'Purvis will have to look out,' reflected Peter; and he wondered where on earth the man had got to to-night. He wished he could give him some sort of warning; but he reflected that Purvis knew far more about the state of affairs than he, Peter, did. No one could tell Purvis much about Argentine that he did not know already. His vague feeling of suspicion against the man deepened, and he began to wonder what game Purvis was playing. Had the other man in Rosario paid him well to do his work for him, or was Purvis withholding information until a certain price was stipulated? Bowshott was worth a ransom, and Purvis might be playing a double game. Between the two men he might feather his nest very well.
The dawn was breaking as Peter rode slowly homewards, and a pale pink light was in the sky. His horse ambled gently along, never mistaking his way or making a false step on the rough, uneven ground, but swinging at an easy canter, and getting over an immense distance without much distress to himself. The moon, in a sort of hushed silence, was climbing down the arc of heaven as the sun rose to eastward. The pale light touched the surface of a tajamar as he rode past it, and the trees beside it threw still, sad, faint shadows into its quiet depth. Above the western monte a lordly eagle with hushed wings rose majestically overhead, and some viscashos popped in a noiseless way in and out of their holes. The air was cool and fresh now, and a tree or two began to rise up unexpectedly out of the ground in the grey light.
He began to get sleepy with the easy motion of the horse; the endless line of plain around him was wearying to the eye as the sun rose upon it. Well, he would get into camp before it became very hot; that idiot Toffy would probably be sitting up for him.
He laughed softly to himself as he saw a flicker of light in the window that looked towards the track, when at last he drew near the little estancia house. It was like Toffy to remember to put a lamp where he could see it! It was worth while taking a midnight ride for such a good fellow, although he had had a very fair notion of what was in one of the letters, and entirely disapproved its contents. The last mail had brought news that Horace Avory was ill, and Peter knew quite well that Toffy had written to Mrs. Avory. Of course she was not the wife for him; she was very delicate and no longer very young, and she had a plain little daughter who was ten years old. Still, Peter supposed that the marriage might turn out pretty well in spite of obvious drawbacks; and Heaven knew that Mrs. Avory, in her own sad, tearful way, had fought very bravely against poverty and loneliness and unhappiness, and that she loved Toffy with her whole heart. But why, now that things seemed to be arranging themselves in a satisfactory manner, should Toffy be in the blues, and lie awake during the greater part of the hot nights?
He drew up at the door of the house when the sun was becoming hot, and Toffy appeared in his pyjamas and prepared a cup of coffee on a stove of patent construction for which he claimed admiration every time it was used.
'Thanks, Peter!' he said briefly. 'I was writing to Mrs. Avory by this mail, and she would have been disappointed if she had not heard from me. Did you overtake Purvis?'
'No, I didn't,' said Peter; 'and what's more, he didn't go by the mail train to Buenos Ayres!'
'What a queer chap he is!' said Toffy. 'You never know where to have him! That can't be he coming back now?' he said, looking from the small window at two riders who came cantering up to the door.
'Is it? Yes! No, it isn't,' said Peter, going over to the window. 'But I 'll tell you who it is, though! It's Dunbar, and he 's got a commissario of police with him! Now, what in the name of wonder do they want here?'
The two riders dismounted at the gate and came up the little path through the garden to the door. They walked stiffly, as though they had ridden for a long time, and their horses, tethered by the gate, looked used up and tired.
Dunbar hardly paused to shake hands. 'Look here,' he said, 'E. W. Smith is here, and he 's wanted!'
'First of all,' said Peter, 'who is E. W. Smith, and why the dickens should you imagine he is here?'
Dunbar gave him a quick look. 'Is any one here?' he asked.
'No one but Ross and Christopherson and myself,' said Peter. 'Purvis was here, but he started for Buenos Ayres last night, and I have no idea where he is now. I saw the train start from the station at Taco, but he was not in it.'
'Purvis is in a tight place,' said Dunbar dryly.
Ross, hearing voices in the drawing-room, wakened up, and now appeared with ruffled hair and still clad in his sleeping-suit. He suggested refreshments, and sat down to hear what Dunbar had to say.
Peter's face had a queer set look upon it. Where another man might perhaps have asked questions he showed something of his mother's reserve, and was never more silent than when a moment of strain arrived. He began in a mechanical way to make two fresh cups of coffee, and poured the steaming mixture from the thin saucepan into the cups. 'The day of reckoning seems to have arrived for Purvis,' he said; and then lazily, 'poor brute, he had his points.' Purvis was a common adventurer after all! And he had got close upon two hundred pounds from him on the plea of having some knowledge of his brother, which was simply non-existent. He could see the whole thing now. This cock-and-bull story of the discovery of the missing man was really a very simple ruse for extorting money, and the last seventy pounds which he, Peter, had been fool enough to pay him had been wanted to help Purvis to get away.
'I must search the place thoroughly,' said Dunbar. He finished his coffee; but the ascertaining whether or not any one was concealed in the little house or in the outbuildings was a matter of only a few minutes.
'If he 's got away again,' said Dunbar, 'I 'll eat my hat!'
'Purvis is a slippery customer,' said Ross; 'but he has lived peaceably and openly for a considerable time. If he is wanted you have only to ride up to his door and arrest him.'
Dunbar cleared his throat. 'You mind,' he said, 'the story of the Rosana, which I told you on board the Royal Mail Packet, when we were in the River Plate coming up to Monte Video?'
'I remember,' said Peter briefly. And Ross nodded his head also; every one in Argentine knew the story of the wreck of the Rosana.
'I knew,' said Dunbar, 'that E. W. Smith could not die!'
'Smith being Purvis, I take it,' said Toffy.
'Yes,' said Dunbar, 'or any other alias you please. He is a fair man now with a beard, isn't he? Well, on board the Rosana he was a clean-shaven man with dark hair, but you cannot mistake E. W. Smith's eyes, though I hear his voice is altered.'
'Are you in the police out here?' Peter asked, with a glance at the commissario to whom he had just handed a cup of coffee.
'No, I 'm not,' answered Dunbar, with his usual economy of speech. 'I 'm from Scotland Yard, and I want E. W. Smith on another count. But I 'll come to that some other time. I 'll need to be off now.'
'Your horse is done,' protested Ross, 'and you are pretty well done yourself.'
'I 'm not that far through,' said Dunbar.
'Why not send a wire to Buenos Ayres and wait here until you can get a reply? Purvis may have got on board the train somewhere else, and be at Buenos Ayres now.'
'Yes, that will do,' said Dunbar. He dispatched his telegram by one of the peons, who rode off with it across the camp. In spite of fatigue, Dunbar, with his nervous energy unimpaired, looked as though he would like to have ridden with the telegram himself. Reflecting, however, that there was considerable work still before him, he submitted to stretching himself on a catre and after a short doze and a bath and some breakfast he took up again the thread of his story.
'I 'll not bother you with an account of E. W. Smith's life,' he remarked, 'although there is a good deal in it that would surprise you. I 'll keep to the story of the Rosana as time is short.'
Mr. Dunbar took his faithful friend—his short pipe—from its red-lined case, filled it with tobacco, and began to draw luxuriously.
'The Rosana sprang a leak after her first day out, on her run down the coast, and was lost in twenty fathoms of water. She only carried one boat, and that boat was seen by myself half-burned, but with a bit of her name in gold-leaf still visible on her bows. Tranter was the captain of the boat, and E. W. Smith was clerk and general manager. Every one knew he cheated the company who ran the boat, and cheated the captain too, when he could; and it generally suited him to make Tranter drunk when they were in port. Well, he reaped his profit, and I suppose a good bit of it lies at the bottom of the sea. He was a man who always kept large sums in hand in case of finding himself in a tight place. Did I mention,' said Dunbar, 'that he could not row, though, of course, Tranter could? But Tranter was wanted for steering.'
'I don't understand the story,' said Ross, leaning forward. 'You say that Tranter and this man Purvis, or Smith, escaped from the wreck, and that Purvis could not row?'
'I am coming to that,' said Dunbar, unmoved. 'Observe, the Rosana carried one boat. She had lost her other by an accident, it seems, and the one that remained was not a much bigger one than a dinghy such as men use to go to and from the shore when they are in harbour. Tranter was the first to discover that the Rosana was leaking badly; and the hold was half-flooded before any one knew anything about it, and the Rosana was settling by her head. Smith, it seems, and the captain were armed, or armed themselves as soon as the state of affairs was known; and before the rest of the crew were awake four men were ordered to man the boat and bring her alongside. The hatches were closed down with the rest of the crew still below, and if there was a scuffle two armed men were perfectly capable of keeping order. Smith and Tranter got into the boat, and were rowed ashore in safety. If the whole of the crew had tried to board her there is no doubt about it no one would have been saved, for there were a good many hands on the steamer, and the rush to the one boat would have swamped her. The men who manned the boat and pulled ashore were doubtless glad to save their lives at any price; but they might make it exceedingly unpleasant for the two survivors of the wreck did they make their story known. They were cross-bred natives, whose lives were of no great value to any one but themselves, and there was an easy way for two armed men to silence them on a lonely shore without a soul near.'
