An urchin, leaping on the step to spy in Kirkwood's window, fell off, yelping, as the driver's whiplash curled about his shanks.
The gloom of the tunnel inclosed them briefly ere the lights of the Hog-in-the-Pound flashed by and the wheels began to roll more easily. Kirkwood drew back with a sigh of relief.
"Thank God!" he said softly.
The girl had no words.
Worried by her silence, solicitous lest, the strain ended, she might be on the point of fainting, he let up the shade and lowered the window at her side.
She seemed to have collapsed in her corner. Against the dark upholstery her hair shone like pale gold in the half-light; her eyes were closed and she held a handkerchief to her lips; the other hand lay limp.
She started, and something bulky fell from the seat and thumped heavily on the floor. Kirkwood bent to pick it up, and so for the first time was made aware that she had brought with her a small black gladstone bag of considerable weight. As he placed it on the forward seat their eyes met.
"I didn't know—" he began.
"It was to get that," she hastened to explain, "that my father sent me ..."
"Yes," he assented in a tone indicating his complete comprehension. "I trust ..." he added vaguely, and neglected to complete the observation, losing himself in a maze of conjecture not wholly agreeable. This was a new phase of the adventure. He eyed the bag uneasily. What did it contain? How did he know ...?
Hastily he abandoned that line of thought. He had no right to infer anything whatever, who had thrust himself uninvited into her concerns—uninvited, that was to say, in the second instance, having been once definitely given his conge. Inevitably, however, a thousand unanswerable questions pestered him; just as, at each fresh facet of mystery disclosed by the sequence of the adventure, his bewilderment deepened.
The girl stirred restlessly. "I have been thinking," she volunteered in a troubled tone, "that there is absolutely no way I know of, to thank you properly."
"It is enough if I've been useful," he rose in gallantry to the emergency.
"That," she commented, "was very prettily said. But then I have never known any one more kind and courteous and—and considerate, than you." There was no savor of flattery in the simple and direct statement; indeed, she was looking away from him, out of the window, and her face was serious with thought; she seemed to be speaking of, rather than to, Kirkwood. "And I have been wondering," she continued with unaffected candor, "what you must be thinking of me."
"I? ... What should I think of you, Miss Calendar?"
With the air of a weary child she laid her head against the cushions again, face to him, and watched him through lowered lashes, unsmiling.
"You might be thinking that an explanation is due you. Even the way we were brought together was extraordinary, Mr. Kirkwood. You must be very generous, as generous as you have shown yourself brave, not to require some sort of an explanation of me."
"I don't see it that way."
"I do ... You have made me like you very much, Mr. Kirkwood."
He shot her a covert glance—causelessly, for her naivete was flawless. With a feeling of some slight awe he understood this—a sensation of sincere reverence for the unspoiled, candid, child's heart and mind that were hers. "I'm glad," he said simply; "very glad, if that's the case, and presupposing I deserve it. Personally," he laughed, "I seem to myself to have been rather forward."
"No; only kind and a gentleman."
"But—please!" he protested.
"Oh, but I mean it, every word! Why shouldn't I? In a little while, ten minutes, half an hour, we shall have seen the last of each other. Why should I not tell you how I appreciate all that you have unselfishly done for me?"
"If you put it that way,—I'm sure I don't know; beyond that it embarrasses me horribly to have you overestimate me so. If any courage has been shown this night, it is yours ... But I'm forgetting again." He thought to divert her. "Where shall I tell the cabby to go this time, Miss Calendar?"
"Craven Street, please," said the girl, and added a house number. "I am to meet my father there, with this,"—indicating the gladstone bag.
Kirkwood thrust head and shoulders out the window and instructed the cabby accordingly; but his ruse had been ineffectual, as he found when he sat back again. Quite composedly the girl took up the thread of conversation where it had been broken off.
"It's rather hard to keep silence, when you've been so good. I don't want you to think me less generous than yourself, but, truly, I can tell you nothing." She sighed a trace resentfully; or so he thought. "There is little enough in this—this wretched affair, that I understand myself; and that little, I may not tell ... I want you to know that."
"I understand, Miss Calendar."
"There's one thing I may say, however. I have done nothing wrong to-night, I believe," she added quickly.
"I've never for an instant questioned that," he returned with a qualm of shame; for what he said was not true.
"Thank you ..."
The four-wheeler swung out of Oxford Street into Charing Cross Road. Kirkwood noted the fact with a feeling of some relief that their ride was to be so short; like many of his fellow-sufferers from "the artistic temperament," he was acutely disconcerted by spoken words of praise and gratitude; Miss Calendar, unintentionally enough, had succeeded only in rendering him self-conscious and ill at ease.
Nor had she fully relieved her mind, nor voiced all that perturbed her. "There's one thing more," she said presently: "my father. I—I hope you will think charitably of him."
"Indeed, I've no reason or right to think otherwise."
"I was afraid—afraid his actions might have seemed peculiar, to-night ..."
"There are lots of things I don't understand, Miss Calendar. Some day, perhaps, it will all clear up,—this trouble of yours. At least, one supposes it is trouble, of some sort. And then you will tell me the whole story.... Won't you?" Kirkwood insisted.
"I'm afraid not," she said, with a smile of shadowed sadness. "We are to say good night in a moment or two, and—it will be good-by as well. It's unlikely that we shall ever meet again."
"I refuse positively to take such a gloomy view of the case!"
She shook her head, laughing with him, but with shy regret. "It's so, none the less. We are leaving London this very night, my father and I—leaving England, for that matter."
"Leaving England?" he echoed. "You're not by any chance bound for America, are you?"
"I ... can't tell you."
"But you can tell me this: are you booked on the Minneapolis?"
"No—o; it is a—quite another boat."
"Of course!" he commented savagely. "It wouldn't be me to have any sort of luck!"
She made no reply beyond a low laugh. He stared gloomily out of his window, noting indifferently that they were passing the National Gallery. On their left Trafalgar Square stretched, broad and bare, a wilderness of sooty stone with an air of mutely tolerating its incongruous fountains. Through Charing Cross roared a tide-rip of motor-busses and hackney carriages.
Glumly the young man foresaw the passing of his abbreviated romance; their destination was near at hand. Brentwick had been right, to some extent, at least; it was quite true that the curtain had been rung up that very night, upon Kirkwood's Romance; unhappily, as Brentwick had not foreseen, it was immediately to be rung down.
The cab rolled soberly into the Strand.
"Since we are to say good-by so very soon," suggested Kirkwood, "may I ask a parting favor, Miss Calendar?"
She regarded him with friendly eyes. "You have every right," she affirmed gently.
"Then please to tell me frankly: are you going into any further danger?"
"And is that the only boon you crave at my hands, Mr. Kirkwood?"
"Without impertinence ..."
For a little time, waiting for him to conclude his vague phrase, she watched him in an expectant silence. But the man was diffident to a degree—At length, somewhat unconsciously, "I think not," she answered. "No; there will be no danger awaiting me at Mrs. Hallam's. You need not fear for me any more—Thank you."
He lifted his brows at the unfamiliar name. "Mrs. Hallam—?"
"I am going to her house in Craven Street."
"Your father is to meet you there?"—persistently.
"He promised to."
"But if he shouldn't?"
"Why—" Her eyes clouded; she pursed her lips over the conjectural annoyance. "Why, in that event, I suppose—It would be very embarrassing. You see, I don't know Mrs. Hallam; I don't know that she expects me, unless my father is already there. They are old friends—I could drive round for a while and come back, I suppose."
But she made it plain that the prospect did not please her.
"Won't you let me ask if Mr. Calender is there, before you get out, then? I don't like to be dismissed," he laughed; "and, you know, you shouldn't go wandering round all alone."
The cab drew up. Kirkwood put a hand on the door and awaited her will.
"It—it would be very kind ... I hate to impose upon you."
He turned the knob and got out. "If you'll wait one moment," he said superfluously, as he closed the door.
Pausing only to verify the number, he sprang up the steps and found the bell-button.
It was a modest little residence, in nothing more remarkable than its neighbors, unless it was for a certain air of extra grooming: the area railing was sleek with fresh black paint; the doorstep looked the better for vigorous stoning; the door itself was immaculate, its brasses shining lustrous against red-lacquered woodwork. A soft glow filled the fanlight. Overhead the drawing-room windows shone with a cozy, warm radiance.
The door opened, framing the figure of a maid sketched broadly in masses of somber black and dead white.
"Can you tell me, is Mr. Calendar here?"
The servant's eyes left his face, looked past him at the waiting cab, and returned.
"I'm not sure, sir. If you will please step in."
Kirkwood hesitated briefly, then acceded. The maid closed the door.
"What name shall I say, sir?"
"If you will please to wait one moment, sir—"
He was left in the entry hall, the servant hurrying to the staircase and up. Three minutes elapsed; he was on the point of returning to the girl, when the maid reappeared.
"Mrs. Hallam says, will you kindly step up-stairs, sir."
Disgruntled, he followed her; at the head of the stairs she bowed him into the drawing-room and again left him to his own resources.
Nervous, annoyed, he paced the floor from wall to wall, his footfalls silenced by heavy rugs. As the delay was prolonged he began to fume with impatience, wondering, half regretting that he had left the girl outside, definitely sorry that he had failed to name his errand more explicitly to the maid. At another time, in another mood, he might have accorded more appreciation to the charm of the apartment, which, betraying the feminine touch in every detail of arrangement and furnishing, was very handsome in an unconventional way. But he was quite heedless of externals.
