APART from numerous novels, most of which are accessible on-line at Project Gutenberg Australia and Roy Glashan's Library, Fred M. White published some 300 short stories. Many of these were written in the form of series about the same character or group of characters. PGA/RGL has already published e-book editions of those series currently available in digital form.
The present 17-volume edition of e-books is the first attempt to offer the reader a more-or-less comprehensive collection of Fred M. White's other short stories. These were harvested from a wide range of Internet resources and have already been published individually at Project Gutenberg Australia, in many cases with digitally-enhanced illustrations from the original medium of publication.
From the bibliographic information preceding each story, the reader will notice that many of them were extracted from newspapers published in Australia and New Zealand. Credit for preparing e-texts of these and numerous other stories included in this collection goes to Lyn and Maurie Mulcahy, who contributed them to PGA in the course of a long and on-going collaboration.
The stories included in the present collection are presented chronologically according to the publication date of the medium from which they were extracted. Since the stories from Australia and New Zealand presumably made their first appearance in British or American periodicals, the order in which they are given here does not correspond to the actual order of first publication.
This collection contains some 170 stories, but a lot more of Fred M. White's short fiction was still unobtainable at the time of compilation (March 2013). Information about the "missing stories" is given in a bibliographic note at the end of this volume. Perhaps they can be included in supplemental volumes at a later date.
The North Otago Times, New Zealand, 23 Jun 1890, describes this piece as follows: "Fred M. White contributes to this month's Home Chimes an amusing dissertation on 'A Bad Cold,' and the many means of curing suggested by friends. Here are some of them: All you want is a porous plaster, flannel, medicated soap, gin and soda, and laudanum, mustard and cress, Hudson's extract, eau de Cologne, old brandy, Taunus water, Banting, tracheotomy, sugar pills, vinegar and bran, saffron, extract of ginger, oil of vitriol, prussic acid, lemon kali, Bath, Buxton, Scarborough, sea kale, asparagus, antibilious pills, electricty, Everton toffee. Do everything. Do nothing. Lie in bed for a week. Keep from between the sheets as long an possible. Drink everything. Drink nothing. Eat what you like. Don't eat anything. Stuff yourself. Starve yourself. Anything. Nothing. Semolina, suicide, Burton beer, bigamy, and the use of the globes."
The story is taken from the on-line version of the bound edition of The Gentleman's Magazine, Volume CCLXIX, July-December 1890, at www.archive.org.
IT was getting late: the last omnibus had gone, and the few remaining pedestrians in the Euston Road were hurrying homeward, anxious to leave that dismal thoroughfare behind. The footsteps, gradually growing fainter, seemed to leave a greater desolation, though one man at least appeared to be in no hurry as he strode listessly along, as if space and time were of one accord to him. A tall, powerful figure, with bronzed features and a long brown beard, betrayed the traveller; and, in spite of the moody expression of face, there was a kindly gleam in the keen grey eyes—the air of one who, though he would have been a determined enemy, would doubtless have proved an equally staunch friend.
A neighbouring clock struck twelve, and Lancelot Graham increased his pace; anything was better than the depressing gloom of this dismal thoroughfare, with its appearance of decayed gentility and desolate grimy pretentiousness. But at this moment a smart pull at the pedestrian's coat-tails caused him to turn round sharply, with all his thoughts upon pickpockets bent But what he saw was the figure of a child barring his path, as if intent upon obstructing further progress.
"I'se lost," said the little one simply; "will you please find me."
Graham bent down, so that his face was on a level with the tiny speaker. They were immediately beneath a gas-lamp, and the astonished man, as he gazed carefully at the child, found her regarding him with eyes of preternatural size and gravity. There was not one particle of fear in the small face, in its frame of bright, sunny hair—nothing but the calm resolute command of one who issues orders and expects them to be obeyed: a child quaintly but none the less handsomely dressed, and evidently well cared for and nourished.
Graham pulled at his beard in some perplexity, and looked round with a faint anticipation of finding a policeman. Like most big men, he had a warm corner in his heart for children, and there was something in the tiny mite's imperiousness which attracted him strangely.
"And whose httle girl are you?" he asked, gravely.
"I'se mamma's, and I'se lost, and please will you find me"
"But I have found you, my dear," Graham responded helplessly, but not without an inward laugh at the childish logic.
"Yes, but you haven't found me prop'ly. I want to be found nice, and taked home to mamma, because I'se so dreffly hungry."
The ingenuous speaker was without doubt the child of a refined mother, as her accent and general air betrayed. It was a nice quandary, nevertheless, for a single man, said Lance Graham to himself, considering the hour and the fact of being a prisoner in the hands of an imperious young lady, who not only insisted upon being found, but made a point of that desirable consummation being conducted in an orthodox manner.
"Well, we will see what we can do for you," said Graham, becoming interested as well as amused. "But you must tell me where you live, little one."
She looked at him with quiet scorn, as if such a question from a man was altogether illogical and absurd. But, out of consideration for such lamentable ignorance, the child vouchsafed the desired information.
"Why"—with widely-open blue eyes—"I live with mamma!"
"This is awful," groaned the questioner. "And where does mamma live?"
"Why, she lives with me; we both live together."
Graham leaned against the lamp-post and laughed outright. To a lonely man in London—and Alexander Selkirk in his solitude was no more excluded from his fellows than a stranger in town—the strange conversation was at once pleasant and piquant. When he recovered himself a little, he asked with becoming and respectful gravity for a little information concerning the joint-author of the little blue-eyed maiden's being.
"He's runned away," she replied with a little extra solemnity. "He runned away just before I became a little girl."
Lance became conscious of approaching symptoms of another fit of laughter, only something in the fearless violet eyes checked the rising mirth.
"He must have been a very bad man, then," he observed.
"He runned away," repeated the child, regarding her new-found friend with reproachful gravity, "and mamma loves him, she does."
"And do you love him too, little one?"
"Yes, I love him too. And when I say my prayers I say, 'Please God, bless dear runaway papa, and bring him home again, for Jesus' sake, amen.'"
Graham, hard cynical man of the world as he was, did not laugh again.
A man must be far gone, indeed, if such simple earnestness and touching belief as this cannot move him to the core. All the warmth and love in his battered heart went out to the child in a moment.
"I do not know what to do with you," he observed. "I do not know who your mamma is, but I must look after you, young lady."
"I'se not a young lady; I'se Nelly. Take me home to mamma."
"But I don't know where she is," said Graham forlornly.
"Then take me home to your mamma."
"Confiding," said Graham, laughing again, "not to say com- placent, only unfortunately I don't happen to have one."
"I dess you're too big," said Nelly, with a little nod, and then, as if the whole matter was comfortably settled, "Carry me."
"Suppose I take you home with me?" Graham observed, having quickly abandoned the idea of proceeding to the nearest police-station, "and then we can look for mamma in the morning. I think you had better come with me," he added, raising the light burden in his arms.
"All right," Nelly replied, clasping him lovingly round the neck, and laying her smooth cheek comfortably against his bronzed face. "I fink that will be very nice. Then you can come and see mamma in the morning, and perhaps she will let you be my new papa."
"What about the other one?" asked Graham.
"Oh, then I can have two," replied the little lady, by no means abashed; "we can play at horses together. Where do you live?"
The speaker put this latter question with great abruptness, as children will when they speak of matters quite foreign to the subject under discussion.
"Not very far from here," Lance replied meekly.
"I'se so glad. I'se dreffly hungry. And I like milk for supper."
Mr. Graham smiled at this broad hint, and dutifully promised that the desired refreshment should be forthcoming at any cost.
The walk, enlivened by quaint questions and scraps of childish philosophy, proved to be a short one, and, indeed, from Euston Road to Upper Bedford Place can scarcely be called a long journey. So Graham carried his tiny acquaintance to his room, and installed her in state before the fire, bidding her remain there quietly while he retired to consult his landlady upon the important question of supper.
Little Nelly's remark was not beside the mark, when she confessed to the alarming extent of her appetite, for the bread and milk disappeared with considerable celerity, nor did the imperturbable young lady disdain a plate of biscuits suggested by Graham as a follower. Once the novelty of the situation had worn off, he began to enjoy ihf pleasant sensation, and to note with something deeper than pleasure his visitor's sage remarks and noticeable absence of anything like shyness. When she had concluded her repast, she climbed upon his knee in great content.
"Tell me a tale," she commanded; "a nice one."
"Yes, my darling, certainly," Graham replied, feeling as if he would have attempted to stand on his head, if she had called for that form of entertainment. "What shall I tell you about?"
"Bears. The very, very long one about the three bears."
"I am afraid I can't remember that," Lance returned meekly. "You see, my education has been neglected. If it had been tigers now—"
"Well," said the imperious Nelly, with a sigh of resignation, and perhaps a little in deprecation of such deplorable ignorance, "I dess the bears will have to wait. Only it must be about a real tiger."
Graham, obedient to this request, proceeded to relate a personal adventure in the simplest language at his command. That he should be so doing did not appear to be the least ludicrous. As if he had been a family man, and the child his own, he told the thrilling story.
"I like tales," said Nelly, when at length the thrilling narrative concluded. "Did you ever see a real lion?"
"Often. And now, isn't it time little girls were in bed?"
"But I don't want to go to bed. And I never go till I'se said my prayers."
"Well, say them now, then."
"When I'se a bit gooder. I'se got a naughty think inside me." When the naughty think's gone, then I'll say my prayers."
"But I want to go to bed myself."
"You can't go till I'se gone," Nelly returned conclusivel<. "Tell me all about lions."
"Don't know anything about lions."
"Then take me home to mamma."
"My dear child," said Graham, with a gravity he was far from feeling, "can't you understand that you must wait till morning. They have made you a nice bed, and it's very late for little girls to be up."
"Let me see it. Carry me."
The imperious tones were growing very drowsy. When at length Graham's rubicund, good-natured landlady called him into the room, he stopped in the doorway in silent admiration of perhaps the prettiest picture he had ever seen. With her face fresh and rosy, her fair golden hair twisted round her head, she stood upon the bed and held out a pair of arms invitingly.
"What, not asleep yet?" he asked, "and nearly morning, too."
The old look of reproach crept into the child's sleepy eyes. "Not till I have said my prayers. Take me on your lap while I say them."
Graham placed the little one on his knee, listening reverently to the broken medley of words uttered with the deepest solemnity. Yet every word was distinctly uttered, even to the plea for the absent father, till the listener found himself wondering what kind of man this recalcitrant parent might be. Presently Nelly concluded. "And God bless you," she exclaimed lovingly, accompanying her words with a kiss. "And now I will go to sleep."
* * * * *
WHEN Graham woke next morning he did so with a violent pain at his chest, and a general feeling that his beard was being forcibly torn from his chin. It was early yet, but his tiny visitor was abroad. She had established herself upon the bed, where she was engaged in some juvenile amusement, in which the victim's long beard apparently played an important part in the programme. As he opened his eyes the child laughed merrily. "Don't move," she exclaimed peremtorily; "I'se playing horses. You'se the horse, and these is the reins," and giving utterance to these words, she gave a sharp pull at his cherished hirsute appendage, and recommenced her recreation vigorously.
A man may be passionately fond of children, but when it comes to healthy child lying upon his chest, and a pair of lusty little arms tugging at a sensitive portion of his anatomy, the time has arrived when a little admonition becomes almost necessary.
"Nelly, you are hurting me," Graham cried sharply.
She looked in his face a moment, apparently seeking to know if he spoke with a dual meaning, as children ofttimes do. Then, deciding that he spoke the truth, there came an affectionate reaction in his favour.
"Poor, poor!" she said soothingly, rubbing her cheek against his. "Nelly is a naughty girl, and I'se so sorry."
"You are a good little girl to say you are sorry."
"Give me some sweeties then," Nelly answered promptly. "Whenever I tell mamma I'se sorry she says 'good little girl,' and gives me sweeties."
"Presently, perhaps. And now run away while I dress."
Obedient to this request, the child kissed him again, and after one regretful glance at the beard, and a sigh for the vanished equestrian exercise, jumped from the bed and disappeared. Graham was not, however, destined to be left long in peace over his toilet, which was not more than half completed when Nelly returned again, and seating herself in a chair, watched gravely every movement of this deeply interesting ceremony.
"Isn't you going to shave?" she asked reproachfully, as Graham with a smile indicated that his labour was complete.
"I never shave," he answered. "What would you have to play horses with if I did?"
This practical logic seemed to confound Miss Nelly for a moment, but with the pertinacity worthy of a better cause she replied:
"All gentlemans shave. There is one in our house, and I go to him every morning. I like to see him scrape the white stuff off—I'se dreffly hungry."
But by this time Graham had grown quite accustomed to these startling changes in the flow of Miss Nelly's eloquence, though he could not fail to admit the practical drift of the concluding observation.
"Nelly," he asked seriously, when the healthy appetite had been fully appeased. "Let us go to business. Now, what is mamma's name?"
"Nelly, too," the child replied. "Pass the bread and butter please."
"And you do not know where you live?"
"No. But it isn't far from the stason, where the trains are. I can hear them all day when mamma is out."
"Not a particularly good clue in a place like London," reflected the questioner. "What is mamma like?" he asked. "What does she do?"
"She is very beautiful, beautifuller than me, ever so," she answered reverently. "And she goes out at night—And once she look me. There were a lot of people, whole crowds of them, and when mamma came in her beautiful dress they all seemed very glad to see her, I thought."
Evidently an actress, Graham determined—and some clue, though still a very faint one. Still, by the time breakfast was concluded, he had matured his plan of action. He hailed a passing cab, and drove away with the intention in the first place of visiting the nearest police-station in the neighbourhood of the Euston Road, as the most likely place to glean the information of which he was in search.
"Are we going back to mamma?" Nelly asked as they drove away.
"Yes, darling, if we can find her," Graham replied gravely. He began to comprehend how much the involuntary little guest would be missed. "She must have been terribly anxious about you."
"She will cry then," Nelly observed reflectively. "She often cries at night when I am in bed, and says such funny things. Did your mamma cry when she put you to bed?"
"I can't remember," said Graham carelessly. "I dare say she did, I used to be very naughty at times."
"But big people can't be naughty—only little boys and girls; mamma says so, and she is always right."
"I hope so. What will she say to her naughty little girl?"
"I know," came the confident reply: "she will look at me as if she is going to beat me, then she will cry, like she does when I ask about papa."
But any further confidences were checked by the arrival of the cab at the police-station. The interview was not however entirely satisfactory. A stern-looking but kindly guardian of the peace, replying to Graham's questions, vouchsafed the information that no less than five people had visited the station during the previous night in search of lost children. It was a common occurrence enough, though usually the children were speedily found. In his perplexity Graham suggested that if the officer saw Miss Nelly he might perchance be able give some information; in answer to which the constable shook his head doubtfully. Directly he saw the child his stolid face lightened.
"Bless me, of course I know her!" he exclaimed. "My wife keeps lodging-house, and this young lady's mother lives in the same street. I can give you the address if you like, sir, or I will take charge of her."
Graham demurred to this proposal for two reasons: first, because he felt a strange reluctance in parting with his tiny friend; and, secondly, he felt some curiosity to see the mother.
The house to which he found himself directed was by no means a striking-looking one, nor by any stretch of imagination could it be called aristocratic. There was about it a general air of pretentious seediness—dingy curtains and windows more or less grimy in contrast to a new red front: a house to be summed up in the expressive expression "shabby-genteel"—such an abode, in fact, as is usually affected by those who have "seen better days." In answer to the bell, and on inquiring for Mrs. Gray, a swarth domestic vouchsafed the information that she was in, coupled with a side-whisper to Miss Nelly conveying the dire intelligence that she would "catch it."
Mrs. Gray was not yet down, Graham discovered, having been out very late the previous night in search of her child. In answer to an invitation, Graham followed the dusky maid up the innumerable stairs leading to Mrs. Gray's room.
He had ample time to note the common hard furniture, the never-failing neutral-tinted Brussels carpet, and the dim-looking glass, termed by courtesy a mirror, above a mantel decorated with those impossible blue shepherdesses, without which no London lodging-house is complete. Some wax flowers under a glass-case and a few play-bills scattered about completed the adornment of an apartment calculated to engender suicidal feehngs in the refined spectator, Graham had time to take in all this; and at the moment when man's natural impatience began to assert itself, a rustle of drapery was heard, and Mrs. Gray entered.
She was tall and fair, in age apparently not more than five-and-twenty years, with a fine open face, its natural sweetness chastened by the presence of some poignant sorrow. As she saw the child, a bright smile illuminated every feature, and she snatched Miss Nelly to her arms, covering her with kisses; indeed, so absorbed was she in this occupation that she failed to note Graham's presence until Nelly pointed in his direction. Then, and not till then, she looked up to him, her eyes filled with tears. His back being to the light, his features were to be seen but indistinctly.
"I have to thank you deeply," she said, and her voice was very pleasant to the listener. "You will pardon a mother's selfishness. All night—"
Graham, at first half-dazed, like a man in a dream, came quickly forward, and with one bound stood by the speaker's side. He had turned towards the light. She could distinguish every feature now.
For a few moments they stood in a kind of dazed fascination, the eyes of each fell upon each other's face. But gradually the dramatic instinct inherent in woman, and carefully trained in her instance, came to Mrs. Gray's assistance. With a little gesture of scorn, she drew her skirts a little closer round her, and as her coldness increased so did Graham's agitation.
"Well, what have you to say to me?" she asked, with quiet scorn. "Have you any excuse to offer after all these years? What! no words, no apology even, for the woman you have wronged so cruelly?"
"I did not wrong you—not intentionally, at least," said Graham, with an effort. "No, there has been no forgetfulness; my memory is as long as yours. It seems only yesterday that I returned from Paris to find my home empty, and proofs, strong as Holy Writ, of your flight."
"And you believed? You actually believed that I— Shall I condescend to explain to you how I received a letter to say you were lying there at the point of death, and that I, in honour bound, came to you—only to find that a scoundrel had deceived us both."
"But I wrote no letter. I—"
"I know you did not—all too late. I know that I was lured to Paris by a vile schemer who called himself your friend. And when I returned, what did I find? That you had gone, never giving me a chance to clear myself. Deceived once, you must needs fancy deceit everywhere."
"But I was ruined," cried Graham. "That scoundrel Leslie had disposed of every penny of our partnership money. I must have been mad. I followed him, but we never met till last May; out in California that was. He was dying when I found him; and before he died he told me everything. Nelly, I only did what any other man would have done. Put yourself in my place, and say how you would have acted."
"How would I have acted?" came the scornful reply. "I would have trusted a little. Do you think, if they had come to me and shown me those proofs, I would have believed? Never!"
"Helen, listen to me one moment. I mad then, mad with despair and jealousy, or perhaps I might hesitated. Let us forget the past and its trials, and be again as we were before. I was wrong, and bitterly have I atoned for my hasty judgment. I am rich now."
"You are rich! Who cares for your riches?" Helen Graham answered passionately, conscious that his words had moved her deeply. "What is wealth when there is no love, or which has been killed by doubt? There would always be something between us, some intangible—"
"My dear wife, for the sake of the little one." Graham had touched upon a sympathetic chord, and he continued, " It was no mere coincidence which led me to find her last night Nelly, never at any time during the last four miserable years have I forgotten you. By hard work I have found my lost fortune, but I have not found forgetfulness."
He pointed to the wondering child, who stood regarding the speakers with eyes of deep intense astonishment. The tears rose unbidden to the mother's eyes, but she dashed them passionately away.
"Do you think I have never suffered," she cried, "all this time, with a taint upon me, and the hard struggle I have had to live? As you stand there now you doubt my innocence."
"As Heaven is my witness, no!" Graham answered brokenly. "I am no longer blind."
"I thank you for those words, Lance," came the reply with a certain soft cadence. "I know you loved me once."
"And I do now. I have never ceased to love you."
"Do not interrupt me for a moment. For the sake of your kindness to my child I forgive you. Friends we may be, but nothing more. She is your child as well as mine. I cannot hinder you from seeing her, for the law gives you that power, I know."
"The law! " Lance returned bitterly; "things are come to a fine pass when husband and wife, one in God's sight, can calmly discuss the narrow laws of man's making. In this little while the child has twined herself round my heart more than I dare confess. I cannot come to you as a friend, you know I cannot. I will not take the little one away from you, and there is no middle course for me to adopt."
There was another and more painful silence than the last. All the dramatic scorn had melted from the injured wife's heart, and left nothing but a warm womanly feeling behind. Strive as she would, there was something magnetic in Graham's pleading tones, conjuring up a flood of happy memories from the forgotten past. Graham, throwing all pride to the winds and perfect in his self-abasement, spoke at length, speaking with a quiet tender earnestness, infinitely more dangerous than any wild exhortation could be.
"Nelly, I must have the truth," said he; "I am alone in the world, nay more, for I am beginning to realise what I have lost. If you will look me in the face and tell me that all the old love is dead, I will go away and trouble you no more."
"But as a friend, Lance. Surely if I might—"
Graham beckoned the little Nelly to his side and took her on his knee. "Little sweetheart," he asked, "tell me all you told me last night about your wicked runaway father. Who taught you to say 'God bless dear papa and send him home again,' as you said to me last night?"
"Mamma," said Nelly confidentially, "and she says so too." Graham looked up with a smile. There were tears in his wife's eyes beyond the power of control, and a broken smile upon her face. "Let the little one decide," she said.
Lance leant down and kissed his child with quivering lips. Then with one of her imperious gestures, she pointed to her mother and bade him kiss her too. There was a momentary hesitation, a quick movement on either side, and Helen Graham was sobbing unrestrainedly in her husband's arms.
"As if I could have let you go," she said at length. "Oh, I always knew you would find the truth some day, Lance."
"Yes, thank Heaven," he said gravely. "Providence has been very good to us, darling."
He turned to little Nelly. "Do you know who I am?" he asked.
"Oh yes, yes," she cried, clapping her hands gleefully, "You are my own dear runaway papa. Mamma, you mustn't let him run away any more."
"You will find him if he does," said Helen, with a glorious smile. "but I am not afraid."
"SUNNY APRIL" of the poet's fancy had faded into May; and at length had succumbed to the warmth of early summer. Though the season had been a late one, hedges and sloping woodlands glowed with a tender mass of greenery against a snowy background of pear-blossom and pink-flushed apple-bloom. The fortunate "ten thousand," dragged captive behind the gilded chariot of Fashion, turned their faces from the fresh born beauty, now at its best and brightest, to slave and toil, to triumph and be triumphed over; for the first drawing-room was "ancient history," and the lilacs in the Park were fragrant with pink flowers. Town was very full—that is to say, the four odd thousands of suffering, struggling humanity were augmented by the handful of fellow-creatures who aspire to lead the world and make the most of life. The Academy had opened its door for nearly a month, and the dilettante, inspired by the critics, had stamped with the hall-marks of success the masterpieces of Orchardson and Solomon, had dwelt upon the vivid classicality of Alma Tadema, and listened in languid rapture on opera nights to Patti and Marie Roze. Already those who began to feel the heat and clamor of "the sweet shady side of Pall Mall" sighed in secret for the freshness of green fields, and were counting the days which intervened between them, and "royal Ascot."
It is a fine thing, doubtless, to be one of Fortunatus's favorities, to rise upon gilded pinions, and to soar whither one listeth; to be in a position to transport the glorious freshness of the country into the stifled atmosphere of towns. Down the sacred streets, sun-blinds of fancy hues and artistic arrangement repelled the ardent heat, filtered the light through silken draperies of pink and mauve on to pyramids and banks of fragrant flowers, gardenias and orchids, and the deep-blue violets fresh and dewy from the balmy Riviera itself.
A glorious day had been succeeded by a perfect night. Gradually the light deepened till the golden outlines of the mansions in Arlington street gave promise of the coming moon, rising gradually, a glowing saffron crescent, into the blue vault overhead. From every house there seemed to float the sound of revelry; a constant line of carriages filtered down the street; and many outcasts, drifting Heaven alone knows where, caught a passing glimpse of fairyland between the ferns and gleaming statuary, behind doors flung, with mocking hospitality, open.
There was one loiterer there who took slight heed of those things. His shabby raiment might at one time have been well made, but now it was no longer presentable in such an aristocratic quarter; his boots, trodden down at heel, were a scant protection against the heat of the fiery pavement. The face was that of a man who had seen better days, a young face, not more than 30 at the outside, a handsome countenance withal, but saddened by care and thought, and the hard lines of cultivated cynicism, peculiar to the individual who is out of suits with fortune. For a moment he stood idly watching an open door, before which stood a neatly-appointed brougham; and within the brilliantly lighted vestibule, half in shadow and half in the gloom, a tall graceful figure loitered, a haughty-looking woman, with a black lace mantilla twisted round her uplifted head. It was a striking picture— the dainty aristocrat within, the neglected wanderer without; he half shrinking in the shadows, she clear-cut as cameo against the blazing light, a background of flowers and ferns to show off her regal beauty. As she swept down, the steps at length towards the carriage, something bright and shining fell from her throat, and lay gleaming on the marble tiles at her feet. Apparently the loss was unnoticed, for the brougham door was closed behind her before the stranger stepped forward and raised the trinket from its perilous position.
"I think you have dropped this," he said quietly, with a tone and ease of manner in startling contrast to his appearance. "May I be allowed to restore it to you?"
The haughty beauty, disturbed in some pleasant reverie, looked up almost without catching the meaning of the words. She saw nothing more than a humble individual of a class as distinct from her own as the poles are apart, who, perhaps in the hope of a small reward, had hastened to restore the lost property to its rightful owner.
"Oh, thank you," she replied, half turning in his direction, at the same time, taking the brooch, and placing a piece of money in the stranger's hand. "I should have been greatly distressed to have lost this."
"The miniature, must be valuable," returned the stranger, mechanically regarding the coin in his hand. "But you will pardon me in calling attention to another mistake— You have given me a sovereign."
"You scarcely deem it enough," said the girl, with a half-smile, as the strange anomaly of her position flashed across her mind. "If—"
"On the contrary, madam, I am more than rewarded."
"No," as she once more opened the little ivory purse.
Again the palpable absurdity of her situation struck the listener. That she was speaking to a man of education there was no longer reason to doubt. And yet the fact of his accepting the sovereign severely militated against the fact of his being what his language implied.
"You surely are a man of education, are you not?" she asked.
"Really, I can hardly tell you," he answered with some confusion. Then, suddenly pulling himself together, he said: "But I am presuming. It is so long since a lady spoke to me, that for a moment I have forgotten that I am what I am."
He had lost himself for a moment, thinking himself back in the world again, till his eyes fell upon the silver harness glittering in the moonlight, and the marble statuary gleaming in the vestibule behind. But the listener drew herself up none the higher, and regarded him with a look of interest in her dark dreamy eyes.
"I do not think so," she said, "and I-I am sorry for you if you need my pity. If I can do anything—"
Some sudden thought seemed to strike her, for she turned half away, as if ashamed of her interest in the stranger, and motioned the servant to close the carriage door behind hor. The loiterer watched the brougham till it mingled with the stream of vehicles, and then, with a sigh, turned away.
"281 Arlington street," he murmured to himself. "I must remember that. And they say there is no such thing as fate! Vere, Vere, if you had only known who the recipient of your charity was."
He laid the glittering coin on his palm, so that the light streamed upon it, and gazed upon the little yellow disc as if it had been some priceless treasure. In his deep abstraction he failed to notice that standing by his side was another wayfarer, regarding the sovereign with hungry eyes.
"Mate," exclaimed the mendicant eagerly, "that was very nigh being mine."
The owner of the coin turned abruptly to the speaker. He beheld a short powerful-looking individual, dressed in rough cloth garments, his closely- cropped bullet-shaped head adorned by a greasy fur cap, shiny from long wear and exposure to all kinds of weather.
"It might have been mine," he continued "only you. were too quick for me. With a sick wife and three children starvin" at home, it's hard."
"Where do you live?" asked the fortunate one abruptly.
"Mitre Court, Marchant street, over Westminster bridge. It's true what I'm telling you. And if you could spare a shillin'—"
The questioner took five shillings from his pocket and laid them on his open palm. As he replied, he eyed his meaner brother in misfortune with a shady glance, in which sternness was not altogether innocent of humour.
"I have seen you before," he observed, "and so, if I am not mistaken, have the police. You can have the five shillings, and welcome, which just leaves me this one sovereign. I am all the more sorry for you becouse I have the honor of residing in that desirable locality myself."
So saying, and dropping the coins one by one into the mendicant's outstretched hand, and altogether ignoring his fervid thanks, John Winchester, to give the wanderer his proper name, walked on, every trace of cynicism passed from his face, leaving it soft and handsome. His head was drawn up proudly, for he was back with the past again, and but for his sorry dress, might have passed for one to the manner born.
Gradually the streets became shabbier and more squalid as he walked along; the fine shops gave place to small retailers' place of business; even the types of humanity began to change. Westminster Bridge with its long lane of lights was passed, till at length the pedestrian turned down one of the dark unwholesome lines leading out of the main road, a street with low evil-looking houses, the inhabitants of which enjoyed a reputation by no means to be envied by those who aspired to be regarded as observers of the law. But adversity, which makes us acquainted with strange bedfellows, had inured the once fastidious Winchester to a company at once contemptible and uncongenial. He pursued his way quietly along till at length he turned into, one of the darkest houses, and walking cautiously up the rickety, uneven stairs, entered a room at the top of the house, a room devoted to both living and sleeping purposes, and illuminated by a solitary, oil-lamp.
Lying on a bed was a man half asleep, who, as Winchester entered, looked round with sleepy eyes; fine gray eyes they might have been, but for their red hue and bloodshot tinge, which spoke only too plainly of a life of laxity and dissipation. In appearance he was little more, than a youth, a handsome youth but for the fretful expression of features and the extreme weakness of the mouth, not wholly disguised by a fair moustache.
"What a time you have been!" he cried petulantly. "I almost go mad lying here contemplating these bare walls and listening to those screaming children. The mystery to me is where they all come from."
Winchester glanced round the empty room, all the more naked and ghastly by reason of certain faint attempts to adorn its native hideousness, and smiled in contemptuous self-pity. The plaster was peeling from the walls, hidden here and there by unframed water-colors, grim in contrast; while in one corner an easel had been set up, on which a half-finished picture had been carelessly thrust. Through the open windows a faint fetid air percolated from the court below in unwholesome currents, ringing with the screams of children, or the sound of muffled curses in a deeper key.
"'Tis sweet to know there is an eye will mark our coming, and grow brighter when we come.' Poverty calls for companionship, my dear Chris. Why not have come out with me and seen the great world enjoying itself? I have been up west doing Peri at the gates of Paradise."