'It's a sickening story,' said Ross, getting up and walking towards the window; and unconsciously he clenched his big hand.
'Then how,' said Peter keenly, 'has the story leaked out?'
'Because,' said Dunbar, 'sometimes at a critical moment men do their work badly, or perhaps a native knows how to feign death before his life is actually extinct. Dead men tell no lies, but wounded men don't have their tongues tied in the same way.'
'So one of the men lived to tell tales!' said Peter, leaning forward in his chair; 'and Purvis, who has been here for some time past, is the hero of the story? It is a blackguardly tale, Dunbar, and, thank God, I believe it would have been impossible in England!'
'I don't pass judgment on my fellow-men,' said Dunbar. 'Life is sweet, perhaps, to some of us, and no doubt the whole crew would have swamped the boat, but——'
'But, all the same,' said Toffy, 'you don't mean to let Purvis-Smith get a very light time of it when you do get him.'
'No, I don't,' said Dunbar.
Ross passed out through the door of the little drawing-room to the corridor, and went to see about some work on the farm. The commissario drank his coffee, and Dunbar waited restlessly for his telegram.
After breakfast he and Peter slept for a time, for both were dog-tired, and the day was oppressively hot. In the afternoon a telegram came to say that no news had been heard of Purvis, and that he was believed to be still in the neighbourhood of La Dorada.
'If he is,' said Dunbar, folding up the telegram and putting it into his pocket, 'I think our future duties will not be heavy. The man who has come to light and told the story of the wreck of the Rosana is a native of that favoured spot where already our friend Purvis is not too popular. God help the man if they get hold of him!'
'His little boy is here now,' said Toffy, starting up. 'Purvis came here to leave him in safety.'
Dunbar was writing another telegram to ask the whereabouts of the steamer.
'Then,' he said, 'the story is probably known, and Purvis is aware of it, and has gone north. He daren't show himself near his estancia after this.'
They began to put the story together, piecing it here and there, while Dunbar continued to send telegrams.
Ross strolled in presently to discuss the matter again. 'I don't believe,' he said, 'that Purvis is far off.'
'He is a brave man if he is anywhere near La Dorada,' said Dunbar.
'Purvis is a brave man,' said Ross quietly.
Peter was silent. Only last night he had had good reason to believe that the mystery of his brother's existence was going to be cleared up. But with Purvis gone the whole wearisome business would have to begin again. Why had he not detained the man last night, even if he had had to do it by force, until he had given him all the evidence he possessed? He could not exactly blame himself for not having done so. Purvis had declared that he was only going to Buenos Ayres for a couple of days, and it would have been absurd to delay him that he might give information which perhaps he did not fully possess. Still, the thing had been too cleverly worked out to be altogether a fraud, surely. His thought went back again to the belief that Purvis had got hold of his brother, and had extracted a great deal of information from him, and was only delaying to make him known to Peter until he had arranged the best bargain he could for himself. Looking back on all the talks they had had together there was something which convinced him that Purvis's close application to the search had not been made with a view only of extracting some hundreds of pounds from him, but that the man's game was deeper than that. Purvis was far too clever to waste his talents in dabbling in paltry matters, or in securing a small sum of money for himself. He was a man who worked in big figures, and it was evident that he meant to pull off a good thing.
That his dishonesty was proved was beyond all manner of doubt, and the only thing was to watch events and to see what would now happen. If Purvis gave them the slip what was to be done in the future?
'I believe he will try to save his steamer,' said Ross, after a long silence.
Every one was thinking of the same subject, and his abrupt exclamation needed no explanation.
'If he could trust his hands he might,' said the commissario in halting, broken English; 'but I doubt if they or the peons have been paid lately.'
'Besides, on the steamer,' said Toffy, 'he could be easily caught.'
'Yes,' said Dunbar, 'if he knows that we want to catch him, which he doesn't. He is afraid of the people at La Dorada now; but he is probably unaware of the warm welcome that awaits him in Buenos Ayres.'
Dunbar went to the door again to see if there was any sign of his messenger returning from the telegraph office. The sun was flaming to westward, and Hopwood had moved the dinner-table out into the patio, and was setting dinner there.
'He will do the unexpected thing,' said Ross at last. 'If Purvis ever says he is going to sit up late I know that is the one night of the week he will go to bed early.'
They went out into the patio, and Ross swizzled a cocktail, and they fell to eating dinner; but Dunbar was looking at his watch from time to time, and then turning his glance eastward to the track where his messenger might appear. It was an odd thing, and one of which they were all unaware, that even a slight noise made each man raise his head alertly for a moment as though he might expect an attack.
The sun went down, and still no messenger appeared. They sat down to play bridge in the little drawing-room, and pretended to be interested in the fall of the cards.
'That must be my telegram now,' said Dunbar, starting to his feet as a horse's hoofs were plainly heard in the stillness of the solitary camp. 'Well, I 'm damned,' he said. He held the flimsy paper close to his near-sighted eyes, and read the message to the other men sitting at the table:
'Smith, or Purvis, at present on board his own steamer in midstream opposite La Dorada. Fully armed and alone. Crew have left, and peons in revolt. A detachment of police proceeds by train to Taco to-night. Join them there and await instructions.'
'I thought he would stick to the steamer,' said Ross at last.
'And probably,' said Dunbar, 'he is as safe there as anywhere he can be. He can't work his boat without a crew, but if he is armed he will be able to defend himself even if he is attacked. I don't know how many boats there were at La Dorada, but I would lay my life that Purvis took the precaution of sending them adrift or wrecking them before he got away.'
'What is to be the next move?' said Peter.
'I suppose we shall have to ride down to Taco to-night,' said Dunbar. 'Yon man,' he finished, in his nonchalant voice, 'has given me a good bit of trouble in his time.'
'It seems to me,' said Ross, 'that you can't touch any business connected with Purvis without handling a pretty unsavoury thing.'
'Now, I 'll tell you an odd thing,' said Dunbar. 'I have had to make some pretty close inquiries about Purvis since I have been on his track, and you will probably not believe it if I tell you that by birth he is a gentleman.'
'He behaves like one,' said Ross shortly.
'If I had time,' said Dunbar, 'I could tell you the story, but I see the fresh horses coming round, and I and the commissario must get away to Taco.' He was in the saddle as he spoke, and rode off with the commissario.
'A boy,' said Hopwood, entering presently, 'rode over with this, this moment, sir.' He handed a note to Peter on a little tray, and waited in the detached manner of the well-trained servant while Peter opened the letter.
The writing was almost unintelligible, being written in pencil on a scrap of paper, and it had got crushed in the pocket of the man who brought it.
'It is for Dunbar, I expect,' said Peter, looking doubtfully at the name on the cover. He walked without haste to a table where a lamp stood, and looked more closely at the address. 'No, it's all right, it's for me,' he said.
At first it was the vulgar melodrama of the message which struck him most forcibly with a sense of distaste and disgust, and then he flicked the piece of paper impatiently and said, 'I don't believe a word of it!' His face was white, however, as he turned to the servant and said, 'Who brought this?'
'I will go and see, sir,' said Hopwood, and left the room.
Peter, with the scrap of paper in his hand, walked over to the bridge-table where the others were sitting, and laid the crumpled note in front of them. 'Another trick of our friend Purvis,' he said shortly.
The three men at the card-table bent their heads over the crumpled piece of note-paper spread out before them. Ross smoothed out its edges with his big hand, and the words became distinct enough; the very brevity of the message was touched with sensationalism. It ran: 'I am your brother. Save me!' and there was not another vestige of writing on the paper.
'Purvis has excelled himself,' said Ross quietly. 'It's your deal, Christopherson.'
Toffy mechanically shuffled the cards and looked up into his friend's face. 'Is there anything else?' he said, and Peter took up the dirty envelope and examined it more closely.
There was a scrap of folded paper in one corner, and on it was written in his mother's handwriting a note to her husband, enclosing the photograph of her eldest son in a white frock and tartan ribbons.
Peter flushed hotly as he read the letter. 'He has no business to bring my mother's name into it,' he said savagely; and then the full force of the thing smote him as he realised that perhaps his mother was the mother of this man Purvis too.