Wearied, he deposited himself sulkily in an armchair by the hearth.
From a boudoir on the same floor there came murmurs of two voices, a man's and a woman's. The latter laughed prettily.
"Oh, any time!" snorted the American. "Any time you're through with your confounded flirtation, Mr. George B. Calendar!"
The voices rose, approaching. "Good night," said the woman gaily; "farewell and—good luck go with you!"
"Thank you. Good night," replied the man more conservatively.
Kirkwood rose, expectant.
There was a swish of draperies, and a moment later he was acknowledging the totally unlooked-for entrance of the mistress of the house. He had thought to see Calendar, presuming him to be the man closeted with Mrs. Hallam; but, whoever that had been, he did not accompany the woman. Indeed, as she advanced from the doorway, Kirkwood could hear the man's footsteps on the stairs.
"This is Mr. Kirkwood?" The note of inquiry in the well-trained voice—a very alluring voice and one pleasant to listen to, he thought—made it seem as though she had asked, point-blank, "Who is Mr. Kirkwood?"
He bowed, discovering himself in the presence of an extraordinarily handsome and interesting woman; a woman of years which as yet had not told upon her, of experience that had not availed to harden her, at least in so far as her exterior charm of personality was involved; a woman, in brief, who bore close inspection well, despite an elusive effect of maturity, not without its attraction for men. Kirkwood was impressed that it would be very easy to learn to like Mrs. Hallam more than well—with her approval.
Although he had not anticipated it, he was not at all surprised to recognize in her the woman who, if he were not mistaken, had slipped to Calendar that warning in the dining-room of the Pless. Kirkwood's state of mind had come to be such, through his experiences of the past few hours, that he would have accepted anything, however preposterous, as a commonplace happening. But for that matter there was nothing particularly astonishing in this rencontre.
"I am Mrs. Hallam. You were asking for Mr. Calendar?"
"He was to have been here at this hour, I believe," said Kirkwood.
"Yes?" There was just the right inflection of surprise in her carefully controlled tone.
He became aware of an undercurrent of feeling; that the woman was estimating him shrewdly with her fine direct eyes. He returned her regard with admiring interest; they were gray-green eyes, deep-set but large, a little shallow, a little changeable, calling to mind the sea on a windy, cloudy day.
Below stairs a door slammed.
"I am not a detective, Mrs. Hallam," announced the young man suddenly. "Mr. Calendar required a service of me this evening; I am here in natural consequence. If it was Mr. Calendar who left this house just now, I am wasting time."
"It was not Mr. Calendar." The fine-lined brows arched in surprise, real or pretended, at his first blurted words, and relaxed; amused, the woman laughed deliciously. "But I am expecting him any moment; he was to have been here half an hour since.... Won't you wait?"
She indicated, with a gracious gesture, a chair, and took for herself one end of a davenport. "I'm sure he won't be long, now."
"Thank you, I will return, if I may." Kirkwood moved toward the door.
"But there's no necessity—" She seemed insistent on detaining him, possibly because she questioned his motive, possibly for her own divertisement.
Kirkwood deprecated his refusal with a smile. "The truth is, Miss Calendar is waiting in a cab, outside. I—"
"Dorothy Calendar!" Mrs. Hallam rose alertly. "But why should she wait there? To be sure, we've never met; but I have known her father for many years." Her eyes held steadfast to his face; shallow, flawed by her every thought, like the sea by a cat's-paw he found them altogether inscrutable; yet received an impression that their owner was now unable to account for him.
She swung about quickly, preceding him to the door and down the stairs. "I am sure Dorothy will come in to wait, if I ask her," she told Kirkwood in a high sweet voice. "I'm so anxious to know her. It's quite absurd, really, of her—to stand on ceremony with me, when her father made an appointment here. I'll run out and ask—"
Mrs. Hallam's slim white fingers turned latch and knob, opening the street door, and her voice died away as she stepped out into the night. For a moment, to Kirkwood, tagging after her with an uncomfortable sense of having somehow done the wrong thing, her figure—full fair shoulders and arms rising out of the glittering dinner gown—cut a gorgeous silhouette against the darkness. Then, with a sudden, imperative gesture, she half turned towards him.
"But," she exclaimed, perplexed, gazing to right and left, "but the cab, Mr. Kirkwood?"
He was on the stoop a second later. Standing beside her, he stared blankly.
To the left the Strand roared, the stream of its night-life in high spate; on the right lay the Embankment, comparatively silent and deserted, if brilliant with its high-swung lights. Between the two, quiet Craven Street ran, short and narrow, and wholly innocent of any form of equipage.
In silence Mrs. Hallam turned to Kirkwood, her pose in itself a question and a peremptory one. Her eyes had narrowed; between their lashes the green showed, a thin edge like jade, cold and calculating. The firm lines of her mouth and chin had hardened.
Temporarily dumb with consternation, he returned her stare as silently.
"Mrs. Hallam," he stammered, "I—"
She lifted her shoulders impatiently and with a quick movement stepped back across the threshold, where she paused, a rounded arm barring the entrance, one hand grasping the door-knob, as if to shut him out at any moment.
"I'm awaiting your explanation," she said coldly.
He grinned with nervousness, striving to penetrate the mental processes of this handsome Mrs. Hallam. She seemed to regard him with a suspicion which he thought inexcusable. Did she suppose he had spirited Dorothy Calendar away and then called to apprise her of the fact? Or that he was some sort of an adventurer, who had manufactured a plausible yarn to gain him access to her home? Or—harking back to her original theory—that he was an emissary from Scotland Yard? ... Probably she distrusted him on the latter hypothesis. The reflection left him more at ease.
"I am quite as mystified as you, Mrs. Hallam," he began. "Miss Calendar was here, at this door, in a four-wheeler, not ten minutes ago, and—"
"Then where is she now?"
"Tell me where Calendar is," he retorted, inspired, "and I'll try to answer you!"
But her eyes were blank. "You mean—?"
"That Calendar was in this house when I came; that he left, found his daughter in the cab, and drove off with her. It's clear enough."
"You are quite mistaken," she said thoughtfully. "George Calendar has not been here this night."
He wondered that she did not seem to resent his imputation. "I think not—"
"Listen!" she cried, raising a warning hand; and relaxing her vigilant attitude, moved forward once more, to peer down toward the Embankment.
A cab had cut in from that direction and was bearing down upon them with a brisk rumble of hoofs. As it approached, Kirkwood's heart, that had lightened, was weighed upon again by disappointment. It was no four-wheeler, but a hansom, and the open wings of the apron, disclosing a white triangle of linen surmounted by a glowing spot of fire, betrayed the sex of the fare too plainly to allow of further hope that it might be the girl returning.
At the door, the cab pulled up sharply and a man tumbled hastily out upon the sidewalk.
"Here!" he cried throatily, tossing the cabby his fare, and turned toward the pair upon the doorstep, evidently surmising that something was amiss. For he was Calendar in proper person, and a sight to upset in a twinkling Kirkwood's ingeniously builded castle of suspicion.
"Mrs. Hallam!" he cried, out of breath. "'S my daughter here?" And then, catching sight of Kirkwood's countenance: "Why, hello, Kirkwood!" he saluted him with a dubious air.
The woman interrupted hastily. "Please come in, Mr. Calendar. This gentleman has been inquiring for you, with an astonishing tale about your daughter."
"Dorothy!" Calendar's moon-like visage was momentarily divested of any trace of color. "What of her?"
"You had better come in," advised Mrs. Hallam brusquely.
The fat adventurer hopped hurriedly across the threshold, Kirkwood following. The woman shut the door, and turned with back to it, nodding significantly at Kirkwood as her eyes met Calendar's.
"Well, well?" snapped the latter impatiently, turning to the young man.
But Kirkwood was thinking quickly. For the present he contented himself with a deliberate statement of fact: "Miss Calendar has disappeared." It gave him an instant's time ... "There's something damned fishy!" he told himself. "These two are playing at cross-purposes. Calendar's no fool; he's evidently a crook, to boot. As for the woman, she's had her eyes open for a number of years. The main thing's Dorothy. She didn't vanish of her own initiative. And Mrs. Hallam knows, or suspects, more than she's going to tell. I don't think she wants Dorothy found. Calendar does. So do I. Ergo: I'm for Calendar."
"Disappeared?" Calendar was barking at him. "How? When? Where?"
"Within ten minutes," said Kirkwood. "Here, let's get it straight.... With her permission I brought her here in a four-wheeler." He was carefully suppressing all mention of Frognall Street, and in Calendar's glance read approval of the elision. "She didn't want to get out, unless you were here. I asked for you. The maid showed me up-stairs. I left your daughter in the cab—and by the way, I hadn't paid the driver. That's funny, too! Perhaps six or seven minutes after I came in Mrs. Hallam found out that Miss Calendar was with me and wanted to ask her in. When we got to the door—no cab. There you have it all."
"Thanks—it's plenty," said Calendar dryly. He bent his head in thought for an instant, then looked up and fixed Mrs. Hallam with an unprejudiced eye, "I say!" he demanded explosively. "There wasn't any one here that knew—eh?"
Her fine eyes wavered and fell before his; and Kirkwood remarked that her under lip was curiously drawn in.
