A BITTER twist of Gunfort's lips and an almost murderous expression on his thin, saturnine features marked the intensity of his dark mood as he read the letter which he held in his hand. Otherwise, he was a handsome man carrying his profession in every line of him, and that profession the stage. A fine figure, slender, but athletic, and that of one who has cared for himself well and looking nothing like his close on fifty years.
The letter he was reading was short and to the point.
"Dear Gunfort (it ran), Barton tells me that you are at a loose end for a month or so and has given me your address. We are at Barchester for a fortnight's run in Shakespeare, and Melville is laid up in hospital here pending an operation. Can you see your way to take his place? Our leading line is 'Romeo and Juliet.' Will you come and play 'Tybalt' for me—Forrest as 'Mercutio.' Wire me on receipt.—Yours,
Again the twisted bitterness on Gunfort's lips and the sinister smile on his face. Then a long sigh as if some conflict had come to a successful end. Gunfort rose, and crossing the room took from a locked desk another letter the writing on which seemed to have faded with the passage of years.
"My dearest George (Gunfort read). By the time you get this I shall be beyond all pain and suffering. I am writing this in St. Agatha's Hospital in Melbourne, where I am well cared for and happy—that is so far as one in my condition can be happy. It has been a hard struggle since the man who promised before God to love and cherish me left me penniless and starving all these miles from home. Nobody will ever know how I have suffered and I struggled to starvation point until a good Samaritan sent me here to die. Perhaps I was wrong to keep all this from you, but a sort of pride sustained me. But so it was, and to this day the man who so wronged his wife is still in ignorance of the fact that I have a brother who is also on the stage and playing under the name of 'Gunfort.' My one prayer is that you will never meet."
There was much more in the letter, but Gunfort read no further—he knew every word of it by heart. He locked the sheet up again and went out to send a wire confirming to Barchester. The grim twisted smile was still on his lips.
Barchester prided itself on being more or less of a cultivated centre and especially on its appreciation of the finer points of the drama. They had a saying that what Barchester thought to-day on matters theatrical England thought to-morrow. Therefore, a longish visit from the Barry Openshaw Repertory Company in Shakespeare was an event in the social calendar.
As an old hand in legitimate drama, Gunfort was pretty well known to the rest of the company. Not that he appeared on the stage too often because he was a man with private means and thus in a position to choose his own parts. Despite his talents and that picturesque appearance, he was not popular, being prone to nurse grievances and quick in quarrel.
All the same, he seemed almost to go out of his way to show attention to George Forrest, who played what the profession calls 'opposite' to him, more especially in the favorite 'Romeo and Juliet,' where Forrest's 'Mercutio' was greatly admired.
"Rather strange that we have never played together before," Forrest remarked during one rehearsal of the great love tragedy.
"Oh, I don't know," Gunfort replied. "You see I have never been out of the country in the course of my work, whereas you seem to have played all over the world."
"That's true," Forrest admitted. "Europe and Africa, also America and Australia. Fine country, that."
"So I believe," Gunfort said. "I seem to have some sort of hazy recollection that you married out there. An actress who went out with some English company and stayed there."
Forrest shrugged his shoulders, indifferently.
"True enough," he declared. "Pretty little girl but could not act for nuts. Finally went off on her own, and from that day to this I have never set eyes on her."
"Then you don't know whether she is alive or dead?"
"Quite so, Gunfort. But that's years ago, dear boy. Only hope she doesn't bob up serenely one of these days."
Gunfort's thoughts reverted to a certain yellow and faded letter which reposed in a locked drawer at his lodgings. But the friendly smile on his face did not relax as he turned the subject aside and began to talk of other things.
* * * * *
It was towards the end of the tour and Barchester was looking forward to the second performance of 'Romeo and Juliet' which was to take place on the Saturday night. The house was packed from floor to roof when the curtain went up and the play began. A famous young actress had been imported for the occasion and Barchester had risen in its might to welcome her. And so for a time the play proceeded in almost breathless silence whilst those on-stage waited for their calls. In the wings, Forrest, looking wonderfully fine in the dashing attire of 'Mercutio,' was passing the time with Gunfort as 'Tybalt' previous to the duel scene and exchanging what appeared to be amusing confidences with him.
