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Title: The Mysterious Investment Author: Ambrose Pratt * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402781h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2014 Most recent update: October 2014 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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THE event that was to alter the course of my life occurred at the town house of Lady Adela Drummond, towards the close of the season. Lady Adela was an indefatigable lion-hunter, and one could always depend on meeting the latest celebrities at her parties, on which account I usually declined her invitations. But I found it impossible to escape the one in question, for the good reason that she trapped me into naming a date when I should be free some weeks beforehand, and afterwards she informed me that my assistance was needed to make her party a success. It appeared that she had discovered an exceptional lion—or perhaps I should say bear—in the person of a Russian thought-reader. And since he could not roar intelligibly in the English tongue, Lady Adela required me to act as his interpreter. I remember cheerlessly anticipating that the whole business would prove a dreary bore, and I'm afraid that I was not in the best of humors when, half an hour before midnight, I entered the salon; for I did not fancy the idea of making a quasi-public appearance as the partner and bear leader of some half-governed Slav or Tartar charlatan. Conceive my surprise, therefore, when Lady Adela led me to a couch upon which was seated a little old man, with snow-white, close-cropped hair and Vandyck beard, who rose as we approached, and bowed with all a seventeenth century courtier's grace.
"Monsieur Rovenski—Sir Francis Coates," said Lady Adela. I don't know how long she remained with us; for on the instant I was absorbedly interested in the man. His face was the most remarkably beautiful I had ever seen. His features were regular and quite perfect, judged by western standards, with the sole exception of his eyes. They were just a little bit too widely separated in his head. But that defect was redeemed by their size and extraordinary expression. They were ruddy-brown in color; not bright, not piercing in glance, but steady, thoughtful eyes, that met all opposition with a full, receptive stare. Nothing could have been less disconcerting than their gaze. No eyes, could have less resembled my pre-conceived conception of a mind-reader's eyes. Instead of exercising an aggressive and penetrating influence, they appeared to be depreciatively expecting a gift of information. In short, they were the eyes of a dignified, mild-mannered beggar. Presently he smiled and said to me in Russian, "I was lonely till you came, Sir Francis. I have been waiting here an hour, alone. I am a paid showman, not a guest; you understand?"
I liked his candor and the mode of his confession. The little old man was evidently not a boor.
"Let us sit down," I suggested. He complied, and we listened for a time to a long-haired piano-thumper mangling Liszt. But my curiosity was all the while awake, and soon I turned to my companion.
"You had better tell me just what I have to do!" I whispered. "There's not much time for a rehearsal—but——"
He smiled. "If you would kindly tell me what they say, and tell them what I say, it is enough!" he replied.
I shrugged. "Then you are truly a thought-reader, M. Rovenski?"
He gravely inclined his head. "Would you wish an instance?"
"Very much!" I answered eagerly.
"Then think your most private thought about another person, name me a name, and look at me."
Half irritated, half amused by a request so singular, I was about to refuse, but then I thought—"Why not? The thing is impossible. And by accepting his challenge I can prove him to my own satisfaction a charlatan—at once."
"Helen!" I whispered suddenly, and looked him straight in the face. His curiously expectant and almost wistful regard held mine for about sixty seconds. Then his eyes closed and he was silent, frowning, for another minute. Involuntarily my lip curled, but an instant later he looked at me again, "Pardon—you think in English, Sir Francis, I in Russian—I translate but slowly," he explained.
"I understood that you are ignorant of English," I said contemptuously.
"I do not speak your tongue fluently, Sir Francis; but it and most other languages are known to me."
"Well, have you translated yet?" By then I had lost the bulk of both my patience and politeness. In fact I was almost discourteously disdainful. M. Rovenski, however, resented nothing. Very quietly he asked, "Shall I speak?"
"Of course," I sneered; adding, "unless you would prefer to change the conversation, or listen to the music your compatriot is making yonder."
The little old man drew himself up with an air of wounded pride. "But listen," he said coldly, "and give me your attention, for I wish to render you your thought in such a way that you will recognise it."
"Proceed," said I.
M. Rovenski half closed his eyes, and he said in a dreamy voice, "What right have I to think of her—with my pitiful three hundred pounds a year!"
It is no exaggeration to declare that I was stunned. I had not been conscious of thinking more of Helen than the fact that she existed while I looked into the little old man's eyes; but when he spoke I knew that I had. And I recognised the expression of my thought, just as a once familiar face is recognised after a period of lapsed remembrance. There followed a hiatus in my reckoning. I have no recollection of what happened afterwards, until I discovered myself mechanically responding to Lady Adela, who had come up to us again. I fear she found me very stupid, for she gave me her instructions twice; and I obeyed them like a man hypnotised, only half comprehending their import. It was M. Rovenski who recovered me. He put his hand upon my arm and said with an engaging smile, "Your secret is safe with me, Sir Francis." Absurd as may appear, I felt distinctly grateful for his assurance, and I brightened up.
We were standing near the piano, almost surrounded by a crescent-shaped crowd, in whose midst Lady Adela was seated. She was talking to the others volubly. "Oh! really, he is very clever," she was saying. "Prince Pelevovski recommended him to me—but the prince could not conduct the—er—seance, shall we call it; for M. Rovenski is under some sort of ban—a political emigre—you understand—and the prince's position had to be considered. But Sir Francis Coates, luckily, is half a Russian, and he has kindly consented to be interpreter." Then she turned to me, "Do let us begin, Frank. Find out what he wants, and let us know."
I bowed to her. "M. Rovenski," said I in Russian, "they are ready. Will you open the proceedings?"
The little old man heaved a sigh. "I am unusually nervous to-night," he murmured. "I am stage-frightened, I suppose, although I should not be. Will you please ask somebody to stand forward, Sir Francis?"
I glanced around the throng. It was about equally composed of men and women. Miss Fortescue was there, and beside her—as usual—Horace Massey. He regarded me with an insolent smile; the girl was, however, looking at the Russian. I gazed at the opposite wall and recited in a sing-song voice, "Hot beans, bread and butter, ladies and gentlemen come to your supper. A-bra-ca-da-bra! Roll up, tumble up, shoal up, rumble up! Whoever wants his or her—soul (not of the foot) examined and interpreted, kindly step upon the platform, and embrace—not me unless it's a lady—but the opportunity of a lifetime!" Then I did a bit of thought-reading on my own account; for while the crowd laughed and chaffed, Helen's eyes said to me, "How can you, Frank?" and Horace Massey's, "You've missed your vocation, Coates. You were cut out for a clown." But Lady Adela was indignant. "Don't be so silly, Frank," she objected tartly. "You know quite well this is not a matter to laugh at." Then she turned to that most ponderous and humorous of asses, Lord Huxham, and commanded him to set me a serious example.
Huxham is the sort of animal who might permit himself to remark "Dear me!" if a gun were unexpectedly exploded underneath his nose. His face is so stiff and wooden that a smile would crack his cheeks. He has no nerve at all.
"What am I to do, Coates?" he demanded, approaching us.
I asked the same question of the Russian. M. Rovenski studied Huxham for a moment, then replied, "Request him to think of the last words he exchanged with someone who is dead!"
Huxham raised his brows when I had translated this message, but after a pause he solemnly announced, "Well, well."
"Let him look at me," said the Russian.
"You must gaze into M. Rovenski's eyes, Huxham!" I directed.
Huxham shrugged his shoulders and obeyed. Everyone was courteously silent during the ordeal, and even afterwards, when the little old man, with a gentle hand-wave, turned half aside, and closed his eyes. I glanced at the crowd and saw that it was attentively regarding the Russian; and no wonder, for he made a marvellously interesting picture—standing there, with both hands clenched, his forehead tightly puckered, and his whole attitude and aspect expressionful of mental strain. Suddenly, however, M. Rovenski's fixity relaxed. His eyes opened, and he said to me, "Be careful and translate me literally to your friend, Sir Francis. The words, he used were these: 'I swear it. I shall never let her want.' The person who is dead replied, 'I trust you, Robert—trust you. You may leave me now—for I am sleepy.'"
Just as these words were uttered to me in Russian, I repeated them in English to Lord Huxham.
I am sure that never before had anyone beheld the man one tithe so shaken from his habitual marble-like stolidity. He stared at me for a full minute, his face slowly reddening until it had become one dull brick-colored mass of flesh—then he grated out between his teeth, in a voice that hurled a defiance at the world, "No man knows at what a cost I made the promise, but—by heavens—I kept it!" And with that, like one beside himself, he swung on his heel, and strode through the quickly parting throng, and from the room, speaking to none, and looking neither to left nor right.
The profound silence that succeeded was broken by Lady Adela. She was a woman who lived for social triumphs—nothing else on God's earth—and the sensation of the season had just been achieved, at her house, under her aegis. Her exultation was supreme; and no doubt her impulse was well nigh ungovernable to cackle and to clap her hands, or to get up and execute a pas seul. Noblesse oblige, however; therefore Lady Adela, instead of behaving naturally, with a greatness of mind truly admirable, affected to depreciate her victory.
"Lord Huxham is, I should say, a facile subject!" she remarked; mendaciously, because she hadn't an idea upon the matter, although perhaps, she had struck the truth—by accident. "What we need for a test," she continued, "is a difficult person, a complex person, a person whose mind it would be truly hard to read."
"A woman, in fact," I suggested.
Lady Adela scornfully ignored me. "A great financier like Mr. Stelfox-Steel," she declared decidedly.
"Hurrah!" cried Reggie Horne. "Trot him out, Lady Adela, and make him think of paying stocks; then we'll all have spent a profitable evening."
During the laughter that followed, M. Rovenski pressed my arm. "Will you tell your hostess that at half-past twelve I must surely leave. It only wants a quarter-hour!" he muttered in my ear.
Lady Adela, thus admonished, turned to the financier with her sweetest smile. "You would confer an obligation on us all," she urged.
Stelfox-Steel grumblingly came forward. He was a big man, with an iron jaw, eyes like those of an eagle, and a mouth like a guillotine. M. Rovenski, whom I watched keenly, appeared to become uneasy under the financier's piercing regard; but after a moment or two he bowed, and, turning to me, said in a low, yet resolute voice, "This man is a liar, Sir Francis, and he possesses great powers of self-command. He must be outwitted, for he intends to discredit me. Ask him to look into my eyes, then when, but not before, he follows your direction, say to him, and quickly, 'Think of the action you are most ashamed of.'"
My interest and my sympathy being thoroughly aroused—for the financier makes me feel creepy whenever he comes near me—I did as I was bidden, exactly. And the curious, nay the extraordinary, result was this. The little old man closed his eyes within a second of my speech, and, stepping backward, leaned heavily upon the edge of the piano. Mr. Stelfox-Steel shut his jaws with a snap, and swept first me and then the gathering with a glance of fire. He seemed to be correcting us for the impertinence of having countenanced the Russian's insolent demand. A few seconds later, however, recovering his composure, he smiled quite genially and muttered in a stage whisper, "But then everybody knows that I'm a villain!" It was, really, very well done; and I yielded him a meed of admiration, for his position had been embarrassing until he spoke. I was just about to hazard a look at Miss Fortescue, when M. Rovenski stood erect. His expression was sombre, even sad. "Tell, this man," he said to me, "that I shall keep his secret if he wishes, or inform him of it privately."
Mr. Stelfox-Steel, when this message was translated, played deftly to the gallery. "I have no secrets that do not relate—to stocks!" he said, and bowed to Reggie Horne. Everybody smiled; but when, a moment later, I bade the old Russian unmask his battery he frowned and replied in an undertone. "Whisper this question to him; whisper, so that none can overhear, 'Where is your mother?'"
I did not like the task at all, but I was committed, having gone so far, and so I accomplished it—after first apologising to the company and Lady Adela. Mr. Stelfox-Steel did not turn a hair, but he looked me in the eye and muttered, "I take you for a gentleman, Coates!"
Then he turned to Lady Adela and bowed low. "I have to admit myself a believer in the esoteric powers of your marvel, Lady Adela," he said gravely. "He has reminded me of a ceaselessly regretted incident of my youth, wherein it was my misfortune to have caused the death of a lad through an act of carelessness—while hunting. It—er—" He paused dramatically, then went on, after a most artistic gulp, "It has rather upset me—I confess—and I'm sure you'll excuse me if I now retire—Sir Francis Coates, no doubt, will supply you with the details of the story—if you wish to hear them."
"No—no—no!" cried everybody.
The financier bowed to the assembly—then once again to Lady Adela, and, without deigning me a glance, was gone, it was a superlatively fine bit of acting, and my admiration of the actor eclipsed my resentment at the fashion in which he had tricked me into upholding his brilliantly-concocted lie. There was nothing left for me to do but nod mysteriously while the crowd assailed me with inquiring glances and half-uttered questions. I was therefore greatly relieved when M. Rovenski claimed my attention. "He has not given me the lie, then?" he asked quietly.
"No," I replied. "On the contrary, he has given you the reputation of a Mirlin." Then I explained the financier's astute avoidance of the challenge. But M. Rovenski made no remark thereon, and presently, armed with Lady Adela's gracious permission, I escorted the little old man down the stairs.
I don't know why on earth I did it; but, as well as that, I helped him on with his cloak—to the shuddering horror of two hulking footmen; and then, to crown all, I was officious enough to assist him into his cab. And the quaint thing was this, M. Rovenski accepted my attentions without comment, as if they had been his right; and he rewarded me with nothing but a kindly smile. He did not even say, "Good night!"
As I entered the house again, one of the footmen (still shuddering a little) handed me a card that was inscribed on one surface with the legend "Mr. J. Stelfox-Steel," on the other with these words, "Will Sir F. C. favor me with a call at his earliest convenience?"
I winked at the footman and gave him half-a-crown. He did not return the wink, but in consideration of the tip he condescended to stop shuddering.
A second later a sweet voice said to me, in low, reproachful tones. "You haven't been near me once to-night!" I looked down into the lovely eyes of Helen Fortescue and thanked God for my stature.
Horace Massey has always to look up to her—in every way—I spiritually alone. He stood about five feet away, holding her cloak and chewing his moustache. Now, if he had been holding someone else's cloak, I daresay I might have acted differently. As it was, I screwed up one side of my face and depressed the other. "It has given me a pain here to keep away," I groaned, and, putting my hands on my shirt front, I bent double. Naturally, when I had recovered my perpendicular, she was half-way down the steps. I had a yarn with the milkman that morning—we reached the street door of my lodgings together. He was an awfully decent fellow; he paid my cabby for me and gave me a glass of milk that had real cream floating on the top. He took it from a special can.
About midday a persistent rapping on the panels of my door aroused me. My greatest treasures at that time were perfect health and a joyous disposition. Naught I could do or leave undone seemed able to impair the former, and I had already successfully defied two sorts of ruin to rob me of the latter. I awoke, therefore, nothing to my surprise, with a clear head and a gay heart. I thought the knocker, without, a creditor, so I lay still for a great while, wagering right hand against left in vast sums as to how long it would take to tire him. But it was I that tired in the end; and, calling all bets off, I got up and donned dressing-gown and slippers.
He was a messenger boy. "You young imp!" I remarked severely, "a nice hour to call respectable citizens from their beds. What d'ye mean by it?"
The youngster grinned. "Are you Sir Francis Coates, sir? If you are I have a letter for you, sir. I am to wait and take back an answer, sir."
The letter ran as follows:—
"Dear Sir Francis Coates,—If you have ten minutes to spare this afternoon between the hours of two and four, you might employ them to your own advantage by spending them with me.
Having mastered the plain sense of this effusion, a whimsical impulse induced me to reply to the great American financier, as follows:—
"Dear Mr. Stelfox-Steel,—It is so rarely an opportunity occurs for a pauper to patronise a millionaire that, in common gratitude, I cannot refrain from answering your letter.—I am, dear Sir,
When the boy had gone, I bathed and dressed and examined my pass-book. I was overdrawn, of course, but I doubt if that circumstance troubled me as much as it did my banker, judging from a letter that the postman brought a moment later; for I had all of ten sovereigns saved up against a rainy day reposing snugly in my dressing-case. When the milkman came I tossed him doubles or quits, and he won. Thus went the first sovereign. The milkman, a true sport, offered to go on, but a spasm of prudence saved me from the workhouse for the time; and four o'clock found me in the Park, still, comparatively speaking, a rich man.
My star being in the ascendant, I was presently seated in Gloria Hammond's victoria. She is about the only American woman English married I know who hasn't a title; but to compensate, she owns a hundred thousand pounds a year and the best chef in London. "I was just dying to meet you, Frank," she announced.
"Everybody is talking about your clever old darling of a Russian and the cute way you and he roped in everybody last night at Lady Adela's. I could just lean back and pass away, I'm so angry I wasn't there. But never mind, you shall tell me all about it and exactly how you worked the oracle."
I found that I had been unconsciously anticipating this verdict of society on my connection with M. Rovenski. Ever since I retired from Eton for elevating baccarat to the dignity of an inexact science, society had been laboriously picking my most innocent actions to pieces and discovering in the process almost diabolically ingenious underlying motives. It was one of the penalties I paid for having translated a Russian novel into English in my teens. Society never completely trusts a person, it suspects of brains.
"Look here, Gloria," I responded (calmly, because I had long ago recognised the futility of resenting misconstruction—and it is my habit to sit silent when accused of doing anything but good), "what have you ever done for me that I should bare my soul to you?"
She pursed up her pretty lips and gave me a sidelong glance that would have floored me five years earlier. "Oh!" she gasped. "The ungrateful creatures that men are! Haven't I done my best to marry you a dozen times to——"
"To other girls!" I interrupted gloomily. "D'ye expect me to be grateful for that?"
She laughed, but her eyes brightened, and she gave a gushing bow to Helen Fortescue, who cantered past us, attended by a groom.
"You're a base deceiver, Frank," she said. "But you're not going to put me off with blarney. I insist that you shall tell me all about it."
"Well," said I, "if I must, I must. But first tell me what folks say. I've only left my diggings half an hour ago, and have seen no one."
She bowed to a Cabinet Minister and his wife. "Oh," she answered airily. "That you supplied the old sorcerer with the information necessary. We are all wondering, though, how you obtained it. Lord Huxham, for instance, is so notoriously close. Who was she—that woman—Frank? My word, you are a deep one! They say Huxham has left town and gone abroad. But really, Frank, I never dreamed that you could be so terribly malicious. Poor Huxham wouldn't hurt a fly. Why ever do you hate him, Frank?"
With something of an effort I refrained from fainting.
"My dear Gloria," said I, "I like the fellow—but I have my reputation to consider. People have been quite neglecting me of late, and I had to shake them up or go under. It was a mere fluke that Huxham was my first victim. Almost anybody would have done."
Mrs. Hammond's look of startled wonderment faded into a loving smile as she nodded to a female enemy. "What an atrocious hat," she muttered; then aloud, and with a shocked expression, "but how did you know about him and the woman?"
"Oh!" I answered glibly, "that's easy. I happened quite by chance to be under the bed when Huxham's brother lay dying (Huxham never had a brother) and—er—of course——"
But Gloria stopped the carriage instantly. "Thank you," she said freezingly, "that's quite enough for one afternoon—Sir Francis. Good-bye!"
"Good evenin', ma'am!" I replied. "Sorry I can't suit you to-day. Some other day; good day!" And I hopped out upon the footpath, narrowly escaping a collision with a cyclist as I did so. When I looked back Gloria was abandonedly laughing, and the carriage hadn't moved. She waved her hand and I went up to the wheel. Gloria is an insatiably curious daughter of Eve, but she has the saving grace of humor.
"I've just thought of something," she announced. "Mr. Stelfox-Steel dines with us to-night. Are you game to come?"
"Game? Have you just hired a new cook?"
"Brute!" she said, then added, "Till eight!" and drove away.
I lit a cigarette, for the suggestion of dinner had given me an appetite, and sauntered on, chewing the cud of my reflections, that is to say, puffing vigorously. A moment later I met Lady Harris, Huxham's sister, and—she gave me the dead cut, in the most approved and fashionable style, looking straight into my left eye. Then someone coming up behind me linked his arm with mine. It was Reggie Horne. "There's the deuce and all to pay over that business of last night, Frank," he began at once. "You are the talk of London. Everyone swears that the old Russian was your catspaw. I can tell you I am tired of wagging my tongue in your defence."
"Everybody's awfully good to me," I hummed softly. "Don't bother to defend me, Reggie. The thing will make my fortune if only people won't forget it too quickly and stop vilifying me too soon. Bet you a cigar there are at least a dozen interested invitations in my letter-box already!"
But Reggie declined to be frivolous. "It's serious," he declared. "That old owl of a Huxham is awfully popular, you know—and I saw his sister cut you as I came along. Have you been to the club to-day?"
"Only in spirit, Reggie. Have they been sandbagging my reputation there?"
"Not exactly; But Sampson said it was bad taste on your part to deliver Rovenski's message to Huxham aloud, even if the mind-reading was a true bill and no fake. And you know what influence he carries, Frank."
"So long as they don't ask me to resign," I answered cheerfully. "Isn't it a glorious day, Reg? Mark the aureole about those poplar heads. I feel——"
"Frank!" cried Reggie, with real indignation, "please stop being frivolous for five minutes—I want——"
"Can't afford it just now," I interjected. "Here comes Helen Fortescue. If I were serious for five seconds I'd stop her horse and propose to her! By Jove, isn't she looking bonnie, Reg?"
Reggie said "Damn!" and Miss Fortescue pulled up beside us. "Mr. Horne," said she, "I am, after all, not going to the Dacre's dance to-night, so you may take some other girl to supper."
"How did you find out I wasn't going to the Dacre's?" I demanded modestly. "I don't remember telling anyone."
"Oh!" flashed Helen. "Aren't you going? I did so hope to escape you for one evening. Don't tell me I shall meet you at the Hammond's."
I slowly shook my head, and said sepulchrally, "I can see how it will end. My name will be hopelessly compromised soon, and I shall have to marry you. Such persecution. It's my fatal beauty, I suppose."
Helen Fortescue is always grandly armed against surprise and prepared with a riposte, however smart the rally. That's why my dearest delight has ever been a verbal fencing bout with her. She turned to Reggie. "If he was worth powder and shot I'd ask you to remember his exact words, Mr. Horne. They perilously resembled a proposal—don't you think?"
"He's just an idiot," growled Reggie. "He's always trying to be funny—and never succeeds in being anything but rude. But look here, Miss Fortescue, you'll have to pay me for that dance with two waltzes at least at the Reid's. I know you're going, for your aunt told me."
Miss Fortescue considered. "I'm afraid I can't—I'm awfully sorry," she said gently, and with real regret; "I thought, but I——"
"Oh, that's all right," I cut in. "I'm down for one—ain't I? Well, I owe Reggie a fiver. You can give him the waltz and we'll call it square all round."
"Done with you!" cried Reggie.
Helen smiled into my eyes. "So glad to have been of service!" she said lightly, and, raising her whip, cantered on.
"Nasty one for you, my boy, and richly you deserved it!" commented Reggie gratingly.
"Even the most unselfish disciplinarian," I observed, "is never thanked by those he rods. That girl was getting dangerously conceited. She absolutely needed the correction I gave her, and yet——"
"You infernal coxcomb!" Reggie cried. "Upon my soul, I feel inclined to kick you!" and, swinging on his heel, he stamped off in high dudgeon. I began to wonder if I had a single bachelor acquaintance left who was not in love with Helen Fortescue. It was too absurd. And for the life of me I couldn't understand why so many men were at her feet. She was clever, certainly. But I knew a dozen women more beautiful. And she hadn't a penny of her own. Her father was a pauper Irish baronet, from whom she could only hope to inherit debts. Perhaps it was her personality. That, I confess, possessed a charm peculiarly its own. She had a captivating trick of fitting herself to the mood of each person she companioned; and yet she never flattered. Then, too, she impressed one with a conviction of sincerity; and her big, earnest grey eyes seemed always asking pardon for somebody else's sins. I liked her best because she kept her kindliest thoughts for the unfortunate, and because no one had ever heard her say a word in condemnation of even the worst specimens of our species.
These reflections brought me to Bruton Street and my rooms. As I had expected, my letter-box was crammed with cards.
I was placed between Gloria and Lady Letitia Drake at dinner, while almost, but not quite, opposite (it was a round table) Miss Fortescue enlivened the stolidity of Stelfox-Steel and the Under-Secretary for Foreign Trade.
There were about a dozen others present, including a tame duke, two half-broken-in foreign barons, and our host, the famous geologist and explorer, Neil Hammond. Gloria let me rest until the entree was served, when, however, she opened fire in her best American manner. "Did Lady Harris really cut you this afternoon, Sir Francis?" she demanded. The poor duke was so shocked that he spilled some salt upon the cloth, which made him plainly miserable. "Better throw some over your left shoulder," I advised, then turned to Gloria. "Lady Harris is much too well bred a woman to cut anybody," I replied.
"But I had it from——"
"S'sh!" I interrupted. "I'm not impugning the veracity of your informant, Mrs. Hammond. I'm not anybody—in particular—you see."
Gloria smiled maliciously. "You are becoming quite delightfully modest in your old age," she observed.
"When you were a snub-nosed little girl, in short petticoats," I replied severely, "and long before you began to reap the disadvantages of foreign travel, I was already sufficiently a philosopher to know that a man at thirty-five is still looking forward to his prime. Old age indeed!"
"Did-ums, then," said Gloria; "and he's not even bald yet!"
I made her a present of my shoulder. "Lady Letitia," I murmured, "do say something soothing. Mrs. Hammond has been pulling out my hair."
Lady Letitia—a rather pretty blonde, with the whitest neck in London—sympathetically sighed. She was a soulful creature. "Gloria—is so light-hearted, dear girl—and—er—transparent (she lowered her voice at the word—she meant 'shallow'—the little cat) that I'm always envying her. She, for instance, would, have nothing to fear—if M. Rovenski read—her thoughts. Don't you agree with me, Sir Francis?"
From both sides. So there was no escape, it seemed. I nerved myself for the fray, for a glance showed me that everyone who could hope to hear was covertly listening.
"Well, I don't know," I drawled. "One never can tell. It's unsafe to judge by appearances, they say. Mrs. Hammond has always seemed to me a guileless creature (Gloria gasped with rage), but she may be really wickeder than you or I!" (Gloria smiled again.)
Lady Letitia strove to show me by her expression that her life contained a gloomy mystery. "Do you know—I dread that man," she said. "I hope that I shall never be unfortunate enough to meet him. If I did, I believe I should die!"
"Oh, they'd never hang you," I replied consolingly, "not if I were on the Jury anyhow. But tell me how you did it; or was there more than one? Did you use a pistol or a knife? I'm so interested."
A chorus of gentle gurgles told Lady Letitia that she was being laughed at. Being a blonde, she lost her temper in everything except outward seeming. "I'm afraid that you will not be able to make any capital for M. Rovenski at my expense, Sir Francis," she said sweetly. Here was the gauntlet with a vengeance; and I scarcely needed the sudden silence of the table to inform me that I must be careful how I picked it up. I pushed some pease upon my fork.
"Well, I do think," I said reproachfully, "that you might have helped me to earn my salary, Lady Letitia." Then I ate the pease.
"Why," she gasped. "Do you mean—do you admit?" She had lost her head.
I smiled encouragingly. "It's no secret, Lady Letitia. I've been chaffed about it all day."
"What! That—that——" She was a scarlet note of interrogation.
"I have entered the family skeleton trade. Everybody says so. So it must be true. According to report, I'm paid a pound apiece for questionable birth certificates, and even more handsomely for secret murders! I only regret——" Then I stopped.
"What?" asked Mr. Stelfox-Steel from across the board. The word was involuntarily uttered, I felt sure, for he looked as if he could have kicked himself for saying it.
But I smiled into his face, and answered with a bow, "Why, sir; that the duello has gone out of fashion. I have no character which I could lose, thank God! without the certainty of finding soon a better one. But I crave leave, with my superiors, to hate a slanderer!" And as I spoke, I leaned proudly back, and swept the circle with my eyes. For the moment my blood was on fire, and I knew that every note and cadence of my voice had sounded and resounded challenge.
A strained silence succeeded; then the duke spluttered: "Bravo, Coates! Well said! I quite agree with you!" And the incident was closed.
I turned at once to Gloria. "You have a card-party afterwards," I said, "and I'm not invited."
"You are too poor, my boy," she answered kindly. "You'd be sure to win, and that would make you more unsettled and volatile than ever. Why won't you marry, Frank? I'm really awfully worried about your future. There are a dozen girls——"
"I want to be my first wife's chief adorer," I interrupted. "It's a fad, I know, but I can't get over it."
"How absurd you are!" she muttered. "But there's more—don't tell me!"
"Well, there is. I couldn't conscientiously accept the contract of providing for a woman's happiness without I had a selfish interest in maintaining it. I know myself, you see, Gloria."
"What nonsense! Hammond married me for my money, and I'm as happy as a queen. And while you're not a cruel man, Frank, you are much cleverer than he is—where women are concerned."
I shook with laughter. "Shall I tell you a story?" I asked.
"If it's a pleasant one."
"The other day I met a man at the club. He was reading, in an out-of-the-way corner, a scientific journal upside down, and smoking an unlighted cigar. Being a friend of his, I invited and received his confidence. He confessed that he had absent-mindedly quitted home without kissing his wife. I'd tell this to no one in the world but you, Gloria."
Gloria bit her lip, then laughed and blurted out, "Yes, and I didn't forgive him for a week, either."
"You are a whited sepulchre," I observed severely. "The man loves the ground you walk on! As for you——"
"Go on!" said Gloria, with a look full of threats.
"Hammond almost deserves the priceless treasure you have given him," I replied, skirting the issue skilfully.
"You are a dear boy, Frank," said Gloria. "And I'll never rest satisfied until you are married to a nice, beautiful, rich woman like me!"
"Amen!" I answered solemnly. "But you'll spend a lifetime vainly seeking her."
When the women had gone, the duke, who had evidently been waiting for the opportunity, warmly and loudly pressed me to spend the shooting at his house. The blundering, honest, kindly, middle-aged fool wanted to show the others that in his opinion I was undeserving of my reputation. But he meant well, and I accepted. Then Stelfox-Steel came round the table and dropped into a chair beside me heavily. "Waited in for you till four-thirty," he remarked.
"You got my letter?" I inquired.
"Yes, but reckoned you'd think it over and come along."
"You are not the judge of character the half-penny press makes out."
"Don't pretend to be, Sir Francis. Try one of my cigars."
"No, thanks; Hammond's are good enough for me."
"Do you know, Coates, you are very uncivil? Got a reason?"
"And a good one!"
"What is it?"
"Straight from the shoulder?"
"Well, it strikes me that you want me. If I'm right, there's money in it. And if there's money in it, I must keep you at arm's length, or I'll make a bad bargain!"
The financier favored me with a lingering, narrow-lidded stare. "You ought to be in business!" he declared at length. "If you'd care to try it, I'll clear a desk for you."
"And get what you are wanting now for two pounds ten a week, or thereabouts?"
