara."
"Will you let me out, dear? It is very undignified and not quite decent... Staying in the same house alone——!"
A CHURCH clock was striking eleven the next morning when the bolts shot back, and an unshaven and weary and, it may be confessed, sulky young lawyer came out.
"You've behaved abominably," he said savagely. "You've made me look a fool. Why did you do it?"
She was looking very pretty and fresh in the early morning sunlight, and her eyes held a hint of laughter which annoyed him still further.
"I suppose I can go now," he growled. "If this story gets round——"
"Sara left by the eleven o'clock boat train to join La Plata, which leaves for the Argentine this afternoon."
His jaw dropped.
"She is travelling as Madame Celli," said Beryl.
"Impossible! She would have told me!"
"If I had told you all this last night instead of locking you up, you would have gone to her, and if she had said it was not true, you would have believed her?"
He did not answer.
"You would have believed her?"
"I suppose I should, but—good God! What about my cheque! If she has gone——"
"She has left no money in the bank, you may be sure. As a matter of fact I know she has gone. I saw the last of her trunks being taken away, and the name on the trunk was Celli. The man told me that the trunks were hers, and besides I recognised the one he was carrying."
He sat down heavily on the top stair and dropped his head on his hands.
"Moses!" was all he could say, and then a pink slip of paper came into his line of vision and he grabbed it.
He jumped up and grasped her by the arms and gently shook her.
"Beryl, how did you get it?"
"It was in a book she gave me to take back to the library. She must have been looking at it when I went to call on her yesterday after I had left you. She had just received it? I thought so. She was so flustered that she must have pushed it into the book out of sight. And then my great plan occurred to me—Not mine really. It has been used by five writers in the past four years."
He kissed her, an act which has been recorded by all writers in all books in all times.