THERE was no light in the big room except the deep orange glow of the fire on the broad stone hearth, so that the rest was merged in the shadows—shadows velvety black, with suggestions of light here and there such as Rembrandt loved to paint. A fine, big room, radiating comfort and luxury, and refined silence, as if the world were very far away; which, indeed, it was, for the old house nestled on the edge of Whinborough Common, over against the golf-links, the only house within two miles of where it stood.
On either side of the fire were deep arm-chairs, merely suggested in that velvety gloom; in the big bay window a roll-top desk, which was the only modern note in the house. And round about that roll-top desk there played, presently, little violet specks of light in thin, dagger-like flashes, hardly visible in themselves, but quite sufficient for their purpose. There came, too, suddenly, a touch of the keen October air, as if a window had been suddenly opened. And after that a faint creaking sound as if, perchance, the top of the desk had been pushed back very quietly and cautiously, followed by a fat and greasy chink, as if two coins had come in contact one with the other. Then a minute disc of violet light concentrated itself upon a little heap of sovereigns and the crisp outline of a bank-note or two. All this with no more sound than a mouse would have made behind the old oak panelling there at the back of the velvet-black shadows; but it was sufficient for one man there.
He leant forward out of the depths of his big arm-chair where he had been seated, listening and sniffing up the damp pungency of the dew-drenched night, seated there as if he had been part and parcel of the shadows. There was just a tiny click, and the room was flooded with light.
"Come along," the man in the arm-chair said. "Sit there in the chair opposite me." He spoke quietly enough, in a slow, clear-cut voice that had in it a vibration of command and perhaps a certain suggestion of cruelty. The other man, standing by the desk with the electric torch in his hand, wheeled suddenly round and stood there with parted lips and terror in those watery brown eyes of his.
"Roger Broadley!" he gasped.
The words were faint enough, but they carried to the ears of the man sitting in the big arm-chair. He made no sign, the suggestion of a smile was still upon his lips, and those merciless flint-blue eyes of his were turned steadily upon the man with the torch in his hand. The smile was so fixed and the blue eyes so steadfast that the intruder was puzzled to know whether his startled expression had been heard or not. His first impulse was flight by the open window at the back of the desk, or, alternately, through the open door. But the craven fear that had paralyzed the man called Canton all his life held him now, and he cursed himself silently for his want of purpose. He was afraid to turn and fly, afraid of the bullet that might follow him, or the strong, nervous hand that might pluck him back. Very slowly and reluctantly he crossed the room and dropped unsteadily into the chair on the other side of the fireplace. He was still puzzled and dazed, and almost madly anxious to know if the other had recognized him. And there were urgent reasons why he should not be recognized
But he could see no gleam of remembrance in the concentrated lightning of those flint-blue eyes. And with that Canton began to pull himself together again. With any luck he might be able to bluff himself out of it yet.
"Fairly got me, haven't you?" he hazarded, with a certain uneasy assumption of ease. "Know me, perhaps?"
He spoke with just the suggestion of a lisp, a slight defect due toa missing front tooth. The big man in the opposite arm-chair smiled—smiled in a horribly capable, assured manner that brought the sweat out on Canton's face again. For the other man was so big and strong, so capable and certain of his ground. And those blue eyes burnt and seared like so many live wires in the heart of the craven opposite.
"We won't discuss that for the moment," Broadley said. "And we need not waste time in guessing the reason that brought you here. That torch of yours and the open desk yonder with the gold and notes lying there would be proof, I think, satisfactory to any magistrate of ordinary intelligence. Now, this is the first time I have ever had the pleasure of meeting a gentleman of your profession. Have you been brought up to it, or was it, so to speak, forced upon you?"
Canton almost smiled. Obviously this man, whom he had every cause to fear, had not recognized him. Indeed, why should he? Canton argued, for they had never met face to face, though Canton knew Broadley well enough by reputation. The mean little face, with its narrow, shifty eyes and unsteady lips, grew more resolute, and hope began to bud again.
"Well?" Broadley said. "Well? Of course, you needn't talk unless you like. I suppose you know I am alone in the house. My man is away with the car, at Oxbridge Station, waiting for a friend of mine. So, you see, we are quite alone, and merely man to man. There is nothing to detain you. You can go, if you like. Why don't you?"
Canton snarled bitterly.
"Oh, yes, I know all about that," he said. "You are a bigger man than I am, and you wouldn't talk like that if you weren't armed. Directly I turn my hack upon you, I shall get one through the shoulder. You can't fool me!"
"I am not trying," Broadley said, quietly. "I am stating a self-evident fact, if you only knew it. You have me at a great disadvantage."