"You're a shrewd man, Coates—far shrewder than I thought; but you missed the nail that time and hit wood instead. By the way, you went home with that Russian chap Rovenski—last night?"
The sudden sparkling of his eyes warned me of something inexplicit in his accusation, so I answered coolly, "Did you follow me?"
"No," said he, "but I waited on your doorstep till past three. You must have found a lot to talk about."
I was unaffectedly amazed. "On my doorstep—till past three," I repeated. "Bruton Street?"
"Number thirteen! Two whole hours!"
I chuckled to reflect on the much pleasanter fashion in which I had passed those hours. Then I yawned and stood up. Stelfox-Steel stood up, too. "Is the want still wanting?" I inquired.
"To some extent."
"Better break your fast with me to-morrow, then. Noon sharp; you know your way!"
The financier smiled grimly. "I'll be there," he said, and we all went out into the drawing-room.
Miss Fortescue was turning over some pictures on a distant lounge, Gloria was playing one of Chopin's nocturnes, and the other women were gathered in a bunch talking scandal. I wandered over to Miss Fortescue and took the book of etchings on my lap.
"I'll give you some of that fiver, when I get one, if you're good!" I said.
She was silent.
"I know you need it," I went on. "Your shaft about my not being worth powder and shot disclosed the state of your own exchequer."
Miss Fortescue murmured, "Sacrosanct! What a lovely face!" She was studying a picture.
"And that hole in your riding-glove——" I continued.
"It's a story!" she flashed, then, meeting my eye, laughed in spite of herself. "You are the meanest man——"
"No," I said, "just weak, that's all—weak as water. I can put off an encounter days ahead, but when I saw you sitting here—do you think I could stop myself walking over?"
"Give me patience!" she exclaimed, in a low, intense voice, her eyes dilating strangely. "Is my presence poisonous?"
"Only to the lower animals—pariahs—and paupers—like me," I muttered, sadly—though sadly much against my will. I tried to speak lightly, God knows. I saw her nostrils quiver and her bosom heave, and I should have gone if I had had the strength. But the sight intoxicated me. "You are not a pariah, and you know it!" she whispered, staring at the picture.
"If I only had thousands instead of hundreds a year!" I answered bitterly.
"If you were an Irishman I should call you a selfish coward," said Miss Fortescue, in calm, well-regulated tones. I needed just such a restorative, needed it badly. I felt truly grateful; for I had been slipping towards the brink of sentiment, that abyss dangerous.
"And as I am not an Irishman?" I suggested politely, quite recovered.
"You head my list of 'poor things'," replied the girl, "creatures that sigh eternally for something that they lack the courage and ability to fight for and to win. If I were a man and I wanted wealth as you pretend you want it, no one would hear me cry for it. I would get it—I——"
"I know," I interrupted admiringly, "you'd rob a bank or loot the Abbey. But if I did anything like that I'd be sure to give myself away. The veriest infant can tell when I've been doing something wrong. One side of my mouth always twitches."
She looked me over scornfully. "I find it difficult to realise that you are the man who made my cheeks glow and my heart beat, a little while ago, in the other room—when you answered that ridiculous attack upon your honor."
"It wasn't a bad little bit of acting, now, was it?" I anxiously inquired.
Miss Fortescue did not trouble to reply to me, and as Horace Massey came up at that moment I yielded him my place with alacritous civility, and went straight home to bed. It was the first time in many months I had retired before midnight; but I very much desired to meet Mr. Stelfox-Steel with an active and unclouded brain upon the morrow.
MR. STELFOX-STEEL eyed my modest breakfast table with a surprise he took no trouble to conceal; then he glanced around the room and back again.
"Humph!" he said, "you are quite a Spartan!"
"I thought of getting something extra for you," I remarked, "but finally decided you required a lesson in simplicity of dieting. You are—pardon me—unnecessarily corpulent—and last night I saw you eating truffles?"
"Do you always breakfast so? Chocolate and toast?"
"Always—and I never take more than two meals a day—this and dinner. That is how retain my condition despite the life I lead. Though you may not guess it, I am physically one of the soundest and strongest men who enjoy the honor of your acquaintance, Mr. Steel."
The financial magnate bit thoughtfully at a slice of toast. "You are a queer bird—and that's a fact," he observed. "Where did you go after you left the Hammonds'?"
"Into that room yonder. I had some arrears of slumber to make up. Did you think I went to call on M. Rovenski?"
"I thought it possible."
"What is your business with me?"
Stelfox-Steel put down his toast and sat straight up in his chair, gripping the table tightly with both hands as he did so. "Whatever conclusion we arrive at, I expect you to respect my confidence, Sir Francis."
"Thank you—the business is rather intricate, so kindly give me your absolute attention!"
I lighted a cigarette and crossed my knees. "Russian, of course?" I suggested.
He nodded and frowned. "Unhappily it is, since because of it for many reasons I am working at a disadvantage. But to begin:—Some nine months ago I contracted with a Russian syndicate on behalf of a combination of American firms to supply the former with a certain sum of money on certain conditions. The contract was in terms or steel, but the private understanding was that only gold should pass immediately. Do you grasp me?"
"Well, the loan—for such it was in effect—was to be secured with bonds carrying interest at ten per cent, and repayable at the expiration of two years; and these bonds were to be signed by a very high personage, a very high personage indeed."
Stelfox-Steel's enormous jaws snapped shut. "I don't wish to mislead you, Coates," he said through his shut teeth. "The transaction had nothing to do with the Russian Government; it was a purely private one, although the personage who was to sign the bonds occupied a position of pre-eminence."
"To continue, then: the arrangement was that half the money should be paid down upon the transfer of the bonds, and that the remainder should be retained by us in pre-payment of steel orders."
"This was done—the bonds for the full amount were handed to me; and I paid over the sum agreed upon to the syndicate's representative—eight months ago. Since then the steel orders have been executed, by us—but——" he paused of a sudden, and eyed me very searchingly. I returned him stare for stare. "I'm taking a big risk," he muttered.
"Not because you want to exactly, eh?" said I. His brow cleared a little, but he thought it proper to treat me to a rather original sort of threat. "Sooner or later you'd eat skilly if you played me false," he said softly. "I've never met the man yet I couldn't put in gaol by trying hard enough!"
"It is my privilege to enlarge your experience," I retorted with a laugh. "But do get on with your story, Mr. Steel—I'm booked for a game of billiards at the club in an hour. You were saying that the steel orders had been executed by you——"
"Humph!" he growled—"just so—but they have not been delivered." Then he paused again.
"No? Something wrong?" I suggested after a moment. "A fly in the amber?"
"See here, Coates, I'm going to trust you fully!" he rejoined with a scowl. "So kindly quit fooling if you can, and give me a serious assurance."
I sat up at that and bowed to him. "My word is my bond, however lightly passed," I answered gravely. "You have it already."
He nodded, and for the first time in the interview he smiled. But that soon faded, and a look of real anxiety, was in his eyes as he said: "It was more than a fly, my lad. In the meanwhile, God knows how, the Russian syndicate broke up. I am only aware of the result. Two of the members, one a prince, the other an admiral, were publicly discredited and banished from the Court. Another went insolvent. A fourth was degraded and appointed to some petty post in Vladivostock. A fifth disappeared. The sixth and last came to London, and is here now."
"But the high personage?" I cried, now deeply interested.
"It became necessary for me to inform him we were ready to complete two months ago," he answered gloomily. "His reply was an official and most absolute repudiation of all knowledge of the syndicate and its affairs!"
"But the bonds—the bonds he had signed?"
"He has declared them to be forgeries."
I whistled my astonishment away. "Then how do you stand?" I demanded.
"In an ugly hole, Sir Francis, a very ugly hole indeed. My Government declines to do anything in face of the official repudiation I informed you of; and the firms for whom I acted not only insist that I shall bear single-handed the entire loss of the money which I handed to the syndicate, but that I shall, furthermore, pay them the price agreed upon for the steel contracts."
"But can they force you to? You were only their agent, were you not?"
"Exactly, but I could not afford to resist them. Nor would I dream of doing so. In fact, I am now negotiating to compromise with their demands."
"Is a large amount involved?"
"A tidy sum. To be exact, two million five-hundred thousand pounds."
I distinctly felt the room rock. When I was able to speak I stammered out, "And you could not afford to refuse to pay a sum like that?"
"Exactly!" said the magnate calmly. "For in that case there is not a bit of paper I hold which those combined firms would not presently contrive to render valueless. And I should have to reckon, too, with the fact that I should lose their trade."
"But they would be rascals—wolves—to treat you so."
He smiled pityingly at me. "I wouldn't say that, Sir Francis. There is no friendship in business."
"And no such thing as commercial morality?" I interjected hotly.
"Depends on how you define the expression. In business the weak go always to the wall, and only fools squeal when they are pinched. I'm not squealing, my lad. Far from it. It has been a nasty blow to me, I admit, but I've got over it already, and my game now is to try and pull something out of the fire. That is why I have eaten half a slice of your toast this morning."
"I see. How can I help you?"
"Your mother was the Countess Irma Volodyovski?" he asked irrelevantly.
"Before my father married her."
"You were brought up in St. Petersburg, were you not?"
"Not altogether. I came to England soon after my twelfth birthday."
"You have estates in Russia, though?"
"They were confiscated—my mother was proscribed, you know."
"But you did not share in her proscription?"
"On the contrary. Indeed, I have twice since been a guest at the Czar's Court; but I shall never get back my estates, I fear. They are in the hands of the Church!"
The magnate nodded. "That's a pity. But never mind; if you pull off this business for me you will not need them. How do you feel about a trip to Russia, Sir Francis?"
"Well," said I, "I could do without one nicely. When would you want me to start?"
"Within a week, perhaps."
"So many people would be disappointed!" I objected.
"——their disappointment," he retorted rudely. "Look here, my lad," and he leaned forward, lowering his voice. "I have got it into my head, in spite of that official disclaimer and repudiation, that those bonds were genuinely signed. Hey, what?"
"But—but—in that case—this high personage of yours—if you are right—would be a liar and a thief!"
"Wrong, he need be nothing of the sort. He may be an innocent victim like myself."
"Then this high personage of yours must be the Czar!" I said, looking straight into his eye.
The magnate started back and flung a hasty glance around the room. Then, reassured, he turned to me again. "You have guessed correctly, Coates," he muttered.
"Then your idea is that one of his entourage or more than one, interested in the swindle, have dared to answer your inquiries in their master's name?"
He nodded, his eyes gleaming like stars. "It would be more than worth their while," he whispered, "for, can't you see, as well as the money they have got already, they will, when the bonds mature, pocket the amount of the redemption."
"But what about the steel orders? How could the Czar fail to suspect something wrong when they did not arrive?"
"I firmly believe that they have already arrived—on paper!" said the magnate quietly. "The Czar is a mere cipher. His Ministers have all the real power. Of all the things that happen or appear to happen in his realm, he only knows that which they choose to tell him. Why, his very private correspondence is overlooked and carefully examined before it reaches him; and I dare say that of even that a proportion is either censored or destroyed. You can see for yourself, Coates, that the thing is feasible."
"But you must have some other ground for your suspicions, Mr. Steel. So far, I tell you frankly, they appear to me chimerical."
The magnate pursed up his lips. "The bonds were in the first instance, soon after they reached me, sent to America," he replied. "Well, the messenger who accompanied them was assassinated in his cabin. Fortunately, however, he had taken the precaution to deposit them with the purser when he went aboard, and they reached their destination safely. The murderer was an Italian, certainly; and the fact put me off the scent at the time; but, after all, it proved nothing. To resume: they were returned into my keeping six weeks since per medium of the post. My partners thought them valueless, you see. Since then my office has been twice burgled; and on the latter occasion, my strong-room door was bored through in three places. These last facts are only, naturally, known to the police. It would damage me to make them public. But there they are. What do you make of them?"
"I shall give you another: every member of the now disbanded syndicate (although most of them were in responsible positions at the moment of the loan) was in reality, financially speaking, a man of straw; and, mark me, Coates, as well as that, a Nihilist."
"Oh! Oh!" said I. "I begin to share your suspicions, Mr. Steel."
"One thing more," he muttered; "not one of those members of the defunct syndicate, who occupied a responsible position at the moment of the loan, had held his appointment for a longer period than three months prior to the day on which I parted with the money."
I drew a deep breath. "Mr. Steel," said I, "you are the victim of a base conspiracy, and I have little doubt that the Czar is your companion in misfortune."
"Just so," he replied. "But the thing is to unmask it."
"Why not go yourself to Russia, and demand to see His Majesty?"
The magnate sardonically smiled. "It is scarcely a week since I returned from St. Petersburg, Sir Francis. The Czar declined to receive me, and my own ambassador as good as told me that I was qualifying rapidly for a lunatic asylum, when I hinted at the reason why I wished him to insist upon an audience."
"Did they offer you no redress at all?"
"Oh, yes, the Minister of the Interior expressed his pleasant readiness to prosecute the syndicate; but he mentioned—casually, you understand—that such a course would render my detention necessary in the capital, as a witness, for many weeks, perhaps, even months."
"Ah," said I. "So you concluded not to press the matter."
"In that form, Sir Francis. Well, you know everything now, my lad. Will you go to Russia?"
"But what to do?"
"To put a letter into the Czar's hands."
"You mean to attempt to do so. He is guarded carefully at all times, and surely with a thousand-fold intenser caution now. My life upon it—your enemies, the guilty bureaucrats—are anxiously expecting the advent of just such an emissary as you propose to send. In fact, Mr. Steel, if I undertake your mission I shall run a certain risk of ending my existence in Siberia."
"William Penn founded Pennsylvania," said the magnate drily. "Any new point in this affair that you can give me I shall pay you for at the rate of a hundred pounds a word."
"You have considered the matter very thoroughly?"
"Swept it with a hand-broom and a dust-pan—on my knees."
"Then you doubtless know exactly what you can afford to offer for my services. Name the limit at once, if you please; for I warn you that all the money you possess would fail, once said, to change my 'no' into a 'yes'."
"I am not a chafferer myself," he answered, with a scowl. "My terms, take them or leave them, are a thousand pounds down for your expenses; a thousand, win or lose, for your fee, to be paid on your return; and, should your efforts be successful in recovering all or my portion of the money, ten per cent. of the gross amount restored to me."
"Then," I said, as calmly as I could, for my heart was beating like a trip-hammer, "it is on the cards that I may make £251,000 if I accept the proposition."
"A little more if the Czar concludes to pay both principal and interest. Well?"
"Yes," I answered.
Mr. Stelfox-Steel put out his hand. "It's a bargain. Shake!" he said.
A moment later we were both afoot. "When shall I start?" I asked.
"As soon as we have got the strength of the member of the syndicate who is in London!"
"Do you believe he can be of use to us?"
"He may be. Nothing is impossible. My impression is that he is not utterly dishonest—one of your well-meaning rogues."
"You have seen him, then?" I cried.
"I have; but for certain personal reasons, which I need not go into with you, I do not intend to meet him again if I can help it."
"Then how——?" I began.
"You will deal with him in my place," replied the magnate. "And I wish you to waste no time in opening up negotiations. See him to-day if possible, and bring him to book as quickly as you can. The method—terms, etc.,—I leave entirely to your judgment. No doubt he will want a substantial bribe——"
"We could arrest and prosecute him!" I exclaimed.
"We can't; for the contract was made in Russia. You can play that card, though, and threaten him if it seems worth while; but take my word for it, your joker will be my purse. Don't deplete it any more than you can help, however—I hate throwing good money after bad. Well—good-day, Sir Francis. Drop in at my office when you have something to tell me. Au revoir!"
He put on his hat, and I opened the door for him. "Au revoir," I repeated—as he passed out; then I cried, in the same breath, "But, stay—you've forgotten to tell me the man's name—and where he lives."
"I think you know where to find him," answered the magnate, with a curious smile and backward glance. "His name is Paul Rovenski."
I was taken so completely by surprise that I permitted Mr. Stelfox-Steel to depart without another word. Yet that was not exactly a misfortune in the circumstances, for had I detained him I should probably have confessed to having consciously misled him into the idea that I knew more of M. Rovenski than was the case. And the magnate's opinion of my astuteness would have deteriorated—a thing I did not desire at this juncture. As it was, I made my way within the hour to Lady Adela Drummond's residence, and she not only gave me the old Russian thought-reader's address, but a commission as well to arrange another exhibition of his powers under her patronage. I was thus furnished with an excellent excuse to visit him, and as soon as Lady Adela dismissed me I took a cab to Maida Vale. The house to which I had been directed was shop-fronted, and the windows were ornamented with a golden legend: "M. Berustein. Hairdressing done here." The proprietor proved to be a beringleted and oily-whiskered Polish Jew; and he was shaving a man who realised my conception of a bomb-thrower to the life. But he was wonderfully obsequious, and, leaving his customer half-smothered in lather, immediately he heard my business, he bowed himself out of the room. The bomb-thrower thereupon uttered an impatient growl, and the reflections of our eyes met in the mirror before him. "I regret extremely to have disturbed you, sir," I said politely.
"Wow-wow!" he responded; and he gave me a scowl that justified my diagnosis of his character.
"How is trade in your line just now—brisk?" I asked.
The unlathered part of him, much to my astonishment, went purple, and his pig-like little eyes glittered evilly, but he made no answer, and the conversation languished. I turned away and came face to face with Mr. Berustein, who had soundlessly returned. "Pliz—you—come zis way," he murmured, bowing low. "Monsieur Rovenski, mooch pliz—to see you." There was something about Mr. Berustein's noiselessness that gave me an unpleasant thrill, but I followed him, and I must admit that I presently forgot him and his customer alike, for I was ushered upstairs, and into an apartment so exquisitely appointed that I caught my breath in wonderment. The walls were draped with the palest of pink silk hangings, caught up here and there in artistic folds to show a silver-sheeted mirror or a finely painted Ecce Homo. I counted five Christs, and each one was a perfect little masterpiece. There was an ebony-framed piano, and a wonderful old harp at one end of the room; at the other an immense Chesterfield lounge. The floor was covered with a heavy pile rug, and the chairs and other furniture, including a magnificent old cabinet, were Louis Quinze.
"M. Rovenski cannot be poor, that is certain," I thought.
"Oh, yes, but I am," replied M. Rovenski himself, whom I had not till then observed. He was standing in a draped doorway behind the piano, the curtains falling on either side of him, and the reason I had, in my first glance, passed him by was that his garb, like the curtains, was of purple. He wore a long buttoned robe that perfectly resembled a bishop's cassock; and he smiled most genially upon my startled wonderment.
"You are—what?" I gasped, as he came towards me, both his hands outstretched.
"Poor—poor as a crow," he answered. "Did I read your thought aright?"
He pressed my hands and led me, speechless, to a seat. "Upon my soul," I muttered, "You must be a wizard, monsieur."
He sank into a chair before me, and slowly shook his head. "If I were a wizard I should be a rich man, Sir Francis, not a dependent upon Prince Peletovski's bounty, for such I confess to you I am. These rooms—this furniture—belong to him. And, poor and exiled as he is, it has been my evil fortune to add to his cares. That is why I am glad to see you to-day, Sir Francis."
"Because I have a commission for you?" I gasped.
"Ah! how happy you make me!" he cried. "I guessed that you had come for that."
"You did not read my mind then—in this instance?"
"No, Sir Francis." He fixed his wonderful eyes on me, and after a moment frowned.
"But you have not only come to tell me that?" he said.
I was by then in such a panic lest he should apprehend too soon the real motive of my visit that in my desperation I lied. "Not quite, monsieur," I said quickly. "To save you the trouble of reading my thoughts I will tell you that I have been absorbing curiosity to learn how you acquired your extraordinary—your apparently superhuman power? Or were you born with it, monsieur? Forgive me if I seem impertinent."
To my relief, he believed me. He gave a little sigh and looked away. "I possess no power that you or any other intelligent person may not acquire by dint of sufficient patient effort," he said gravely. "Nor do I aspire to make any mystery about it. If you wish to hear——"
"Wish!" I cried, now seriously interested. "My dear monsieur, if you will tell me how I can become a thought-reader like you, I will be your slave in gratitude while I draw breath!"
His beautiful, kind old smile enchanted me. "Then listen, my son, and I shall tell you how it came to pass," he said. "You must know that I was ordained when still a very young man—priest of God——"
"Ah!" I exclaimed, "a priest!"
"Does it surprise you?" he murmured. "Yes, I was a priest of the orthodox Greek Church. Alas, now——" he spread out his hands and sighed, but next moment he went gravely on. "Men and women came to me, my son, poor wretched men and women with their sins and troubles thick upon them, to be comforted and shrived. Such is the priest's duty. In those days I fear I fulfilled my office badly. I was young, impatient, and, though pitiful of heart, tyrannical by disposition, for my father was a noble who had been proscribed—and not even bitter poverty could cure my pride of birth. My parishioners, too, were ignorant and stupid, and, like all downtrodden people the world over, hypocrites by habit. Lying seemed no vice, to them, for often only by lying could they contrive to live; the tax-gatherers ground them down so terribly, so cruelly hard! And sometimes by a lie, persisted in, a little corn could be saved, some small life be preserved from starvation, or a grey existence cheered with a ray of futile drunken sunshine! I have known—ah, but you too know Russia, my son—why should I harrow you? Suffice it to say that the miserable peasants could not subdue their dispositions even in the confessional. Centuries of dissimulation towards those vested with authority above them had so warped their naturally simple characters that they even wished and tried at last to deceive God! And this at first made me very angry. But God gave me patience in the end. And it was in seeking to save these wretched beings, His children, against themselves, from the sin of sacrilege, that I first discovered how to read men's minds."
"Indeed, monsieur," I muttered, as he paused.
Very gravely he inclined his head. "The process was a simple one," he said. "And if you are by chance a materialist and a reasoner you will smile at me when I tell you that for a great while I was foolish enough not to realise its simplicity, but to believe myself preternaturally endowed."
"No—no—father," I protested. "Have I not seen——"
He interrupted me with an uplifted hand. "Well, then, follow me, my son, and soon you shall know all, for I shall tell you not of my folly, but of my enlightenment. There was a man in our village, an officer of the Government, to whom I had never spoken. But I had looked into his eyes, and I knew on the instant that he hated me, and I knew also that I did not like him. He tried afterwards to injure my repute among the people; but he went from among us too soon to hurt me, yet we did not meet; we never met. But he who had tried to injure me did me an incalculable service. He made me think deeply and ask myself this question: 'How may the heart be seen through a man's eyes?' And ten years of service, given somewhat grudgingly perhaps, to my poor parishioners, answered me my question in this fashion: 'Look, and be willing to forgive and to receive, and all men's hearts shall be known to you.' And that was a true answer, my son, as true as if Christ Himself had spoken me those words. From the moment that I understood this thing, I was a changed man. For to understand is to forgive. Thenceforth my parishioners began to love me, for I put aside my pride for ever and served them instead, through love and with love. Yet for my sins I was transferred from among them to the city of Moscow, and there my work was much increased. I was the confessor of the lowest class, and my life was spent among them, criminals, rogues, vagabonds. It was an evil period, yet I thank God for it, since it was then that I made the great discovery. For, one evening, being much discouraged by the death of a man, who had lied to God with his latest breath, even while blessing me, I asked myself to what use was it to know a man's heart if not his mind and the working of his mind, so I might thereby overcome and discountenance the wicked shame in him and save his soul from hell. And it seemed to me that if a man's heart can be seen through his eyes, his mind, too, may similarly be surprised from him. Then there came to me a woman whose beauty was so great that I covered my eyes with my hand as she bowed in prayer before me. And when she was at length silent I knew that she had kept of all her sins her greatest from my knowledge; for I had seen into her heart. And this I taxed her with, but she denied me. Whereupon, drawing back from her, I prayed most fervently for guidance, until I was exhausted, and, being but lately ill, and faint as well with hunger, I was like to swoon. And in those seconds that, with empty mind, forgetting her and all the world, I fought against my weakness—the knowledge came! Sharply—overpoweringly—like a revelation, of the woman's sin. At that time I thought an angel must have whispered me the news—but now I know that in the blank silence of my struggle her mind had spoken straight to mine, which was in a perfect condition to receive the message."
M. Rovenski was silent; he seemed to have fallen into a reverie.
"And the woman, father?" I whispered.
"She went from me a penitent, my son!" said the old man dreamily.
He aroused himself with an apparent effort from his reverie. "Afterwards," he said, "I had many failures—some few successes. I had not nearly realised the truth, you see. I imagined it was necessary to woo God—for the power whose edges I had touched—with prayer and fasting—so I became a stern ascetic. Men called me saint—God forgive them for their impious madness—and they brought me their sick to cure with touch of hands and prayer. But the passionate desire of my heart eluded and continued to elude me, and only at rare intervals, in moments of sickness and semi-oblivion, was I able to achieve that which I still believed to be a miracle—the reading of the mind. With the passing of the years, however, I grew more wise, and I came at length to perceive, though dimly, that the phenomenon might be due rather to the state of my body than to the condition of my soul. I analysed my successes and found that all had occurred in moments of mental inactivity and blankness caused by physical exhaustion. This led me to try and reproduce, by the exertion of my will, a condition of mind similar to that which had been effected by bodily weakness. It was a thing hard to do, and I frequently almost resigned the effort in despair; but God made me persevere, and He gave me confidence and patience to complete the task. It is now five and twenty years ago that I was rewarded with my first small triumph. Since then, by the exercise of unremitting effort, I have contrived to make my will the captain of my mind, and I am now able to control my thoughts as surely as my tongue!"
I drew a deep breath. "So," I said, "that is your secret, father—silence!"
He looked at me and smiled. "Ay, my son. But such a silence as you perhaps as yet may only be able to imagine. A silence fitted for the transference of thought must be the silence of receptivity itself, the silence of the soil which receives the confidence of the seed, the silence of the vessel into which the bubbling wine is poured, the silence of the outer ether through which rush the stars and suns and rolling worlds. And the silence, too, must have this attitude—expectancy!"
I nodded. "You smooth from all your mental processes the slightest crease of thought, giving the mind at the same time a suggestion of something about to happen. But what then?"
"Wait, my son—wait patiently!"
"The mind fills, as a cup is filled, with the thoughts of him whose mind is to be read, by a power outside its own."
"But that power, father; who exercises it?"
"I know not; unless it be God, my son!"
"Does it never fail?"
"When the pre-requisite conditions are fulfilled it never fails, my son."
"And how do you become aware of that power's exercise?"
"By the sudden arrival of a new and foreign consciousness, which I can only liken to the sudden perception of a picture one has never seen before. It informs the expectant mind of its arrival with a sense of discovery and strangeness. There is no mistaking its significance."
"Nor its message, father?"
"Nor its message, my son."
"Your method is to look into the eyes of him whose mind you wish to read?"
"Not necessarily. I look into a man's eyes from a prying habit to seek to learn his disposition rather than to read his mind. To do the latter, it is merely requisite that he should be closer to me than others if others are present, and that I should fix my thoughts on him before I cease to think at all. Yet it is easier if he is close enough to touch my hand."
"Do you know, father," I said smilingly, "I suspect that the medium of your mind-reading, that is to say, the power we spoke of just now, is animal magnetism, pure and simple."
"Possibly, my son."
"And further, I suspect very strongly that your marvellous 'silence of receptivity' is nothing else than a condition of trance, of self-hypnotism."
The old priest smiled back at me. "My dear lad," he said, "you remind me of a poor old moujik to whom I once tried to explain the mysteries of the telephone. When I told him that by its agency a man in Moscow could converse at his ease with a friend in Novgorod, he told me bluntly that I lied. But when I informed him that the medium of communication was a telegraph wire he revoked his uncharitable conclusion at once. He had no more understanding of the telegraph than of the telephone, but the former was a familiar word to him. A telegraph post had stood for years before the door of his cot."
"I deserve the reproach," I answered humbly, "yet, I assure you, I believe all you have been good enough to tell me of your wonderful gift. Indeed, I would be an arrant fool not to. You have shown me such extraordinary proofs of its power. And, besides, your explanation appeals to me as both logical and natural."
"There is nothing to prevent you or any other man from acquiring it, my son—in the same manner as I have done."
"In how many years, father?" I demanded with a shrug. "It cost you twenty-five, and you had for long before then passionately desired to possess it."
"But that may have been through a default in my temperament. Your natural powers of concentration may be greater than mine, very probably they are, for I was, when your age, a dreamer, a visionary. And you appear to me to be a man of action."
"Too much so," I responded, "and I'm, moreover, too infernally impatient to embark upon the still strange struggle of will that has yielded you so wonderful a victory. Even if I knew that I would ultimately win a fortune by it, I doubt if I could bring myself to the experiment."
"And is that your great purpose in life, to win a fortune?"
"It is my present purpose at all events. Ah, if I possessed your powers——"
M. Rovenski sighed. "You would be as poor as I, for your conscience would permit you to make use of the knowledge which the exercise of that power might place at your disposal for the benefit of others, perhaps, but never for your own."
"You pay me too high a compliment," I returned with a smile. "I can't be sure, but I shouldn't wonder, had I your power, that I should presently become a broker on the Stock Exchange. Imagine the pull one would have over the big operators, knowing exactly, by merely looking at them, the secrets of their movements. Why, I'd be a millionaire in no time."
The old man laughed heartily. "It was also Prince Peletovski's idea," he said, still laughing. "Indeed he implored me to enter into partnership with him. But the limit of my ambition is to make a living until my friends at Court succeed in having me recalled from exile."
"From exile, M. Rovenski?" I exclaimed.
"Ah," said he, "of course, you do not know. But, yes—I was sent away from Russia, my son—some three months since—now."
"Through no real fault, father, I would swear!" I cried.
He gave me a bow and a most charming smile. "Unless it be a fault to love the poor, the helpless, and the downtrodden," he answered gravely, "and to have wished and tried to help them. Nevertheless, I do not despair. I have many devoted friends at Court, and His Majesty sooner or later will be informed of the true reason of my going."
"Then it was not the Czar himself who banished you?"
The old priest shook his head. "No, my son. His Majesty loves me too well for that. He knew nothing. And if my enemies can prevent it, he never shall. I was arrested secretly, and secretly deported—forced even to change my name——"
"What!" I cried. "Is not your name Rovenski, then?"
"Then why do you call yourself that—here?"
"Because I am a priest, and I would not have my priestly rank discredited, nor any scandal caused that might diminish my sphere of usefulness hereafter. Unhappily, my son, the name I bear is known outside of Russia, and that is why I still submit to be called after the poor criminal who died three months ago in my arms at Riga."
"Good heavens," I cried, "then the real Paul Rovenski is dead!"
"Peace be to his soul. He was stabbed in an affray with the police when about to embark upon a ship for America."
"And you—you——" I gasped.
"I," said the old man, with an air of almost regal pride, "am known in the White Czar's kingdom as Father Constantine, my son."