"I heard a man leave as Mrs. Hallam joined me," he volunteered helpfully, and with a suspicion of malice. "And after that—I paid no attention at the time—it seems to me I did hear a cab in the street—"
"Ow?" interjected Calendar, eying the woman steadfastly and employing an exclamation of combined illumination and inquiry more typically British than anything Kirkwood had yet heard from the man.
For her part, the look she gave Kirkwood was sharp with fury. It was more; it was a mistake, a flaw in her diplomacy; for Calendar intercepted it. Unceremoniously he grasped her bare arm with his fat hand.
"Tell me who it was," he demanded in an ugly tone.
She freed herself with a twist, and stepped back, a higher color in her cheeks, a flash of anger in her eyes.
"Mr. Mulready," she retorted defiantly. "What of that?"
"I wish I was sure," declared the fat adventurer, exasperated. "As it is, I bet a dollar you've put your foot in it, my lady. I warned you of that blackguard.... There! The mischief's done; we won't row over it. One moment." He begged it with a wave of his hand; stood pondering briefly, fumbled for his watch, found and consulted it. "It's the barest chance," he muttered. "Perhaps we can make it."
"What are you going to do?" asked the woman.
"Give Mister Mulready a run for his money. Come along, Kirkwood; we haven't a minute. Mrs. Hallam, permit us...." She stepped aside and he brushed past her to the door. "Come, Kirkwood!"
He seemed to take Kirkwood's company for granted; and the young man was not inclined to argue the point. Meekly enough he fell in with Calendar on the sidewalk. Mrs. Hallam followed them out. "You won't forget?" she called tentatively.
"I'll 'phone you if we find out anything." Calendar jerked the words unceremoniously over his shoulder as, linking arms with Kirkwood, he drew him swiftly along. They heard her shut the door; instantly Calendar stopped. "Look here, did Dorothy have a—a small parcel with her?"
"She had a gladstone bag."
"Oh, the devil, the devil!" Calendar started on again, muttering distractedly. As they reached the corner he disengaged his arm. "We've a minute and a half to reach Charing Cross Pier; and I think it's the last boat. You set the pace, will you? But remember I'm an oldish man and—and fat."
They began to run, the one easily, the other lumbering after like an old-fashioned square-rigged ship paced by a liner.
Beneath the railway bridge, in front of the Underground station, the cab-rank cried them on with sardonic view-halloos; and a bobby remarked them with suspicion, turning to watch as they plunged round the corner and across the wide Embankment.
The Thames appeared before them, a river of ink on whose burnished surface lights swam in long winding streaks and oily blobs. By the floating pier a County Council steamboat strained its hawsers, snoring huskily. Bells were jingling in her engine-room as the two gained the head of the sloping gangway.
Kirkwood slapped a shilling down on the ticket-window ledge. "Where to?" he cried back to Calendar.
"Cherry Gardens Pier," rasped the winded man. He stumbled after Kirkwood, groaning with exhaustion. Only the tolerance of the pier employees gained them their end; the steamer was held some seconds for them; as Calendar staggered to its deck, the gangway was jerked in, the last hawser cast off. The boat sheered wide out on the river, then shot in, arrow-like, to the pier beneath Waterloo Bridge.
The deck was crowded and additional passengers embarked at every stop. In the circumstances conversation, save on the most impersonal topics, was impossible; and even had it been necessary or advisable to discuss the affair which occupied their minds, where so many ears could hear, Calendar had breath enough neither to answer nor to catechize Kirkwood. They found seats on the forward deck and rested there in grim silence, both fretting under the enforced restraint, while the boat darted, like some illuminated and exceptionally active water insect, from pier to pier.
As it snorted beneath London Bridge, Calendar's impatience drove him from his seat back to the gangway. "Next stop," he told Kirkwood curtly; and rested his heavy bulk against the paddle-box, brooding morosely, until, after an uninterrupted run of more than a mile, the steamer swept in, side-wheels backing water furiously against the ebbing tide, to Cherry Gardens landing.
Sweet name for a locality unsavory beyond credence! ... As they emerged on the street level and turned west on Bermondsey Wall, Kirkwood was fain to tug his top-coat over his chest and button it tight, to hide his linen. In a guarded tone he counseled his companion to do likewise; and Calendar, after a moment's blank, uncomprehending stare, acknowledged the wisdom of the advice with a grunt.
The very air they breathed was rank with fetid odors bred of the gaunt dark warehouses that lined their way; the lights were few; beneath the looming buildings the shadows were many and dense. Here and there dreary and cheerless public houses appeared, with lighted windows conspicuous in a lightless waste. From time to time, as they hurried on, they encountered, and made wide detours to escape contact with knots of wayfarers—men debased and begrimed, with dreary and slatternly women, arm in arm, zigzaging widely across the sidewalks, chorusing with sodden voices the burden of some popularized ballad. The cheapened, sentimental refrains echoed sadly between benighted walls....
Kirkwood shuddered, sticking close to Calendar's side. Life's naked brutalities had theretofore been largely out of his ken. He had heard of slums, had even ventured to mouth politely moral platitudes on the subject of overcrowding in great centers of population, but in the darkest flights of imagination had never pictured to himself anything so unspeakably foul and hopeless as this.... And they were come hither seeking—Dorothy Calendar! He was unable to conceive what manner of villainy could be directed against her, that she must be looked for in such surroundings.
After some ten minutes' steady walking, Calendar turned aside with a muttered word, and dived down a covered, dark and evil-smelling passageway that seemed to lead toward the river.
Mastering his involuntary qualms, Kirkwood followed.
Some ten or twelve paces from its entrance the passageway swerved at a right angle, continuing three yards or so to end in a blank wall, wherefrom a flickering, inadequate gas-lamp jutted. At this point a stone platform, perhaps four feet square, was discovered, from the edge of which a flight of worn and slimy stone steps led down to a permanent boat-landing, where another gas-light flared gustily despite the protection of its frame of begrimed glass.
"Good Lord!" exclaimed the young man. "What, in Heaven's name, Calendar—?"
"Bermondsey Old Stairs. Come on."
They descended to the landing-stage. Beneath them the Pool slept, a sheet of polished ebony, whispering to itself, lapping with small stealthy gurgles angles of masonry and ancient piles. On the farther bank tall warehouses reared square old-time heads, their uncompromising, rugged profile relieved here and there by tapering mastheads. A few, scattering, feeble lights were visible. Nothing moved save the river and the wind.
The landing itself they found quite deserted; something which the adventurer comprehended with a nod which, like its accompanying, inarticulate ejaculation, might have been taken to indicate either satisfaction or disgust. He ignored Kirkwood altogether, for the time being, and presently produced a small, bright object, which, applied to his lips, proved to be a boatswain's whistle. He sounded two blasts, one long, one brief.
There fell a lull, Kirkwood watching the other and wondering what next would happen. Calendar paced restlessly to and fro upon the narrow landing, now stopping to incline an ear to catch some anticipated sound, now searching with sweeping glances the black reaches of the Pool.
Finally, consulting his watch, "Almost ten," he announced.
"We're in time?"
"Can't say.... Damn! ... If that infernal boat would only show up—"
He was lifting the whistle to sound a second summons when a rowboat rounded a projecting angle formed by the next warehouse down stream, and with clanking oar-locks swung in toward the landing. On her thwarts two figures, dipping and rising, labored with the sweeps. As they drew in, the man forward shipped his blades, and rising, scrambled to the bows in order to grasp an iron mooring-ring set in the wall. The other awkwardly took in his oars and, as the current swung the stern downstream, placed a hand palm downward upon the bottom step to hold the boat steady.
Calendar waddled to the brink of the stage, grunting with relief.
"The other man?" he asked brusquely. "Has he gone aboard? Or is this the first trip to-night?"
One of the watermen nodded assent to the latter question, adding gruffly: "Seen nawthin' of 'im, sir."
"Very good," said Calendar, as if he doubted whether it were very good or bad. "We'll wait a bit."
"Right-o!" agreed the waterman civilly.
Calendar turned back, his small eyes glimmering with satisfaction. Fumbling in one coat pocket he brought to light a cigar-case. "Have a smoke?" he suggested with a show of friendliness. "By Heaven, I was beginnin' to get worried!"
"As to what?" inquired Kirkwood pointedly, selecting a cigar.
He got no immediate reply, but felt Calendar's sharp eyes upon him while he manoeuvered with matches for a light.
"That's so," it came at length. "You don't know. I kind of forgot for a minute; somehow you seemed on the inside."
Kirkwood laughed lightly. "I've experienced something of the same sensation in the past few hours."
"Don't doubt it." Calendar was watching him narrowly. "I suppose," he put it to him abruptly, "you haven't changed your mind?"
"Changed my mind?"
"About coming in with me."
"My dear sir, I can have no mind to change until a plain proposition is laid before me."
"Hmm!" Calendar puffed vigorously until it occurred to him to change the subject. "You won't mind telling me what happened to you and Dorothy?"
Calendar drew nearer and Kirkwood, lowering his voice, narrated briefly the events since he had left the Pless in Dorothy's company.
Her father followed him intently, interrupting now and again with exclamation or pertinent question; as, Had Kirkwood been able to see the face of the man in No. 9, Frognall Street? The negative answer seemed to disconcert him.
"Youngster, you say? Blam' if I can lay my mind to him! Now if that Mulready—"
"It would have been impossible for Mulready—whoever he is—to recover and get to Craven Street before we did," Kirkwood pointed out.