Canton snarled again; he would have liked to have risen up and struck this sneering antagonist of his between those merciless blue eyes. He would have liked to disfigure that clean-shaven, humorous face, with its faint suggestion of cruelty about the corners of the lips. But he was afraid, and he cursed himself for his fear. He knew himself to be a sneak and a coward, as he had been all his life. He sat there sullenly till Broadley spoke again.
"Very well, then," the latter said. "I have given you every opportunity. I have told you you could go if you like, and that you had me at a great disadvantage. But you are the class of criminal who never knows when he hears the truth; in fact, doesn't understand when he does hear it. You think you are my prisoner. Well, we'll let it go at that. I am quite alone in the house, and feel in the mood for company. Now tell me something about your past life. From your accent, I should judge that at one time you were what is called a gentleman?"
The little spurt of hope burnt more clearly in Canton's breast. He was still in deadly fear of the man opposite, afraid of his strength and his coolness; but it might be possible that a plausible tale, well told, would pave the path to freedom. And George Canton was quite good at that sort cf thing. It was just the sneaking line of policy that his soul loved.
"You are quite right there," he said, "I was a gentleman at one time. Public school and university; though, if you don't mind, I won't say which."
"Oh, I don't mind in the least," Broadley smiled. "It would probably be a lie, in any case. Go on."
"You may not believe it," Canton said, "but I was brought up for the Church. And at one time I was honestly under the impression that I should make a success of it. But somehow it didn't seem to work, and when I found myself in London at the age of twenty-three with a fair income and quite good prospects, I drifted gradually into evil ways, until nearly everything was gone and I had lost most of my friends."
"And then you married?" Broadley suggested.
"Then—then you know?" Canton gasped.
"My good man, surely that was a reasonable guess. Men of your type always marry. For some occult reason, known only to Providence, the average waster seems always in a position to command the love and affection of some good woman. I have seen it over and over again. And she clings to him till the end, where she would tire of a man worthy of the name. Of course you married. And of course, you broke the heart of the woman who gave herself to you—though you going to deny it."
"I didn't," Canton retorted. "I tell you I made a mistake; perhaps we both did, for the matter of that. I had lost nearly all my money, as I told you, and all my friends, and I was beginning to get tired of the life I was leading. It seemed to me that if I could meet the right woman there was a chance for me yet, because I was still young and I had not done badly, at school and Cambridge. And I did meet her; at least, I thought so. To begin with, she knew a good deal about my past, and was quite prepared to overlook it. And, mind you, I had still a few hundreds left. My idea was to go into business and settle down and become a respectable member of society. And I believe I should have done so if my wife had helped me."
"And she didn't?" Broadley asked, mockingly.
"Not after the first few months," Canton went on. "Perhaps it wasn't altogether her own fault. I was too easy with her, too fond of her, and allowed her to have her own way too much. She hadn't the least notion of the value of money, and everything she wanted she just got. We were living in a flat in Bloomsbury, where my family had had a lot of property at one time, so that my credit was good, and my wife could get all she needed. It was the old story: a foolish man over head and ears in love with a silly woman, vain and frivolous, who had only one object in life, and that was to enjoy herself. You can imagine how I suffered with the little money I had going out every day and nothing coming in, because my business efforts were a failure. You see, I wasn't made for business, I wasn't trained for it; and though I tried hard enough, God knows, I lost one situation after another."
Canton paused and sighed eloquently, the my sigh of a man who has told his tale before and found it good. He reflected that perhaps he might touch the heart of the man opposite to a pitch of something more than freedom. And, above all, he had the feeling that Broadley had not recognized him.
"Go on," Broadley said. "I am always interested in the human document, especially when it has frayed edges."
"Well, the time came at last," Canton proceeded, "when things reached a crisis. I had no money left, and when my pretty doll of a wife discovered that, she threatened to leave me. Just at that time I was in the office of a big firm of jewellers. It was not that I was getting much, but my employer trusted me. More than once he had sent me to a great house in the West-end with gems to deliver on approval. That night I came home with a pearl necklace in my pocket. It should have been delivered that evening at the house of one of our great millionaires, but her ladyship was out of town, or gone to some big function, so I took the case home with me. Would to Heaven I had done nothing of the kind! Would that I had said nothing to my wife about it, for she stole that necklace when I was asleep, and tried to sell it. Of course, she was found out; of course, she was discovered and prosecuted for the theft. I was arrested too, and the people who prosecuted me tried to make out that she was a tool in the matter, and that I had merely used my wife as a shield to hide my own crime."
"And the jury believed it?" Broadley asked, dryly.
"They did, sir; they did," Canton whined.