'Have a drink?' said Ross, with a pretence of gruffness. It was oppressively hot, and Peter had been riding all the previous night. Ross mentioned these facts in a kindly voice to account for his loss of colour. 'It's a ridiculous try on,' he said, with conviction; and then, seeking about for an excuse to leave the two friends together to discuss the matter, he gathered up the cards from the table, added the score in an elaborate manner, and announced his intention of going to bed.
Dunbar and the commissario had put a long distance between themselves and the estancia house now. The silence of the hot night settled down with its palpable mysterious weight upon the earth. The stars looked farther away than usual in the fathomless vault of heaven, and the world slumbered with a feeling of restlessness under the burden of the aching solitude of the night. Some insects chirped outside the illuminated window-pane, as though they would fain have left the large and solitary splendour without and sought company in the humble room. Time passed noiselessly, undisturbed even by the ticking of a clock. To have stirred in a chair would have seemed to break some tangible spell. A dog would have been better company than a man at the moment, because less influenced by the mysterious night and the silence, and the intensity of thought which fixed itself relentlessly in some particular cells of the brain until they became fevered and ached horribly. A little puff of cooler air began to blow over the baked and withered camp; but the room where the lamp was burning had become intolerably hot, and the mosquitoes which had been contemplating the wall thoughtfully throughout the day began to buzz about and to sing in the ears of the two persons who sat there.
'Damn these mosquitoes!' said Peter, and his voice broke the silence of the lonely house oddly. He and Toffy had not spoken since Ross had left the room, and had not stirred from their chairs; but now the feeling of tension seemed to be broken. Toffy began to fidget with some things on a little table, and opened without thinking a carved cedar-wood work-box which had remained undisturbed until then. He found inside it a little knitted silk sock only half-finished, and with the knitting needles still in it, and he closed the lid of the box again softly.
Peter walked into the corridor and looked out at the silver night. There was a mist rising down by the river, and the feeling of coolness in the air increased. He leaned against the wooden framework of the wire-netting and laid his head on his hands for a moment; then he came back to the drawing-room. 'Do you believe it?' he said suddenly and sharply.
'I suppose it's true,' said Toffy. 'God help us, Peter, this is a queer world!'
'If it were any one else but Purvis!' said Peter with a groan. He had begun to walk restlessly up and down, making his tramp as long as possible by extending it into the corridor. 'And then there is this to be said, Toffy,' he added, beginning to speak at the point to which his thoughts had taken him—'there is this to be said: suppose one could get Purvis out of this hole, Dunbar is waiting for him at Taco. He will be tried for the affair of the Rosana and other things besides, and if he is not hanged he will spend the next few years of his life in prison. It is an intolerable business,' he said, 'and I am not going to move in the matter. One can stand most things, but not being mixed up in a murder case.'
He walked out into the corridor and sat down heavily in one of the deck-chairs there. There was a tumult of thought surging through his mind, and sometimes one thing was uppermost, sometimes another.
If it were possible to get down the river in a boat to the steamer, he thought, there would of course be a chance of bringing Purvis back before it was light; but if he did that he would have to start within the hour. The nights were short.
And then, again, he would be compounding a felony, though in the case of brothers such a law was generally put aside, whatever the results might be.
There was very little chance of an escape. Every one's hand was against Purvis now, and there was the vaguest possibility that he could get away to England. The heir to Bowshott would be doing his time in prison, and that, after all, was the right place for him—or he might be hanged.
And then he, Peter, was the next heir. That was the crux of the whole thing—he, Peter Ogilvie, was the next heir. If anything were to happen to his brother he would inherit everything.
But that, again, was an absurdity. A man in prison, for instance, would not be the inheritor of anything. No, his brother must take his chance down there on the steamer. He had been in tight places before now, and no one knew better how to get out of them. He had some money at his command. Let things take their chance. Yet if Purvis did not inherit, he, Peter, was the next heir.
That was the thought that knocked at him to the exclusion of nearly everything else: he would benefit by his brother's death. Bowshott would be his, and the place in the Highlands, and Jane and he could be married.
He paused for a moment in his feverish survey of events. To think of Jane was to have before one's mind a picture of something absolutely fair and straightforward. A high standard of honour was not difficult to her; it came as naturally as speaking in a well-bred manner, or walking with that air of grace and distinction which was characteristic of her. Such women do not need to preach, and seldom do so. Their lives suggest a torch held high above the common mirk of life. Peter had never imagined for a moment that he was in the least degree good enough for her; but, all the same, he meant to fight for all that he was worth for every single good thing that he could get for her.
... His brother even had a son. His nephew was in the house now. Peter laughed out loud. The boy had a Spanish mother; but if there ever had been a marriage between Purvis and her it could easily be set aside. Purvis had been married several times, or not at all. Dunbar thought that his real wife was an English woman at Rosario.
He reflected with a sense of disgust that, he and Purvis being both of them fair men, it might even be said that they resembled each other in appearance; and he wondered if he would ever hold up his head again now that he knew that the same blood ran in the veins of both, and that this murderer, with his bloodstained hands, was his brother.
And what in Heaven's name was the use of rescuing a man from one difficulty when he would fall into something much worse at the next opportunity?
Finally, there was nothing for it but to remain inactive and let Purvis escape if he could, but to do nothing to help him. Time was getting on now; another half-hour and it would be too late to start.
Perhaps the whole real difficulty resolved itself round Jane. Jane, as a matter of fact, had taken up her position quite close to Peter Ogilvie this evening in the dark of the tropical night. There were probably devils on either side of him, but Jane was certainly there. She looked perfectly beautiful, and there was not a line in her face which did not suggest something fair and honest and of good worth.
... But suppose the man turned out to be an impostor after all? Then Dunbar had better treat with him. The chain of evidence was pretty strong, but there might be a break in it.
... He could not go alone down the river; Ross and Toffy and Hopwood would have to come too, to man the four-oared boat, and some one would have to steer, because the river was dangerous of navigation and full of sandbanks and holes. Why should he involve his friends in such an expedition to save a man who had sneaked off from a boat and left a whole crew to perish, and who had shot in cold blood the men who rowed him to safety?
Before God he was not going to touch the man, nor have anything to do with him!
Half an hour had passed. In twenty minutes it would be too late to start.
Jane drew a little nearer, and just then Toffy laid down the book which he had been reading and strolled about the room. Perhaps he wanted to show Peter that he was still there and awake, and in some way to comfort him by his presence, for he sat down by Mrs. Chance's piano and picked out a tune with one of his fingers.
The devil beside Peter became more imperative and drew up closer, and told him that it was his own sense of honour that made him loathe his reputed brother and turn from him in disgust. He said that the note that had reached him was all part of Purvis's horrible sensationalism and his lies, and that no earthly notice should be taken of it; also, that it would be sheer madness to risk his own life and his friends' for this contemptible fellow. Jane, on the other side—possibly an angel, but to the ordinary mind merely a very handsome English girl—stood there saying nothing, but looking beautiful.
Toffy continued to pick out the tune with his forefinger from Mrs. Chance's book:
It all came before him in a flash: the village church, and the swinging oil-lamps above the pews; he and Jane together in Miss Abingdon's pew, and Mrs. Wrottesley playing the old hymn-tunes on the little organ. He could not remember ever attending very particularly to the evening service. He used to follow it in a very small Prayer Book, and it was quite sufficient for him that Jane was with him. He had never been a religious man in the ordinary sense of the word. He had wished with all his heart when his mother died that he had known more about sacred things, but they had never seemed a necessary part of his life. He knew the code of an English gentleman, and that code was a high one. The youngsters in the regiment knew quite well that he was 'as straight as they make 'em'; but he had never inflicted advice nor had a moment's serious conversation with one of them.
Another ten minutes had passed, and left only five minutes to spare; but Jane was smiling a little, and Toffy was fingering out quavering notes on the old piano:
Life seemed to get bigger as he listened. There were no such things as difficulties. You had just to know what you ought to do, and then to try to do it. You had not to pit yourself against a mean mind, and act meanly by it. Each man had his own work to do, and what other men did or left undone was their own business. His brother was in a mess, and he had to help him out of it, whether he deserved it or no—not weighing his merit, but pardoning his offences and just helping him in his need. The glories of life might fade away, as the old hymn said, or they might last; but all that each man had to care about so long as he remained here was to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with his God.
The angel and the devil—if they existed at all—fled away and left one solitary man standing alone fighting for the sake of honour and clean hands.
The clock struck ten, and the time was up.
Peter went inside and laid his hand on Toffy's shoulder. 'Let's start,' he said, 'if you are ready.'
'All right,' said Toffy, shutting the piano. 'I 'll go and get Ross.'