I sprang to my feet with a cry of astonishment that was almost one of consternation. For Father Constantine, the great and holy Constantine, champion of democracy, and friend of the oppressed for more than a quarter of a century, had been regarded in Russia as a saint on earth, and was little short of worshipped as a god. And more than that, this Father Constantine had been a friend of my dead parents; he had baptised me when a child, and he was my godfather.
"Godfather," I cried; "it is impossible that you have forgotten my mother, that you——"
But he smiled up into my troubled eyes. "My dear lad, I knew you from the first," he said. "You are the living image of your father. Did you think that I could give my confidence so easily to a stranger? But pray sit down again, and tell me all your mind, for I know that you have not come here, only to help me, but yourself too. Was Paul Rovenski known to you? What did you want with him?"
Trembling with excitement, I resumed my chair. "You knew that, too!" I gasped.
He closed his eyes, and for a moment an intense silence reigned; then his eyes opened again; he looked at me and smiled. "Mr. Stelfox-Steel sent you to me," he said.
In another moment, governed by an impulse impossible to resist, I was blurting out to him all there was to tell; for something told me he would help me if he could. He listened patiently, never once interrupting; but when he knew all, he gravely and slowly shook his head. "Your friend, the magnate, may be right," he murmured; "it is possible, even probable, that he is; but, however, it may be, he has set you a weighty task, my son. His Majesty is guarded by his Ministers and their officers in such a fashion that it is well-nigh impossible to approach him. And it is even more difficult to obtain the secret delivery of a letter into his hands. Do I not know it from a long and most bitter experience? The servants that surround him are spies of the police—but not only they, his gentlemen, his officials, almost every member of his Court, and his very family, the Grand Dukes and Duchesses themselves, are not to be trusted. Never in the course of history has there been woven round a human figure such a network of intrigue, self-seeking, and conspiracy. The poor Czar, for all his mighty power, is but a puppet king. And his personal fears enslave him. He lives in an ecstasy of terror of assassination and of revolution, and he confides only in those who are able to inspire him with a sense of their strength to shelter him. Thus it is that this state of things is rendered possible."
"You consider him a coward then, my father?"
"I consider him less a coward than a man of feeble mind, my son. He is hopelessly committed to the influence of his mother, the Dowager Empress, who rules him through his superstitions and his fears. She it is who dictates the Czar's policy, and his Ministers are her allies, as she in turn is the ally of the autocratic Holy Synod. To give you an instance of the depth of His Majesty's subjection: he never presumes to read his most private correspondence until it has first been opened and perused by the Minister of the Palace. This doubtless lest his mail-bag should contain an infernal machine, or his letters poison. A small thing, perhaps. But a straw shows how the wind blows, and from this straw you can understand how tremendous a power his disposition places in the hands of those who govern him, and what a mountain must be climbed to reach him."
"How can I do it?" I inquired dejectedly. "It seems that I have contracted to accomplish an impossibility."
Father Constantine shrugged his shoulders. "Have you any plan?" he asked.
"None," I replied, "except to rely upon His Majesty's kind remembrance of me to grant me an audience."
"Ah," said the old priest. "And when do you set out for St. Petersburg?"
"To-morrow, now that I have seen you."
"The sooner the better, for I am spied upon even here. And if my enemies learn that you have privately conversed with me, they will suspect that you are my ambassador, and set themselves to foil you. Your evil star, I fear, it was that led you to visit me, my son."
"Well," I said, "the mischief is done now, anyhow. I can only hope that your fears are groundless. But in case they are not, and I am refused an audience, what would you advise?"
Father Constantine did not reply immediately. He seemed to be musing. At length, however, he drew a quaint old signet ring from his finger, and held it out to me. "Take this, my son," he said in a low, earnest voice, "and if it comes to pass that all your efforts to achieve your end are thwarted, seek out Count Felix Surempkin, who is the private secretary of the Grand Duke Pagis. Show him the ring, and explain to him your mission. Thereupon, if he can, he will assist you. If he fails, you will waste time staying longer in Russia. But remember, use the ring only in your last extremity, for the authority of which it is a symbol must be obeyed, and if its exercise is vain, a man I love will in all human probability perish in Siberia."
Much moved, I poured out my gratitude to my kind, old benefactor; but he cut short my protestations by half-humorously referring to his own necessities. "Was it a pretence, this commission with which you came to me, my son?" he demanded. "Truly, I trust not. I have so many calls upon my purse."
"No, indeed," I cried. "Lady Adela Drummond wishes to employ your wonderful gift again for the entertainment of her friends next Thursday evening. But, alas! by then I shall be in Russia. What will you do for an interpreter?"
"The Prince will have returned by then," said Father Constantine, "and he will act for me. Make your mind easy, therefore, on that score. Shall I write to Lady Adela, accepting, or will you see her?"
"I shall go to her at once," I replied, and I got to my feet as I spoke.
He arose, too, and put a hand upon my shoulder. "You are a kind-hearted lad," he said with a smile. "Come and see me again when you return from your travels. In the meantime, accept my blessing."
I sank on my knees before him, and he made the sign of the Cross above my head. There was something so earnest and beautiful in the act, and something, too, so inspirational of faith in his expression, that, heretic as I was, I arose full of confidence and hope. "I feel that I shall succeed," I cried. "And I shall owe it all to you."
He pressed my hands, and walked beside me to the door. "If you succeed," he said gravely, "let the poor share in your good fortune. Go, my son—and God be with you."
My last remembrance of him was his smile. Surely the kindest and the loveliest smile that ever graced a human being's eyes and lips. Its message was a veritable benediction.
IT was after six o'clock when I reached Lady Adela's, but she was good enough to spare me a moment, and she was so pleased at my speedy accomplishment of her commission that she pressed me to return to dinner. But I had Stelfox-Steel to see, and immediately I had changed at my lodgings I drove to his mansion in South Kensington. I found him dining en famille, and, as I was hungry, a very little urging induced me to join the party. It consisted of himself and his wife, a tired-looking woman—who seldom ventured into society, and who never spoke except in monosyllables, but whose jewels were the envy of London. Then there were his two little apple-faced boys, lads of nine and twelve; and their tutor, a slant-eyed, nasal-voiced parson. And finally, his only daughter, a pert girl of seventeen, who promised to be a beauty. The dinner was stodgy and badly cooked. The wines were all iced, and the waiting was intolerable. Behind every chair a gorgeous footman, who could not bear to see a glass that did not brim or a plate that was not heaped with provender. I longed to brain the brute who attended me, on an average of about every two minutes. As for the table furniture, it was mostly of solid gold; and an epergne graced the centre of the board that must have cost five hundred guineas. May the Lord preserve me from such another meal! Stelfox-Steel and the parson wrangled throughout on the comparative merits of the German and English systems of secondary education.
The boy cherubs kept their mother on a constant qui vive to check their impishly persistent attempts at conversation; and the young lady was unamiably bent on convincing me that a certain hobbledehoy of her acquaintance named Fred Hamer disagreed very properly with every opinion she could trick me into expressing on any subject under heaven. I was obliged, in sheer defence, at last to make love to her; but even then I could see that she preferred a more robust style of wooing; although, to do her justice, she ejaculated "Golly" when, under cover of the tablecloth, I squeezed her hand.
"What is the matter, dear?" asked her mother.
"I got a twinge in my bad tooth!" she explained. Then she looked me in the face, demanding admiration as plain as eye can speak. "Don't you do that again!" she murmured.
Having accepted her invitation as soon as practicable, my fingers were squeezed in return, and she volunteered to write to me. I gathered that my replies might safely be directed to a neighboring post-office, and that she liked original poetry, descriptive of herself. Fred Hamer, it seemed, was most happily gifted in that direction, and would infallibly one day be the laureate. I don't remember having ever offered up a more fervent thanksgiving, than when it was my privilege to hold the door open for Mrs. Steel, Miss Steel, the cherubs, and the parson to pass through. Miss Steel departed saying: "Don't be too long over your wine, paw!"
"Well, Coates—what d'ye think of my girl, eh?" asked the magnate as I returned.
"Marvellously quick-witted," I answered truthfully, having the hand-squeezing incident in mind.
"But her looks, man, her looks!"
"One of these days, sir, her beauty will outshine the jewels in the coronet which she will deign to accept and wear."
Mr. Stelfox-Steel rubbed his hands and emitted something like a chuckle of paternal pride. "He'll be a lucky fellow who gets her—commoner or belted earl—and that's a fact," he declared. "For more reasons than one. Have a cigar, Coates—no?—how you can smoke those futile little abortions miscalled cigarettes gets over me. But there—have your own way. Leave the room—you fellows. (This to some lurking footmen.) And now for biz. You've seen Rovenski, I suppose?"
"The man who goes by that name, Mr. Steel—in strict confidence—is Father Constantine, the famous Russian democratic priest! Paul Rovenski died three months ago!"
"Good heavens! You don't say," cried the magnate; then, a second later: "Shucks! The scamp has been pulling your leg!"
It took me twenty minutes to convince him; and when I had he became so despondent that I feared he would abandon the whole enterprise. But Father Constantine's ring and half a bottle of port put him finally into a more sanguine humor, and he wound up by inviting me to his study. There he put into my hands a packet of bonds—and a letter he had written to the Czar; and he also gave me a cheque for £1000 for my expenses. His remark thereon was characteristic: "You'll likely spend the bulk of that in palm grease, Coates, and it goes against my grain to use good money so. I'd almost sooner chuck it into the sea. But there, do your best—and what you save you can keep! No meanness about me! When I say I'll do a thing, I do it. My word is my bond!"
"You are a man of business!" I hazarded.
"Every time. Well, I suppose we'd better join the ladies, eh?"
"I'm afraid I must run away, sir—I have such a lot to do—leaving to-morrow."
Mr. Steel in society resembled other men, but in his own house he was a creature apart, sui generis in fact. His answer was to seize me by the arm and drag me along to the drawing-room, protesting thusly—"What nonsense, Coates! What can a single young fellow like you have to do—except pack your bags—and that you can do ten minutes before train time. Come along and hear my gal play—and enjoy yourself—in a healthy, reasonable way. I know your game—clubs and cards. You'll have to give that up sooner or later. It's bad biz—and better sooner than later. One of these days you'll be getting married. But there, come along!"
Willy-nilly I went, and Miss Steel played Liszt's "Twelfth Rhapsody" in a fashion that did infinite credit to her music master. Afterwards she, her father and mother, and I played poker (the parson was not present) with shells for counters, which Mr. Steel sold to us for three pence a dozen. During the game the young lady, with her father's approbation, invited me to call her Lily; and she fleeced me to the tone of twelve and sixpence in a manner that proved her a pastmistress in the art of bluff. I had rather fancied myself as a poker player until that night. But I ended by liking the girl; she was, for all her pertness, so absolutely natural and unaffected, and she had a sense of humor, too, that only needed refining to be converted into purest metal. Her father was her constant adversary, and, quick-brained man of the world as he was, he had no chance against her nimble wit in their encounters. But his pride in her victories conquered all shame in his defeats; and he was perpetually seeking my eye for sympathy in his delight at her cleverness. On the whole, I was not as bored as I had expected to be, and, when at last I was permitted to depart, I was honestly surprised to find that eleven o'clock had come and passed. Miss Lily calmly announced her intention to see me off the premises. And, since I had already realised that she was the ruling spirit of the house, I was not astonished that her parents raised no objection. Apparently this girl of seventeen did as she pleased. She helped me on with my overcoat; "shooed" three or four footmen from the door, and opened it for me herself. Then she held out her hand and made me the following speech: "You go right home, now, and straight to bed. It's quite too late. And be sure, when you come back from Russia, to come and see us again. And don't forget the pup you promised me. Oh, and——" (Here she lowered her voice.) "—don't forget the poetry! Good-bye!—Frank."
"Good-bye, Lily!" I answered, smiling; and went down the steps.
It was very ridiculous, but that evening spent in a home circle, curious home circle as it was, had made me horribly sentimental. The banging of the door made me feel as lonely as an orphaned gutter-snipe. Before I had covered a hundred yards I was counting the years since I, too, had possessed a home—and then and there, all of a sudden, I knew that a team of horses and a dozen iron cables would be hopelessly inadequate restrictions to keep me from the side of Helen Fortescue.
I found her at the Branscombes. She was waltzing with Horace Massey. She wore red roses in her hair, and Massey also had one in his button-hole. Reggie Horne and Sir George Helmrick stood in a doorway, watching her with looks of morbid resignation. I went up to them and gently expostulated.
"My dear chaps," I murmured, "what's the use? You are both as poor as crows, and she hasn't a stiver. Now—Massey——" and I shrugged my shoulders.
"She's danced with him twice already," moaned Reggie.
"And I saw her give him the rose myself!" groaned Helmrick.
"He has twenty thousand pounds a year," said I.
Reggie scowled at me. "She's not a bit mercenary," he growled.
"The man hasn't a grandfather!" snapped Helmrick.
"Has the engagement been announced?" I asked.
"What!" cried both together, in tones of horror. "Is there——"
I slowly closed one eye. "Then he hasn't proposed yet; but I've an idea he intends to this very night. See, they've stopped waltzing, although the band is going strong yet. Ten to one he takes her to the conservatory. If you boys are as game as you are gloomy you'll make the party a square one!"
They exchanged glances, then rushed away without a word. I strolled into the card-room. Miss Fortescue's aunt and chaperone, Lady Barrow, was, as usual, playing whist, I dropped into a chair, and waited patiently. I expected to have had to wait ten minutes, but within five Miss Fortescue appeared on Horace Massey's arm. I gave her my chair, and, stooping, muttered in her ear, "Spare me a waltz, acushla. I can sell it, and will go you halves—honest injun!"
She offered me her programme; and, to my astonishment I saw my own name scrawled against the next. My heart beat foolishly, for the writing was hers.
"Is it Mr. Horne again?" she asked, and dismissed her late partner with a smile.
"It's me this time," I replied. "I'll send you a cheque to-morrow. Shall we sit it out?"
"As you please!" She stood up and took my arm. I led her through the conservatory into a writing-room beyond, passing on the way Reggie and Helmrick, who javelined me with their eyes. There were other couples present, but the room was large.
"Upon my word, Sir Francis," she observed, as she sat down, "you are growing positively reckless. Have you been gaming and winning?"
I pointed to her card. "And you?"
"Oh," she shrugged, "your name occurred to me. I always keep one or two items free against emergencies. Really, I did not dream of seeing you to-night."
I lighted a cigarette, and afterwards thoughtfully regarded the burning match. "Will you extinguish this too?" I asked.
She blew it out with a careless laugh.
"Heartless girl," I sighted. "Are you going to Sandringham to-morrow morning with the Hammonds?"
"And will you not return till Monday?"
"I believe not."
"In that case this must be our farewell interview!"
"For how long?"
"Till we meet again. Will you do me a favor?"
"If I can."
"Give my love to Gloria, and ask her to inform her chef that fate alone prevents me from tasting of his cheer at Sandringham. Ah! There's a man for you, Miss Fortescue. When he dies or goes abroad he will not be forgotten easily."
"Which do you contemplate—death or travel?" she demanded.
"Both," I answered. "But cheer up! Don't let the distressful news entirely overcast your sympathetic spirits."
Her lip curled. "You are going yachting with the Trevors, I suppose."
"Your supposition is as unsubstantial as a dream."
"You wish to provoke my curiosity."
"No; because I cannot satisfy it, and I wish to part friends."
She leaned back and attentively regarded me. "This is a new mood in you," she observed after a moment. "I don't know whether I like it or not. But you are serious?"
"Worse—Helen—far worse. I am dull!"
"You have no right to name me so!" she flashed.
I nodded. "And as well as that I have no right to acquire the right—if such a thing were plausible."
Her lips parted, her cheeks flushed, and her eyes glittered. "Once for all," she replied, in low, tense tones, "I want you to understand that these innuendoes of yours offend me, Sir Francis Coates. They assume the existence in me of an indelicate responsiveness to insincerity, which you have so far lacked the manliness to give me an opportunity to resent. While I am on the subject, permit me to inform you——"
"That you gave Massey a rose to-night?" I interrupted. "But I knew it half an hour ago. By Jove, that's the good old 'Blue Danube' or I'm a Dutchman. Listen!"
She sank back, glowing like one of her own roses; but her eyes no longer menaced mine; and the music touched us with a breath of old romance.
"I'm remembering the first time I ever saw you," I said presently in an under-breath. "You were standing by old Barney Hagan's window lattice, your arms upraised, your little white hands moving slowly through the grape-like bunches of wisteria above your head. And each time you caressed the blooms, however lovingly, a blossom fell, until at last a lilac carpet spread about your feet, and all your hair was blue and gold. Wisteria—you told me afterwards—is your favorite flower. I am glad it was only a rose you parted with to-night—Miss Fortescue!"
She looked at me long and full, but the expression in her eyes was perfectly illegible. "That was two years ago," she said at last, "and in Antrim. We are in England now."
"Dear old Antrim!"
"What has made you so wonderfully sentimental?"
"Sorra wan o' me knows," I answered mockingly, "av—yoursilf doesn't, mavourneen."
"Listen!" she muttered, sitting suddenly erect. "You are truly going away, I think—do you know what I wish?"
"Yes, dear," I answered, plunging headlong into the fire, "you wish I'd keep away until—after you are Mrs. Massey."
Her composure was admirable. She laughed lightly, and toyed with her fan. Then she laughed again, and showed me a button on her glove that was unfastened. "Do it up for me!" she said. I obeyed, not very steadily; and she arose. But she did not go at once.
"He is very well-to-do," she said.
"But a man for all that," she went on. "As for you, Sir Francis, I'm afraid your fate will be to fasten ladies' buttons all your life," and she touched with her fan the glove that I had buttoned.
I shrugged my shoulders, and replied disdainfully, "You are no astrologer, Miss Fortescue; that, as an occupation, I have put behind me so late as yesterday, for ever."
"Wonders will never cease. Kindly take me to my aunt."
"Your next partner will find you easily enough—here."
"Perhaps!" she smiled. "Can it be that you are going into business, Sir Francis?"
"Not exactly—that is to say, as yet. But I have ceased to be an idler; and within a month or two I hope to have got together enough capital to start a small tobacco shop somewhere about Piccadilly."
"You are laughing at me."
"I was never more in earnest in my life."
Miss Fortescue sat down again, and stared at me as if she found it hard to believe her senses. "You would do that, really?" she gasped.
"Upon my honor—and well at it, too. All our set would buy their smokes from me, and, if I could get a smart and pretty saleswoman to attract new custom and keep the old together after the first big advertisement I'd get by merely opening a shop had passed, why, I'd make a fortune in time."
Miss Fortescue raised her eyebrows. "A society woman—too?" she asked.
"Well, I'm not exactly a woman," I objected. "But, yes—I thought of asking a lady friend of mine to come in as a working partner and help me run the business."
"How delightful! Do I know her?"
"Her name is Helen Fortescue."
"Sir Francis Coates!"
"Don't look at me like that, Miss Fortescue. I'm giving you the chance of a lifetime, and not asking you to put up a penny of the capital, either."
"But you know the thing is impossible. How could I—what would people say—my father—he would disown me!"
"Bother people! The thing's honest! Let them say what they like. As for your father—he made no objection last year when you wanted to become a hospital nurse, and you'd not have been able to make a living out of that for years."
"But, but——" she cried, in real excitement—and I had never seen her look so beautiful—"he—he would insist upon—a chaperone!"
"Rubbish!" I retorted coolly. "He's eccentric, I know, but I'll bet you a dozen pairs of gloves he's not the man to chaperone a husband from his wife! Well, what do you say? Make haste, here comes Branscombe. Is it a bargain?"
She looked me frankly in the eye. "Is it a proposal, this, Sir Francis?" she demanded.
"It's two," I responded, ungrammatically, but sincerely.
"I shall answer both when you have commenced your business," she said; then, rising once again, she put her hand in Branscombe's arm, and we bowed to one another like people in a play.
Reggie Horne was waiting for me on the doorstep. "See here, Coates," he began pugnaciously, "you sold us a pup to-night, and I'm not going to forget it, nor Helmrick either. You sent us into the conservatory because——"
"Oh, spare me, Reggie," I implored. "I know the whole of my delinquencies without the book."
"Then you admit that—that——"
"Anything you like, my son!"
"I believe—I believe you're in love with her yourself!" he growled, and fixed me with a frowning grin that accused me of almost unimaginable infamy.
"My dear Reggie," said I, "four learned senior counsel once tried unsuccessfully for six long hours to extract the virgin secrets of this sweet and innocent young breast. But your method of examination is so compelling and original that, in spite of all my strength of will, now powerfully exercised, I feel——"
But Reggie, with a snort, had gone—and I strolled home to Bruton Street.
At Warsaw, governed by motives of economy, I sent a telegram to my cousin, Nicholas Batinoff, and his was the first familiar face I saw when the train stopped after an uneventful journey (save for one tedious breakdown) at St. Petersburg. Count Nicholas belonged to the new and purposeful school of the Russian Aristocracy. Although possessed since infancy of a considerable fortune, I doubt if he had spent an idle day. His restless energy had made him, still scarcely forty, one of the best-known and successful pleaders at the Russian Bar. He had already filled some prominent minor offices in the Government with distinction, and his radical leanings had alone prevented him from rising much higher still, for his talent was widely recognised. He stood over six feet in height, was broad-shouldered and dowered with tremendous hands and feet. At Heidelberg, where we had been chums, his nickname was the "Beetle Crusher," but no one had ever dared name him to his face, for Nicholas was a fire-eater, a first-rate pistol shot, and a swordsman with few equals. Most men thought him ugly—but I was not among them; for his features, though irregular, were full of character and aggressiveness and strength. He ought to have been a soldier, but some kink of native kindness in his disposition made him hate shedding the blood of any except his equals in rank. He was a passionate believer in the duello—and be loathed the very name of war. Yet this man of illogical contradictions was a renowned lawyer and logician. He greeted me with his usual impetuous breeziness, and almost before I knew it he had whirled me off the station into his private brougham, which immediately drove off at full speed. "And now, Frank, what brings you to St. Petersburg?" he demanded, as he took his seat beside me. I answered briefly: "To see the Czar, Nick."
"Ho!" said he, "you are still idiot enough to think you can get back your estates?"
"That's what I'm going to tell the public, old chap. But it isn't so. I got over that foolishness long ago."
"Then what do you want to see the Czar for?"
"It's a long story, Nick—when we get home."
"You needn't wait," he interrupted curtly. "We're not going straight home—I instructed my man to drive for half an hour towards Seloe first."
I sat up and stared at him. He returned my glance with interest.
"Are the bonds in your pocket?" he demanded.
"Good heavens!" I gasped.
He uttered a growl and shrugged his shoulders. "It's the Grand Duke Pagis you are running your head against," he muttered. "And half the Ministry is implicated."
"How did you know?"
"I'm your cousin, you fool, and just now lieutenant of the Political Police. Whatever made you stick your nose into the business?"
"Do you mean to tell me!" I cried, "that you—Nick Batinoff, once the soul of honor, are aiding and abetting those scoundrels——"
"Softly!" he commanded, with a simply awful frown, "you presume. Now let me give you some advice. Remain here quietly for a day or two then go back to London with your bonds. I'll see you are not deprived of them if you agree. And wait patiently for six or seven months. At the end of that time I shall be either in Siberia or Minister of the Interior. In the latter case Stelfox-Steel shall have his money."
"I can't," I answered simply, "I'm pledged to a certain course. And win or lose——"
"The bonds as well."
"I have only a few with me, thank God! Merely enough——"
"To prove your case—exactly. But to do so they must reach the Czar. How do you propose to effect that?"
"You are in the enemy's camp, Nick!"
He shrugged his shoulders, then put one of his great hands on my knee. "Can't you see, my lad, you are attempting the impossible. And if you don't give over you'll perhaps interfere with the game that I am playing—a much better and surer game than yours."
"Let me think," said I—and I leaned back among the cushions. Before leaving London I had made up a package exactly resembling the package, of bonds that Stelfox-Steel had given me. But I had covered it with seals; whereas the genuine package had never a seal about it. My object had been to provide for the safety of the bonds while travelling. For I carried the sealed package in an inner pocket of my vest, while the bonds were carelessly strapped within the rug that was attached to my valise. However, these precautions had so far been worthless, for no one had attempted to molest me in the train. I devoted some very hard thinking to these packages for a few moments, then I looked round and met my cousin's eyes.
"Does Pagis know that—I——?" I asked.
Nicholas nodded. "He knew before you left London."
"He must be well served."
"The greatest spy the world has ever seen, I verily believe, watches his interests there."
"He must indeed be a great spy," I cried. "For, upon my soul, only two other persons besides myself——"
"Tra-la-la!" interrupted Nicholas. "You see the result."
"What are your orders concerning me?" I asked.
"The bonds—or your immediate departure."
"Then if I give you the bonds—I shall be permitted to remain here?"
"As long as you please. But what good will that do?"
"I have a tongue, Nick."
"It you wag it, my boy, you'll be speedily silenced."
"We'll see what the Czar has to say about that."
Nicholas smiled. "Oh, you can talk to the Czar as much as you like."
"You think I wouldn't see him?"
"Tout vient a lui qui sait attendre. But you'll wait a long time, Frank."
"I'm a patient man."
"As you like." He suddenly reached over and opened the front window. "Home, driver!" he shouted.
"If you please," said I, "to the Hotel de l'Europe first. I'm not going to trespass on your hospitality, Nick."
He nodded. "The Hotel de l'Europe, driver?" he called out, then shut the window. "You needn't look so gloomy, Frank," he remarked presently. "If my plans do not miscarry, your friend the American shall ultimately be paid in full; I give you my word."
"The word of an intriguer," I retorted coolly; and added, with the deliberate intention to insult, "of a self-confessed traitor to his superiors! But there ought to be honor among thieves, Nicholas!"
He turned scarlet with rage and threateningly raised his hand. "How dare you?" he snarled. But I held his blazing eyes with mine, and his hand slowly fell. "You are a fool!" he muttered hoarsely, "and you don't know what you say!"
"And you," I cried—hissing the words into his face—"are a dishonored liar—a spy!"
My intention was achieved. He struck at me—blindly, but so strongly that, although expecting it, I almost failed to ward the blow. Then, as I had also expected, he fell back, purple with passion, shaking like a leaf. But only for an instant. The next he seized the stop cord and tugged it violently. The carriage drew up, and Nicholas threw open the door. "Give me the bonds and go!" he gasped in a voice I hardly recognised. "Go, before I kill you!"
I tore open my vest and extracted the sealed package. He snatched it from me, and two seconds later I stood upon the road, valise in hand, my cousin's brougham rapidly disappearing down the road in a flying cloud of dust.
So far so good. By inflaming my cousin's anger I had got away unsuspected with the bonds, and I thought it even possible—despite his cautious, business-like habits—that in his rage he would not examine the counterfeit package for some little time. But it behoved me to use that time to my best advantage, for the trick could not fail to be detected soon, and then all Russia would be down on me. I threw a hasty glance around, and perceived that I stood near the northern most end of the Nevski Prospect. Two droshkies were idling by the pavement some sixty yards away. I hailed one, and looked at my watch. It was almost noon. "To the English Embassy, and quickly!" I cried to the driver. "Double fare if you get there under the quarter!"
He grinned, and, immediately I got in, lashed his horses to the gallop. I occupied the drive by taking from my valise a piece of soap. This I wrapped up in a handkerchief and enclosed in a large envelope, the flap of which I sealed. Ten minutes later I was ushered into the presence of the British Ambassador. We had met before, and he received me very civilly. But I had no intention of gossiping, and I plunged into business at once. "I have here," said I, showing him the envelope containing the soap, "a package of bonds which belongs to Mr. Stelfox-Steel, a gentleman with whom I believe you are acquainted. His affairs have, in fact, brought me to St. Petersburg. But I need not go into that. The fact is, the Russian police have already attempted to relieve me of those bonds, and that I still possess them is by a piece of good fortune I cannot hope will be repeated if they remain in my keeping. I have, therefore, come here to ask you two favors—firstly, to give the bonds a corner of your safe; secondly, your permission—if you grant me the first—to make the fact known. For thus only shall I be able to avoid the unpleasant attentions of the police."
His Excellency eyed me very gravely for a moment or two; then, with a slight shrug, he said: "I should prefer you to take the bonds to the American Embassy, Sir Francis."
"I am a British subject, your Excellency."
"Quite so; but you are apparently acting for an American citizen, and it seems in a matter that has already caused some stir. Reasons of State render it most undesirable, at the present juncture, that England should in any wise interfere."
"Then am I to understand that you refuse?"
"Your second favor, Sir Francis. I shall be glad, however, to keep any package for you—whose contents have no official significance."
"Ah!" said I, with a sigh of relief. "Then here is an envelope which contains—a very excellent piece of soap, your Excellency. May I trust that you will guard it for me for a little while. It is a soap or such exquisite properties that I would not lose if for the world, and the hotel servants would assuredly rob me of it."
His Excellency frowned, but he took the package, and a moment later looked into my eyes. "You will be staying at the Hotel de l'Europe I suppose."
"I shall send you, if you would care, a card for our forthcoming reception ball."
"Thanks extremely! Is it likely that his Majesty will attend?"
"No!" he replied, "but he will be represented by the Grand Duke Pagis," and his smile became full of meaning as he named the Duke. But I seemed not to notice.
"I should greatly esteem an opportunity to pay my respects to his Majesty, your Excellency," I said suggestively.
"Unfortunately the Czar has decided to grant no private audiences to foreigners this season, Sir Francis; the fact is, as perhaps you are aware, the Dowager——"
"Just so—and with this Eastern war cloud in the air, too."
"I perceive that you are a philosopher, Sir Francis."
"Oh!" I answered with a shrug. "To be frank, I expected no help from you, your Excellency."
"My position——" he began.
"Exactly," I interrupted, and stood up. "There is something, however, that amazes me, and, at the risk of offending your Excellency, I must remark upon it. America's supineness—England's complaisancy. Now, if Venezuela had robbed Mr. Stelfox-Steel——. These two nations—so friendly, so——"
"One second!" said his Excellency, and, rising, he approached me. "There will be war, and soon," he half whispered. "England is Japan's ally. America, too, sympathises with Japan, though unexpressedly. Between ourselves, Sir Francis, the outlook is so threatening, and further complications so eminently undesirable, that individual interests must of necessity be postponed. Be assured, however, that they will merely be postponed."
"The old story of the powder magazine and the spark," I sneered.
"No, Sir Francis, but of the shepherd boy who cried 'Wolf' for sport. The wolf is now in the fold."
"You are really serious?"
"As serious as I can be. But look around you for a day or two and you will also be convinced. The war party here is absolutely dominant, and even if Japan backs down at the last moment it will only increase Russia's prestige, and so make matters the worse for the world, for England and America are both pledged to the open door—and the open door is what Russia will not yield in any case without coercion."
"I begin to understand," I said reluctantly.
"That is well," shrugged his Excellency. "Au revoir, Sir Francis."
