HEATHER took the drifting spray that sifted over the table like a cloud of mauve butterflies and crushed it ruthlessly in his hand. Later on he would realise that those delicate blooms represented a guinea's worth of orchids, and that they would certainly figure in his bill, for he had ordered a special dinner for two there at "The Majestic," and it was no fault of the management that Sir Thomas Salter, the great engineering magnate, had failed to keep his appointment. As a matter of fact, he had put Heather off at the very last moment by means of a telephone message to the hotel.
There was no help for it—Heather would have to sit down alone to an elaborate menu and the trilogy of extravagant wines, which even now were in the wine cooler by his side. Neither did it matter much that George Heather had practically his last ten pound note in his pocket. It had been an audacious thing on his part to ask the great man to dine with him at all; but then Heather was an engineer, and audacity builds many bridges. He had hoped to get a snug appointment from the great man, but now it looked as if he would have to go back to the Gold Coast and sweat out another five precious years of his life amidst the scum of humanity in a reeking atmosphere of filth and fever and all the soul-destroying degradation of that forbidding climate.
Well, it didn't matter much—nothing seemed to matter at that particular moment. It was more hard on Kitty than on anybody else—dear little Kit, with whom he had discussed the future so buoyantly in Kensington Gardens only an hour or two before. Well, that dream was ended—for the present, at any rate. He would go back to the Gold Coast next week, and— Well, in the meantime he might just as well eat the extravagant dinner that he had ordered, and make the best of what the Fates had in store for him. Now that the worst was past, he ate his way calmly through the elaborate menu until he reached the coffee and the 1820 brandy, and there began to steal over him the benign feeling of satisfaction that only a good dinner can give.
He lay back in his chair presently, watching his neighbours with a certain hard and cynical amusement. And then presently it seemed to him that a man seated by himself a little distance off was regarding him with a close attention that was almost flattering.
The individual in question was beautifully turned out, and had about him that faint, indescribable air of prosperity that is implied more than spoken. He was a young man—no older than Heather himself—though his hair was thinning at the top, and there were certain lines about the corner of his mouth and round those unsteady eyes of his that told their own tale. A moment later the stranger rose from his seat and came in the direction of Heather's table. A fine moisture was standing out on his forehead in beads, and the hand that held his cigarette was shaking strangely.
"May I speak to you?" he asked. "Thanks. Waiter, bring me a liqueur brandy. Well, I see that you recognise me. You do, don't you?"
"You are quite sure of that?" Heather asked.
"Wonderful how small a place the world is," the stranger went on. "Queer how often you meet the very last person you expect to see."
"It is very awkward at times," Heather said.
"Yes, isn't it? Especially when you were quite sure that the other chap had been dead and buried for the last two or three months."
"Oh, you thought I was dead, did you?"
"My dear chap, I was absolutely sure of it. When I got down to the camp, after Brass and Crossley had been done in, I found nothing but the remains of your hut, all burnt to a cinder, and your guns all broken and useless. Most of your papers were charred beyond recognition, and, besides, that native boy of yours told me that the hut had been attacked by the niggers, and that you had been shot and thrown into the flames. If it hadn't been for the photograph of you and the girl, I might have had my doubts, because, you see, I never happen to have met you face to face. But there was that photograph in a leather case, and, of course, I had a description of you. You know who I am, don't you—Wilberforce?"
Heather hesitated just for a moment. He hadn't the remotest notion who this man was, but the story had a familiar ring about it. It was a common type of story along that awful coast, which Heather knew almost as well as he knew Piccadilly. And there was something more behind it—of that he felt certain. Moreover, he had done a certain amount of magazine work himself, and here he appeared to have stumbled over the edge of a romance which might be well worth the telling. And undoubtedly this man with the shifty eyes and moist, clammy skin was telling no more than half the truth. He had the air of one who was trying to justify himself in the face of a serious accusation. And he, somehow or other, had come into possession of one of those photographs of Heather and Kitty which had been taken three years ago by Lesterre. Obviously the thing was worth going into.
"Oh, so you are Wilberforce?" he asked. "Really? And you picked up my photograph when you got down to the hut that evening?"
"I did," the other man said. "Directly I got it in my hand I said to myself, 'It's Chambers—Chambers and his girl, beyond the shadow of a doubt.' So I put it in my pocket, thinking that perhaps it would be useful later on. Of course, I was absolutely certain that you had perished with all the rest of them when those traders turned the natives against us and tried to rob us of the ivory. Now, how on earth did you manage to get away, Chambers?"