"Well—go on." But when the tale was told, "It's that scoundrel, Mulready!" the man affirmed with heat. "It's his hand—I know him. I might have had sense enough to see he'd take the first chance to hand me the double-cross. Well, this does for him, all right!" Calendar lowered viciously at the river. "You've been blame' useful," he told Kirkwood assertively. "If it hadn't been for you, I don't know where I'd be now,—nor Dorothy, either,"—an obvious afterthought. "There's no particular way I can show my appreciation, I suppose? Money—?"
"I've got enough to last me till I reach New York, thank you."
"Well, if the time ever comes, just shout for George B. I won't be wanting.... I only wish you were with us; but that's out of the question."
"No two ways about it. I bet anything you've got a conscience concealed about your person. What? You're an honest man, eh?"
"I don't want to sound immodest," returned Kirkwood, amused.
"You don't need to worry about that.... But an honest man's got no business in my line." He glanced again at his watch. "Damn that Mulready! I wonder if he was 'cute enough to take another way? Or did he think ... The fool!"
He cut off abruptly, seeming depressed by the thought that he might have been outwitted; and, clasping hands behind his back, chewed savagely on his cigar, watching the river. Kirkwood found himself somewhat wearied; the uselessness of his presence there struck him with added force. He bethought him of his boat-train, scheduled to leave a station miles distant, in an hour and a half. If he missed it, he would be stranded in a foreign land, penniless and practically without friends—Brentwick being away and all the rest of his circle of acquaintances on the other side of the Channel. Yet he lingered, in poor company, daring fate that he might see the end of the affair. Why?
There was only one honest answer to that question. He stayed on because of his interest in a girl whom he had known for a matter of three hours, at most. It was insensate folly on his part, ridiculous from any point of view. But he made no move to go.
The slow minutes lengthened monotonously.
There came a sound from the street level. Calendar held up a hand of warning. "Here they come! Steady!" he said tensely. Kirkwood, listening intently, interpreted the noise as a clash of hoofs upon cobbles.
Calendar turned to the boat.
"Sheer off," he ordered. "Drop out of sight. I'll whistle when I want you."
"Aye, aye, sir."
The boat slipped noiselessly away with the current and in an instant was lost to sight. Calendar plucked at Kirkwood's sleeve, drawing him into the shadow of the steps. "E-easy," he whispered; "and, I say, lend me a hand, will you, if Mulready turns ugly?"
"Oh, yes," assented Kirkwood, with a nonchalance not entirely unassumed.
The racket drew nearer and ceased; the hush that fell thereafter seemed only accentuated by the purling of the river. It was ended by footsteps echoing in the covered passageway. Calendar craned his thick neck round the shoulder of stone, reconnoitering the landing and stairway.
"Thank God!" he said under his breath. "I was right, after all!"
A man's deep tones broke out above. "This way. Mind the steps; they're a bit slippery, Miss Dorothy."
"But my father—?" came the girl's voice, attuned to doubt.
"Oh, he'll be along—if he isn't waiting now, in the boat."
They descended, the man leading. At the foot, without a glance to right or left, he advanced to the edge of the stage, leaning out over the rail as if endeavoring to locate the rowboat. At once the girl appeared, moving to his side.
"But, Mr. Mulready—"
The girl's words were drowned by a prolonged blast on the boatswain's whistle at her companion's lips; the shorter one followed in due course. Calendar edged forward from Kirkwood's side.
"But what shall we do if my father isn't here? Wait?"
"No; best not to; best to get on the Alethea as soon as possible, Miss Calendar. We can send the boat back."
"'Once aboard the lugger the girl is mine'—eh, Mulready?—to say nothing of the loot!"
If Calendar's words were jocular, his tone conveyed a different impression entirely. Both man and girl wheeled right about to face him, the one with a strangled oath, the other with a low cry.
"The devil!" exclaimed this Mr. Mulready.
"Oh! My father!" the girl voiced her recognition of him.
"Not precisely one and the same person," commented Calendar suavely. "But—er—thanks, just as much.... You see, Mulready, when I make an appointment, I keep it."
"We'd begun to get a bit anxious about you—" Mulready began defensively.
"So I surmised, from what Mrs. Hallam and Mr. Kirkwood told me.... Well?"
The man found no ready answer. He fell back a pace to the railing, his features working with his deep chagrin. The murky flare of the gas-lamp overhead fell across a face handsome beyond the ordinary but marred by a sullen humor and seamed with indulgence: a face that seemed hauntingly familiar until Kirkwood in a flash of visual memory reconstructed the portrait of a man who lingered over a dining-table, with two empty chairs for company. This, then, was he whom Mrs. Hallam had left at the Pless; a tall, strong man, very heavy about the chest and shoulders....
"Why, my dear friend," Calendar was taunting him, "you don't seem overjoyed to see me, for all your wild anxiety! 'Pon my word, you act as if you hadn't expected me—and our engagement so clearly understood, at that! ... Why, you fool!"—here the mask of irony was cast. "Did you think for a moment I'd let myself be nabbed by that yap from Scotland Yard? Were you banking on that? I give you my faith I ambled out under his very nose! ... Dorothy, my dear," turning impatiently from Mulready, "where's that bag?"
The girl withdrew a puzzled gaze from Mulready's face, (it was apparent to Kirkwood that this phase of the affair was no more enigmatic to him than to her), and drew aside a corner of her cloak, disclosing the gladstone bag, securely grasped in one gloved hand.
"I have it, thanks to Mr. Kirkwood," she said quietly.
Kirkwood chose that moment to advance from the shadow. Mulready started and fixed him with a troubled and unfriendly stare. The girl greeted him with a note of sincere pleasure in her surprise.
"Why, Mr. Kirkwood! ... But I left you at Mrs. Hallam's!"
Kirkwood bowed, smiling openly at Mulready's discomfiture.
"By your father's grace, I came with him," he said. "You ran away without saying good night, you know, and I'm a jealous creditor."
She laughed excitedly, turning to Calendar. "But you were to meet me at Mrs. Hallam's?"
"Mulready was good enough to try to save me the trouble, my dear. He's an unselfish soul, Mulready. Fortunately it happened that I came along not five minutes after he'd carried you off. How was that, Dorothy?"
Her glance wavered uneasily between the two, Mulready and her father. The former, shrugging to declare his indifference, turned his back squarely upon them. She frowned.
"He came out of Mrs. Hallam's and got into the four-wheeler, saying you had sent him to take your place, and would join us on the Alethea."
"So-o! How about it, Mulready?"
The man swung back slowly. "What you choose to think," he said after a deliberate pause.
"Well, never mind! We'll go over the matter at our leisure on the Alethea."
There was in the adventurer's tone a menace, bitter and not to be ignored; which Mulready saw fit to challenge.
"I think not," he declared; "I think not. I'm weary of your addle-pated suspicions. It'd be plain to any one but a fool that I acted for the best interests of all concerned in this matter. If you're not content to see it in that light, I'm done."
"Oh, if you want to put it that way, I'm not content, Mr. Mulready," retorted Calendar dangerously.
"Please yourself. I bid you good evening and—good-by." The man took a step toward the stairs.
Calendar dropped his right hand into his top-coat pocket. "Just a minute," he said sweetly, and Mulready stopped. Abruptly the fat adventurer's smoldering resentment leaped in flame. "That'll be about all, Mr. Mulready! 'Bout face, you hound, and get into that boat! D'you think I'll temporize with you till Doomsday? Then forget it. You're wrong, dead wrong. Your bluff's called, and"—with an evil chuckle—"I hold a full house, Mulready,—every chamber taken." He lifted meaningly the hand in the coat pocket. "Now, in with you."
With a grin and a swagger of pure bravado Mulready turned and obeyed. Unnoticed of any, save perhaps Calendar himself, the boat had drawn in at the stage a moment earlier. Mulready dropped into it and threw himself sullenly upon the midships thwart.
"Now, Dorothy, in you go, my dear," continued Calendar, with a self-satisfied wag of his head.
Half dazed, to all seeming, she moved toward the boat. With clumsy and assertive gallantry her father stepped before her, offering his hand,—his hand which she did not touch; for, in the act of descending, she remembered and swung impulsively back to Kirkwood.
"Good night, Mr. Kirkwood; good night,—I shan't forget."
He took her hand and bowed above it; but when his head was lifted, he still retained her fingers in a lingering clasp.
"Good night," he said reluctantly.
The crass incongruity of her in that setting smote him with renewed force. Young, beautiful, dainty, brilliant and graceful in her pretty evening gown, she figured strangely against the gloomy background of the river, in those dull and mean surroundings of dank stone and rusted iron. She was like (he thought extravagantly) a whiff of flower-fragrance lost in the miasmatic vapors of a slough.
The innocent appeal and allure of her face, upturned to his beneath the gas-light, wrought compassionately upon his sensitive and generous heart. He was aware of a little surge of blind rage against the conditions that had brought her to that spot, and against those whom he held responsible for those conditions.
In a sudden flush of daring he turned and nodded coolly to Calendar. "With your permission," he said negligently; and drew the girl aside to the angle of the stairway.
"Miss Calendar—" he began; but was interrupted.
Calendar had started toward him angrily.