"How can I venture out?" exclaimed the younger man with irritation. "How can a man show himself in such miserable rags as these? It isn't every one who is blessed with your cosmopolitan instincts— But enough of this frivolity. The first great question is, have you had any luck? The second, and of no less importance, how much?"
"In plain English, have I any money? Voilà!"
Winchester drew the precious coin from his pocket and flung it playfully across to his companion. His eyes glittered, his face flushed till it grew almost handsome again then he turned to the speaker with a look nearly approaching gratitude, or as near that emotion as a weak selfish nature can approach. Winchester laughed, not altogether pleasantly, as he noticed Ashton's rapidly-changing expression of feature.
"'Pon my word, Jack, you are a wonderful fellow and what I should do without you I dare not contemplate. Have you found any deserving picture-dealer who had sufficient discrimination to—"
"Picture-dealer!" Winchester echoed scornfully. "Mark you, I have been doing what I never did before—something, I trust, I shall never be called to do again. I told you I had been up west, and so I have, hanging about the great houses in expectation of picking up a stray shilling; I, John Winchester, artist and gentleman. And yet, someway, I don't feel that I have quite forfeited my claim to the title."
"You are a good fellow, Jack, the best friend I ever had," said Chris Ashton after a long eloquent pause. "I should have starved, I should have found a shelter in jail, or a grave in the river long ago, had it not been for you. And if it had not been for me, you would be a useful member of society still. And yet, I do not think I am naturally bad; there must be some taint in my blood, I fancy. What a fool I have been, and how happy I was till I met Wingate."
The melancholy dreariness of retrospection, the contemplation of what might have been dimmed the gray eyes for a moment while Winchester, his thoughts far away, pulled his beard in silent rumination.
"When you left the army three years ago—"
"When I was cashiered three years ago," Ashton corrected. "Don't mince matters."
"Very well. When you were cashiered for conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, you came to me, and I saved you from serious consequences. You were pretty nearly at the end of your tether then, and Wingate was quite at the end of his; you had spent all your share of your grandfather's money, and your sister had helped you also. When Wingate stole that forged bill of yours, that I had redeemed, from my studio, you thought it was merely to have a hold upon you, in which you are partly mistaken. He kept it because he imagined that, by making a judicious use of the document, your sister might be induced to marry him to shield you."
"At any rate, he profited little by that scheme. There was a time, Jack, when I thought you were in love with Vere."
Winchester bent forward till his face rested on his hands.
"I always was; I suppose I always shall. If it had not been for your grandfather's money— But there is nothing ito be gained by this idle talk. That is the only thing I have to regret in my past, that and my own fruitless idleness. Carelessly enough, I sacrificed all my happiness. Little Vere, poor child! What would she say if I were to remind her of a scertain promise now!"
"Marry you!" Ashton replied with conviction. "Ay, in spite of everything."
"Winchester laughed joylessly, bitterly, as he listened. He, a social outcast, beyond the pale of civilisation almost; she, with beauty and fortune, and if rumor spoke correctly, with the strawberry leaves at her feet, if she only cared to stoop and raise them to her brows. A sweet vision of a fair pleading face, lighted by a pair of dark brown eyes, looking trustingly into his own, rose up with faint comfort out of the dead mist of five years ago.
"Some day I fancy you will come together again, you and she, Jack, when I am no longer a burden to you. If I could, rid, myself of my Frankstein, my old man of the sea, I wouid have one more try. But I cannot my nerve is gone, and I am, after all, a poor, pitiful coward— I must tell you, I must: Wingate has been here again."
There is something very terrible in the spectacle of a strong man crushed by the weight of an overwhelming despair. Winchester crossed over and laid his hand in all kindness on his friend's shoulder, though his face was black and stern. For a moment it seemed that he would give way to the passion burning in every vein, but by a great effort he controlled himself.
"And what is the latest piece of scoundrelism, may I ask?"
Ashton's face was still turned away from the speaker. His reply came painfully, as if the words cost him an effort. "At first I refused, till he held that bill over my head and frightened me. It is bad this time, very bad, for, disguise it how he will, it is nothing but burglary. They want me to help them; they say I can if I will. And if not—"
"Ah, so it has come to that at last. You know something of the plans, of course. Where is the place they propose to honor with a visit?"
Somewhere in the West End—Arlington street, I fancy anyway, it is some great house, the residence of a well-known heiress. Wingate did not say whose, but the number is 280 or 281."
Winchester's face was very grave now, and almost solemn in its intensity. A dim glimmering of the vileness of the plot began to permeate his understanding. That Wingate, the before-mentioned scoundrel, knew well who the heiress was, he saw no reason to doubt.
"Chris," said he, with quiet earnestness, "turn over and look me in the face;" which the unhappy youth did with a strange feeling of coming relief.
"I told you I had been loitering in the streets to-night, and one of the streets I happened to choose was Arlington street— by chance, as some people would say. By the same chance, as I was waiting there, a beautiful girl came down the steps to her brougham, arrayed for some gaiety or another. In so doing she dropped a beautiful ornament and passed into her carriage without noticing her loss. I hastened to restore it to her; my back was to the light, so she could not recognise me. But I did recognise her. She gave me the sovereign lying there, and what was better, she gave the her sweet womanly sympathy. It was not out of any idle curiosity that I made a note of the number of the house. I hope you are listening to me, Chris?"
"Yes, dear old fellow, I am listening."
"It was 281, and she was the heiress Wingate mentioned. You think the coincidence ends here, but not quite. I said that I recognised her; I also said she could not recognise me. Can you guess who it was?'
"Not-not Vere!" Ashton exclaimed brokenly—"my sister?"
"It was Vere, changed, more beautiful, but the same Vere. Now, cannot you see the whole fiendishness of Wingate's plot? Cannot you see that if anything is discovered, he will get off scot-free, when you are implicated? My boy, I am going to play a bold stroke for your freedom. I am going to break the vow I made five years ago, in the hope that good may come o£ it. Treat Wingate for the present as if you are still his tool, and trust me, for beyond the darkness I see light at last."
THERE are some of us born and reared far enough beyond the contaminating influences of evil, who, nevertheless, take so naturally to rascality, that one is prone to ask a question as to whether it is not the outcome of some hereditary taint or mental disease. To this aberrant class, Anthony Wingate, late of Queen's Own Scarlets, naturally belonged.
Commencing a promising career with every advantage conferred by birth, training, and education, to say nothing of the possession of a considerable fortune, he had quickly qualified himself for a prominent position amongst those cavaliers of fortune who hover on the debatable land between acknowledged vice and apparent respectability. In the language of certain contemporaries, he had once been a pigeon before his callow plumage had been stripped, and it became necessary to lay out his dearly-bought experience in the character of a hawk. Five years of army life had sufficed to dissipate a handsome patrimony; five years of racing and gambling, with their concomitant vices, at the end of which he awoke to find himself with an empty purse, and a large and varied assortment of worldly knowledge. Up to this point, he had merely been regarded as a companion to be avoided; as yet, nothing absolutely dishonorable had been laid to his charge, only that common report stated that Anthony Wingate was in difficulties; and unless he and his bosom friend Chris Ashton made a radical change, the Scarlets would speedily have cause to mourn their irreparable defection.
But, unfortunately, neither of them contemplated so desirable a consummation. In every regiment there are always one or two fast young 'subs' with a passion for ecarté and unlimited loo, and who have no objection to paying for that enviable knowledge. For a time this pleasant condition of affairs lasted, till at length the crash came.
One young officer, more astute than the rest, detected the cheats and promptly laid the matter before his brothers-in-arms. There was no very grave scandal, nothing near so bad as Ashton had suggested to Winchester, only that Captains Wingate and Ashton resigned their commissions, and their place knew them no more. There was a whisper of a forged bill, some hint of a prosecution, known only to the astute sub and his elder brother and adviser-in-chief, Lord Bearhaven, and to Vere Dene, Ashton's sister, who is reported to have gone down on her knees to his lordship and implored him to stay the proceedings. How far this was true, and how Vere Dene came to change her name, we shall learn presently, But that there was a forged bill there can be no doubt, for Wingate had stolen it from Winchester's studio while visiting Ashton, after the crash came and, moreover, he was using it now in a manner calculated to impress on Ashton the absolute necessity of becoming the greater scoundrel's tool and accomplice. Since that fatal day when he had flown to careless bohemian Jack Winchester with the story of his shame, and a fervid petition to beg, borrow, or steal the money necessary to redeem the fictitious acceptance bearing Bearhaven's name, he had not seen his sister, though she, would cheerfully have laid down all her fortune to save him. But all the manhood within him was not quite dead, and he shrank, as weak natures will, from a painful interview. Winchester had redeemed the bill, and Wingate had purloined it.
Winchester had been brought up under the same roof as Vere Ashton, by the same prim puritanical relative, who would hold up her hands in horror at his boyish escapades, and predict future evil to arise from the lad's artistic passion. It was the old story of the flint and steel, fire and water; so, chafed at length by Miss Winchester's cold frigidity, he had shaken the dust from his feet, and vowed he would never return until he could bring fame and fortune in his train. There was a tender parting between the future Raphael and his girlish admirer under the shadow of the beeches, a solemn interchange of sentiments, and Jack Winchester started off to conquer the world with a heart as light and unburdened as his pocket.
But man proposes. Vere's mother had been the only daughter of a wealthy virtuoso, who had literally turned his only daughter out of doors when she had dared to consult her own wishes in the choice of a husband and for years, long years after Vere and Chris had lost both parents, he made no sign. Then the world read that Vavasour Dene was dead, and had left the whole of his immense fortune to his grandchildren three-fourths to Vere on condition that she assumed the name of Dene, and the remainder to Chris, because, so the will ran, he was the son of his mother. Presently, Winchester, leading a jolly bohemian existence in Rome, heard the news, and decided, in the cynical fashion of the hour, that Vere would speedily forget him now. And so they drifted gradually apart. Winchester had been thoughtless, careless, and extravagant living from hand to mouth, in affluence one day, in poverty another but he was not without self-respect, and he had never been guilty of a dishonorable action. He hated Wingate with all the rancour a naturally generous nature was capable of feeling, and set his teeth close as he listened.
"Of course it was only a matter of time to come to this," he said. "Well, of all the abandoned scoundrels— And that man once had the audacity to make love to Vere, you say. I wish I had known before."
"That was a long time ago," Ashton replied, "before— before we left the army, when you were in Rome. Remember, Wingate was a very different man, in a very different position then. Do you suppose that he knows whose place it is that he contemplates—?"
"Knows! of course he knows. Now listen to me, Chris, my boy, and answer me truthfully. I believe, yes, I do, that if you had a chance you would end this miserable life. You say you are in Wingate's power. What I want to know is whether he carries that precious paper about with him?"
"Always, always, Jack. With that he can compel me to anything; the only wonder is that I have never forced it from him before now. Still, I do not see what that has to do with the matter."
Winchester smoked in profound silence for a time, ruminating deeply over, a scheme which had commenced to shape itself in his ready brain.
"I don't suppose you do understand," he said dogmatically. "Do you think if I were to see Vere she would acknowledge me, knowing whom I am?"
For answer Ashton laughed almost gaily. "Your modesty is refreshing. Do you think she has forgotten you, and the old days at Rose Bank? Never! There are better men than you; handsomer, cleverer by far; she meets daily good men and true, who would love her for her sweet self alone. She is waiting for you, she will wait for you till the end of time. Whatever her faults may be, Vere does not forget."
A dull red flush mounted to the listener's checks, a passionate warmth flooded his heart almost to overflowing; but even the quick sangumeness of his mercurial disposition could not grasp the roseate vision in its entirety. Its very contemplation was too dangerous for ordinary peace of mind.
"One more thing I wish to know," said he, reverting doggedly to the original topic. "Of course the dainty Wingate does not intend to soil his fingers by such an act as vulgar burglary. Who is the meaner rascal?"
"So far as I can gather, a neighbor of ours, a very superior workman, I am told, who is suffering from an eclipse of fortune at present. The gentleman's name is Chivers— Benjamin CHivers. Is the name familiar?"
"Why, yes," Winchester answered dryly, "which is merely what, for a better word, we must term another coincidence. The fellow has a most respectable wife and three children, who are distinguished from the other waifs in the street by a conspicuous absence of dirt. I thought I recognised the fellow's face."
"Recognised his face? Have you seen him, then?"
Winchester gave a brief outline of his interview with the individual he had chanced to encounter in Arlington street. A little circumstance in which one day he had been instrumental in saving a diminutive Chivers from condign chastisement had recalled the ex-convict's face to his recollection. Perhaps—but the hope was a wild one—a little judicious kindness, and a delicate hint at the late charitable demonstration, might sufficiently soften the thief's heart and cause him to betray Wingate's plans. That they would not be confided entirely to Ashton he was perfectly aware, and that the meaner confederate had been kept, in want of funds by his chief the fact of his begging from a stranger amply testified.
"Which only shows you that truth is stranger than fiction," said he, as he rose to his feet and donned his hat. If I only dared to see her and even then she might— but I am dreaming. However, we will make a bold bid for freedom. And now you can amuse yourself by setting out the Queen Anne silver and the priceless Dresden for supper;" saying which, he felt his way down the creaky stairs into the street below.
The 10 days succeeding the night upon which this important conversation was held were so hot that even Ashton, much as he shrank from showing himself out of doors in the daytime, could bear the oppressive warmth no longer, and had rambled away through Kennington Park Road, even as far as Clapham Common, in his desire to breathe a little clear fresh air. Winchester, tied to his easel by a commission which, if not much, meant at least board and lodging, looked at the blazing sky ahd shook his head longingly. Despite the oppressive, overpowering heat, the artist worked steadily on for the next three hours. There was less noise than usual in the street below, a temporary quiet in which Winchester inwardly, rejoiced. At the end of this time he rose and stretched himself, with the comfortable feeling of a man who has earned a temporary rest. In the easy abandon of shirt sleeves he leant out of the window, contemplating the limited horizon of life presented to his view. There were the usual complement of children indulging in some juvenile amusement, in which some broken pieces of oyster-shells formed an important item, and in this recreation Winchester, who had, like most warm-hearted men, a tender feeling towards children, became deeply engrossed. One or two street hawkers passed on, crying their wares, and presently round the corner there came the unmistakable figure of a lady, followed by a servant in undress livery, bearing a hamper in his arms, a burden which, from the expression of his face, he by no means cared for or enjoyed.
"Some fashionable doing the Lady Bountiful," Winchester murmured. "Anyway, she has plenty of pluck to venture here. If she was a relation of mine—"
He stopped abruptly and stared in blank amazement, for there was no mistaking the tall figure and graceful carriage of Vere Dene. She passed directly under him, and entered a house a little lower down the street with the air of one who was no stranger to the locality. In passing the group of children, she paused for a moment, and selecting one or two of the cleanest, divided between them the contents of a paper parcel she carried. Directly she had disappeared, a free fight for the spoils ensued. The interested spectator waited a moment to see which way the battle was going, and then hurried down the stairs and out into the street towards the combatants. The presence of the new ally was sorely needed. The three representatives of the house of Chivers were faring sorely in the hands of the common foe. In that commonwealth all signs of favor were sternly discountenanced.
"What do you mean by that?" Winchester demanded, just in time to save the whole of the precious sweetmeats. "Don't you know it is stealing, you great girls, to rob those poor little children?"
"They don't mean it, bless you." said a voice at the mediator's elbow, "and they don't know any better. It's part of their nature, that's wot it is."
Winchester turned round, and encountered the thickset form and sullen features of his Arlington street acquaintance. As their eyes met, those of Chivers fell, and he muttered some incoherent form of thanks and acknowledgment for the past service. Presently he went on to explain.
"You see, my wife is better brought up than most of them about here, and she do try to keep the childer neat and tidy; and that makes the others jealous. They ain't been so smart lately," he continued, with a glance half kindly, half shameful, at his now smiling offspring, "'cause mother has been poorly lately, and I've been out o' luck too."
In spite of his shamefaced manner and the furtive look common to every criminal, there was something in the man's blunt candour that appealed to Winchester's better feelings. Besides, knowing something of the ex-convict and his doubtful connection with Wingate, it was to his interest to conciliate his companion with a view to possible future advantage.
"It must be a miserable life, yours," he said not unkindly. "Better, far better, try something honest. You will not regret it by-and-bye."
"Honest, sir Would to heaven I could get the chance! You are a gentleman, I can see that, though you do live here, and know what misfortune is. If I could only speak with you and get your advice. You have been kind to me, and good to my poor little ones, and I'm-I'm not ungrateful. If I could help you—"
Winchester laid his hand upon his companion's shoulder with his most winning manner. He began to feel hopeful. "You can help me a great deal," said he; "come up to my room and talk the matter over."
It was a very ordinary tale to which he had to listen.
"I was a carpenter and joiner, with a fair knowledge of locksmith's work, before I came to London. I was married just before then, and came up here thinking to better myself. It wasn't long before I wished myself back at home. I did get some work at last, such as it was, a day here and a day there till I became sick and tired of it, and ready for anything almost. I needn't tell you how I got with a set of loose companions, and how I was persuaded to join them... I got 12 months, and only came out 10 weeks ago. I have tried to be honest. But it's no use, what with one temptation and another."
"And so you have determined to try your hand again. You run all the risk, and your gentlemanly friend gets all the plunder."
It was a bold stroke on Winchester's part; but the success was never for a moment in doubt. Chivers' coarse features relaxed into a perfect apathy of terror. He looked at the speaker in speechless terror and emotion.
"We will waive that for the present," Winchester continued. "What I wish to know is how you have contrived to live for the past 10 weeks?"
"I was coming to that, sir, when you stopped me. You see, when the trouble came, my poor wife didn't care to let her friends know of the disgrace, and tried hard to keep herself for a time. But illness came too, and she and the little ones were well-nigh starving. Mary, my wife, sir, remembered once that she was in service with an old lady, whose niece came into a large fortune. Well, she just wrote to her and told her everything. And what do you think that blessed young creature does? Why, comes straight down here into this den, of a place and brings a whole lot of dainty things along. And that's the very lady as is up in my bit of a room at this very minute."
"I am quite aware of that," said Winchester quietly. "Miss Dene, as she is called now, and myself are old friends. I remember everything now. Your wife was once a housemaid at Rose Bank; and you are the son of old David Chivers, who kept the blacksmith's, shop at Weston village. —Ben, do you ever remember being caught birdnesting in Squire Lechmere's preserves with a ne'er-do-well fellow called Jack Winchester?"
For answer, Chivers burst into tears. Presently, after wiping his eyes with the tattered fur cap, he ventured to raise his eyes to his host.
"You don't mean to say it's Mr Winchester?" he asked brokenly.
"Indeed, I am ashamed to say it is. This world of ours is a very small place, Ben, and this is a very strange situation for you and me to meet. But before we begin to say anything touching old times, there is something serious to be discussed between us. Remember, you are altogether in my hands. I might have waited my opportunity and caught you red-handed. Don't ask me for a moment what is my authority, but tell me"—and here the speaker bent forward, dropping his voice to an impressive whisper—"everything about the Arlington street robbery you have planned with that scoundrel Wingate."
Once more, the old look of frightened terror passed like a spasm across the convict's heavy features. But taking heart of grace from Winchester's benign expression, he, after a long pause, proceeded.
"I don't know how he found me out, or why he came to tempt me—not that I required much of that either. It seemed all simple enough, and I was very short of money just then, and desperate-like, though I won't make any excuse. I don't know all the plans—I don't know yet whose house—"
"Whose house you are going to rob," Winchester interrupted with a thrill of exultation at his heart. Then I will tell you as an additional reason why you should make a clean breast of it. Perhaps you may not know that Miss Dene lives in Arlington street and that Miss Dene, whose name, I see, puzzles you, is Miss Ashton, once of Rose Bank?"
"I didn't know," Chivers exclaimed with sudden interest. "If it is the same—"
"It is the same. She changed her name when she inherited her grandfather's fortune. Come, you know enough of Wingate's plans to be able to tell me if No. 281, Arlington street, is the house?"
"As sure as I am a living man, it is," said Chivers solemnly. Mr Winchester, I have been bad; I was on the road to be worse; but if I did this, I should be the most miserable scoundrel alive. If you want to know everything, if you want me to give it up this minute—"
"I want to know everything, and I certainly do not want you to give it up this minute. You must continue with Wingate as if you are still his confederate. And of this interview not a word. I think, I really think, that this will prove to be the best day's work you have ever done."
Chivers answered nothing, but drew from a pocket a greasy scrap of paper cut from a cheap society paper, and placed it in Winchester's hand. As far as he could discern, the paragraph ran as follows
"The delicate and refined fancy of a 'jewel ball,' designed by the Marchioness of Hurlingham, will be the means of displaying to an admiring world the finest gems of which our aristocracy can boast. Starr and Fortiter, et hoc genus omne, are busy setting and polishing for the important event, not the least valuable parure of brilliants in their hands being those of Miss Dene, the lovely Arlington street heiress, who, rumor says, intends to personify diamonds. Half a century ago the Vere diamonds had become quite a household word. Certainly they never had a more lovely mistress to display their matchless beauty."
"That," explained the penitent criminal in a hoarse whisper, is about all I know at present. But if I made a guess, I should say it would be the night after the ball."
IN POINT of artistic beauty and delicacy of floral arrangement throughout Arlington street, No. 281 certainly bore away the palm; for Miss Dene, like most country girls, had a positive passion for flowers—a graceful fancy she was fortunately in a position to gratify. Many an envious eye fell upon that cool facade with its wealth of glorious bloom; many a darling of fashion paused as he passed on his listless way, and forgot his betting-book and other mundane speculations to wonder lazily who might some day be the fortunate man to call that perfectly-appointed mansion and its beautiful mistress his own. For Vere Dene could have picked and chosen from the best of them, and graced their ancestrai homes; but now she was five-and-twenty; so they came at last to think it was hopeless, and that a heart of marble pulsed languidly in that beautiful bosom.
The hall-door stood invitingly open—more, perhaps, in reality to catch the. faint summer breeze, for the afternoon was hot, and inside, the place looked cool, dim, and deliciously inviting. On a table there lay a pair of long slim gauntlets, thrown carelessly upon a gold-mounted riding-whip, and coming down the shallow stairs, against a background of feathery fern and pale gleaming statuary, was Miss Dene herself. A stray gleam of sunshine, streaming through a painted window, lighted up her face and dusky hair—a beautiful face, with creamy pallor, overlaid by a roseate flush of health. The dark-brown eyes were somewhat large— a trifle hard, too, a stern critic of beauty might have been justified in saying; the tall graceful figure drawn up perhaps too proudly.
Vere Dene was, however, no blushing debutante, but a woman who knew her alphabet of life from alpha to omega who was fully conscious of her power, and the value of her position well enough to discern between honest admiration and studied flattery, and to gather up the scanty grains of truth without mistaking chaff for golden corn. There was no reflection of wistful memory on the heiress's face as she rode slowly down the street some time later, the cynosure of admiring eyes. There was a rush and glitter of carriages hurrying parkwards, as she rode on her way alone, bowing to one acquaintance or another, and dividing her favors impartially.
"A beautiful face," murmured a bronzed soldierly-looking man to his companion as they lounged listlessly against the rails of the Row, watching the light tide of fashion sweeping by.
"A perfect face, wanting only soul to make it peerless. Who is she, Leslie?"
"Who is she?" laughed the other. "Is it possible you do not know Miss Dene?— But I forgot you had been so long in India. You remember old Vavasour Dene, of course, and his son, the poetical genius, who married some demure little country maiden, unknown to Debrett or Burke, and who was cut off with the traditional shilling accordingly. You can imagine the rest of the story a life-long fend between father and son, ending, as it usually does, in the parent's dying and cheating condemnation by an act of tardy justice. That handsome girl is old Dene's heiress, a woman with all London at her feet, a quarter of a million in her own right, and never a heart in the whole of her perfect anatomy."
Wholly unconscious of this storiette, and apparently of the admiration she naturally excited, Miss Dene rode, on down the Mile, with many a shake of her shapely head as one gloved hand after another beckoned her to range alongside barouche or mail-phaeton till at length a slight crush brought her to a standstill. Almost in front of her was an open stanhope, wherein was seated a delicate fragile-looking lady, exquisitely dressed, and apparently serenely indifferent to the glances and smiles in her direction. By her side sat a child of six or seven, a diminutive counterpart of herself, to her fair golden hair and melting pansy-blue eyes. Vere would fain have pushed her way through the crowd and passed on but the child had seen her, and uttered her name with a cry of innocent delight and Vere, like many another who is credited with want of heart, had a tender love for children.
"Really, I owe Violet my grateful thanks," murmured the owner of the stanhope as Vere ranged alongside. "Positively, I began to fear that you meant to cut me. I should never have forgiven my brother, if you had. My dear child, I warned him that it was useless; I did indeed. And now he says that his heart is broken, and that he shall never believe a woman any more."
Vere looked down into the Marchioness of Hurlingham's fair demure face with a little smile.
"So Lord Bearhaven has been abusing me?" she said. "I am disappointed. I did not think he would have carried his woes into the boudoir."
"My dear Diana, he has done nothing of the kind. Surely a man might be allowed to bewail his hard lot with his only sister. —Violet, my darling child, do be careful how you cross the road."
"This warning, addressed to the diminutive little lady, who had succeeded unseen, in opening the carriage door came too late; for by this time the volatile child had recognised some beloved acquaintance over the way, and indeed was already beyond the reach of warning. Vere watched the somewhat hazardous passage breathlessly, then, satisfied that her small favorite had made the dangerous journey in safety, turned to her companion again.
"I have a genuine regard for Lord Bearhaven," said she, speaking with an effort, "too great a regard to take advantage of his friendship under false pretences. I shall never forget the kindness he once did me in the hour of my great trouble Will you tell him so, please? and say that perhaps for the present it will be well for us not to meet."
"Now, that is so like both of you," Lady Hurlingham cried, fanning herself in some little heat. "Why will you both persist in making so serious a business. of life? At anyrate, you might have some consideration for us more frivolous-minded mortals. Vere, if you do not come to my Jewel Ball on Thursday, I—I— well, I will never speak to you again."
"So, I am to be coerced, then. I am morally bound to be present, since the Society papers have promised the world a sight of the Vere diamonds; besides which, I simply dare not incur your ladyship's displeasure!"
"I wonder if you have a heart at all," said the other musingly. "Sometimes I almost doubt it; and the times I generally doubt it most are immediately after those moments when I have flattered myself that I really have begun to detect symptoms of that organ. The romantic ones have been libelling again. Would you like to hear the latest story?"
"You stopped me for this, I presume. Positively, you will not know a moment's peace till you have told me. I am all attention."
"They are saying you have no heart, because it was given away long ago; they say there is a rustic lover somewhere in hobnails and gaiters who won your affections, and is afraid to speak since you became a great lady."
Vere did not reply or glance for a moment into her friend's sparkling mischievous face. A deeper tinge of colour flushed the creamy whiteness of neck and brow, like the pink hue upon a snowy rose.
"They do me too much honor." she replied. "Such a model of constancy in this world of ours would indeed be a peril amongst women. Pray, do they give a name to this bashful Corydon of mine?"
"Naturally, nothing but the traditional second cousin, ma chère. Really, it is quite a pretty romance the struggling, artistic genius who is too proud to, speak, now you are in another sphere. Surely you are not offended?"
In spite of her babyish affectations and infantine innocence, mere mannerisms overlaying a tender kindly heart, Helena, Marchioness of Hurlingham, was not entirely without an underlying vein of natural shrewdness. She was clever enough to see now that the innocently-directed shaft of a bow drawn at a venture had penetrated between the joints of Vere's armour, in spite of her reputation for being perhaps the most invulnerable woman in London.
"I am not offended," Vere answered, recovering from her chill composure at length; "only such frivolity annoys one at times. What a lot of idle scandal poor womankind has to endure—What is that?"
Gradually above the roll of carriages, the clatter of hoofs, the subdued murmur of voices, and light laughter, a louder, sterner hum arose. Borne down on the breeze came distant sounds of strife, and now and then a shriek in a woman's shrill notes; it seemed to swell as if some panic had stricken the heedless crowd further down the drive. Every face, restless and uneasy with the sudden consciousness of some coming danger, was turned in the direction whence the evidence of trouble arose, as a carriage and pair of horses, coming along at lightning speed, scattered pedestrians and riders right and left, like a flock of helpless sheep, in a wild medley of confusion.
As if by magic, a lane seemed to have opened, and coming along the open space tore a pair of fiery chestnuts, drawing after them in their fear and fright a mail phaeton as if it had been matchwood. With a feeling of relief, the helpless spectators noticed that the vehicle was empty, save for its driver, who, with bare head and face white as death, essayed manfully to steer the maddened animals straight down the roadway, a task rendered doubly dangerous and difficult from the crowded state of the Row, and the inability of certain tyros to keep the path sufficiently clear.
In the midst of the turmoil and confusion there arose another cry, a shout of fear and unheeded expostulation, for, crossing the roadway smilingly, without the semblance of a fear, came a little child, bearing in her hand a bunch of roses; a little girl with sunny golden curls and laughing blue eyes, standing like a butterfly before a sweeping avalanche. There was another shout, and again the tiny passenger failed to note her danger as nearer and nearer came the horses, till through the now paralysed, helpless crowd burst the figure of a man who without a moment's hesitation sprang forward and caught the child just as the pole of the carriage threatened to strike her to the ground. There was no longer time for an escape, a fact of which the heroic stranger was perfectly aware and grasping the laughing maiden with one powerful arm, with the other he made a grab for the off-horse's head, and clung to the bridle with the bulldog tenacity of despair. For a moment the animals, checked in their headlong career, swerved to the right; there was a crashing sound of broken panels, and a moment later child, rescuer, horses, and driver lay in an inextricable struggling confusion. For a second or two there followed a dread intense silence, as each butterfly of fashion contemplated in fascinated horror the struggling mass; then, before the nearest could interfere, it was seen that the stranger had risen to his feet, his garment soiled and stained, and a stream of ruddy crimson slowly trickling down his face. Just for a brief instant he reeled from very faintness, till, dashing the blinding blood from his eyes, he stooped swiftly, and at the imminent risk of his brains drew the now thoroughly frightened child right from those terrible hoofs, and taking her in his arms, staggered rather than walked to a seat.
Meanwhile, Lady Hurlingham, beside herself with grief, and terror, the lady of fashion merged for the moment into the mother, had descended from her carriage, her face pale and haggard, and hurried with Vere to the seat where the stranger reclined. It was no time for ceremony or class distinction. With a gesture motherly and natural, as if she had been moulded of meaner clay, she snatched little Violet from the arms still mechanically holding her, with a great gush of thankfulness to find that, with the exception of the fright, not one single hair of that golden head had been injured.