I bowed and retired, feeling more dejected than at any time since I had left England, for I could see plainly at length the enormous strength of the position occupied by Stelfox-Steel's adversaries. And I saw, moreover, that unless I could contrive to outwit them, the magnate could only hope to recover his money by diplomatic means, in the unlikely event of the Japs severely beating the Russians in the near future, and thus putting Russia at the financial, and therefore diplomatic, mercy of the world.
A droshky took me to the hotel, where I hired a comfortable room, and at once proceeded to dispose of the bonds. A careful examination of the apartment having revealed no hiding place that a skilful spy would not have speedily detected, I removed my boots and stuffed the package into one of them. Then I threw myself upon the bed to wait. In about half an hour a tap sounded on my door. I got up at once, seized my boots and opened the door. "Kindly have these polished immediately!" I said. Then, with a dramatic start, I dropped the boots and fell back, for my cousin Nicholas Batinoff and two well-dressed men—undoubtedly police—were standing in the doorway.
"What, Nicholas!" I cried; then I laughed, for his face was as black as a thundercloud. "You've discovered the pretty little trick I played on you, I suppose, eh, my dear coz?"
The three men advanced into the room, and the count, the last to enter, shut the door.
"You won't have another chance," he said grimly.
"My dear chap, I don't want one. You can lock the door if you like, but the horse is already stolen! I've just returned from the British Embassy."
"We'll see about that!" said Nicholas. "I must take the liberty of searching you, Sir Francis. You had better submit."
"With all the pleasure in life."
"Officers, do your duty," said the count.
They were experts, beyond question. They searched my person and every inch of the room; my valise and overcoat and rug, the bed, the ticking, the very joints of the furniture. But they never thought of examining the boots which I had wished to have polished; therefore, needless to remark, they did not find the bonds. When they showed signs of tiring I jeered them into fresh activity. "You haven't looked outside the window; it has a ledge," I cried. Thither they rushed, only to be disappointed. "The coal scuttle may have a false bottom," was my next suggestion; then I besought them to explore the chimney, and finally the ceiling. They were ready to murder me before the end came, and Nicholas handled the revolver they had taken from my pocket with a finger that itched more and more to pull the trigger. But at last they were satisfied, and the ordeal was over.
Nicholas threw the revolver and my money upon the disordered bed, and, without a word, good, bad or indifferent, departed with his spies. I sent a gay laugh ringing after them, locked the door, and took the bonds out of my boot. But it had been a bad half-hour, and whether from weariness or excitement, my hands were shaking. I therefore resolved upon an immediate rest, and before many minutes had passed I was sleeping like the dead.
FOR the next few days I dwelt in some little fear of arrest, imprisonment, deportation, even Siberia. But I need not have disturbed myself. Stelfox's-Steel's robbers belonged to the ruling class, which interposed like a mighty wall between the Czar and the nation; and they could well afford to forgive me for one little triumph over them. After all, what use were the bonds to me if I could not reach the Czar? That was the point. I set about resolving it by calling upon Prince Goboliepoff, whose life I had had the good fortune to save by pulling him out of a swollen stream in Southern Russia, eight years before. One of the few remaining enormously rich members of the old noblesse and a regular attendant at Court functions, I hoped much from his help if he would give it to me. But I had still a great deal to learn. I found the prince nursing an attack of rheumatism. He had aged much, and his sickness had made him querulous, but he received me very kindly, and offered me the usual civilities. When, however, having seized a favorable moment, I frankly asked him to present me to the Czar, he shook his head. "The Ministers and Grand Dukes alone possess the privilege of presentation," he answered gravely. "We nobles have been deprived of all our ancient rights, mon ami. We are no better off than the serfs now—those, at least, of us who are not rich. But do you particularly wish an audience?"
"I do, prince, most particularly."
"Then your best plan will be to approach the Grand Duke Sergei. He is, fortunately, attached to me, and will perhaps oblige you. I shall give you a note to him."
I cordially thanked the old gentleman, and later took the letter he gave me to the Grand Duke, whom I had met before. But Sergei blandly excused himself, wrapping his refusal in mysterious allusions to the war cloud gathering in the East. It was the same everywhere.
I visited all my connections and acquaintances, and was variously introduced by them to other Grand Dukes, with a like result. Then I set quietly to work to unravel the political situation, and soon stood abashed at my previous folly. I discovered that what Prince Goboliepoff had told me about the position of the aristocrats was sober truth. The nobles had lost all their ancient influence and were mere ordinary subjects. All the power in the land was concentrated in the hands of an immense bureaucratic oligarchy, composed of the heads of the army and navy, the police, the Ministers of State, and a huge host of subservient Government officials. There was scarcely an aristocrat among them. The Ministers were all men of low birth, who had risen from the ranks and who—beggars on horseback that they were—found their keenest pleasure in oppressing the people from whom they had sprung, and in revenging themselves at every opportunity upon the nobles, who despised them for their origin, and whom in turn they hated bitterly.
The most extraordinary feature, however, about the whole organisation was the fact that the Grand Dukes were the backbone of the Government. Their part of the great game was to stand about the Czar and prevent him from obtaining information of actual events, and from putting into effect measures that might prove prejudicial to the power and selfish interests of the oligarchy. They supervised and censored his papers, books, and correspondence, the very novels they permitted him to read. And the reward of their energy and diligence was the delegated exercise of his authority, which in turn they disposed of and distributed among the Ministers. The state of Russia, therefore, resembled nothing so much as the condition of France under Louis XIV., the only difference being that, whereas Richelieu was Louis' single tyrant, the head of the Romanoffs was governed by a compact body of relatives and officials; and whereas the sole motive of Richelieu's tyranny had been the national aggrandisement of France, the bond which bound the oligarchy together was the corrupt and selfish object of enriching itself at the expense of the Russian nation.
As was but natural, the people murmured and writhed under a rule that impoverished and ground them into the earth. Nor were the nobles, rich and poor alike, complacent spectators of the actions of those who had usurped their places and robbed them of the ancient privileges of their birthright. An assiduous week spent in careful observation and research convinced me that the country was on the eve of revolution; and that practically the whole of the nobility were prepared to join in the movement heart and soul. Many of the latter, however, more far-sighted than their fellows, believed the bureaucracy to be thoroughly prepared for the event, and that the Government was bent upon forcing Russia into war with Japan at any hazard, as a means to divert and dissipate the smouldering energies and passions of the seething masses of the population. I believe that they were right. At any rate war preparations were being hurried on with feverish speed, and, as the days passed, war became increasingly the topic of conversation in St. Petersburg. I grew sick of the very name of it. In the streets and public places, in cafe, club, and drawing-room alike, it was inescapable. And it had this curious effect, for the nonce people and nobles alike forgot their grievances against the Government. The savage in them was aroused by all this talk of war. But the savage in man is a purblind and unreasoning spirit. All it wishes to do is to slay, to bathe its hands in blood. And if it cannot easily reach the object of its hatred, an astute suggestion will turn the channel of its rage afield.
So it came about that I watched mobs of gentle, dull-faced workmen wildly cheering departing regiments of Cossacks—those very Cossacks who for years had been the instruments of their oppression. It was because they envied the opportunity they thought the Cossacks would find and take to fall upon their fellow beings, ay, and butcher them. But enough of moralising!
In three weeks I stood face to face with the convictions that I had come to St. Petersburg upon a wild goose chase; that it would be easier for me to reach the moon than the practically imprisoned Czar of all the Russias; and that the time had come for me to take Father Constantine's ring to Count Felix Surempkin, the secretary of the Grand Duke Pagis. If he failed me, the sooner I returned to London the better for my pocket, for I had already futilely distributed in bribes no less a sum than four hundred pounds. It was a bitter pill to swallow—acknowledgment of defeat and impotence. But I had the consolation of knowing I had done my best, and I went to the Pagis Palace in a mood of philosophic resignation, at an hour when I felt sure that no Grand Duke would be out of bed—nearly nine o'clock in the morning.
Count Surempkin was just sitting down to breakfast in his own apartments at the moment I arrived, but he courteously refused to keep me waiting, and to please him I consented to toy with a piece of toast. While the servant was in the room we discussed the war, but immediately the man went I took the ring from my pocket and handed it to the count.
"Father Constantine entrusted me with this to give to you," I announced.
The effect upon him was instantaneous and extraordinary. He was a short and thick-set man, with a rather bloated, full-blooded face. He turned pale as death, sprang to his feet, and hurled himself with incredible speed across the room to the door, which he tore open. A glance without, however, served in some way to reassure him. He closed the door and returned, trembling like a leaf to his chair. "Every servant in the palace is a police spy," he muttered in a hoarse whisper, "and the name you used is dangerous. Let us talk in English and speak of Monsieur Duplessis."
"By all means," I assented readily, for the excess of his terror had shocked me. He gulped down a cup of coffee, spilling half the contents on the table in his agitation, then, somewhat recovered, he looked up at me. "You have a message, monsieur."
"How is—Fath—Monsieur Duplessis?"
"He was in excellent health when I left him."
"Ah, the poor man. And his message?"
"He desires—if such a thing be possible—that you procure me an audience with the Czar."
"Possible," he gasped, "Possible, monsieur, you dream. And above all people in the world—the agent of the American, Stelfox-Steel."
"You know that," I exclaimed.
"Who does not?"
"Then the thing is hopeless?"
The count gazed at me, and, to my amazement, his eyes filled with tears. "Monsieur," he whispered brokenly. "I would lay down my life to save him from his fate—but the sacrifice would be useless. It breaks my heart to say it, but I am absolutely powerless—and, through my pleadings, I have already brought myself into suspicion."
"I don't quite understand, count," I rejoined. "The service I require—has nothing to do with—Fath—with Monsieur Duplessis. What fate threatens him?"
"What, monsieur? What is this you say to me?"
"Did you not hear me, count?"
His eyes seemed about to start out of their sockets. "Fool that I am," he muttered. "How could he know?"
"Know what, count?"
"You have not seen—him—recently, monsieur?"
"Not since I left England, three weeks ago—of course, count."
He spread out his palms and rolled his eyes to the ceiling. "Alas! Alas!" he groaned. "Since then the worst of fates has overtaken him. Prepare to be shocked, monsieur."
"Ten days ago—he was basely enticed back to St. Petersburg, arrested, and sent like a common felon to Saghalien in chains. He is on his way there now."
"Good heavens!" I cried. "But how could this be possible—I heard nothing of his trial."
"His trial!" echoed the count. "Bah, monsieur—for twenty years past there have been no trials for crimes of opinion in Holy Russia. Administrative orders take their place."
"Count, you jest with me!"
"Jest! I! Is it likely? Why, monsieur, thousands of our best citizens have been exiled on the mere denunciation of discontented doorkeepers."
"Police spies, I should say; for the police appoint all doorkeepers in Russia."
"But this is horrible!"
The count held up one hand and appeared to listen intently.
"My dear monsieur," he said suddenly in French, and in ordinary conversational tones, "it is quite impossible for me to help you in this matter. I should be delighted if I could, to oblige my good friend, Prince Goboliepoff, but his Majesty can only with difficulty be persuaded to receive the foreign ambassadors during the present crisis, and I am sure the Grand Duke will tell you the same thing."
Warned by his imploring eyes, I followed his cue. "But, count," I urged, "my business is of great importance, and really all that I ask is that my name should be mentioned to his Majesty. I feel sure that he will remember it and grant me a moment of his precious time."
"I shall represent what you have said to his Royal Highness, the Grand Duke Pagis, monsieur. More, however, I cannot promise you."
"May I beg that you will recommend the Grand Duke to grant my suit?"
"I shall do all I can to oblige you, monsieur! Go now," he whispered.
I stood up. "Then I shall always consider myself most deeply your debtor, count. I have the honor to wish you good morning."
The count rang the bell, and said, "Good morning, monsieur."
Almost immediately the door opened, and the sleek-faced servant entered. "Show monsieur out!" said the count.
We thereupon bowed to each other, and I withdrew. It was over. My forlorn hope had failed, and there was nothing left for me to do but get out of Russia. I dejectedly followed the servant to the porch of the palace, slipped a bill into the fellow's greedy palm, and descended the steps. Some minutes later, while strolling back to the hotel, a splendidly appointed brougham passed me, and, as it swept by, a man's face looked out. It was the face of my cousin, Nicholas Batinoff. "Confound him!" I growled.
But of a sudden the carriage stopped. The door opened, and a man sprang on to the road.
I had not seen Nicholas since he had paid his official visit to my room at the hotel, but I was not much surprised to find that he had forgiven me for tricking him. He greeted me with outstretched hands and a beaming smile.
"My dear Frank, well met," he cried. "I intended to look you up to-day. It is an age since last I saw you."
"Three weeks, Nick."
"Been enjoying yourself, I hope."
"Instructing myself, Nick. My education is now complete, therefore I leave St. Petersburg to-night."
"Then you have succeeded in your quest. My congratulations, old boy."
"The sarcasm becomes you!" I retorted.
"Better than my advice?"
"Oh, say 'I told you so' at once!"
"Don't be pettish, Frank. You attempted the impossible. A wizard in your place could hardly have won through. Besides, let me tell you a secret: The Czar would not have helped you had you seen him."
"That is why the whole Government conspired to prevent me seeing him, I suppose."
He shrugged his shoulders. "Listen," he said. "A little while ago he offered Puziarlarski the Directorship of the Imperial Bank. Puziarlarski, however, objected that if he accepted the post his present income would be curtailed unless he followed the questionable practices of previous dictators. What do you think his Majesty replied?"
"'And don't you wish to do as everybody does? Then, stupid, go away!'"
"A vile slander, Nicholas. I'll not believe it of the Czar. He may be a weak man, but I'll stake my life he is an honest one."
Nicholas pursed up his lips. "Perhaps you are right, but Puziarlarski tells the yarn himself. However, n'importe. I merely tried to console you."
"Ah, Nick, if you would help me instead. Even now, at the eleventh hour?"
"This business seems to mean a lot to you. More than money?"
"There is a girl, Nick."
He put his big hand almost affectionately on my arm. "You love her, eh, Frank?"
I nodded, looking into his eyes.
"And just now you can't afford, eh?"
"That is it."
"Well—I shall help you, but not in the way you want. Go back to London and wait patiently for a few months."
"When I leave St. Petersburg, Nick, the matter leaves my hands."
"When the time comes, Frank, no matter in whose hands the matter rests—through you only shall be paid the money. You have my word of honor. Now be satisfied."
"Ah," I muttered, "if I could only see the Czar."
He gave a whimsical smile, and just at that moment a droshky dashed past in which was seated a pale, long-haired youth, dressed to the eyes in furs.
"Did you see that man?" asked Nicholas, most irrelevantly it seemed to me.
"Do you know him?"
"His name is Rivelik. He is a German Pole, and one of the greatest violinists in the world."
"Pity you are not as great a violinist, Frank. I know you use the bow pretty well—but——"
"What on earth are you driving at?" I demanded.
Nicholas laughed outright. "Rivelik plays before the Czar to-night," he said. "Unlike you, he is an absolute stranger in Russia, and he only arrived last night. Nevertheless, when he wished to see the Czar he did not have to beg an audience."
"Don't kick a man when he is down, Nick," I replied, disgustedly. "It's unsportsmanlike."
He held out his hand. "Well, I must be going, Frank. Good-bye to you!"
I watched him get into his brougham, and then resumed my stroll. My thoughts ran chiefly on the evil fate of Father Constantine. And so gloomy did they make me that, when I reached the hotel, I went straight to my room and packed up my belongings. The mental picture of that splendid, high-souled, old man, plodding drearily across the steppes, ironed to some wretched criminal, to end his journey and his days alike in ice-bound Saghalien, was one I could hardly support. It inspired me with anxiety to depart from a land where such monstrous injustices were possible, and I vowed that once across the frontier I should never return to Russia. Having strapped up my valise, I was just about to ring for a waiter to send it to the train, when I heard the sound of footsteps in the corridor. Thinking a servant must be passing, I opened my door to call him, and came face to face with the violinist who had driven past in his droshky when I had been chatting with my cousin.
I recognised him instantly, but, in the same glance, I perceived that something was wrong with the man. His hands were gropingly outstretched, his face was chalk-white, and his eyes were fixedly upturned.
"Herr Rivelik," I cried, and, darting forward, caught him by the arm.
"I am ill—help me—to—my room—eighteen!" he muttered chokingly.
It was the room next to my own. He collapsed, however, into a dead faint before we reached it, and I was forced to half drag, half carry him within. With some trouble I lifted him upon his couch, and then hurried to the bell. But I did not press the button. A wild, an almost desperately fantastic notion occurred to me, as I extended my hand to ring. For a moment I stood staring at the wall, then I turned, and, tip-toeing back to the bed, I earnestly regarded the unconscious man. He seemed to be about five and thirty years of age. His features were clear cut and shapely, but they were not particularly strongly marked, and his most distinctive characteristics were his long hair and a wonderful pallor of complexion. "With a wig and a little paint—I could do it," I muttered—"do it easily. But where shall I get such a wig as this?" Abstractedly I put out my hand and lifted a lock of the violinist's long hair. Next second, with a cry of absolute astonishment, I was bending over the man, peering into his scalp. When a moment later I stood up, I was conscious of an unpleasant, almost stupefying chill. Herr Rivelik's long hair was false, a wig in fact. Why? Why? Why?
I turned and swept the room with a glance. Upon the dressing table was a small medicine chest, lying open, and a violin case, closed. Against the wall, near the wash-stand, stood an iron-bound Saratoga trunk; it was padlocked. I dragged my eyes from the trunk, and, seizing the violinist's shoulders, roughly shook him. He did not even groan. Within two minutes I had relieved him of a bunch of keys, and had the trunk open. Another two, and the floor was heaped with clothes and music scores. The trunk apparently contained nothing else. But my thoughts were busily engaged with every tale of villainy that I had ever read or listened to, and they prompted me to plumb the depth of the trunk inside and out. The measurements, scarcely to my surprise, failed to correspond. Trembling with excitement, I ran my hands all over the interior surface, searching for a spring, but what I found at last was a moveable peg, and I had barely extracted it when I was violently overset and hurled backwards to the floor. Happily I fell upon the violinist's clothes, else perhaps I had been stunned. But the situation was desperate enough, for the man threw himself upon me instantly, a naked dagger in his hand. Never have I been nearer death. Before I could grasp his wrist the blade fell, grazing my neck as it passed to bury its point an inch deep in the floor.
Only a desperate wriggle saved my life. But that was the end, for, all his strength expended in the one effort, the wretched man fell prone and lifeless in my arms, and a slight exertion enabled me to free myself and rise. Scarcely heeding him, I returned straightway to the trunk, and very soon the false bottom yielded to my treatment, exposing a packed mass of cotton wool. Sifting this with extreme caution, I came presently upon a small globular object, about the size of a large plum. Then another, a third, and a fourth. Bombs enough, in fact, to annihilate a hundred men. Satisfied, I carefully restored the wool, and replaced the trunk's false bottom. Then I leisurely replaced the would-be regicide's clothes, leaving out his music, however, and I carried the man himself back to his bed.
My next care was the medicine chest. It was evidently the original property of a physician, for it contained at least a hundred well assorted drugs, a set of needles, and a hypodermic syringe. The latter I elected to use, and, without more ado, I injected a full grain of sulphate of morphine into the unconscious nihilist's arm. For greater precaution still, I then bound him hand and foot with strips torn from one of the sheets of his bed. Then I left him, taking care to lock his door and remove the key, and I returned to my own room.
Seizing my hat, I hurried from the hotel to the nearest drug store, and presently returned laden with a parcel of cosmetics. With these I entered the assassin's room, and immediately prepared to dress. Herr Rivelik's clothes, however, were too small, and I was obliged, therefore, to repair once more to my own room and don my evening clothes. So accoutred, I returned, and wrapped the anarchist's fur coat about me. It was a splendid coat, a real sealskin, worth at least a hundred pounds. Next I sacrificed my moustache and shaved clean. In half an hour, when the paint had dried, my mirror showed me a face as pallid as that of a corpse. I thereupon stained my brown eyebrows to the deepest black, and quietly removed from the now heavily sleeping violinist his long-haired wig. His real hair beneath was mouse colored. The wig fitted me most perfectly, and, to be candid, it made me look so passable that I began to envy heartily the musician's avocation. It is all very well to condemn the long-haired man as an effeminate and degenerate; long hair is deucedly becoming, and pronouncedly artistic. And it is my sincere conviction that men were never intended by nature to make crop-heads of themselves. Just before one o'clock I gently removed the anarchist from his bed and rolled him underneath it, pulling down the coverlid to hide him, and covering the couch as well, with coats and rugs. Then I unlocked the door, rang the bell, and seated myself at the table with a pile of music. Presently a waiter knocked. "Come in." It was a porter named Jacques, a Frenchman.
"Monsieur rang?" he asked, with an ill-natured glance. He perceived, of course, that I was a German, and his French soul was obliged to disapprove of me.
"A roast chicken—and a small bottle of Burgundy."
He bowed and departed. When he returned I affected to be immersed in a score of Joachim, but, when he put down the tray and was about to leave, I looked up.
"Let me not be disturbed this evening, garcon," I commanded. "I wish to sleep, and I shall not want dinner. Call me, however, should any messenger come from his Majesty the Czar."
"Tout a l'heure, monsieur."
"You may go!"
He departed, and soon afterwards I locked the door. Then I threw myself upon the bed and for several hours gave myself up to day-dreams. When the light began to fail, however, I arose, and, sitting down at the table I made a hearty meal of the roast chicken, which, though quite cold, was still savory, and I drained the bottle of Burgundy to the dregs. Afterwards I felt fit for any fate. And when, some two hours later, Jacques appeared, to announce the arrival of Herr Grobemoff, who insisted upon seeing me, although not a messenger from the Czar, I merely shrugged my shoulders and answered "Very well."
The "Herr" proved to be a German pianist, and the Court, it appeared, had selected him to be my accompanist. He embraced me cordially, kissing first my hand in token, he explained, of his acknowledgment of the supereminence of my genius, and then my cheeks, as a mark of his flowing affection for a brother artist and his desire to welcome a great master to Russia, his adopted home. He had called twice during the afternoon, it seemed, with a bevy of other artists, all eager to render me their homage. But he had respected my desire to sleep. He was a frightfully voluble old fellow, and I thought we would never get down to business. But it came at last. He wished to know what I intended to play, and to compare his scores with mine. I had already selected half a dozen of the nihilist's most simple pieces—which I knew, in fact, by heart—and these I showed him. The old flatterer immediately overwhelmed me with compliments. "Ah," he cried, "'Tis exactly what I predicted of you—my dear young friend. Herr Bohrismann will tell you the same thing to-night—this very day I said to him:—'Mark my words—Wilhelm, Herr Rivelik will rather seek to charm their Majesties with the genius of simplicity than dazzle them with coups d'etat of style.' And, behold, what I have said comes true."
"My dear Herr Grobemoff," I answered, with a low bow, "the soul of one true artist always understands the soul of another!"
It was a mistake to have turned his weapons against himself, for the old beggar insisted upon embracing me again. But, in the nick of time, a rap sounded on the door, and it opened to admit M. Butineff, an equerry and chamberlain of the Court, with whom—in propria persona—I was well acquainted. Evidently, as Herr Rivelik, I had seen him earlier in the day, for he declared how glad he was to perceive that I had recovered from my indisposition.
But their Majesties awaited us, it seemed, and it was needful to set out immediately. I, therefore, took up my violin case and my scores, and we trooped down the stairs. Before the hotel there awaited us a magnificent State coach, and a large crowd of people thronged the pavement, many of whom were long-haired artists like myself. These, as soon as I appeared, rushed at me, howling and cheering like a pack of wolves. It was a veritable triumph to my reputation. Herr Grobemoff almost burst with pride, and I confess I went up several degrees in my own esteem. M. Butineff, however, pushed a way through the press, and hurried us into the carriage, which immediately drove off. A little later, while the clocks were striking the quarter after nine, we stopped before the stuccoed front of the Summer Palace, and, with as much ceremony as though I had been an emperor, I was ushered through rows of soldiers and glittering flunkeys into the Czar's abode.
First of all we were taken to a gorgeous dressing-room, where we removed our coats, and where "merely as a matter of form," a quiet-looking gentleman ran his fingers lightly over our pockets, and squintingly examined the interior of the nihilist's violin. "A Guarnerius, monsieur?" he asked, as though to excuse his final action. "No," said I, "an uninscribed Stradivarius." I had previously tried Herr Rivelik's violin, and, to be frank, it was a very ordinary instrument, with a somewhat over-vibrant tone. But that mattered not a rap. I was Herr Rivelik. Therefore, a twelve-and-sixpenny machine-made fiddle in my possession must infallibly be an old master. It's nine-tenths of any battle to have a reputation.
A moment later, M. Butineff touched my arm. "Are you ready, monsieur?" he asked.
"I am very nervous," I replied. "But I am ready."
He bowed me to the door, and thence led me, Herr Grobemoff following at heel, through a maze of rooms and corridors to the presence chamber.
I entered, my head bowed modestly upon my breast. Genius, particularly musical genius, is ever humble. I heard a woman's whisper. "Regardez!" and then someone took my hand. He said "Welcome," and murmured something that rather puzzled me about his Majesty's appreciation of my courage and a sick bed. It was the Grand Duke Alexei. Next moment Herr Grobemoff and I exchanged glances, standing beside the piano stool. The old pianist looked prodigiously important, and was plainly in his element. He sat down and struck a note. I handed him my bow and began to twang the violin, seizing the opportunity to look about me.
The piano was placed upon a low platform, before which was arranged in a semi-circle a double row of nearly two score people, some seated and some standing about the figure of the Czar, who occupied a comfortable arm-chair in the centre. On his right hand sat the Grand Duchess Xenia, and on his left the Grand Duchess Alexandrina. The Czarina was not to be seen; but the absence was partially atoned for by the presence of almost the whole Royal Family. I recognised the Grand Dukes Sergei, Boris, Cyril, Alexei, Alexander, and Mikhailovich, also two Ministers, three admirals, and many other official notables, including General Poghdavowski, the Minister of Police. "Well," thought I, restraining with some difficulty a wild desire to laugh, "I may disappoint some of you people, but it will go hard with me if I fail to astonish you."
A moment later I took my bow from Herr Grobemoff and struck an attitude. Instantly a hush fell over the gathering, and all eyes stared at me. My mind was curiously divided. Common-sense strongly admonished me to hand Stelfox-Steel's letter forthwith to the Czar, warning me of a hundred possible and impossible consequences of the least delay in grasping by the throat my opportunity. But the little imp of mischief that is always sitting on my shoulder declared that I should all my life regret a neglected chance to delight and dazzle such an audience, and, believing him, I hesitated! A crash of chords, and I was lost. I raised the violin to my chin and drew my bow across the strings.
Blessings on that hour! I shall never be able to think of it without a chuckle and a thrill. Although I have my own opinion of myself as a violinist, honesty constrains me to confess that I am not generally considered a virtuoso. An Islington audience (it was a charity concert, too) was once misguided enough to boo my rendering of Gounod's "Ave Maria." True it is that Reggie Horne started the booing, but it is also true that the response to his signal was universal, spontaneous, and sincere. It was reserved for me, however, to have my true worth—despised by Islington—rapturously recognised by the Russian Court. Braga's "Serenata" was my first effort. Before it was half over, the Grand Duchess Xenia was in tears, and the whole Court looked intensely miserable. The last note was succeeded by a period of profound stillness, then a sorrow-chastened storm of plaudits. Herr Grobemoff arose and kissed my hand, whereupon the applause broke out afresh. But I waved him back to his seat with a magnificent flourish, and plunged into Mascagni's "Intermezzo." Conceiving that some show of feeling on the part of the artist would help matters along, I indulged in a number or physical and facial contortions expressive of the emotions which the music excited in my frenzied soul. The effect was superb. The Czar clapped his hands, the ladies pelted me with flowers, and the rest of the audience deliriously applauded me. As for Herr Grobemoff, he cried out that Joachim lived again, and, despite all I could do, he pressed me to his fat heart and beslobbered me with kisses. When order was restored, the Czar, in a tone which acknowledged that my sovereignty was infinitely superior to his own, humbly begged me to favor him with one of my own compositions. Frankly the request was a facer; and for a few seconds I went cold. For this was my difficulty. I had always been modestly content to interpret the works of other great musicians, and I doubted if I knew a single piece which would not be familiar, to Grobemoff, at all events. However, I needs must make the experiment. It was impossible to refuse the Czar. I therefore bowed to the floor, and to gain time began to tune my violin again, thinking wildly the while. Suddenly the riddle was resolved. In a beautiful, mind-illuminating flash it was borne to me that an Irish jig ought just about to fill the bill. Grobemoff informed me in a whisper that he knew by heart all my compositions, and implored me to decide upon a certain scherzo which was a great favorite in Russia. But I shook my head and said aloud: "No, my dear Herr Grobemoff. In only one way can I repay his gracious Majesty for the great compliment which he has paid me. And that is by improvising here and now a symphony addressed to him."
Grobemoff threw up his hands and eyes to heaven, ravished with admiration. The Czar cried "Bravo!" and the Court clapped hands. Once more I bowed deeply before the Czar, then, preparing for a supreme effort, I raised the violin, and, screwing up my face and eyes, I began to pace the little stage like a caged lion. Twice I scraped up and down the gamut, slowly, and with prodigious effort, lingering wearily on each wailing note. Then all of a sudden I stopped dead, and, throwing back my head, stared fixedly at the ceiling, my bow and violin ready, but rigid. It was the pose of a great master, lost in an ecstasy of inspiration, listening raptly to the music of the spheres.
The hush was memorable. The falling of a pin would have sounded like a cracker. I enjoyed it thrillingly, from scalp to sole. But, alas! everything perishes, even pure bliss such as that. I could have lingered thus for ever, but, constrained by common-sense, at length I sighed. The other forty people present sighed too—like furnaces. In the midst of their sighing I made the violin shriek, and in another second I was playing "Drops of Brandy" as if for dear life. From that I wandered into "Tim Finnegan's Wake" with variations, and I concluded with five strenuous discords that were nothing less than master strokes of virtuosity.
It would be quite useless to attempt to describe the enthusiasm that ensued when finally, panting and apparently exhausted, I gave over. The tumult deafened and half-dazed me. Half a dozen Grand Dukes pressed my hands and led me to the Czar. One Grand Duchess—but there!
Suffice it to say that I was induced to kneel before his Majesty, who invested me forthwith with the order of St. John, and pinned with his own hands a diamond cross, the insignia thereof, upon my breast. In that pregnant and triumphant moment I am proud to say that I remembered my mission. Even as I arose from my knees I extracted Stelfox-Steel's letter from my vest, and offered it with a sweet smile to the Czar. "Your Majesty," I said softly, "deign to accept this little symphony, which has been composed entirely in your honor, and which I have dared to dedicate to you."