Kirkwood calmly waved him back. "I want a word in private with your daughter, Mr. Calendar," he announced with quiet dignity. "I don't think you'll deny me? I've saved you some slight trouble to-night."
Disgruntled, the adventurer paused. "Oh—all right," he grumbled. "I don't see what ..." He returned to the boat.
"Forgive me, Miss Calendar," continued Kirkwood nervously. "I know I've no right to interfere, but—"
"Yes, Mr. Kirkwood?"
"—but hasn't this gone far enough?" he floundered unhappily. "I can't like the look of things. Are you sure—sure that it's all right—with you, I mean?"
She did not answer at once; but her eyes were kind and sympathetic. He plucked heart of their tolerance.
"It isn't too late, yet," he argued. "Let me take you to your friends,—you must have friends in the city. But this—this midnight flight down the Thames, this atmosphere of stealth and suspicion, this—"
"But my place is with my father, Mr. Kirkwood," she interposed. "I daren't doubt him—dare I?"
"I ... suppose not."
"So I must go with him.... I'm glad—thank you for caring, dear Mr. Kirkwood. And again, good night."
"Good luck attend you," he muttered, following her to the boat.
Calendar helped her in and turned back to Kirkwood with a look of arch triumph; Kirkwood wondered if he had overheard. Whether or no, he could afford to be magnanimous. Seizing Kirkwood's hand, he pumped it vigorously.
"My dear boy, you've been an angel in disguise! And I guess you think me the devil in masquerade." He chuckled, in high conceit with himself over the turn of affairs. "Good night and—and fare thee well!" He dropped into the boat, seating himself to face the recalcitrant Mulready. "Cast off, there!"
The boat dropped away, the oars lifting and falling. With a weariful sense of loneliness and disappointment, Kirkwood hung over the rail to watch them out of sight.
A dozen feet of water lay between the stage and the boat. The girl's dress remained a spot of cheerful color; her face was a blur. As the watermen swung the bows down-stream, she looked back, lifting an arm spectral in its white sheath. Kirkwood raised his hat.
The boat gathered impetus, momentarily diminishing in the night's illusory perspective; presently it was little more than a fugitive blot, gliding swiftly in midstream. And then, it was gone entirely, engulfed by the obliterating darkness.
Somewhat wearily the young man released the railing and ascended the stairs. "And that is the end!" he told himself, struggling with an acute sense of personal injury. He had been hardly used. For a few hours his life had been lightened by the ineffable glamor of Romance; mystery and adventure had engaged him, exorcising for the time the Shade of Care; he had served a fair woman and been associated with men whose ways, however questionable, were the ways of courage, hedged thickly about with perils.
All that was at an end. Prosaic and workaday to-morrows confronted him in endless and dreary perspective; and he felt again upon his shoulder the bony hand of his familiar, Care....
He sighed: "Ah, well!"
Disconsolate and aggrieved, he gained the street. He was miles from St. Pancras, foot-weary, to all intents and purposes lost.
In this extremity, Chance smiled upon him. The cabby who, at his initial instance, had traveled this weary way from Quadrant Mews, after the manner of his kind, ere turning back, had sought surcease of fatigue at the nearest public; from afar Kirkwood saw the four-wheeler at the curb, and made all haste toward it.
Entering the gin-mill he found the cabby, soothed him with bitter, and, instructing him for St. Pancras with all speed, dropped, limp and listless with fatigue, into the conveyance.
As it moved, he closed his eyes; the face of Dorothy Calendar shone out from the blank wall of his consciousness, like an illuminated picture cast upon a screen. She smiled upon him, her head high, her eyes tender and trustful. And he thought that her scarlet lips were sweet with promise and her glance a-brim with such a light as he had never dreamed to know.
And now that he knew it and desired it, it was too late; an hour gone he might, by a nod of his head, have cast his fortunes with hers for weal or woe. But now ...
Alas and alackaday, that Romance was no more!
DIVERSIONS OF A RUINED GENTLEMAN—RESUMED
From the commanding elevation of the box, "Three 'n' six," enunciated the cabby, his tone that of a man prepared for trouble, acquainted with trouble, inclined to give trouble a welcome. His bloodshot eyes blinked truculently at his alighted fare. "Three 'n' six," he iterated aggressively.
An adjacent but theretofore abstracted policeman pricked up his ears and assumed an intelligent expression.
"Bermondsey Ol' Stairs to Sain' Pancras," argued the cabby assertively; "seven mile by th' radius; three 'n' six!"
Kirkwood stood on the outer station platform, near the entrance to third-class waiting-rooms. Continuing to fumble through his pockets for an elusive sovereign purse, he looked up mildly at the man.
"All right, cabby," he said, with pacific purpose; "you'll get your fare in half a shake."
"Three 'n' six!" croaked the cabby, like a blowsy and vindictive parrot.
The bobby strolled nearer.
"Yes?" said Kirkwood, mildly diverted. "Why not sing it, cabby?"
"Lor' lumme!" The cabby exploded with indignation, continuing to give a lifelike imitation of a rumpled parrot. "I 'ad trouble enough wif you at Bermondsey Ol' Stairs, hover that quid you promised, didn't I? Sing it! My heye!"
"Quid, cabby?" And then, remembering that he had promised the fellow a sovereign for fast driving from Quadrant Mews, Kirkwood grinned broadly, eyes twinkling; for Mulready must have fallen heir to that covenant. "But you got the sovereign? You got it, didn't you, cabby?"
The driver affirmed the fact with unnecessary heat and profanity and an amendment to the effect that he would have spoiled his fare's sanguinary conk had the outcome been less satisfactory.
The information proved so amusing that Kirkwood, chuckling, forbore to resent the manner of its delivery, and, abandoning until a more favorable time the chase of the coy sovereign purse, extracted from one trouser pocket half a handful of large English small change.
"Three shillings, six-pence," he counted the coins into the cabby's grimy and bloated paw; and added quietly: "The exact distance is rather less than, four miles, my man; your fare, precisely two shillings. You may keep the extra eighteen pence, for being such a conscientious blackguard,—or talk it over with the officer here. Please yourself."
He nodded to the bobby, who, favorably impressed by the silk hat which Kirkwood, by diligent application of his sleeve during the cross-town ride, had managed to restore to a state somewhat approximating its erstwhile luster, smiled at the cabby a cold, hard smile. Whereupon the latter, smirking in unabashed triumph, spat on the pavement at Kirkwood's feet, gathered up the reins, and wheeled out.
"A 'ard lot, sir," commented the policeman, jerking his helmeted head towards the vanishing four-wheeler.
"Right you are," agreed Kirkwood amiably, still tickled by the knowledge that Mulready had been obliged to pay three times over for the ride that ended in his utter discomfiture. Somehow, Kirkwood had conceived no liking whatever for the man; Calendar he could, at a pinch, tolerate for his sense of humor, but Mulready—! "A surly dog," he thought him.
Acknowledging the policeman's salute and restoring two shillings and a few fat copper pennies to his pocket, he entered the vast and echoing train-shed. In the act, his attention was attracted and immediately riveted by the spectacle of a burly luggage navvy in a blue jumper in the act of making off with a large, folding sign-board, of which the surface was lettered expansively with the advice, in red against a white background:
BOAT-TRAIN LEAVES ON TRACK 3
Incredulous yet aghast the young man gave instant chase to the navvy, overhauling him with no great difficulty. For your horny-handed British working-man is apparently born with two golden aphorisms in his mouth: "Look before you leap," and "Haste makes waste." He looks continually, seldom, if ever, leaps, and never is prodigal of his leisure.
Excitedly Kirkwood touched the man's arm with a detaining hand. "Boat-train?" he gasped, pointing at the board.
"Left ten minutes ago, thank you, sir."
"Wel-l, but...! Of course I can get another train at Tilbury?"
"For yer boat? No, sir, thank you, sir. Won't be another tryne till mornin', sir."
Aimlessly Kirkwood drifted away, his mind a blank.
Sometime later he found himself on the steps outside the station, trying to stare out of countenance a glaring electric mineral-water advertisement on the farther side of the Euston Road.
He was stranded....
Beyond the spiked iron fence that enhedges the incurving drive, the roar of traffic, human, wheel and hoof, rose high for all the lateness of the hour: sidewalks groaning with the restless contact of hundreds of ill-shod feet; the roadway thundering—hansoms, four-wheelers, motor-cars, dwarfed coster-mongers' donkey-carts and ponderous, rumbling, C.-P. motor-vans, struggling for place and progress. For St. Pancras never sleeps.
The misty air swam luminous with the light of electric signs as with the radiance of some lurid and sinister moon. The voice of London sounded in Kirkwood's ears, like the ominous purring of a somnolent brute beast, resting, gorged and satiated, ere rising again to devour. To devour—
Distracted, he searched pocket after pocket, locating his watch, cigar- and cigarette-cases, match-box, penknife—all the minutiae of pocket-hardware affected by civilized man; with old letters, a card-case, a square envelope containing his steamer ticket; but no sovereign purse. His small-change pocket held less than three shillings—two and eight, to be exact—and a brass key, which he failed to recognize as one of his belongings.
And that was all. At sometime during the night he had lost (or been cunningly bereft of?) that little purse of chamois-skin containing the three golden sovereigns which he had been husbanding to pay his steamer expenses, and which, if only he had them now, would stand between him and starvation and a night in the streets.
And, searching his heart, he found it brimming with gratitude to Mulready, for having relieved him of the necessity of settling with the cabby.