"This ought to go big to-night," Forrest was saying in the hearing of a group of scene-shifters. "I never saw an audience more keyed up. A little more fire, I think, Gunfort, old man. A few more minutes of 'business,' what."
Gunfort was playing with his rapier and apparently looking to the button on the point. It was as if he was making sure that everything was on the safe side.
"Righto," he said, casually. "I never much liked these real business rapiers. There'll be a nasty accident with them one of these days, and so I told Openshaw this afternoon. But he wouldn't hear a word of it. When the old man gets worried over one of the big shows, it's better to give him a wide berth."
"Worrying about me or yourself?" Forrest smiled.
"Both," Gunfort smiled. "But not really. Goodness knows what put the matter in my head."
A few minutes later the two were on the stage together with 'Romeo' and the rest of the followers and the scene began. In the theatre the proverbial pin might have been heard to drop as 'Tybalt' flashed out his rapier and the duel began. It was acting—acting of the highest type. A fight to the death with a breathless audience hanging on every thrust and parry. Then a small object seemed to rise from the stage and go flying into the wings. And the fight went on.
A slight stumble by 'Tybalt' and a quick recovery; and then a vicious thrust under 'Mercutio's' guard and the rapiers were knocked up as directed just as the blade was withdrawn and 'Mercutio' fell to the ground.
But not to utter what was in effect his dying speech, for he lay there whilst 'Tybalt' gazed in a sort of dazed horror at the point of his rapier. Almost in a flash the wild roar of applause was hushed as the house sensed that something was wrong. For 'Mercutio' lay there as if dead to the world. A thin stream began to trickle across the stage.
"My God, he's killed!" A voice broke the silence.
Shrieks and groans broke out all over the house. Then someone more long-sighted than usual noted the sinister fact that the button on 'Tybalt's' foil was missing and proclaimed the discovery in a voice harsh with emotion. Openshaw came dashing on to the stage and gave a signal that brought the curtain down with a rush. A babble of voices behind it and more wild bursts amongst the audience. After a pause that seemed to last for ages there was a whisper for a doctor, and immediately three men rose in the stalls and were dragged over the footlights.
Behind the curtain a small group of actors and stage hands gathered about the still form of the man lying there as silent as the grave. There had been no motion since he fell.
The first medical man bent over the body as if to listen for any sign of life. He shook his head gravely.
"Dead, poor fellow," he whispered. "Pierced to the heart, if I am not mistaken. What do you say, Clift?"
He turned to his colleague, and the other stooped only to give the same verdict. Then the gaudy trappings were torn away and the bare chest exposed.
"Beyond a doubt," came the decision. "The heart has been pricked—not deeply, but enough. Just as the real 'Mercutio' would have said a few seconds later. How did it happen?"
For the first time all eyes were turned to Gunfort. He stood there like one in a nightmare dream, a look of frozen horror on his face. His eyes fascinated seemed to be glued on the red point of his rapier. Three times Openshaw spoke to him ere any reply came. And then almost a whisper.
"I didn't know," he gasped. "I seemed to slip. Fell forward. Then the button must have been broken off."
"It was," a stage hand interrupted. "I seen it myself. There it is. Flew, it did, like a bird. Yonder."
Gunfort seemed to be fighting for breath.
"I tried to make it safe," he muttered. "I thought it was safe. That was just before my entrance."
"That's right," the same stage hand went on. "I see Mr. Gunfort adoing of it. Making safe, thinks I."
"Lamentable, most lamentable," the manager, Openshaw, almost wailed. "But clearly an accident. A fortunate thing that the poor chap had nobody depending on him."
"Or on me," Gunfort said. "Not that I matter much at the moment. When you are friendly with a man—"
His voice broke and he turned away like a man who is suddenly stricken with an overwhelming grief. It was Openshaw who first of all seemed to realise that there were things to be done.
"There will be an inquest, of course," he said. "Now I must go and dismiss the audience."