* * * * *
They were in the boat now, slipping down the stream in the dark. The current in the river was strong here, and the boat slid rapidly between the banks. There was hardly any necessity for rowing. Christopherson sat in the stern with the tiller-ropes in his hands, and Peter reserved his strength for the moment when they should get to the broader part of the river where the stream did not race as it raced here. On their way back they would, of course, avoid the upper reaches of the river, and would land lower down when they had the man well away from his own place. Peter rowed stroke, and Hopwood and Ross rowed numbers one and two. The steering probably was the most difficult part of the business, especially in the present state of the river, and any moment they might go aground or get into some eddy which might turn the bow of the boat and land them in the bank. Rowing was still easy, and Peter was husbanding every ounce of his strength for the pull home. None of the men spoke as the boat slipped down between the banks of dry mud on either side of the river. Some reeds whispered by the shore, and a startled bird woke now and then and flew screaming away. The moon shone fitfully sometimes, but for the most part the night was dark, and the darkness increased towards midnight. Once or twice the breeze carried the intoxicating smell of flowers from the river-bank. It was difficult for Toffy, although he had been down the river many times, to know exactly his bearings. They passed a little settlement on their starboard hand, and saw a few lights burning in the houses.
'That must be Lara's house,' said Peter. 'We will land here on our way back, and get some horses, and ride over to the estancia in the morning.'
The settlement was the last place on the river where Purvis's steamer plied, and there was a small jetty piled with wheat waiting to be taken away. Here the river was broader and much shallower, with stakes of wood set in its bed to show the passage which the little steamer should take.
'We should not be far from La Dorada now,' said Toffy, steering between the lines of stakes; 'but I can't see any signs of the steamer in this blackness.'
In the daytime the river was a pale mud-colour and very thick and dirty-looking. The moon came out for a moment and showed it like a silver ribbon between the grey banks.
'Easy all!' said Toffy, sniffing the air. 'We must be near the canning-factory at La Dorada.'
The horrible smell of the slaughter-house was borne to them on the river, and there were some big corrals close by the water, and a small wharf.
'It reminds me,' thought Toffy, 'of the beastly beef-tea which I have had to drink all my life.'
'Good heavens!' cried Ross, 'they are firing the wharf! Purvis's chances are small if this is their game.'
There was not very much to burn; the wood of the wharf kindled easily, and the wheat burned sullenly and sent up grey volumes of smoke.
'Steer under the bank,' said Peter. 'We don't want to be seen.'
Toffy steered the boat as near the shore as the mud would allow, and as the wood of the wharf burned more brightly he could see some men running to and fro confusedly every few minutes, and then making off farther down the river.
'They 'll fire the steamer next!' said Peter, and then bent his back to the oar, and the boat swung away into the middle of the stream again.
The darkness seemed to increase in depth, as it does just before the dawn: it was baffling in its intensity, and seemed to press close.
'Way enough!' sang out Toffy, for quite unexpectedly the little steamer, tied to a stake in midstream, loomed up suddenly before them. The men shipped their oars with precision, and Toffy caught hold one of the fender-ropes.
'Are you there?' he called up to the deck from the impenetrable darkness.
As he spoke Purvis appeared at the top of the little gangway, dressed in his clerkly suit and stiff hat.
'You are just in time,' he said in his thin, high voice, without a trace of excitement in it. 'When the light dawns they will find their boats, and even now we may have to run for it.'
'Get on board,' said Ross roughly, 'and don't waste time.'
'I can't sink my steamer,' said Purvis quietly, 'in this shallow part of the river, and I haven't the means of blowing her up; but I shall now go below and overturn the lamp in my cabin, and the boat and all that is in it will not be very long in being consumed.'
'Stop that lunatic!' yelled Ross, as Purvis turned to descend into the cabin. 'There 's a boat coming up—I can hear the oars distinctly behind us. We 'll be overtaken if there 's a minute's delay!'
Peter, who was next the gangway, sprang on board the boat and stumbled down the companion in the dark.
'Purvis!' he shouted, 'you 'll be shot in cold blood yet if you don't look out.'
Purvis had collected a few things and laid them on a pile of shavings in the middle of the cabin, and the oil-lamp with which he was to ignite the pile was in his hand.
On the top of the pile Peter saw a large tin dispatch-case inscribed with his mother's name.
'Hallo!' he said quietly; 'I think I 'll take this!'
For a moment he imagined that Purvis's hand moved with suspicious suddenness towards his revolver-pocket. In the next Purvis had swung up the companion staircase and into the boat, and Peter jumped into his place as the sound of rowing and the splash of oars was heard behind him. Toffy rowed the bow-oar now, and Purvis, who knew every turn of the river, took the tiller-ropes.
'I can't row,' he said, in his plaintive voice, 'but I can steer better than any of you.'
The man's composed and unruffled serenity was still undisturbed although the rhythmic beat of oars behind them was growing nearer and nearer, and the creaking of the leather in the row-locks could be heard distinctly.
'I have a revolver,' said Purvis quietly; 'and dawn is not quite upon us yet.'
Their boat had still the start of the other, and the darkness helped them. Purvis knew every yard of the river, and could have steered in the darkness of a London fog. His pale eyes seemed to have something in them of the quality of a cat's as he peered through the dense gloom and guided the boat unerringly.
There came a faint light on the surface of the water; they could dimly see the stakes in the river, and could hear the beat of the oars in the other boat. It was a race for the Italian settlement, where they would be safe, and where the pursuing boat, seeing the lights from the houses, would probably fall behind.
Peter had rowed stroke in the Eton boat, but Toffy had always been too delicate to be a strong rower; the other men had splendid staying power, but no particular skill. Still, Ross knew Peter's stroke, and the steering was perfect. Not a yard of way was lost on the long chase, and as the four rowers warmed to their work the excitement of it prevailed over every other thought. Purvis himself and all his meannesses were forgotten. It was a race, and that was all, and four men's hearts leapt to it.
The other boat seemed to be drawing nearer. The morning was dawning mistily, and the pursuers appeared to be getting out of their course for a time.
Peter swung to his oar in perfect style, and Purvis with the tiller-ropes in his hands gave way to every leap of the boat, bending his short, spare body in time to the stroke of the oars as he sat in the stern.
'If we are overtaken we will make a fight for it,' he said.
'Naturally,' said Peter briefly, between the long strokes of his rowing.
'They 'll probably catch us up in the next hundred yards,' said Purvis. 'I should think that they are armed, and the day is breaking.'
He turned round in his seat as he spoke, for there was a broad straight piece of river before them; and as the boat came on he pointed his revolver uncertainly in the mist and fired. 'Confound you!' roared Peter, 'don't draw their fire yet! Probably our best chance is that they don't know for certain where we are.'
But Purvis had fired again. There were some uncertain shots in return, and one struck the gunwale of the boat by Peter's side.
'That was a near thing,' he said to himself under his breath. And then the old feeling of protection for the 'young un'—the delicate boy who had been his fag at Eton—stopped his grim smiling, and as another shot whizzed past them he yelled out suddenly, 'Lie down, Toffy! Get down into the bottom of the boat!'
And quite suddenly Toffy did as he was told.
Peter rowed then like two men, but the river ran more quickly now, and the shallows were more dangerous, and the steering was more difficult.
By Jove, how well Purvis knew the navigation of it! He had the tiller-ropes in his hands again. He made a feint to go under the bank as though to land, and then shot suddenly into midstream. The other boat followed in their wake. Purvis's knowledge of the currents was probably well known, and it was safe to follow his lead: the boat and the men in it were clear enough to see now.
But what in the name of Heaven was Purvis doing! It positively seemed as though he was trying to lose the little bit of way that they had gained in advance of the others, and for one moment a horrible sense of the man's unscrupulousness came over Peter Ogilvie, and he wondered even now, in the midst of the chase, whether it might not be that Purvis was playing them false.
'I 'll shoot him before he can sing out if he is!' thought Peter to himself as the boat was steered on to the very edge of a shallow again, and then made off into the middle of the stream. 'Look out what you are about!' he cried, seeing in the wake of the boat the uneven, circuitous route by which they had come. 'For God's sake steer straight if you can!'
And then he saw a smile on Purvis's face—the usual watery, mirthless smile, and the pale, wide-open blue eyes; and, looking back, Peter saw that the boat behind them was overturned in the stream, and that the men who had been in it were struggling to the bank, while the boat itself was being carried rapidly down with the current.
He eased his rowing then, and getting his breath he laughed out aloud. The spirit and excitement of the chase had been good, and it was successfully over.
'Look here, you can get up now, Toffy,' he said.
He turned round in his seat and shipped his oars with a jerk. 'You devil!' he said slowly; 'you must have seen him hit!'