The Czar accepted the missive and was, I think, about to tear open the cover when a cruel and jealous fate with savage unexpectedness overtook me. There was a sudden outcry near the door through which I had entered the presence chamber, then the rasping crash of a falling chair, and a loud voice shouted: "Treason, treason! Look to the Czar. The musician is an impostor and a nihilist! Sacre! He has given his Majesty a bomb!"
The Czar dropped the letter and fell back, ashen white, on the instant. He was immediately surrounded by the Grand Dukes, who hurried him from the room by one door, while the remainder of my—a moment earlier rapturous—audience departed in a wild scramble, shrieking and shouting like maniacs, by the other. One would have been almost justified in supposing that they were afraid of me, the dear people, so unceremonious was the order of their going. But they did not forget to slam and lock the doors behind them, and before I had half recovered my wits I was a prisoner at large in the presence chamber, alone with Stelfox-Steel's letter and his bonds. Presently I picked up the package and sat down upon a chair to-think. The position was desperate, of course, but it was so confoundedly absurd as well that, in spite of all I could do, in two minutes I was laughing consumedly. When the paroxysm of mirth had passed I dried my eyes and looked about me. The window immediately attracted my attention. I approached it and peered out. It overlooked a courtyard, filled with soldiers, who hailed my appearance with loud cries. Wishing to speak to them, I raised my arm to unlock the clasp, but that was enough. Fancying I intended to hurl a bomb at them, they precipitately fled. Once more an unrestrainable gust of laughter shook me. And well it did so, for a bobbing head probably saved my life. I heard a loud report, and a bullet, whizzing past my occiput, crashed through the pane. Swinging on my heel, I was just in time to see a door swing to, and a little cloud of smoke before it evidenced sufficiently the fact that one of his Majesty's guards had taken a pot shot at me with his revolver. But this was beyond a joke! Having no mind to fill the role of snipe I hurried to the door and rapped upon the panel. "Outside there!" I shouted. There was an instant scurrying of feet, but no response in words. The other door slightly opened, however, and the barrel of a rifle was pushed sideways into the room. Next instant a foot appeared—then a pair of lurid eyes, and the muzzle swung round towards me. In desperation I raised Stelfox-Steel's letter. There was a flash, a deafening report, a cloud of smoke, and the door banged again. A second later I heard my cousin's voice, sternly commanding his men to enter and take me prisoner.
"Thank God!" I gasped—and shouted wildly: "Nick Batinoff, Nick—it's I, Frank Coates! I'm no nihilist, confound you all! Call off your dogs, you beetle-crusher!"
There was a period of heavy silence, then of a sudden the nearest door opened wide, and on the threshold stood Nicholas Batinoff, revolver in hand. We looked into each other's eyes for full thirty seconds, his regard becoming slowly a recognising stare. "You are disguised!" he said at last—his tones hoarse and stiff.
I tore off my wig. "Of course!"
"Explain!" he commanded.
But I no longer feared sudden death, and the exquisite absurdity of the situation immediately recurred to me.
"I just had to see the Czar," I replied with a grin. "But he wouldn't take the bonds, Nick, he dropped them like a hot potato."
"Where is your accomplice?" he demanded harshly, "the man you are impersonating."
"You'll find him tied up like a trussed chooky, under his bed in his room at the hotel."
"Good heavens!" said Nicholas.
"And his box has a false bottom filled with bombs, real bombs! But for me, Nick, the Czar would be a dead man now, dead as Caesar!"
My cousin turned absolutely livid. "Wait here!" he gasped, and, swinging on his heel, he simply hurled himself out of the room. Five minutes had hardly elapsed, however, before he returned, accompanied by the Grand Duke Pagis and General Poghdavowski, the Minister of Police. As a preliminary, Nick and the Minister searched me carefully, and relieved me of the bonds, which they gave to Pagis. Thereupon an inquisition started, which ended in the two policemen departing to visit my hotel, while the Grand Duke and I repaired to his private apartments to crack a bottle of wine. Thereabouts he allayed my curiosity by explaining the latest plot on the Czar's life. It seemed that the Terrorists had somehow learned that the true Rivelik, who had just got up from a sick-bed at Cracow, had been invited to play before his Majesty. By a clever trick they had decoyed him into their power, and sent one of the most desperate of their agents, a young medical student named Leon Brabozotoi, to St. Petersburg to impersonate Rivelik and assassinate the Czar. And with such extraordinary address had they developed their plans that, except for my intervention, the Russian police must have been too late to save his Majesty, since Rivelik's escape from the Terrorists was even at that moment scarcely an hour old. Such in short was the Grand Duke's story, and it was all he knew then himself. But it was also all I learned, and probably shall ever learn. For after a delightful hour with Pagis, who proved a boon companion, and who laughed till the tears ran down his cheeks at the account I gave him of my concert, I was escorted by two officers to the headquarters of police. There I remained in solitary confinement for a period of twenty-eight days, gradually accustoming myself to the notion of Siberia. But Providence had another destiny in store for me, and one evening, after giving M. Poghdavowski my word of honor never to return to Russia, I was conveyed from my cell to the railway station, and given there in charge of a person who had orders to see me over the border. I was a failure, of course, an arrant failure. Nevertheless, I had the satisfaction of being permitted to depart with all the honors of war. And when two days later I arrived in Paris I still possessed my Cross of St. John, some £500, and a stock of mirth-provoking recollections which I valued even more than the money.
I discovered at Paris that the official account of the Imperial incident in which I had played so motley a part was brilliantly untrue. But while it astonished me to learn that a certain daring nihilist named Leon Brabozotoi had been shot down while attempting to stab the Czar under cover of presenting his Majesty with a petition in the Summer Palace, it was a relief to find that my name had not been breathed in connection with the affair. Feeling somewhat poorly—the result of my imprisonment, no doubt—I decided to remain in Paris for a week in order to recruit before undergoing the ordeal of facing Stelfox-Steel. I mailed him, however, a bald confession of failure, and two days later received the following reply: "Dear Sir,—Enclosed please find my cheque for £1000, as agreed. Yours truly.—J. Stelfox-Steel."
A cold man of business, the magnate. But I resolved to see him all the same, and early in the afternoon of the day after the Japanese opened the war by making their famous dash into the harbor of Port Arthur I was shown into his private sanctum.
He nodded to me across a great heap of correspondence. "Ah! Good-day, Coates! Back, I see!"
"Yes, sir, and I called at once, guessing you'd be anxious to hear about my doings."
"Then you've miscalculated," he retorted briskly. "I have no time to listen to fool stories of failures. This war has got me down and is worrying me like a dog with a rat. My cheque reached you?"
"Well, that closed our biz., I fancy, eh? Good-day to you."
I left, feeling seriously moved to write a book on the manner of millionaires. But I explored Piccadilly instead, and thence rambled through the neighborhood, searching for a miniature tobacco store. I found what I was looking for at last in the neighborhood of Bond-street, almost next door to a celebrated jeweller's establishment. It was nearly Lilliputian enough to be an ideal home for a fair-sized doll. A grizzled little clerk served me with a sixpenny cigar, which I lighted leisurely, and then sat down.
"You the proprietor?" I asked. There was no other person in the shop. The clerk pointed to a name on the window. "Jacob Aronsen, at your service, sir," he said.
"How do you find trade, Mr. Aronsen, these times?" I inquired.
"Bad, sir, very bad. So many of the gentry purchase wholesale nowadays for cheapness sake, sir, and it's only high-class custom one gets in Bond Street, sir."
"Ah, is that so? But I suppose you make a living?"
"That's about all I do, sir. What with rates and taxes and the rent."
"Twelve pounds a week, sir."
"What, for this little shop?"
"There's another room behind, sir."
"It is indeed, sir," heartily agreed the little clerk, adding, in lachrymose tones, "and I was fool enough to take a seven years' lease, too. But that was three years ago, and business was brisker then."
"Pray forgive me if I seem impertinent, Mr. Aronsen—but I should much like to know what net profit you can make per week, handicapped with such a rent."
"Sometimes not more than two or three pounds, sir."
"But your average?"
"About six pounds, sir, I should say."
"You ought to sell out," I suggested.
Mr. Aronsen eyed me suspiciously, and forthwith dropped his respectful 'sir.' "Are you an agent, mister?" he demanded.
"No," I answered, smiling, "only a baronet," and I handed him my card.
He begged my pardon profusely—for what offence I have no idea, but I magnanimously forgave him, and then asked what sum he would take for a straight-out sale of his business and stock.
"Two thousand!" he replied. "To you, Sir Francis."
I laughed and took my leave. An hour later I returned. "I'll give you five hundred," I said. "If you decline it, I'll take the empty shop across the way and oppose you."
He told me to go, but next morning he was more civil, and he spoke of £1750.
On the following day it was £1650. Meanwhile I rusticated in my lodgings.
On the fifth morning I rented the vacant shop opposite Mr. Aronsen's for a month at a cost of £50. I took the receipt straight to the little clerk. "Look what you have forced me to do," I said gravely. "I have no intention of opening a business yonder, of course. But neither have I any mind to let you fleece me, merely because I want to buy you out and you know it."
Naturally Mr. Aronsen did not believe me, and he almost wept with rage; but he declared he would not take a penny less than £1500, and I was forced to employ a signwriter to paint "Coates, Tobacconist," in big letters on the window of the vacant shop. This brought the game to an end, for on returning from a stroll that night I found my rival waiting patiently on my doorstop. "Give me £1250 and let me go," he wailed. But it was a thousand pounds I finally agreed to part with, and only then upon the condition precedent that he should remain in my employ for a month, during which time he should put me through my facings and teach me the tricks of the trade.
Early on the following Monday morning I bought an apron and went to work.
Mr. Aronsen, beaming all over, led me behind the counter and into a rather prettily furnished little office, which was also a sort of warehouse, being piled on three sides, from floor to ceiling, with boxes of tobacco, cigars, and cigarettes. Wishing to master first the secrets of buying rather than the selling, I remained in that little room for six days, adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing hosts and multitudes of figures, from breakfast time till almost midnight. On the Saturday evening Mr. Aronsen regretfully handed me £22, the takings of the week; and he assured me in the act that I was the luckiest person of his acquaintance to have acquired, and himself the greatest fool to have parted with, so excellent a business for such a beggarly trifle as a thousand pounds.
Ten days later I despatched an autograph circular to all the daily papers, and next morning took my stand behind the counter. As I had expected, my first customer was Reggie Horne. He stood outside the shop for a moment or two staring at my name on the window, an open copy of the "Chronicle" in his hand. "It's a hoax, of course!" he growled. I heard him quite distinctly. Then he entered, caught my eye, and stood petrified.
"Morning, sir," I said pleasantly. "What can I do for you this morning? We have some excellent Cabanas just in, imported, I may say, especially for you, Mr. Horne. It's our principle to study the individual tastes of our customers!"
Reggie's mouth opened wide. I opened a box of cigars. "Favor me by trying one," I suggested.
"Look here, Frank!" gasped Reggie. "Have you gone mad, or what?"
"I've turned sensible, Reggie. I'm going to make a living or die trying. But would you prefer a Laranago?"
He had no time to reply before Sir George Trevellian, John Exton, and Lord Forth, commonly known as "Old Forty," burst into the shop.
"Well, I'm——!" was the general exclamation.
"You won't find a better assorted collection of smokes in Christendom, gentlemen," I gravely assured them. "Sir George, I have your favorite brand of Regalias here—shall I book your order for five hundred or a thousand?"
"Eh—eh?" gasped Trevellian.
"Thanks, Sir George," I cried and turned to the clerk. "Mr. Aronsen, kindly see that a thousand Regalias are sent to Sir George Trevellian's house at once."
"Coates!" cried Exton.
"Cigarettes for you Exton," I responded. "By gad, gentlemen, you have cause to thank your stars that you know a place at last where you'll have your nicotinal wants sympathetically and responsibly administered. Now, Exton—try one of these Murattis. There's size for you—there's flavor—Mr. Aronsen, a light for Mr. Exton."
Trevellian, Exton, and Reggie Horne, all three looking utterly confounded, sat down and began to puff, staring at me as if at a new sort of wild animal. Lord Forth, however, seized my hand and warmly congratulated me. "By heavens, Coates!" he cried, "you put us all to shame, and I for one heartily approve your conduct. It's magnificent. It's what we all ought to do—work—work, there's nothing so ennobling. Humph—let me see—yes, I will—by Jove! Coates, you can send me five thousand heavy-weight Manillas, Claros."
"Money down, Forty," I responded with a wink. The others roared with laughter, for Lord Forth notoriously never paid his debts. But the old fellow was not in the least put out. "Word of honor—I'll send you a cheque," he cried, and I believed him.
"Now Reggie, it's up to you," I said.
Reggie tossed a shilling on the counter. "Two Cabanas," he said curtly.
I handed him the box.
"Oh, I'm fixed—but there, we must give you a start, I suppose. A box of Murattis, please."
"I'll send them to your rooms."
I had hardly spoken when Tressady, Lord Ingle, and Burton Falmouth entered. When they had finished damning their souls I booked a substantial order from each, and then all went away except Reggie.
"You'll be the talk of London, Coates," he said with a scowl.
"Good for trade, Reggie."
"But what's your game, man? Come, out with it! You can't pull wool over my eyes. Is it a big wager you're trying to win?"
"The biggest possible, my son. In confidence, I'm going to marry a wife and to try to keep her."
"You! Marry! You!" Reggie stood up, and his voice, mounting in swift crescendo, ended in a regular report.
"Why not?" I replied, and I served a chance customer with an ounce of Dublin mixture.
"Who is the wretched creature?" demanded Reggie when the man went.
"Well, I have lots to pick from. Over a hundred sweet young things answered the advertisement."
"You advertised for a wife!" he shrieked.
"I suppose I had a right to," I retorted. "See here, Horne, you've only spent a shilling in my shop as yet, and you had good value for your money. You didn't buy the right to manage my domestic concerns along with your Cabanas."
Poor Reggie was dumbfounded. "I apologise, of course," he muttered. "But you are mad, Coates, mad as a hatter."
"To think of matrimony?" I asked sweetly.
"Well—er—not exactly that—but to advertise—and er—trade—it's—awful; it's er—damne—Frank! its the worst thing you've done yet. You'll be ostracised!"
"Not if you support me, Reg," I chuckled.
"Frank!" cried a woman's voice, and Gloria Hammond, running from the door to the counter, gave me both her hands.
"Gloria!" I cried, entranced, "your arrival is timed perfectly. Reggie has just declared that all London will cut me for trying to make an honest living."
"Pooh!" she exclaimed. "Who cares for Reggie. But, Frank, how mean you are! You came back ages ago, and have never been to see me."
"I haven't been anywhere, Gloria. For I determined on my return to give everyone, without exception, an equal chance to do what Reggie has predicted they will do."
"Frank!" she said, reproachfully, "you dared to think that I——"
"My dear girl," I interrupted—"I've been impatiently awaiting your arrival ever since I took down the shutters. How is Hammond?"
"Very well. He will be along to see you later. What a nice little shop it is, Frank. Hammond intends to give you simply a tremendous order. When he saw your announcement in The Times he was awfully excited. He vowed he had always known you would do something splendid in the end."
"You call this splendid, Mrs. Hammond," sighed Reggie. "Splendid!"
She turned upon him with flashing eyes. "That and nothing else, Reggie Horne!" she cried. "It's independent, and it's manly—why, it's almost noble. It's a gauntlet thrown in the teeth of silly social prejudice, and stupid pride, and foppish idleness, and pocket-empty priggishness, and a hundred other mean and little points of view. And let me finally tell you this—I've always liked Frank Coates—but to-day for the first time I respect him! There, now!"
"Well, I'm blest!" groaned Reggie. "Say, Frank, you'd better send me a box of those Cabanas. I'm converted."
"And you must dine with us to-night. I'll take no refusal," said Gloria.
"Sir Francis Coates! How dare you without telling me beforehand!" cried a shrill voice, and Lady Adela Drummond swished into the shop, followed by two musicians, a painter, and a pug—a pug dog of course.
"I thought you might have forbidden me," I murmured, as we shook hands. "I really did."
She raised her lorgnette and examined the shop. "You must take down those flaring cardboard advertisements, and put up a few decent pictures, landscapes, and several mirrors," she began in didactic staccato tones. "Also you must get a Chesterfield and three or four saddle bags. There's not much room, unfortunately, but we must do what we can, I have been planning it all out as I came along."
"Planning——" I suggested.
"I said planning, Coates." She tapped me smartly on the shoulder with her fan. "Since you have taken the plunge, your friends can do no less than help you to success. For my part I shall find this place extremely useful. Ask Signor Casati to have a cigar, Coates; Nerli never smokes. Being so near Bond-street, it will serve me for a rendezvous. How nice it smells. I adore tobacco. Where on earth has Fanfarini gone? Ah, there he is—he is so shy, the dear man. How do—Mrs. Hammond? Frightful crush at Huxton's last night, wasn't it? A wretched Guardsman tore two flounces almost off my skirt. A pot plant would improve that counter, Coates. Mr. Horne, kindly stop teasing Fifi. Keep next Thursday evening, Frank; you are to take in Princess Pavrolski; she hardly knows a word of English, poor soul!—you'll be a godsend to her. Mrs. Hammond, do look at those people—quite a crowd, I do declare. Well, by-bye, Coates; don't forget the saddle-bags."
Gloria heaved a prodigious sigh. "I feel as though I had just left a bargain counter," she declared. "Frank, I'll never forgive you if you let that woman off under a fifty-pound order. Make her pay for the saddle-bags. Well, until—to-night."
"To-night," I echoed, and a minute later the shop was filled to suffocation, with a crowd of club mates and acquaintances. They came to chaff and satisfy their curiosity, of course, but for each Roland I received I returned an Oliver, and I let not a man escape in exactly the same financial condition in which he had invaded the premises. When they had gone, Reggie Horne, who still lingered, straddled a chair and tilted back his hat.
"Want a partner?" he demanded.
"No, thank you, sonny. I'd lose a friend, and a first-rate customer as well. But I'm willing to pay you a commission on orders. Twenty per cent if you like."
"Honest injun, Frank?"
I put a finger in my mouth and held it up. "Wet—dry!"
Reggie rolled up his eyes. "Right oh; I'll roll 'em in. Say, Frank——"
"Sevenhills has cut us all out with Miss Fortescue."
"What, the duke?"
"There isn't another Sevenhills I know of," he responded irritably. "——him!"
"You still——?" I inquired.
"Worse than ever," he groaned. "I've been wanting to break his neck for weeks past."
"You can revenge yourself in a better way than that, my boy. Book him for a big cigar order."
"The beast is serious," said Reggie dolefully.
"And the beauty?"
"She's nibbling the bait," sighed Reggie, too miserable to consider his metaphors.
"Why don't you declare yourself?"
"Tressady did, and she wouldn't even be his sister."
"Strikes me you are afraid of her, Reggie."
"Like the very deuce."
A fresh batch of customers called me away just then, and when I was again free Reggie had gone. But I had very little time in which to think of his luckless love affair that afternoon, for not until one o'clock had struck did the tide of my customers cease to flow. By then I had booked orders for more than two hundred pounds, and the till contained twenty seven pounds in gold and silver. Mr. Aronsen, with tears in his eyes, warned me that I should have to replenish my stock, and he implored me to let him buy back the business for two thousand pounds, and employ me as his salesman at a yearly salary of a thousand. Naturally I declined, but after a little haggling I engaged him as my bookkeeper and assistant for twelve months at six pounds a week, and ten per cent of the profits, for it was already manifest that I should not be able to cope with all the work for long alone.
In the afternoon business was not quite so brisk, yet I was quite fagged out when at six o'clock, we closed the premises. But I don't remember ever having been so happy in the whole course of my previous butterfly existence.
IT would have been unreasonable to have expected universal approbation of my new departure, or indeed anything resembling it, except remotely. And, truth to tell, I found it speedily advisable, having become a tradesman, to resign from a certain club. But I shall not name that club, for the very good reason that the house committee was generous enough, after I had shown so proper an appreciation of my position, to give me an almost princely order for cigars. I benefited also in a financial sense from the outspoken disgust of the large section of society who considered that I had sacrificed my caste, for their hostility provoked the chivalry of my friends to undertake a vigorous defence of me, and discussion is the mainspring of advertisement.
Within a week my shop became the best patronised in the neighborhood. Hundreds of people of all sorts and classes poured in all day long from all parts of London to buy a smoke from a real live baronet, and at the end of a fortnight my counter trade had so enormously increased that I was obliged to purchase a cash register and employ another clerk. By that time, too, my shop had developed, during the fashionable hours at least, into a sort of idlers' rendezvous. A number of young men of the smart set instituted the custom of dropping in for an hour or two every afternoon to smoke cigarettes and toss about the ball of gossip; and I, by virtue of my entrenched position behind the counter, was, by tacit consent, the president of these little gatherings. Nor was the fair sex excluded. Taking Lady Adela's hint, I bought a big mirror, and some comfortable chairs, and she rewarded me by frequently putting in an appearance, and sometimes she brought a younger woman with her. On the whole, therefore, I passed my time very pleasantly indeed, and so profitably, that I decided at last to abandon my poverty-stricken rooms in Burton Street and furnish a house in St. John's Wood. Helen Fortescue left London to pay a visit to her father in Ireland the day I moved—so Reggie Horne told me. And a week later he followed her with the Duke of Sevenhills across the channel. So far, I had not seen Miss Fortescue, except at a distance in crowded assembly rooms, since my return from Russia. But, whenever I could manage it, I did not think of her, and I spent the off season devising advertising schemes and canvassing for orders. The result was that before Parliament met again, I had a bank balance of four hundred pounds over and above my liabilities, and I possessed as prettily-furnished a little house, as was to be found in all the northern suburbs.
It was Reggie Horne who gave me the news. He burst into my shop one morning too agitated to perceive my outstretched hand.
"It's all up with me, Frank," he groaned. "They're to be married in three months."
"Sevenhills and Miss Fortescue?"
"It's his money," said Reggie fiercely. "We men are all alike. He has forty thousand a year."
"Are you sure the strawberry leaves haven't something to do with it?" I asked.
"Rats! Isn't he old and ain't I young? And ain't I heir to an earldom? A poor one, though!"
"Well, buck up, Reggie, my son. There are as good fish in the sea, et cetera."
"You callous brute! I'm madly in love with her, I tell you! If you knew what that meant——"
"I don't want to, Reggie—judging from your expression, it hurts."
"Hurts!" sighed Reggie. "She told me herself," he added, with, a groan.
"Then you plucked up courage to propose to her, at last?"
"Yes. I wish to heaven I hadn't now. I went clean off my head; I—I——"
"What did you do, Reggie?"
"I told Sevenhills exactly what I thought of him, the old dotard."
"He patted me on the back, and said he hoped the disappointment would make a man of me. You can't insult Sevenhills, Frank. The hoary Dionysius permits nothing to disturb him except his appetites. Thank God he is down with an attack of gout, though, now. If it would only go to his brain——"
"Reggie!" I said reprovingly. "And he is your grand-uncle, too!"
"They should have drowned him when he was a pup. You know as well as I do, Frank, that he is a disgrace to his class. A libertine—a——"
"Reggie, Reggie, respect the feelings of a tradesman. It tortures my middle-class soul to hear a duke reviled. Miss Fortescue is inconsolable at his illness, I suppose?"
"She has gone to stay at Cowes with her aunt!"
I served five or six customers, a small rush having set in at that moment, and then returned to Reggie. He was leaning back in his chair, staring moodily at the ceiling, and his cigar had gone out. I watched him for five minutes, served some more customers, and at length tapped him on the shoulder.
"Pull yourself together, laddie," I said softly.
"I believe I'll go out to Australia," he replied. "I'm sick to death of this—sort of—life. Life! Save the mark! I must do something, Frank."
"You need to make an interest for yourself. Work! It's the panacea, par excellence. Travel only gives one larger opportunities to think."
"What can I do? I'm such a fool!"
"I need a holiday. Take charge of the counter while I am away, and if you like the work and care to put up some capital we'll sign a deed of partnership on my return."
"Do you really mean it, Frank?"
"Do you accept?"
"Then come behind at once, and fag up the price list."
Reggie sprang afoot, his eyes glistening, his countenance transfigured, and with one bound he leaped the counter. "There will be an epidemic of jaundice among the boys," he panted.
"My only fear is that there will be an epidemic of tobacco shops in our vicinity," I remarked. "But we'll have to risk that. Fortunately for us, the smart set has been bred up to idleness."
Two days later, perfectly satisfied that Reggie was on the highway to recovery, and incidentally to becoming a really first-rate salesman, I left him in charge of the shop and Mr. Aronsen, and ran across to Calais. Thence I journeyed on foot, for the sake of the exercise, to Cypres, where I hired a fishing smack to carry me to Cowes.
A bandaged arm, neatly fastened in a black silk sling, is about as excellent an excuse as may be invented for loitering in romantic solitudes and gazing dreamily across the sea from the brows of cliffs or sheltered nooks in shingly beaches. The house was on a steep hill near the town; it possessed a wilderness of a garden and a high fence, and one of its occupants was ill. The brown-eyed girl in pink saw my glances wander thitherwards, and volunteered the latter piece of information. The servant in the boarding-house had told her. She thought I was an invalided Russian officer, and although all her sympathy was long ago bespoken for the Japs, she spared me some measure of her pity. She was a nice little girl, and as pretty as a Greuze, and her name was Rose; but her devotion to pink blouses was rather a trial to me at times. Pink is such a conspicuous color, and it was almost impossible to avoid her without losing touch altogether with the house or being downright rude. But the machinery of fate required her. And I recognised her usefulness at last. Though she was not a cog; a flask of oil, perhaps. I wonder where she is now. She had just finished telling me all about the boy who wanted her to wait until the firm should raise his wages to five-and-thirty shillings; and the man with three pounds a week who wished to marry her at once; and I was mentally congratulating the moonlight upon having achieved a veritable scenic triumph in its mellowing effect on the landscape before us, when Miss Fortescue appeared, leaning upon an old man's arm. It was not Sevenhills. The path passed within a yard or two of our bench, and Miss Fortescue uttered a low cry when still some distance off. But I did not hear her, nor did I see her, I was so interested in the girl in the pink blouse. "My dear Rose," I said aloud; then in an undertone I gave her good advice. And soon we went back to the boarding-house.
Next morning she returned to the London shop where she was employed as a fitter, and I strolled out upon the beach, with a pipe, a book, and a camp stool. Miss Fortescue did not leave the house, I think. But I felt her eyes on me the whole day long, and could not read a line. After dinner I made my way to the bench, and she was already there. "Miss Fortescue!" I cried.
"What fools men are to prate about the pleasures of anticipation!" I muttered, thrilling from head to heel.
"You have broken your arm," she said, and her lovely voice, for some esoteric reason, sounded harsh and strange.
"Well," said I, "if you came to Cowes in search of a job, I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you. Can't afford a nurse just now, Miss Fortescue."
It even jarred on me, but she shivered perceptibly. "Sit down," I suggested.
She complied and I placed my bandaged member between us. It seemed advisable. "Thought you'd have been in Paris." I remarked.
"Why?" she whispered.
"Well, most of the ladies I knew before I became a tertium quid, otherwise a tobacconist, seemed to think it was the proper thing to procure their trousseaux in the gay city."
"You have heard?"
"Didn't Sevenhills tell you? I wired my congratulations a week ago."
"No, he did not tell me!"
"If you invite me to the wedding I'll give you the loveliest cigarette holder, Miss Fortescue."
"Will you?" She clasped her hands upon her lap and stared at the sea.
"Excuse me for seeming to push myself," I continued, "but the fact is, business is business, and one never gets what one doesn't ask for in this world. If you haven't promised your patronage elsewhere, I'd take it as a great favor if you'd be obliging enough to buy your tobacco from me when you are her Grace of Sevenhills. I stock only the best brands, and would guarantee to give you every satisfaction."
She made no reply. I waited for some minutes, then said lightly: "The business habit grows on one so—me, at all events. Sometimes I believe I was born to be a bagman. I'm simply dying to get back to the shop, but this wretched arm of mine——"
"They tell me that you are doing wonderfully well, making quite a fortune," she murmured.
"Oh, I can't grumble. Business is fair to middling, even in the off season."
"I passed your place—one afternoon. It was crowded."
"You should have come in. Lady Adela Drummond often does; I have a gas-ring and a teapot in my office."
"Do you do all the work yourself?"
"Most of it. I'm looking for a saleswoman, though now. Men like being served by a pretty face."
"What a sweet name Rose is!"
I managed an affected start. "That's an irrelevant remark. Miss Fortescue!"
"I passed you last night, Sir Francis. You were sitting here—and I heard you name your companion."
"Oh! The pink blouse! She'd never do. I'd be sure to fall in love with her; she is so infernally feminine. Fortunately she left this morning. Met her at the boarding-house."
"You are staying at a boarding-house?"
"Eighteen shillings a week and all found."
"Ah!" she sighed, "how happy you must be!"
"Happy isn't the word, Miss Fortescue, except at meal times. But I dodge some, and thus preserve the perfect bliss inviolate of my condition. With whom are you staying?"
"My aunt. That is her house yonder on the hill. She is not very well just now, though. I am nursing her."
"I'd call if it wasn't for my arm and the natural timidity of tobacconists. But I fancy she won't mind. Your father well?"
"Yes, thank you. Mr. Haldom, his ward, comes of age next month."
"Young Bertie Haldom. Good heavens! Last time I saw him he was in knickerbockers, and it seems only yesterday. Comes in for a tidy sum, doesn't he?"
"Twenty thousand pounds. What would you do if you possessed it, Sir Francis?"
"I'd go into Parliament, I believe. What would you?"
"I should give it to my father, and——" she hesitated.
"Ah!" I said, looking at her keenly, "you would give it to your father—and—and then?"
She did not meet my eyes, but I noticed that her face was pale and that her lip was trembling. "I think I should go—upon the stage," she answered. A moment later she stood up and walked slowly from me down the path, for perhaps twenty yards. Then she stopped and laughed. Her laughter was as musical as a chime of silver bells, and it harmonised most exquisitely with the moonlight. "Good-night, Sir Francis, or, rather, good-bye," she said, and the path folded her in shadows. To break one's arm it is only necessary to grasp the second rung of the back of a wooden bench, and press against the first. But only a fool would do such a thing. The doctor charged me seven guineas, and ten and sixpence for the plaster of paris; but he was a fool, too, for in spite of his assurance and his opiate I did not sleep that night.
The Jews shrugged their shoulders and politely sneered at my security; Mr. Stelfox-Steel "regretted—but——" and Mr. Hammond, my last hope, frankly declared that he could not afford to lend so large a sum as twenty thousand pounds. I might have succeeded in forging somebody's name, only unhappily it was my right arm that I had been idiot enough to break; and for the same reason I gave up the idea of trying to burgle Stelfox-Steel's strong-room. It was wonderful how instantly and perfectly she understood. She was waiting for me, seated on the bench just as I had seen her in my dreams, and she greeted me with the same questioning, insistent look. "You have failed!" she said.