By this time the crowd had sufficiently recovered from the threatened realisation of sudden death, and, with regained wit, sufficient society veneer to murmur the usual polite condolences and congratulations to the now elated mother. Still the rescuer sat, his face buried in his hands, a whirling, maddening pain in his head, and a mist before his eyes as if the world had suddenly lost its sunshine. Vere, with tears in her eyes and a tremble in her voice, pushed her way through the too sympathetic crush and laid her hand gently oh the sufferer's arm.
"I am afraid you are hurt," she said. "Can I do anything for you?"
Winchester, for he it was, looked up vaguely, the words coming to his ears like the roar of the sea singing in a dream, a dream which was not all from the land of visions. He wondered dreamily where he had heard that voice before. With an effort, he looked up again. For the first time in five years their eyes met in the full light of day. She knew him now, recognised him in a moment. But it was scarcely the same Winchester who had restored her lost ornament a fortnight ago. The old shabby raiment had disappeared, giving place to a neat suit, such as no gentleman had been ashamed to wear. Fourteen days' steady work, inspired by a worthy object, had met an equal reward. It was no longer Winchester the outcast that Vere was addressing, but Winchester the gentleman, and in his heart he rejoiced that it was so. For a moment they were no longer the centre of a glittering host of fashion; their thoughts together had gone back to the vanished past, as they looked into each other's eyes, neither daring to trust to words.
"Jack," said Vere at length, "Jack, is it really you?"
"Yes, dear, it is I," Winchester responded faintly. "You did not expect to meet me like this—if you ever expected to meet me at all."
"Do you think I forget—as some people do? You did not always judge me so harshly. How could we meet better; how could I feel more proud of you than I do at this moment?"
Gradually the crowd fell back. There was not much mischief done after all—nothing that a clothes-brush and a little warm water would not rectify. Besides, Miss Dene seemed to know the stranger, and from one or two expressions, would apparently prefer to be left alone. Winchester's answering smile had no trace of its accustomed bitterness. After all, there was something in the soft music of Vere's tones, a charm in the reckless abandonment of self which fell upon his troubled heart like balm in Gilead. There was something sweet also in the consciousness that he had played the man so recently in her sight, under the very eyes whose brightness alone he had only valued. There was a stimulant worth all the tonics in the pharmacopoeia.
He would have spoken again, but he was suffering still from a great rush of pain and giddiness, as if the whole universe was slipping into space. Directly after, the feeling passed away, and he was himself once more. By this time Lady Hurlingham had driven away, while some one, more thoughtful than the rest, had remained to place his carriage at Winchester's disposal.
"This gentleman is a friend of yours, Miss Dene?" he asked. "Allow me to suggest that your groom takes your horse, and that you drive likewise. You will pardon my sister's apparent heedlessness, but you see Violet is an only child, and—"
Vere looked gratefully into Lord Bearhaven's grave, handsome face, and extended her hand in an impulse of gratitude. The meeting she had so much dreaded was made smooth and pleasant by his kindly courtesy.
"I might have expected this from you," she answered warmly. "Believe me, I am deeply obliged. Mr Winchester is not only a friend, but a relation."
Lord Bearhaven gave Jack a handgrip which said more than the most carefully chosen words. But what an effort this magnanimity cost him, only Vere, who saw that he had heard everything, alone could tell.
"I am forgiven, then?" asked Winchester as they drove along Oxford street. "Well, it is worth playing the poor part I have played to-day to hear that. Vere, Vere, what a sorry self-opinionated fool I have been. Do you know that for the last week I have been screwing up my courage to the sticking-point? But whenever I found myself near you, my pluck failed."
"You do not deserve to be spoken to," Vere replied, her cheeks aflame, her eyes laden with unshed tears, though the thrilling tenderness of her voice robbed the words of their sting. "How dare you venture to treat me as if I should be ashamed of my old friends?"
Up to this point Winchester had scarcely dared to analyse his sensations. Now that all the impenetrable barriers of restraint were broken down between them, he found himself talking in the old familiar strain, and wondering if the last five years were merely a phantasm of his own creation.
"And Chris," Vere ventured at length, though the question had long been trembling on her tongue, "do you eyer hear anything of him?"
Winchester told her everything, disguising nothing except the part of good Samaritan he himself had played towards the unfortunate Ashton. It must have been an interesting conversation, for Vere's face as she listened grew yery soft and tender, her eyes sweet and luminous. When at length the end of Arlington street was reached, Winchester stopped the coachman, and insisted upon alighting, a step which Vere vehemently opposed.
"You are coming home with me," she said. "Have you any idea who you will find waiting there to welcome you?"
"Not the slightest, unless you have persuaded— but that is impossible. Still, you must have a chaperon of some sort. Is it possible that you have our clear old Aunt Lucy at Arlington street?"
"Not only possible, but an actual fact. Come; you cannot refuse now."
Winchester hesitated for a moment, then, with a sudden impulse, complied. Of all his relations, the Aunt Lucy in question was the only one who kept a green spot in his recollections. A few moments later he passed a welcome guest through the very portals outside which so short a time before he stood a wretched outcast and useless member of society.
Two hours later, when he descended the steps again, with a bright eager look of exultation on his face, a servant loitering in the hall saw and wondered if it was the same man whom his mistress had brought home so recently. He lingered for a moment for a few parting words with Vere.
"So that is settled," he said, "and if you should feel afraid—"
"Afraid—I," she echoed scornfully. "I shall not be afraid."
"I do not think you will. Now, remember you have promised. And above all things, Lord Bearhaven must know everything."
"I promise," she answered. "If I could only see Chris—"
"But you can't do anything of the kind— for the present, at least. You must have perfect faith in me."
"I have," Vere replied, looking into his glowing eyes. "Had I not always?"
THE HOUR was a little after 2 in the morning; a perfect silence, broken at intervals by the roll of some passing carriage, or faint echo of distant music, reigned in the streets of Vanity Fair. Vere Dene swept down the marble steps, with their coating of crimson cloth, which lay before the Marchioness of Hurlingham's residence in Park Lane, her head drawn up, the Vere diamonds flashing in the lamplight under her thin gossamer wrap. There had been some faint surprise, a little well-bred expostulation at her early departure and Lord Bearhaven, standing at the carriage door bare-headed and regretful, murmured against the fates. "Your presence is absolutely necessary?" he asked.
"Absolutely. You understand everything, and besides, I should be so miserably anxious all the time. Goodnight."
"Good-night, Miss Dene or, rather, let us say au revoir."
The carriage rolled away into the darkness, carrying with it no delicious whirl of thought, no sweet consciousness of a night of triumph. Lord Bearhaven threw a coat over his evening dress and hailed an empty cab crawling down the street. A moment later, he, too, was hurrying Arlington street way.
There was a fitful gleam of light in some of the windows at No. 281 as the carriage drew up and the door opened. A few feet farther on was a hackney coach with the outline of a policeman on the box with the cabman, the conveyance from Starr and Fortiter's, in which their confidential agent had arrived to convey the Vere diamonds to safe custody.
Under tbe subdued light of the shaded lamps, Vere waited, but for what she scarcely knew. The ancient butler, a faithful old servant of Vavasour Dene's, came forward with a poor attempt to conceal his agitation. "Some one has been inquiring for you, Miss," he said. "I did not know what to do. I had to hide him in the library. But—"
"Who is up, Semmes? Are all the servants in bed?"
"Every one except myself and Miss Ashton, Miss. Your maid said you left orders for her not to wait for you. Mr Winchester has been here some time, but where he is now I know no more than—"
"And the agent from Starr's, where is he?"
"In the breakfast-room. He has been here half-an-hour."
Vere's heart was beating fast enough now; a curious choking in her throat checked her ready flow of speech for a moment. Then all the dominant courage of her nature seemed to come again, strengthening every nerve and limb, till she felt almost exulting in her audacity of purpose. She swept up the stairs leading to her dressingroom, her face calm and placid, as if she had no consciousness of danger, a profusion of soft wax-lights flashing upon the living fire of jewels gleaming on her dusky hair and round the full white throat. For a moment she stood contemplating her own perfect-loveliness, then she removed the glittering jewels from her wrists and throat and bosom and placed them one by one in their leathern cases. Taking the cases from the table, she walked down the stairs again. At the foot of the stairs stood Ashton, a smile of uneasy meaning upon his neat handsome face, a smile of uncertainty as to his welcome. They made a strange picture as they stood thus, this brother and sister, after a parting nearly five years old, as different now as light from darkness, as wide asunder as tbe poles.
"Come with me," Vere whispered, conscious of the danger of being overheard, at the same time leading the way into a small room half-concealed behind a bank of gardenias and tube-roses, and where one dim light was burning. "You have chosen a strange time for your visit, Chris. You might have selected a more appropriate hour." Her eyes wandered over him from head to foot, over all the signs of pitiless poverty he bore, till her heart melted, and all the pure sisterly love came to the surface.
"Chris, Chris, what have I done that you should treat me like this? Why do you keep away from me as you have done, when all mine is yours, and I would have sacrificed it all to help you."
Ashton turned away his face as if the words had been tbe lashes of a whip; even the thickening folds of self-pity which the years of trouble and misfortune had wrapped around him were penetrable to one touch of Nature.
"Do not grudge me the last embers of my manhood," said he with an imploring gesture. "Don't make it any harder, Vere."
"I hate to hear you talk like this," Vere answered, her voice trembling. "You, a young man, with all the years before you; time enough to wipe out the stain and regain your honorable name."
"An honorable name for me, with the recollection of the cowardly part I am playing at this moment! But cost what it will, I play the hypocrite no longer.—Do you guess what brings me here to- night?"
"Yes, Chris I know only too well what brings you here to-night."
So utterly surprised was Ashton by the unexpected reply, that he could only cling to the back of the chair against which he was standing and regard the speaker with starting eyes. That Vere had been taken into Winchester's confidence he had not had the smallest conception.
"Is it possible you can really know? And if you have discovered everything, why do you not ring the bell and order your servants to thrust me out into the street? What can you gain by keeping tne here?"
"Much that I want— much that you need also. Chris, it is folly for you and me to stand here wasting bitter words. You came here because there was no help for it; you imagine yourself to be deserted. Even now, we are all doing our best to save you."
Ashton laughed mirthlessly. "To save me?" he cried. "And how?"
"How, another hour will prove. For the present, I am merely an instrument in cleverer hands than my own. Only wait and see."
"Your patience will be tried no longer. —Vere, are you ready?"
The suddenness of the interruption caused brother and sister to turn uneasily. In the dim light Winchester's tall figure was faintly visible, though the lamp shining on his face showed it illuminated by a smile of hope and pleasurable expectation. His very presence seemed to give them a fresh meed of comfort. Vere would have spoken, only that he laid a finger on her lip and pointed silently to the door. For a moment Vere hesitated, as if half afraid; but gathering up her,courage, somewhat shaken by the unexpected interview, without another word took up the jewel cases and left the room. A bright light was burning, in the breakfast room as she entered. There was still the consciousness of unseen danger, till beyond, in the darkness of an inner apartment, she discerned the outline of Winchester's figure as he came in noiselessly by another door. There was only one other person present, a tall, slim individual, with a small black moustache, and gleaming eyes, but little dimmed by the pince-nez he bore. He bowed, and brightened visibly as Vere laid the leathern cases upon the table.
"You come from Starr and Fortiter's, I presume?" she asked.
"I have the honor to be their confidential clerk, madam," replied the agent smoothly. "If you will be good enough to read this letter, you will see thatI am what I represent. In such matters we usually take every precaution."
Vere glanced through the letter carelessly, after which, at the clerk's direction, she initialled it. With almost suspicious alacrity he took up the cases, and with another profound bow, walked towards the door. As he did so, Winchester came out of the inner apartment and stopped him with a gesture.
"I hardly think this is quite formal," he said. "Perhaps Miss Dene has no objection to my asking a few question? And you, sir, pray, be seated. If Miss Dene will do me the favor to retire for a moment—"
Vere wanted no second bidding. Already her courage, high as it was, began to fail. It had been a trying night, and the sense of danger overpowering. Moreover, the evil had not been seen, but rather implied. Without waiting to hear more, she left the aparment and stepped across to a little room opposite, fearful lest Ashton might in a moment of rashness betray himself.
Directly the last sound of her footsteps had died away, the patent politeness of Winchester's manner underwent a change.
"Now, you scoundrel," he said grimly, "give me those jewels."
"My good sir, I am quite at a loss to know who you are; but, representing as I do one of the first houses in town—"
"You are at no loss to know who I am," Winchester, returned, approaching the agent, and with a dexterous movement, removing wig, moustache, and glasses from tbe other's face. "My name is Winchester, and yours is Wingate There is not the least occasion to deny the fact."
Wingate, for, he it was, dropped the cases and staggered into a seat. For a moment he measured his antagonist with his eye, and despairingly gave up the wild idea of a struggle as at once hopeless and perilous. An instant of wild baffled rage was followed by a cold trembling of the limbs. There remained only a last effort for freedom to be made, and as the detected thief remembered the forged acceptance in his pocket, his spirits rose to the encounter. "Perhaps you will be good enough to prove what my name is," he answered doggedly.
"Prove it," Winchester echoed contemptuously; "yes, before a jury, if you like. Do Starr ancl Fortiter's agents generally do their business in disguise, with a cab waiting for them outside with a pantomine policeman alongside the driver The scheme was a very neat one but unfortunately for you, I happen to know everything."
"En après," said Wingate with all the cool insolence at his command. "Upon my word, you carry matters with a high hand. Perhaps you forget that I hold an open sesame that will allow me to depart whether you like it or not."
"'Pon my word, I am greatly obliged to you for mentioning it," Winchester returned. You are naturally alluding to tbe acceptance you stole from my studio—"
"Bearing the forged name of Lord Bearhaven."
"Bearing the forged name of Lord Bearhaven. Exactly. For that reminder also allow me to tender you my most sincere thanks. You are an audacious rascal, Mr Wingate, a truism we both appreciate. If that bill was in my pocket, you would not feel so easy as you do."
"Certainly. That, as you are perfectly aware, is my sheet anchor. Come what may, you dare not prosecute me and so far as I am concerned, I shall walk out of this room as freely as I came in."
"That is very likely," Winchester returned dryly. "But if I may venture to prophesy, not without paying something for your freedom. You may rest assured of one thing, that unless that bill is in my posession, your exit will be accompanied by an official not altogether unconnected with Scotland Yard."
"You would force it from me?" Wingate cried, tbe first real feeling of alarm getting the better of his matchless audacity. "You would never dare—"
"I would dare anything. Can't you see that you are completely in my power? However, I do not desire to use force; it would be bad for me, and a great deal worse for you. You are counting upon Lord Bearhaven's character for severity, and also how. you can be revenged upon Ashton for betraying you. Upon my word, when I think of everything, the cool villainy of this plot, now I have you in arm's length, I can scarcely refrain from thrashing you within an inch of your life and I should do so with the liveliest satisfaction."
"You will treat me as a gentleman," Wingate faltered, shrinking back with blanched lips and chattering teeth. He was completely cowed; but the malignant cunning of his nature did not fail him quite yet. "I-I could do a lot of harm. If I sent to Lord Bearhaven and said to him—"
"Should you like to see him?" Winchester asked abruptly.
Wingate's dark eyes- blazed with the intensity of impotent malice.
"Like to see him!" he cried. I would give anything, five years of my life, if I could, for the opportunity of 10 minutes' conversation at this moment."
Winchester touched the little silver bell on the table. "I am delighted to be in a position to accommodate you," he replied cheerfully, as Semmes entered. "Will you be kind enough to ask Lord Bearhaven to step this way."
A moment later, Bearhaven entered, calm, cool, and slightly contemptuous in his immaculate evening dress, and looking down from his superior height upon the thoroughly bewildered Wingate, while Winchester, content to leave the matter in such competent hands, discreetly vanished.
"You wished to speak to me," said the newcomer after a long pause. "I would advise you to be brief in your confidence, Mr Wingate."
"Captain Wingate, if you have no objection," responded the discomfited rascal, with a fair assumption of ease. "Let us preserve the ordinary courtesies."
"Pooh, my good fellow, a jury would not recognise so fine a distinction. I am sorry to disappoint you of your promised treat, but everything is known to me. Your confederate Chivers— Benjamin Chivers, to be correct— has disclosed everything. We know how you ingratiated yourself into the good graces of Starr and Fortiter's agent, how you stole his credentials from him, and where he lies drugged at this moment. What you are most desirous of mentioning is that forged bill bearing my signature. Will you be surprised to hear that I knew all about that three years ago?"
"But if I liked" to disclose the facts, my lord," broke in Wingate, now thoroughly alarmed, "if I am presssd to do so—"
"You dare not," Lord Bearhaven sternly replied. "I am not going to argue with you one way or another. Let me bring myself down to your level. Try it and I will be prepared to acknowledge the signature, and Mr Winchester will be prepared to swear you stole the bill from his studio. And I think," concluded the speaker, with stinging contempt, "I think you will be a long while in persuading a jury to give credence to your story. Lord Bearhaven's testimony, I presume, will go further than that of a well-known sharper and blackleg."
Wingate's head fell lower and lower, till his face rested on his hands. The struggle, long and severe, had been too much for even his temerity. "I am quite in your power," he said. "I think, I hope you will not be hard upon me. Tell me what I must do, and it shall be done."
"The acceptance you have at this moment in your possession— nay, do not prevaricate; it is your last chance so you may expect little mercy from me. Place it in my hands and trust to my discretion."
"And supposing I agree— what then? I will make terms—"
"You will do nothing of the kind; it is I who will make terms. Hand it over without another word and you leave here a free man. I say no more."
Slowly, grudgingly, Wingate drew from his breast-pocket a worn leather case, and taking therefrom a narrow slip of paper, handed it to Lord Bearhaven, as if it had been some precious treasure at which his soul recoiled from parting with. After a hasty glance at its contents, Lord Bearhaven held it over the flame of a lamp till nothing but a few blackened ashes remained in his fingers.
"Now you may go," he said, with a motion towards the door. "Allow me to see you safely off the premises. Your cab is still at the door, I think. You must make your own peace with the cabman and the artificial policeman."
Winchester was standing in the hall somewhat impatiently waiting for the termination of the interview. One glance at the detected scoundrel's face was sufficient evidence of the successful issue. As Wingate disappeared in the darkness, Bearhaven turned to the artist and held out his hand. "I think we can congratulate ourselves," he said. "The paper we spoke of no longer exists. And now I will retire, if you have no objection. Miss Dene will, not care to see me again to-night, especially as—you understand—"
Winchester nodded; it would have been impossible to express his feelings in words. Once alone, he ran lightly upstairs to the drawing-room, where Chris and Vere together with Miss Ashton were awaiting him. As he entered, the light was falling full upon Vere's face, from which all the pride and haughtiness had gone, leaving it soft and tearful. There was a tremor of her limbs, her lips worked unsteadily as she tried to smile, in return for his bright face. For a moment all were silent, Ashton watching them without daring to speak.
"It is done," he said gently, noting the dumb piteous appeal in Ashton's eyes. "Thank Heaven, you are free at last."
There was another silence, at the end of which he told them all. Miss Ashton, weeping quietly, hung on every word with breathless admiration. To Winchester she firmly believed there was nothing impossible; this favorite erring nephew had always been the delight and terror of her simple life. Now the tale was told, the play was ended. With a passionate sigh, Winchester turned to go.
"This Is no longer any place for us," he said. "Chris, are you coming with me?"
"You will dp nothing of the kind!" cried Miss Ashton, firm for the only time in her amiable existence. "I will give Semmes orders to lock every door and bring me the keys. Jack, you ought to be ashamed of yourself."
Winchester sighed again wistfully as Aunt Lucy bustled out of the room. He held out his hand to Vere, but she could not, or would not, see. At the door he lingered for a moment with a backward glance; and Vere, looking up at length, their eyes met, each telling their own tale in the same mute language. He was at her side in a moment. "What dare I say?" he asked.
"What dare you say? Rather, what dare you not say? What did you promise years ago, and how have you fulfilled that promise? Do you think that I forget so easily; that, because riches and prosperity have come to me— Oh can't you see?—Can't you say something I may not?"
"Is it that you care for me, darling that you still love me?"
"I am weak and foolish but I cannot help it, Jack," Vere cried with her face aflame, "Oh, how blind you have been, and how unhappy I! Of course it is. What will people say? What do I care what people say, when I am the happiest girl in England. But, Jack, there is one thing 1 would not have them say, that I had actually to ask a man to— to marry me."
There was a great glow of happiness upon Winchester's face, reflected in a measure on Ashton's pallid cheek. For a few moments he dared not trust himself to utter the words trembling on his lips.
"You always had my love," he said presently. "Fate has been very good to me in spite of myself. My darling, if you are willing to brave the world, you shall never regret it so long as God gives me health and strength to shield you. Chris, have you nothing to say?"
"Only that you may be as happy as you deserve to be. And what you have done for me to-night, with God's help, you shall be repaid for, all the days of your life.—And now, Vere may perhaps be persuaded to let us go."
"I will," she whispered, "for I know you will come again to-morrow. To-morrow—rather to-day for, see, the sun has risen, and daylight
A GREAT DEAL of human misery is, unhappily, attributable to a lack of that worldly dross which everyone tells us is vain and empty, but which, nevertheless, everyone is extremely anxious to possess. There are various degrees of poverty, from the absolute want of a meal, to an occasional inability to meet an adverse balance at one's bankers; but the fine line between comfort and poverty is perilously close when it comes to parting with articles of 'bigotry and virtue,' such as personal ornaments, and the like.
This uncomfortable truth had thrust itself unpleasantly upon pretty Mrs. Brassey more than once lately, though, to the casual observer, appearances did not denote such a desperate state of affairs. Dalebrook Lodge, Chislehurst, was prosperous looking enough, a 'cottage of gentility,' standing in its own neatly kept grounds. No element of refinement was lacking, and the fair chatelaine's graceful figure was clad in a costume bearing the unmistakable stamp of Redfern's handiwork.
"I cannot understand it at all," she said, innocently, as she turned a pair of liquid blue eyes upon her consort, who stood in the typical British attitude before the blazing logs, pulling his moustache for inspiration. "I had no idea we were short of money, Reg."
"Nor I, dearest," Reg replied, ruefully. "When my father died twelve months ago, just after we were married, he led me to understand that he was in comfortable circumstances. It was a near shave, you mind, but a lucky coup on the Stock Exchange pulled back all he lost, and enabled him to pay old Bartley the money borrowed from him on security of the Battiscombe property. That is worth £2,000 a year, and at that figure I naturally estimated my income. Of course, Bartley being left executor, and matters being a little complicated, I have not asked for any money, till this affair of poor Jack's turned up. You can imagine my surprise when, on asking for the last year's rents, I was informed that the £30,000 was never repaid to Bartley, and that no release was ever executed by him, as I have been informed it was."
A puzzled frown settled down upon the young wife's fair face. The explanation was caviare to her to a certain extent, but she understood sufficient to grasp the fact that Septimus Bartley, whose word was worth something on 'Change, flatly denied receiving the money borrowed by Reginald's father, and that the release of the Battiscombe property was merely the chimera of an old man's imagination.
"What does it all mean?" she asked.
"Unless I can prove that the document in question exists, it means that we are paupers," Reg replied, ruefully. "As executor, Bartley took possession of the papers when my father died, and naturally the mortgage to him is with the Battiscombe deeds. It would be easy enough for him to destroy the release and preserve the mortgage."
"Are you certain that this release, as you call it, really existed."
"My dear girl, I have had it in my hand. I never read a legal document, 'for that way madness lies,' but I am prepared to stake my existence on the fact that such a document does or did exist, despite Bartley's denial. It looks uncommonly like an attempt at robbery."
The conference paused and they regarded one another dismally. It seemed as if a bolt from the blue had fallen, burying in its descent all the happiness and comfort of that model little household. The bank people had heard something of the matter, as more than one local tradesman holding cheques marked with the mysterious legend 'N.C.' angrily testified. Nellie Brassy looked round her dainty drawing-room, at once the pride and plague of young matronhood, with a sigh of dismay. There were those pair of vases which Reggie had given her on her last birthday, the placing of which had caused so much anxious time and thought, still waiting a selection for a final resting place. There were other contemplated improvements, but now the very thought brought tears into the bright eyes. It was too hard.
"We might just as well face the inevitable," Reg observed, the orthodox consolation being duly administered. "It will be bad enough when it comes, meanwhile it is imperative that we should have some ready money. There is some advantage after all in possessing some good jewellery, and—"
"Reggie," Nell cried, stopping her pink ears, "don't be horrid."
"That's what it must come to," Brassey replied, in what was intended for a matter-of-fact tone. "It doesn't matter much what you call it. A temporary loan on personal property is quite a common thing now-a-days."
"What does Kitty say about it?"
"I haven't told her. Let her enjoy herself while the sun shines."
"You had better tell me now, for in any case I am certain to find out," said a fresh, clear voice, as the speaker came in unobserved. "Is the drawing-room clock broken or has the Bank of England stopped payment? You look as grave as if you had the cares of Europe on your shoulders."
Kitty Brassey looked from one to the other, with a gleam of mischief in her dark eyes. A small, vivacious looking girl, wilful, and somewhat headstrong; a generous heart and strong determination of purpose underlay the pleasing, but withal frivolous exterior.
But Miss Kitty's face was grave enough as she returned to the garden, when at the end of a quarter of an hour she repaired to her favourite seat at the more secluded end of the garden. She felt no dismay. Her heart was too hot and angry for that. Her father had shared most of his secrets with his only daughter, before Reggie had sold out of the service on his marriage, and she alone knew how great the danger to the honourable house of Bainbridge, Brassey, and Co. had once been. She was perfectly well aware how the danger had been tided over, and that her elderly, admirer, Septimus Bartley, had been paid to the full.
Mr. Bartley's business relationship with his own firm consisted of an occasional visit to town, though he had direct telephonic communication with the Gresham-street establishment, of which he availed himself whilst enjoying his dolce far niente at Chislehurst.
She remembered, too, how disappointed the elderly Adonis had been when Mr. Brassey's last and most desperate speculation had freed him from the clutches of his quondam friend. And yet, strangely enough, the reputable stockbroker proved to be Brassey's executor, and that the said executor was playing a game of duplicity, Miss Kitty did not for a moment doubt.
"What a shame it is!" she said, aloud. "I had a great mind go and have it out with him myself."
She smiled at her own vehemence, and half rose from her recumbent position as the sound of footsteps disturbed her meditations. The new comer was a young man, under, rather than over, the average height; an exceedingly good-looking fellow, dressed in the most immaculate style, and wearing the now almost obsolete glass in his eye, as if it had taken root and grown there.
"I am so glad to see you!" Kitty exclaimed. "Sit down and let us talk."
"It is mutual," said the new comer, with almost provoking deliberation, as he hooked a chair with his cane, and sat down with the air of a man in the last stages of exhaustion. "I have been up to the Lodge, and heard that melancholy has marked you for her own. I immediately guessed the reason. I have not been stranded so often in my hot youth upon the bleak and desert shores of impecuniosity for nothing; and the cruel tale was unfolded."
Charles Daintree did not add, as he might have done, that he had placed his assistance and cheque-book, figuratively at the feet of his friend Brassey.
"Then you know everything?" Kitty asked.
"As far as recent developments go, yes. I was never so surprised in my life!"
"You don't say so!" Kitty exclaimed, with flattering interest. "I wish I had been there. Portrait of Mr. Charles Daintree as he appeared when surprised. It must have almost repaid Reg for all his anxiety."
"I was surprised," Daintree returned, imperturbably; "and again, I was not. For some occult reason my late uncle insisted that for three years I should occupy a seat in his City office. The event created no sensation in London—in fact, I allowed matters to take their own course. But one could not keep altogether free from City jargon, and I remained there quite long enough to make a tolerably fair estimate of the virtues of the estimable Bartley."
Kitty nodded approval. Much as she enjoyed the luxury of contradicting her companion upon most occasions, the point at issue was one upon which she felt in perfect accord with Daintree.
"Have you thought of anything?" he asked.
"Nothing, save that my mind has turned feebly once or twice in the direction of governessing. It will be hard at first. I shall have a harsh, arbitrary employer, who has a number of marriageable daughters, all plain, who envy the superior charms of—in short—me. Then the hero will come upon the scene, and, after a few tribulations, all will end happily."
"There is a certain element of risk attending such enterprises," Daintree observed, tranquilly. "I can show you a much better plan."
"I wish you would," Kitty laughed. "The governess scheme ends my resources."
"Why not marry me and thus reach the denouement at once?"
"What an end to my cherished romance," Kitty answered, with a faint tinge of pink flushing her cheeks. "I never had a lover! but I am under the impression that upon such occasions—"
"Fiction," Daintree put in calmly, but more earnestly than usual. "Yes; I know all you are going to say. Nevertheless, I was never more serious in my life. I am not a good hand at making impassioned speeches and all that kind of thing; but I do love you honestly and truly, and I would do my best to make you a good husband and you a happy wife."
All the mischievous sparkle died out of Kitty's eyes, as she glanced up at the speaker's calm, but none the less determined face. She had half-expected this, but hitherto the suggestion had always struck her as being somewhat ludicrous. Now, however, there was something comforting, almost happiness in the idea, as she replied with tender seriousness.
"I think you mean it," she said; "and I—I do not know what to say. It seems almost selfish of us to be talking in this strain now, while Nell and Reggie are so unhappy. Oh, dear, if we were only people in a book, you would hit upon some clever scheme for recovering that horrid release, and—"
"We should all live happy ever afterwards. Were you going to say that?"
"Something very like it," Kitty blushingly admitted. "But it is all nonsense."
"And supposing I told you that I have a clever scheme to recover the missing parchment—what then?"
"But you couldn't," Kitty answered, strategically. "The fated paper is concealed with others in Mr. Bartley's safe, not more than a mile from where we are at this moment. Only think of that, only think that, given a little bit of steel, you or I could walk up to Mr. Bartley's house some day when he was away, and in less than five minutes virtue would be triumphant and vice defeated. The thought is maddening!"
"Then don't think of it," Daintree replied, soothingly. "However, we are wandering from the point. Kitty, be serious a moment. If I can recover that paper for Reg, will you be my wife?"
"I think I would without that," Kitty murmured, without attempting to withdraw the fingers he had imprisoned. "But since you have thrown down a challenge, I will accept it, Charlie. Suppose I give you a formal answer when you bring me that dingy sheet of parchment?"