Heather hesitated just for a moment. That there was something sinister about this, and that there was more to come, he had not the shadow of a doubt. He could see that in the shifty eye and the sinister smile on the other man's face. "We will come to that presently," he said. "Meanwhile, it doesn't follow that the name you know a man under in Africa is the same under which he passes in London. So perhaps you had better address me as Heather."
"I am Wilberforce still, at any rate," the other man said.
"I congratulate you," Heather said dryly, "And what really became of our friends Brass and Crossley after I was done with? You are not going to tell me that you did not get the ivory through all right?"
The man called Wilberforce seemed to be swallowing something at the back of his throat. His shifty eyes dropped again, and once more that peculiar ingratiating and sinister smile creased the corners of his lips.
"If anyone tells you that I played the dirty on the other chaps, it's a lie. I did nothing of the sort. I am not exactly a plaster saint, but— Well, those chaps are dead and gone now, and I can give you no more than my bare word. And I don't know that their names really were Brass and Crossley. They only knew me as Wilberforce because I said that was my name. As a matter of fact, it is; but out yonder, as you know, we are not particular about that sort of thing."
Heather did know it, and smiled accordingly. Whoever this man was, and however credible his tale might be, he was listening to a man who was familiar with every inch of the ground they were talking about.
"But the other fellows had good friends amongst the natives, I suppose?" he asked. "For instance—"
"Ah, you are going to speak of Mombassa. I had forgotten Mombassa for the moment. I suppose it was that faithful nigger who helped you to get away?"
"Shall I tell you what he told me?" Heather asked. Who Mombassa was, he had not the least idea, but he was in the mood to get to the bottom of this thing now. "Or perhaps you are not curious to hear?"
A queer green tinge spread over the other man's face. Then the rusty spur of a bankrupt self-respect pricked him, and he spurted into a little spate of anger like damp gunpowder fizzling on a hot plate.
"Oh, well," he said, "if you prefer to take the word of a nigger to mine, of course— Don't be annoyed, old chap. My nerves are not what they were, and I am doing far too much of that sort of thing."
He flicked a shaky forefinger in the direction of his liqueur glass, which the waiter had already refilled more than once, and the uneasy, self-conscions grin was on his face again. He did not, perhaps, know that Heather was reading him like an open book, and that he stood before the other perfectly self-confessed as a scoundrel who had betrayed his three colleagues into the hands of the natives, sent them to their death so that he could get off with the spoil And that he had done so was evident by the fact that he was dining here, dressed in purple and fine linen, evidently a welcome and honoured guest, and obviously a man of means. He was telling Heather plainly enough that he had deliberately planned the murder of his comrades, or, at the very best, he had stood coldly on one side, and had got away with the spoil whilst the other men were fighting for their lives. And there was another thing. Who was the man called Chambers, and how on earth had that photograph of Kitty and himself found its way into that solitary hut previous to the tragedy? Heather had been proud of the photograph at the time, and had given a dozen or more to his friends, scattered all over the world, but, so far as he could remember, not one of those photographs had found its way to the Dark Continent.
"What can a chap do when he's all alone in the world?" Wilberforce went on. "I admit I've been a bit of a rotter. I was one at Harrow, and they fired me there. And they fired me out of the Army, too, and so I gradually got down to this. I suppose I ought to be happy enough. When I got back from Africa with all that stuff and sold it, I was worth nearly a hundred thousand pounds. But my mind's going, my boy. The doctor told me that, if I didn't leave the brandy alone, I should die of softening of the brain. But I can't, old chap, I can't! I'm a lonely man, and I sit at home and dream. And when I dream, I must drink. I can't go back to my own people. They are rich and respectable, and only yesterday my own sister cut me in the street. They would be glad to know that I was dead, and they'll have their wish before long, And, you know, though it gave me a fearful turn when I saw you to-night, sitting at this table like a man come back from the dead, I was glad to have a chance to talk to you. And I don't care much what Mombassa told you—I don't care much about anything. But this is something like the truth. We got wind of what those niggers were after, we knew they were going to attack us that night, and we knew that the Arabs had bribed our boys and armed them against us. So they sent me up from the camp to the place on the river where the ivory and the rest of the stuff was waiting in the canoes, and I was to bring the lot down to the camp. As a matter of fact, most of the valuables had been stored on the raft, which we were going to float down the river to the fort. You remember the spot? There's a fork in the stream just above Comba, and here the river divides, and joins again about a mile lower down. There isn't a faster-running drop of water in Africa. You know it?"
Heather nodded. He knew that atmosphere well; he could feel the pressure of it on his shoulders like a thick grey blanket, stifling his breath and taking all the elasticity out of his limbs.
"Of course I know it," he said. "I can smell the odour of those infernal crushed marigolds even now. But go on."