"After the three most wretched days of my existence," I replied, and sank down wearily upon the seat beside her. The moon had just risen, and it was almost at the full. Her beauty was unearthly. A poet once spoke to me about the soul of a lily, and I mocked him. But he was not the fool. And she still retained her grand, cold, preternatural reserve. She even smiled. She is the only woman in the world who could in such a case. But I had overtaxed my strength, and, after all, I am constructed out of ordinary clay.
"Once upon a time there was a girl," I said, "to win whom a man was willing to sacrifice part of his great fortune. The money was needed to save her family from disgrace. But the girl cared for another man, who was poor—and love made her forget her pride so far as to tell the rich man everything."
Helen smiled again, and murmured softly, "Surely not love. Sir Francis, but honor impelled her to confess."
"And would not honor let her hope that he might set her free?"
"Had she no pride?"
"Ah, you remember the story better than I. Tears have passed since it was told to me. What did the rich man say?"
She pressed her hand tightly to her side. "If it is the same story, Sir Francis."
"Never mind, it is a pretty tale, and will serve to pass the time away."
"My memory as well as yours, is vague—but I think—he told her—that he—he reverenced her—for her—her honesty."
"He did not set her free?"
"She did not ask it."
"It was a sad story, Sir Francis."
The taste of blood was in my mouth. I had bitten my lip almost through. "It ended sadly, you mean?" I muttered, my voice as hoarse as the croaking of a raven.
"How else could it end?"
"Splendidly!" I cried, shaken by a sudden storm of passion. "Grandly, tragically! The lovers died together the night before the rich man's bridal day."
But Helen turned and looked into my eyes. "And was the girl a cheat?" she asked. "Ah, but I do not like your story, Sir Francis. Mine is sadder, but it is nobler, too, I think."
"She married him, and lived miserably ever afterwards?"
"Not always miserably. She was able to do some good in the world—for she was rich."
"Marriage made her rich."
"You should not sneer at her for that. Had she been able she would gladly—ah, you smile—gone to the wash tub—for the man she loved. In my story it is written—that she almost told her lover so one day—before the great blow fell. He was absent from her at that time—when the blow fell, I mean—in Russia."
"God help him!" I groaned. "Was it written what became of him?"
"He remained her friend; and so great was his strength, so magnanimous his nature, that whenever she was weak he helped her through the evil hour, helped her to do her duty."
"She needed help—ah! Helen! you malign her. He, he alone, was weak!"
"There you mistake, mistake. One night, before the rich man married her, they met, and she——"
"She was so weak, so much a woman, that oh, can't you guess, my friend?"
"She would have—gone to him—in spite of all. Helen! Helen!"
"No! No! No!"
She stood up, trembling like a leaf, her face whiter than the moonlight, her great eyes shining like twin stars. "She trusted him!" she cried. "Frank, Frank, she trusted him!"
I stood up, too, and put my left hand on her waist. We were so close together that our breaths commingled, and her bosom, as it rose and fell, pressed softly on my injured arm.
"The world is wide," I said, and watched her eyes dilate. "And when two people love thoroughly it is otherwise untenanted."
"Frank, she trusted him!" she wailed.
"Helen," said I. "In the left pocket of my coat you'll find a cigarette case. Get it out for me, will you?"
I gave her a match. "Light it!" She put the cigarette to her lips, but it fell to the ground, and she was obliged to extract another from the case. She took three puffs, I think, then gave it to me. "It has touched your lips," I said, and sat down on the bench again. She went down the path quite out of sight, but in ten minutes she came back. "You must go away," she said. She had been crying, and her cheeks still glistened.
"No," said I, "you are quite safe. When you touched my broken arm just now it hurt."
"Is that true, Frank?"
"No, dear, I'd endure death by the rack to possess you for an hour. But I want you to like me all your life."
"And yet all these years you have pretended not to care!"
"And am I not rewarded, dear? And have you no share in the glory that is ours to-night? We think we suffer, you and I; but as God sees us, Helen, this hour of agony is worth a million years of humdrum happiness. Why, our souls are looking at each other, and seeing each other plainly, too, right through the flesh. And each is a little ugly, dear. But even that can't stop them loving and knowing they are mates. Why——"
"Frank, hush! You frighten me!"
"Is it not true?"
"True! Too cruelly true!"
"Mine is a shrunk, misshapen thing, I know it inch by inch; yet it has some merit, for it loves—and yours——"
She caught her breath. "Frank—Frank have mercy!" she entreated.
"It is lovely, Helen, but there is a red stain on its breast—I know why, and so well—don't you? The poor wan thing is aching to be kissed."
"Oh, my God!" she wailed; and I thought that she might swoon. But Helen has a will superior to her sex's weaknesses, and when I dared to look at her again I found her quite composed.
"You must never think meanly of me," she said in her soft, slow way, "not even about to-night; for I am a free agent yet."
"You need not have explained."
"Need I not? But I wish to. He has really been very generous. My father insisted upon announcing our engagement immediately—he——"
"Yes, but afterwards HE—he set me free of it, privately, you understand—and if before three months—I——"
"Helen, you torture me. The devil does not buy souls nowadays. He has no need to. What else have I to sell?"
"I shall write to him to-morrow," she whispered.
"No, to-night!" I cried. "To-night! To-night! To-morrow I shall be a scoundrel. I can feel it in my bones."
"Very well, and you shall post the letter for me if you will?"
"God bless you, dear. At once!"
I waited forty thousand years; then an old woman with a young face came up the path and put a letter in my hands. "I have a fancy," she said, "I should wish you to see me in my winding sheet. Have you the courage, Frank?"
"Yes, and you shall have the cigarette holder that I promised you. But write me the invitation to your wedding—not a card. Three lines will do."
"You will think of me and hate your fate the more."
She nodded. "You had better marry, Frank; that would hurt me, too."
"It is all we have to live for—Helen, now, the happiness of hurting one another. Yes, I shall be sure to marry, soon! I have a dear little house ready for her in St. John's wood. The living room has your favorite color scheme, the furniture and walls are white, the frieze and drapes and carpet, all—vivid scarlet."
She swayed backwards and forwards, her lips parted, her eyes aflame; her face, in contrast to her eyes, supremely pale, "Be—happy——" she gasped, "I—oh—how—cruel—you are!"
"The brute in me is uppermost. Let's say Good-bye!"
"Don't—take her—there! Oh! Frank——" She cried, "I could not bear it!" But then, with startling suddenness, she smiled and said: "I jest, of course. I'm sure you never thought of a fish slice, Frank. That shall be my wedding gift to her and you."
"A thousand thanks. Good-bye!"
She held out both her hands, then drew them back again. "Good-bye!" she said, and laughed.
But I could not laugh, even when I dropped her letter in the post-box. Somehow my sense of humor seemed to have deserted me.
TWO days after I got back to town it was announced in all the papers that a marriage had been arranged between Helen, only daughter of Lord Innismay, and his Grace the Duke of Sevenhills. Reggie Horne was fearfully down in the mouth that morning, but business was so brisk that he hadn't time to give way to his despair, and I filled every interval with chaff. Reggie promised to make a first-rate salesman. His whole soul was in the work, and he found something fresh to say to every customer. Nevertheless, he spent that night in Vine Street and he turned up on the following day with a wild story, and a raging headache, just before noon. He was so manifestly ashamed of himself, however, and so humbly apologetic, that I hadn't the heart to be very angry, and after some parley permitted him to resume his place behind the counter. In the afternoon, in response to an urgent note, I went to call on Mrs. Hammond. She was entertaining a bishop at the moment I arrived, but she soon got rid of the good man, and I heard her whisper to the footman that she had gone out. "Hullo!" I ruminated, "I am in for a wigging on some account!"
My suspicions were immediately strengthened by her insisting upon making me comfortable with cushions on a lounge, and pitying my poor arm so profusely that in very sympathy it began to hurt. They became certainties when she lighted and gave me one of my own cigarettes. So I nerved myself for the encounter.
"Hammond has gone to Northampton for the day," she began. "He has been designing an explorer's boot."
"You felt lonely, I suppose, for want of somebody to quarrel with, and sent for me?"
"Not exactly. But I have a crow to pick with you all the same. What did you want that twenty thousand pounds for, Frank?"
"My dear Gloria!"
"It's not a bit of use your attempting to deny it. Hammond——"
"Hammond is a faithless busybody. I spoke to him in confidence," I interrupted.
"No man should keep any confidence from his wife."
"That your idea of matrimonial ethics? Hammond——"
"Was quite right to tell me. I'd have hated him if he hadn't. There, now!"
"That settles it. Hammond is a white-robed angel."
"Don't you dare sneer at him!"
"Male, of course; I'm no believer in your sexless angel. But I'd like a chance to break the beggar's saintly neck."
"I cannot see why you should be so sore at my knowing. I've been a real mother to you for an age."
"The great disparity in our years——"
"How dare you! I was only two and thirty last April."
"So old as that, Gloria? I was about to say that I have so far cherished for you the feelings of a father. And I had been hoping that you regarded me with a proper daughterly respect."
"You smooth-faced flatterer."
"Another illusion destroyed. I don't believe you've ever forgiven me for not proposing to you that time you and Hammond quarrelled before you married him."
"I believe I should have accepted you," she answered with a smile. "I was awfully fond of you—always."
"Not you, Gloria. You'd have promised to be a sister to me."
"Why didn't you give me the chance—really, truly?"
"Well, Hammond and I were pals."
"You liked him?"
"And you loved——"
"No, not Gloria, you hypocrite, but—Helen Fortescue."
I felt myself turn cold, and not all the strength I owned could keep my hand from shaking as I put it to my mouth. And then the cigarette needs must fall. Gloria picked it up and gave it back to me. "You poor, dear boy," she whispered, her eyes abrim with tears. "I've known it all along."
"Ah!" I said. "Ah!" and "Ah!"
"I loathe her!" said Gloria, with savage energy. "She is a beast!—a beast! She deserves—Ah! if I had her here."
"You don't know what you say," I groaned. "To sell herself for rank and money! Loving you all the time! I know that, too. Bah! The contemptible—mean——"
"Gloria, I forbid you!"
"And you working for her—sinking your pride; going into business—getting a little home for——"
"Gloria—as God hears me—she is blameless."
"Blameless! Frank, is it possible you can defend her? Are you fool enough to care still?"
"She is the whitest, purest, noblest soul that breathes. It is my highest pride and privilege to worship her!"
"Ah!" sighed Gloria, with a complete and sudden change of look and tone. "I suspected before—now everything is plain to me."
"What is plain to you?"
"The mystery of a girl I always thought the real thing seeming to be a snake. And you wanting twenty thousand pounds."
I got afoot, simply terrified, and stumbled, towards the door; but Mrs. Hammond was the quicker. "Why didn't you come to me?" she cried, setting her back against the lock and facing me, her cheeks aflame. "Oh, I'll never forgive Hammond for this. It was wrong of him—cruel. And he knows how I care for you both—of course, though," she added quickly, remembering her loyalty, "he did not dream of you wanting it for her! It was really your fault, Frank."
"You are mad, Gloria!" I muttered, "quite, quite mad! You have let your fancy carry you to the moon."
"It is her father," she replied, unheeding me. "Everyone knows that young Haldom is attaining his majority immediately. And everyone knows what a reckless gambler Innismay has always been."
"Gloria, Helen Fortescue was once your friend!"
"We haven't quarrelled, Frank. Oh, you pair of fools—for there are two of you! Have I a name for meanness? And my income is more than double forty thousand pounds a year."
"I must really get back to work," I answered coldly. "Kindly let me pass, Mrs. Hammond!"
"And just because I am a woman. But you wait, my lad. I'm not done with either of you yet. She shall never marry Sevenhills."
"I have the honor to wish you good afternoon."
"An English, a thoroughly and aristocratically English, condemnation of American indelicacy. But my troubles! Americans have hearts of flesh and blood, thank God! Well go! One day you'll be sorry, though, for treating me like this, Sir Francis Coates."
I bowed and left her—being too angry to trust myself to speak again. But when a fortnight later she entered my shop one afternoon my heart went out to welcome her. "You run away, Reggie Horne," she commanded, "I want to talk to your boss."
"My senior partner, madam," objected Reggie, "not in any sense my boss."
"Eclipse yourself, anyhow!" she answered, through her nose. Gloria can be hatefully rude and slangy when she chooses. Reggie having retired, she sat upon the edge of a chair, put her elbows on the counter, and stared at me, chin in hand. "She's worse than you," she said lugubriously. "She's called me a busybody, and declared that a million couldn't make her break her word."
"What did you expect?" I asked. "I wanted her to give him back his money and claim her freedom."
"She would rather die."
"She was positively insulting."
"You must make allowances."
"I'm liking her all I can manage. She's one in a world."
"And you are another, Gloria," I muttered, huskily to be honest. "But put it out of your thoughts, dear. I have. The thing is impossible. Kismet!"
"Oh! Why didn't you come to me? Your wicked, wicked pride! I haven't spoken to Hammond for fifteen days. I'll have to soon or he'll starve to death. He eats nothing."
"How silly of you, Gloria. It wasn't Hammond's fault."
"If he had told me at once——"
"It would have altered nothing. I could not have used your money."
"You'd have thought it was Hammond's."
"Do you see this cigarette?" I asked. "You make me feel as small, even smaller. Let us forget!"
"I intend with all my strength to try."
"She is frightfully thin—and that pale! Oh, Frank, it's horrible, horrible. It's the dark ages. I can't, I can't let it be. There must be some way out."
"There is none. By the way, I went to Haldom's majority dinner last night. That young man needs advice. He is Hammond's second cousin or something, isn't he? You ought to take him in hand."
"A born gambler. He won a big pot last night. Better if he had lost. The Churlingham set have him in their clutches, too."
"I'll see about it. He is a real nice boy."
"Yes, he is worth saving, I think, or I shouldn't have bothered to tell you."
She arose, and gave me her glove to button. "Business brisk?"
"Shall I see you at the Tapperell's to-night?"
"I'm not going out where women are at all just now."
"How do you spend your evenings, then?"
"I walk. Shopmen need a lot of exercise, you know."
She sighed and smiled in one. "Ah!" she muttered. "If it wasn't for Hammond I would try to comfort you myself."
"If it wasn't for Hammond," I answered laughing, "I would have no occasion to be comforted."
"You were—just a wee little bittie—fond of me once—weren't you, Frank?"
"Ah, if you knew how much!"
"And you still think me nice—and—and—pretty?"
"Lovely, Gloria. Truly."
"I feel better now. It is terrible to be a failure, Frank. You really owed me something, for it was mostly for your sake."
"Don't misuse Hammond any further, Gloria. Make it up with him!"
"Oh! How stupid of you! You have broken it, and it was such a nice pretending, too. You might have been jealous of him, just for once!"'
"Can't you see that's my way of pretending not to be. It's you who are stupid. What do you think I care for him—the hateful—successful—happy horror!"
"Ah! That's fine. I'm almost reconciled. You don't want to elope with me, perhaps?"
"This very minute!"
"Maybe—now I won't cry myself to sleep to-night."
"Gloria!" I cried.
"If I was allowed to choose a brother, it would be you," she answered softly. "And though I'm dry-eyed now, I'm crying under my skin. I'd rather have lost half my fortune, Frank."
Reggie vigorously assured me a minute or two later that I was a clumsy, absent-minded bear. For I dropped a box of cigars on his toes, and I could not force myself to talk to him.
The fates reserved the last and most ironical trick they had resolved to play upon me until it wanted only a fortnight to Helen Fortescue's wedding. Then, behold entering my shop one morning, arm in arm, my cousin Nicholas Batinoff and the American magnate Stelfox-Steel. They wished to see me privately, it seemed, so I ushered them into my little office, winked at Reggie Horne, and closed the door. My cousin was in a radiant good humor, but the magnate looked rather glum.
"According to promise, Frank," said Nicholas. "You have guessed, of course, that I am here in order to redeem the bonds——"
"And," broke in the magnate, "I am sure that Sir Francis Coates will tell you, as I already have done, that he has ceased to retain the slightest interest in that business."
"That is so," I responded curtly.
"But," said Nicholas, "were it not for Frank Coates I should long ago have let the matter drop. And you, in that case, might have whistled for your money, maybe for years to come, my dear Mr. Steel."
"And maybe I shall yet. You forget that your proposal is to redeem my bonds with other bonds."
"And for your trash to give you gilt-edged securities."
"Russia's latest reverse——"
"Will be her last, please God, monsieur. But if not, and if twenty even greater disasters still await her, what then? Russia will be Russia still, and the most puissant Power on earth?"
"If she made peace immediately."
"Russia will not rest, monsieur, until she has fulfilled her mission, which is to uphold the cause of the white races and Christianity at whatever cost."
Mr. Stelfox-Steel shrugged his shoulders. "Her internal troubles," he began, but Nicholas sharply interrupted him. "The war has already blessed us in this: It has held up to Russia's face a faithfully reflecting and uncompromising mirror. She has seen her plague spots, and knows at last the cause of such eruptions. She has already begun to apply a drastic remedy. Pardon me if I appear didactic, Mr. Steel, but you judge my country from what you have read in garbled newspaper reports."
"Do you deny that Russia is on the eve of a revolution?"
"No. There may be spasmodic outbreaks here and there; murders and assassinations almost numberless, perhaps—but reform will come from the head, not from the feet. It is ordained."
Again Stelfox-Steel shrugged his shoulders, but, with an effort at politeness, he commented curtly, "Well—I wish you luck!"
"And now," said Nicholas, "to business."
"Am I to understand that you decline to settle with me still, then, in spite of Sir Francis Coates's assurance, except in his presence?"
"Mon cher monsieur, you owe to Sir Francis Coates the fact that you are offered a settlement, at all. I have an absolute discretion to treat with Chile, direct myself, and there are those who will not thank me for making your private misfortune an affair concerning Russia's honor; those, in fact, who will say that Russia's need of ships is not so great as to warrant paying for three cruisers the price of five."
The magnate frowned and bit his lip. "It seems that I am at your mercy, then, Sir Francis," he muttered, giving, me a positively evil look. "I can only hope that you will not prove too rapacious."
Up till that moment I had not intended to take the least advantage of the man's dilemma, but his manifest malignity provoked me past endurance, and I resolved on the instant to make him pay dearly for the insult.
"Since, after all, it is owing to me that you are now put in a position to recover your money," I answered coldly, "I consider it my due to demand that the original terms of our agreement should be revived."
To my surprise the magnate looked intensely relieved. "Well, well," he said quickly, "I don't grumble—at that. Ten per cent. It was a fair thing. In bonds, of course."
"No, sir, in cash."
He raised his eyebrows. "Impossible. M. Batinoff requires me to wait three years for my money."
"With interest at 4½ per cent. guaranteed in the meanwhile," cut in Nicholas, "secured by bonds which have a certain market value."
"But which will cost me probably five or six per cent, to convert, even at the end of the term," snapped the millionaire. "No, no, you must be reasonable, Sir Francis. I may seem fair game to you, and it's not to be denied you have me on the hip. But I don't propose to fling good money after bad in that wholesale fashion."
Nicholas gave me a curious glance, and then took out his watch. "My train to Paris starts at twelve-fifteen," he observed; "It is now five minutes to eleven, and if you come to terms we must visit the Legation in the meanwhile, monsieur."
Stelfox-Steel mopped his forehead with a huge silk handkerchief. He looked uncomfortable and hot and harassed. "What about a compromise?" he asked through his teeth. "I'm willing to give you a hundred thousand cash down!"
"And where do I come in?" cried Nicholas, with a gay laugh. "Mon cher monsieur, you allow Sir Francis no scope to display his gratitude to me."
"I thought so," growled the magnate. "I thought so." And he turned on me like a wounded tiger. "How much?" he snarled.
"Exactly what I am entitled to, Mr. Steel, on a discount basis at current rates of exchange, less ten per-cent, which I am prepared to concede you as an insurance fee to cover fluctuations."
"Which means in round numbers one hundred and seventy-five thousand pounds."
"And you'll make at least that sum in cash on the battleships, or I am vastly mistaken," commented Nicholas. "Upon my soul, monsieur, you have cause to congratulate yourself upon this young man's moderation!"
The magnate got afoot, and for the first time during the interview he permitted a smile to cross his rugged face. "Very well. You'll have a cheque this afternoon, Sir Francis!" he said graciously. "And now, M. Batinoff, I am at your service."
Nicholas nodded and rose. "Can you trust him, Frank?" he asked rapidly in Russian.
"I think so," I replied. "He boasts that his word is his bond."
"Well, even if he breaks it, we have the means to make him keep it finally."
"Shall I not see you again, Nick?"
"Then where shall I send you your share, and what share shall I send you?"
"Peste! Frank, you insult me."
"But you said just now——"
"I was fighting a business man with his own weapons for your sake."
"Nick—Nick—how can I ever repay you?"
He wrung my hand. "By marrying the girl you told me about in St. Petersburg, my boy. And, yes—by defending your mother's country against evil report when opportunity occurs. We are not all rascals in Russia, Frank. Well, good-bye, dear lad, and God bless you!"
Ten minutes later Reggie Horne came into the room and shook me roughly by the shoulder. "What ails you, Frank?" he cried. "You look like death—are you ill?"
"Not ill, Reg," I answered hoarsely. "But rich—too late," and I broke away from him and hurried from the shop. A letter was awaiting me on my return, from Stelfox-Steel—and he had honorably kept his pledge. I handed the cheque to Reggie and asked him to bank it for me; then I made him a present of the shop and walked out to St. John's Wood.
It rained heavily, and I was drenched long before I reached the little house I called my home. But I doubt if I would have bothered to change my clothes had it not been for my old Hindoo factotum, whose officiousness saved me probably from a sharp attack of rheumatism. And he forced me, too, to eat a wonderful curry and to drink a hot spiced mess of wine and spirit, inimitably mixed. Afterwards I wandered like a ghost from room to room and sank at last into an arm-chair before the latest of her portraits in my study. She was pictured standing in a Doric portal, smiling out into the sunlight. And my greatest sorrow was that I had never even kissed her hands. She declares that I was sleeping when she came, but that could not have been, for I remember quite distinctly that I heard the street door open and voices in the hall. Only I was too listless to care, too steeped in melancholy to remember that at least one other creature lived as miserable as myself. Her cold hand on my brow recalled me to that knowledge. She had been to a ball, and was robed from head to foot in shimmering white satin. I glanced up at the clock upon the mantel, and saw that it was long past midnight. She let her cloak fall, and the lamplight glittered on her marble shoulders. Taukis Singh's round black eyes stared in wonder at her, but at a sign from me he vanished, and slowly I arose.
"It is good to see your arm is well again," she said.
I pointed to the chair, and stooped to heap coals on the almost dying fire.
"Everything you do is right, dear," I muttered, as I faced her presently. "But was this altogether wise?"
She crouched on her knees before the grate and spread out her hands to the flames. The lamplight turned her hair to living gold, but her cheeks were scarlet of their own volition.
"What has a woman to do with wisdom?" she asked softly. "Besides, my whole being is in revolt. He kissed me to-night, and shame has made me shameless. Do you think the sea is big enough to wash me white again. His kiss has branded me."
"Helen," I said unsteadily, "I am only a man, remember, and a rich one now."
"I heard," she answered, "Reggie told me. I wished to scream and had to smile. Is not God unkind?"
"I don't know, dear."
"Well, bitterly satirical?"
"Or minded to try us thoroughly."
"Frank, I shudder when he touches me. I never dreamed it would be half so hard."
"The world is wide, Helen."
"He has kissed me."
"You are morbid, dear."
"You would take me then—soiled, and a cheat—a swindler?"
She stood up. "Frank, how white you are!" she cried. "Are you cold? You are shivering!"
"Which do you want most, the woman or the ideal?"
"Which? Answer me!"
"The woman!" I groaned. "Have mercy on me, Helen!"
Her smile was terrible. "My soul is outside waiting for me in the cab," she said, in a hoarse, half-strangled whisper—"and yours has gone to keep it company. Do you realise just what this room contains, my friend?"
"Two fatuous unfortunates."
"That or—but, oh, I must not, shall not, say it! Frank Coates, you must leave London."
"How irritating your complaisance is and your composure! Why don't you refuse? Argue? Protest? When will you go?"
"If you do, I shall not be responsible for—oh, Frank, am I mad or what?"
She gazed at me unseeingly, and I read a horror in her eyes, a fear and horror of herself. I turned and kicked the coals and laughed. I heard the frou-frou of her skirts as she paced the room, a passionate, pulsating thing—fighting her own battle—the battle which I longed to see her lose and hoped to see her win.
"Why don't you help me?" she wailed at last.
I shook my head. "No one can help you, Helen, least of all I."
"Look at me!"
I stared into the fire, my back to her, and laughed again.
"You love!" she cried. "You are a stick—a stone!"
Heavens, how I laughed. And at length Helen laughed, too. Then we looked at one another and grew very still.
"This must be the last, the very last time," she whispered.
"Yes," said I. "For years."
Her lips quivered pitifully. "I was wrong to come, but you will forgive."
"The moment that I can."
"Till after death, then."
"Till after death," I repeated drearily, and watched her go. Some minutes later I became conscious of Taukis standing in the doorway watching me.
"What is it, Taukis?" I asked quietly.
"Father of the poor, while you spoke with the mem sahib your servant looked out upon the street and saw a sahib speaking to the driver of the mem sahib's carriage."
"Then the sahib came and knocked softly on the door, which your servant opened."
Taukis crossed the room and placed a sovereign, with a gesture almost princely, on the mantelpiece. "Father of the Poor, the sahib gave your servant that."
"Not for nothing, Taukis."
"Father of the Poor, the sahib spoke your name and smiled at me, and then I closed the door upon his face."
"Had he black eyes, Taukis, and a grey moustache?"
Taukis salaamed profoundly. "All things are known to the Father of the Poor," he said.
Three minutes later I had started on my bicycle, and was racing at breakneck speed towards the town house of his Grace the Duke of Sevenhills.
I HAD been sitting on his doorstep just long enough to become refreshed, when he arrived. He was tall and slim, and fifty-five, with the mildest of black eyes and the courtliest manner in the world. And he possessed, as well, a nose and mouth of such ascetic severity that already two generations of perspicacious British matrons had declined to believe him a cold-blooded libertine and otherwise unfit to be trusted unchaperoned in the dovecotes of their darling daughters.
"What! Coates," he exclaimed, "an unexpected pleasure this; but all the more delightful, I assure you, because unlooked for. You will come in, of course. Nay, I'll take no refusal. Permit me! Ah, the wrong key; one moment."
The door opened to disclose a softly-lighted hall, and the scowling face of a stuffed tiger, crouched to spring. The duke rang a bell, and, almost on the instant, a smart young footman appeared, to whom he gave a whispered order. Then he turned to me. "Pray give me, my dear Coates, your opinion of that tiger," he suggested blandly. "It has just come home from the the taxidermist's. I shot the brute last year in the Punjaub. Is there too much color in the mouth, think you?"
I heard the ripple of a woman's laugh, and understood.
"Wonderfully natural," I replied. "I like it."
He took my arm, and pointed to a picture.
"A new Watteau. I picked it up—where would you guess—in Monte Carlo."
I heard a sudden swish of silken skirts, and said, "A Reubens, is it not?"
He tapped his forehead, smiling strangely. "Upon my soul, a Reubens; my memory for names—but there—it's over late for cant of art, to-night. Let us try the fire and see if Lubeck has got anything for us to eat."
He pushed me almost caressingly into a cosy little library, where we found an exquisitely set out supper laid for two. "Sit down, my dear Coates. And let us eat, drink, and be merry. Who knows! To-morrow we may die."
"Many thanks, but I must beg you to excuse me, duke."
"You have a liver, perhaps? Confoundedly unpleasant companions, livers. But you'll join me in a glass of wine—or would you prefer whisky?"
"A cigar then."
"I'll smoke a cigarette if I may. Don't bother, duke, I have my own case here."
"And better cigarettes than mine, doubtless—which reminds me that I have been intending for quite a while past to ask you to supply my needs in that direction."
"Very good of you, duke. I have gone out of business myself; but your kinsman, young Reginald Horne, has taken over my establishment, and I am sure he will be delighted to obtain your custom."
"Then he shall have it. Bright boy, Reginald. Always has a cheerful quip ready, and a smile. Remove those covers, Lubeck. I shall ring when I require you."
The footman departed, and the duke seated himself before the board.
"You won't mind my feeding; hungry as a hunter," he murmured, taking up his spoon.
"I'm afraid I have disturbed you, duke; but I shall make amends by not detaining you one——"
"Detaining me!" he interrupted. "Time was made for cooks and men of business my dear Coates; and you have just informed me that your days of trade are dead and done with," whereupon with an affectation of critical appreciation, he first tasted, and then swallowed a mouthful of turtle soup. "Of a consistency quite admirable," he murmured, half under his breath.
"I called," I began, "to return you a sovereign which your generosity misled you into giving my valet. I've made it a rule never to allow my servants to accept tips."
"Such a trifle," protested his grace, with imperturbable sang froid. "Really, Coates, you carry your prejudices to extremes. Not that I have any cause to grumble, though, since your over-fineness has in this instance given me the unexpected pleasure of your company."
Then we bowed to one another, and his grace ate another mouthful of soup.
"I was more than sorry not to have seen you when you called. My stupid man seems to have denied you admittance," I observed suggestively.
His mild eyes smiled at me across his uplifted spoon. "Pray don't mention it. The hour was unconscionable, simply unconscionable, for the suburbs." His voice was like the prolonged cooing of a dove.
"I have been wondering how you discovered my diggings," I proceeded steadily.
He drew his serviette across his mouth, and pushed aside his soup plate. "Simplest thing in the world," he replied, and began to help himself to the breast of a woodcock. "Happened to be passing, heard a voice asking if Sir Francis Coates was in. Suddenly reflected that I hadn't seen you for an age, stopped, returned, and rang the bell. Voila tout."
"And what conclusion did you arrive at, duke?"
"To go home!"
He raised his eyebrows. "My dear boy, you disappoint me," he said reproachfully. "Are you incapable of taking a hint? My maxim in life, the one at least to which I am most faithful in observance, is no post mortems. Let the dead past bury its dead. Oblige me and be sociable. This woodcock is excellent; done to a turn. That brandy is 1815. Pray sit down and join me."
"I demand your conclusions," I replied between my teeth; for by that time I was in a white, silent heat of fury.
The duke shrugged his shoulders and took a sip at his champagne. "Well, if you must, you must," he compassionately observed. "All the same, better not. Be advised! pray be advised."
"Ah! but you have no appetite, that is evident!"
"Duke, this is your house!"
"My dear Coates!" he cried in apparent deep concern, and immediately arose to his feet. "I beg ten thousand pardons! I quite forgot that you are still, comparatively speaking, a young man." Then the wonderful old scamp threw a look of affected anguish at the table. "Such a woodcock; sacrilege!" he muttered; and turned his back upon it. "And now," said he, "let us sit down at all events. No—well, then, stand!"