Daintree raised the white finger-tips to his lips, and kissed them gallantly. There was a bright light of inspiration in his eyes, a light which seemed to warm Kitty's heart and fill her with trust and confidence. Had she known it, the great battalions of chance were fighting upon her side and on behalf of those she loved. Kitty was a bright, lovable little soul, and was strictly loyal to her friends; her happiness would not have been complete had not they been in a position to share it. Charlie Daintree was a gentleman, and, what is more in worldly eyes, a rich man; but Kitty seemed to have forgotten this in her eagerness for her brother and his wife, and Daintree, whose eyeglass saw most things, felt himself drawn nearer to her for this self-abnegation.
"It is a challenge," he said. "If I do not bring you the precious document within a week, my head be the forfeit. But you were wrong as to the tiny tube of steel which is supposed to be like a barrier between our united happiness. Now, I happen to know that, since the burglary at Charleston Hall, our friend Bartley has had a very elaborate new safe constructed, one with a time lock, which opens itself at any hour to which it is set by the owner. It is the most ingenious of the recent American inventions, and the designer boasts that it is absolutely thief-proof. And yet I have an idea I know an 'open sesame,' even for that stronghold."
"You are not going to do anything rash?" Kitty cried, in alarm.
"Now, did I ever do anything rash?" Daintree asked. "I did contemplate such an act some time back; but fate kindly guided my steps into the lodge gates on my way to town, since when my project has been abandoned. My bounden duty is to punish two rascals; but I prefer to let them down easily, and use them as my instruments to confound a third."
Daintree's mind was extremely active as he sauntered leisurely home, leaving the lady of his choice to construe the above sphinx-like remark as best she might. Apparently utterly indifferent to the world at large, he strolled along the broad avenue leading up to Bolitree, which envied spot constituted his home for the time being, when not engaged upon more distant pleasures. It was a fine old house, one of the best and noblest in the neighbourhood, and as yet secluded from the advent of the speculative builder, who has laboured so hard to ruin the picturesqueness of suburban London.
He walked through a spacious hall and into a noble dining-room, wherein, as in the rest of the house, the evidences of wealth and lavish taste were discernible to the most indifferent eye. The late owner, a childless City man, with proverbially enough money to set the Leaning Tower of Pisa straight, had spared nothing to gratify his mania for art and kindred treasures; indeed, many of these were displayed with a carelessness sufficient to tempt the honesty of those in whose charge they were usually placed.
Daintree ate his solitary dinner, waited upon by a solemn butler of stately mien—quite a prize in the way of a butler, he was wont to say, when complimented upon the latest addition to the Bolitree menage, and one who, under happier auspices, would certainly have graced a bishopric.
"You will kindly take the claret and cigarette-box into the smoke-room," Charles commanded, at length. "I shall not go out again this evening; and, Brace, see that all the doors are fastened early."
"It shall be done as usual, sir," replied the solemn functionary. "One cannot be too careful with so many suspicious characters about, sir."
When the immaculate guardian of his employer's property repaired presently to the smoke-room, he found his master already there. Daintree lay back in his chair, a cigarette between his teeth, and his eyeglass gleaming on Brace, who seemed almost uncomfortable under the keen scrutiny.
"You were saying just now," he commenced, "that there are several suspicious characters about. Always look out for suspicious characters, Brace. I do."
The butler coughed in deferential acknowledgment of his master's wisdom.
"Always do that, Brace; for, really, you never know who you are dealing with. Now, for all you have been with me over twelve months—for all you have been with me that time, to say nothing of your excellent references—you might be a burglar's confederate in disguise; I mean, the old dishonest servant who plans the robbery for others to execute. I daresay that this strikes you as being a very comical idea, Brace?"
"If it pleases you to think so," said Brace, uncomfortably.
"Well, it does," Daintree replied, contemplating the irreproachable servant with grim irony. "Such things frequently happen. Now, supposing you were similarly tempted. You sleep with William in the butler's pantry, and the first thing is to get him out of the way—by the way, I understand William is away just now—and the rest of the servants being in the west wing, makes your task easier. You look offended, Brace, thinking of your references. But you might have forged a testimonial from your previous employer, Lord Kennington, knowing that his lordship and myself were not likely to meet—by the way, I was introduced to him yesterday morning, Brace—and as for the dogs, they are easily settled. And really, Brace, it is a strange, very strange, coincidence that both the mastiffs should have to be sent to the veterinary surgeon's this morning."
With a sense of exquisite enjoyment, Daintree watched the gradual change passing over the countenance of his peerless servant. Anxiety, fear, and terror chased one another rapidly, till at length the immaculate solemnity collapsed to a flabby and absolute fright.
"We merely suppose all this, Brace, and, to continue, we suppose a fast-running dogcart with Savernake wheels, and a blood mare shod with those now patent india-rubber horseshoes, to be waiting tonight, or, say, to-morrow night, at the Mother Goose, in the City-road, ready to run down here and back between midnight and daybreak. You see how easily it is done, Brace."
Brace nodded; he could not have spoken to have saved his life.
"We will carry our romance a little further. The man in the cart drives up the avenue, the gates being left open—by the way, they were unlocked, and someone has been oiling them lately, Brace—and you let him in. By you, of course, I mean an individual called, in the select profession to which the new-comer belongs, Solemn James. Did you ever know a man called Solemn James, Brace, a burglar's confederate, who by means of forged testimonials finds his way into—"
Brace collapsed, and fell on his knees with a dismal cry. Daintree rose and approached him, speaking more sternly than the prostrate thief ever heard his easy-going employer speak before.
"I am going to give you a chance," he said. "Listen to me."
Brace did listen, as a criminal follows the evidence at his own trial. At the end of a quarter of an hour he left the smoking-room, white and cold, but with a sensation something like gratitude agitating that portion of his anatomy where the heart is supposed to be.
"You know the alternative," Charlie said, curtly. "Penal servitude or strict obedience."
BURGLARY, like stockbroking, and such hazardous professions, is occasionally of a very precarious nature, add to which members of the body are prone to be lavish in moments of affluence, which moments, a member of the profession tells me, occur much less frequently than they used to do. In the good old days—i.e., before the advent of photography and mounted police—the same authority tells me, that in the exercise of his profession he has frequently plundered the house when the inmates were perfectly aware of his presence, and he was equally alive to the fact that they dared not raise an alarm.
But if organization and science is fast killing the old school of burglary, the modern branch is quite equal to the advancement of thief-proof inventions and detective skill. Mr. William Jarvis, for instance, could, if his native modesty permitted, make such a display of rachet drills, plate cutters, braces, and bits as would put the finest efforts of Sheffield to the blush. The police have yet to discover where the majority of these perfect little instruments are manufactured, though William Jarvis, of 75, Pitt-street, City-road, would probably have refused to supply the information. These were only used on special occasions, such as when a collection of the aristocracy of crime clubbed forces and took a country house, or a jeweller's warehouse was marked down for plunder, for James was a shining light who kept his own horse and trap, and frequented Epping Forest with his wife and family on Sundays. He it was who collected the property (of others) in the still watches of the night, his confederate arranging date and time of collection, after which Jarvis visited the 'fences,' and divided the proceeds with the strictest integrity, for, strange as it may seem, he was an honest man, and his word was good for anything in certain circles. Members of other professions one could name possess equally irregular natures.
The burglar is popularly supposed to be a thickset, bulldog-looking individual, who inclines to fur caps and belcher handkerchiefs, unlimited beer, and florid conversation. As a matter of fact, Jarvis was nothing of the kind. He was a slim, wiry man, approaching forty, with keen, dark eyes, and a resolute-looking mouth. He did not drink, as alcohol is apt to interfere with a profession above all calling for steady nerve, and he eschewed smoking, as, in his own words, a surreptitious pipe has often been the means of getting 'a pore bloke into trouble.' He had a tidy wife, to whom he was kind and affectionate, a home scrupulously clean and neat, and there were no children in the district better clad or cared for than those of William Jarvis.
On the evening following the little episode between Charles Daintree and his butler, Jarvis was seated at supper, a meal of cold roast beef and pickles, to which, with one modest glass of beer, he was doing ample justice. A bright lamp lighted up a cheery apartment; the burglar's wife sat smiling opposite him over her work of darning stockings, while a huge great-coat and muffler were airing before the fire, warm as the evening was. Mr. Jarvis was more than usually amiable, as a man generally is who, after an enforced spell of idleness, returns to a congenial occupation.
"You have everything you want, William?" asked the thoughtful wife. "Just one more glass of the beer before your long drive."
"Not for me, lass," William replied, drawing on his coat and gloves. "Beer and business never mix, which is my motto, and allus will be. You make up the fire and fill the kettle, so as I can get a bit of breakfast when I comes home; I'm sure to be back before five."
With this parting injunction, Jarvis stepped out into the dark and moonless night, and made his way into the City-road. It was nearly twelve, and the streets were thinning rapidly. A little way along he plunged into a deep court smelling strongly of the stable and, in a short space of time, returned leading a horse attached to a dogcart, the animal's hoofs clattering over the stones, whilst the wheels followed noiselessly behind. The patent horseshoes were not for the town—Jarvis was far too astute for that—they being reserved for the approach to Bolitree, which, as the reader has guessed, was Jarvis's destination, and the Bolitree plate the end in view.
The gleaming lamps flashed along out into the open country turning now to the right and again to the left, for, like Sam Weller's knowledge of London, Jarvis's acquaintance with the suburbs was extreme and peculiar. The monument on Chislehurst Common being passed, the driver drew a deep breath, and softy descended at the lodge gates where the patent shoes were attached, and the well-oiled gates being opened, led his steed inside, and having closed the (to him) friendly portals, drove rapidly towards Bolitree with all the nerve and self-possession of an invited guest.
He paused a moment on the broad gravel drive to tether his horse and throw a rug over her, for the merciful man is merciful to his beast; but this did not deter him from feeling in his pistol pocket for the one weapon without which no burglar's outfit is complete. He had never drawn his 'iron' hitherto, but was quite prepared to do so if necessary.
He walked along the facade and round the domestic offices with the assured step of a man who knows his ground perfectly; as, indeed, considering the robbery in contemplation had effectually ripened for twelve months, he should. Trying a shutter gently, it yielded, as he expected, to his touch, and a minute later he was in the house. He listened with every nerve strained to its highest tension, but no sound came; whereupon he lighted his lantern and crept through the stone-flagged corridors to the front of the house.
"That's all right," he said, sotto voce. "Let me see: third door to the right, next to the statue of Mercury." The light flashed for a moment on a still white statue, that appeared almost lifelike in the gleam. "This seems to be my gentleman. Mercury was the cove what took messengers to the gods, so I read somewhere. Well, Mr. Mercury, you'd better run upstairs and tell your master as a gent is a going to take away some of his valuables to get 'em cleaned. I wonder where Solemn James is? Pretendin' to be asleep most like. Cautious blade is Jim, but he might ha' given me a hand, and saved me two journeys."
With the same noiseless, catlike step he crept into the dining-room, where he flashed his lamp round, and as the concentrated rays fell upon the huge oak sideboard, he gave a gasp of wonder and delight.
All the most valuable treasures in the house had apparently been gathered together there. There was a dazzling flash of silver and gold plate, jewelled tazzas, rare ornaments, almost a king's ransom, enough to fill his cart, and, more important still to a practical mind, enough to render him independent of work for many a month to come.
"Well!" he exclaimed, quite naturally and aloud, "I've pulled off a few good things in my time, but never anything to touch this. Two journeys! I shall have to make three. I never did believe in partnership jobs, but, for the first time in my professional career, strike me blind, if I don't regret as I didn't bring a pal."
"Can I be of any assistance?"
The words, slowly, calmly uttered, and coming apparently from space, struck the marauder with something like awe. It was not fear—he had never known that feeling—but the sensation was equally unpleasant.
"That's funny," he muttered. "I could have sworn I heard a voice. Come out there, my man, or I'll shoot."
Scarcely had he uttered the words when the room was instantly filled with what Jarvis feared more than all the policemen in London—a dazzling, blazing, searching light. Electricity he had only known in town, he never expected to encounter such an enemy here. And in the centre of the room was the lonely figure of a young man lounging back in an arm-chair, a solitary diamond flashing on the bosom of his dress shirt, and who was regarding his visitor calmly through his eyeglass.
"I have been expecting you," said Daintree; "take a chair. No? You need not put your hand behind you, because I have the advantage, and before you can get out your weapon I can kill you. Now, turn your back to me, place your hand in your pocket, and throw your revolver towards me. Thank you."
Jarvis obeyed reluctantly enough, but there was something in the cool, ringing tones, a vibration of calm, contemptuous mastery absolutely resistible.
"What are you going to do with me?" he asked, sullenly.
"That, my friend, altogether depends upon circumstances. I ought to hand you and Brace over to the police, but that point we will defer for a future occasion. What is you name?"
"Find out," Jarvis retorted. "I wish I had that Brace here."
"I wish you had, the interview would be exciting. But you may disabuse your mind of the idea that he has betrayed you. As a matter of fact, your pal, I think you call it, has shown towards you a faith which does honour to his early training. I am to blame for this little interruption, for which accept my sincere apologies. And now, sit down."
Jarvis took the indicated seat, though sorely against his will. There was nothing to prevent him flying at the cool, insolent-looking face opposite him; but the very coolness of it seemed to freeze his headlong courage.
"You will help yourself to wine. No? Well, perhaps you are wise not to drink; but I can recommend those cigars. An interesting conversation is always much more enjoyable over cigars, and I am sure it will be an interesting conversation, which is very complimentary to you, Mr. Jarvis, considering the lateness of the hour, and the fact that you are an uninvited guest."
Jarvis pulled at his cigar uncomfortably. Afterwards he described that evening as one of the most uneasy in his life. There he was, completely at the mercy of his attentive host, though the house was quiet as death. But Jarvis was a thoughtful man; and, for all he knew, there might have been a score of constables concealed behind the heavy plush curtains.
"You are a burglar by profession, I believe?" Daintree asked, with polite interest.
"Amongst the best of 'em," answered Jarvis, with professional pride. "Go on, sir."
"Certainly. I am going to ask you a few questions. For the nonce you shall be the teacher, and I will assume the role of a pupil. In the first place, is there such a thing as a burglar-proof house?"
The listener shifted uneasily, and little beads of perspiration gathered on his forehead.
Steeled as he was against surprises, there was something in the cold chill tones of the immaculately-dressed questioner that seemed to deprive him of all his boasted courage.
"Look here, sir," he said, with a last desperate effort. "Give me your word as you don't mean no harm to me, and I'll tell you all you wants to know. A cove ain't made of iron to be stared at and cross-questioned, and him never knowing all the time what's going to happen to him arter all. Is it to be the fair thing between one man and another?"
"So far as I am concerned, it is," Daintree replied. "You need fear no treachery. With the solitary exception of ourselves, a footman, and our mutual friend here, whom I took the precaution of locking in his room, there is probably not a soul awake in the house at the moment."
Jarvis breathed more freely. He was about to be 'discharged with a caution,' after all—a decision with which he was tolerably familiar.
"Very well, then," Daintree continued; "and, having satisfied you that your valuable person is in no jeopardy from the strong arm of the law, I will trouble you for a few particulars as to your calling. Now about the house."
"There ain't no house ever made as 'ud keep me out," the burglar replied. "Stands to reason that anything you can get out of you can get into. Houses, safes. Take safes, now. As fast as ever they make new ones, we find out ways to open them. And why? Because we can afford to pay the best workmen such rates as the employers can't or won't. Suppose I need a drill warranted to cut the best plate ever tempered, I can get it. And who from? Why, the best workmen in the trade. He ain't supposed to know me or what I want it for so long as he gets his price. That's for safes."
"You seem to speak from experience," Daintree observed carelessly.
"Well, you are right about there, guv'nor," Jarvis said with modest pride. "One down, t'other come to take the old 'knob' safe, where the keyhole was found in one of the knobs, the safe being covered in knobs. Did we look for the knob? Not much. All there was to do was to drill a hole through the door, and fill it with powder. Not much noise? No; but it has tumbled in like a house of cards."
"But that is a very old-fashioned kind of safe."
"Not so old-fashioned as you'd think for," Jarvis stated. "The next one was goin' to be a puzzler; bolts in the door to be sprung into the framework on locking by a spindle connected with a T handle on the door. Yes, that was a werry clever contrivance; we knock off the handle with a hammer, soften the plate with a lamp and blowpipe, and, after drilling it, put in powder, and carry away the whole framework, was cleverer."
"Designed to hurt the feelings of the inventor," Daintree put in, quietly.
"Well, yes," laughed Jarvis, quite at his ease now. "The next dodge was to make a safe of alternate layers of boiler-plate and drill-proof steel. They thought they had us there. Ah, ah! One of our workmen invented a plate-cutter that went through the boiler plate like through rotten cheese; then we broke the chilled steel easily enough."
"And after that? Surely there are more safes yet?"
"They beat our plate cutter," Jarvis continued; "but we had an easier job than ever, after that. What do you think of filling up all the cracks with putty, except about two inches at the top, so as to insert a tube and exhaust the air, when by removing a little putty at the bottom, he could drive in enough powder for our purpose. Then the door had to give way, being weakest. Lor, bless you, sir, safes are child's play to a man as knows his work."
Charlie toyed with his cigarette a moment before he resumed his questioning. He was coming to the point but scarcely knew how to approach his man without creating a suspicion of his real design in his mind.
"There is one kind you seem to have forgotten," he said slowly, seeing that Jarvis had turned to him inquiringly; "I allude to the comparatively new time safes. You know what I mean—a lock invented to automatically open the doors at a certain time, according to the fancy of the owner. For instance, I have a safe here now which I close at three, previously putting the hands of the clock inside on to, say, half-past three when I wish it to open. There are no bolts, no handle, and nothing to get a leverage upon. How do we?"
By way of a reply, a smile gradually dawned upon Jarvis's features, gradually widening to a broad grin. He had been partly expecting the question, and the smile was equally a tribute to his own skill and the quality of his questioner, for whom the burglar felt, if possible, a greater deference than before.
"So they say," he replied; "but, up to the present, I haven't had an opportunity of trying. I'd half a mind to buy one, only things have been slack lately; and after all, it pays better to experiment on other peoples. And I've got it too, sir; I've got it, sure as you're sitting in that chair!"
"Got what?" Charlie asked. "Let us hear your inspiration."
In the excitement of the moment Jarvis rose and paced the room. He had almost forgotten that he was speaking to a gentleman who in his eyes was tantamount to an armed enemy of himself and all his creed.
"The way to open those safes!" he exclaimed. "It came to me all of a moment since I've been sitting here. And simple, too; so simple, that a little child could do it. I'll just take a half-ounce of—"
"Don't let your modesty overcome you," he said. "You need not fear that I shall infringe upon your copyright."
"It isn't that so much, sir," remarked Jarvis, with a seriousness which again threatened to overcome the man's gravity. "It isn't that so much, sir, as how I should like to be the first. The fust time you read in your paper as a time lock have been ax-picked, you'll know as William Jarvis done it."
"There is no occasion to go out of the neighbourhood," Daintree replied. "I know of more than one city gentleman in this locality who has invested in one since the recent burglar scare. My immediate neighbour has recently had one erected. Come, here is an opportunity for you, while, for my part, I promise not to 'blow the gaff,' as you term it, in professional circles."
Jarvis picked up his ears. The name of Mr. Daintree's neighbour was familiar enough to him, as indeed were the names of most suburban magnates. But, on the other hand, Chislehurst would hardly be safe ground for the present.
Daintree rose to his feet, and moved towards the door as if to signify that the interview was ended. Jarvis stood behind him as he lighted a lamp, and followed his host to the door.
"I give you your liberty as I promised," he said to the burglar, now only too anxious to be gone. "I have learnt something from you, and in return I shall say nothing of this visit. Neither, I think, will the individual whom you term Solemn James, who will also be at liberty to-morrow. And now, good night. Mind the steps. It would be a thousand pities if anything happened to a life so valuable as yours."
"Thank you kindly, sir," Jarvis returned; "and I leave something in return. If I am the man I take myself for, you can leave your doors open, so far as the London lot are concerned, for many a day to come."
Daintree extinguished his lamp, and calling to the servant who alone and remained up, to extinguish the electric light, walked slowly to his room. He has done something, certainly, but not so much as he had anticipated. But if the worst came to the worst, he had a secure hold on Mr. Jarvis, whose assistance, professionally, might with safety be relied upon for a pecuniary consideration.
Meanwhile Mr. Jarvis drove homewards in meditative silence. He felt strangely elated, but withal cowed, humbled, and not a little disappointed, as the dazzling vision on the oak sideboard rose temptingly before his mental vision. He felt like a man who had disposed of an unprofitable gold mine, only to discover a few hours later that it had been a veritable Golconda.
"And yet he wasn't a bad sort, and a plucky one, too," he ruminated. "Reg'lar took the steam out of me. I'd like to show him that I have some pluck too, and shan't be long either." Here a sudden resolution seemed to warm him like a fire. "I'll do it!" he cried. "Blest if I don't do it before this thing gets wed. Time-lock safes! And me with my knowledge!"
MR. BRACE took himself away from Bolitree the morning following the collapse of his pet scheme, having wished his fellow servants a dignified farewell. He was sorry to leave them, he said, but there were private reasons, not wholly unconnected with a sudden change of fortune, which rendered any further menial work superfluous. Daintree kept his own council, he had good reason for doing so, and Brace was most sincere in his thanks for the kindness extended to him, a leniency he had cause to be thankful for.
"This will be a warning to me, sir," he said, humbly. "I have had a lesson, and I mean to profit by it. From this time I intend to—"
"That will do, Brace," Charlie interrupted. "There is no reason for gratitude, as I was actuated by anything but philanthropic motives. Give my compliments to Mr. Jarvis, and tell him I shall look out for the grand exploit; he will know what is meant. Now be off."
Brace went off, somewhat hurt by this curt dismissal. He wanted an opportunity to display his penitent spirit, not that he was actuated by any feeling of the kind, but he had a natural eye for effect, and there were large possibilities in the present opportunity.
By way of showing his gratitude, the recalcitrant butler carefully collected a few small articles of value, not forgetting some notepaper and envelopes bearing the Bolitree stamp, to say nothing of a few specimens of his late employer's handwriting, as previous experience taught him that such material proves extremely valuable upon occasion. These few souvenirs of a not unpleasant servitude being packed carefully away, Brace was driven from the house to the station at St. Mary Cray, from whence he proceeded direct to London, and once there, with some little fear and trembling, he walked to Pitt-street, with the intention of looking up Jarvis.
He found that worthy in a frame of mind the reverse of seraphic. The feelings of admiration he had conceived for Daintree were swallowed up now by a sense of disappointment as his mind dwelt gloatingly upon the glittering heap of treasure which had so nearly been his own.
He pointed to a seat, and Brace sat down noiselessly. With all his superior mental capacity, the soi-disant butler stood in considerable awe of his colleague's brute courage and reckless abandon.
"You are a nice lot, ain't you?" sneered Jarvis, contemplating his companion with fine contempt. "You are a clever one to work out a thing for twelve months, and get done at last by a little dandy chap as got no mind for anything besides the fit of his boots and collars!"
"And what were you doing all the time?" Brace asked, stung to retort. "The stuff was put out for you. Why didn't you take it? You, the pride of your profession, to be done by a gentleman who doesn't know the difference between a centre-bit and a plate drill! Why didn't you shoot him?"
"It's no use crying over spilt milk," Jarvis replied; "and if I was done, it was by the coolest and pluckiest hand I ever came across. Lor', what a ornament he would be to the profession, surely!"
It was a high compliment—the highest Jarvis could conceive. Presently he went on more quietly, and less aggressively.
"What beats me is how he tumbled to it. He seemed to be so ready that it took all the steel out of me directly he spoke. And that electric light is the very mischief. You don't catch me on another lay where they've got that without cuttin' the wires first. However, it's no use sitting here snarlin' at one another when there's work to be done. I've taken things pretty easy lately, reckoning on this little job, till there's hardly a shiner in the place. Come, you ain't been down yonder all these months for nothing. Can't you put us on to a soft job, just to find the youngsters a bit of food till we can fix you up again."
Brace smiled diplomatically, whilst a responsive grin of approbation illuminated Jarvis's features. Hope, the guiding star of every genius, was the presiding deity of his sanguine nature.
"I've got a very pretty little plant, William," Brace whispered, dropping into the easy style of speech natural to him. "Very neat and very simple, provided you're as clever as you pretend to be with the tools. You can take it from me that last night's fiasco won't be known to a soul, and consequently the neighbourhood ain't likely to be alarmed. What do you say to a deaf housekeeper, a couple of maids, and an old gardener, who sleeps over the stables? There's a master, it's true—"
"Can't you get him out of the way?" asked Jarvis.
"I can keep him in town for a night, if that's what you mean. Any way, it's best to be on the safe side. Now, look here."
For a quarter of an hour Jarvis listened attentively, whilst his companion gradually unfolded a plan of masterly simplicity, combined with a minute attention to detail which, in themselves, paid a high tribute to Brace's mental grasp and power of observation.
"Not that I would have thought of it, perhaps," he concluded, modestly, "but for a little observation as my late employer let drop. And mind you bring everything away, don't leave nothing, as papers, especially private ones, are useful enough sometimes. Remember that Eltree affair."
"I do," Jarvis groaned. "Two days clear away before anybody tumbled to the plant, and a lot of wastepaper thrown away as turned out to be negotiable securities for £11,000. Don't mention it, James, the very idea makes me ill when I thinks on it."
"It was a sin, that was," Brace sighed in company. "And now let me have a fine pen and some ink, so as I can bait the trap for the old gentleman. He'll rise fast enough; why, from all I can hear, he would get up on a frosty night to make a sixpence anytime."
Brace was a smart penman, and one who possessed a singular talent for imitating handwritings, yet nearly a dozen of the thick embossed sheets bearing the Bolitree crest were destroyed before the artist was finally satisfied. At length the envelope was sealed, stamped, and despatched per a small edition of Jarvis, with the most careful instructions as to its disposal.
* * * * *
Meanwhile things showed no signs of improvement at the Lodge. An interview between Brassey and his father's executor had resulted in a stormy scene, in which the old man had been roundly denounced as a thief and a swindler, a state of affairs which certainly had not tended to smooth matters for the young couple.
"Your language is unpardonable," Bartley said, with wounded dignity. He was a large, expansive man, with a solemn, important mien, and his calm indignation sat well upon him; as Reginald grudgingly admitted. "Surely you cannot realize what you are saying. I enjoyed your father's confidence, sir, and, but for the respect I have for his memory, I would not tolerate such language. When you are in a calmer frame of mind, you may come to me again, when I shall, in spite of everything, be pleased to advise and assist you. My position is beyond your insinuations."
Reg returned home, feeling that he had had the worst of the encounter—a fact freely admitted to Daintree in subsequently describing the scene. Charlie listened in his cool way, as they strolled round the garden the morning following the passage at arms with the outraged but virtuous stockbroker.
"You should have kept your temper," Daintree observed. "I called this morning to see if I could pacify the old gentleman, but found that he had been detained in town overnight on important business. Depend upon it, there is something wrong there, old fellow, or I am much mistaken."
"Do you mean that—"
"That Bartley is in Queer-street? Exactly. His confidential clerk came down by the first train to get some papers, and I met him coming out of the house as I went in, with a face as white as the ash on my cigar."
Reginald Brassey laughed. As he looked round his own well-appointed domain, and realized the wrench it would be to leave the scene of so much happiness, as he shortly would be compelled to do, he experienced that sensation as to our neighbour's misfortunes so aptly described by Rochefoucauld. If the sardonic maxim applies to our friends, it loses no force as regards our enemies.
"I am unfeignedly glad to hear it," he said, curtly.
"Well, I don't know so much about that," said Daintree, who rarely spoke without thinking. "Bartley has had an unblemished reputation in the City for nearly forty years, which, taking all things into consideration, means a perfect concatenation of all the virtues. My theory is that he had suppressed that release in a moment of temptation, and that he has temporarily appropriated the money to his own use."
"But I never asked him for the whole of the money," Brassey exclaimed.
"Certainly you didn't; but you had a sudden call for a large sum, and naturally you applied to him for it. He could not put his hand upon the amount you required, and consequently the danger had to be faced. He is a man of strong determination; he has a high reputation, and it is only his word against yours, which is merely unsubstantiated, after all. Farther than that, he holds the deeds of the Battiscombe property, and the original mortgage to him actually exists."
"In which case, should he pull round, I shall be better off," Reggie said, ruefully. "He couldn't very well say that the release and repayment of £30,000 had been an oversight."
"He won't pull round," Daintree replied. "I was in the City yesterday for my sins, where I was transacting a little business with my own firm, of which I am supposed to be head, and I heard quite enough to tell me that."
"Just suppose he has destroyed the release altogether?"
"That would be awkward. But the release has not been destroyed, take my word for that. Very few men destroy such papers while there is an off-chance of a proof of their execution. Bartley is no fool, and you may depend upon it that he carefully reviewed his position before acting as he has done. The time may come when you can corner him, and prove that such a deed was executed, in which case he will probably produce it, and thus, whilst incurring a deal of odium, keep outside the meshes of the law. Up to the present moment, the matter lies between the two of you, and there is no evidence of fraud. No, Reg, our astute friend has that precious parchment still."
Brassey shook his head doubtfully. Daintree's deductions were logical enough, but a whole morning employed in interviewing angry and anxious creditors had not tended to fan the flame of hope to a dazzling radiance. Things had almost reached a crisis during the last twenty-four hours, more than one execution loomed in the near future, and every ring at the servant's bell sufficed to send Reggie's heart up in his mouth with sickening dread.
As he contemplated his comforter gloomily, the front gate opened, and a suspicious-looking stranger entered. He had a half-diffident, half-swaggering air, to say nothing of a face whereon a free indulgence in strong waters' had told a plainly-written tale. He touched the brim of a veteran silk hat civilly enough, as he requested a few words with Mr. Brassey in private.
"The plot thickens," said Daintree, sotto voce, as Brassey disappeared with his unwelcome visitor. "Were I in Reggie's unfortunate position, I should not feel comfortable till I knew that fellow's business."
The thought that he carried his cheque book was some consolation, though the proffered assistance had been more than once firmly rejected. But Daintree had not studied the weaknesses of human nature in vain and after all, a man in possession is a wonderful factor in the destruction of a proud man's sternest resolution.
"Why don't you come in?" asked Kitty, as she came towards him. "Though perhaps you are wise to remain where you are. I wonder whether there is a more miserable household anywhere just now than ours."