"I emptied the canoe off the raft and shoved it down into the stream. And then, somehow, in the darkness and the confusion—put it down to my own state of funk, if you like—I took the wrong bend in the stream where it forked, and when I got opposite the camp, on a little island, instead of being close to my pals, as I had expected, and where they would have had a chance to join me, I found myself on the other side of the eyot, quite four hundred yards away from the others, and I give you my word of honour that I never realised what had happened till I discovered my mistake. But I couldn't have gone back if I would. No man born of woman could have hauled the raft back up against the stream."
Heather nodded, and the other man went on.
"Of course, I had to go forward. I managed to stay the course of the raft for a minute or two, and look through the bushes towards the camp. Then a fire blazed out from somewhere, and everything became as light as day. I saw the camp rushed by our boys and some of the Arabs. I saw Brass shot through the heart, and Crossley cut to pieces. And I don't hold myself guilty in the least. Not that it much matters now, anyway. When I got down to your little dug-out, I found nothing but what I told you, and after that I set off down stream, and reached the fort about daylight. And—and that's all. What do you think of it?"
"A, very plausible story," Heather said coldly. "The phrase is not original; it is occasionally used by a judge after he has listened to a prisoner giving evidence on his owm behalf. I repeat, a very plausible story."
"You don't believe a word of it?" Wilberforce asked.
"Only a few details. No doubt you meant well enough at first, but you don't ask me to believe that a man who knew every inch of the ground as well as you did took the wrong fork in the river? You didn't. You got away with the spoil, and your pals lost their lives. No, it doesn't matter in the least how the man you call Chambers got away. It's not a pleasant story, Mr. Wilberforce, and it isn't a pleasant object who is telling it, as you would admit if you could see yourself in the looking-glass. Still, it isn't for me to judge you. Now, have you done anything to make amends? I suppose you knew something about your friends?"
"About as much, as I wanted to know"—Wilberforce laughed harshly—"and they knew much the same about me. I knew they had both been in trouble in this country, and that Brass and Crossley were assumed names. They were under the impression that mine was, too, and we let it go at that. Curiosity out yonder is not the sort of weakness people are given to. So there was nothing for it but to come back home and settle down to a life of pleasure. Pleasure! Good Heavens! And all I can do is that." He touched his liqueur glass again and smiled bitterly. "I come here every night and dine in solitary state, and afterwards I go to bed and sleep as best I can. And some night I shall die in my sleep, so the doctor tells me. I ought not to touch a drop of alcohol—it's fair poison to me. But I can't let it alone. And until I met you to-night I have never had a chance. Of course, you are entitled to half that money, and you can have it to-morrow with pleasure. Would you like to come round to my rooms now and talk it over? What do you say?"
"I'll have a look at that photograph, at any rate," Heather said. "And as to the rest, I have got a little confession to make to you."
Wilberforce rose with a sigh of relief.
"Not now," he said. "Not here. Waiter, order me a taxi at once. Come along. Chambers, or Heatger, as you like to call yourself. It's all the same to me."
Ten minutes later Heather was seated in a luxuriously appointed dining-room in Carlisle Mansions, with the photo by Lesterre in his hand. Beyond doubt it was the same that he and Kitty had had taken before he had gone out on that last job to West Africa three years ago. He waved Wilberforce's cigarettes and whisky and soda on one side.
"Presently," he said. "Now, listen to me, Mr. Wilberforce. That is my photograph all right, and also that of the lady whom I am engaged to. It was taken by Lesterre when we were first engaged, on the eve of my departure for Africa. There were about two dozen done altogether, and I suppose I must have given away quite half of them to various friends. And I have friends in my line all over the world. But how that photograph found its way into the hut you speak of, I have not the remotest idea. It is one of the things that no one can understand. Not that it matters."
"You left it in the hut yourself, of course. Could any explanation possibly be easier?"
"I didn't, because I was never there. I told you my name was Heather, and it always has been. I am not Chambers—I don't know anything about him. When you met me to-night, you jumped to the conclusion that I was Chambers because you recognised me from the photograph. Well, I'm not. I know the locality you speak of, because business has taken me there—a vile hole I was only too glad to get out of—but I assure you that we have never met before to-night, I am not the man you take me for, and your confession has been merely wasted. No, stop a minute. I need not say that I shall respect your secret. I'll go away presently, and there's no reason why we should ever meet again."