"Vagabond?" said Kirkwood musingly. "Vagabond?" He repeated the word softly a number of times, to get the exact flavor of it, and found it little to his taste. And yet...
He thrust both hands deep in his trouser pockets and stared purposelessly into space, twisting his eyebrows out of alignment and crookedly protruding his lower lip.
If Brentwick were only in town—But he wasn't, and wouldn't be, within the week.
"No good waiting here," he concluded. Composing his face, he reentered the station. There were his trunks, of course. He couldn't leave them standing on the station platform for ever.
He found the luggage-room and interviewed a mechanically courteous attendant, who, as the result of profound deliberation, advised him to try his luck at the lost-luggage room, across the station. He accepted the advice; it was a foregone conclusion that his effects had not been conveyed to the Tilbury dock; they could not have been loaded into the luggage van without his personal supervision. Still, anything was liable to happen when his unlucky star was in the ascendant.
He found them in the lost-luggage room.
A clerk helped him identify the articles and ultimately clucked with a perfunctory note: "Sixpence each, please."
"Sixpence each, the fixed charge, sir. For every twenty-four hours or fraction thereof, sixpence per parcel."
"Oh, thank you so much," said Kirkwood sweetly. "I will call to-morrow."
"Very good, sir. Thank you, sir."
"Five times sixpence is two-and-six," Kirkwood computed, making his way hastily out of the station, lest a worse thing befall him. "No, bless your heart!—not while two and eight represents the sum total of my fortune."
He wandered out into the night; he could not linger round the station till dawn; and what profit to him if he did? Even were he to ransom his trunks, one can scarcely change one's clothing in a public waiting-room.
Somewhere in the distance a great clock chimed a single stroke, freighted sore with melancholy. It knelled the passing of the half-hour after midnight; a witching hour, when every public shuts up tight, and gentlemen in top-hats and evening dress are doomed to pace the pave till day (barring they have homes or visible means of support)—till day, when pawnshops open and such personal effects as watches and hammered silver cigar-cases may be hypothecated.
Sable garments fluttering, Care fell into step with Philip Kirkwood; Care the inexorable slipped a skeleton arm through his and would not be denied; Care the jade clung affectionately to his side, refusing to be jilted.
"Ah, you thought you would forget me?" chuckled the fleshless lips by his ear. "But no, my boy; I'm with you now, for ever and a day. 'Misery loves company,' and it wouldn't be pretty of me to desert you in this extremity, would it? Come, let us beguile the hours till dawn with conversation. Here's a sprightly subject: What are you going to do, Mr. Kirkwood? What are you going to do?"
But Kirkwood merely shook a stubborn head and gazed straight before him, walking fast through ways he did not recognize, and pretending not to hear. None the less the sense of Care's solicitous query struck like a pain into his consciousness. What was he to do?
An hour passed.
Denied the opportunity to satisfy its beast hunger and thirst, humanity goes off to its beds. In that hour London quieted wonderfully; the streets achieved an effect of deeper darkness, the skies, lowering, looked down with a blush less livid for the shamelessness of man; cab ranks lengthened; solitary footsteps added unto themselves loud, alarming, offensive echoes; policemen, strolling with lamps blazing on their breasts, became as lightships in a trackless sea; each new-found street unfolded its perspective like a canyon of mystery, and yet teeming with a hundred masked hazards; the air acquired a smell more clear and clean, an effect more volatile; and the night-mist thickened until it studded one's attire with myriads of tiny buttons, bright as diamond dust.
Through this long hour Kirkwood walked without a pause.
Another clock, somewhere, clanged resonantly twice.
The world was very still....
And so, wandering foot-loose in a wilderness of ways, turning aimlessly, now right, now left, he found himself in a street he knew, yet seemed not to know: a silent, black street one brief block in length, walled with dead and lightless dwellings, haunted by his errant memory; a street whose atmosphere was heavy with impalpable essence of desuetude; in two words, Frognall Street.
Kirkwood identified it with a start and a guilty tremor. He stopped stock-still, in an unreasoning state of semi-panic, arrested by a silly impulse to turn and fly; as if the bobby, whom he descried approaching him with measured stride, pausing new and again to try a door or flash his bull's-eye down an area, were to be expected to identify the man responsible for that damnable racket raised ere midnight in vacant Number 9!
Oddly enough, the shock of recognition brought him to his senses,—temporarily. He was even able to indulge himself in a quiet, sobering grin at his own folly. He passed the policeman with a nod and a cool word in response to the man's good-natured, "Good-night, sir." Number 9 was on the other side of the street; and he favored its blank and dreary elevation with a prolonged and frank stare—that profited him nothing, by the way. For a crazy notion popped incontinently into his head, and would not be cast forth.
At the corner he swerved and crossed, still possessed of his devil of inspiration. It would be unfair to him to say that he did not struggle to resist it, for he did, because it was fairly and egregiously asinine; yet struggling, his feet trod the path to which it tempted him.
"Why," he expostulated feebly, "I might's well turn back and beat that bobby over the head with my cane!..."
But at the moment his hand was in his change pocket, feeling over that same brass door-key which earlier he had been unable to account for, and he was informing himself how very easy it would have been for the sovereign purse to have dropped from his waistcoat pocket while he was sliding on his ear down the dark staircase. To recover it meant, at the least, shelter for the night, followed by a decent, comfortable and sustaining morning meal. Fortified by both he could redeem his luggage, change to clothing more suitable for daylight traveling, pawn his valuables, and enter into negotiations with the steamship company for permission to exchange his passage, with a sum to boot, for transportation on another liner. A most feasible project! A temptation all but irresistible!
But then—the risk.... Supposing (for the sake of argument) the customary night-watchman to have taken up a transient residence in Number 9; supposing the police to have entered with him and found the stunned man on the second floor: would the watchman not be vigilant for another nocturnal marauder? would not the police now, more than ever, be keeping a wary eye on that house of suspicious happenings?
Decidedly, to reenter it would be to incur a deadly risk. And yet, undoubtedly, beyond question! his sovereign purse was waiting for him somewhere on the second flight of stairs; while as his means of clandestine entry lay warm in his fingers—the key to the dark entry, which he had by force of habit pocketed after locking the door.
He came to the Hog-in-the-Pound. Its windows were dim with low-turned gas-lights. Down the covered alleyway, Quadrant Mews slept in a dusk but fitfully relieved by a lamp or two round which the friendly mist clung close and thick.
There would be none to see....
Skulking, throat swollen with fear, heart beating like a snare-drum, Kirkwood took his chance. Buttoning his overcoat collar up to his chin and cursing the fact that his hat must stand out like a chimney-pot on a detached house, he sped on tiptoe down the cobbled way and close beneath the house-walls of Quadrant Mews. But, half-way in, he stopped, confounded by an unforeseen difficulty. How was he to identify the narrow entry of Number 9, whose counterparts doubtless communicated with the mews from every residence on four sides of the city block?
The low inner tenements were yet high enough to hide the rear elevations of Frognall Street houses, and the mist was heavy besides; otherwise he had made shift to locate Number 9 by ticking off the dwellings from the corner. If he went on, hit or miss, the odds were anything-you-please to one that he would blunder into the servant's quarters of some inhabited house, and—be promptly and righteously sat upon by the service-staff, while the bobby was summoned.
Be that as it might—he almost lost his head when he realized this—escape was already cut off by the way he had come. Some one, or, rather, some two men were entering the alley. He could hear the tramping and shuffle of clumsy feet, and voices that muttered indistinctly. One seemed to trip over something, and cursed. The other laughed; the voices grew more loud. They were coming his way. He dared no longer vacillate.
But—which passage should he choose?
He moved on with more haste than discretion. One heel slipped on a cobble time-worn to glassy smoothness; he lurched, caught himself up in time to save a fall, lost his hat, recovered it, and was discovered. A voice, maudlin with drink, hailed and called upon him to stand and give an account of himself, "like a goo' feller." Another tempted him with offers of drink and sociable confabulation. He yielded not; adamantine to the seductive lure, he picked up his heels and ran. Those behind him, remarking with resentment the amazing fact that an intimate of the mews should run away from liquor, cursed and made after him, veering, staggering, howling like ravening animals.
For all their burden of intoxication, they knew the ground by instinct and from long association. They gained on him. Across the way a window-sash went up with a bang, and a woman screamed. Through the only other entrance to the mews a belated cab was homing; its driver, getting wind of the unusual, pulled up, blocking the way, and added his advice to the uproar.
Caught thus between two fires, and with his persecutors hard upon him, Kirkwood dived into the nearest black hole of a passageway and in sheer desperation flung himself, key in hand, against the door at the end. Mark how his luck served him who had forsworn her! He found a keyhole and inserted the key. It turned. So did the knob. The door gave inward. He fell in with it, slammed it, shot the bolts, and, panting, leaned against its panels, in a pit of everlasting night but—saved!—for the time being, at all events.
Outside somebody brushed against one wall, cannoned to the other, brought up with a crash against the door, and, perforce at a standstill, swore from his heart.
"Gorblimy!" he declared feelingly. "I'd 'a' took my oath I sore'm run in 'ere!" And then, in answer to an inaudible question: "No, 'e ain't. Gorn an' let the fool go to 'ell. 'Oo wants 'im to share goo' liker? Not I!..."