He bent over the poor boy stretched out in the bottom of the boat and felt his heart and found that it still beat. He loosened his neckcloth and sprinkled water on his face, while the two other men fell to their oars again, and rowed the boat as the day dawned to the little Italian settlement. They carried Toffy into the house of the Argentine woman who burned candles to the Virgin and stuck French paper match-boxes round her shrine. They lifted him into the hut and laid him on the humble bed, and Peter dressed the wound as well as he knew how, while Hopwood in an agony hovered round them, and Ross was sending here and there to try to find a doctor.
No one knew what had become of Purvis, no one cared. Each was trying with all his might to save a life very dear to them which was slowly ebbing away.
The sun was up now, and the long hot day was beginning; but still Toffy had never spoken, and still Peter kneeled by his side on the mud floor of the hut, easing him as well as he could, giving him water to drink, or bathing his forehead. There was not much that he could do for him; but he felt that Toffy was conscious, and that he liked to have his old friend near him. He never altered his position as he kneeled, for his arm was under the dying man's head, and it seemed a more comfortable place for it than the poor Argentine woman's hard pillow.
Toffy lay with wide-open eyes, and there were great beads of perspiration on his forehead which Hopwood wiped away from time to time. He breathed with difficulty in short gasps, and still he never spoke. It came upon Peter with a horrible sinking of the heart that he might die before a doctor came, and without saying one word to him. All the compunction of a heart that was perhaps unusually womanly and tender was raging within him for not having taken better care of the boy. He wanted to say so much to Toffy, and to beg his forgiveness, and to ask if there was anything in the world he could do for him, and he hoped wildly and pitifully that he was not in pain. But the dying man's eyes were fixed on the bare walls of the hut and on the little shrine of the Virgin in the corner of the room, and it seemed now as if the mistiness of death were settling upon them, so that they saw nothing.
Ross went restlessly to and fro, now entering the room for a few minutes, and then going out again to scan the distant country to see if by any chance the camp doctor was coming.
When Toffy at last spoke he went and stood outside the hut, and an instinct caused him to bare his head for a moment.
Just at the end Toffy said something, and his voice sounded a great way off, and almost as though it came from another land. 'Is Kitty there?' he said.
'No; it is me, old man,' said Peter thickly.
He was holding the boy's head now, for his breathing was becoming more difficult, and he stooped and kissed him on the forehead. He felt the chill of it, and, startled, he called out, almost as one calls out a message to a friend departing on a journey, raising his voice a little, for Toffy already seemed a long way off, 'I never knew—I never knew, Toffy—that you had been hit, or I would have stopped.'
'I didn't want to spoil the race,' said Toffy. 'I don't often win a race,' he said, and with that he died.
They carried him home in the evening when the sun had set, and on the day following, according to the custom of the country, they buried him. Some peons dug the grave in a corner of the little estate, and sawed planks and made a railing round it, and Ross read the Burial Service over him from Toffy's own Prayer Book, and Peter kept the well-worn Bible for Kitty Sherard.
Peter sought solitude where he could. His grief was of the kind which can be borne only in solitude. The love of David and Jonathan had not been deeper than the affection he and his friend had had for one another. The small estancia house became intolerable, with its sense of void and the feeling that at any moment Toffy might appear, always with some new project in hand, always gravely hopeful about everything he undertook, always doing his best to risk his life in absurd ventures such as no one else would have attempted. It was only the other day that Peter had seen him trying to break a horse which even a gaucho felt shy of riding; and he loved to be in the thick of the melee attempting the difficult task of swinging a lasso above his head, with that air of imperturbable gravity always about him. Or Peter pictured him in the long chair, where during a feverish attack he had lain so often, ruffling up his hair and puzzling his head over problems of Hebrew theology. Every corner seemed to be full of him, and yet no one had ever appeared to have a less assertive personality than he, nor a lighter hold on his possessions. He thought of how he himself had always gone to Toffy's dressing-table to borrow anything he might require—the boy who was so much accustomed to have his things appropriated by other people! And then again he saw him in the big, ugly drawing-room at Hulworth, nursing one of his appalling colds, or looking with grave resentment at his priceless collection of vases in the glass cases in the hall. He remembered him riding in the steeplechase at Sedgwick, and quite suddenly he recollected how sick and faint Kitty Sherard had become when he fell at the last jump. He thought of a silver box Toffy had bought for her at Bahia, and he wondered how it was that he had been so blind as not to see how much these two had cared for each other. His feeling of loss amounted almost to an agony, and once when he had ridden alone far on to the camp he shouted his dead friend's name aloud many times, and felt baffled and disappointed when there was no response.
Good God! was it only two nights ago that he was picking out hymn-tunes with his finger on the piano! At dinner-time they had been teasing him about the Prophet Elijah, Toffy having calculated the exact distance that the old prophet must have run in front of Ahab's chariot. 'It was a fearful long sprint for an old man,' Toffy had said in a certain quaint way he had. And now Toffy lay in his long, narrow grave under the mimosa tree, and the world seemed to lack something which had formerly made it charitable and simple-hearted and even touched with beauty.
No one asked after Purvis, no one had seen him. He had disappeared in the mysterious way in which he usually came and went, but his little boy was still at the estancia, and his bitter crying for the friend who was dead had added to the unhappiness of the day. He was a child not easily given to tears, and his efforts at controlling his sobs were as pathetic as his weeping. Peter found him the morning after Toffy's death curled up behind some firewood in an outhouse, where he had gone so that his tears should not be seen. He comforted him as well as he knew how, and wished that Jane were there, and thought how well she could console the little fellow; and he said to himself with an upward stretch of his arms which relieved the ache of his heart for a moment, 'Oh, if women only knew how much a man wants them when he is down in his luck!' He thought that he could have told Jane everything and have talked to her about Toffy as to no one else, and he wished with all his heart that he could climb up there behind the stack of wood and give way to tears as this poor little chap had done. He wondered what they were to do with him suppose Purvis never came back again.
But Purvis came back. Men often said of him that he had a genius for doing the unlooked-for thing; but no one could have expected even of him that he would venture to a place so near to his own estate and to the men who had attempted his life. He travelled by night, of course. His cat-like eyes always seemed capable of seeing in the dark, and even his horse's footfalls had something soft and feline about them.
The other men were sleeping as men do after two long wakeful nights and a day of stress and exertion. Even grief could not keep away the feeling of exhaustion, and Purvis could hear their deep breathing in the corridor, when, having tethered his horse to a distant paraiso tree, he stole softly up to the door.
His boy's room was at the back of the house, and Purvis crept round to it, and called him softly by name. Dick's short life had been full of adventure and surprises, and he never uttered a sound when his father's light touch awakened him from sleep, and his voice told him softly to get up. Purvis dressed him with something of a woman's skill, and then he bade him remain where he was while he crept softly into the drawing-room of the house.
He came back presently as noiselessly as he had left the room, and whispered, 'I am looking for a tin box; is it anywhere about?'
'They opened it to-day, and took some papers out,' said Dick.
Purvis drew one short, quick breath.
'Then let us be off at once,' he said.
He crossed the room once more in his stealthy fashion, and took from the mantelpiece a small bottle of nerve-tabloids which he had forgotten, and slipped them into his pocket, and then went out into the dark again. Once he paused at the entrance of the corridor and listened attentively, and then crept down the garden path and found the horses tethered to the paraiso trees. They led them softly through the monte, and there Dick paused.
'I am going to say good-bye to him,' he said. 'I don't care what you say!'
He went to the grave under the mimosa trees, and with a queer elfin gesture he stooped down and kissed the lately disturbed sods, and made the sign of the cross upon his narrow little chest as he had seen his Spanish mother do. The dignity of the action, with its unconscious touch of foreign grace, and the boy's pathetic attempt to keep back his tears as he lingered by the grave in the darkness at an hour when any other boy of his age would have been safely tucked up in bed, might well touch the heart of any one who stood beside the child.
'I didn't know he was hit!' said Purvis suddenly; and probably he spoke the truth for once in his life. Toffy was one of the few men who in many years had trusted him, and he had been a good friend to Dick. 'Well, the game's up!' said Purvis. And he and his son mounted their horses and rode off into the blackness of the night together.
Ross had rescued the black japanned box from the boat, and had kept it under his care until such time as he should have an opportunity of giving it to Peter. It was from a sense that it might provide some sort of distraction to a man almost dazed with grief that he brought it into the drawing-room on the evening of the day Toffy was buried, and suggested that perhaps Peter had better open it and see what was in it. The key was gone, of course, but they prised it open with some tools, and on the top of the box there was a letter which made Peter lay his hand over his pocket for a moment. It was as though by some magic the packet which lay there had been transferred to the interior of a black japanned box discovered upon a river steamer in the Argentine Republic. The writing on the cover was a duplicate of the one he himself held, and was addressed in his mother's writing: 'To my son, to be given to him at my death.'