The theatre was cleared at length though what the real tragedy was would be learnt later. A most unfortunate accident, Openshaw explained. But one that prevented the performance from proceeding. And so on and so on.
There was nothing more to be done but to convey the body to the mortuary and notify the police. And then the stricken body of players wended their way home.
* * * * *
Naturally enough, the tragedy created a wide sensation in the town, and when the district coroner opened the inquest proceedings in the Town Hall the rush to find seats was sufficient to fill the building. No relation of the dead man came forward to identify him, as it was generally believed that he was colonial born and had no status in England. Indeed, Openshaw had a sort of impression that Forrest was merely a stage name. As everybody knew, there was nothing uncommon about this, and, for the purpose of the inquest it mattered little.
The first witness called was the stage hand who had noticed the flying of the button off the rapier which Gunfort had used.
"No, sir; I didn't think much of it at the time," he said, in answer to the question. "They both seemed to be clever with the weapons, and the fight was merely a stage one."
"I find in my notes that there was some suggestion of a slip on the part of Mr. Gunfort," the coroner said. "Did you happen to notice anything of the sort?"
"I did that, sir," the witness replied. "And it's my opinion that but for a stumble the accident would never have happened. It were a most realistic fight, and I were watching it closely, never having seen anything to touch it before. Just thrilling, it were. Then Mr. Gunfort he seemed to slip, and it looked as if he would have fallen. But he recovered himself, and, as he did so, lurched forward, and the point of his blade caught Mr. Forrest full in chest."
"That was shortly after the button flew off?"
"That's right, sir. Then Mr. Forrest, he falls forward and drops on the stage all of a heap like. That's all I know."
"Is there anybody connected with the theatre who can give me any information as to whether it was possible some person or persons to handle those two foils? They appear to me to be formidable weapons with the buttons off."
One, Speechly, the baggage man, entered the witness box.
"It was part of my business, sir, to see to all that sort of thing," he testifled. "I always made it a point to see that such things were kept under lock and key. I have seen more than one nasty accident happen in my trade when actors begin to lark about with such things."
"Quite so," the coroner assented. "And in the present case you followed your usual custom, I presume?"
"That I did, sir," the witness went on. "The rapiers were in my possession until the dresser of the two gentlemen came to me for them."
"But during rehearsals, perhaps—"
"Walking sticks, or light canes, sir. No occasion for anything more dangerous than that."
Gunfort came into the witness stand presently, and a deep hush held the listeners spellbound. His face was white and drawn, and he had about him the air of one who felt his position keenly. Just a pallid picture of remorse and suffering. He spoke clearly and quietly though his voice shook as he spoke.
"I am greatly to blame," he began, "though I did my best to guard against any accident. I was particularly careful at the last moment to see that the button on the point of the foil was secure. Moreover, I am more or less an expert with the rapier. In addition, some days ago I suggested to my manager that dummy weapons might be used."
"Quite true," Openshaw interrupted. "You see, sir, I am a confirmed realist with regard to stage effects, and I much preferred the use of real weapons."
"If I had not stumbled," Gunfort continued, "I feel quite sure that the tragedy would never have happened. You see, I could not recover my poise in time, and, had I fallen, the whole thrilling illusion of the duel would have been lost. I lurched forward to regain my balance, at the same time making a thrust and, as the button on my foil was off, my weapon struck the deceased heavily on the left breast. If I could do anything—"
The witness stopped and buried his face in his hands. A wave of emotion swept the room. Above it came the voice of the coroner addressing the jury.
"A most distressing accident, gentlemen," he concluded, "and one that could not be avoided. It seems to me that some at least of our sympathy may go out to the last witness in his distress. I suggest a verdict of 'Death by misadventure.'"
"And that," said the foreman of the jury a few minutes later in a formal voice, "is the verdict of us all."
* * * * *
Gunfort slowly and dejectedly made his way from the court to his lodgings. He was quite alone. Once under cover he took out the faded letter and burnt it to the last cinder. The thin, bitter smile was on his lips once more.
"Death by misadventure," he murmured. "Yes, the misadventure of meeting me. Little sister, you are avenged at last. That is a story that will die with me."