Joining his companion he departed, leaving behind him a trail of sulphur-tainted air. The mews quieted gradually.
Indoors Kirkwood faced unhappily the enigma of fortuity, wondering: Was this by any possibility Number 9?
The key had fitted; the bolts had been drawn on the inside; and while the key had been one of ordinary pattern and would no doubt have proven effectual with any one of a hundred common locks, the finger of probability seemed to indicate that his luck had brought him back to Number 9.
In spite of all this, he was sensible of little confidence; though this were truly Number 9, his freedom still lay on the knees of the gods, his very life, belike, was poised, tottering, on a pinnacle of chance.
In the end, taking heart of desperation, he stooped and removed his shoes; a precaution which later appealed to his sense of the ridiculous, in view of the racket he had raised in entering, but which at the moment seemed most natural and in accordance with common sense. Then rising, he held his breath, staring and listening. About him the pitch darkness was punctuated with fading points of fire, and in his ears was a noise of strange whisperings, very creepy—until, gritting his teeth, he controlled his nerves and gradually realized that he was alone, the silence undisturbed.
He went forward gingerly, feeling his way like a blind man on strange ground. Ere long he stumbled over a door-sill and found that the walls of the passage had fallen away; he had entered a room, a black cavern of indeterminate dimensions. Across this he struck at random, walked himself flat against a wall, felt his way along to an open door, and passed through to another apartment as dark as the first.
Here, endeavoring to make a circuit of the walls, he succeeded in throwing himself bodily across a bed, which creaked horribly; and for a full minute lay as he had fallen, scarce daring to think. But nothing followed, and he got up and found a shut door which let him into yet a third room, wherein he barked both shins on a chair; and escaped to a fourth whose atmosphere was highly flavored with reluctant odors of bygone cookery, stale water and damp plumbing—probably the kitchen. Thence progressing over complaining floors through what may have been the servants' hall, a large room with a table in the middle and a number of promiscuous chairs (witness his tortured shins!), he finally blundered into the basement hallway.
By now a little calmer, he felt assured that this was really Number 9, Frognall Street, and a little happier about it all, though not even momentarily forgetful of the potential police and night-watchman.
However, he mounted the steps to the ground floor without adventure and found himself at last in the same dim and ghostly hall which he had entered some six hours before; the mockery of dusk admitted by the fan-light was just strong enough to enable him to identify the general lay of the land and arrangement of furniture.
More confidently with each uncontested step, he continued his quest. Elation was stirring his spirit when he gained the first floor and moved toward the foot of the second flight, approaching the spot whereat he was to begin the search for the missing purse. The knowledge that he lacked means of obtaining illumination deterred him nothing; he had some hope of finding matches in one of the adjacent rooms, but, failing that, was prepared to ascend the stairs on all fours, feeling every inch of their surface, if it took hours. Ever an optimistic soul, instinctively inclined to father faith with a hope, he felt supremely confident that his search would not prove fruitless, that he would win early release from his temporary straits.
And thus it fell out that, at the instant he was thinking it time to begin to crawl and hunt, his stockinged feet came into contact with something heavy, yielding, warm—something that moved, moaned, and caused his hair to bristle and his flesh to creep.
We will make allowances for him; all along he had gone on the assumption that his antagonist of the dark stairway would have recovered and made off with all expedition, in the course of ten or twenty minutes, at most, from the time of his accident. To find him still there was something entirely outside of Kirkwood's reckoning: he would as soon have thought to encounter say, Calendar,—would have preferred the latter, indeed. But this fellow whose disability was due to his own interference, who was reasonably to be counted upon to raise the very deuce and all of a row!
The initial shock, however shattering to his equanimity, soon, lost effect. The man evidently remained unconscious, in fact had barely moved; while the moan that Kirkwood heard, had been distressingly faint.
"Poor devil!" murmured the young man. "He must be in a pretty bad way, for sure!" He knelt, compassion gentling his heart, and put one hand to the insentient face. A warm sweat moistened his fingers; his palm was fanned by steady respiration.
Immeasurably perplexed, the American rose, slipped on his shoes and buttoned them, thinking hard the while. What ought he to do? Obviously flight suggested itself,—incontinent flight, anticipating the man's recovery. On the other hand, indubitably the latter had sustained such injury that consciousness, when it came to him, would hardly be reinforced by much aggressive power. Moreover, it was to be remembered that the one was in that house with quite as much warrant as the other, unless Kirkwood had drawn a rash inference from the incident of the ragged sentry. The two of them were mutual, if antagonistic, trespassers; neither would dare bring about the arrest of the other. And then—and this was not the least consideration to influence Kirkwood—perhaps the fellow would die if he got no attention.
Kirkwood shut his teeth grimly. "I'm no assassin," he informed himself, "to strike and run. If I've maimed this poor devil and there are consequences, I'll stand 'em. The Lord knows it doesn't matter a damn to anybody, not even to me, what happens to me; while he may be valuable."
Light upon the subject, actual as well as figurative, seemed to be the first essential; his mind composed, Kirkwood set himself in search of it. The floor he was on, however, afforded him no assistance; the mantels were guiltless of candles and he discovered no matches, either in the wide and silent drawing-room, with its ghastly furniture, like mummies in their linen swathings, or in the small boudoir at the back. He was to look either above or below, it seemed.
After some momentary hesitation, he went up-stairs, his ascent marked by a single and grateful accident; half-way to the top he trod on an object that clinked underfoot, and, stooping, retrieved the lost purse. Thus was he justified of his temerity; the day was saved—that is, to-morrow was.
The rooms of the second-floor were bedchambers, broad, deep, stately, inhabited by seven devils of loneliness. In one, on a dresser, Kirkwood found a stump of candle in a china candlestick; the two charred ends of matches at its base were only an irritating discovery, however—evidence that real matches had been the mode in Number 9, at some remote date. Disgusted and oppressed by cumulative inquisitiveness, he took the candle-end back to the hall; he would have given much for the time and means to make a more detailed investigation into the secret of the house.
Perhaps it was mostly his hope of chancing on some clue to the mystery of Dorothy Calender—bewitching riddle that she was!—that fascinated his imagination so completely. Aside from her altogether, the great house that stood untenanted, yet in such complete order, so self-contained in its darkened quiet, intrigued him equally with the train of inexplicable events that had brought him within its walls. Now—since his latest entrance—his vision had adjusted itself to cope with the obscurity to some extent; and the street lights, meagerly reflected through the windows from the bosom of a sullen pall of cloud, low-swung above the city, had helped him to piece together many a detail of decoration and furnishing, alike somber and richly dignified. Kirkwood told himself that the owner, whoever he might be, was a man of wealth and taste inherited from another age; he had found little of meretricious to-day in the dwelling, much that was solid and sedate and homely, and—Victorian.... He could have wished for more; a box of early Victorian vestas had been highly acceptable.
Making his way down-stairs to the stricken man—who was quite as he had been—Kirkwood bent over and thrust rifling fingers into his pockets, regardless of the wretched sense of guilt and sneakishness imparted by the action, stubbornly heedless of the possibility of the man's awakening to find himself being searched and robbed.
In the last place he sought, which should (he realized) have been the first, to wit, the fob pocket of the white waistcoat, he found a small gold matchbox, packed tight with wax vestas; and, berating himself for crass stupidity—he had saved a deal of time and trouble by thinking of this before—lighted the candle.
As its golden flame shot up with scarce a tremor, preyed upon by a perfectly excusable concern, he bent to examine the man's countenance.... The arm which had partly hidden it had fallen back into a natural position. It was a young face that gleamed pallid in the candlelight—a face unlined, a little vapid and insignificant, with features regular and neat, betraying few characteristics other than the purely negative attributes of a character as yet unformed, possibly unformable; much the sort of a face that he might have expected to see, remembering those thin and pouting lips that before had impressed him. Its owner was probably little more than twenty. In his attire there was a suspicion of a fop's preciseness, aside from its accidental disarray; the cut of his waistcoat was the extreme of the then fashion, the white tie (twisted beneath one ear) an exaggerated "butterfly," his collar nearly an inch too tall; and he was shod with pumps suitable only for the dancing-floor,—a whim of the young-bloods of London of that year.
"I can't make him out at all!" declared Kirkwood. "The son of a gentleman too weak to believe that cubs need licking into shape? Reared to man's estate, so sheltered from the wicked world that he never grew a bark?... The sort that never had a quarrel in his life, 'cept with his tailor?... Now what the devil is this thing doing in this midnight mischief?... Damn!"
It was most exasperating, the incongruity of the boy's appearance assorted with his double role of persecutor of distressed damsels and nocturnal house-breaker!
Kirkwood bent closer above the motionless head, with puzzled eyes striving to pin down some elusive resemblance that he thought to trace in those vacuous features—a resemblance to some one he had seen, or known, at some past time, somewhere, somehow.
"I give it up. Guess I'm mistaken. Anyhow, five young Englishmen out of every ten of his class are just as blond and foolish. Now let's see how bad he's hurt."
With hands strong and gentle, he turned the round, light head. Then, "Ah!" he commented in the accent of comprehension. For there was an angry looking bump at the base of the skull; and, the skin having been broken, possibly in collision with the sharp-edged newel-post, a little blood had stained and matted the straw-colored hair.