Peter could not see quite straight for a moment. The finding of the packet seemed to establish conclusively his brother's identity; and he took out the folded sheets which lay inside the cover with hands that were not steady.
The very words in the opening sentences were the same as in his own letter, and written in the clear, strong handwriting which he knew so well.
'When you get this letter I shall be dead,' he read in the words which were already painfully familiar to him; 'and before I die there is something which I think I had better tell you. I am not haunted by remorse nor indulging in death-bed repentance, and I shall merely ask you not to hate me more than you can help when you have finished reading this letter.
'You must often have heard of your elder brother who died when I was in Spain, the year of your father's death. He did not die——' So far Peter knew the letter off by heart, but there seemed to be many pages of writing to follow. 'And as far as I am aware he may be living now.'
'If it is anything bad,' said Ross kindly, 'why not put it off until to-morrow? You are about used up to-day, Peter, and whatever there is in that box can wait.'
'I am all right, thanks,' said Peter, without looking up. And Ross went out to the patio and left him alone.
'I must go a long way back to make myself intelligible,' the letter went on. 'I suppose people of Spanish descent are generally credited with an unforgiving spirit. I have never forgiven my sister-in-law. I did not at first attempt revenge, possibly because there was only one way in which I could deprive her and her children of their inheritance. That way was denied me. My eldest boy died at his birth, and the girl only lived a few weeks. After that I had no other children. I think the grief this caused entered into both our lives with a bitterness which is unusual, and which I shall not attempt to recall. I shall only say that we both mourned it, and that Lionel Ogilvie and his wife by their conduct made what might have been merely a sorrow a matter also of almost unbearable disappointment. I mention this regrettable emotional feeling in order to make my subsequent conduct intelligible to you. In the course of years, during which your father hardly attended to any matters concerning the property, because it would seem to be benefiting his legal successors, I urged him to go abroad on an exploring expedition such as he loved, hoping in some way to mitigate his disappointment or keep him from dwelling upon it. I have probably not conveyed to you how deep the quarrel was between him and his brother; but if I have not done so it is not of any great importance.
'When your father had sailed for Central Africa I went out to Spain to visit my property there, and I took a sea-voyage to Lisbon for the benefit of my health. There was a young couple in the steerage of the boat going out to settle in Argentine. They were people of the working class and very poor, and before we reached Lisbon, on the night of a storm, the woman gave birth to a child and died, and the father was left to start life in an unknown country with a helpless infant dependent upon him. Some kind-hearted people on board the steamer made up a subscription for him, with the English people's quaint notion that all grief can be assuaged with food or money; and one night when I was on deck alone the stewardess brought me the baby to see.
'When we got into Lisbon the following day I offered the man to adopt the child; and when my maid returned to England I got a Spanish woman for him, and took him with me to my own estate. He was greeted everywhere as my son, and allowing myself the luxury of the small deception, I pretended to myself that he really was mine; but weeks passed before I ever dreamed of deceiving anybody else on the subject. It was a letter which my sister-in-law wrote to me which decided me to stay out in Granada during my husband's two years' absence, and to announce, in course of time, that I was the mother of a son. The plan was quite stupidly easy, and everything lent itself to the deception. The child was fair, and not unlike the Ogilvies, and his father had given him up entirely to me, on the understanding that he was never to claim him again. It may seem strange to you, but it is a fact that after I returned to England there was not the vaguest suspicion in any one's mind that he was not my own child. When my husband returned from abroad I was convinced, if I had ever doubted it, that I had acted wisely. Under the circumstances I should act in the same way again.
'Of course events proved that I had made a mistake; but I had in the meantime made my husband perfectly happy and my sister-in-law perfectly miserable, and that was what I desired.
'You were born a year after your father's return home, and when the other child was three years old. To say that I then found myself in an intolerable position would not be to overstate the case. If your father had lived, my difficulties would have been greater than they actually were, and it was during his lifetime and after your birth that I suffered most. I suppose only a woman, and one, moreover, who has longed for children, would be able to realize what my feelings were, and I shall not urge your compassion by dwelling upon that time. I have never accepted pity, and I should prefer not to have it bestowed upon me when I am dead.
'It was only after your father's death that I saw a way of escape out of the intolerable position in which I had placed myself. I was in very bad health for a time, and my husband's affection for the alien child was more than I was able to bear. There is always a touch of the savage in motherhood, and I am naturally jealous.
'After my husband's death I went out to my own property in Spain, and by judiciously moving about there from one place to another, and changing my personal servants frequently, it was a comparatively easy matter to say that the child had died, without exactly specifying where his death had taken place.
'It was absolutely necessary that he should be got rid of. A pauper emigrant's boy was taking the place of my son in everything. The very tenants about the place treated him differently from the way in which they treated you. My husband had decided that the bilk of his property was to go to him; and all the time I knew that his father was from the class from which perhaps, navvies are drawn, and that his mother was some girl from Whitechapel or Mile End.
'He had to go, but I treated him fairly. I took him down to Lisbon myself and sent him back to his father with a trustworthy couple who were going out there. From my own private fortune I bestowed upon him a sum sufficient to educate him and to place him in the world.
'I think I never breathed freely or had one undisturbed moment from the time you were born until he had gone to Argentine.
'The people to whom I entrusted him both died of fever in Rosario, and from that day to this I have never heard of the boy who was called Edward Ogilvie. The money which I had bestowed upon him had proved too tempting to some one. The child disappeared, and so far as I am concerned he was never heard of again.
'For four years he had lived as my own son, and it was I who took him away from his father and his natural surroundings. I want you to find him if you can. If he has been brought up vilely or treated brutally by strangers, the fault, of course, lies with me; this will probably distress you, but I think it will be an incentive also to you to try to find the man.'
The letter was signed in Mrs. Ogilvie's name and it finished as abruptly as it had begun.
* * * * *
The first thing that roused Peter from the sense of bewilderment and almost of stupor which beset him was Dunbar's arrival at the estancia.
'Purvis has given us the slip again!' said the detective. 'The man has as many lives is he has names! He has disappeared more than once before, and he has even died, to my certain knowledge, two or three times, in order to get out of a tight place.'
'Oh, Purvis, yes!' said Peter absently; and then he pulled himself together and briefly told Dunbar the whole story.
'It doesn't alter the fact,' said Dunbar, 'that I have got to find him if I can.'
'No,' said Peter stupidly. 'No, I suppose it does not,' and he added, in a heavy voice, 'I believe Toffy would like me to look after the boy.'
'The mystery to me is,' said Dunbar, 'how Purvis, as you call him (to me, of course, he is E. W. Smith), could have got hold of this box of papers. It may be a fraud yet,' he said truculently, 'and it will require investigation.'
'I know my mother's writing,' said Peter, 'and Purvis was in the act of trying to burn the box before we took him off the steamer. It is the last thing in the world that it would suit him to have about him if he meant to establish his claim to be the heir.'
'That's so,' said Dunbar thoughtfully.
'The box could not have come out with him when he sailed to Argentine as a child,' said Peter, 'because the letter is dated long after that.'
'And you say you never saw the man until you met him out here?' Dunbar went on.
He brought out a notebook from his pocket and began to jot down Peter's replies.
'No,' said Peter, 'or, if I did, I can't recall where it was. At first when I saw him he reminded me of some one whom I had met; but afterwards, when it seemed pretty well established that he was my brother, both Christopherson and I thought that this vague recollection of the man, which I mentioned to him, might be based on the fact that there was some sort of likeness between him and some members of my family.'
Dunbar jotted this down also. 'And you positively have no recollection of having seen him?' he said, as he fastened a band of elastic round the book. 'If that is so he must have had accomplices in England who stole the box for him. I shall have to find out where these boxes were kept at your home, and, as nearly as possible, I must discover with whom Purvis was in communication in England. Or he may have gone there himself. I know that he went home in one of Lamport & Holt's boats only a few months ago—that was after the wreck of the Rosana, you understand—and it was while he was in England that I saw him, and knew for certain that he had not gone down in the wreck. My warrant against him is for a common hotel robbery. It was when he came back to Argentine that he began this river-trading, which was in the hands of a better man till he took it.'
'The plan will be for you and my lawyer to work together,' said Peter; 'but at present I can't furnish you with the smallest clue as to how these papers came into his possession. I know the look of the box quite well. There were several of them in my mother's writing-room, which was in the oldest part of the house. They were all destroyed one night last autumn when we had rather a serious fire there.'
Dunbar took out his notebook and began to write.