"Lots," said Charlie, taking possession of the hand held out to him, and looking down tenderly into the girl's troubled eyes. "You don't mean to say that you are going to despair after my challenge? I am a selfish man, Kitty, and really, between ourselves I should have never made such a foolish reservation unless I felt tolerably sure of my ground."
"There was no occasion to make it at all," Kitty replied, shyly. "I wonder why it is that one's misery and happiness is so curiously mingled! What a pleasant world it would be just now but for this!"
She looked so sweet and subdued in her trouble that Daintree forgot his contract and the bond under which he had placed himself. The corner of the garden where they were was secluded, and the coolest of lovers is only mortal. He drew her head down upon his shoulder and kissed the trembling lips. There is no sympathy so sweet as the meeting of lips when the heart is too full for speech.
"It is always darkest before the dawn," Charlie said, awkwardly.
"I hope the light won't dazzle me when it comes, then," Kitty laughed, through her tears. "We ought to be all brave and resigned, I know; but, instead of face, I only feel wicked. Oh, dear, look at Reggie's hat! I wonder what new horror has happened now."
The remark was warranted, as Brassey appeared with a countenance sufficiently agitated to convict him of any crime known in the penal calendar. His lips were white and trembling; the words seem to stick in his throat as he turned away from Daintree, whose very eyeglass beamed sympathetically.
"I understand what it is," he said, as Kitty, obediently to a sign, disappeared. "My dear fellow, it isn't absolutely criminal, though poverty is accounted a deadly sin. There is nothing in it, after all. The suspicious stranger in the impossible hat has brought you an oblong slip of paper, containing the information that he must really trouble you to entertain him till you find it quite convenient to pay him. What is the amount?"
"One hundred and eighteen seventeen and sixpence-halfpenny," Brassey replied, as he leant against a tree, and fairly groaned aloud. "It might be as many millions for any chance there is of its being paid."
"Is there any pressing necessity for the halfpenny?" Daintree asked, striving to speak lightly, and signally failing; "because we might manage the rest. If you will permit me to try my fascinations—"
"Not for a moment, my dear fellow; I couldn't dream of it."
"Now, look here, old chap," Daintree observed, calmly. "This is nonsense. I am going to be your brother-in-law—at least I hope so—and consequently I am as one of the family. In this capacity I do not choose for my future wife to be living under the same roof with a man in possession, and consequently I am going to pay him out. Good nature, my dear fellow—nonsense," as Brassey murmured some inaudible commonplace. "Pride, sir; foolish pride."
Reg was fain to follow his self-willed friend, being too broken-down to make any determined resistance to his proposal. It seemed so absurdly simple, after all, when the dread emissary of the law came to be interviewed by Daintree, the mention of whose name appeared to have a powerful effect upon the seedy individual, who, after all, appeared to cherish no personal animus against the peace and happiness of the house of Brassey.
"Business is business, gentlemen," he said, huskily, as he pocketed Daintree's cheque; "and, after all, I only do my dooty. It ain't a nice occupation, is mine; but it's hard to get a living, and I ain't so young as I used to be. Good afternoon, gents, and thank you."
"And thank you," said Brassey, fervently, as he turned to his friend. "Without your assistance I don't know—"
"Now, don't," Daintree responded, wearily. "There is no emotion so exhaustive and less satisfactory than gratitude. So far as I am concerned, the matter is at an end. Are there any more expected?"
"Not for a few days, at any rate, thank goodness," Reg replied. "By the way, I had forgotten all about Nellie, who was under the impression that I was in danger of immediate arrest."
Any anxiety on this head was disposed of by the arrival of the lady in question, who regarded Daintree with such marked favour, that he took up the afternoon edition of the Globe, which, fortunately for him, a servant brought in at the moment, and hid himself behind that friendly sheet, as he conned the various 'full heads' with ludicrous haste.
"Ah, how do you do, Mrs. Brassey?" he said. "Yes, you are looking much better; and, excuse me, I am rather interested in to-day's markets, having some tolerably heavy speculations on hand. Um! Mexicans better, Brighton A's firm. Do you know—Hullo! If you want news of your own locality always look in other papers for it. Listen to this."
"He is actually excited," Kitty laughed. "It must be something strange, indeed."
"It is," Daintree replied. "Don't interrupt as you love me."
"'DARING BURGLARY AT CHISLEHURST.
"'Information was received at Scotland Yard this morning concerning a most daring burglary in the above neighbourhood last night or early this morning. It appears that Mr. Septimus Bartley, the well-known stockbroker, received a communication yesterday afternoon, asking him to meet the writer, Mr. Charles Daintree (head of the firm of Daintree, Muir, and Co., Limited), at his town chambers shortly after midnight, on important business. Mr. Bartley accordingly called at the stipulated hour, and found that Mr. Daintree had not been there for some time, nor was he expected. Mr. Bartley thinking nothing of this, stayed the night at an hotel, repairing to his office the following morning. Happening to require some papers from his private house, he gave the keys to a confidential clerk, who journeyed down to Chislehurst, and, on arriving there, found, to his consternation, that the safe was open and the whole of the contents abstracted. This is all the more inexplicable, as the safe was fitted with one of the patent time locks of the latest burglar-proof design. The clock was broken, but otherwise there is no sign of violence.
"'Just before going to press we learn that the letter from Mr. Daintree is supposed to be a clever forgery. The police are reported to have discovered an important clue to the mystery.'"
"What do you think of that?" Brassey asked, at length. "Where are you going?"
Daintree took up his hat, and hurried to the door. There was no longer any semblance of coolness and want of animation as he examined his watch with a careful scrutiny.
"I am going to town," he said, smiling, curiously. "Don't you see that my character is at stake? Besides, I should like to know the meaning of this clue to the identity of the miscreant who dared to forgo my name."
DAINTREE contrived to catch the 4.15 up from Bromley arriving at Charing Cross shortly before six. Under his placid exterior there was a perfect tornado of excitement, such as he never remembered to have experienced before. It seemed an interminable time before the cab he had taken reached the City-road, the sorry steed pulling up at length at the corner of Pitt-street. Bidding the cabman to await his return, he arrived at length outside the residence of Jarvis, the number of which he ascertained from Brace before that enemy had departed from Bolitree.
"I am sorry that my husband is not at home, sir," Mrs. Jarvis replied, civilly, to Daintree's question. "If you don't mind leaving a message?"
"I must see him," he replied, "on a matter of urgent importance. You may have heard my name mentioned—Mr. Daintree, of Bolitree, Chislehurst. My good woman, all this mystery is very creditable to you, no doubt, but your husband I must and will see immediately, if I have to get all Scotland Yard to my assistance. And Jarvis would regret all that trouble, I am sure."
"He might have come in by the back way," said the mistress, eyeing her visitor with flattering admiration. "Bless me if I don't hear his voice!"
Charlie might have echoed this remark, as the high-pitched tomes of the burglar were palpable enough, but he remained discreetly silent. Without waiting for an invitation, the visitor followed his guide, and to his delight and surprise found himself face to face with Jarvis and Brace, the latter looking up with considerable alarm at the unexpected visitor.
"I am fortunate," Daintree commenced. "Brace, you do not appear to be in any hurry to consummate your promised reformation. Oblige me by retiring to some convenient place whilst I have a little private conversation with Jarvis. Come, my time is limited."
"It isn't a plant?" Jarvis asked, with palpable uneasiness. "'Cause if so you'll find me a different customer here, I promise."
"I shall find you the same kind of customer, as you term it, always," said Daintree. "Neither is this what you figuratively term a plant. I am here to ask a question."
"And blest is it sha'n't be granted," Jarvis responded heartily. "Say on, sir, and if I can do it the thing shall be done."
"Ah! I thought we should understand one another. I dare say in your legal experience you have come across the term 'compounding a felony.' Now I need not tell you that I am not anxious to incur that epithet. Leaving that for a moment, an enthusiast in his calling like yourself must know that a burglary was committed in my neighbourhood last night."
"I shouldn't wonder," Jarvis remarked, with transparent indifference. "There are a lot of shocking bad characters about, sir."
"Well, you and I musn't be hard on them, Jarvis. The burglary in question consisted of robbing a safe—one of the new safes with time locks, you understand. It is a great pity that you should have been anticipated considering that, on your own showing, you are, so to speak, the sole patentee."
Jarvis sighed pleasantly, perfectly understanding the allusion, and comprehending the necessity of keeping up the damning deception.
"The best of us get anticipated at times," he said. "Still, the safe was forced, and I could have done it myself. So far, so good, and mum's the word between us. I can trust you, and you can trust me. Now sir?"
"So far the ground is clear. The contents of that safe are in London?"
"You can bet on that," Jarvis returned, confidentially. "I know that much."
"Very good. I have a fancy to see one of the secret places where articles of an intrinsic value are hidden after a robbery. I want you to show me this, if you could yourself. And, Jarvis, if we came across the very place where the contents of last night's robbery are hidden, what an extremely curious coincidence it would be. I really should like to come across such a singular place today."
"I understand stranger things than that have happened," Jarvis replied seriously. "Without any more being said, come with me."
Daintree reinstated his hat, and followed his guide out into the street. They went along more than one dingy-looking thoroughfare till, at length, Jarvis paused before a respectable-looking clothier's shop, and passed quickly in. With a significant gesture to the amiable, elderly-looking woman who presided at the counter. He made his way upstairs into a fairly well-lighted room, the floor of which was littered with disorderly bags of second-hand garments of all descriptions. Hastily throwing aside a huge pile in one corner, he came to a heap of papers, some neatly folded and stacked, while others were littered in picturesque confusion.
"Not a lot, sir, as you observe, and most if it rubbish," Jarvis explained. "Without boastin', and them sayin' too much, that's every blessed scrap as ever come out of one of those wonderful time-lock safes, and not so many hours ago either. The two parties they belonged to"—Daintree smiled—"were a-goin' to be goin' through this very night."
It was an uncongenial, and not a very cleanly, task to wade through every paper in a close, evil-smelling room, but for nearly an hour Daintree searched the bag, while Jarvis looked on unconcernedly. There was absolutely nothing of value there, nothing save a few private memoranda, except at the very bottom of the accumulation, where a bundle of grimy parchments came to light. The seeker turned them over, till three parts of the way through, when his attention was arrested by one newer and cleaner than the rest, to which it was attached. They were both endorsed, the one being a date early in the last century, the other within two years of the present time.
"I have seen all I want to see," Daintree said, with a strange thrill in his voice. "After all, it is not very interesting. Still, as a memento of my visit, I will keep this old piece of parchment, if you have no objection."
"You can have the whole boiling if you like," Jarvis murmured with all the generosity of one bestowing another's goods. "If I'd ha' known—I mean if the man who went out of his way to get that rubbish had known as much as he does now, they would have been at Chisle—I mean where they came from still. It's a neat discovery wasted, that's what it is."
Daintree felt more easy when the street was reached. Now that the first excitement had worn off, he began to realize the fact that his adventure might have had a far more dramatic conclusion.
"You never told me how those time locks can be opened," he remarked, as he lingered for a moment by the burglar's door.
"I ain't quite sure I know," Jarvis replied, cautiously; "but I don't mind telling you my idea. The clock inside is wound up to a certain hour when it runs out, and the safe doors open. Think of that now—nothing to work up, no purchase for bits, or drill, or plate cutters, and no cracks for the powder. Where are your burglars now? Beaten, of course, you say. But suppose we think of a way to make a clock run faster. Suppose we take a small, very small, dynamite cartridge, and explode that upon the top of the safe—what then. Why, away goes the the spring of your clock, the wheels run down, and in a minute the door is open. Leastways," concluded the speaker, with a grin so broad that his mouth almost reaches back to his ears, "leastways, that's how I should have gone to work if I had anything to do with that little job at Chislehurst."
With a mind curiously exultant, Daintree was driven homeward, where he stopped at his club, and liberally paid the driver, who by this time had begun to regard his fare some considerable degree of suspicion. When there, he rapidly wrote out a letter and a telegram. The latter ran as follows:—
"Daintree, Oxford and Cambridge Club, to Brassey, Dalebrook Lodge, Chislehurst.
"Be at Bolitree to-night, all of you, at seven sharp. Have news of great importance. Remind K. of my challenge."
The letter was addressed to the City offices of Mr. Septimus Bartley, and was certainly calculated to relieve that gentleman's pressing anxiety:—
"DEAR MR. BARTLEY,—
"I have heard of your loss this afternoon, and tender you my condolences upon the annoyance to which you have been subjected. It is a little singular that, while my name being forged has been the cause of all the trouble, I should be fortunate enough to be able to throw an important light upon the robbery. If you can possibly walk up to Bolitree to-night, about nine, I shall be able to elaborate the mystery.
"I think that will do," murmured the writer, as he blotted his neat signature. "By Jove, it is equal to any play I ever saw! One wants to be a Frenchman to enjoy the dramatic scene we shall have to-night."
A little after eight o'clock the same evening, a small group were gathered round the fire in the Bolitree drawing-room, for the evening had turned chilly, and the flickering light shone gratefully upon the flushed, interested faces looking up to Daintree as he stood leaning on the mantelshelf. It was an interesting tale he had to tell, the recital of which had just commenced.
"Do you mean to say you were alone with a real burglar here?" asked Kitty, her eyes sparkling with alarm. "All by yourself?"
"All by myself. I had no idea of encountering the fellow myself, until I heard of your desperate state of affairs at the Lodge. When Kitty here and I talked the matter over, I had an inspiration. I determined to let Mr. Burglar come and take a few lessons from him, if possible."
"I told you he had been committing burglary!" Kitty cried. "I knew that when he told us just now he had got the best of Mr. Bartley. I am dying to hear that part of the story."
"All in good time," Brassey put in. "But you hav'n't made it clear yet how you know your house had been selected for a robbery."
"William discovered it, as Brace was indiscreet enough to pick upon him for a confederate. I ordered him to say nothing, but to profess himself willing to be the tool, which, as a matter of fact, Brace was to cowardly to enact himself. From William I learnt all particulars. My first idea was to go up to town and put the police upon the alert, and take the burglar Jarvis red-handed. But I had a happier inspiration than that. With the assistance of William, who came home on purpose, I saw Jarvis myself; and a very enjoyable evening it proved to be."
"Did he teach you how to open Mr. Bartley's safe?" Kitty asked, mischievously. "You appear to have learnt your lesson well, 'Burglar Bill's pupil.'"
"I didn't go quite so far as that; but I certainly have learnt how these time locks can be manipulated," Daintree replied. "Indeed, I was also indiscreet enough to let him know that Mr. Bartley's safe was fitted with one, since he seemed so anxious to try. It certainly is a strange thing that it should have been done within so short a time."
"I am absolutely mystified," Mrs. Brassey observed. "There seems to have been some wonderful plot, but I cannot understand whether or not it succeeded. You say Mr. Bartley—"
"Who is here to answer for himself," Daintree interpolated, as that individual was ushered in, to his extreme discomfiture. "We were just discussing your unfortunate loss, Mr. Bartley."
"Ah, indeed!" that worthy stammered. "But I understood that you wished to see me on business—private business."
"It affects us all," Daintree remarked, coolly. "The business upon which I wish to confer with you requires exactly the witnesses who are present. Pardon me if I refer to a painful subject, but I understand from my friend, Mr. Brassey, that you are under the impression that no release of the Battiscombe property was ever executed by you. City men are apt to forget such trifles, but I will ask you once more to consider carefully whether or not you are labouring under a mis-apprehension."
"Really, this treatment is hardly fair," Bartley protested, his long, serious face aglow with indignation. "I certainly did not expect this, and again I shall not attempt to substantiate my emphatic denial that no release was ever executed by me. If you will allow me—"
"You will certainly not leave this room till you have heard all I have to say," Daintree responded, with stern determination. "Your family lawyer, who drew up the document, is dead, and your affairs are now administered by another solicitor. But the witnesses are alive—one in America, where he obtained a situation on your recommendation; and the other, Saunders by name, who is employed in your office. Surely these circumstances may serve to refresh your memory, Mr. Bartley."
"This is a conspiracy," returned the cheat, with faltering dignity. "Surely my reputation is worth something, and surely my word is worth more than that of a mere clerk, who will tell you that—"
"That you signed that deed. You need not hope to coerce him, since he is under my roof at the present moment, ready to substantiate all I say. I will do Mr. Saunders the justice to remark that he knew little or nothing of your attempted fraud, but it is a little singular that you should have arranged to send him out to America also."
The detected listener braced himself for the coming struggle. But, despite his fine assumption of outraged dignity, there was something in his questioner's calm face that seemed to chill his soul and damp all his natural courage.
"Your proofs," he said. "You have made a challenge, and asserted that I am a trickster and a thief. My clerk remembers attesting a document purporting to be made between myself and Mr. Brassey. Where is the document you profess to have discovered?"
"The document is here," said Daintree, as he drew the flat packet from his coat-pocket; "here, neatly tucked away inside an older parchment, so that it might escape discovery. A very pretty scheme, Mr. Bartley; but the game is over now, for even you are not bold enough to deny your own handwriting."
As if fascinated by the sight of the crackling sheepskin, as if its red seal had been a snake to sting him, the detected imposter gazed in dumbfounded confusion upon the yellow sheet in Daintree's hand.
"It has been stolen from me!" he cried. "It is a vile conspiracy to ruin me! Still, I shall be even with you yet! You have that, certainly: but even your hirelings cannot recover the Battiscombe deeds!"
"Now, really, that is a very childish remark," Daintree observed, pitifully. "Of course, they are deposited with your bankers as security for a temporary loan; and when I show the senior partner in Brooks's this document, he will probably prosecute you for obtaining money by false pretences. And it shall be done, unless we have the deeds within a week."
"Is there anything more you want me to do?" Bartley asked, humbly, when at length he found himself face to face in the hall with Daintree, without the faintest notion how he got there. "I—I—You don't know what I have suffered lately, and how I have been tortured."
"We will leave all that to the imagination—where you found it," Daintree replied, with lofty disgust. "Get those deeds back within the week, and rely upon us to say nothing. We are not afraid for our part. Here is your hat. In a week, mind. Good night!"
The flickering firelight showed the tears in Mrs. Brassey's eyes, as Daintree did not fail to notice. Reggie caught him by the hand, while Kitty looked up with a glance in which pleasure, love, and admiration were all mingled. There was happiness enough and to spare, but no one spoke for a moment.
"I declare I could kiss you!" Kitty whispered, as she laid her white arms on her lover's shoulders and looked into his eyes with rapture.
"Don't restrain your feelings," Charlie laughed; but there was a catch in his voice, too. "It is always a bad thing for young people to do. At any rate, I think I have fairly earned my reward, as I have fairly redeemed my promise. And here is the proof of my assertion."
He placed the paper, so insignificant-looking and yet meaning so much, in her hands, Brassey looking on in stolid astonishment.
"But where on earth did you get that from?" he found words to ask.
"Where do you imagine I got it from? Do you think I fired the imagination of my burglar friend for nothing? Why, when I told him where he could find scope for his zeal in the time-lock line, he rose to it directly. My real inspiration of genius came when I opened the Globe this afternoon, and read that Bartley had been robbed. I rushed straight to town, and, by diplomatic means, got a sight of the contents of the safe."
"But how could you possibly know that the same thieves had been at each?" Mrs. Brassey asked. "That was not all guess work."
"Not quite," Daintree admitted, candidly. "William was told off to watch Brace after the attempted burglary here, and he discovered the fact that that rascal had stolen some of my papers. When my name was chosen as the decoy, I felt absolutely certain."
It was a merry, if a somewhat quiet, party who left Bolitree an hour later. Brassey and his wife in front, Daintree and Kitty lingering behind. The peaceful starlight night suited their mood, and for once Kitty was shy and constrained.
"It was clever of you," she whispered, as she tightened her grasp on the arm upon which she was leaning. "But I shall always be afraid of you now."
"Because I am a burglar?" Charles laughed. "There is only one thing more I want to steal, and that I must have, if it is not mine already."
"Your heart, darling. It was a promise, you remember."
"Which was given before the promise was made," Kitty answered, shyly, as her lover stooped and pressed his lips to hers. "It was given before, so that you have had no reward after all. And to think," she continued, with her old gaiety—"to think, that with all my aspirations after the heroes of fiction who come with titles and riches galore to lay them at the feet of the impecunious but beautiful maiden, I should fall so low as to marry 'Burglar Bill's Pupil.'"
I AM NOT a great novelist, albeit a fairly popular one. It is far better to be popular than great and makes all the difference to one's material comfort A great author is rarely appreciated, at least until he is dead, whereas the popular one winters in the Riviera and has portraits of his drawing room furniture in The Strand Magazine. Anyway my work is in good demand. Commissions are plentiful, so plentiful that last summer I rather overdid the thing, the natural consequence being nervous irritability and a tendency to lie awake o' nights, and as a greater writer than myself says, "That way madness lies."
"What you want," remarked my doctor, who is one of those charming practitioners who always precribe exactly what the patient most longs for, "is a thorough change. Give up work altogether for a month. Go to some quiet, breezy spot on the coast and simply live out of doors."
I had no difficulty in summoning up enough will power to follow out this request. Solitude has no terrors for me. I packed up my bag and took the first train to Barnstaple, whence I drifted to a place called Morthoe, and there I pitched my tent—if the expression may be allowed—in a comfortable farmhouse, where the welcome was all that could possibly be expected for the money.
I did not tell anyone what my profession was, and consequently I passed for an ordinary individual. After a time I naturally made acquaintances—the parson and the squire and that kind of thing. There was nobody with whom to talk shop, which was a drawback. But even that comes in time. I found my fidus Achates one morning on the sands, where I had gone in search of a bath. He was a tall, rather melancholy-looking man, with a restless eye. Being anything but a bold swimmer, and the coast being dangerous, I was naturally indisposed to try the briny deep, and my new acquaintance obligingly pointed out a perfect natural bath wherein I could disport myself.
"Almost as if it were made on purpose," he remarked." I always come here myself. I've got a house behind the sand hills there. I shall be pleased to see you any evening that you care to drop in."
I thanked the speaker, and for the time being we parted. Subsequent inquiry elicited the fact that my friend's name was Walter Wanless, and that he was a stranger who had taken a furnished house there for a year. Usually, I was informed, he preserved a reserved attitude. He was inclined to be eccentric, and all is housework, cooking, etc., was done for him by a solitary manservant, who, so the gossips hinted, was employed more In the capacity of a keeper than anything else.
As a novelist this suggestion merely served to pique my curiosity. A writer looks unconsciousiy for copy even in moments of leisure. But I am bound to confess that I saw nothing peculiar in the behavior of Wanless when one day I lunched with him. The sole was done to the turn, a subsequent dish of curry left nothing to be desired, the sherry was really dry and not merely acid, and the lusty servitor waited in a manner which would have done credit to a professional. Yet at the same time I oould not help seeing that Wanless was very much afraid of his man Bellamy. For instance, when he attempted to help himself to a third. glass of sherry, Bellamy calmly removed the glass and placed the decanter at my end of the table. The thing was done so coolly that I could hardly restrain my astonishment. For a moment I saw a lurid light flash into the peculiar dark eyes of my host His hand clinched; then he laughed pleasantly. "Bellamy presumes, as all old servants do," Wanless said. "But he is right, all the same. I am a wretched drinker."
Bellamy said nothing. He did not even smile. He handed round a box of cigars, from which Wanless selected one, and then he locked up the box and put the key in his pocket.
"You don't want to sit here all day, sir," he said respectfully, but firmly. "You had better go for a walk, I think."
Wanless rose obediently, and I followed. As we passed through the hall I caught a glimpse of a small but complete-looking library, which was lined with books. With the fascination that volumes of any kind possess for me, I was about to enter when Bellamy closed the door and locked it. "Sir," he said to his employer, "you are wasting the afternoon."
Well, it wasn't for me to interfere if Wanless was disposed to put up with that kind of thing. We had a very pleasant afternoon upon the sands, when I found my friend to be a wonderfully entertaining companion, exceedingly well read, but shy, I thought, on speaking of modern writers of fiction. We parted at length with mutual regret.
"I shall not see you for the next day or two," Wanless remarked, grasping my hand heartily, "as business calls me away, but I shall be delighted if you will dine with me on Thursday. Bellamy will not be present, as he has a day off, and I shall order dinner to be sent in from the hotel. And now good afternoon, my dear Gibson."
As a matter of fact, my name is Osborne, but it is one of the weaknesses of human nature whenever a man is addressed by the wrong patronymic to allow the mistake to pass. It would have been far better for me had I corrected the mistake instead of allowing it to pass in my haste to accept the invitation to dinner.
At half past 6 on the Thursday night I entered Wanless' dining-room. The dinner was not all that could be desired, but then Bellamy was absent, and the food was brought and served by a waiter from the hotel. The wines, which were my host's own, left nothing to be wanted. The peculiar sherry was there and some wonderful champagne of 1874 vintage to which we both did ample justice. By the time we had completed our repast Wanless' eyes were shining, and his manner had grown a little more boisterous.
"And now no more wine," he said as he dismissed the waiter. "I shall suffer terribly in the morning from what I have had already, and Bellamy will bully me in his polite way for a week. Let us go into the library and smoke. We shall be quite alone and can have a cozy chat. It is not often that I have the nerve to face my books, much as I love them. Time was when things were very different, and—"
Wanless broke off abruptly and led the way to the library. A lamp was on the table. A little fire burned in the grate, and yet in that cheerful, book-lined apartment I felt singularly depressed. I tried to shake off the feeling. I tried to ignore the gleam that flashed in the dark, restless eyes of my companion. With as much ease as I could assume I carelessly examined the well-filled shelves. "You appear to have a good selection here," I remarked. "In so select a gathering I am flattered at seeing a volume of my own."
Any writer will pardon the innocent vanity of the remark. I heard a short sharp exclamation break from my host. I saw his eyes blazing as he looked toward the book on which my hand lay lovingly.
"Oh, so you are that Osborne," he said in a manner most uncomplimentary. "I had no idea that I was entertaining so great a man. Ah, ah!" The laugh was about the most unpleasant I have over heard.
"Sit down," my host commanded. "Oh, I know your work very well indeed. In fact, I know the work of the whole gang of you. But I haven't read a line of that volume of short stories you have there. The stories are quite recent I suppose?"
I replied as quietly as I could in the affirmative, at least as quietly as a man can when his host with eyes "in a fine frenzy rolling," locks the door and puts the key carefully away in his pocket.
"Then of course you remember all the dénouement—hateful word," Wanless said as he opened my innocent book and glanced at the first story. "We will have a little mental amusement and you shall correct me if I am wrong. I see the first story is a ghost tale called 'The White Mystery.' And here, looking casually through, I find are two characters. They are brothers—one a brave military man, the other a nervous, imaginative youth who is scoffed at by the brother because he fears a ghost. Let me forecast the end of the story. The youngster sees the spook and dies of terror on the spot while the other fool can never speak afterwards without trembling when he recounts the story. Doesn't he say that he 'cannot speak of the nameless horror of that awful face'?"
"You have guessed it" I said, with a stifled parody of a laugh. But Wanless did not appear to be at all elated by his success. He smiled with bitter, weary scorn and fluttered over the leaves to the next story. "I take no credit to myself for that discovery," he proceeded, "Here is another little thing, entitled 'My Uncle Dick.' Heavens, what awful memories does that hoary kind of title conjure up! Let me prophesy again. Uncle Dick is a man of money. He is crusty and curt. The hero of the story, written in the autobiographical style, wants to marry a cousin, and the old boy won't let him. Said old boy dies of apoplexy after a fit of passion and leaves nothing to the narrator but an old deed chest, in which are discovered securities of priceless value. So they get married and live happily ever after, eh?"
"Your foresight is really wonderful," I replied. "Any one would think that you had been a writer of current fiction yourself."
Wanless glared at me so threateningly that I involuntarily moved toward the poker. His eyes were filled with horror, hate and loathing.
"Man, you don't know what I am. You cannot understand what has brought me to my present pitiable condition," he hissed. "Let us carry on the ghastly farce to the end. Here is another of your screeds. It is called 'The Black Bag.' I wonder how many thousands of tales have been written with the same title? Again let us pursue the psychological programme. The hero is a young man who gets into conversation with an engaging stranger in a railway carriage. The fascinating one has a black bag. When they change carriages, some one accosts the stranger, who informs his companion he is detained by business. Well, he delivers the bag at an address in Liverpool. It's always Liverpool, by the way. Well, the police arrest the courteous ass, and the bag contains an infernal machine. Man, can you deny that I am correct?"
I couldn't. My head was bowed with shame. Viewing myself in the lurid mirror of those dark eyes, I saw myself as others see me. Never has an author been so at the mercy of a critic before.
"I claim no marvelous foresight," Wanless said sternly. "Let us try again. Here is another story, called *A Strange Coincidence.' Need I say that it refers to a singular dream of a deserted wife which makes such an impression upon her that she telegraphs her husband not to go near a certain place at a time named. He disregards the warning and is murdered. Again, I will ask you to correct me if I am mistaken."
"Well, you are this time," I said as cheerfully as possible. "The husband refrains, and some one mistaken for him is done to death."
This little point in my favor rendered me more cheerful. I was about to give vent to some little jeu d'esprit when my companion gave a cry of rage and horror, at the same time dashing the book to the ground. "I knew it!" he shouted as he bounded to his feet. "I knew that I should come across it in that oursed volume. I cannot even get away from it in my solitary retreat. Is there no originality in the craft at all? Here it is in your volume called 'By Mental Telegraph.' The title explains the story. Oh, I know that mysterious, slender, beautiful maiden, with her visions and hallucinations, but too well—the psychological siren who has driven me to madness. She recovers when she gets a husband and becomes a model queen of the nursery ever afterward. But I shall always be the same. It is you and your class who are responsible for this. You must die."
With the last word ringing on his lips Wanless flew at me and bore me to the ground. Strong as I was, I was powerless in his grasp, for the madman possessed the strength of a dozen beings at that moment. I could feel his hot breath upon my face as he bent over me.
"You are one of the fiends who have robbed me of my reason," he hissed. "You are one of the successful hacks who dress up old tales and try to galvanize paralytic corpses into life until the gibbering dead faces mock us to insanity. Once I deemed the world to be fresh and bright, but the weary monotony of the novels I craved for made me what I am. Make the most of your time. You will never leave this room alive. As a duty to my fellow sufferers I am going to rid the world of one scribbling fiend tonight!"
I tried to expostulate, but the words died on my lips. Wanless bent over me and gripped my throat vith convulsive force. The strength of despair came back to me as I realized that we were in that solitary place alone, and that my life depended upon my own efforts. We rolled over and over, but Wanless was always uppermost From time to time I compelled him to relinquish his grip. The sudden rush of air to m lung s caused m e to feel sick and dizzy. But the contest was bound to end in one way, for as I became weaker my antagonist gathered fresh vigor.