Kirkwood let the head down and took thought. Recalling a bath-room on the floor above, thither he went, unselfishly forgetful of his predicament if discovered, and, turning on the water, sopped his handkerchief until it dripped. Then, returning, he took the boy's head on his knees, washed the wound, purloined another handkerchief (of silk, with a giddy border) from the other's pocket, and of this manufactured a rude but serviceable bandage.
Toward the conclusion of his attentions, the sufferer began to show signs of returning animation. He stirred restlessly, whimpered a little, and sighed. And Kirkwood, in consternation, got up.
"So!" he commented ruefully. "I guess I am an ass, all right—taking all that trouble for you, my friend. If I've got a grain of sense left, this is my cue to leave you alone in your glory."
He was lingering only to restore to the boy's pockets such articles as he had removed in the search for matches,—the match-box, a few silver coins, a bulky sovereign purse, a handsome, plain gold watch, and so forth. But ere he concluded he was aware that the boy was conscious, that his eyes, open and blinking in the candlelight, were upon him.
They were blue eyes, blue and shallow as a doll's, and edged with long, fine lashes. Intelligence, of a certain degree, was rapidly informing them. Kirkwood returned their questioning glance, transfixed in indecision, his primal impulse to cut-and-run for it was gone; he had nothing to fear from this child who could not prevent his going whenever he chose to go; while by remaining he might perchance worm from him something about the girl.
"You're feeling better?" He was almost surprised to hear his own voice put the query.
"I—I think so. Ow, my head!... I say, you chap, whoever you are, what's happened?... I want to get up." The boy added peevishly: "Help a fellow, can't you?"
"You've had a nasty fall," Kirkwood observed evenly, passing an arm beneath the boy's shoulder and helping him to a sitting position. "Do you remember?"
The other snuffled childishly and scrubbed across the floor to rest his back against the wall.
"Why-y ... I remember fallin'; and then ... I woke up and it was all dark and my head achin' fit to split. I presume I went to sleep again ... I say, what're you, doing here?"
Instead of replying, Kirkwood lifted a warning finger.
"Hush!" he said tensely, alarmed by noises in the street. "You don't suppose—?"
He had been conscious of a carriage rolling up from the corner, as well as that it had drawn up (presumably) before a near-by dwelling. Now the rattle of a key in the hall-door was startlingly audible. Before he could move, the door itself opened with a slam.
Kirkwood moved toward the stair-head, and drew back with a cry of disgust. "Too late!" he told himself bitterly; his escape was cut off. He could run up-stairs and hide, of course, but the boy would inform against him and....
He buttoned up his coat, settled his hat on his head, and moved near the candle, where it rested on the floor. One glimpse would suffice to show him the force of the intruders, and one move of his foot put out the light; then—perhaps—he might be able to rush them.
Below, a brief pause had followed the noise of the door, as if those entering were standing, irresolute, undecided which way to turn; but abruptly enough the glimmer of candlelight must have been noticed. Kirkwood heard a hushed exclamation, a quick clatter of high heels on the parquetry, pattering feet on the stairs, all but drowned by swish and ripple of silken skirts; and a woman stood at the head of the flight—to the American an apparition profoundly amazing as she paused, the light from the floor casting odd, theatric shadows beneath her eyes and over her brows, edging her eyes themselves with brilliant light beneath their dark lashes, showing her lips straight and drawn, and shimmering upon the spangles of an evening gown, visible beneath the dark cloak which had fallen back from her white, beautiful shoulders.
"Mrs. Hallam!" cried Kirkwood, beneath his breath.
The woman ignored his existence. Moving swiftly forward, she dropped on both knees by the side of the boy, and caught up one of his hands, clasping it passionately in her own.
"Fred!" she cried, a curious break in her tone. "My little Freddie! Oh, what has happened, dearie?"
"Oh, hello, Mamma," grunted that young man, submitting listlessly to her caresses and betraying no overwhelming surprise at her appearance there. Indeed he seemed more concerned as to what Kirkwood, an older man, would be thinking, to see him so endeared and fondled, than moved by any other emotion. Kirkwood could see his shamefaced, sidelong glances; and despised him properly for them.
But without attending to his response, Mrs. Hallam rattled on in the uneven accents of excitement. "I waited until I couldn't wait any longer, Freddie dear. I had to know—had to come. Eccles came home about nine and said that you had told him to wait outside, that some one had followed you in here, and that a bobby had told him to move on. I didn't know what—"
"What's o'clock now?" her son interrupted.
"It's about three, I think ... Have you hurt yourself, dear? Oh, why didn't you come home? You must've known I was dying of anxiety!"
"Oh, I say! Can't you see I'm hurt? 'Had a nasty fall and must've been asleep ever since."
"My precious one! How—?"
"Can't say, hardly ... I say, don't paw a chap so, Mamma ... I brought Eccles along and told him to wait because—well, because I didn't feel so much like shuttin' myself up in this beastly old tomb. So I left the door ajar, and told him not to let anybody come in. Then I came up-stairs. There must've been somebody already in the house; I know I thought there was. It made me feel creepy, rather. At any rate, I heard voices down below, and the door banged, and somebody began hammerin' like fun on the knocker."
The boy paused, rolling an embarrassed eye up at the stranger.
"Yes, yes, dear!" Mrs. Hallam urged him on.
"Why, I—I made up my mind to cut my stick—let whoever it was pass me on the stairs, you know. But he followed me and struck me, and then I jumped at him, and we both fell down the whole flight. And that's all. Besides, my head's achin' like everything."
"But this man—?"
Mrs. Hallam looked up at Kirkwood, who bowed silently, struggling to hide both his amusement and perplexity. More than ever, now, the case presented a front inscrutable to his wits; try as he might, he failed to fit an explanation to any incident in which he had figured, while this last development—that his antagonist of the dark stairway had been Mrs. Hallam's son!—seemed the most astounding of all, baffling elucidation completely.
He had abandoned all thought of flight and escape. It was too late; in the brisk idiom of his mother-tongue, he was "caught with the goods on." "May as well face the music," he counseled himself, in resignation. From what he had seen and surmised of Mrs. Hallam, he shrewdly suspected that the tune would prove an exceedingly lively one; she seemed a woman of imagination, originality, and an able-bodied temper.
"You, Mr. Kirkwood!"
Again he bowed, grinning awry.
She rose suddenly. "You will be good enough to explain your presence here," she informed him with dangerous serenity.
"To be frank with you—"
"I advise that course, Mr. Kirkwood."
"Thanks, awf'ly.... I came here, half an hour ago, looking for a lost purse full—well, not quite full of sovereigns. It was my purse, by the way."
Suspicion glinted like foxfire in the cold green eyes beneath her puckered brows. "I do not understand," she said slowly and in level tones.
"I didn't expect you to," returned Kirkwood; "no more do I.... But, anyway, it must be clear to you that I've done my best for this gentleman here." He paused with an interrogative lift of his eyebrows.
"'This gentleman' is my son, Frederick Hallam.... But you will explain—"
"Pardon me, Mrs. Hallam; I shall explain nothing, at present. Permit me to point out that your position here—like mine—is, to say the least, anomalous." The random stroke told, as he could tell by the instant contraction of her eyes of a cat. "It would be best to defer explanations till a more convenient time—don't you think? Then, if you like, we can chant confidences in an antiphonal chorus. Just now your—er—son is not enjoying himself apparently, and ... the attention of the police had best not be called to this house too often in one night."
His levity seemed to displease and perturb the woman; she turned from him with an impatient movement of her shoulders.
"Freddie, dear, do you feel able to walk?"
"Eh? Oh, I dare say—I don't know. Wonder would your friend—ah—Mr. Kirkwood, lend me an arm?"
"Charmed," Kirkwood declared suavely. "If you'll take the candle, Mrs. Hallam—"
He helped the boy to his feet and, while the latter hung upon him and complained querulously, stood waiting for the woman to lead the way with the light; something which, however, she seemed in no haste to do. The pause at length puzzled Kirkwood, and he turned, to find Mrs. Hallam holding the candlestick and regarding him steadily, with much the same expression of furtive mistrust as that with which she had favored him on her own door-stoop.
"One moment," she interposed in confusion; "I won't keep you waiting...;" and, passing with an averted face, ran quickly up-stairs to the second floor, taking the light with her. Its glow faded from the walls above and Kirkwood surmised that she had entered the front bedchamber. For some moments he could hear her moving about; once, something scraped and bumped on the floor, as if a heavy bit of furniture had been moved; again there was a resounding thud that defied speculation; and this was presently followed by a dull clang of metal.
His fugitive speculations afforded him little enlightenment; and, meantime, young Hallam, leaning partly against the wall and quite heavily on Kirkwood's arm, filled his ears with puerile oaths and lamentations; so that, but for the excuse of his really severe shaking-up, Kirkwood had been strongly tempted to take the youngster by the shoulders and kick him heartily, for the health of his soul.
But eventually—it was not really long—there came the quick rush of Mrs. Hallam's feet along the upper hall, and the woman reappeared, one hand holding her skirts clear of her pretty feet as she descended in a rush that caused the candle's flame to flicker perilously.
Half-way down, "Mr. Kirkwood!" she called tempestuously.
"Didn't you find it?" he countered blandly.
She stopped jerkily at the bottom, and, after a moment of confusion. "Find what, sir?" she asked.
"What you sought, Mrs. Hallam."
Smiling, he bore unflinching the prolonged inspection of her eyes, at once somber with doubt of him and flashing with indignation because of his impudence.