"They said that my wife was absolutely innocent, and that when I sent her with those pearls in her pocket to sell them to a notorious receiver of stolen goods for five hundred pounds I did so because I was too much of a coward to take them myself. I remember that the judge was particularly hard on me."
"I can imagine it," Broadley smiled. "I can imagine him saying that you were a particularly poisonous type of humanity, and a scoundrel of the worst kind who never hesitates to shield himself behind an innocent and injured woman."
"But you don't believe it, sir?" Canton asked, with some anxiety. "You have heard of hard-working men who have been ruined by their wives?"
"Many a time," Broadley said. "And so, you are one of that class, are you? Evidently a sad case. But I interrupt you. What was the upshot of the tragedy?"
"I got five years," Canton said. "And they acquitted my wife, the judge saying that he was convinced that she was absolutely innocent. You see, being a pretty woman with friends, she could call all sorts of evidence in her favour, and she did. Why, when the jury acquitted her, there was actually applause in court. Not that I minded; I still loved her far too well to want to see her suffer."
Just for a moment the two steel-blue eyes turned fully on Canton's face blazed, and the strong, capable hands on the elbows of the arm—chair clenched till the knuckles stood out like ivory. Then the humorous mouth smiled again.
"Your sentiments do you credit," Broadley said. "I quite understand, the strong man suffering in silence for the sake of a shallow and frivolous woman. My good sir, the thing has been done in scores of novels and plays, and will go on appealing to the gallery as long as there is a cinema palace left. So you went to jail, and the woman escaped scot-free. And what happened afterwards ? Did you seek her out, did you find her in rags and poverty, and take her back to your broad, manly bosom and wipe her tears away?"
Canton winced, hut wisely ignored the sarcasm. He was fighting for his liberty now, and therefore declined to be ruffled hy such a little thing as that.
"I did find her, sir." he said. "And she did come back to me for a short time. But I had to leave her; I had to leave her because she was past all endurance. I gave her every penny that I had, and we parted for ever."
"I wonder," Broadley said, softly, "I wonder if, on the face of God's earth, there is a slimier seoundrel than yourself? You did nothing of the kind, Canton."
"Then—then you recognize me!" the other gasped.
"Oh, I recognized you right enough. I knew who you were directly I turned the light on and you uttered my name under your breath. We have never met face to face, but you have seen me and you knew who I was at once. If you had known that this bungalow belonged to me, I hardly think that you would be sitting here to-night. I heard you speak only once when I was in the next room to you on an occasion that you might remember, and that little lisp of yours betrayed you—and the way in which you whispered my name. And, Geroge Canton, you can take it from me that I never forget. When Nature deprives a man of one sense, she generally makes up for it by strengthening another. You rascal, how dare you lie to me!"
Canton put up hands as if to ward off a blow. He knew that all his efforts were in vain, he know that he could expect no mercy at the hands of this man. He looked around wildly for some avenue of escape, anywhere to get away from those blazing eyes and that hard face that now was as cruel as the grave. But he could see no sign of an opening anywhere.
"Now, let me tell you the story, Broadley said, coldly and incisively in words that seemed to drop like little bits of ice along Canton's spine. "Let us collaborate. You see, I am rather practised at that game. I think I can add a touch or two of realism to that glib narrative of yours."
"Just as you like, sir," Canton said fawningly.
"Then, in that case, let us begin at the beginning. It is twelve years ago—twelve years ago to-night, strangely enough—that I became engaged to be married. You know what Agnes Westley was like, so I will not waste time in painting her portrait for you. She was as good as she was beautiful, in every way a perfect woman, and she loved me. My prospects were then perfect, there was no cloud on the horizon anywhere. Really you had better go before I murder you."
Canton looked hopelessly into the heart of the fire and then round the big room, with its bookshelves and pictures and the glint of china in the cabinets, and his jaw worked convulsively. He burst out suddenly:—
"You are torturing me, you devil!" he said. "You know I cannot get away, you know I am in your power!"