'By Jove!' exclaimed Peter, suddenly starting from his seat. He saw it all in a flash: the burning tower, with volumes of smoke rising from it; the line of men, with hose and buckets, pouring water on the connecting bridge of the tower; the groups of frightened guests on the terrace, and his mother standing unmoved amongst them in her sumptuous purple dress and the diamonds in her hair; the arrival of the fire-engine from Sedgwick; and then, just at the end, the figure of a man appearing on the bridge, with a cloak wound round his head, dashing into the doorway through which the smoke was issuing in great waves; his sudden flight across the bridge again; and then Jane, at his elbow, clasping his arm and saying, in a terrified tone, 'Oh, Peter! for a moment I thought it was you!'
Dunbar was scribbling rapidly in his notebook. 'It is as clear as mud!' he said at last. 'Purvis, after the Rosana incident, was missing for a considerable time, and it is believed that his English wife at Rosario hid him somewhere. There he probably heard the story of his adoption, and determined to prove himself the eldest son.'
'I don't understand how he could have heard the story,' said Peter.
'He heard most things. But there are links in the chain that we shall never get a sight of; we see only the beginning and the end of it,' replied Dunbar.
The Scot was very seldom excited; but he got up from his chair and began to walk rapidly up and down the room, his under-lip stuck out, and his tough hair thrown back from his forehead. 'The whole thing depended upon his getting what direct information he could about the property, and he must have worked this thing well. The fire, I take it, was accidental?'
'Oh, the fire was accidental enough,' said Peter, 'and was found to be due to some electric lighting which was put into the tower.'
'Purvis's visit to England must have been to ascertain if Mrs. Ogilvie were still alive, and, in the first instance, he probably meant to levy blackmail upon her; he must have discovered where she kept her papers, and have tried to effect an entrance on the night of the ball when many strangers were about.'
'I believe,' exclaimed Peter, 'we saw him in one of the corridors of the house during the dance, and decided that he must be one of the guests unknown to us, who had come with some country neighbour, and that he had lost his way amongst the almost interminable passages of the place.' He saw himself and Jane making for the leather-covered door which led to the bridge, and the shrinking stranger, with his hopelessly timid manner, who had drawn back at their approach; and he thought he heard himself saying, 'Shall I get him some partners, or leave the people who brought him to the dance to look after him?' It was only a fleeting look that he had caught of the man's face, and he recalled it with difficulty now, but it was not a far-fetched conclusion to decide that the two were one and the same man.
Dunbar was in a sort of transport. 'It's the best case I ever had,' he said, 'and we only want the man himself to make the thing complete! Purvis has played some pretty clever and some pretty deep games in his time; but this is about the coolest thing he ever tried to pull off, and he has as nearly as possible won through with it.'
Mr. Dunbar always relapsed into a strong Scottish accent in moments of excitement, and he became almost unintelligible at last, as he rolled forth his r's and gave it as his opinion that the man was a worthless scoundrel.
'I can't think,' said Peter, 'why Purvis did not claim the inheritance sooner. He had the whole thing in his hands.'
'Yes; but Purvis did not know that!' exclaimed Dunbar. 'I 'll take my oath he 's been pumping you about how much old servants knew, and the like; and there are men working the case in England, judging by the number of telegrams he has had. He would have been over in London before many months were gone, or I am very much mistaken, and as soon as the train was laid; but it would have been a fatal thing for him to have attempted a case before he knew how much was known. Your arrival in Argentine probably precipitated the very thing he was working for.'
'He remarkably nearly succeeded,' said Peter.
'There ought to be a training home for criminals,' Dunbar exclaimed, 'to teach them once and for all to destroy all evidence, rather than retain that which incriminates alongside of that which may be useful. A man will sometimes keep a bundle of letters which will bring him to the gallows together with information which might make his fortune.'
Peter described how he had found the tin case on the top of a bundle of shavings in the cabin of the river steamer. 'He was in a tight place there, and must have known it,' said Peter. 'Why not have burned the letters before our boat got up?'
Dunbar laughed. 'You can't very well make a holocaust on a small steamer on a dark night without showing where you are, for one thing,' he replied, 'nor can you overturn a paraffin lamp on the top of a bundle of shavings without a possibility of burning yourself up at the same time. There was a love of sensationalism, too, about the man. He would like his steamer to flame away at the right moment, and disappoint the men who meant to board her; or, what is still more likely, there was a considerable amount of gunpowder on board the boat, and a boarding-party arriving at the right moment would have been blown sky-high.'
'He never showed mercy,' said Peter.
'The Lord will need to have mercy upon him if he gets into my hands,' quoth Dunbar, 'for I have none to spare for him.'
'But I,' said Peter, 'have got to remember that my mother charges me to befriend the man.'
'But then,' said Dunbar tersely, 'your mother never knew what sort of man you would have to deal with.'
'God knows!' said Peter.
'Well, it's a hanging matter if we get him,' said Dunbar cheerfully. He and the commissario had their orders, and they would be obliged to execute them. The results must be left for a court of justice to decide.
They rode away the following morning, and there seemed nothing for it but to wait at the estancia until more news was forthcoming. For Peter the days were the saddest of his life, and left an impression upon him which nothing ever quite removed afterwards. He became older suddenly, and a certain boyishness, which was characteristic of him, was gone and never returned again. Life, which had once seemed so simple to him and so easily lived, so full of pleasures and of good times and of good comrades, had suddenly become complex and filled with difficulties, and made up of grave decisions and shadowed by a sorrow which would probably be felt as long as he lived. Ross would not let him stay indoors, and mercifully gave him a double share of work to do. The weather was cooler now, and the days could be filled with outdoor occupation from morning till night. There were no siestas in the afternoon or lazy dawdling over afternoon coffee in the heat of the day to remind him of long gossips with Toffy, and the evenings were shorter and not so difficult to fill.
'I 'm an awful bore, Ross!' said Peter, having sat silent from dinner-time until he went to bed one night; 'but I can't help it.'
'I know you can't,' said Ross kindly.
The big man, who was a poor player of cards at the best of times, became seized with a desire to learn picquet, and, strange as his method of consolation may have been, Peter knew what the good fellow meant by it, and taught him the game and got through the time somehow.
There was still no news of Purvis; the man seemed to have vanished in his own mysterious way, and nothing could be heard of him. It was ascertained that he was well supplied with money, and it was thought that, as his child would be incapable of any very long journeys or unusual hardships, the discovery of his whereabouts near home might lead to the discovery of the father. But the thing remained a mystery. Dunbar's long lean frame grew leaner than ever as he searched and journeyed and telegraphed without obtaining any results.
It was the boy who appeared first, and then without his father. Perhaps Purvis discovered that escape would be easier without the burden of the child, or it may have been that his queer affection for him had determined him to seek safety for the boy somewhere. But it was part of the man's extraordinary coolness that he should send him for Peter Ogilvie to look after.
The boy arrived at the estancia one night, a poor, tired little object, with a letter from his father in his pocket. The two had made their way as far as the province of Salta, and from there the boy had been sent to Taco, where, unaided, he had found a horse and had ridden over to the estancia. He was thin and weak-looking, and had evidently suffered a good deal from his many journeyings. Ross took him and looked after him, and gave him some light work on the farm to do, and there he remained while Dunbar journeyed to Salta, to find that Purvis had left the place long before he arrived. Only a woman at Rosario knew where he was, and this woman had learned not to tell. She had married Purvis years ago, soon after she arrived in Argentine to be governess to some English children. Her employers had not been kind to her, and in a country where comforts were few she had had less than her share of them. She was a girl of twenty then, and very pretty, and hers was a faithful heart; and, cynical as the expression may sound, she had had fidelity thrust upon her by the fact that she was utterly friendless in the world. When Purvis married her she went to him gladly. When he deserted her she even pretended to believe in him, for the pitiful reason that there was no one else in the whole of that strange land to whom she could turn. She was a woman to whom the easy excuse of business could always be used in the widest sense of the term, for she had been brought up to believe that that very comprehensive word signified something almost as mysterious as affairs of the spirit. It was not safe to assert of those who were engaged in business whence they came or whither they would go. Sometimes she did not see her husband for months, or even for a year at a time; he did not always share his abundant days with her, but he had nearly always come back to her when he was in trouble.
He arrived one night in Rosario without disguise of any sort, and knocked at her humble door in one of the meanest parts of the town. He was never beaten for long, and he announced to her that he wanted her help in a new scheme that he had planned. His fortune was to be made once more, but the scheme itself must remain hidden for a time. His wife, upon this occasion, was to help him by acting as cat's-paw.