"It is useless," he cried triumphantly. "You have got to die."
I knew it, but would not despair. And then, as I commenced to fail, there came a sound welcome as a voice from heaven—the sound of Bellamy's step in the hall. He tried the door, only to find it fast. He shouted, and in response came a feeble gurgle from me. Bellamy wasted no further time. Something told him that he had arrived in time to prevent a terrible tragedy. As Bellamy's whole weight broke in the door Wanless gave me a squeeze that caused the countless Stars to dance and flicker before my eyes. Then sleep, peaceful and childlike.
When I came to myself again, I was in bed. The windows were open to the breeze, a glorious sun was shining, and Bellamy stood respecfully before me, On the whole, I felt little the worse for my adventure.
"I am extremely sorry for what has happened, sir," Bellamy said politely. "The people here know nothing, and I shall esteem it a personal favor if you will preserve our secret. I ought perhaps to have told you, sir."
"But what on earth is the matter with Mr. Wanless?" I asked.
"Well, sir," Bellamy said deferentially, "my master's name is not Wanless at all. He is Mr. Cultshaw, the critic and essayist who used to be 'reader' to Messrs. Gilley, the great publishers. Of course you know him by name, sir. Two years ago the poor gentleman had brain fever from overwork, and he's never been the same since. If he has three glasses of wine, he's quite mad. Usually he is harmless enough, but when excited he has a perfectly morbid hatred of magazine writers. He attributes his malady to reading the same class of story with what he calls the same motif over and over again. He did not know you by sight and indeed mistook your name, but you he holds in especial detestation, sir. He would have killed you if he could."
"I quite believe that Bellamy," I replied grimly. "But you may trust me to say nothing about what has happened. How is your patient?"
"Perfectly well this morning and without a notion of what took place last night. But on the whole, sir, I would respectfully beg to suggest that you do not meet again. I don't suppose that you are specially attached to the place, and as it agrees with my poor master"—
"Say no more, Bellamy," I replied. "I will get away today. I came out for quiet and rest and not for midnight adventures. And there's a £10 note for you, Bellamy, with my most grateful thanks."
From that day to this I have seen nothing of Wanless, nor am I likely to now, for he died last week, and therefore I am at liberty to publish this singular story, the moral of which is obvious. People say that latterly my stories are less trite than they were. Have any of you noticed it, may I ask?
— Fred M. White in Chambers' Journal.
LADY CONWAY drew her cloak closer around her. Really, the weather was most annoying. Why are the elements so republican, and why do they disturb aristocratic picnics the same as they do the cottage of 'Arry and 'Arriet!
"I hope that I am not causing you inconvenience," quoth her ladyship.
The girl to whom Lady Conway spoke did not seem to be overcome by the greatness of her visitor, although the latter had confessed her rank and station. An aristocratic flavor and odor of wealth seemed to permeate the sitting-room of the cottage where Lady Conway was sheltering from the storm. Doubtless the other patrician revellers had found havens elsewhere.
"You have not been living here long—er—Miss Anthony."
Corona Anthony's cheek dimpled. An audacious observer might have said that she was laughing at the questioner. A feeling of annoyance possessed Lady Conway. People in cottages, especially in cottages contiguous to Sir Robert's estate, were not prone to treat her in this way.
"I gather that you are not purely English?" the visitor proceeded.
"Unfortunately, no. But your people are very kind to us."
Lady Conway felt a little inclined to box Corona's ears. She was puzzled; and few of us enjoy that sensation. The whole thing savored of mystery. The cottage was small the kind of tenement which in the country produces about 10 per annum, and yet the furniture was exquisite.
There were few pictures on the walls, but they were gems. As the wife of an ex-Ambassador who knew the East well, Lady Conway was not blind to the fact that Conway Court contained nothing finer or more costly in the way of a carpet than the Persian square on the cottage floor. Those bronzes were beyond all question Cellinis.
To a certain extent all this was a grievance. So was the beauty of Corona. A girl living in a 10 cottage had no business to be so lovely as Corona. Her features had the high patrician cast of the Greek; her hair was as the glory of the summer morning; she moved about the room with the grace and ease of a cat. With Marion Crawford and Turgeneff in her mind, Lady Conway found her thoughts gravitating in the direction of Nihilism. Some of these foreign desperadoes were fairly well born, and money was always ready for political crime. Being of a passing generation Lady Conway had, of course, read 'Idalia.' Corona Anthony was Idalia revised, and brought up to date.
On the whole, Lady Conway was by no means sorry when the passing thunder-cloud had spent its force, and she was free to seek her picnic party once more. The sun shone brightly upon the hanging woods beyond the river, already the short springy turf was drying fast under the warm rays. At the trysting-place the revellers had already foregathered.
There were Sir Robert Conway, big and pompous; his son Robert, a natty young man, with a pleasant, handsome face and a frank smile. Most of the girls regarded Bob Conway tenderly—it is a way they have with good-looking youngsters who are heirs apparent to fat investments and ancient acres. There were nice-looking women, a few diplomats, and Ivan Lobanoff.
The latter, an attache of the Liberian Embassy, came sliding up to Lady Conway, who spoke highly of the fascination of Lobanoff's manner. He had a slim waist, a sleek head, and a fearfully waxed moustache. Some people averred that he was not troubled with many scruples. They were wrong, inasmuch as he had no scruples at all.
"We have missed you," he said. "We were beginning to get alarmed."
"To tell the truth," Lady Conway remarked. "I have had an adventure. Robert, who are those people who have taken the Red Cottage?"
"Really, I cannot say, my dear," Sir Robert replied. "Magness says they are foreigners. So long as they pay their rent regularly it doesn't matter. Why?"
"Because there is a girl there. A most beautiful girl, who looks like a lady. But you must have seen her. Is she not lovely?"
"Not bad," said Bob. "Dark, isn't she? I've almost forgotten."
Lobanoff smiled. He sidled up to Bob like a cat. He never walked boldly up to anybody, like other people. He seemed to regard others as his mice.
"You overdid that, mon cher," he whispered. "Oh, yes; I understand."
But Corona Anthony was already forgotten. There were other things to occupy the general attention. And so the afternoon passed away until the carriages came and drove the Conway house party home to dinner. Sir Robert, who found picnics to be out of his line, crept into the library for a cigar before dressing. There he found Lord Maltravers, Envoy to the Court of Arsenia, now in England on leave, supposed to be connected with some important treaty.
"Just the very man I wanted," said the latter. "Have you looked over the papers."
"I have, my dear Mal; I congratulate you. The thing will be a great triumph for you; a fine thing, commercially speaking, for England. It will represent the first reversion of Paris or Vienna."
"Not if Lobanoff knew," Maltravers smiled.
"No, he would not hesitate to steal the papers. Just now the fellow's presence in the house constitutes a positive danger. I feel perfectly certain he was at the bottom of the disappearance of those precis notes in Berlin that caused so much trouble when I was there years ago. Why my wife asked him to come down just now I can't imagine."
"My dear fellow, your wife said the same about yourself. The man seems to have actually invited himself. I wonder if he knows about those papers. But Vickers comes to-night and leaves with them tomorrow."
"Good! Take my advice, and give Vickers a hint. You'd better have the papers now."
Sir Robert proceeded to unlock the safe in a corner of a library. But the papers in question were not to be found. The pallor of Sir Robert's face was reflected by the dead whiteness of Maltravers'. In silence every paper was turned out, but no draft treaty was to be found amongst them.
"I'll take my oath," Sir Robert remarked in trembling tones, "that I placed the documents there last night at eleven. I locked up the safe carefully, and put the key in my pocket. I had one cigar in the smoking-room afterwards."
"Ah! That would be after all the rest of us had gone to bed. Were you alone."
"No, Lobanoff was with me. I dropped to sleep for a few minutes over my cigar, and when I came to myself Lobanoff had gone. But the key of the safe was in my pocket. I found it there this morning."
"Tell me, did you feel tired and heavy when you woke?"
"Well, yes, come to think of it. But I fail to see—"
"Pshaw! Lobanoff's presence here is explained. Russia is at the bottom of it, of course. You were drugged with some potent yet transient poison. Don't look like that, my dear old friend; I cannot blame you. I am ruined."
"Who speaks about ruin?"
The two old men turned with a start. Bob stood there. Moved by the impulse of a sympathetic longing, Sir Robert told the story.
"What an infernal shame!" Bob cried. "Of course, it is not for me to advise you, but if I were you I would go on just as if nothing had happened. Don't let Lobanoff see you have discovered your loss. We may hit upon some way of getting the document back. We might pay him off in his own coin."
"Not in my house," Sir Robert said, sternly.
"All the same the lad is right," Maltravers replied. "Heaven grant that there may be some way found out of the difficulty."
Hearts may ache and eyes smart with tears restrained, but men must dine. Under the pools of light cast by shaded lamps the guests sat and chatted merrily. None were more gay than Sir Robert and Maltravers. Diplomacy formed the staple food for conversation. The State of Sparta gave a start to the discourse.
"Depend upon it," Maltravers remarked, "that the late King Hugo did a wise and patriotic thing when he resigned the throne and went into voluntary exile. He had done the fighting and his exit soothed wounded pride, and made the way clear for the needed social reforms. A man in a million."
Nobody seemed to combat this statement, and the meal proceeded. King Hugo's utter disappearance had created a profound impression three years before, but it had become ancient history by this time, and some of the younger men were playing with their cigarette cases impatiently. Lady Conway took the hint, taking a rustling train of silks and scents after her.
One or two of the men drifted out on the terrace. Bob drifted further still, and that was out into the park. Once out of sight he began to slide along more quickly, until he came under the shadow of a spreading oak, where he he paused.
A minute or two later and a girl joined him. It was Corona Anthony. A rare smile trembled on her lips, there was a proud, yet shy, welcome in her eyes.
"How good of you!" Bob whispered.
"Say rather how good of both of us," was the reply. "And how wrong of both of us."
"Why? My dear Corona, if you only knew—"
"My dear Bob, if your mother only knew!"
She had him there. But youth is ever sanguine, and Bob had always been a spoilt boy from the early days.
"My mother will come to love you yet," he cried.
"Never so much as you do," Corona said decisively. "No, I shan't let you kiss me. I am not going to be kissed until—well, until your mother says you may. And now tell me all the news. I am always interested in the doings of great people."
Almost before Bob was aware of the fact, he had told the story of the missing treaty. Corona surprised him by the intelligent interest she betrayed, and the comprehensive grasp of the whole question at issue.
"I know the country well," she said. "My father—but never mind my father. The question is—whom do you suspect?"
"Well," Bob replied, "there is a man called Lobanoff—"
"Lobanoff! Ivan Lobanoff! Did I hear the name aright?"
Bob regarded the speaker with amazement. She seemed to have grown inches taller. She might have been a queen rebuking a criminous subject. With a ring of command in her voice, she turned to Bob.
"Fetch that man to me at once," she said. "I will wait here. Go!"
Bob went. He couldn't help it. Had Corona ordered him to burn down the court in the same ringing voice he felt that he must have obeyed. He found Lobanoff hanging over the terrace puffing rings of smoke into the amber air.
"Come along with me," he said. "I want you."
Lobanoff complied without wasting time in questions. But as Corona stepped from behind the tree his gay air vanished. He seemed to be framing words with his lips, but no sound came from them.
"Leave us," said Corona to Bob. "You will please to retire out of hearing, but you need not go out of sight."
Bob complied, wondering. He saw that Corona was speaking words of winged flame.
"You miserable wretch," she was saying. "I am not going to spare you. A pretty servant of the Czar are you—taking his money and plotting for his life. A telegram to the Chief of Police at St. Petersburg, hinting at a search of your headquarters there, and your life is not worth a month's purchase. How do I know this. Your ally, Count Czarny, fell into my brother's hands a while ago, and the compromising papers found on him betrayed you all. False to the Czar as you are to us, why should I spare you?"
"Ah, that accounts for Czarny's strange silence," Lobanoff cried.
Corona smiled meaningly.
"Spare me," Lobanoff went on; "have a little mercy. I admit that my treachery to the—to your father was great, but I have tried to atone. My new life—"
"You lie," Corona cried, "there is no new life for you. As well expect the sun to shine by night. Even here you are playing your vile part. Still, I am prepared to spare your life, for I do hold your life, on one condition."
"Name it, and it is yours," Lobanoff cried eagerly.
"Give me the papers you stole from Sir Robert Conway last night."
The Russian's jaw dropped. He passionately denied the accusation.
"They are in your pocket at the present moment," Corona said, as she prepared to move away; "you dare not trust them elsewhere. But as you seem to have made your choice, so you must abide by it."
Lobanoff collapsed suddenly. He snatched the papers from his breast.
"Take them," he whispered; "take them, and for ever hold your peace."
"The word of an Anthony should suffice for a Lobanoff," Corona replied. "I have no wish to detain you any longer, sir. If you take my advice, you will endeavor to find a more suitable climate elsewhere."
Lobanoff crept away, and presently disappeared. When Bob came eagerly up to Corona again, the ice had melted once more.
"Here are the papers you required," she smiled. "Am I not clever?"
"I am positively afraid of you," Bob replied. "It is like a wonderful romance. How did you manage to coerce that man?"
"That must be my secret for the present, Bob. You may know all some day. Lobanoff once held service under my father. He was guilty of a dual treachery which, if exposed to the Czar, would cause him to end his days in Siberia. I used this threat as a lever, and you have the result in your hands. Lord Maltravers will sleep with an easy mind to-night."
"You darling! And I may tell, then, that you—"
Corona had a sudden relapse into her regal manner.
"You will do nothing of the kind," she said. "If you dare to betray me, I shall never speak to you again. I cannot use this thing as a passport to the good graces of your family. If you only knew my history—"
Corona broke off suddenly. She saw how eagerly Bob was waiting for the rest. Then her lovely face broke into a rippling smile.
"Go home," she said, "go home and ease the mind of that nice old gentleman. I used to know him once, but there is no occasion to recall the fact. Then you can meet me here the day after to-morrow and tell me what has happened. All your guests will be gone by that time, I understand."
Bob found his father and Maltravers in the library. They were still discussing the impasse, and melancholy had marked them for her own. Bob drew the papers from his pocket, and held them aloft triumphantly.
"Who speaks first?" he asked.
Maltravers gave a hoarse cry. He could hardly believe his eyes. When he became a little more composed again he asked how the thing was managed.
"I'm afraid I can't tell you," Bob replied. "Unfortunately the secret is not my own. Oh, yes, Lobanoff had the papers, and the—a—other person persuaded him to give them up. I congratulate you, my lord."
With which Bob repaired to the billiard room, leaving the two men alone.
"I'm afraid this is going to cause you trouble," Maltravers observed.
"I can't see it," replied Conway. "Why?"
"Because there's a woman in the case. No man could have bested Lobanoff in that way. I'm very sorry, my dear fellow, because I'm the one most to blame."
"Nonsense, old friend; this bother has affected your intellect."
"Let us hope so," Maltravers responded. "Now I'll try one of these Partagas. I think I could appreciate the flavor to-night."
PRINCE SERGIUS MARAZOFF looked at the letter in his hand, and frowned. A recent lion in London society, he had been voted charming. His manners reminded people of Chesterfield and D'Orsay, with a dash of Bayard and the Cid thrown in. Wealthy princes in a state of bachelorhood are proverbially more fascinating than other people.
All the same the expression on the face of the Prince at this moment was anything but pleasant to see. The handsome features showed the wild Calmuc blood, the cruel Tartar strain. Under the thin veneer the tiger slept. The tiger looked out of Sergius's eyes at that moment.
The Asiatic vim seemed strangely out of place in one of the Long's most perfectly appointed sitting rooms. One does not look to see a panther lying before the fireplace in my lady's boudoir.
"A thousand curses on the woman," the Prince muttered. "Why does she worry, knowing that I am never likely to yield? And in any case, she is quite powerless to gain her ends."
Prince Sergius read the letter again. Then he tore it in a thousand pieces.
"Pshaw!" he went on. "What care I for her threats. Ten chances to one if I ever return to Russia again, and if I don't my estates are mortgaged to the last penny. The Czar will confiscate nothing there. The thing is a sham and delusion, to persuade people I have a stake in my own country. Personally, I prefer securities in London or Paris."
A gigantic servant in livery flung open the door.
"A lady to see your Excellency," he said.
"To see me! She has been here before, Fritz?"
"Even so, Prince. She left the letter last night. I said you were engaged, but she persisted. Your Excellency will instruct me."
Fritz came no further than the door. He knew his noble master in his present mood. The Calmuc was uppermost. A lurid light flashed in the eyes of the Prince, the light of murder.
"Throw her into the street," he said, hoarsely. "No, on second thoughts, you will show the lady up here, Fritz."
Fritz disappeared with more alacrity than befits a person in his exalted station. Prince Sergius might charm a ballroom by his graceful leading a cotillion, but he could also keep a servant waiting with a match for a cigarette until the flame burnt out against his fingers. He paid for this kind of thing.
Again Fritz flung open the door and a lady entered. That she had foreign blood in her veins was evident; that she was singularly beautiful was patent to the dimmest eye. Otherwise she could have passed for an Englishwoman of distinction. Sergius smiled as he indicated a chair.
"So you have found me out, Marie?" he said.
"I found you out long ago, Sergius," was the coolly contemptuous reply, rendered in the most excellent English. "I daresay you wonder what brings me here?"
"I don't wonder at all. But you won't get it."
"You have the diamonds here in England."
"To be perfectly frank, I have. They are in my possession, locked safely away at the present moment. You see, I am quite open."
"It mast be a novel sensation to you. I saw a paragraph in Truth to the effect that you had the Azoff diamonds here, also that you are to wear them to the Duchess of Grandsire's fancy dress ball on Friday."
"Correct again. I am going as an Indian Rajah."
The woman addressed as Marie laughed scornfully.
"And yet those stones are mine," she said, "as surely as you are my cousin. My mother on her death-bed gave those diamonds into your possession, and charged you to find me out and hand them over to me."
"Who told you so?"
"My old nurse Urza, who was present at the time."
"Then you accept her word in preference to mine?"
"Sergius, I would accept the word of the vulgarist guttersnipe before yours."
Prince Sergius's eyes grew lurid. Just for the moment he wished himself back in Russia again. But his voice rang steady enough.
"Listen to me," he said. "You were a Marazoff; you might be a princess to-day if your head had not been filled with a lot of rubbish about 'liberty' and the like. Then you crowned your folly by running away with a poor English author and marrying him. I am right?"
"Perfectly, and I have never regretted it."
"Possibly not. You look as serenely beautiful as ever. But your dress, pardon me, does not point to affluent or even easy circumstances."
"We are miserably poor," Marie Lorraine responded calmly. "My husband's profession never was a well-paid one. For the last three months he has been very ill. I have known the want of a meal. And all I ask now is that you will give to me what my mother intended I should have."
"Diamonds worth at the very least £100,000!"
"The value has nothing whatever to do with it. You know those jewels are mine. They were the personal property of my mother, and if she had not faded out of life so suddenly, I should have had them from her own hand."
"If you can prove the fact, they are yours."
"But I cannot. Otherwise you would not make the offer. Urza is dead also; and even if she were not, her word would weigh little against yours. At the present time I have just £27. When that is gone what will become of us heaven only knows."
Sergius crossed the room, and from a travelling bag produced a cheque-hook. He slapped it open with an irritating smile upon his face.
"A woman's conversation is like a woman's letter," he said. "All the gist comes in the postscript. Will £500 be enough?"
Marie Lorraine responded nothing. The Prince filled in a cheque for the suggested amount, and passed it over to her. Without the slightest semblance of passion Mrs. Lorraine tore the pink slip into minute fragments and puffed them contemptuously in the face of her companion.
"It is not charity I want," she said, "but my own."
"Meaning the Azoff diamonds of course?"
"Precisely. Once for all, are you going to continue to act the thief?"
The wrath of the listener boiled over. The warmth seemed to melt off the varnish and the vile stuff beneath stood revealed. An impetuous torrent of Russian poured from Marazoff's lips, a stream of brutal blasphemy that caused Marie to cover her ears.
"You coward!" she gasped indignantly. "You shall pay for this."
Sergius smiled again. The fit of passion had burned away.
"Don't talk nonsense," he said. "What can ye do to me."
"I can obtain possession of my own—and I will."
"Pshaw! You are full of your husband's romances. Revenge and Nemesis are all very well in books. In real life they go for nothing. Far better have taken my cheque and gone off as one of those sensible decadent heroines would do."
Marie Lorraine drew her cloak around her.
"I am going," she said. "Nor am I disappointed at the result of my errand. Why I really did come, you will learn later on."
So saying, the speaker swept down the steps and into the street. In Piccadilly a resolute looking young man with a fair moustache accosted her.
"Well, did you satisfy yourself, Mrs. Lorraine?" he asked eagerly.
"Perfectly," was the reply. "There is no mistake this time. You have the key and your friends will be there at the proper time."
"Oh, that's all right. You can safely leave the stage management of the farce to me. All you have to do is to see to the Amsterdam trip."
"My ticket I have already, and my disguise also, thanks to you. How nice it is to have a lot of friends who are actors."
Whereupon the two laughed, shook hands, and parted.
BY common consent the Duchess of Grandsire's fancy dress ball was looked forward to as the most brilliant function of an unusually brilliant season. The entertainments at Grandsire House, Grosvenor Square, were always on a most elaborate scale, but the present function bid fair to surpass them all.
To say that Royalty would be present would be to use a mere figure of speech. A thousand invitations had gone out, and the fortunate ones enjoyed to the full the envy and malice of those outside the pale. The mere possession of a card was in itself a passport to Belgravia. A thousand lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men. It was a fairyland of electric light, costly flowers, and gorgeous dresses gathered from the remotest recesses of the earth.
But there is no reason to attempt a description of such a pageant; nothing less than the gifted pen of a Morning Post reporter could do it justice. To be conspicuous amongst such a notable gathering was a distinction in itself, and it was given to few to obtain this cachet. It was universally awarded, however, to Prince Sergius Marazoff. His handsome and graceful form was seen to advantage in the gorgeous dress of an Eastern potentate, his turban and tunic fairly blazed with the famous Azoff diamonds. With the exception of a fortunate few American peeresses, Sergius Marazoff presented the greatest personal value from the auctioneer's point of view. If envious glances could have killed, Prince Sergius that night would have died five hundred deaths before as many pairs of gleaming eyes.
But time and the hour runs through the roughest as well as the smoothest day, and the flowers began to droop on the walls of Grandsire House. The dusky morn was creeping up from the east as Prince Sergius stood on the marble vestibule impatiently waiting for his brougham.
"Confusion to the fools," he muttered impatiently; "is there a cab to be got?"
A night cab with a driver half-asleep was crawling by at the same moment. Into this Prince Sergius stepped, closed the door after a muttered direction, and despite his rage fell into a doze.
He was aroused presently by the stopping of the cab, the throwing open of the door, and the glow of a lantern burning like some flaming eye inside. In a dreamy kind of way Prince Sergius became aware of the fact that he was in a narrow 'cul de sac,' and immediately opposite to a stone building, the windows of which were heavily barred with iron. Up a flight of steps was a substantial-looking door, beyond which could be seen a whitewashed passage. The holder of the lantern was dressed in blue, he had a row of pewter buttons on his coat and a helmet on his head. Outside the cab stood another officer of the law, similarly attired.
"What does all this mean?" the Prince demanded, haughtily.
"Your Highness is at Marlborough-street Police Station," was the gruff reply. "I have a warrant for your arrest."
"A warrant for my arrest? Absurd!"
"So it may be, your Highness; but I've got my duty to do all the same. You will have to get out, if you please."
Fuming with rage, Prince Sergius complied. At a sign from the sergeant the cab drove away, and Marazoff was led up the steps into the station and the door clanged behind him. Inside everything was bare but clean. At a desk in a kind of office sat an inspector with a big book before him. He bowed respectfully to the Prince.
"I greatly regret to put you to all this trouble," he said. "But my duty was to execute the warrant without delay."
"And having done so," Sergius sneered; "will you be good enough to read the charge, and send for my carriage without delay."
The inspector, politely, but none the less firmly, pointed out the impossibility of doing anything of the kind. Then he proceeded to read over the warrant received from the Russian police.
Prince Sergius was startled. Like most men he had had his youthful political indiscretions, but he had regarded them as relegated to obscurity long ago. And who could have so faithfully and accurately reported these peccadilloes to the Government of his own country. And how wise had he been to remove as much property as possible from Russian soil.
"They can't extradite me on that," he exclaimed.
"I am of the same opinion," responded the inspector. "But the legal forms will be complied with. You will be brought before the magistrates to-morrow, when doubtless an application for bail will be entertained."
"And meanwhile I am to be imprisoned here?"
Such appeared to be the case. In vain the haughty Russian stormed and raved. There were other indignities yet he had to suffer. All his money and papers were taken from him, his jewels and priceless sword, and when these were duly scheduled in a big ledger, Sergius had to feign the same as correct.
"They will be perfectly secure in the safe here," said the polite inspector. "I am quite distressed to cause you all this bother, but my duty would compel me to do the same in the case of a prince of blood."
With a bitter smile upon his lips and rage and fury in his heart, Sergius followed the inspector down a long passage. The latter opened a door with a key and displayed a cell with a truckle bed inside.
"Am I to sleep here?" Sergius gasped.
"Even so, your Highness," was the reply. "I regret the lack of accommodation. But we have so few distinguished prisoners."
Without another word the Prince threw himself on the hard mattress. Somebody should suffer for this he told himself. And then the door clanged and the key turned, and all was silence.
It was an hour later before the Prince slept. When he woke again it was broad daylight. The place seemed very still and deserted. After a long time a step was heard coming along the flagged corridor, and the door of the cell was opened after a long fumbling with the key. And then there appeared no blue coated policeman, but the Prince's own secretary, one Murray by name.
"Thank goodness I have found you," said the latter. "I began to imagine that you were the victim of some foul play. A letter came to me this morning describing your whereabouts and enclosing this key."
"But I am in Marlborough-street Police Station, Murray."
"Nothing of the kind, your Highness. This place used to be a house of detention, but it has been empty for years. Somebody has got into the place, and made use of it with the intention of robbing you. Are your jewels—"
"You are right, Murray. Of course that warrant was all a sham. Quick, follow me to the office. The jewels were placed in the safe there."
But, alas, those priceless diamonds were in the safe no longer. The safe was merely a deal cupboard, a 'property' affair. Inside was all Prince Sergius's papers, his watch, money, and sword intact, but the diamonds were gone.
In the next half-hour it was vividly impressed upon Murray that he had fully earned his last quarter's salary. Fortunately, he had brought with him a change of clothing for his employer.
"To Scotland Yard, quick," Sergius muttered, the veins standing out on his forehead like whipcord. "We'll have the miscreants yet."
* * * * *
But even a Russian prince can't have all that he wants. Scotland Yard did take the matter up, but nothing came of it, for the simple reason that, Russian like, Prince Sergius kept his suspicions of Marie Lorraine to himself. To implicate her would have been to cause an inquiry into the whole question, and perhaps the loss of the jewels in any case. And thus it came about that before the week was out the diamonds had been altered beyond all recognition, and disposed of in the great jewel mart at Amsterdam. Marie had been as good as her word, she had got her own again. And as to the police and inspector and the cabman, they had all apparently vanished into thin air.
There is one literary man in London with a beautiful wife who seems to thrive on letters amazingly, and that is Charles Lorraine. He frequently complains of being hard up for the plot of a story, but he is not the least likely ever to make public the true solution of the mystery of the Azoff diamonds.
LIEUTENANT Will Scarlett's instructions were devoid of problems, physical or otherwise. To convey a letter from Captain Driver of the Yankee Doodle, in Porto Rico Bay, to Admiral Lake on the other side of the isthmus, was an apparently simple matter.
"All you have to do," the captain remarked, "is to take three or four men with you in case of accidents, cross the isthmus on foot, and simply give this letter into the hands of Admiral Lake. By so doing we shall save at least four days, and the aborigines are presumedly friendly."
The aborigines aforesaid were Cuban insurgents. Little or no strife had taken place along the neck lying between Porto Rico and the north bay where Lake's flagship lay, though the belt was known to be given over to the disaffected Cubans.
"It is a matter of fifty miles through practically unexplored country," Scarlett replied; "and there's a good deal of the family quarrel in this business, sir. If the Spaniards hate us, the Cubans are not exactly enamoured of our flag."
Captain Driver roundly denounced the whole pack of them.
"Treacherous thieves to a man," he said. "I don't suppose your progress will have any brass bands and floral arches to it. And they tell me the forest is pretty thick. But you'll get there all the same. There is the letter, and you can start as soon as you like."
"I may pick my own men, sir?"
"My dear fellow, take whom you please. Take the mastiff, if you like."
"I'd like the mastiff," Scarlett replied; "as he is practically my own, I thought you would not object."
Will Scarlett began to glow as the prospect of adventure stimulated his imagination. He was rather a good specimen of West Point naval dandyism. He had brains at the back of his smartness, and his geological and botanical knowledge were going to prove of considerable service to a grateful country when said grateful country should have passed beyond the rudimentary stages of colonization. And there was some disposition to envy Scarlett on the part of others floating for the past month on the liquid prison of the sapphire sea.
A warrant officer, Tarrer by name, plus two A.B.'s of thews and sinews, to say nothing of the dog, completed the exploring party. By the time that the sun kissed the tip of the feathery hills they had covered some six miles of their journey. From the first Scarlett had been struck by the absolute absence of the desolation and horror of civil strife. Evidently the fiery cross had not been carried here; huts and houses were intact; the villagers stood under sloping eaves, and regarded the Americans with a certain sullen curiosity.
"We'd better stop for the night here," said Scarlett.
They had come at length to a village that boasted some pretensions. An adobe chapel at one end of the straggling street was faced by a wine-house at the other. A padre, with hands folded over a bulbous, greasy gabardine, bowed gravely to Scarlett's salutation. The latter had what Tarrer called "considerable Spanish."
"We seek quarters for the night," said Scarlett. "Of course, we are prepared to pay for them."
The sleepy padre nodded towards the wine-house.
"You will find fair accommodation there," he said. "We are friends of the Americanos."
Scarlett doubted the fact, and passed on with florid thanks. So far, little signs of friendliness had been encountered on the march. Coldness, suspicion, a suggestion of fear, but no friendliness to be embarrassing.