"Your conclusions, duke?"
"What a lawyer the Bar has lost in you! Such concentration! Well, my dear Coates, since we are in my house I am constrained to inform you that my conviction is you are a very lucky fellow; as altogether fortunate, in fact, as the lady is altogether charming."
"You are speaking of the woman who is to be your wife," I cried, absolutely horrified at his frightful nonchalance.
"Pardon me," he rejoined, "of the lady who was to have been my wife."
"Then you mean——"
"First thing to-morrow morning. May I express, for her sake, the hope that she will soon find a better husband. I suppose I need hardly assure you that so far as I am concerned no breath of scandal shall ever tarnish her good name."
I had only to be silent, bow, and go and win my happiness. And the temptation was rendered all the keener by the fact that in any question of respect, the duke's opinion weighed with me not half the value of a rush; and I would as lief have had him consider the woman I loved a vestal virgin as a courtesan. But I have always been a coward of my conscience.
"You are making a regrettable mistake, duke," I said coldly; bitterly even, for I hated him for his cynical readiness to make it. "I know that you are aware of the attachment which exists between Miss Fortescue and myself; but you are a poor judge of character, for all your experience of women, if you doubt her purity. She called at my house to-night to bid me an eternal farewell."
"Indeed! Women are so impulsive, Coates."
"Fate, you see, played us a fantastic trick to-day, and when she heard of it, she forgot her prudence in despair—but never for a single second, duke, her honor pledged to you."
The duke eyed me with an expression of polite interrogation.
"This trick?" he asked, and lighted a cigarette.
"A month ago her father needed twenty thousand pounds. I hadn't two. To-day I paid into my bank a draft for a hundred and seventy-five thousand."
"I observed just now that you are a very lucky young man."
"You doubt me?"
"On the contrary, I believe every syllable you have uttered, and am immeasurably obliged to you."
"If you persist in terminating your engagement with Miss Fortescue after what has passed between us, I shall hope that you will accept a cheque from me for the full amount that you have expended on her account."
"I have no longer any intention of terminating our engagement. Miss Fortescue is the woman I have been looking for these five and twenty years."
"Yes," he cooed reflectively, "a quarter-century ago I resolved never to marry until I could find a woman incapable under any circumstances of—er—I need not be more explicit, I think. And I am still a bachelor. But I shall be a Benedict ere long, and I owe in a large measure my good fortune to your candor. If ever I can be of service to you, Coates, in any way, command me!"
"Thank you," I responded freezingly. "I think I need not detain you any longer, duke; good night."
"One moment, unless you are in a hurry. The subject fascinates me, and your conversation."
"I must beg you to excuse me."
He strode over to the door and grasped the handle. "Oh, certainly, but if you will, I can tell you something I dare swear now you have no idea of."
"I have no wish to hear it. Permit me to go."
"It concerns her—and you."
"Of course, if you prefer or fear——"
"Speak then,—you!" I cried in a sudden burst; and immediately apologised.
But the duke blandly deprecated the least necessity for healing words. "Passion is the privilege of youth," he said suavely, "and provocation of old age; not that I am too old to dandle a grandson on my knee before I go. But I recognise your point of view, and reverently defer to it, for my blood is of a patient thickness now, and——"
"You desired to tell me——" I interrupted hoarsely.
"That Miss Fortescue, proud as she is, has twice implored me to set her free."
"And you refused?"
"Out of an unselfish regard for the future of my race. Torres—my present heir-at-law—is an unmitigated blackguard, and I may tell you in confidence that I more than suspect him of having twice tried to poison me."
"Would that he had succeeded!" I grated out.
The duke nodded. "I quite appreciate your point of view. That is why I am anxious for you to consider mine, because—well—frankly, Coates, slender as our acquaintance is, I respect you."
"I cannot return the compliment."
"Nor can you ruffle my patience," he retorted smiling. "But you can greatly please me, on the other hand, if you will consent for one moment to put yourself mentally in my place."
"Here am I, at five and fifty, a lonely bachelor——"
"Lonely!" I sneered, and pointed to the table.
He shrugged his shoulders. "The word has a pathetic sound," he admitted. "I retract it. A bachelor then, whose strongest passion is an iron-bound ambition to secure an honorable succession for his house. I am the last Sevenhills of the direct line, and my first ducal ancestor fought at Poietiers. I want a son to succeed me. But I would rather hand the title and my fortune over to Dick Torres, scapegrace that he is, than give my son a mother he could ever be in any wise ashamed of. We get our best and our worst parts from our mothers, Coates. Mine consigned me to the mercy of her dearest friend, a noble countess, and, par parenthese, a courtesan, when I was scarcely eighteen, in order to prevent my marriage with the daughter of a country dean. I have much to thank her for, but I do not want the mother of my son to have such broad ideas. Now, Miss Fortescue has a narrow-minded veneration of respectability that borders close on bigotry. It is said of me that I am a cynic and a libertine; and perhaps I am. But there is no one like your rakehell can more thoroughly appreciate what the world calls virtue, once discovered. In that respect, the lady I have named is a woman in a million. That is all I have to say."
We looked each other in the eyes for a steady thirty seconds, then on a common impulse bowed.
"I should like to hear your opinion," he remarked.
"You will marry, within a fortnight, the woman I love, and who loves me," I replied, "but as truly as I live now, on that day and hereafter I would rather be Frank Coates than his grace the Duke of Sevenhills."
"Your mother must have been a wonderfully good woman, Coates," he sighed.
"Even your approval cannot soil her memory."
He gave me a whimsical smile and held out his hand. "It is the last satisfaction I can give you, the opportunity to refuse my hand."
I bit my lip, then laughed, and took the proffered member.
"Your keen sense of the comic," he said gravely, "is the thing in you that I have always most admired. The world's a stage; Coates, and the players——"
"Are mostly platitudinists," I interrupted gaily. "Good-bye, duke."
And the way he winced convinced me that my random shaft had penetrated the one weak spot in his grace's armor—his intellectual vanity.
And he suffered me to pass without another word.
I awoke some time before noon next day, to find Reggie Horne seated in my best arm-chair, regarding me through a cloud of cigarette smoke.
"How you sleep!" he gloomily observed,
"Not a care in the world!"
"What brings you here?" I asked.
"Biz! I can't stand the shop without you, Frank. Aronsen wants to buy it. He offers two thousand."
"Sell it then. It's your affair, not mine."
"Will that price suit you?"
"If it suits you. I think you are a young ass, though, Reggie."
"I am," he groaned. "But I can't help it. I saw her last night. I'm going to clear out."
"Oh, and where will you go?"
"India I think, Thibet, or somewhere, anywhere for a bit of excitement. I've more than half a mind to try Manchuria and have a look at the war."
"Wait till after the wedding. I have promised to attend the wedding, and I shall go with you."
"Straight wire, Frank? You're not pulling my leg?"
"No, you young vulgarian, I am not pulling your leg."
"It's a question, then, of killing time in the meanwhile. Luckily, it's only a fortnight. Think I'll run across to Monte Carlo."
"You will come back penniless, and the trip will have to be indefinitely postponed."
"For cold-blooded common-sense, give me you. Heard about Dick Torres?"
"He filed yesterday. The post obiters, ever since the duke's marriage was announced, have been dogging him like a pack of bloodhounds."
"Sevenhills refused to part a cent, he says. He was at the Junior Cosmopolitan, last night, vowing vengeance; frightfully squiffy. He came with that ass, young Haldom, and there was rather a scene. The committee are tearing their hair. Haldom will surely get his walking ticket."
"How you gather news, Reggie! You should have been a journalist. What became of Torres?"
"I got him away at last, and he's at my diggings now, sleeping it off."
"A fellow-feeling makes us wondrous kind. Eh, Reggie?"
"Laugh away. I pity the beggar; can't help it. He has been the heir so long; and no one dreamed Sevenhills would ever marry. Torres says the duke's doing it to spite him, and I shouldn't be surprised. The old beast is capable of any meanness."
"The lady is not altogether unattractive," I objected mildly, "and Sevenhills is only fifty-five, and not exactly decrepit yet!"
"Ah! You'd excuse a 'Jack the Ripper.'"
"Put yourself in the duke's place, my son, and consider how you would act, having fallen in love with a beautiful young woman; being at the same time desirous of settling down, turning respectable, and providing for the succession. The family feeling is a strong one, Reggie; and no one can deny that Sevenhills with all his failings cuts a much more dignified figure as a duke, than could under any circumstances that young scatterbrain, your friend Torres. Then why not, too, the present duke's prospective offspring?"
"I'd rather have Dick Torres's little finger than the duke's whole carcase," responded Reggie dourly. "Dick may be a wild chap and a bit of a bad hat, but he has a heart. As for Sevenhills—Pheugh!"
"How does he manage without one? Physiologists say——"
"Rats! Do you know what he did once—at Searle's place in Essex?"
"He was riding one of Tommy Bray's mounts, and the horse baulked at a wall while he was piloting a girl. She laughed. He bowed to her, turned round and rode home; next day, after he'd had time to cool, mind you, he bought the horse and shot him on the spot; as beautiful a creature as ever breathed, too."
"But that isn't all. The girl who laughed at him was the daughter of a gentleman farmer, one of Searle's tenants, and pretty as a picture. Three months later she disappeared—and you can believe me or not as you like, Frank, but I saw her one night—or her ghost—with Sevenhills at a music-hall in Paris. Anyhow she died there, and her brother is bringing up the child. It killed her father."
"That is a very ugly story, Reggie, and if you take my advice you'll forget it. But I am going to get up now, so run away, like a good boy, will you."
"Where are you dining to-night? Mrs. Hammond asked me to take you round there afterwards. They, and a new American, a Miss Somers, and I are going to the Garrick, and Hammond is dying to cry off, he has found a flaw in his patent boot."
"I'll meet them at the theatre."
"Well, so long."
Gloria received me with a smile, and pointed to a chair between her own and that occupied by one of the daintiest and prettiest little women it has ever been my fortune to meet. I was late, and the play had already commenced, but Miss Somers's attention did not appear to be engrossed in it. She raised a pair of innocent blue eyes to mine and whispered: "Sir Francis Coates, are you not?"
I bowed. "And you are Miss Somers?"
"You can talk to me if you like," she murmured, leaning back. "I have seen this piece twice already in New York."
I softly rearranged my position in the shadows of the box, and, in the act, encountered Reggie's glance fixed upon me with a hostile scowl. That young man apparently considers that he has a right to monopolise female loveliness wherever found. And he should have been thinking of another woman, too, if only for the sake of constancy.
"My first visit to London," communicated Miss Somers under her breath. "Mrs. Hammond is my aunt. She cabled my popper to let me come. I don't know whatever for, do you? She won't say, but it was awfully jolly of her. She's told me a lot about you, Sir Francis."
"How old are you?" I demanded, thinking very evilly of Gloria.
"Nineteen! But my! you are rude, aren't you, to ask a lady's age?"
"It is allowable when the lady is under thirty. You look much older."
"That's real nice of you. I've only had my hair up three months. Don't you love dancing? Aunt is going to give me a ball, and invite all the swells she knows. You'll come, of course. She thinks no end of you, though she says you are a bit of a devil. You don't look it, though. Shall I keep you a waltz?"
"Doris, dear," muttered Gloria, whose sense of hearing is acute. "Sir Francis may wish to see the play."
"That means I am making myself conspicuous," explained Miss Somers. "The lecture she has given me already on that subject! But it's no use. I always do exactly what I want, except when I forget. Have you got a motor car?"
"What a pity! I did so want to go for a blow to-morrow morning, and auntie has only horses. You couldn't hire one, could you?"
"What time will you be ready?"
"Nine-thirty. You're a real dear. Let me drive it, won't you?"
"Do you believe in love at first sight?"
"There's a boy in the box opposite who has never taken his eyes off me. I'm mad to meet him. Do look and see if you know him."
I glanced across the stage, and bowed to Helen Fortescue. The Duke of Sevenhills sat beside her aunt, and Miss Somers's staring 'boy' was Bertie Haldom.
"His name is Haldom," I whispered. "But don't encourage him, unless you happen to be a millionaire, for he hasn't much money, and he is fascinatingly extravagant."
"Is he a lord?"
"That settles it, then. He's a real rude boy, don't you think?"
"He is only twenty-one."
"Who is the beautiful girl you bowed to?"
"Miss Fortescue; the Duke of Sevenhills, to whom she is shortly to be married, is the other man in the box."
"He looks like a duke, too. What a noble face! My land, she's lucky, if you like."
"You are ambitious, I perceive."
"I'm able to be. They call my popper the railway king. But Lord knows what will become of me, I'm always falling in love. There was the sweetest man, an officer on the boat coming over. But those horrid ship rules! We nearly passed away. He daren't speak to me, you see. You'll think I'm one of those awful American girls, Sir Francis?"
"Aren't you just a little hard on your countrywomen, Miss Somers," I asked quietly, looking into her eyes as I spoke.
She went scarlet, then lily white, and, turning away, she stared for several minutes dumbly at the stage. I felt sorry for her, it is true, nevertheless she needed such a lesson thoroughly.
As soon as the curtain fell I pleaded some excuse and left the theatre, followed by a mock furious glance from Gloria. Promptly at the appointed hour next morn, however, I called for Miss Somers in a motor car in order to keep my promise, and as well to give her her revenge. The latter took the form of a curt intimation that she was not at home. Poor little girl! Fate had made use of her to put me in a motor car, and her reward had been a snubbing. Yet if it had possessed her with a grain of self restraint, she can scarcely be said to have been disadvantaged. Very probably she watched me drive off from her window, and salved her wounded vanity with the picture of my disappointment. The fancy crossed my mind, and I did my best to look disconsolate.
Motor cars are wonderful inventions. A more or less fantastic desire to pay a surreptitious visit to the magnificent country seat of his grace the Duke of Sevenhills possessed me, and, although it is situated nearly 40 miles from London, I lunched at the picturesque little village of Tafton, and before two o'clock I entered the castle grounds. Ten minutes later I left my car in the midst of a clump of trees some little distance from the road, at the foot of a thickly-timbered eminence. This I climbed, and, as I expected, gained from the summit a fine view of the grand Elizabethan pile which has been for centuries the home of the House of Sevenhills.
"There her life will be spent!" I muttered as I gazed upon it, and, casting myself down upon the roots of a gaunt and gnarled old oak, I gave myself up a voluntary prey to all the most morbid and mordant passions of the soul. I shall never hate or judge a murderer again. Face to face with despair, for hours, long hours, I was a naked savage, and knew the lust for blood. If Sevenhills had come upon me there—thank God be did not!
The fires burned out at last, leaving me the wreck and cinders of a man. And so great was my weakness that I could not spur my will to rise, and so enthralling was the lassitude that settled on my mind and limbs that I sank quite consciously at length into the sweet insensibility of sleep.
"A hundred pounds down, cash on the spot, and a thousand—afterwards——"
I rubbed my eyes, but the darkness would not lift. Then I saw the sky of stars, and understood that it was night.
The voice again: "A thousand a year, for your whole life, man. Think of it!"
"Yaas, boss," replied another voice, "but I might not live to enjoy it over long."
"Nonsense!" said the first, his tones low, but full of urgency. "You won't run a ha'porth of risk, not a ha'porth. The stuff absolutely defies detection by analysis. You read that book."
"Well, bluntly, I'm not likin' the job. The man's treated me well enough. And risk or no risk, I don't like it. Besides—how do I know you wouldn't play me up, tell me to go to the devil and shake myself, afterwards?"
"How could I, you holding my bond for the payment; don't be a fool, Jim. As for your squeamishness at this late hour, it's too sickening for anything. What does he pay you? A couple of pounds a week. Much cause you have to be grateful. Why weren't you grateful last time?"
"There's another thing, I don't like handling the pesky stuff. How am I to know it's what you say? All you're interested in is putting him to bye-bye! It may be arsenic for all I know. Then where would I be?"
I rose softly on my elbow, my heart beating painfully the while, and peering round the trunk of the oak, I made out the dim figures of two men standing within six feet of where I lay. Their faces, however, were quite indistinguishable, and so dark was the night that I could not even tell if they were short or tall.
"What rubbish you talk!" retorted the first speaker angrily. "If you were discovered, would you not denounce me? I'd rather cut my throat and be done with it than run that risk. But if you have a doubt, the least doubt, try some of the stuff upon a dog or a cat first, then watch results, and if the symptoms don't tally with what the book says, you can throw the lot into the fire, and cry the deal off, and I won't reproach you. I can't say fairer than that, can I?"
"Sounds reasonable! But—er—touchin' the hundred—cash. Got it handy?"
"Pass it over, then."
There was a momentary silence, then the first speaker, in tones of suppressed elation, said: "And here is the ourali; be careful with it, Jim. I had the devil's own job to procure it."
"Queer name it has, and that's a fact. Waal, boss, don't know we can do any more good loafin' round here. You've got to get back to London, and I've a thing or two to see to afore I turn in. If the stuff answers its helm all right you won't have to wait long afore you hear about it. He'll be comin' down to-morrow evenin' likely."
"Then I can depend upon you, Jim?"
"I guess you'll have to, boss. What else? Waal, s'long."
"Good night, Jim, and may good luck attend you! It will, I'm sure it will!"
With that they parted, and set off in opposite directions down the hill. I waited, listening breathlessly, until many minutes after their footsteps had died away into the distance, thinking, thinking. Then at last I got to my feet; but ere I had moved fifty yards from the oak tree, I stopped short, arrested by the far-heard puffing of a motor car. Struck by a thought I descended the slope as fast as I could run, and made for the little clump of trees where I had left my own machine. Within a trifling period I reached the lodge gates. They stood wide open, just as when I had entered the park, but not a glimmer of light showed in the lodge. Marvelling, I halted, struck a match, and lighted the car lamps. Then I glanced at my watch, and was astounded to find that it wanted less than five minutes to midnight. A moment later I was speeding towards London at the rate of twenty miles an hour. From the crest of the first rise I topped, I saw the light of another car some two or three miles ahead of me, that swept with a spirit-like swiftness in the direction I pursued. "That car," I muttered, "contains, I honestly believe, a man whose face it is imperative that I should see."
Which said, I put the machine at full speed, and soon the wind began to shrill past me with the fury of a hurricane. My star, however, was not in the ascendant. For perhaps a quarter of an hour, a speed was maintained that matched the fierce impatience of my mood. But then, without warning, the violence of the gale diminished; it blew but a capful of wind. Seconds later a stiff breeze, then, alas, a zephyr. With a gasp of rage I stooped to see what ailed the machinery, and then came the end. I must have interfered unwittingly with the steering gear, for, almost on the same instant, the car swung round and collided with a lamp-post in a village street. I have a vivid recollection of sailing like a bird through space in the manner of a tumbler pigeon, for some little way, then of falling with a stunning shock to earth. Unhappily, I was no Antaeus, and where I fell I lay, until I was found and picked up by a good Samaritan.
I OPENED my eyes, gasped, and sat up. "Phew! Nitrate of Amyl!" I panted. "Take the internal stuff away! Where am I?"
A bright-looking young man, with a kindly face and very bald head, answered the question. "You are in my house. I am Dr. Marsh, of Stayneton. I found you lying on the road not far from here, when returning from a sick call early this morning. You have had a nasty fall, and it was difficult to bring you to your senses. You had better lie down again. But first drink this."
I drained the glass he offered me, then followed his advice. The room was evidently a dispensary, being fitted up with phial-covered shelves. The furniture, however, was cheap and shoddy. The doctor was plainly not a rich man. I glanced dazedly about me, then blinked at the sunlight streaming through an open window.
"Your car has been badly damaged, I'm afraid," said the doctor. "Do you recollect how the accident occurred?"
"I remember that I ran into a lamp-post, but how I did it I do not know. What time is it, doctor?"
"Almost noon. Sir Francis."
"You know me?" I demanded in astonishment.
"I took the liberty of examining your pockets in order to try and discover your identity, for I began to think that you had sustained a severe concussion, in which case it might have been necessary to communicate with your friends."
"Quite right, doctor. But I'm not badly hurt, am I? I feel rather weak, of course, but——"
"No bones are broken, Sir Francis. You have a nasty little scalp wound, though, and you are a good deal shaken and bruised. If you will be advised by me, you will lie up for a few days. I could easily accommodate you, if——"
"Thanks awfully," I interrupted. "But such a thing is quite out of the question. I have some important business to attend to, almost at once. Can you tell me how far Tafton Castle is from here?"
"About eleven miles."
"Humph! I must get there somehow, by this evening. Are there conveyances for hire in Stayneton?"
"I much fear there are not. Nor do I use a trap myself. I ride upon my rounds. Stayneton is such a very small place, you know."
"Could I hire a horse, then, do you think?"
"I doubt if you would be strong enough to ride so far, even if you could."
"I must, I tell you, and you must help me. One reason of my weakness is that I have fasted for more than four and twenty hours."
"Good heavens!" cried the doctor. "No wonder you are weak. I'll see to this at once, if you will excuse me," and he left the room.
Half an hour later I discussed a bowl of beef tea, and it was wonderful how much stronger the vile stuff made me feel. The doctor, however, insisted upon my lying down again afterwards, and he promised, if I would rest for an hour or two, to himself see about procuring me a horse.
Strange to say, I almost immediately fell asleep, and when I again awoke, I found beside the sofa a small table set with a comfortable meal of roast fowl and a bottle of claret.
"I hated to arouse you," said the doctor, "but since your business is urgent and Tafton Castle is so far away——"
"You are an angel," I cried delightedly. "And I must be better, for I am as hungry as a hunter. Have I slept long?"
"It is just four o'clock."
I sat up and at once attacked the fowl. The doctor opened the wine and filled two glasses.
"I have obtained a good, quiet cob for you," he observed. "It will be here in a few minutes. Your good health, Sir. Francis."
"To you!" I replied—"and a thousand thanks."
"Will you be returning this way?"
"Probably not, doctor."
"What about your motor car, then? It is in my back yard."
"If you can give it room until I send for it I shall be tremendously obliged."
"Certainly—but pray excuse me for a moment; I hear the bell."
As soon as he had gone, I took out my pocket book and extracted therefrom two ten pound notes. These I slipped into an envelope which I found on the doctor's desk, and returned somewhat unsteadily, truth to tell, to the sofa.
Presently my kind host reappeared.
"A sick call?" I asked.
"No," he answered, with a rather wintry smile, "only the postman with a bill. Stayneton is a very healthy place, Sir Francis. Quite too healthy for two of the sawbone persuasion to make a living in, I fear."
"Have you been here long?"
"Funds running low?" He colored to the neck.
"My dear Sir Francis!"
"Forgive me," I interrupted quietly. "I am surprised at my own impertinence. May I beg of you to do me a trifling favor?"
"Then go out and see carefully to my horse's girths. I do not wish to risk a second accident."
He bowed and departed. A few seconds later I was seated at his desk writing out a cheque for a hundred pounds. It was the first real pleasure I had yet tasted in being rich; and I enjoyed the experience so much that I felt ready to repeat it on the smallest provocation.
"I think I can promise you that your saddle will not slip," said the doctor, re-entering the room.
I nodded, and poured out the last of the wine into my glass. Then I drank it off and stood up. "How much do I owe you, doctor?" I demanded.
"One guinea," he answered promptly, "but as I am responsible for the hire of your horse perhaps you had better pay me that amount as well. It will be a pound."
"That makes two pounds one shilling. Well, I am prepared to pay you a further ninety-seven pounds nineteen shillings, if you will allow me to pick the pockets of a portion of your medical experience."
"I scarcely understand you," he said, looking rather startled.
"I am in desperate need of information as to the action and effects of a certain drug."
"Its name is ourali."
Dr. Marsh shook his head. "It is by no mean woorali, otherwise curari," he exclaimed.
"Very probably. What is it?"
"It is a resinous extract which the South American Indians prepare from the bark of certain trees of the genus strychnos."
"Strychnos—that sounds like strychnine. Is this woorali a poison, then?"
"It depends upon how it is administered. It is more or less innocuous if swallowed, but if introduced directly into the blood it proves quickly fatal, causing a paralysis analogous to the effect produced by the bite of certain snakes. The Indians use it to poison their arrow heads."
"Most interesting," I commented, "And, now, one last question, doctor. Supposing that a man were scratched by a needle so poisoned——"
"He would die," he interrupted.
"Quite so—but I take it that a post mortem examination would reveal the cause of death."
Dr. Marsh shook his head. "It is by no means certain, Sir Francis. I have personally never encountered a case of woorali poisoning, therefore cannot speak with authority; but the drug is practically unknown in England, except in name, and, moreover, the text-books state that the symptoms are indistinguishable from other forms of acute paralysis."
"Thank you, doctor. That is all I wished to know, and I am immensely obliged to you for your opinion. Here is my cheque."
He took the paper and stared at it blankly for a moment; then looked up at me. "I cannot accept this, you know, Sir Francis," he said quietly. "I fancied you were jesting. The amount is preposterous. I have done nothing to earn a twentieth part of such a sum."
"Pardon me," I rejoined with a smile, "you have probably helped to save a fellow-creature's life."
"You could have obtained the information I gave you from any medical dictionary."
"And while searching for the dictionary—but there—I have no right to be more explicit. Nevertheless, you can rest satisfied, doctor, that from my point of view I am still deeply in your debt. And I assure you that I shall be much hurt if you persist in refusing to accept a fee—the amount of which you will remember was stipulated before I consulted you."
"How—how can I?" he stammered, blushing like a school girl.
"Easily," I laughed. "Put it in your pocket and help me to my horse!"
"I know how you feel, very well," I interjected. "I was a fool myself once. But I always did penance for my folly afterwards, and so will you—if you elect to offend a man who wishes you well. Kindly give me your arm!"
The poor young fellow meekly obeyed, but he looked entirely miserable, and when I mounted the stout old cob he had provided, I saw that the cheque was still in his hand, and that he still doubted what to do with it. "Enough of that nonsense," I observed severely. "Comfort yourself this evening with the reflection that I did not make it two hundred, for in a day or two that circumstance will constitute your chief regret!"
Our eyes met, and in spite of himself he smiled. "I entertained an angel unawares," he muttered. "I shall never forget your generosity, Sir Francis, never."
"Oh, rats!" I retorted rudely, and forthwith rode away.
At the instance of a raging headache, which every jar and jog most painfully affected. I was obliged to proceed so slowly that it was half-past seven o'clock when I reached the castle. Fortunately I found a groom on the terrace, who helped me to alight and subsequently led away my horse. The footman, who opened to my ring, informed me that the duke had just arrived from London, and that he was at that moment dressing for dinner. I slipped a sovereign into the fellow's palm with my card, and he ushered me, all cringing obsequiousness, into an exquisitely appointed little smoking room. "I must see his grace at once," I muttered. "A matter of life and death. Here, my man," and I gave him another sovereign. Then I poured myself out a stiff nip of whisky and soda, and sank down with a sigh of intense relief into a luxurious arm-chair. Five minutes later the curtains defending the doorway parted, and Sevenhills entered the room.
"My dear Sir Francis," he exclaimed, then, remarking my pale face and bandaged skull. "What? An accident! I beg of you not to rise," and, coming quickly forward, he pressed me gently back into my chair. There is this much to be said for the duke, I have always found him the very soul of courtesy.
"I was pitched out of a motor car some hours ago," I explained, "and, to be candid, I am not feeling extra fit. I wonder might I trespass on you for a bed to-night."
"Trespass! My dear Sir Francis, I feel vastly honored at the opportunity to entertain you. One moment——" and he moved towards the bell.
But I raised my hand. "Wait!" I cried. "Business first, if you please, duke."
"Business!" He raised his eyebrows.
"I know you hate the word, or affect to hate it," I retorted truculently. "Nevertheless, conventional hypocrisy apart, you surely cannot imagine that my call has any social significance."
"Your accident—your necessity?"
"Rubbish! Had I no quid pro quo to offer you I would father nurse my bruises on the road. Moreover, Tafton has an inn."
"It pleases you to dislike me."
"You flatter yourself, meglomaniac that you are; I detect and despise you."
His eyes glinted for a second, but his composure remained undisturbed, and his voice was positively deprecating as he replied: "I am more unfortunate than I had supposed."
"You compel me to admire you—in one respect at least," I unwillingly admitted. "Your self-control is wonderful. Have you a revolver?"
He started slightly, and looked me straight in the eye. "A peculiar question," he observed.
"Circumstances justify me in propounding it. May I request you to close that door?"
"And those circumstances?" he asked, returning.
"I have reason to believe that there is a plot afoot to murder you, and immediately!"
"I have a revolver, Sir Francis!"
"Get it, then."
He crossed the room and unlocked the drawer of a cabinet. When he turned he held a small Smith and Wesson in his hand.
"Loaded?" I inquired.
"In every chamber."
"Give it to me!"
He unhesitatingly obeyed, and once more I was obliged to admire the man. His hand was as steady as a rock, and on his face was an amused smile. Yet I knew that he believed me thoroughly, for his eyes were alert and serious. I put the pistol in my pocket, and sipped at my whisky and soda.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"You must let me manage this affair in my own way. I hold all the cards," I observed, putting down the glass.
"I am sure that you will execute your self-appointed task efficiently," he replied politely. "But you can understand that I am curious."
"That is only natural. For my part, however, I should be so honestly rejoiced to see you dead that my sympathies are on the side of your would-be executioners. You must wait. Meanwhile——"
"Meanwhile, Sir Francis, had you not better examine your conscience? Are you not overtaxing your strength in—er—thus——?"
"Perhaps," I interrupted. "God knows. It is a risk you will have to run, however, for my mind is utterly resolved."
He bowed ironically. "Well?"
"I have some questions yet to ask."
"Have you a servant who speaks with a strong American accent and clips his final g's?"
"Yes, my butler, Evans."
"Ah! And how long has he been in your service?"
"About two years."
"Do you know anything about him?"
"Very little. I picked him up at 'Frisco while on a yachting trip. My head steward died on the voyage out, and had to be replaced. Evans was recommended to me by a club acquaintance. I found him a thoroughly capable man, and when I finally gave up my yacht, some twelve months ago, I offered him a berth here, which he accepted. Is he in the plot?"
"I am not sure."
A knock at that moment sounded on the door, which opened, and a voice announced: "Dinner is served, your grace!"
"You will join me?" suggested the duke.
I nodded and arose. "Will Evans wait?" I asked in an underbreath.
"It is barely possible that there has been a death at the castle since yesterday—of a dog, or some other animal," I whispered. "Question Evans about the health of your pets, will you?"
The duke took my arm and led me with the utmost solicitude from the library into the dining room. I felt so tottery that I was almost grateful for the service.
The table was laid for two. I glanced questioningly at my host. He smiled. "I took it for granted that you would honor, me—so far," he said.
I bowed, and sat down. A deft hand shot out from behind my chair and abstracted the sliver cover from a plate before me. The latter contained a steaming mushroom on a square of toast. Looking up I saw a young-old man glide around the table and perform a similar office for the duke. His hair was grey, but his face was not disfigured with a single wrinkle. It was otherwise disfigured, however, for the scar of what might have been a sword cut ran across one cheek from chin to temple. His eyes were small, and black, and glittering; his eyebrows met above them in a thick line of hair; his lips were thin; his jaw was broad and brutal.