'It's a big thing,' Purvis said, 'and will require all my strength;' and he announced his intention of remaining hidden in Rosario for a few weeks while he rested completely. But his chronic inability to sleep made rest impossible. He was calculating and adding up figures during the watches of the night, and his strange, light-coloured eyes, with the constant tear in them, became paler in colour and more suggestive of bad nerves. He began to find his calculations difficult to balance, and he even made some mistakes in his long rows of figures. The thing worried him and he began to wonder if his head were going. He had always overcome difficulties and had fought dangers with an absolute belief in his own success. He was unscrupulous and cunning, but he had never been beaten yet. It was horrible that sleep was the thing that he could not command; but, alas! the exercise of will-power is not the force by which sleep can be induced, and a placid or submissive mind was unknown to Purvis. His wife watched him anxiously. She would go for long walks with him in the early dawn or after it was dark, hoping that the fresh air and the cooler weather might bring some sort of repose to the wide-open pale eyes; but no sleep came, and Purvis took to swallowing more tabloids, and setting out his rows of figures in a nervous way, while his hand trembled and his plaintive voice became irritable, and his eyes watered more than they were wont to do.
He had money in hand, and it was some sort of comfort to his wife to be able to purchase for him the nourishing food which he required. She had often been in sore straits for money herself, but she believed, with pathetic conviction, that a woman can do with fewer comforts than a man can, and she had never felt deprivations for herself so much as she would have felt them for her husband. She cooked tempting dishes for him, and enjoyed his companionship, and asked no questions. She even allowed herself the purchase of a few new clothes now that money was plentiful again, and these days, even with the anxiety of her husband's ill-health hanging over her, were not by any means the unhappiest of her life.
'I shan't be able to pull this business through,' said Purvis one night, 'unless I sleep, and I can't live unless I succeed with it.'
He made his wife write innumerable letters for him in her own handwriting, and signed with an entirely new name. But it was difficult to transact these business affairs through the medium of another person, and even his meek wife might some day ask questions!
If only he could pull himself together and get a firmer grasp of things than he had at present! The commercial instinct was strong within him, and he had a genius for figures, but insomnia and the state of his nerves seemed to have deprived him of half his powers. He envied his wife her gentle breathing and her deep sleep; and he would often wake her in the night when he was most restless, and demand something at her hands—a very weak cup of tea, or a little milk and hot water—in order to hear the restoring sound of a human voice.
Lately, however, he had purchased a new sort of tabloid which he used sparingly, according to the chemist's directions, but at which he often looked longingly, believing that a little sleep lay within the tiny glass bottle.
He had lain awake for hours this night, noting the ticking of his watch, counting the hours as they struck on the neighbouring clock, falling sometimes into an uneasy slumber which lasted only a few minutes, and then waking at the sound of his own voice calling aloud in his sleep. He tried every plan and contrivance, however childish, by which men have sometimes courted slumber.
He lay in bed very still to-night, his wide-staring eyes looking into the darkness. He heard every hour as it struck, and his active brain refused to be quiet for a moment. Difficult things looked gigantic in the darkness, and everything upon which his thoughts dwelt became hopelessly exaggerated in his mind. Brandy and other stimulants had never been a temptation to him; his life had too often depended upon his wits for him to risk a muddled brain. But he still believed in tabloids; and as the day dawned, and light crept through the window, he looked longingly at the little glass vial lying on the dressing-table. It was three o'clock, and if only he could get a couple of hours' deep rest before the noise of the city began, he might yet be able to pull himself together and arrange his affairs.
He rose from the bed and went with unfaltering steps to the dressing-table and shook the tiny discs into the palm of his hand; and then he counted them deliberately.
'It's kill or cure!' he said, with that queer courage which never deserted him, even if it were based entirely upon self-seeking and self-interest. He threw his head back with the characteristic action with which he always swallowed his medicine, and went back to bed again.
Purvis slept; and it may have been that he was glad to sleep on for ever, for he was tired through and through, and the only way to escape failure was by death.
His wife mourned for him deeply and sincerely, as many better men have not been mourned. There was only one thing she dreaded in the whole world, and that was loneliness. She had endured so much of it in her lifetime, and now that her husband was gone, whom as a matter of necessity she had believed in, she was quite alone. She knew nothing of business, and it never struck her as strange that there should be money amounting to a considerable little fortune in a box in the house. With the fear of want removed the poor creature blossomed into youthfulness again, and she married an engineer on a new railway line, who was very good to her. To him she ever held up the late lamented Purvis as one of the best of husbands, and one, too, who had left her well provided for.
Peter and Jane were married the following autumn with the ring which Toffy had kept wrapped up in a piece of tissue paper in his waistcoat pocket.
For a description of the general rejoicings the almost hysterical paragraphs in the Culversham local paper must be consulted. Columns of print were devoted to accounts of feastings and fireworks, tenants' dinners, and school-children's teas.
In order to understand and really appreciate the full interest of the occasion one would have had to be at Tetley Place on the morning of the 26th of October last year. Miss Abingdon was in her most bustling, her most uncompromising mood, and from an early hour of the morning she was so severe in her speech, and so absolutely radiant in her expression, that it was very difficult indeed to know how to treat her.
Canon Wrottesley, who still believed that his wife was only feeling the effects of the winter weather, the spring weather, the summer weather, or the autumn weather, was as gay and debonair as usual, and even at the wedding it was felt that he was in some sort the centre of things. He had his usual group of admirers about him, and was so gracious and charming, so patriarchal one moment and so boyish the next, that his popularity was not to be wondered at. The very school-children, as they threw their flowers, glanced upwards at the canon for his approval.
Mrs. Avory, dressed in black, went very quietly to the wedding with her little girl beside her. She wept sadly during the service, but she looked stronger now, and less suffering than she had been wont to do. A niche seemed to have been found for her in the village of Culversham, where she loved the poor people, and went about amongst the cottages, and read to sick folk, and was happier, perhaps, than she quite knew, in her own pathetic little way.
Kitty Sherard was bridesmaid and never cried at all. She wore rose-colour, and carried Jane's bouquet, and during the whole of the long day she smiled and was admired, and behaved as a bridesmaid in rose-colour should. It is a comforting supposition, which many people hold as a belief, that there are guardian angels, or spirits, which watch round the beds of those who weep. Such a spirit, keeping watch at Kitty Sherard's bed that night, and hearing her sobbing, may have known something of her sorrow. Soldiers—men tell us who have seen many battlefields—cover their faces when they are wounded, so that their comrades may not see their drawn features and their pain. And women wait until the lights are out before they begin to cry.
Perhaps a certain joy of living will come back to Kitty when hounds are running and a good horse carries her well. To-night in the dark she felt nothing but an intolerable sense of loss. Probably in a sorrow of this sort the ache of it consists in a curious longing to get up and go at once somewhere—anywhere—to the one who is loved, and the blankness and the pity of it all centres round the fact that this is impossible. The impotence of the feeling increases as means of communication in this life are made easier. It seems absurd that, whereas we may actually speak and hear the voice in reply of those who answer us while we are hundreds of miles apart, there yet should be an insuperable barrier between ourselves and those who, for aught we know, may be quite near us. It seems almost as though we must be under a spell which prevents the communication which we long for, and as though almost any day we may wake up to find how unreal the separation is, Kitty buried her face in the pillow and called Toffy's name, and—who knows?—perhaps he heard her.
Sometimes I think Mrs. Avory may marry again, for her husband is rapidly getting through his life in a laudable endeavour to live every day of it, and there are times when I wonder if, in years to come, I may see her established as the gentle and admiring wife of our handsome country vicar, doing good all her days in her timid faithful way.
But I cannot think of Kitty Sherard as caring for any one except the boy who, whatever his faults may have been, had never an unkind or ungentle thought of any man or woman, and who played the game as honourably as he knew it, and then laid down his life in the simple manner of a gentleman.
Peter will never forget him. When he has boys of his own he will call them after his dead friend's name, and will tell them absurd stories about him, for even when his name has become only a memory it will be surrounded with something lovably humorous. His old jokes and stories are much more a reality than his death. He often risked his life for a good sporting race; and he did not grudge giving it up during that last lap in the Argentine River when day was breaking. He was trying to help a friend to do the right sort of thing at considerable cost to them both, and, when all is said and done, none of us can do much better than that.
Well, good luck and long life to bride and bride-groom! They love each other in a manner refreshingly whole-hearted and delightful, and we will, if you please, ring down the curtain upon them in orthodox fashion to the sound of wedding-bells. Good luck to Kitty, who will never tell her mad little stories again, or enjoy herself as she used to do when she goes to race-meetings or drives her horses tandem through the lanes. Good luck to Mrs. Avory, with her pathetic brown eyes, doing her daily work amongst the poor; and to the genial vicar and his wife. Good luck to all our friends in this book, and to you, dear reader, who have followed them so far.
And so, good-bye.