The keeper of the wine-shop had his doubts. He feared his poor accommodation for guests so distinguished. A score or more of picturesque, cut-throat-looking rascals with cigarettes in their mouths lounged sullenly in the bar. The display of a brace of gold dollars enlarged mine host's opinion of his household capacity.
"I will do my best, senors," he said. "Come this way."
So it came to pass that an hour after twilight Tarrer and Scarlett were seated in the open amongst the oleanders and the trailing gleam of the fire-flies, discussing cigars of average merit and a native wine that was not without virtues. The long bar of the wine-house was brilliantly illuminated; from within came shouts of laughter mingled with the ting, tang of the guitar and the rollicking clack of the castanets.
"They seem to be happy in there," Tarrer remarked. "It isn't all daggers and ball in this distressful country."
A certain curiosity came over Scarlett.
"It is the duty of a good officer," he said, "to lose no opportunity of acquiring useful information. Let us join the giddy throng, Tarrer."
Tarrer expressed himself with enthusiasm in favour of any amusement that might be going. A month's idleness on shipboard increases the appetite for that kind of thing wonderfully. The long bar was comfortable, and filled with Cubans who took absolutely no notice of the intruders. Their eyes were turned towards a rude stage at the far end of the bar, whereon a girl was gyrating in a dance with a celerity and grace that caused the wreath of flowers around her shoulders to resemble a trembling zone of purple flame.
"A wonderfully pretty girl and a wonderfully pretty dance," Scarlett murmured, when the motions ceased and the girl leapt gracefully to the ground. "Largesse, I expect. I thought so. Well, I'm good for a quarter."
The girl came forward, extending a shell prettily. She curtsied before Scarlett and fixed her dark, liquid eyes on his. As he smiled and dropped his quarter-dollar into the shell a coquettish gleam came into the velvety eyes. An ominous growl came from the lips of a bearded ruffian close by.
"Othello's jealous," said Tarrer. "Look at his face."
"I am better employed," Scarlett laughed. "That was a graceful dance, pretty one. I hope you are going to give us another one presently—-"
Scarlett paused suddenly. His eyes had fallen on the purple band of flowers the girl had twined round her shoulder. Scarlett was an enthusiastic botanist; he knew most of the gems in Flora's crown, but he had never looked upon such a vivid wealth of blossom before.
The flowers were orchids, and orchids of a kind unknown to collectors anywhere. On this point Scarlett felt certain. And yet this part of the world was by no means a difficult one to explore in comparison with New Guinea and Sumatra, where the rarer varieties had their homes.
The blooms were immensely large, far larger than any flower of the kind known to Europe or America, of a deep pure purple, with a blood-red centre. As Scarlett gazed upon them he noticed a certain cruel expression on the flower. Most orchids have a kind of face of their own; the purple blooms had a positive expression of ferocity and cunning. They exhumed, too, a queer, sickly fragrance. Scarlett had smelt something like it before, after the Battle of Manila. The perfume was the perfume of a corpse.
"And yet they are magnificent flowers," said Scarlett. "Won't you tell me where you got them from, pretty one?"
The girl was evidently flattered by the attention bestowed upon her by the smart young American. The bearded Othello alluded to edged up to her side.
"The senor had best leave the girl alone," he said, insolently.
Scarlett's fist clenched as he measured the Cuban with his eyes. The Admiral's letter crackled in his breast-pocket, and discretion got the best of valour.
"You are paying yourself a poor compliment, my good fellow," he said, "though I certainly admire your good taste. Those flowers interested me."
The man appeared to be mollified. His features corrugated in a smile.
"The senor would like some of those blooms?" he asked. "It was I who procured them for little Zara here. I can show you where they grow."
Every eye in the room was turned in Scarlett's direction. It seemed to him that a kind of diabolical malice glistened on every dark face there, save that of the girl, whose features paled under her healthy tan.
"If the senor is wise," she began, "he will not—"
"Listen to the tales of a silly girl," Othello put in, menacingly. He grasped the girl by the arm, and she winced in positive pain. "Pshaw, there is no harm where the flowers grow, if one is only careful. I will take you there, and I will be your guide to Port Anna, where you are going, for a gold dollar."
All Scarlett's scientific enthusiasm was aroused. It is not given to every man to present a new orchid to the horticultural world. And this one would dwarf the finest plant hitherto discovered.
"Done with you," he said; "we start at daybreak. I shall look to you to be ready. Your name is Tito? Well, good-night, Tito."
As Scarlett and Tarrer withdrew the girl suddenly darted forward. A wild word or two fluttered from her lips. Then there was a sound as of a blow, followed by a little stifled cry of pain.
"No, no," Tarrer urged, as Scarlett half turned. "Better not. They are ten to one, and they are no friends of ours. It never pays to interfere in these family quarrels. I daresay, if you interfered, the girl would be just as ready to knife you as her jealous lover."
"But a blow like that, Tarrer!"
"It's a pity, but I don't see how we can help it. Your business is the quick dispatch of the Admiral's letter, not the squiring of dames."
Scarlett owned with a sigh that Tarrer was right.
IT WAS quite a different Tito who presented himself at daybreak the following morning. His insolent manner had disappeared. He was cheerful, alert, and he had a manner full of the most winning politeness.
"You quite understand what we want," Scarlett said. "My desire is to reach Port Anna as soon as possible. You know the way?"
"Every inch of it, senor. I have made the journey scores of times. And I shall have the felicity of getting you there early on the third day from now."
"Is it so far as that?"
"The distance is not great, senor. It is the passage through the woods. There are parts where no white man has been before."
"And you will not forget the purple orchids?"
A queer gleam trembled like summer lightning in Tito's eyes. The next instant it had gone. A time was to come when Scarlett was to recall that look, but for the moment it was allowed to pass.
"The senor shall see the purple orchid," he said; "thousands of them. They have a bad name amongst our people, but that is nonsense. They grow in the high trees, and their blossoms cling to long, green tendrils. These tendrils are poisonous to the flesh, and great care should be taken in handling them. And the flowers are quite harmless, though we call them the devil's poppies."
To all of this Scarlett listened eagerly. He was all-impatient to see and handle the mysterious flower for himself. The whole excursion was going to prove a wonderful piece of luck. At the same time he had to curb his impatience. There would be no chance of seeing the purple orchid to-day.
For hours they fought their way along through the dense tangle. A heat seemed to lie over all the land like a curse—a blistering sweltering, moist heat with no puff of wind to temper its breathlessness. By the time that the sun was sliding down, most of the party had had enough of it.
They passed out of the underwood at length, and, striking upwards, approached a clump of huge forest trees on the brow of a ridge. All kinds of parasites hung from the branches; there were ropes and bands of green, and high up a fringe of purple glory that caused Scarlett's pulses to leap a little faster.
"Surely that is the purple orchid?" he cried.
Tito shrugged his shoulders contemptuously.
"A mere straggler or two," he said, "and out of reach in any case. The senor will have all he wants and more to-morrow."
"But it seems to me," said Scarlett, "that I could—"
Then he paused. The sun like a great glowing shield was shining full behind the tree with its crown of purple, and showing up every green rope and thread clinging to the branches with the clearness of liquid crystal. Scarlett saw a network of green cords like a huge spider's web, and in the centre of it was not a fly, but a human skeleton!
The arms and legs were stretched apart as if the victim had been crucified. The wrists and ankles were bound in the cruel web. Fragments of tattered clothing fluttered in the faint breath of the evening breeze.
"Horrible," Scarlett cried, "absolutely horrible!"
"You may well say that," Tarrer exclaimed, with a shudder. "Like the fly in the amber or the apple in the dumpling, the mystery is how he got there."
"Perhaps Tito can explain the mystery," Scarlett suggested.
Tito appeared to be uneasy and disturbed. He looked furtively from one to the other of his employers as a culprit might who feels he has been found out. But his courage returned as he noted the absence of suspicion in the faces turned upon him.
"I can explain," he exclaimed, with teeth that chattered from some unknown terror or guilt. "It is not the first time that I have seen the skeleton. Some plant-hunter doubtless who came here alone. He climbed into the tree without a knife, and those green ropes got twisted round his limbs, as a swimmer gets entangled in the weeds. The more he struggled, the more the cords bound him. He would call in vain for anyone to assist him here. And so he must have died."
The explanation was a plausible one, but by no means detracted from the horror of the discovery. For some time the party pushed their way on in the twilight, till the darkness descended suddenly like a curtain.
"We will camp here," Tito said; "it is high, dry ground, and we have this belt of trees above us. There is no better place than this for miles around. In the valley the miasma is dangerous."
As Tito spoke he struck a match, and soon a torch flamed up. The little party were on a small plateau, fringed by trees. The ground was dry and hard, and, as Scarlett and his party saw to their astonishment, littered with bones. There were skulls of animals and skulls of human beings, the skeletons of birds, the frames of beasts both great and small. It was a weird, shuddering sight.
"We can't possibly stay here," Scarlett exclaimed.
Tito shrugged his shoulders.
"There is nowhere else," he replied. "Down in the valley there are many dangers. Further in the woods are the snakes and jaguars. Bones are nothing. Peuf, they can be easily cleared away."
They had to be cleared away, and there was an end of the matter. For the most part the skeletons were white and dry as air and sun could make them. Over the dry, calcined mass the huge fringe of trees nodded mournfully. With the rest, Scarlett was busy scattering the mocking frames aside. A perfect human skeleton lay at his feet. On one finger something glittered—a signet ring. As Scarlett took it in his hand he started.
"I know this ring!" he exclaimed; "it belonged to Pierre Anton, perhaps the most skilled and intrepid plant-hunter the Jardin des Plantes ever employed. The poor fellow was by way of being a friend of mine. He met the fate that he always anticipated."
"There must have been a rare holocaust here," said Tarrer.
"It beats me," Scarlett responded. By this time a large circle had been shifted clear of human and other remains. By the light of the fire loathsome insects could be seen scudding and straddling away. "It beats me entirely. Tito, can you offer any explanation? If the bones were all human I could get some grip of the problem. But when one comes to birds and animals as well! Do you see that the skeletons lie in a perfect circle, starting from the centre of the clump of trees above us? What does it mean?"
Tito professed utter ignorance of the subject. Some years before a small tribe of natives invaded the peninsula for religious rites. They came from a long way off in canoes, and wild stories were told concerning them. They burnt sacrifices, no doubt.
Scarlett turned his back contemptuously on this transparent tale. His curiosity was aroused. There must be some explanation, for Pierre Anton had been seen of men within the last ten years.
"There's something uncanny about this," he said, to Tarrer. "I mean to get to the bottom of it, or know why."
"As for me," said Tarrer, with a cavernous yawn, "I have but one ambition, and that is my supper, followed by my bed."
SCARLETT lay in the light of the fire looking about him. He felt restless and uneasy, though he would have found it difficult to explain the reason. For one thing, the air trembled to strange noises. There seemed to be something moving, writhing in the forest trees above his head. More than once it seemed to his distorted fancy that he could see a squirming knot of green snakes in motion.
Outside the circle, in a grotto of bones, Tito lay sleeping. A few moments before his dark, sleek head had been furtively raised, and his eyes seemed to gleam in the flickering firelight with malignant cunning. As he met Scarlett's glance he gave a deprecatory gesture and subsided.
"What the deuce does it all mean?" Scarlett muttered. "I feel certain yonder rascal is up to some mischief. Jealous still because I paid his girl a little attention. But he can't do us any real harm. Quiet, there!"
The big mastiff growled and then whined uneasily. Even the dog seemed to be conscious of some unseen danger. He lay down again, cowed by the stern command, but he still whimpered in his dreams.
"I fancy I'll keep awake for a spell," Scarlett told himself.
For a time he did so. Presently he began to slide away into the land of poppies. He was walking amongst a garden of bones which bore masses of purple blossoms. Then Pierre Anton came on the scene, pale and resolute as Scarlett had always known him; then the big mastiff seemed in some way to be mixed up with the phantasm of the dream, barking as if in pain, and Scarlett came to his senses.
He was breathing short, a beady perspiration stood on his forehead, his heart hammered in quick thuds—all the horrors of nightmare were still upon him. In a vague way as yet he heard the mastiff howl, a real howl of real terror, and Scarlett knew that he was awake.
Then a strange thing happened. In the none too certain light of the fire, Scarlett saw the mastiff snatched up by some invisible hand, carried far on high towards the trees, and finally flung to the earth with a crash. The big dog lay still as a log.
A sense of fear born of the knowledge of impotence came over Scarlett; what in the name of evil did it all mean? The smart scientist had no faith in the occult, and yet what did it all mean?
Nobody stirred. Scarlett's companions were soaked and soddened with fatigue; the rolling thunder of artillery would have scarce disturbed them. With teeth set and limbs that trembled, Scarlett crawled over to the dog.
The great, black-muzzled creature was quite dead. The full chest was stained and soaked in blood; the throat had been cut apparently with some jagged, saw-like instrument, away to the bone. And, strangest thing of all, scattered all about the body was a score or more of the great purple orchid flowers broken off close to the head. A hot, pricking sensation travelled slowly up Scarlett's spine and seemed to pass out at the tip of his skull. He felt his hair rising.
He was frightened. As a matter of honest fact, he had never been so horribly scared in his life before. The whole thing was so mysterious, so cruel, so bloodthirsty.
Still, there must be some rational explanation. In some way the matter had to do with the purple orchid. The flower had an evil reputation. Was it not known to these Cubans as the devil's poppy?
Scarlett recollected vividly now Zara's white, scared face when Tito had volunteered to show the way to the resplendent bloom; he remembered the cry of the girl and the blow that followed. He could see it all now. The girl had meant to warn him against some nameless horror to which Tito was leading the small party. This was the jealous Cuban's revenge.
A wild desire to pay this debt to the uttermost fraction filled Scarlett, and shook him with a trembling passion. He crept along in the drenching dew to where Tito lay, and touched his forehead with the chill blue rim of a revolver barrel. Tito stirred slightly.
"You dog!" Scarlett cried. "I am going to shoot you."
Tito did not move again. His breathing was soft and regular. Beyond a doubt the man was sleeping peacefully. After all he might be innocent; and yet, on the other hand, he might be so sure of his quarry that he could afford to slumber without anxiety as to his vengeance.
In favour of the latter theory was the fact that the Cuban lay beyond the limit of what had previously been the circle of dry bones. It was just possible that there was no danger outside that pale. In that case it would be easy to arouse the rest, and so save them from the horrible death which had befallen the mastiff. No doubt these were a form of upas tree, but that would not account for the ghastly spectacle in mid-air.
"I'll let this chap sleep for the present," Scarlett muttered.
He crawled back, not without misgivings, into the ring of death. He meant to wake the others and then wait for further developments. By now his senses were more alert and vigorous than they had ever been before. A preternatural clearness of brain and vision possessed him. As he advanced he saw suddenly falling a green bunch of cord that straightened into a long, emerald line. It was triangular in shape, fine at the apex, and furnished with hooked spines. The rope appeared to dangle from the tree overhead; the broad, sucker-like termination was evidently soaking up moisture.
A natural phenomenon evidently, Scarlett thought. This was some plant new to him, a parasite living amongst the tree-tops and drawing life and vigour by means of these green, rope-like antennae designed by Nature to soak and absorb the heavy dews of night.
For a moment the logic of this theory was soothing to Scarlett's distracted nerves, but only for a moment, for then he saw at regular intervals along the green rope the big purple blossoms of the devil's poppy.
He stood gasping there, utterly taken aback for the moment. There must be some infernal juggling behind all this business. He saw the rope slacken and quiver, he saw it swing forward like a pendulum, and the next minute it had passed across the shoulders of a sleeping seaman.
Then the green root became as the arm of an octopus. The line shook from end to end like the web of an angry spider when invaded by a wasp. It seemed to grip the sailor and tighten, and then, before Scarlett's, afrighted eyes, the sleeping man was raised gently from the ground.
Scarlett jumped forward with a desire to scream hysterically. Now that a comrade was in danger he was no longer afraid. He whipped a jack-knife from his pocket and slashed at the cruel cord. He half expected to meet with the stoutness of a steel strand, but to his surprise the feeler snapped like a carrot, bumping the sailor heavily on the ground.
He sat up, rubbing his eyes vigorously.
"That you, sir?" he asked. "What is the matter?"
"For the love of God, get up at once and help me to arouse the others," Scarlett said, hoarsely. "We have come across the devil's workshop. All the horrors of the inferno are invented here."
The bluejacket struggled to his feet. As he did so, the clothing from his waist downwards slipped about his feet, clean cut through by the teeth of the green parasite. All around the body of the sailor blood oozed from a zone of teeth-marks.
Two-o'clock-in-the-morning courage is a virtue vouchsafed to few. The tar, who would have faced an ironclad cheerfully, fairly shivered with fright and dismay.
"What does it mean, sir?" he cried. "I've been—"
"Wake the others," Scarlett screamed; "wake the others."
Two or three more green tangles of rope came tumbling to the ground, straightening and quivering instantly. The purple blossoms stood out like a frill upon them. Like a madman, Scarlett shouted, kicking his companions without mercy.
They were all awake at last, grumbling and moaning for their lost slumbers. All this time Tito had never stirred.
"I don't understand it at all," said Tarrer.
"Come from under those trees," said Scarlett, "and I will endeavour to explain. Not that you will believe me for a moment. No man can be expected to believe the awful nightmare I am going to tell you."
Scarlett proceeded to explain. As he expected, his story was followed with marked incredulity, save by the wounded sailor, who had strong evidence to stimulate his otherwise defective imagination.
"I can't believe it," Tarrer said, at length. They were whispering together beyond earshot of Tito, whom they had no desire to arouse for obvious reasons. "This is some diabolical juggling of yonder rascally Cuban. It seems impossible that those slender green cords could—"
Scarlett pointed to the centre of the circle.
"Call the dog," he said grimly, "and see if he will come."
"I admit the point as far as the poor old mastiff is concerned. But at the same time I don't—however, I'll see for myself."
By this time a dozen or more of the slender cords were hanging pendent from the trees. They moved from spot to spot as if jerked up by some unseen hand and deposited a foot or two farther. With the great purple bloom fringing the stem, the effect was not unlovely save to Scarlett, who could see only the dark side of it. As Tarrer spoke he advanced in the direction of the trees.
"What are you going to do?" Scarlett asked.
"Exactly what I told you. I am going to investigate this business for myself."
Without wasting further words Scarlett sprang forward. It was no time for the niceties of an effete civilization. Force was the only logical argument to be used in a case like this, and Scarlett was the more powerful man of the two.
Tarrer saw and appreciated the situation.
"No, no," he cried; "none of that. Anyway, you're too late."
He darted forward and threaded his way between the slender emerald columns. As they moved slowly and with a certain stately deliberation there was no great danger to an alert and vigorous individual. As Scarlett entered the avenue he could hear the soak and suck as the dew was absorbed.
"For Heaven's sake, come out of it," he cried.
The warning came too late. A whip-like trail of green touched Tarrer from behind, and in a lightning flash he was in the toils. The tendency to draw up anything and everything gave the cords a terrible power. Tarrer evidently felt it, for his breath came in great gasps.
"Cut me free," he said, hoarsely; "cut me free. I am being carried off my feet."
He seemed to be doomed for a moment, for all the cords there were apparently converging in his direction. This, as a matter of fact, was a solution of the whole sickening, horrible sensation. Pulled here and there, thrust in one direction and another, Tarrer contrived to keep his feet.
Heedless of possible danger to himself Scarlett darted forward, calling to his companions to come to the rescue. In less time than it takes to tell, four knives were at work ripping and slashing in all directions.
"Not all of you," Scarlett whispered. So tense was the situation that no voice was raised above a murmur. "You two keep your eyes open for fresh cords, and cut them as they fall, instantly. Now then."
The horrible green spines were round Tarrer's body like snakes. His face was white, his breath came painfully, for the pressure was terrible. It seemed to Scarlett to be one horrible dissolving view of green, slimy cords and great weltering, purple blossoms. The whole of the circle was strewn with them. They were wet and slimy underfoot.
Tarrer had fallen forward half unconscious. He was supported now by but two cords above his head. The cruel pressure had been relieved. With one savage sweep of his knife Scarlett cut the last of the lines, and Tarrer fell like a log unconscious to the ground. A feeling of nausea, a yellow dizziness, came over Scarlett as he staggered beyond the dread circle. He saw Tarrer carried to a place of safety, and then the world seemed to wither and leave him in the dark.
"I feel a bit groggy and weak," said Tarrer an hour or so later: "but beyond that this idiot of a Richard is himself again. So far as I am concerned, I should like to get even with our friend Tito for this."
"Something with boiling oil in it," Scarlett suggested, grimly. "The callous scoundrel has slept soundly through the whole of this business. I suppose he felt absolutely certain that he had finished with us."
"Upon my word, we ought to shoot the beggar!" Tarrer exclaimed.
"I have a little plan of my own," said Scarlett, "which I am going to put in force later on. Meanwhile we had better get on with breakfast. When Tito wakes a pleasant little surprise will await him."
Tito roused from his slumbers in due course and looked around him. His glance was curious, disappointed, then full of a white and yellow fear. A thousand conflicting emotions streamed across his dark face. Scarlett read them at a glance as he called the Cuban over to him.
"I am not going into any unnecessary details with you," he said. "It has come to my knowledge that you are playing traitor to us. Therefore we prefer to complete our journey alone. We can easily find the way now."
"The senor may do as he pleases," he replied. "Give me my dollar and let me go."
Scarlett replied grimly that he had no intention of doing anything of the kind. He did not propose to place the lives of himself and his comrades in the power of a rascally Cuban who had played false.
"We are going to leave you here till we return," he said. "You will have plenty of food, you will be perfectly safe under the shelter of these trees, and there is no chance of anybody disturbing you. We are going to tie you up to one of these trees for the next four-and-twenty hours."
All the insolence died out of Tito's face. His knees bowed, a cold dew came out over the ghastly green of his features. From the shaking of his limbs he might have fared disastrously with ague.
"The trees," he stammered, "the trees, senor! There is danger from snakes, and—and from many things. There are other places—"
"If this place was safe last night it is safe to-day," Scarlett said, grimly. "I have quite made up my mind."
Tito fought no longer. He fell forward on his knees, he howled for mercy, till Scarlett fairly kicked him up again.
"Make a clean breast of it," he said, "or take the consequences. You know perfectly well that we have found you out, scoundrel."
Tito's story came in gasps. He wanted to get rid of the Americans. He was jealous. Besides, under the Americanos would Cuba be any better off? By no means and assuredly not. Therefore it was the duty of every good Cuban to destroy the Americanos where possible.
"A nice lot to fight for," Scarlett muttered. "Get to the point."
Hastened to the point by a liberal application of stout shoe-leather, Tito made plenary confession. The senor himself had suggested death by medium of the devil's poppies. More than one predatory plant-hunter had been lured to his destruction in the same way. The skeleton hung on the tree was a Dutchman who had walked into the clutch of the purple terror innocently. And Pierre Anton had done the same. The suckers of the devil's poppy only came down at night to gather moisture; in the day they were coiled up like a spring. And anything that they touched they killed. Tito had watched more than one bird or small beast crushed and mauled by these cruel spines with their fringe of purple blossoms.
"How do you get the blooms?" Scarlett asked.
"That is easy," Tito replied. "In the daytime I moisten the ground under the trees. Then the suckers unfold, drawn by the water. Once the suckers unfold one cuts several of them off with long knives. There is danger, of course, but not if one is careful."
"I'll not trouble the devil's poppy any further at present," said Scarlett, "but I shall trouble you to accompany me to my destination as a prisoner."
Tito's eyes dilated.
"They will not shoot me?" he asked, hoarsely.
"I don't know," Scarlett replied. "They may hang you instead. At any rate, I shall be bitterly disappointed if they don't end you one way or the other. Whichever operation it is, I can look forward to it with perfect equanimity."
THE SERGEANT was obdurate. He had his orders, which were as Holy Writ in his eyes. They were cold grey eyes in a face hammered hard on the anvil of officialism. There were more important things than Red Cross stores.
"Your stores cannot proceed by this train, Major," said the Bavarian.
The whole of the cases consigned to Versailles lay piled up on one another on the narrow platform of St. Quentin station. It was all the more annoying because the horses and wagons had been sent on by Eustace to a point some thirty miles further along the line to Paris, and he had been promised a fair conveyance to Joinville by the general commanding the Prussian forces in the district.
But General Deganfeld was not available at present. It was many miles over the frozen country to his base. A strong French force under General de la Jonge had pushed forward from Arras, and their advent was keeping Deganfeld's hands full. There were rumours that a smaller force of Frenchmen had forced the lines behind Joinville, and had thus obtained command of the railway line beyond the famous tunnel.
But of this the Bavarian sergeant professed to know nothing. A train load of provisions strongly guarded had left for Joinville two hours ago. The sergeant was inclined to flout the idea that this same had fallen into the hands of the enemy.
Another train would pass through shortly. This Eustace and Huddlestone had hoped to make use of. They could only sit on their cases now and bemoan their ill fortune. Scattered over the good-sheds beyond the station, a company of Bavarian Infantry held the line. If there were officers, they did not show themselves.
"Nothing of the Chesterfield about these fellows," Huddlestone grumbled. "What on earth shall we do now?"
Eustace was at a loss for a reply. Sad as it may seem, the Red Cross carried suspicion in its train. Doubtless the sacred cause had been abused by spies and others; indeed, the history of the war testifies to the fact. There was the ghost of a grin on the sergeant's face as he clanked away. Eustace looked along the blackness of the Orloy woods rising to the crest of the hill under which the great tunnel of Joinville bored its way.
"Hang me if I know," he said. "We must leave the stores here and get them to pass us on to Joinville. Then we can send the wagons back—"
Something came like the hum of a home-flying bee between the two men, and thudded into a wooden sentry box behind them. Along the dark belt of the bending woods a score of smoke jets puffed. Crack, crack, came the bullets.
Then a bugle rang out, and from the goods-sheds the Bavarians poured forth like angry grey wasps. Hardly had they formed into line before a cloud of Francs-tireurs broke from under cover and dashed down upon the station. They were as two to one to the Germans.
A raking volley barely served to check their headlong progress. They shot through the thin Bavarian line as if it had been so much brown paper. Then, as the Francs-tireurs came hurling down on the left flank of the doomed Bavarians, Eustace saw the big sergeant borne down and his skull shattered by the sweeping glance of a sword. Then the Bavarians broke like sheen, and ran for the upper spur of the woods, pursued by the victorious horse men.
It was a mere affair of minutes. The affray was barely over before a heavy train came puffing into the station. In less time than it takes to tell, every German aboard, to the number of two score, were prisoners.
"That was well done." said a gay voice as the French cavalry officer in command strode up. "Deganfeld has had the feather drawn over his eye this time. What have we here?"
The speaker saluted Eustace and his comrade politely. Huddlestone explained.
"Surely you are Captain Armand?" he concluded. "I recollect meeting you after the fall of Metz."
"Ah, yes. Pardon that I did not recognise Captain Huddlestone. I owe you one good turn, which fortune has enabled me to return. Your stores shall go on to Joinville, and I will accompany them. Indeed, I have strong reasons for getting to Joinville myself. I may say that we only hold the line on sufferance. Deganfeld is closer up than those Bavarians imagine. There are four trains at Martay yonder bringing up supports for the German force beyond Joinville, and the first of these trains may follow on at any moment. So you see I am really between the devil and the deep sea. Still, if I can only get to Joinville—"
"Would it not be better to lose no further time?" Eustace suggested. "We have the train here all ready to proceed. With the assistance of your men we could get our stores aboard in a few minutes."
Armand agreed. Anxious and worried as he was, nothing appeared to deprive him of his gay manner. It was more than possible that on emerging from the far side of Joinville tunnel he would find himself and his company of infantry prisoners. What had happened beyond the hills nobody knew. And Armand had his own urgent reasons for a flying visit there.
Acting upon the instructions of their captain, the troop of cavalry deployed again under the cover of the wood. By this time the stores were aboard the train, together with the handful of infantry that Armand had at his command. Eustace felt his spirits rising.
"What a slice of luck for us," he said, gleefully. "Personally, it doesn't matter a scrap to us what happens when we are on the other side of the tunnel. Once there, it is no far cry to our wagons."
"Wish we were out of it all the same," Huddlestone muttered. "Tunnels in war time are best avoided. And there are four miles of this one."
Armand swaggered up gaily. The adventure had found him in spirits.
"May I ask what your object is?" said Eustace.
"Who knows?" responded the volatile captain. "Joinville is my destination. Mayhap we shall steam into the hands of the Germans. If you had been waiting, waiting as I have been—driven from pillar to post—you would understand my thirst for action."
"Meanwhile a train load of German troops may be up to us at any moment," said Huddlestone. "This is a mere coup de maine of yours."
Armand responded serenely that such was the fact. Even as he spoke the shrill note of a distant whistle cleft the frosty air. The railway was a winding one, and as the crow flies the approaching train was not distant more than a mile—twice that distance as the track went. A thin jet of steam trailed along the valley.
"We must go on," Armand cried. "There are troops coming, I hear. All aboard there. We shall have a race for it yet. Laden down as we are, the other train will have the pull of us."
A moment later, and the engine was jolting forward. Armand had spoken truly. His little strategy could not remain successful for long, added to which his knowledge told him that the approaching train was laden with German troops. But it was a race between a passenger and a goods train. Doubtless by this time one of the Bavarian fugitives had explained matters.
Full speed ahead was the order of the day. Despite his gay air and careless smile, Armand gazed from time to time behind him. There were the most urgent reasons why he should reach Joinville without delay.
"They are gaining on us," he cried.
The Englishmen responded nothing. The truth was painfully apparent. And the jolt and rattle of the heavy goods trucks rendered conversation a difficulty. So far as Eustace and his colleagues were concerned, the ultimate issue mattered little, as long as they eventually cleared the tunnel.
But this was anything but a certainty. A mile or more of line level as a billiard table and straight as a gunbarrel lay before them, ending in the small circular bore that meant the entrance to the tunnel. And by the time Armand and his party were half way to this, he could see behind them the buffers of the approaching engine.
"A stern chase is a long chase,'" said Eustace.
Armand smiled grimly. Gone was his butterfly manner; no longer did he cherish his moustache. There were enough soldiers on the approaching train to cut his little force to pieces ten times over.
"They will be up to us before we are through," said Huddlestone.
"You are fond of sport," Armand cut in swiftly. "You bet a little, of course—all Englishmen do. Then I will bet you what you call six to four if that yonder engine never catches us at all."
"You can't prevent it," said Eustace.