"Very well, then," Broadley said, more evenly. "You have had your chance, and when you realise what you have lost and how you lost it—but never mind that. Let me go on. Where was I? Yes, I was talking of Agnes Westley. I didn't know then that she knew you. I didn't know that you were planning and contriving to come between us until it was too late and I had lost her, owing to those lies of yours and those forgeries that she believed. And for two years I did not know where she was, until wrote to me for money. She would not have done so but that you forced her, and it was only then that I learnt the story. When I called to see her in London I found her in miserable lodgings, for your money was all gone, and you were in desperate straits to find food for your wife and yourself. You were in bed at the time, you remember, and l heard you speak. I heard those rasping tones of yours with that unmistakable lisp, which I have never forgotten, and which, somehow, I knew I should hear again. And even then, low as you had fallen, and badly as you had behaved, Agnes was doing her best to he a good wife to you. I helped her, as you know, hut she would only take sufficient for her bare needs, and I left her, promising to see her again. The next day she was arrested in an attempt to get rid of those pearls which you had stolen. You told me a lie just now when you said you were a trusted servant. You stole those jewels, and, like the coward and cur that you are, you did not dare to take them to your employer who had commissioned you to steal them. You knew that the police were watching you; you deceived your wife, and she fell into the hands of the police. And your defence was that you were a poor and struggling man who had been ruined hy an extravagant wife, who took advantage of your love for her to spend all you had. You contemptible scoundrel, you vile and filthy dog! Never was there a man who had a more loyal helpmate, though she had discovered the trick you had played upon her long before. But you were not ashamed to stand up in the dock by her side and tell the judge much what you were telling me just now hefore you realized that I had recognised you, and when you were hoping to play upon my clemency. But the evidence of the police was too strong for you, and the unhappy woman who stood in the dock with you was acquitted. The police behaved very fairly so far as she was concerned, and she left the court without a stain on her character. Everybody believed that she was innocent and that she did not know what she was doing when she attempted to get rid of those pearls. And so you got your deserts, and she was free. And, knowing this, you come here to rob me and still further vilify the woman who behaved so loyally to you. In the face of all this you expect me to let you go. But not quite like that, Mr. Canton. I am working out a little revenge of my own, and when you realize how I am bringing it about, then I think I shall be satisfied. Now, have you anything more to say?"
Once more Canton looked round the room, once more he weighed up the chances of a struggle with the man who sat opposite him in the big arm-chair. But it was all useless, all so futile that he resigned himself in a sullen despair. What was the use of speaking, what was to be gained by an appeal to that grim-faced man with the merciless blue eyes who sat in the big chair opposite?
"You say nothing," Broadley went on. "And so I had better finish my story. From time to time I helped Agnes, until you were free, and then I persuaded her to accept a certain sum of money at my hands and go abroad. You came back just about that time and robbed her of every penny she had. You robbed her and left her to starve. And she would have starved but for me; though, mind you, I did not find out this till long afterwards, when she was dying of fever—dying alone and friendless in a little cottage in the country. It is nothing to you that I contracted that fever, and that, in one way, I have never been the same man since."
Canton listened miserably enough, still with a desperate hope that something might happen in his favour, until presently he could hear the sound of wheels in the distance, and a car pulled up in front of the bungalow. Then there were voices in the hall, and a moment or two later the door of the library opened and a man in the uniform of a chauffeur came in.
"Ah, here you are, Rufford," Broadley cried. "Did I hear Mr. Stern's voice?"
"Yes, sir," the man called Rufford said. "He has gone up to his bedroom to wash his hands. I told him as I was looking after you, and that supper would be ready in the dining-room directly he came down. But I beg your pardon, sir."
"Oh, don't go away," Broadley went on.
"You are not intruding, Rufford. In fact, if you are quite ready, I want you to look after this visitor of mine. He is quite an involuntary guest, a kind of Autolycus— that is, Rufford, what you call a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. In other words, a burglar, who found his way in through the window under the mistaken impression that the house was empty. We have been having quite an interesting chat, Rufford, and I find that the gentleman is an old acquaintance of mine."
"That's very clever of you, sir," Rufford said. "You have had a narrow escape, I think."
Canton listened dully. It struck him that Rufford's words concealed a certain cruel irony.
"Well, perhaps I have, Rufford," Broadley said. "But, then, appearances are deceptive, and our friend here, fortunately, does not know as much as you and I. You had better take this fellow and tie him up and lock him in the larder. I believe there are iron bars to the window. Then you can telephone for the police, and keep an eye on the fellow till they come. And if he slips through your fingers, Rufiord, I shall be exceedingly annoyed. I am not a vindictive man, as you know, but I have peculiar reasons so far as this scamp is concerned."
"I think you can rely upon me, sir," Rufford said.
"I think I can. Is that Mr. Stern calling? All right, Walter, I am coming. Go into the dining-room and wait for me, and we'll have some supper. I think that's all, Rufford."
"Very good, sir," Rufford replied.
Broadley rose quietly from his chair and crossed the room slowly and deliberately, touching the back of a chair here and there until he felt his way out into the hall. It was all done so quietly and withal so cautiously that Canton for the moment hardly understood. Then understanding came to him as he turned with a sudden savage energy to the imperturbable Rufford.
"What—what's the matter with him?" he asked.
"Didn't you know?" Rufford replied. "He has been like that ever since an attack of scarlet fever years ago. My master is stone-blind."