"Don't say that," Wilberforce almost pleaded, "and don't despise me more than you can help. Heavens, if you only knew what a relief it has been to me to get that confession off my soul! Try and realise how lonely I am, and there is no place in the world where you can be so lonely as in London. And I swear to you. Heather, that you are wrong. I didn't deliberately betray those chaps. I had drunk my nerves into fiddlestrings, and, when the pinch came, I was no better than a white-livered coward, and that is why I more or less left the others to their fate. And they weren't worth saving, either. They were no better than myself. And you won't leave me? Look here, I gather you are up against it, I gather that you are going out to that infernal place again because you are in need of a job. Well, don't go. Stay here with me, and I will make it worth your while. As things go, I am a rich man, but I would sacrifice cheerfully every penny I have for a real friend. I'll lend you the money, if you like, or I'll give it to you, and you can purchase yourself a sound partnership at some engineering firm here at home. It won't be for long, because I am done for. A few weeks at the outside, and my troubles will be all ended. I have disregarded what the doctor told me; I drink and drink, and my heart is hopelessly gone. One of these nights I shall go to bed, and when they come to call me in the morning—"
Wilberforce waved his hand comprehensively. Beyond doubt he was an object of pity, a thing to be sorry for, despite all his enviable surroundings, and Heather found himself more moved towards him than he cared to confess.
"Ah, well," Wilberforce went on, "I won't press you any further. But if you could come and see me now and then, I should be more than grateful. And I must do something with that money. I want someone to have it who will make better use of it than I have done. Do you know what I was going to do—what I had done, practically? I was going to leave everything to the girl in that photograph. For a year that photograph has been on my desk, and gradually I have fallen in love with the girl in it. You have no idea what a companion she has been to me. Of course, you will say I am talking hysterical nonsense, but this is the first time in two years that I have confided in a soul. Now, I am a dying man. I am going to the sea to-morrow, to stay a spell in a home. I know perfectly well that I shall never come back. It's too late, my boy. If I had met a man like you a year ago, perhaps But why go on? Will you do me a little favour? Will you tell that young lady my story, and bring her round here to see me when I come back, if ever I do come back? She won't want any persuading. A girl with a face like hers would never hesitate to give a kind word or a helping hand even to the most degraded wretch who ever found himself in the gutter. Now, will you do this for me?"
"I will," Heather said impulsively. "I have heard some strange stories in my time, and I have mixed with some strange people, but I have never had so remarkable an experience as this, and, though it may not sound common-sense, I believe what you say. I believe you are telling me the truth. I believe this all the more because I know what that awful climate and what the stuff men drink out there can bring the best of chaps to in time. I am not going to preach, Wilberforce. And—well, you go off to the seaside, as you have arranged, and in a week or so I'll come down and see you. And I promise you that I'll bring Miss Vaughan along; I know she'll be interested in your story. And it may not be too late yet if you will only try and hold yourself in hand. You are a rich man, and, from what I gather, it is not impossible for you to discover anyone who is entitled to a share of that money. Don't be down-hearted. With any luck, there should be many years of usefulness before you yet. Now, give me the address where you are going to, and leave the rest to me."
"You are a good fellow, Heather," Wilberforce said unsteadily. "Now, if you will, in return, give me Miss Vaughan's address, I won't bother you any more to-night."
For some time after Heather had gone Wilberforce sat down to his desk and was busy writing. Then he rose with a sigh of weariness and satisfaction, and glanced hesitatingly in the direction of the spirit stand. It was only for a moment that he hesitated, then he poured himself out half a tumbler of neat spirit and drank it greedily.
"Why not?" he muttered. "It can make no difference now—nothing can make any difference now—and perhaps—nay, certain— it is all for the best."
* * * * *
Heather and his companion alighted at Southbourne, and made their way through the broad, leafy streets in the direction of Cliff House. There was a sparkle of expectation in Kitty Vaughan's blue eyes and a tender smile upon those sensitive lips of hers, for she and Heather had been discussing Wilberforce on the way down, and Kitty's heart was full to overflowing with the pity she was feeling for the lonely man who was so eagerly awaiting their arrival. She was not thinking of herself or Heather just then, she had forgotten that before long George would be on his way to West Africa again, and that the waiting years lay before her once more. That was not Kitty's way when others were in trouble.
A neat servant-man threw open the door of the pleasant house standing in the gardens back from the cliff, and his face was solemn as he read the card that Heather handed to him.
"Doctor Westcott will be very pleased to see you, sir," he said. "I believe he was going to write to you. Mr. Wilberforce? I am very sorry to tell you, sir, that Mr. Wilberforce is dead. He died in his sleep last night. We found some papers by the side of his bed which were addressed to you. I think one of them was the gentleman's will, which the doctor and myself witnessed a day or two ago. But perhaps you and the lady had better come inside, sir. Yes, it was quite a peaceful death."