By way of reply Armand scrambled to the front of the truck where the three were standing. He gave a quick, crisp command to the engine driver, and the train immediately commenced to slacken speed. When finally it came to a standstill, its whole length was secreted in the blackness of the tunnel, like a worm underground.
"Are you mad?" Eustace cried. "Man alive, in three minutes that other train will be on to us. To destroy them is very well, but why allow us to perish?"
"Enough," Armand responded curtly, "I know my business. You will see what you shall see. Uncouple the last three trucks there."
The situation looked desperate enough for anything. There was any odds on a fight between the two trains, with the balance faintly in favour of the Germans. To bring this matter to an issue in the black suffocation of a tunnel was horrible.
The train stood fast inside the grim, smoky tunnel. Already, some eight hundred yards away, the pursuing engine forged steadily onward. Eustace would have interfered had he dared. In a wondering sort of way he watched a handful of sappers uncoupling the last three trucks, he felt the jolt and jerk as the locomotive slowly moved on, and then he saw a pair of rails with their sleepers wrenched away, leaving an ugly hole in the track.
"Now do you understand?" Armand whispered, fiercely.
Eustace held his breath in the excitement of the moment. He could distinctly hear the thud, thud of the coming train. Then its whistle shrieked hideously, there was a resounding crash as the two solid masses met, and in less time than it takes to tell the mouth of the tunnel was packed, jammed with hundreds of tons of wood and steel. There was a scream of escaping steam, the thud of an explosion, a few yells and groans, and all was still. Armand had left behind him a rampart welded into a solid mass like liquid iron is forged under a hammer. Many an hour would necessarily elapse before the way would be cleared again.
"This is horrible!" Huddlestone cried.
"It may not be war, perhaps," Armand said coolly; "but you will admit that this is no time for the exchange of social amenities. But for my little stratagem you would have been a long time getting your stores to Joinville."
The train was jolting and pounding forward again. For some minutes nobody spoke. The Englishmen were peering somewhat anxiously ahead. Away down the line Eustace could see two lights travelling.
"Surely there is something on the track," he cried. "The driver—"
But the driver was already aware of the fact. Armand shortly demanded of him what was wrong.
"A train backing along the tunnel," came the startling reply, "and on the same line of rails as ourselves. Mon Dieu, it—"
The rest of the speech was drowned in the shrill whistle of the engine.
FOR a brief space something like consternation reigned supreme. The peculiar horror of the situation struck home with full force. Armand had been hoist with his own petard: he had fallen headlong into the trap he had laid for another.
"I don't understand it at all," he muttered.
"I do," said Huddlestone grimly. "Less than an hour before you made your successful raid just now, a German train passed through. Without doubt she has been headed off by a force of your men, and has risked everything, to the extent of running back on her tracks, for assistance."
Armand nodded moodily. The explanation seemed reasonable; indeed it was the only one possible under the circumstances.
"We shall have to fight her," said the Frenchman, "since retreat is out of the question. There are troops aboard, of course?"
"Not more than a score," Huddlestone replied. "Their goods are mainly camp stores for the garrison occupying Fort Bazan."
"Ah! Then our task is lighter than I anticipated," said Armand.
All this was a mere matter of moments. Already the lights on the approaching engine were growing more steady, plain proof of the fact that the other train was coming to a standstill. When, finally, the two trains pulled up, not more than five yards separated them.
"Back there," a guttural German voice smote out into the smoky darkness. "You cannot get through. A force of French infantry with two guns holds the valley below Joinville."
"That is good hearing, indeed," Armand cried in the same language. "Learn that we too are French, and that we have not the same objection to proceeding. You oblige us by showing the way."
The German officer in charge of the other train wasted no time in idle questions. He knew enough of the game of war to be surprised at nothing. A response came in the shape of a score of bullets fired haphazard in the thick darkness. Nothing loth, the French replied. For some minutes the desultory and useless war of small arms continued. Ever and anon a bullet would thud into a case or the side of a truck—it would tinkle against the masonry of the tunnel. But, on the whole, the fusilade was absolutely futile.
Still, the situation was thrilling enough in all conscience. To retreat was out of the question; to proceed, for the present at any rate, was equally impossible. Add to the inky darkness of the tunnel, its horror solely illuminated by the sudden flash of the rifles, and an atmosphere of burnt paper and smoke that tasted acrid on the tongue, and stung the eyes and nose like needles.
Standing behind the shelter of a big packing case, Eustace and Huddlestone took no part in the affray. What the end of this alarming adventure would be it was impossible to say. And as the moments passed the atmosphere grew thick and oppressive. Eustace was conscious of an unusual moisture on his forehead.
"This is stifling," he said. "I can hardly breathe."
"Same here," gasped Huddlestone. "My nose is dripping with blood."
Gradually the firing slackened and died sullenly away. Perhaps the utter uselessness of it appealed to both sets of combatants simultaneously. Doubtless they, too, were fearsome of the deadly poisonous atmosphere. More or less, the meaning of this was a mystery. The tunnel contained two lines of rails, the roof was fairly high, and generally a strong current of air passed through.
But not now. The seal of wood and iron brought about by Armand's ingenuity at the far end of the tunnel had prevented the free ingress of pure air, and the dense volumes of acrid smoke had done the rest.
Armand fairly sobbed and struggled for his breath. He fought his way over to the cab of the engine, and in a hoarse whisper asked for a piece of cotton waste. This he proceeded to soak in the oil from the stoker's can. Then he placed the mass upon the boiler and applied a light.
A flaring yellow flame flashed out. Within its ring of radiance could be seen the engines and leading trucks of both trains. On the fore part of either the troops had gathered. Numerically, the proportion was greatly on the side of the French.
"Rush them," Armand cried, "rush them whilst the flare lasts."
Like rats, the nimble little Gauls leapt on the metals. A few shots at short range were exchanged, in the midst of which the yellow light suddenly died away. By the time Armand had replenished it, his men were cheering hoarsely in possession of the German train. A dead body or two lay on the track; from a truck here and there came the gurgle and groan of the wounded.
"This is worse than murder," said the stripling officer in charge of the German train. "There is reason in all things, Captain. Pray command me. Circumstances place me entirely at your service."
"You will recollect that you brought this entirely upon yourself," Armand replied dryly. "Meanwhile, we may pay too highly for the time wasted in the interchange of politeness. We shall be asphyxiated. Pray precede us, so that we may get out of this without delay."
No time was lost in getting under way again. The mere motions of the trains fanned up a slight breeze, which, languid as it was, came sweetly and soothingly to breasts literally bursting for the want of it. Armand's spirits rose, a soft whistle escaped his lips.
"Eh, bien," he said, "but this is something to remember, something to tell one's friends in after life and—"
"Be received with polite incredulity," said Huddlestone. "This is literally the hottest place I have ever been in. The air is better, but not much less stifling than it was before. Captain, I trust your friends have not been trying on a little amateur sapping of their own at the other end of this confounded tunnel."
The melodious lilt faded suddenly from Armand's lips. "I don't quite understand you," he said.
"Don't you," said Huddlestone. "Supposing your friends towards Joinville are not particularly strong in numbers. They appear to be masters of the situation for the time being, but their position would be immensely strengthened by possession of the railway. And how would they proceed to make sure of the railway? Why, by blowing up the mouth of the tunnel directly they had driven back the train."
"Then you mean to suggest—?"
"That the thing is un fait accompli. I feel certain that what I say is correct, and that we are literally sealed up here like sardines in a tin. Otherwise, the atmosphere would not be so insufferably close. You see the gravity of the situation?"
Armand shrugged his shoulders.
"It is not lost upon me," he said. "Fortunately, the suspense will not be unduly prolonged. We shall soon know."
Both trains were moving slowly on. Calculating by moments, the cars should not have been remote from the exit over against Joinville. And yet, hanging anxiously over the side, the two Englishmen could discern nothing beyond the purple, shot darkness.
There was no circular focus of light, no welcome rays penetrating the exit from the tunnel. Either some calamity had happened, or they were the victims of a cruel misfortune.
"The exit is assuredly blocked up," Eustace muttered.
Armand's reply was unheard. The pilot train, forging slowly ahead, bumped and clattered, the trucks came thudding together along its entire length, and then suddenly came to a standstill.
"For heaven's sake shut off steam there, or you will be into us," came a harsh voice from the pioneers. "There is something on the line."
The second train also came to its brakes. Armand hastened to the scene of the trouble. The young German in charge of the other transport was already examining his surroundings with the aid of a lantern.
"What has happened?" Armand asked, anxiously.
"The whole line is strewn with masonry," was the reply. "Look for yourself, and see if it is not so, Monsieur le Capitaine."
Armand took the lantern which the other proffered, and flashed its sickly yellow rays upwards. Not only was the line strewn with masses of rock and earth and twisted brickwork, but the serried mass rose upward till roof and floor came together. Huddlestone had guessed it. Both exits from the tunnel had been destroyed.
"A most amazing thing," Armand cried. "A marvellous coincidence."
The young German smiled somewhat grimly.
"I guessed this," he said, "though I had no need to tell you. It becomes necessary to go back in the direction of Orloy."
"Into the hands of your countrymen, who have doubtless regained the lost ground there," Armand said, dryly. "My friend, to prevent accidents I contrived to seal up the entrance of this tunnel after my train entered."
"Then we are caught like rats in a pipe."
"So it seems. But can you inform me how my brilliant scheme came to be so speedily pirated as this?"
"That is merely conjecture," the youthful German replied. "I only know that my train was headed back by troops two miles this side of Joinville. They were in force, and I feared derailment. For the time, at any rate, the valley seemed to have fallen into your hands. The enemy bore me back into the tunnel, and that is all I know. The position is anything but a pleasing one."
Armand agreed sullenly. He understood perfectly what had happened. A body of troops had made a dash for Joinville, and they had destroyed a portion of the tunnel, with a view of checking any advance on the part of General Deganfeld. By an amazing chance both exits had gone simultaneously.
Apparently there was nothing to be done but sit down and endure it. Sooner or later the Bavarian advance from Marlay must result in communications being opened up again. But Deganfeld was by no means over strong, and a large French force—the force Armand was so anxious to touch—hovered menacingly in the country about Joinville.
Under these circumstances, many days might elapse before the tunnel was cleared. That Deganfeld would make desperate efforts to do so was certain. That the French would do their best to prevent him was inevitable. To force the obstacle from within, aided by a mere handful of men without tools was practically impossible.
"And we are without stores," said Armand. "We might hold out for a couple of days. Major, your cases are—"
"Not mine," Eustace said, hurriedly. "Besides, we cannot get much nourishment out of surgical appliances. In any case we shall perish miserably ere long for want of air. The atmosphere is insufferable."
Eustace spoke truly. The air was hot and heavy, a sense of languor and fatigue lay upon every man there. As yet, they hardly realised the full extent of the danger. Unless relief came speedily, a horrible death lay before them. The black darkness was in itself a terror.
"Something must be done," Armand said, hoarsely. "Come, is there not one of you that can suggest anything?"
The young German officer touched Armand's elbow.
"There is one desperate chance," he said. "If you follow me, I will show you the way."
"Lead on," said Armand. "Nothing can be more desperate than this."
LANTERN in hand, the German plunged forward. He was followed by Armand, together with the Englishmen. No word was spoken on either side, the journey being undertaken in grim silence. At some distance from the trains and the troops the air was a little less vitiated, and oppressed lungs drew breath more freely. At the end of a mile the guide paused.
"Do you notice anything?" he asked.
They all had, almost at the same moment. They noticed a purer, cooler air, like champagne to their jaded senses.
"And there seems to be an absolute draught," said Huddlestone.
"Hardly that," said the German. "It has gone again. Half a dozen men might manage to exist here for a time, but no more."
"I can't understand whence comes the air," said Armand.
"It seems to me that we Germans know your country better than you know it yourselves," said the other, with a dryness that brought the blood to Armand's cheek. "But that is by the way. As a matter of fact, we are exactly under the ventilating shaft of the tunnel. It passes through the hill, rising to a round tower of stone beyond—a capital landmark."
"You are right," Armand cried, eagerly. "I remember now."
"Very good, Captain. I saw that we had one desperate chance, and that is a fact. It may be just possible for us to climb up the shaft and seek assistance. There is no other way."
Armand was eager for the attempt, and the Englishmen were nothing loth to follow. The German proceeded, lantern in hand.
"How did you learn this?" Armand asked.
"We left nothing to chance," was the reply. "Do you suppose an important detail like this would be overlooked?"
"Never mind that," Armand growled. "How do you propose to ascend?"
By way of reply, the German flashed his lantern along the slimy walls of the tunnel. Presently he found what he wanted—a square wooden trap, which he proceeded to pull away from the wall. This done, a hole barely large enough for a man to squeeze into was disclosed.
"More charming than it seems," the German explained. "The semi-circular pipe leads on to the roof of the tunnel. There is an iron grating above us, if you will take the trouble to look."
Sure enough, as the Lantern's rays flashed on the roof, a rusty, sooty grating came in the line of the light. Like a cat, the German wriggled himself into the hole, pushing his lantern before him, the others following.
It was a dusty, dingy, horrible, choky business, resulting in hands and faces being smothered in soot and cinders, but it was accomplished at last. When, finally, the four adventurers stood on the grating, they could see the brilliant shield of the blue sky far above them as a cerulean circle clear cut by the funnel, and they could breathe again.
The pure frosty air ran like quicksilver along Armand's veins. "It is good to live, after all," he cried. "Still, there is much to be done. Herr Lieutenant, how do you propose to reach the summit?"
"Nothing easier," said the other. "The way is provided, sir." A flight of iron ladders led upwards. It was a long and tedious business, for the shaft was many hundreds of feet through the heart of the hill, and the ladders were of iron and absolutely perpendicular.
The intense cold struck, even down there. Each of the adventurers could feel the chill grip of the metal as it struck through their gloves. As they toiled up, foot by foot, the pace gradually slackened. It was fortunate, perhaps, that darkness reigned supreme, and thus veiled the real danger of the undertaking.
"I'm glad I can't see anything," Huddlestone panted. "Looking down from a height always makes me confoundedly giddy. And we must be up—"
"Don't think of it," Eustace replied. "I'm trying not to, and I never was in such a blue funk in all my life. Sebastopol was nothing to this."
All things come to an end, and the weary climb was over at last. When the four reached the top of the shaft a brief terror awaited them. Over the entire surface a network of iron completed the semblance of a cage.
"Good heavens!" Huddlestone groaned. "Have we come all this way to be baffled like this? How maddening!"
Armand swore volubly. Then annoyance took the place of anger, as the German reached up and lifted the centre of the grill. The latter seemed to know perfectly well that the grill possessed a swinging doorway.
"It is the way we have beaten you all along," he said. "We know everything, you know nothing—except how to fight."
Armand turned away bitterly mortified. The truth stung like a whiplash. Ere he could think of a suitable reply, the boom of a gun, followed by the quick rattle of musketry fire, smote on the air. Evidently, sharp work was in progress down in the valley towards Joinville.
A risky jump of some fifteen feet, on to snow frozen as hard as granite, made a fitting termination to the hazardous side of the adventure. The volatile Armand burst out laughing as he surveyed his companions.
"Did one ever see four such disreputable scarecrows?" he cried. "Still, we can afford to smile at our misfortunes now. Forward, mes amis."
A brisk run of some twenty minutes brought the quartette on the scene of action. A miniature pitched battle between a Prussian regiment, hurried up by General Deganfeld and a cloud of Francs-tireurs was in full blast. Armand ran forward to an eminence, and waved aloft his handkerchief, which he had tied to his sword. The German lieutenant followed his example.
At the unexpected spectacle of a French and Prussian officer standing amicably side by sire, and waving miniature flags of truce, the firing ceased. Then, by mutual consent, Armand and the German respectively returned to their own lines. A few minutes later, and a hurried conference between the leaders of both forces had taken place.
The scene which followed was not the least strange incident of that marvellous campaign. Amongst the wreckage at the mouth of the tunnel, hundreds of French and German troops worked side by side. From either set of rails their respective officers watched them in silence. Up the slopes the arms were piled.
At the end of two hours the way was practically clear. A rousing cheer went up as the last block of brickwork was rolled aside, and then there staggered from the tunnel four score of men, grim and pallid, and gasping in the pure air of the afternoon. There was nothing for it now but to bring out the trains, which was done accordingly.
"Whom do they belong to?" asked the German leader.
"The problem is not yet solved, Colonel," responded the French commander. "Let them form part of the stake we were playing for when we were so strangely interrupted two hours ago."
The German saluted grimly. He desired nothing better. Within two minutes of this polite interchange of courtesies, the roar of conflict had recommenced. From a snug vantage ground, Eustace and Huddlestone watched the progress of the fray. They saw the tide of victory ebb and flow, they saw the Germans gradually beaten back and retire sullenly to the cover of the woods. Then, a little time later, Armand came up with a gay smile upon his face.
"Ah," he cried, "we have to be grateful for small mercies in these dark days. Your sympathy was with us, I am sure."
"You," said Eustace. "I was thinking of my stores, you know."
"Quite so. Then you are fortunate, for these two trains are going right through to Joinville at once. We are well out of the adventure, my friends."
And Eustace heartily concurred.
THE sound of a banjo badly played carried on the river air. It was just possible to glean the fact that the unseen musician had desires in the direction of 'Tommy Atkins.' The audience consisted of two people in a boat—a man and a woman.
"Fred, what does it all mean?" said the latter.
"It means," returned the man grimly, "that we are unexpectedly returning to the house-boat a full hour before our time. It means that the servants are entertaining company, Ella."
Fred Galton swished the dinghy along under the side of the houseboat Diana, and assisted his wife to gain the deck. Then he strode along to the liliputian kitchen, and threw the door open wide.
"I should like to know what all this means," he demanded.
Neither of the four listeners responded to the conundrum. Two of the party were black-gowned and smartly cuffed and collared. The soiree was completed by two gentlemen in scarlet.
"If you please, sir," Cook commenced, defiantly falsetto, "we did not think you were coming back for some time."
"I believe that," Galton interrupted, grimly. "Turn these two blackguards out at once, and put those supper things away. How dare you take my banjo from the cabin. Your mistress will settle with you presently."
"Very well, sir," Cook responded, with a strained politeness that would have alarmed a more seasoned householder than Galton. "I daresay me and Hemly will know what to do, sir."
The two sons of Mars sneaked out of the kitchen and over the side into the boat awaiting them. Then they splashed off in the darkness, cursing each other with mutual heartiness.
"You'd better go and see those girls," Galton remarked to his wife. "Put your foot down, Ella, and don't stand any nonsense."
Galton swung into the cabin and lighted a cigarette. For the first time during his tenancy of the 'Diana' he felt a little disenchanted. When Jones, his rich stockbroker friend, had offered him the loan of the boat for a couple of months he had accepted almost with rapture. A life like that on the broad bosom of the river in leafy June and languid July was an ideal one for a novelist just making his way to the front. There was another reason also why the offer was accepted with alacrity. There is no exchequer that fluctuates more than that of the average literary man, and a 'slump' in letters had brought Galton to a sense of the folly of living up to the top of his income.
Therefore the pretty little house at Crouch End had been let furnished for a time, and cook and Emily transferred to the Diana. There were scores of other house-boats close by, and many attractions chez Pangbourne, which accounted for the backsliding of the domestics and the feasting of Her Majesty's soldiery. Galton began to wish himself well out of it.
"If I and Beck come to terms," he muttered, "I'll chuck this. I'm getting tired of sleeping with my feet in the river and my head in the bookcase."
A great deal depended upon this 'if.' Galton had begun to realise the uncertainty of ephemeral literature, and to look out for something in the way of an editorship, where he could have a good fixed income and plenty of time to write besides. And when fortune threw Jossa J. Beck across his path hope beat high.
Mr. Beck was an American millionaire with a taste for literature. A man of culture and education, he had settled down in England, where he had purchased a big newspaper or two plus a trio of magazines, over which he was delighted to lose no more than 500 a month. Certes, no journals were better served or 'got up' than his. Beck was a queer, cranky kind of man, whose plentiful milk of human kindness was soured by the polluting stream of chronic dyspepsia, but where he took, Beck was a friend indeed.
Galton had great hopes in this quarter. Beck had told him personally that the editorship of the 'British Monthly' would soon be vacant, and incidentally that Simes, the present man, got 800 a year. Galton asked boldly for the appointment. But Beck could promise nothing. "I'll see," he responded, playing, as he did incessantly, with the big intaglio ring on his little finger. "No time wasted. Ain't you at Pangbourne? On the 'Diana?' Tell you what, I'll come there and lunch with you on Friday, and we will try and fix up things."
Needless to say, Galton jumped at the suggestion. A few hours from the present moment and he would know his fate. To-morrow was the pregnant Friday. He forgot all about Ella and the recreant domestics in the dwarf kitchen. The dainty little luncheon, the mayonnaise, the chicken cutlets, the pomard and salad, were all gathered for the coming of the lion from the west. Then Ella swept in. Her pretty face was pale, something like a tear dimmed her blue eye. Napoleon had lost her domestic Waterloo.
"Well?" Galton asked impatiently.
"It is anything but well," Ella replied with the calmness of despair. "They were both extremely insolent, and I had to be quite firm. The consequence is that they are both going the first thing in the morning."
Galton groaned. Many husbands would have promptly laid the blame upon the wife; but the glamour of the honeymoon was still upon them both.
"And Beck is coming," Galton concluded. "What shall we do? Can you get anybody else? To put him off would be a most successful form of suicide."
"I quite see that, dear; and as to getting servants here within a week of Henley the thing is utterly impossible."
"Don't you think," Galton suggested, meekly, "that you might ask the girls—"
"No, I don't," Ella said crisply, "especially after the way they spoke to me. If you'd been there you would have sent them away now."
Galton advanced no further in that direction. He had a poor idea of using other people at the sacrifice of personal pride. There was only one thing to do under the circumstances and that he did—he laughed. Ella smiled also. She had a pretty sense of humour and a sweet audacity which was by no means the least of her charms.
"Fred," she said presently, "does Mr. Beck know you are married?"
"Upon my word I can't say. Why?"
"Because I have a plan. The more I think it over the easier it seems. And it would be a great deal off my mind. You won't say no?"
"My dearest girl, I won't say no to any way out of the difficulty. Once we get to-morrow over I don't care. If necessary, we could do the work of the boat ourselves. And if Beck turns out trumps, why we shall have to give up the 'Diana' in any case."
"Then make your mind easy," Ella laughed. "Everything shall go as merrily as the proverbial marriage bell."
BY slow degrees the cabin of the 'Diana' had been reduced to order. True, breakfast had not been exactly a function, neither did Galton's ideas of dusting tally with the views on that important task held by Ella.
"You're as black as a tinker," said the man of letters.
"I shall be blacker still," Ella responded, cheerfully, "before I have finished. If you will get out of my way I shall be so glad."
By the time Galton had consumed three cigarettes on the roof, the table in the cabin had been laid and decked with flowers. The luncheon had been spread out, and very nice and dainty it looked, Galton thought.
"No show or ostentation," he said, "and yet quite sufficient. If only we had a decent parlour-maid, the thing would be complete. But I say!"
"What is the matter now?"
"Why, you have only laid covers for two."
"Quite right. Don't ask any foolish questions. And now I am going to dress. Come down here again when I call you."
Half-an-hour passed before the summons came.
As Galton passed into the cabin, his eyes dilated with astonishment. Before him stood Ella, but no longer the idol of his dreams. The golden glossy hair had been pushed back under a snowy cap, the long strings of which dangled behind. Round Ella's throat was a deep white collar, her wrists were surrounded by turned-back cuffs. As to her dress, it was black, both rigid and plain. A daintier, more graceful little parlour-maid never handed round a dish. The half-bold, half-fearsome look in her eyes made the charm complete.
"How did you manage it?" Galton gasped.
"Petty larceny." Ella laughed. "I opened the box left by Emily till called for, and took the liberty of borrowing these things. You're not angry, Fred?"
"I couldn't be if I were to try," Galton responded. "Mind you, I don't like it. But when a girl shows pluck like that—and you look so deuced pretty, you know."
"Silly boy! You have knocked my cap all on one side. Now get away to Pangbourne and meet your tame millionaire, or you will be late. Nervous! Really, nothing to speak of."
Wherein Ella prevaricated; which was excusable under the circumstances. In due course Mr. Beck emerged from a first-class carriage at Pangbourne, and received a respectful greeting from his host. The man who can meet a millionaire on terms of equality has yet to be discovered. The lean shambling figure lounged along by Galton's side. Beck was less melancholy than usual, and Galton had tact enough not to mention business. They reached the house-boat at length, and a few cigarettes were consumed on the roof ere came the welcome announcement of luncheon.
Ella waited deftly and noiselessly. She managed to exchange a word or two with Galton when the plutocrat was washing his hands in the lavatory. Fortunately for Ella's peace of mind the visitor did not appear to notice her at all. Like most of his countrymen he had a good and rabid appetite, and at the end of the repast he was fain to confess that he had lunched well.
"One gets so tired of these big feeds," he said, lighting a cigar costing something like half-a-crown per inch. "Upon my word, Galton, you're better off than I am."
"If I could persuade my creditors the same thing," Galton said, dryly, "it would be a source of mutual happiness."
"Money does not mean happiness," Beck remarked, sententiously.
"Perhaps not; but you can have precious little fun without it. I don't suppose you would like to live upon 400 a year, earned fitfully as I do."
"Well, it don't amount to a pile, and that's a fact. A smart fellow like you ought to do a great deal better than that."
"I dare say I ought to, but I don't."
"And that's why you require an editorship?"
"Precisely. A regular income relieves one from a deal of anxiety, and that means better work. It's all very well for fools to talk about the spur of adversity, but what's the use of spurring a laden horse?"
Beck nodded. This kind of philosophy was after his own heart.
"I have been making a good many inquiries about ye," he said, "and ye seem to be just the man I want. Simes isn't. He's groovy and intolerant of new ideas. I'm not going to promise anything definite yet. In the course of a few weeks you shall hear from me."
Galton smiled as pleasantly as possible. All the same, he didn't like it. Also he knew that Simes was leaving Beck almost immediately. And he had counted upon this appointment more than he knew. Then Beck took up the thread of conversation again.
"I daresay you have often heard me spoken of as a peculiar man," he said. "Well, I am. People in my position see a good deal of the sordid side of life, and we could form a 'corner' in human nature if necessary. If I figure a man up and like him, I'm his friend till he passes the tape, you bet. For all I say it, perhaps, who shouldn't, it's no bad thing for a young man to come to me."
"That is why I am so anxious to come," Galton responded.
"At 800 a year," Beck said drily. "Now where the deuce—"
The speaker paused, and looked helplessly at his right hand. Galton noticed that the big intaglio was no longer there.
"Guess I've lost my ring," Beck said resignedly. "I couldn't have done such a thing for a thousand. That ring, sir, belonged to Francis the First of France, and was given by him to Victoria Colonna. I knew that it would slip off my finger one of these days, and now it has."
"Then it's on the boat," Galton exclaimed, "because I'm prepared to swear that it was on your finger when we were smoking our cigarettes before luncheon. I noticed how plainly the head showed up in the sunshine."
"That's a fact, Mr. Galton?"
"I'm prepared take my oath to it anywhere."
Beck considered a moment, and then a shrewd smile crossed his face. He looked like a man who was having a joke at his own expense.
"I guess you are right," he said. "I could tell you the price that 'Centrals' stood this day twelve months, but for other things I've no memory to speak of. I remember now taking the ring off in the lavatory. I expect I left it there."
And Beck stepped away, covering with one stride the yard and a half that lay between the cabin and the lavatory. In a moment or two he had returned with the information that it was not there. Ella, in the act of removing the plates stood to listen.
"Young woman," Beck demanded, "have you been in there?"
Ella blushed to the roots of her hair. She had almost forgotten her role, and for an instant resented the tone of the speaker.
"Certainly I have," she retorted. "And I saw no ring there."
Beck appeared to be by no means satisfied. And his suspicions were aroused.
"I'll make an affidavit I left it there," he declared, "and nobody has been in the place but you. Now you look here, young woman, I guess you found that ring, and in the press of business forgot all about it."
"Do you dare to insinuate," Ella cried, "that I have stolen—"
"Simmer down. We'll leave all that to the police."
Instances of millionaires being the object of cases of assault and battery are happily rare. But no plutocrat ever came so measurably near a sound thrashing as Beck stood at that moment.
"I don't want to do anything unpleasant," he said, "but unless I get my intaglio, there's going to be trouble somewhere. Guess I'll fetch the police."
Ella dropped into a chair and promptly burst into tears. Galton laid a grip on Beck's arm that promptly checked further action.
"There's some diabolical mistake here," the author said, hoarsely. "Mr. Beck, the girl you take for a servant is my wife."
With his hands plunged into his waistcoat pockets Beck whistled. As he struck this attitude his face grew hot, his air was one of distress and shame. For a moment Galton did not see this.
"Our servants left us in the lurch last night," Galton explained. "We could not see our way to put you off. Hence my wife masquerading like this. But as to Ella stealing your ring, why I'd as soon accuse you of doing it yourself."
"Well, you'd be quite right to do so," said Beck, with a queer smile, "for the blamed thing is in my waistcoat pocket all the time. I've only just discovered the fact, and properly ashamed of myself I am. And if the lady will forget the gross insult—"
"Don't say any more, please," Ella implored.
"But I must," Beck replied. "I always make it a point to be especially polite to those in my employ. And to think that I should have so vilely treated the wife of the editor of 'The British Monthly' makes me feel hot all over."
A thrill of joy shot down Galton's spine. The threatened misfortune was a veritable blessing in disguise.
"Do you really mean that, sir?" he asked.
"Really and truly. Never more serious in my life. And if ye are as successful in life as ye are in the choice of a wife you'll rise to not only magazine editor but owner into the bargain."
The titles of works by Fred M. White listed below were found in the on-line index of the A.P. Watt Records #11036, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The material in this collection documents sales of authors' works to publishing companies, newspapers, magazines, broadcasting corporations, and film studios. The on-line index lists the authors' names and the titles of their works, but does not say where and when these works were published, nor does it indicate whether a specific work is a novel or a short story. The collection itself is organised in a system of folders, each of which is identified by two numbers separated by a period. The following list of titles displays the folder number for each item in parentheses. For more information on the A.P. Watt collection, click on the link given above.
No source could be found for a work entitled The Missing Blade, mentioned in the following citation: "Fred M. White, author of 'The Edge of the Sword.' 'The Secret of the Sands,' 'Anonymous,' 'The Missing Blade' etc." (Introduction to the short story "The Arms Of Chance," The Queenslander, Brisbane, Australia, 27 Jul 1918).