"That's the man," I said in my thoughts, and I began to eat.
"All well in the Castle, Evans?" asked the duke.
"Yaas, your grace."
It was one of the voices I had heard planning the duke's or somebody's extinction, and instinctively my right hand sought the revolver in my pocket; next second, however, I smiled at the impulse and went on eating.
"Bosco and Bonanza did not meet me as usual," said the duke.
"I hed to have them hounds chained while the workmen wuz here, grace," explained Evans. "They tried to eat up one uv the upholsterers. Hope I wuz right to chain 'em, grace."
"Quite right, Evans. And how are the dachshund puppies getting on?"
"First rate, grace, barrin Sambo, he's bin a bit sick fer a day or two."
"And the St. Bernards?"
"All well, grace."
"Waal, grace, the master did tell me that old Coonamble got sorter paralysed this mornin'. An' I haven't heard since how he's got on. He's very old."
"Find out for me, Evans, at once, will you? I'd hate to lose that dog, I've had him ten years."
Evans left the room, and the duke turned to me. "Well, Sir Francis?"
"Excellently well, duke! Did you observe how the information had to be dragged from the fellow. And what stress he laid on the pointer's age?"
"Coonamble is a very old dog, Coates."
"Was, duke, he is dead now."
"You are strangely confident. What hangs on that point?"
The duke raised his glass: "Your health, Coates!"
I nodded and drained my own.
"You might return the compliment," suggested my host, refilling my glass as he spoke.
"Your life," I replied, and drank to the toast.
The duke went just a shade paler than was his wont. A second afterwards he bit his lips and muttered earnestly: "If I appear impatient, or ungrateful for the interest you take in me, pray acquit me of the least intention to be disagreeable. You must be aware, Coates, that your attitude would try the temper of a saint."
"Understand, once for all," I replied, "that I am not ill pleased by your impatience. As for your gratitude, pouf! But here is Evans!"
The man's eyes were glittering like beads of jet. "Sorry, grace, he's dead," he announced. "It was a fit, the master says. They sent for the vet., but it was all over in half an hour!"
At the fellow spoke, he fingered, perhaps unconsciously, the lapel of his coat. Something black and beady, like his eyes, flashed beneath his thumb.
"The head of a hatpin," I guessed, and suddenly inspired, I cried aloud: "The pin, Evans! The very pin that killed Coonamble," and I pointed at his hand.
He betrayed himself by a change of color, and an irrepressible ejaculation of surprise, but before he could move a muscle I had him covered with the duke's revolver.
"Duke," said I, "kindly close the door. Evans, if you wink an eyelid, you are a corpse."
The duke, pale, but admirably calm, arose from his seat and did my bidding. "Now stand beside the bell; keep your finger on the button!" I commanded.
The duke obeyed.
I watched Evans narrowly. His face had become blotched; there were patches of red and white and purple over it, and he was beginning to shake.
"That pin, Evans!" I said quietly.
"See—he-he-here—mister——" he began, quavering and stammering as if he had an ague.
"Silence! That pin," I repeated. "Hurry!"
He drew the pin front his coat. It was about four inches long.
"Point downwards in the table, Evans. Slowly does it—no tricks if you want to live. I'm a dead shot, man!"
He came forward step by step, eyeing me like a charmed bird, until only the table separated us. Then he stuck the pin perpendicularly into the board, through the damask cover.
"Got any more pins?" I asked.
"Well, out with the woorali, then."
He went absolutely livid, and for a second I thought he would risk a bullet. But the hollow muzzle, scarce four feet from his heart, froze his courage. "I d-d-on't know what you mean," he whined.
"I'll count four, and then shoot you like a dog—unless——" I replied, and I began to count: "One—two—th——"
But Evans, chalk-white, threw up the sponge before I could articulate the 'three.' "I pass!" he gasped. "Don't shoot! Here it is!" and he thrust his hand into his breast pocket.
"Beside the pin, Evans!"
It was a small bottle half-filled with a dark colored sticky fluid like tar. Evans forthwith began to bluster. "And what if it is poison! You can't prove nothin' against me for all your bloomin' cleverness. Guess there's no law against a man carryin'——"
"Silence, you scoundrel!" I cried angrily. "You are speaking to a man who overheard every word that passed between you and your brother dastard last night, by the oak tree on the hill yonder!"
"Yes, I heard you agree to murder your master for a consideration of a thousand a year. And that reminds me—the bond! Produce the bond, Evans!"
But Evans, trembling like an aspen leaf, fell on his knees. "I'll—I'll turn King's evidence," he stuttered. "It wasn't me—so help me God—it wasn't. I never intended to—Mr. Torres wanted me to—but I never would. I never had it in my mind. The duke's bin too kind a master for me to ever think of such a thing. I'm tellin' yer the truth—God's own truth. See here, mister—if you don't believe me——"
"The bond!" I interrupted sharply. "The bond!"
He tore a paper from his pocket and offered it to me. I bent forward to receive it, and he sprang at my throat, but I had been expecting an attack, and with all my force I thrust the pistol in his face. Next instant he sprawled, an inert mass, across my knees and rolled thence, senseless and bathed in blood; with a low thud to the floor. I unsteadily arose and unfolded the paper he had given me. It was ornamented with two seals; also a signature.
"Richard Torres," said the duke's voice from behind my shoulder. I permitted him to take the paper from my hands, and thankfully resumed my chair. I was much shaken by the scuffle, short as it had been, and I felt as weak as a child.
It took two glasses of champagne even partially to tranquilise my jangling nerves, and I was pouring out a third when the duke's hand fell upon my wrist.
"Softly, lad," he murmured. "There is much to be done yet."
"The rest is for you," I snapped, and shook off his grasp.
"Will you not help me?"
"Only with advice."
"I shall be very thankful for that."
"Ring for a cat, then, and test that pin."
"Is it necessary?"
"For our peace of mind."
The duke bowed and left the room. Ten minutes later he returned, carrying a basket. At my request he locked the door behind him. "A rabbit," he said quietly. "I am fond of cats."
Evans uttered, a low groan and sat up. I pointed with the pistol to a chair. There was no need of words; Evans understood at once, and obeyed. The duke presently put down the basket and returned to the table. "Let me help you to some soup," he said. "It is cold, I am afraid."
I nodded and began to eat. It was rather amusing being waited upon by a duke. Next he divided a partridge, at the waggon, and brought me the choicest part.
"You have lost your appetite?" I asked.
"The son of my sister is a murderer," he muttered.
I had not suspected him of such susceptibility, but it only made me hate him more.
"You'll presently be able to add a gibbet to your quarterings," I scorned.
He started back as though I had struck him, then, to my amazement, he thrust a clenched fist in my face.
"Take care!" he grated through his teeth.
"Another jibe like that, and I'll not be answerable for the consequences. Insult me as much as you please, but let my tree alone!"
"So that touched you!" I cried, and fell back in my chair, convulsed with laughter. A devil looked at me through the duke's eyes, but recklessly I mocked him. "Your tree!" I jeered. "Its every limb is hung with parasites, and the parent trunk is like that octopus Australian growth the native fig, which fastens in the seedling stage on nobler trees—around whose stem and limbs it wraps its tentacles, sucking out the sap until the victim's very life is strangled at its fount. Your tree——"
"Coates," cried the duke in a tone of agony, "you are my guest!"
I shrugged my shoulders. "A threat and then a whine! Well, have your way. Pax for the present."
I returned to the partridge, and watched Evans while I ate. The man looked sick and horrible. His nose was broken, I fancy, and he vainly tried to staunch the flow of blood. He was talking to himself all the while in underbreath, protesting the purity of his intentions, and abhorring the dreadful wickedness of Mr. Torres. Never lived a more uninteresting scoundrel. The duke paced the floor, his hands tightly clasped beneath his coat tails; his chin sunk upon his chest.
I put down my knife and fork at last, and lighted a cigarette, but it would not draw. The air seemed charged with some baleful sort of electricity, and my head ached for relief from pain like the devil for a cup of water.
I tried to read the duke's thoughts, but failed. His lips were twitching, and his whole face worked. There passed a mauvais quatre d'heure, and then the duke halted before the chair upon which rested the basket.
He opened the lid, and took out the rabbit. It was dead.
"Poor bunny!" I observed.
The duke stood marble still for the space of half a minute, staring dumbly at his butler. Then, quite suddenly, he exploded. What thought had acted as a spark to fire that ice-bound magazine? His eyes blazed, his face went purple with passion. "You hound!" he cried; and hurled the dead rabbit at the head of Evans. Evans ducked, the rabbit struck the back of his chair, then slithered limply down the woodwork until it rested upon the ruffian's neck. I fell back, shaking and almost helpless with laughter. Evans writhed away from the rabbit, and stood up—showing all his teeth in a snarling grin; desperate as a cornered rat. The duke crossed the room in three strides, unlocked and tore open the door.
"Go!" he muttered horsely. "Go!"
Evans, dizzy with surprise no doubt, tottered forward for a step or two, then, with a loud gasp, getting back his breath and strength, he fled.
The door banged, and the duke, pallid, but once more composed, came forward to confront me.
"YOU ARE astonished, Coates, to learn the sort of fool I am," he said.
I shook my head. "No—only to hear you admit it."
He winced, then forced a smile. "You have compounded a felony," I observed.
"Have I? What does it matter. Noblesse oblige. I can neither prosecute my sister's son nor his confederate."
"But you should not do things by halves, duke. Take my advice and pay your blackguardly young nephew's debts."
"And make him an allowance."
"Quite so; of course, conditional on his leaving England. I shall write to him to-morrow."
"Bis dat qui cito dat. It is to be hoped that he will appreciate his Christian uncle's magnanimity."
"My motives are purely selfish."
"What utter nonsense! You are quite a good sort of chap at bed-rock, duke. Diffidence alone prevents you from telling me outright that you intend to break off your marriage with Miss Fortescue."
"You are mistaken," he retorted stiffly. "Such an idea has never entered my mind."
"Oh, no, I am not. I am laughing at you, mentally."
"You are a bitter young brute, Coates. I scarcely know how to regard you."
"My opinion of your grace is formed, but it is quite unfit for publication."
He bit his lips. "Why did you save my life?" he asked between his teeth.
"It was not because I like you."
"You must solve the riddle for yourself."
"I am grateful," he declared. "Whatever your reason, I am grateful."
"Oh! How much?"
"Five and twenty thousand pounds."
"Give it to the poor."
"You have made my life a hell!" he cried. "You have robbed me of my self-respect."
"Its last dishevelled shred, you mean. But why not try a new brand? There are plenty of women in the world."
"There is only one—and you know it."
"Upon my soul, duke, if I did not thoroughly believe you to be incapable of a single selfless sentiment I should suspect you of—caring for—Miss Fortescue."
He threw back his head and looked me in the eyes. "Your judgment is not always quite infallible!" he sneered.
"God in heaven!" I cried. "You—"
"I love her," he answered simply. "She is the only woman I have ever loved."
"And yet—the other night—I found you——"
"Coates, I give you my word of honor as a man that no other woman's lips have touched mine since I became affianced to Miss Fortescue. I have my code. It may not be as definite as yours, but it is clean within its limits."
"I shall marry her."
"She loves me."
"I know it."
"A little while ago you kissed her. She felt stained."
"I shall marry her," he repeated, smiling like a mandarin.
"You poor man," I murmured pityingly; "of the three of us you will perhaps be the happiest. But that is not saying much. Show me to my room, will you, and send for a doctor. I am going to be ill, very ill, I am afraid."
And I was right. Within the hour I lay helpless in the grip of meningitis, deliriously babbling all my secrets to the bed-post.
I remember one dream very perfectly. I stood beside another sick-bed in the large single room of a small log cabin. A log and peat fire was blazing in the big, open fireplace, but down the chimney ever and anon, fell sodden, soot-stained streams of sleet, and snow, whereon the flames hissed and spluttered, and sometimes almost were extinguished. Strange fern patterns wrought in ice were frosted on the mica window panes, making an effective curtain from the dark without; and despite the fire the beaten earthen floor was cold; cold as charity. The very marrow in my bones ached with the cold; and the sick man lying on the bed shivered in spasms, shaking the furs that covered him. He seemed to be a Russian, and a gentleman. He clutched to his breast a large bronze crucifix, and his eyes—wild and blood-shot eyes they were—rolled ceaselessly as he muttered through his beard into the ear of a dark-clad, cassocked figure what must have been the history of his failures and his sins. His brow was broad and noble, and his nose was straight and strong. I felt that he was suffering, and I pitied him; dying, and I envied him. And then I heard him say, in Russ, these words:—
"And all has been useless, father, all in vain; the pain, the sacrifice, the long, long years of strife and agony, of hope and fear, of doubt and of despair. I am dying in Saghalien, unremembered and forsaken, my work frustrated utterly, my mission unachieved."
"As I, too, shall one day die, my son," replied the deep musical and well remembered tones of Father Constantine. "But be of good cheer, prince, you have carried out the task allotted you to the limit of your strength. God sees, and will requite your sufferings."
"Dust and ashes are my dreams, father. I have asked myself of late if God's justice may not also be a dream."
"Blaspheme not, my son, nor seek to reckon with the Infinite. Who knows but that which we consider failure is success? The end is not revealed to us."
"Alas, father, and so little even of the means. But do not think that I repine or lack in faith. My only fear in death is this—that what I did, I did inevitably. Why, then, should I be applauded or rewarded? I but followed my bent, and am no more responsible because it led me into paths approved by conscience than any criminal might be whose savage impulses impelled him into deeds of inhumanity and violence!"
Father Constantine uttered a deep sigh and rose up from his knees. He turned his sad and beautiful old face to the fire-light, and I marvelled to see how thin and pale it had become.
"These are God's deepest mysteries," he said at length, "the passions which he implants in the hearts of men. In some the desire of the divine, in others self-worship and the hatred of other things more beautiful. We see and wonder, those of us who love virtue, and we learn thereby to forgive our fellows—but none of us can understand. It must be that we are not meant to understand."
"But you believe, my father?—what is it that you believe?"
"I believe, my son, that God loves equally the best and worst of us; and, although it is not in the Holy Church's teaching, I believe that those whom we consider evil men will ultimately be induced—perhaps in other lives—to work out their redemption through God's love, made manifest in man's affection."
"A blessed creed," sighed the sick man, "a creed that has no room for hell and soul damnation."
"Ah!" said the priest, "if I had ever believed otherwise, I should have ruled my life so differently, for I should have subordinated everything to the winning of my heart's desire."
The sick man uttered a groan. "She died when I was young," he said.
"She died when I was young," echoed the priest; and his face went grey. "She died to me," he added in an underbreath.
Then Father Constantine looked up and gazed into my eyes, and all my dream was thrilled with the conviction that he saw me, knew that I was there. "But there are better things in this world and the hereafter than gaining the heart's desire," he said in low, deep, solemn tones.
And I awoke.
I was lying in my bed-room, in my own little house at St. John's Wood. Gloria Hammond, looking, ah! so sad and pale, was seated in an arm-chair by a table, close at hand, gazing into the glowing heart of a banked-up fire. She wore a costume something like the costume of a nurse, and, with a queer little pang of pride and, pain, it was borne to me that she had been, perhaps for many days, my nurse.
"Dear, dear Gloria," I thought, and I tried to speak my thought aloud; to tell her how I gloried in her splendid proof of friendship. But I could not. Nor could I persuade a single muscle of my body to obey my will. An enthralling and most deadly lassitude constrained my limbs, and pressed its paralysing fingers on my every fibre. Soon, too, I felt a heavy weight upon my eyelids, and a force I could not combat pressed them slowly and inexorably shut. Then came a coldness, an icy, numbing chill more intense and piercing than the cold I had experienced in my dream, and I was helpless to withstand it, to do aught but suffer and succumb to it, and drowse and die.
Years afterwards I heard hushed voices speaking overhead. The fancy took me that I rested in my coffin underground, and that the voices reached me through the crumbling sod. But the cold had gone, and a delicious, comfortable warmth encompassed me, and soon I saw light through my heavy lids. Evidently I was still alive and unburied. I felt quietly glad to be alive and unburied. I wondered how long I might remain like that, and if my strength would ever return to me; and if I might recover, or must I go. And I wondered above all at my own indifference to anything but the fact that I was still alive and unburied. And then, quite suddenly, I paid attention to the voices. There were three Gloria's and two men's.
"It will be about six o'clock," said one of the latter. "I think he will be conscious just before the end!"
"Oh, doctor, doctor," sighed the voice of Gloria; "is there ho hope, no shadow of hope?"
There was a little silence, then the third voice, a deep-toned, consoling sort of voice, replied: "While there is life there is always hope, my dear Mrs. Hammond. But, unhappily, in this case—at least, he has done with pain; the paralysis is almost absolute."
"I shall come again—at six," said the first voice.
There followed the soft tramp of departing footfalls, and a moment later the silken crash of a despondent skirted figure sinking wearily into a chair. Then a long silence, saddened yet scarcely broken with the sound of sighs and long-drawn sobs. So I had to die, it seemed. I felt most awfully sorry for myself. All manner of stock phrases occurred to me; "Cut off in the flower of his youth." "One shall be taken and the other shall be left." "In the prime of life." "At the summons of the dark angel." "Requiescat in pace." "Of your charity pray," etc. "We know not the day nor the hour." "De mortuis nil nisi bonum." These and a hundred other such buzzed through my mind, keeping time to the tune of Gloria's muffled exclamations of regret. At first I was tremendously touched by her sorrow, but I gradually got sick of it, and I wanted to know why the deuce she should lament. It was my funeral, not hers. And I confounded her most ungratefully at least a dozen times. But at last I either lost consciousness or fell asleep, and when I awoke again someone was putting something in my mouth. I swallowed it involuntarily, and without any trouble opened my eyes. Sir James Gresham, the celebrated Court physician, was bending over me, a spoon in one hand, a basin in the other. He drew back immediately and beckoned quaintly with the spoon. Then he disappeared, and I looked into the eyes of Helen Fortescue.
"Frank!" she whispered. "Ah, Frank!"
Her cheeks were whiter than my coverlet, but purple rings subscribed her eyes. She took one of my hands and pressed it to her lips. I saw, but did not feel her kiss. My limbs seemed dead already. Beyond her stood the Duke of Sevenhills, and at the foot or the bed Gloria Hammond. I looked from one to another, marvelling at the tragic kindness of their glances. Even the duke appeared prepared to weep, and he clutched with one thin, nervous hand at his neckband, just as though it choked him. Last of all I looked at Helen, and while I looked I knew that I could speak.
"I am dying—am I not?" I asked.
"Oh, Frank!" she wailed.
"Better—no—best——" I whispered. Then all the beastly selfishness of my nature rose up to the surface—and I looked beyond her at the duke. "But don't marry him—at once," I said. "He must wait—at least, till I am cold."
The duke turned red and ashen grey, and I was glad. It was good to have even that small measure of revenge—to make him wait. "Promise me," I said.
"I promise," answered Helen, shuddering, and I saw that she was staring at the duke.
But my strength was going, and my eyes were half involuntarily closing. I made one great effort. I wanted to die dramatically. "Kiss me," I muttered.
It was the first and last time her lips touched mine. I was not so weak as I had thought, but I resolved not to open my eyes again. That seemed the proper moment to fare forth. I lay very, very still. Helen uttered one shrill cry, that shrilled through every fibre of my being; and she, too, was still. I counted ten seconds. One, two, three, to sixty; then the duke's voice, strained and husky, broke the silence.
"Helen, it is over, let us go!"
"My dear duchess," said Sir James Gresham's voice, "this is foolish—permit me——"
"Silence!" hissed Helen. "He may hear. I promised him——"
"He is dead."
"Oh, my God!" she wailed. "My God! My God! And I kissed him good-bye with a lie upon my lips!"
"Better so, dearest," sobbed Gloria. "He died happy—because of it."
And I thought to myself: "If she knew that I heard and understood, she would be ashamed, for she is Sevenhills's wife, and that must be just about as much as she can bear. But, oh, she might have waited!"
So I kept my eyes closed and pretended to be dead, and a moment later the sobbing died away into the distance, and I heard the sound of a door softly closed upon the mourners. Strange, not one of them had offered me the services of priest or parson. "Now!" thought I, "I suppose it's time to die." And I tried to pray. But just then someone put the cold surface of a stethoscope upon my side, and candor obliges me to confess that I exclaimed "Damn!" aloud.
"It is positively a miracle. A miracle and nothing less!" gasped Sir James Gresham. "I have met with nothing remotely like this in the whole course of my experience."
"It bears out my theory, Sir James, that the paralysis was produced by blood poisoning."
"Quite so, quite so." The great physician's voice was distinctly ill-humored. "Kindly take his temperature, will you!"
The other thrust a thermometer underneath my arm, while Sir James Gresham bared an ugly-looking silver needle. Raising the bed clothes from my feet, he jabbed the needle into my left calf.
"Feel anything?" he demanded, gazing curiously at me.
"I'll break your neck, you ugly brute, when I get better," I protested, in weak but wrathful spasms. Then I fainted.
WHEN I was strong enough to receive him, Hammond came to see me, laden with flowers. He shamefacedly explained Gloria's defection.
"She was quite worn out, and as soon as we were assured that the crisis had passed, I put my foot down, and made her come away," he said. I had been wondering; but I had acquired in the long waking hours of convalescence a brand new species of philosophy—not to ask questions.
It is certainly better to be sure than to be sorry, but, on the other hand, it has mostly been my experience to be sorriest when certain. The fact is, the older philosophy of the proverb is based upon an impudent assumption; for who will deny that doubt, of whatever nature, is preferable to distasteful certainty. Hammond wrung my hand at parting and muttered, with moist eyes, "I wish to heaven I had let you have that money, Coates."
"So do I," I answered, and he left me looking so miserable that I felt I should have either lied or kept silent.
Reggie Horne was the next; as sleek and breezy a Reggie as I remember.
"What ho! she bumps!" he genially remarked. "Frank, you are as thin as a lath and as grey as a badger. You must buck up! I've called almost every day, but they'd never let me over the door-mat till now. Trevellian is married to the Broomfield girl. Searle has been 'broke' from the Seventh. Dick Torres has gone to Australia. Jack Haynes is engaged to a chorus girl. Huxham has been appointed to the Cabinet, and my old uncle has had the decency to double my allowance. That's all the news, I fancy. How are you?"
"First rate. And getting stronger every second," I responded, lazily. "Ring for drinks and sit down."
But Reggie was already half through a tour of the walls. "Hullo!" he presently exclaimed, and stopped stock still before the portrait of a lady.
"Never saw that one before," he grumbled. "Flatters her. Why d'ye keep it, Frank? Have burned all mine."
"Just so—but you were in love with her, my son."
"Ancient history," he retorted, with a careless hand wave, still, however, staring at the portrait. "Lord, what eyes she has. You should have been at her wedding, Frank."
"Oh, I forgot—you were ill; just taken bad, weren't you? It's so long ago. Three months! A regular lifetime. We all thought she would faint, and she was rouged—thick, there now!"
"Disenchanted me, anyhow. Hate a girl who paints her face. The duke has sold his old town house, and they have rented a mansion in the Lane. All London goes. I was there last night."
"Your sweet nature, Reggie, needs no advertisement. I felt that you would visit them."
"Oh!" he said with an airy shoulder shrug. "Helen and I are friends. Can't stand the duke, though. Never could and never shall be able to. His patronising ways are simply insufferable."
"I have always considered his manner most old-worldly and distinguished."
"Bores me. Bores his wife, too, if I am any judge. Anyway, she is gay as gay."
"Spare me your scandal, my son."
"Have none to spare you in this instance. She is one of your marble-hearted, statue sort of women."
He left the portrait, rang the bell, then sat astride a chair before me.
"Am going to marry," he announced.
"Do you remember the pretty little American girl we met in Mrs. Hammond's box at the Gaiety Theatre last time I saw you?"
"Perfectly. Miss Somers."
"I congratulate you heartily, my son."
"She's a darling, and she has fifteen thousand pounds a year!"
"That's how my old uncle came to increase my screw."
"May his shadow never grow less."
"Hold on! My fiancée is aching to be a countess."
"May the next frost despatch him then," I answered agreeably, and with a wink and a nod, Reggie poured himself out a three finger nip, under Taukis' stern and condemnatory regard. Taukis was a devout Mohammedan.
"To her beaux yeux," said Reggie, holding up his glass.
"To your joint and several happiness," I responded.
Reggie drank and rose. "Frank," said he, "it is my duty to inform you that you are wasting, have wasted, the best years of your life. Selfish and callous old bachelor that you are fast becoming, you don't guess what you miss. But take my word for it, misogynists are madmen. One only begins to live when one loves. Follow my example. Fall in love, marry, and settle down!"
"There's no then. That's all."
"The settling down of your prescription. Men are not machines!"
"Oh—ah—enter Parliament, I suppose—and look after posterity, and all that sort of thing." He positively blushed.
"And die at last in the odors of scantity?"
"Well, why not?" said Reggie, stoutly.
"And go to heaven?"
"You bet," he glanced at me and shivered, "Some day or other," he muttered.
"What a beautifully simple plan," I commented gently. "I wish I could adopt it, Reggie."
"Why can't you?"
"To me life appears too mysterious and complicated an affair to be unravelled by a rule, or by a dozen rules."
"Depends on the liver," Reggie observed profoundly. "Mine must be a beauty. It has never troubled me. You'll be my best man, of course?"
"I shall be delighted!"
"Thanks. Well, I guess I'll be going. I promised to take her out motoring to-day. See you soon again."
Then came Gloria; exquisitely dressed, she floated to my couch on rustling silken billows, her whole face beaming, both her hands outstretched.
"Oh! Frank, the fright you gave us all!" she cried, an honest quiver in her voice. "You bad man—you had every right to die. What did you mean by it? How dared you?"
'"Don't reproach me, Gloria," I protested. "The consciousness that I have transgressed all the canons of art by my recovery is sufficiently oppressive. Moreover, your nursing must, to a great extent, have been responsible."
"How manly and magnificent of you to blame me. You ought to be ashamed!"
"How I must have disappointed you!"
"Well—truly—I was shocked."
"Do you think I ought to suicide?"
She sat down and appeared to give the matter careful thought. "You will have to do something," she replied at last, "you look too terribly interesting with your young-old face and snow-white hair. Sir James said it was the blood-poisoning did that, but who could blame her for refusing to believe it."
"There are only two women in the universe. Frank, dear—she and I, and I said 'her!'"
"Should we discuss her, Gloria?"
"Should we ignore her? She is. And you are."
"Yes, but she belongs. And Sevenhills is, as you phrase it, too."
"As a man of the world, I ask you, Frank, to put it to yourself——"
"Are you her ambassadress?" I Interrupted.
"Don't be foolish, dear."
"Well, tell me what you think."
"You should either make up your mind to take a wife, or leave England at once, without seeing her."
"You have a good reason?"
"And I shall tell it to you without the least reserve, Frank, for you are one of my beliefs. She is miserable and she cannot cry."
"She always despised tears."
"You under-rate her strength of will, and mine too, Gloria. Besides, we need not meet. I am thinking, too, of Parliament."
Gloria pursed her lips.
"Love is the only guarantee of any woman's fidelity," she muttered. "Don't remark that the man may be relied upon, or I shall hate you for a conceited prig!"
"I shall only venture to remind you that the fight was fought and won long years since."
"Marry, then, at least!" she pleaded.
"And lose the only other one—my friend?"
She heaved a sigh. "You compel me to trust you, Frank, but listen—if ever you disappoint me——"
"You will add this sin to your full score—you will be a thief of faith. I could not forgive you ever, here or afterwards."
"Agreed; but trust her too, Gloria; she is more worthy it, a thousand times, than I."
And Gloria bent over me with a look such as I remember to have once seen upon my long dead mother's face, and she kissed me gently on the brow.
We met in a crush at the Barcombe's place in Kensington. If I had known, perhaps—but there, in some things we are all fatalists. She was dressed in ivory satin with red roses in her hair. She held a flimsy little ivory fan in her right hand, and I watched it bend, then splinter, half concealed beneath her cloak, as an unpremeditated movement of the crowd brought us inevitably together in the hall before the stairs.
"What a crush!" was my brilliant method of informing her that we were not alone.
She looked at me through half-closed lids, and truly enough her cheeks were rouged. Her eyes smiled, mocking at all things in heaven and earth, above all at herself; her lips were humorously curved, and her tout-ensemble of expression hauntingly expressed the marriage of the mask of comedy with melancholia.
"This is only one of the side-stations on a very long railway line," she murmured. "But, for just an instant, I thought it was a terminus."
"Travellers get lost who make mistakes like that," I said.
"Sometimes," she agreed, and smiled again.
Then the crowd thinned, and we bowed to one another. She went upstairs, and I—I breakfasted next day in Paris.
Seventeen months later, a marked copy of "The Times," that had followed me round half the world, performed the feat of overtaking me at Buenos Ayres. It contained an account of the sudden death from heart failure of Howard Leslie, thirteenth Duke of Sevenhills, while making a speech in the House of Lords.
I resolved to return to England by slow stages, and by a round-about route; thus it came to pass that the last act in Helen Fortescue's life drama was revealed to me while waiting for a chop to grill a restaurant at New Orleans. The garcon brought me, at request, a batch of London journals. They were three weeks old, and I rated the fellow for the un-American and easy-going methods of his establishment.
"There are the very latest we have," protested the waiter.
"Your manager is behind the times; he deserves to be dismissed!" I declared. "Three weeks old! It is ridiculous! Why——" But at that instant I caught sight of one name twice mentioned in the hatch, match, and despatch column of one of the belated "Morning Posts," and said no more.
This is what I read:—
SEVENHILLS.—May 12, at Tafton Castle, Surrey, to Helen,
Duchess of Sevenhills, a daughter—posthumous.
SEVENHILLS.—May 21, at Tafton Castle, Surrey, Helen,
Duchess of Sevenhills, relict of the late Howard Leslie,
thirteenth Duke of Sevenhills.
She had appointed me, by will, the sole guardian of her babe, and Gloria said that she died with my name upon her lips.
I have committed this history to the care of ink and paper, in the hope of discovering, because or in the act of its relation, the moral which I am honestly convinced is concealed about it somewhere. That I have absolutely failed to do so is a lamentable fact; but someone else may succeed. Gloria Hammond declares that the lesson is, "When you love, marry straight off, however poor you are." But she is wrong without a doubt. For graceless Dick Torres is now the Duke of Sevenhills, and when I want to laugh I have only to think of him and remember how hard three stupid people struggled to oust him from the succession. And when I wish to be serious, I need only to look at my reflection in a mirror. And when I feel lonely, there is the nursery, and little "Nell" always ready for a romp.
The fact is, I am one of the happiest men in England.
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